This week I’ve seen two films about the Hubbert Peak.
When an oil field is drilled, it takes time and investment for the infrastructure to be set up and the good oil to be pumped. As the oil is depleted it becomes more expensive to obtain. This “bell curve” model was put forward by a geologist named Hubbert, who correctly predicted the when US oil production as a whole would peak. He also claimed his model could predict a world peak. He predicted this would occur in the 1990s. He was wrong.
Although Hubbert was way out on his timing, there are many factors that affect when the peak might occur, and our information about world oil reserves is very poor. Most predictions put the peak within the next 30 years, possibly as early as 2013, according to a French government report. When oil peaks prices will rise. If we still rely on cheap energy and demand outstrips supply (and we don’t have an alternative), we’ll be unable to afford transport, pesticides, heating. Global markets will shrink and we may not be able to grow enough food and distribute it.
The first film, The End of Suburbia, was an overlong and poorly edited documentary on how Suburbia had become the American dream. All those who contribued (principally James Howard Kunstler, Peter Calthorpe, and Richard Heinberg) have written extensively on this subject and claimed we have almost or already reached the peak, that world recession is imminent and suburban life is unstustainable. The film didn’t consider alternative theories.
The End of Suburbia was screened by the the Green Party and followed by a discussion; but of course it was preaching to converts from the museli belt, and whilst no-one questioned the premiss of the film several people congratulated themselves on turning down their thermostats and burning wood instead of coal. The only comfort came from a worker for Small Change, a community project that will help people cope if energy prices continue to rise.
The other film I saw was an episode of the West Wing. This covered the same ground as The End of Suburbia, but at 42 minutes rather than 78 (and with some chess and some body language training for Toby thrown in too) it managed it much more succinctly.
There was an interesting contrast, though. At the Green Party meeting, the possibility of government action was dismissed, with the argument regarded as an electoral liability. Debate centred around actions we could take as individuals. I don’t think this will work. I keep my thermostat low and I don’t drive a car. But my abstemiousness may actually be driving consumtion: any significant reduction in demand for energy will drive prices down, and there will always be a ready market for cheaper energy. Another possible complication is the corrolory to the Jevons Paradox – it’s not easy to solve global economic problems. We need a collectively solution that takes in the whole picture, an economic solution. “It’s all economics” says Bartlett. “Why do the Saudis fight to keep oil prices from rising?” It’s to discourage conservation, he answers, and prevent the development of alternatives. We need intervention at a macro economic level.
If people want to make a difference they need to get involved with the political process, and I don’t mean with fringe single-issue parties. It has to be with parties who have a core ideology, a track record on the environment and most importantly a chance of power, a chance to make a difference. The scenario on the West Wing is a reminder that changes have been made by green lobbies working within parties in govenment – in the UK we’ve seen a raise in fuel duty, increased tax on inefficient vehicles and diverted funds into the railways. Like the Bartlett administration they get frustrated, and the will weakens, but the will is there and people who care should be there encouraging that. Joining a fringe party and finding like minds may be comforting, but joining the Jehovah’s witnesses of the green movement won’t benefit anyone.
Through government intervention oil needs to be conserved, energy efficiency improved and alternatives sought. It’s not something we should pretend individuals or groups can achieve alone. We need to influence government, we need leadership. We must engage in the process.