08 October, 2004

The effect of oil depletion on man-in-the-moon marigolds

At Aram's command, I went to see this documentary yesterday, entitled "The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream". It was 78 minutes long, and since I am something of a fanatic about the topic I was a bit skeptical that I would really learn anything from the film.

The cast of characters was fairly familiar: Richard Heinberg, who wrote "The Party's Over", and Mike Ruppert of "From the Wilderness" crackpot/crank-land, Colin Campbell who started this business by publishing "The Coming Oil Crisis" back in 1996, various others. The film made zero effort to present alternative viewpoints, which was unfortunate, since the claim is not without controversy.

The nutshell version is, "We're going to pass our peak of oil production just like M. King Hubbert said back in the day, probably somewhere around 2010 although maybe it already happened. Suburbia won't be able to deal with the resulting climb in oil prices, and as a result it will disappear."

All of those interviewed seemed to think (or were presented as believing) that this was the End, the Big Kahuna. Ironically, Heinberg at one point quipped, "A lot of people think about the point at which we're going to run out of oil, but that's not really what matters." But all of their projections seem to assume that they're talking about the tap turning off in 2010.

In the discussion afterwords (with William Moomaw of Tufts, who was lead author on the IPCC report of 2003, but unfortunately, like the film, said little about global warming) I asked why we wouldn't expect the same sort of thing we saw in 1973 to happen again - economic contraction, extreme conservation and a resulting drop in consumption. Of course, this time the drop in consumption comes first, but the dependence should be the same. The film doesn't have a satisfactory answer to this, and I think in general this is why Heinberg and his ilk have such a hard time being taken seriously. Okay, oil prices will go up. The economy will take a spill. Does it REALLY mean the end of life as we know it?

I've never seen a serious economic projection of what would happen to oil price and economies assuming the depletion scenario is correct (which, don't get me wrong, I believe it is). Maybe oil instantly hits $400/bbl and people abandon their cars on the freeway en masse. But I doubt it. People are more creative than that. Moreover, people are committed to playing Nintendo and wearing brand-name shirts. Rhetorical excess aside, I don't really believe that the end of oil means the end of civilization or technology. I think it just means a really long and really shitty depression. The Gi-normous Depression. But there's been little systematic examination of what really would happen.

On a parting note, one of the audience members had an interesting comment about the confluence of global climate change and oil depletion creating a "perfect storm". Scary.


King Hubbert curve was stroke of brilliance for predicting oil production in lower 48 states of USA. However, all the assumptions go "bazooka" if one tries to do similar analysis for the world production.

Sure, fossil fuels are finite  - but guessing them in a sensible way is the right route.

Posted by Kush Tandon

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