Peak Oil

Humankind, at the end of “The Century of Oil,” teeters on the brink of the third millennium.  On one side of our perch stretches bountiful opportunity, and an abundant, fulfilling future based upon the principles of sustainable living.  If we look closely here, we see that the stage is set for a rapid conversion from a fossil fuel-based economy to a lifestyle based on renewable energy.  On the other side, looms the destruction of Homo sapiens’ natural habitat, obstructionist government policies, and big business threatening to engulf us in a deathly haze of greenhouse gases.  Our generation is the first in the history of our species to be offered the opportunity for a conscious choice: exploitation or stewardship; devastation or sustainability.  Will we have the foresight to take heed of our natural limits, or continue down the slippery slope of unfettered consumption until it is too late to correct our course?  Our fate is in our own hands.  –John Schaeffer

It took following the Peak Oil blogosphere for a few years before I had ever heard of Permaculture.  I didn’t start hearing “permaculture” until learning about gardening.  Even then I didn’t know it had anything to do with energy depletion.  Eventually, I hope to make this connection more clear in subsequent posts.  I first started making this connection for myself when I ran across David Holgrem’s Four Energy Futures:


I’ll go deeper into permaculture as a response to these issues later.  For now I’d like to lay out the energy predicament we are in.  As we discovered in the last post, growing, processing, and bringing food to market in an industrialized manner is very energy intensive.  So what does it mean for our food system to be faced with energy depletion?   What does it mean for our economic system, which is dependent on natural resource inputs?


It took us 125 years to use the first trillion barrels of oil. We’ll use the next trillion in 30.   Half of all of the oil that has ever been consumed since the discovery of oil, has been consumed since 1985.  As you can see, this problem is exponential.  Production and consumption of oil have grown steadily for so long we as a society do not know what it will be like to experience a decline in rate of oil production.  With eventual depletion looming, the point where the world production rate of oil maximizes and enters permanent decline has come to be known as Peak Oil.

The critical factor in the oil markets and a global economy dependent on large, continuous supplies of oil is the rate of production. The rate is the key, not the size of the world’s reserves. It is the size of the tap, not the size of the tank that matters.

Let me offer another analogy to help explain. If you inherit a million dollars with the stipulation that you can only withdraw $500 a month, you may be a millionaire, but you will never live like one. That is increasingly the situation we face with oil.(source)

Growth in oil production will eventually peak, failing to keep pace with growing demand.  This alone will create huge oil market instability.  Worse yet, once peak happens the decline is permanent, and production values will continue declining, no longer meeting demand from previous years.  One thing we can say for certain is that prices will get higher.  This rapid increase in price can have severe consequences for the global economy.

Oil is a staple in the creation of thousands of products.  It is in plastics, synthetic fabrics, petrochemicals, ammonia, toothpaste, paints, glycerin, synthetic rubber, putty, adhesives, linoleum, candles, shaving cream, enamel, shampoo, and a myriad of other items and materials.  Take for example your average car; there is oil in the paints, the plastics, the fabrics, dashboard, fluids, lubricants, and the tires.  And let’s not forget the most major oil product, gasoline, which allows for transportation and is likely what allowed the other materials for those products to be transported, assembled, manufactured, and brought to market.

Think about the amount of work the energy in a gallon of gasoline performs.  A gallon of gas can push my Honda minivan an average of 25 miles at speed.  Imagine yourself pushing a minivan for 25 miles.  That is the amount of work you are purchasing for $3 or so when you buy gas.  This is very succinctly summed up by this picture:


It’s not hard to realize the economic implications of this cheap energy source and material undergoing a rapid increase in price due to oil depletion.

The United States Department of Energy created a report on Peak Oil known as the Hirsch Report.  The introduction stated:

“The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented.”

This problem is compounded by the fossil fuel intensive nature of our industrialized food system.  Ever since the Green Revolution, we have heavily used oil powered machinery to grow food, as farming has become more mechanized and more monopolized.  We plow fields with oil powered machinery, plant fields with oil powered machinery, fertilize with fossil fuel derived fertilizers, spray pesticides with oil derived pesticides, harvest with oil powered machines, transport, store, and refrigerate en route to distribution centers, and then transport again to retail stores.  As we saw in my previous post, the average amount of food miles for a meal is approximately 4,200 miles.

“Over the course of this last century, the number of persons devoted to agriculture has fallen significantly, and agriculture itself has been reorganized on an unprecedented scale. We have gone from an age when the farmer knew all the tools and the smallest details of his business to a world in which the farmer is a manager, an engineer, a trader. The sophistication and technology are impressive. From that point of view, the system of industrial agriculture in the U.S. is a success story: a mechanization and industrialization of food production that is able to produces cereals, vegetables, and animals, all more or less genetically modified, in order to furnish the population with massive amounts of food with a high fat and protein content, massive quantities of salt, sugar, and mysterious chemical products —not to speak of aberrations such as giving cattle flour made from animal carcasses… . This industry, these food factories, are only possible thanks to oil (mainly in the form of diesel for agricultural machines and transportation) and natural gas (for producing fertilizer).” -Piero San Giorgio

A spike in the price of oil can create a spike in the price of food.  An energy crisis becomes a food crisis.  This happened in 2007-2008 and was the cause of riots around the world.  Peak Oil will likely mean Peak Food.  The local food movement, Transition movement, and Permaculture are all responding to this issue.

P.S.  The UN recently released a report on how small scale organic farming is the only way to feed the world.  You can read that report here. (click)

For today’s video, a documentary titled BlindSpot:

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About myriadrook

Just a guy from Oklahoma

3 responses to “Peak Oil”

  1. informationforager says :

    Very good. Very well stated.

    When we think of oil, we picture the gas tank analogy. When the needle reaches E for empty is when we are in trouble. The world does in fact have a trillion barrels of oil left to produce.

    The real analogy is like a Pearl Harbor reconnaissance plane flying its mission over the ocean. The plane flies as far as it can for as high as it can. The pilot fulfills the mission of aerial photography of enemy positions. At a certain point though the pilot knows he must turn around at the HALF WAY point of the gas gauge to make it back home. When the needle reaches at half the tank the pilot MUST RETREAT and DESCEND to make it back to base. When the world has produced as much oil as it ever can in one day (peaked), when it has flown as far as it can for as high as it can the world economy MUST RETREAT and DESCEND.

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