So is there a solution to peak oil? Not exactly. The actions and strategies we will have to take emphasise a reduction of oil consumption so the impacts of peak oil are not so catastrophic, rather than “solving” peak oil itself. We can mitigate peak oil’s impacts, but we can’t stop peak oil itself.
It is important to emphasise here that there is no “techno-fix” solution. Technology cannot “solve” the problem of oil depletion, and as we’ve seen technology can in fact worsen the problem by accelerating resource exhaustion. The opening of unconventional oil reserves does not reduce oil consumption and has huge problems of its own, and because of the geological timescales needed to renew oil reserves it can only be treated as a finite resource. So what can we do?
The end of globalisation?
Global transport, both of goods and people, relies on inexpensive, energy-dense fuels like oil. 96 per cent of world trade transport and 70 per cent of all global freight is via shipping, which itself is heavily dependent on oil. Professor Fred Curtis predicts that peak oil will contribute to a phenomenon he calls “peak globalization”, after which “the volume of exports will decline as measured by ton-miles of freight” due to oil depletion and the rising cost of oil-based fuels. This will reduce the length of global supply chains and thus cause the production of goods to be located closer to where they are consumed. As environmental scientist Peter Newman said,
“Localism is the required modus operandi for the post oil-peak world, just as globalism was for the cheap-oil era.” [x]
Although there are political issues with localism (see here and here) it will more likely than not be forced upon the world due to oil depletion and energy availability declines – as Richard Heinberg said, “It is reasonable to estimate that we might see a 25 to 45 percent decline in energy available to the world’s growing population over the next quarter-century”. A localisation (or re-localisation) of industry and agriculture will be necessary to not only adapt to peak oil but also to re-integrate human society with its wider environment. Quoting Murray Bookchin at length is relevant here:
“The recent emphasis in environmental theory on “self-sufficiency,” if it does not mean a greater degree of prudence in dealing with material resources, is regressive. Localism should never be interpreted to mean parochialism; nor should decentralism ever be interpreted to mean that smallness is a virtue in itself. Small is not necessarily beautiful. The concept of human scale, by far the more preferable expression for a truly ecological policy, is meant to make it possible for people to completely grasp their political environment, not to parochially bury themselves in it to the exclusion of cultural stimuli from outside their community’s boundaries.” [x]
Regarding food production, an increase in farms using organic agriculture1 would aid in peak oil adaptation with a reduction of energy costs when accounting for the energy requirements in the manufacture and transport of agricultural inputs such as fertilisers and biocides2. Localised organic agriculture would also boost local employment (UK models can be found here and here), improve economic independence and improve sustainability and producer-consumer relations.
An end to growth?
As mentioned in the previous article, peak oil has dire implications for the economic growth imperative via global capitalism. With volatile oil prices leading to an economic growth paradox, the place of economic growth as a basic element of modern society has to be called into question.
The shift from high-EROI non-renewable energy sources to low-EROI renewable energy sources will thus require a new economic model. The geophysicist M. King Hubbert, arguably the father of peak oil theory, assaulted what he called “the culture of money”, and advocated a steady state economy. He recommended an end to economic growth and a future society powered entirely by solar power. “We have an enormous amount of existing technical knowledge,” he said. “It’s just a matter of putting it all together.” The idea of a steady state economy is also advocated by ecological economist Herman Daly and organisations such as the UK Sustainable Development Commission and the Post Carbon Institute.
A more overtly anti-capitalist strategy is the concept of degrowth. According to Iris Borowy,
“The concept of degrowth emerged in the 1970s when scholars like Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Herman Daly challenged the conventional economic concept that unlimited economic growth was possible on a finite planet.” [x]
As an umbrella concept, Borowy says, it “entails a voluntary downscaling of the economy, notably its material production, consumption and waste, a voluntary, socially equitable and globally just simplicity which defines human well-being in terms of non-material meaning to life.” Degrowth is detailed by Richard Heinberg in his book Powerdown, and a (non-voluntary) example of degrowth in action is Cuba’s Special Period3.
A massive shift to renewable energy is thus in order, though this will bring problems of its own. Some authors believe renewable energies will only cushion an inevitable decline in energy use per capita.
It is useful, however, to analyse the graph featured at the top of the article. As Vaclav Smil said,
“Higher energy use does not guarantee anything except greater environmental burdens. [It] does not bring greater cultural flowering…social stability…[or] any meaningful increase in civilisation’s diversity.” [x]
That said, there are alternative ideas in place. Concepts such as Solar Communism have been proposed, and a recent report by the Institute for Policy Research & Development found that humanity “can replace the entire existing energy infrastructure with renewables in 25 years or less…by using merely 1% of the present fossil fuel capacity and a reinvestment of 10% of the renewable capacity per year.”
Alongside are constant improvements and advances in solar power, nuclear fusion, Thermoelectronics, and even Space-based solar power. Further improvements in efficiency are also a must for a post-oil transition (although Jevons Paradox must still be contended with).
The scope of the problem is enormous and cannot be overstated. It will be extremely difficult; such changes are hardly in line with the dominant industrial-consumerist paradigm. But even though we may not like the idea of a global energy crunch, it would be utterly imprudent not to take the spectre of peak oil very seriously. As geologist Kenneth Deffeyes said, fossil fuels such as oil were a one-time gift we used to lift ourselves from simple agriculture and propel ourselves into a renewable future. Oil must be conserved not for energy production but for petrochemical manufacture; likewise natural gas must be conserved for use in nitrogenous fertiliser production (securing supply for hundreds of years).
A post-petroleum society is an absolute necessity and utterly unavoidable. What matters is how soon the transition is; actions now will have far-reaching consequences as to the future state of civilisation on a global level.
“No social order can accomplish transformations for which it is not already internally prepared.” – Karl Marx
1 Organic agriculture is a system of food production that attempts to replace conventional inputs (synthetic pesticides; fertilisers) with more environmentally benign alternatives (e.g. manure; natural pest control; crop rotation) to create a more sustainable system, working with rather than against the agroecosystem. For further information and examples see Reganold et al., 2001, Gomiero et al., 2011, and Altieri, 1995.
2 For example, a Danish government study found that upon a 100% conversion of agriculture from conventional to organic in Denmark, total energy use declined by 9-51% depending largely on the prevalence of meat production in the new system. The report by Dalgaard et al. (2000) can be found here.
3 Cuba’s Special Period in Time of Peace was a wartime economy-style austerity program following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) in 1989/90. As the socialist bloc represented 80-85% of Cuban trade, Cuba suffered huge losses in imports, including fuel, food, biocides, and oil. It survived via a revival of agro-ecological agricultural techniques, localisation of food production, and emergency rationing, whilst safeguarding achievements in education and healthcare and ensuring equitable food distribution. For more detailed and nuanced information see Wright, 2005, Funes et al., 2002, and Gonzalez, 2003.