Key Concept | Peak Oil | Introduction

Total World Production of Fossil Fuels in Time Perspective[1]

 “We are in a crisis in the evolution of human society. It’s unique to both human and geologic history. It has never happened before and it can’t possibly happen again. You can only use oil once. You can only use metals once. Soon all the oil is going to be burned and all the metals mined and scattered.” – M. King Hubbert[2]

Peak Oil” is a very contentious phenomenon, the focal point of clashes between geology and technology. The various definitions of peak oil all focus on the unchangeable “peaking” of oil extraction in a given area; that is to say, once peaked, oil extraction will irreversibly decline regardless of technological or economic factors[3]. This is understandably a problem, as our global society requires oil (and other fossil fuels) for a veritable multitude of purposes including heavy industry and resource extraction, transport, agriculture, and chemicals, as well as for energy. Like it or not, oil is inextricably a part of our lives to the point that it is linked to economic indicators like GDP growth[4]. “Modern economies are, from the fundamental energetic point of view, unsustainable.”[5]

And it’s not surprising. Oil, in energy terms, packs a punch. Three spoonfuls of crude oil equals eight hours of human labour[6]. Or put another way, a gallon of petrol is almost equivalent to three weeks of human labour[7]. But its energy-dense nature represents a single-use inheritance of solar energy. The period of fossil fuel use will be a fleeting moment lost in a 200-year eye blink, representing only 0.1% of human history[8] – and the peaking of this wondrous substance will coincide with ever-increasing demands of energy from the world’s growing population, as well as the ongoing Biocrisis.

What to do?

This article is the first in the “Key Concept” series, and the first of several articles regarding the issue of peak oil. Within these articles I hope to detail and explain the history of peak oil, its impacts, the role of economics and technology in forestalling and accelerating the “peak”, and problems measuring and assessing just when the peak will arrive.  Also, what are the solutions? Can we just “plug” the gap where oil used to be with unconventional fuels? What about nuclear and renewables? Or, like Richard Heinberg describes, does our society have to undergo a voluntary “powerdown” to survive[9]? The next article in the series will focus on the history of the peak oil concept, and introduce one of the most important proponents of the phenomenon – M. King Hubbert.


[2] Quoted in Heinberg, 2005

[3] “The term Peak Oil refers the maximum rate of the production of oil in any area under consideration, recognising that it is a finite natural resource, subject to depletion.” – Colin Campbell, quoted here

[8] Ibid.

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