Peak Oil: Disaster or Salvation?

Oil is a finite and non-renewable resource.  This is not a political position, nor a scientific theory, but a straightforward fact.  “Peak Oil” is the time at which worldwide extraction begins to slow.  Wells won’t run dry overnight, but beyond peak oil, dwindling supply will make oil ever more difficult and expensive to produce.  The actual timing is hotly disputed (guesses range from “two centuries from now” to “five years ago“) but that debate is beside the point.  What matters is A) our civilization is built on cheap oil; and B) it’s going to run out.  Hence my use of the word “disaster.”  But, crucially: C) climate change is also dependent on cheap oil.  So maybe there’s an upside!  Let’s take a look.


Make no mistake, fossil fuels are incredible.  They made possible the unmatched growth of the industrial revolution, and they’ve continued to power our advances ever since.  Now, they’re the foundation of the modern, developed world.  It’s no wonder these fuels are so energy-rich: they’re organic materials that have been condensed and compressed for millions upon untold millions of years.   That delicious, oh-so-concentrated dinosaur juice runs the tractors that farm your food, the trucks that bring it to your grocery store, and the car that takes you to work.  Also, look around you and count the number of plastic objects in your vicinity.  Oil, every one of them.  Even sectors that don’t directly use oil usually depend on things that do, such as plastics or transportation.


The problem is, it’s so useful that we’re gulping the stuff down roughly 10,000 times faster than it took to form.  What happens when the flow slows and the price climbs?  A price shock propagates through nearly every sector of the economy, possibly leading to a global recession.  Geopolitical instability (or, less euphemistically, a resource war) is also possible, as oil consumers grow increasingly desperate.

Suppose we survive all that and come to terms with an oil-free existence.  What would your life (or maybe your grandson’s) be like?  Picture a world where plastic is as precious as silver, and crossing the country takes months instead of hours; where products from out-of-state are considered exotic, and everyone bikes to work.  Hardly a dystopian nightmare, but the transition would be painful, deadly even.

Via wikimedia commons

Forecast by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas


Climate change is caused by carbon emissions, which are created by burning fossil fuels.  You can see the logic: if the oil starts to run out, then we’ll be forced to cut emissions whether we want to or not.  It’s probably unwise of me to compare apples to oranges, but here goes:  Of the two catastrophes, climate change has the potential to be worse by an order of magnitude.  So running out of oil, if it happens in time, might actually be the lesser of two evils.

Is this the best solution to climate change?  Of course not!  See “disaster,” above.  No, the best solution is to stay one step ahead.  Reducing our endless thirst for energy, and switching to renewable sources for the rest, would neatly circumvent both climate change and the peak oil problem.  But oil depletion as a solution does carry one huge, undeniable advantage: it will happen even without collective, thoughtful action on humanity’s part.  That makes it by far the most likely solution.

Am I being too cynical?  Is there other key science I should be evaluating?  Or am I right on point?  Let me know in the comments.

And yes, oil isn’t really made of dinosaur juice.  I know that.

4 thoughts on “Peak Oil: Disaster or Salvation?

  1. I don’t think it’s cynical to assume that human beings will continue to foster our own immediate comfort at the sacrifice of long-term survival. That’s pretty much what we’ve been doing up until now. We will need a distater of some sort to slap us out of our reverie and force us to take care of our planet and each other. The best thing to hope for is that the disaster won’t be too disasterous.

    • Was the gulf oil spill not a disaster of great magnitude? I think we have had all the signs necessary, but we still do nothing. Sigh…

  2. I agree with Rebecca that most of us (individually and societally) respond to the need for massive change only when there are no alternatives and disasters force us. The impact of the disasters will probably need to be greater than the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico because too many of us did not experience that in anyway except through the news. Too removed to force large-scale structural and small-scale personal changes.

    Yet I also feel hopeful that the lifestyle changes that many of us are making, moving away from excessive consumption, will help lead the way. I recently heard a scientist report that if Americans ate 30% less meat, that would make more of a positive impact on greenhouse gases than if everyone drove a Prius. That is an achievable goal, it seems. Enough to make a global difference? Not sure.

  3. Very good points, everyone. I agree that major changes to our energy consumption won’t happen unless many people are directly affected by consequences; too easy to dismiss otherwise. Passing peak oil certainly fits the bill in that sense.

    I do remain hopeful that small, gradual changes in our lifestyles, and in our awareness, could wake us up without our having to use a global catastrophe as an alarm clock.

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