Thursday, May 01, 2008

There Is No Peak of Progress

James Howard Kunstler appeared on the Colbert Report today promoting his new novel about a world without oil. Kunstler claimed we have hit the peak of oil and now we must get off of oil and abandon our Wal-Mart suburbia ways.

Kunstler is mistaking economics with physics. There's a finite amount of oil, but that's not what we care about. We care about energy. As the price of oil rises we find new sources of electricity. We improve wind, solar, nuclear, coal, geothermal, and oil efficiency. We find new deposits, including things we never considered oil before. Someday we will not use oil, but it will be phased out, not ripped away. Kunstler imagines the oil wells "drying up" will come as a surprise--a paradox concerning that's what everyone talks about. Assuming ignorance on the part of the oil companies (who's fortunes are made on the stuff) is patently absurd.

Colbert wisely (though I doubt he meant it this way) brought up the terror of Y2K, asking "When's that going to hit?" I remember the scares of the millennium bug vividly, the concern that planes will fall out of the sky and the world will suddenly end. It didn't. No one wanted to go back to the Stone Age so programmers fixed the problem. Now we are better off than we were eight years ago, and the Y2K scare a distance and quaint memory. Kunstler's novel will surely follow the same path.


Anonymous said...

There is a very real chance that there isn't going to be an orderly transition and the alternatives come up lacking when compared to oil. We've built a life around cheap oil, those days are rapidly coming to an end and we have no viable back-up plan.

Anonymous said...

Hi, David. I think you are mistaking physics for infrastructure. We don't care about energy, we care about work, i.e. energy we can use. Oil and coal represent a godsend, energy came to earth a long time ago and has been cooked into a specialized very useful form. As Kunstler and others note, we have gotten very dependent on that particular form.

You are right that someday "we" will not use oil, because it will be phased out. But you are certainly wrong if you say oil will not be ripped away from people. It will certainly be ripped away from some people, because it always has been ripped away from some people. The people of Senegal cannot afford oil, which is strange because Senegal is an oil exporter. And if it has been ripped away from people even when we have been producing more and more of it, you can bet that it will be ripped away from a lot more people now that we are producing less.

The oil companies are not ignorant, but you are confusing profit with truth. The various players in the oil industry - and there is a confusing melange of them - are all acting perfectly rational, but only vis-a-vis profit. Their profit does not suffer if oil is ripped away from some people, as long as there's someone else waiting with dollars (soon, euros and yuan) in his hand.

You say that as the price of oil rises, we will find new sources of electricity. We are several orders of magnitude short, however, as we run out of pre-cooked energy and fumble around with cooking our own. Plus it would take oil to find these sources and build these plants, and time, and there's no guarantee that people currently running economies dependent on petroenergy have enough of those left.

David said...

First, oil is not being "ripped away" from anyone. That is nonsense because it implies it was stolen. Some people are just being outbid by others. And it is a gradual process. It seems quick because they were low for so long, but gas prices have increased over the course of several years. In today's hyperconnected world, that is not as fast as you make it out to be.

And we don't need oil to make oil. We need energy to make oil. Oil just happens to be the cheapest option (when you consider price, convenience, efficiency, ease of transport, etc).

History is awash with panics that a key resource would vaporize and society would crumble. Thousands of years ago it was flint. Then it was copper. Then tin. In the fifteen and sixteen hundreds it was wood (Britain's forests were being cut down). The food crisis that never occurred began in 1798. Then people panicked about coal. Then rubber. Scares about running out of oil began not long after we started using it as fuel. Given the history of humanity Kunstler looks more alarmist than activist.

Anonymous said...

If you don't think that oil was ever ripped from anyone - well, I am speechless. I don't even know where to begin with that.

As to the changes in oil prices being "gradual" - again, speechless.

We agree on the "outbid" part. Yes, some people will simply be outbid. But they don't just scratch their heads and go home and invent some alternative energy. Google Nepal's oil crisis 2007 and get a taste of what that looks like. Or maybe this will hit closer to home.

Kunstler isn't dealing in alarmism. We are unable to continue producing oil as we have (all the low-hanging fruit has been picked). With the infrastructure we have, there is no substitute for oil. We are not prepared for this, and we are not preparing. You claim there is plenty of time left for a nice orderly transition but frankly are a little vague on the details.

Kosher Pickle said...

Kunstler's an idiot.

There's nothing more to say, really.

Anonymous said...

kosher pickle's an idiot.

There's nothing more to say, really.