How Will Supply and Demand Affect Peak Oil?

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From IEA whistle-blowers to the US military warning of peak oil in a few years, there's plenty of reason to question the sustainability of our energy intensive ways. But when I wrote about the Dark Mountain Projects' rejection of environmentalism, I noted that much of our profligate energy use is not because we need it to make ourselves comfortable or feed ourselves, but simply because oil is so cheap that we don't even think about it. When oil hits $150 or $200 a barrel, I argued, I think we'll be surprised at how much unnecessary consumption will fall away of its own accord. That statement piqued the interest of at least one commenter. Yet it's a factor that seems strangely lacking in the peak oil debate. Now I should say from the outset that I am not an oil geologist, nor a political scientist, nor an economist. In fact, I was wary of even writing about this subject due to my lack of expertise in relevant fields. Yet try as I might, I can't shake the idea that this is a huge and glaring omission from the most common discussions around peak oil and resource depletion.

But what has me most confused about the peak oil debate is how little people talk about how human behavior might change in the face of rising prices. Much of the debate seems to follow one of two scenarios. Either capitalism will simply have its way, we will adapt, and the market will develop alternatives to our current oil use. Or alternatively, supply will fail to keep up with demand, demand will keep rising, and people will scramble for whatever oil is left. There will be mass social collapse. And we'll all end up eating the remains of our neighbors over an open fire.

But surely the future is likely to be more complicated than that? When oil prices rose sharply a few short years ago, people soon started cutting back on their meat consumption, they started riding mass transit more, and bike sales exploded. Now granted, the oil prices of a few years ago were nothing compared to what some people are predicting—but then the cut backs that people made were pretty minimal compared to what could be achieved, And I mean what could be achieved without significant impact on our comfort or way of life.

How many people drive every day to an office they don't need to go to? Working from home is becoming not just acceptable, but desirable. How often do people drive miles to a gigantic big box store, filled mostly with air that needs to be heated and cooled, to buy something they could just have easily ordered online? (Yes, online shopping uses gas too, but nowhere near as much.) The list is endless. As I argued yesterday, it's in the very pointlessness of much of our energy use that hope really lies—if we really are using so much energy needlessly, then we don't need to use so much energy.

None of the above is intended to suggest that the market will fix everything. Or that peak oil is anything but a major concern. It undoubtedly poses a threat to our stability and well-being, and could even cause social disruption and unrest. Throw climate change into the mix, and the future is anyone's guess. But as I argued in my post on why activism beats prophecy every time, predicting the future is a fool's game. We are much better off figuring out what kind of future we want to see, and then making it happen.

If there is one thing that is certain about the future, it's that some of us are going to be surprised.

Tags: Activism | Economics | Peak Oil