Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Days of Oil and Roses

by Peter Goodchild (October 23 2010)

There are some curious psychological implications to peak-oil theory, although it's hard to speculate on these without falling prey to a form of paranoia that is just as unrealistic as the denial of the original problem. The main flaw with Paranoid Conspiracy Theories (PCT) is that a conspiracy of over half a dozen people is inherently unstable: all it takes is for one person to speak the truth, and the conspiracy is uncovered, as the IEA discovered with regard to its overly cheerful statements about the world's oil supply (Macalister, 2009).

Nevertheless, my own choice for a PCT is that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) theory distracts the public from a more-important issue. Not only that, but AGW theory causes a good deal of confusion, what psychologists call cognitive dissonance: peak-oil (PO) theory tells us that running out of oil is bad, but AGW theory tells that running out of oil would actually be good for us. Of course, AGW theory appeals to the underdog mentality anyway: it's one more proof that "They" are ruining our lives. Conversely, holding a protest rally about PO would seem curiously unsatisfying.

The real issue, however, is that of oil decline. Estimates of the annual rate of decline range from about three to twelve percent, but it seems the consensus is about six percent (Hook, Hirsch, & Aleklett, 2009). At six percent, oil production will fall to fifty percent of peak production soon after 2020. The implications of this have not sunk in. There is only enough time to sell the urban mansion and buy something more secluded. (Those without urban mansions can do as they please.)

Half of peak oil means half of almost everything else in this world: manufacturing, transportation, modern agriculture, mining, electricity (goodbye lighting, financial transactions, telephones, the Internet). The list goes on and on: from the stock market to government, from medical care to education. Think of the future USA as a transplant from the least-fortunate parts of Slavic or Baltic Europe: vodka-swilling policemen in ill-fitting uniforms, parks strewn with garbage, apartment buildings devoid of straight lines, and cars held together with wire, tape, and old lumber.

China is another vision of End Times. China has very little oil per capita, it uses up coal so quickly that its reserves won't last beyond 2030 (Heinberg, 2009, 2010), its water table is falling rapidly, its topsoil is saline, its pollution problems are terrible, and the population has outgrown its food supply. In spite of the myth of a vaguely post-Communist utopia, the reality is that Chinese wealth comes from the mountains of cheap goods that are sold everywhere. Those goods are produced by what is virtually slave labor: China is about as far from a worker's paradise as has ever existed. And, of course, shipping cheap goods halfway around the world isn't going to work very well without fossil fuels.

The oil companies must surely know that when global oil production drops to half of peak production, we'll all be living in a pretty good reconstruction of the Middle Ages, or at the very least a good reconstruction of a novel by Charles Dickens. In plain English, there won't be any modern world to invest in. For that matter, in the near future there won't be any use for money at all, except as a rather poor material for starting campfires. All that can be done is to retire, buy a so-called hobby farm in the lower subarctic, and hope there's enough canned beans in the kitchen to keep the kids alive for a few years. (Well, okay, the burned-out middle-aged exec might be long alienated from the kids anyway.)

All of the above will be false if the future is far rosier than I predict. But I leave that to those who have conveniently forgotten most of what was predicted by Meadows, Catton, Hanson, Gever, et al, who once spoke about the "coming collapse" in plain English - too plain to suit the publishing industry, it seems, to judge from what gets put on the book-store shelves these days.

Oh, yes: over the next one or two decades, the only thing we won't have half of is population. And there, ladies and gentlemen, is where we have a problem.


Heinberg, R (2009). Blackout. Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society.

Heinberg, R (2010, May). China's coal bubble . . . and how it will deflate US efforts to develop "clean coal." MuseLetter #216. Retrieved from

Hook, M, Hirsch, R and Aleklett, K (2009, June). Giant oil field decline rates and their influence on world oil production. Energy Policy, (37)6, 2262-72.

Macalister, T (2009, November 9). Key oil figures were distorted by US pressure, says whistleblower. Guardian.


Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians (1999), published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is

Bill Totten


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