After following the debates over peak oil for several months now, I’ve found that nearly all arguments tend to fall into one of three categories: the “doom and gloom” (peak oil’s coming, and we won’t be able to adjust quickly enough), the “techno-utopian” (a technological solution is just around the corner), and the “naysayer” (peak oil? Whatever…). Regardless of their validity, these arguments have served to get the concept of peak oil into the larger consciousness, but they’re not particularly satisfying if you believe that human beings, even spoiled, lazy oil junkies, have the potential to recognize a problem and act accordingly. Jamais at WorldChanging has some thoughts along these lines, and draws a comparison with the Y2K “crisis” of the mid-late 1990s:
Initially Y2K was the obsession of a handful of terrified (and sometimes terrifying) technologists, who seemed baffled by talk of “end of the century” parties, angry at the lack of concern demonstrated by those who should know better, and convinced that the problem was far worse than was generally acknowlegded. By the last couple of years of the decade, however, the question of what would happen come January 1, 2000 seemed to be a debate between “we’re hosed” and “we’re so hosed that the living will envy the dead.” I expect a similar arc for peak oil — as the idea moves out of the niche blogs and discussion boards and into the cultural mainstream, driven by relatively popular writers such as James Howard Kunstler, the level of anxiety around what will happen when oil production peaks (or, as some would have it, when the powers that be admit that oil production has already peaked) will skyrocket.
The discussion this post has generated is very interesting, and I tend to agree with Engineer-Poet‘s comment that “I doubt very much that a fix for peak oil is going to be a ‘ho, hum’ affair for the public like Y2K.” I think Jamais’ absolutely correct, though, that the two phonomenon are similar in that they will likely drive certain people to work towards a solution rather than bury their heads in the sand and/or wait for the Apocalypse.
Along these lines, Liz at sustenance notes that scenarios similar to a “long emergency” have occured recently: the Cubans and Russians both experienced a dramatic economic decline after the fall of Soviet communism. In both cases, and especially in the case of Cuba, the populations adjusted to the new realities and continue to survive, even if they’re not thriving in the typical Western economic sense.
Am I saying that an economic decline brought on by the peak and decline of oil production won’t be so bad? Not at all — we Americans particularly will have a tough time to adjusting to a society in which we have to work harder for less and focus largely on the tasks of day-to-day survival. At the same time, though, peak oil can spur us to greater innovation and creativity. There was a time when American pride (even patriotism) revolved around our ingenuity. A shift back in that direction wouldn’t be such a bad thing…