Peak Oil Fantasy

Illustration by Nicolas Lampert

FIRST THE DERRICKS, then the bars and brothels. After that, the wasteland.

In 1859, the first successful oil well in the United States was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Eight miles away and six years later, a lot more oil was found where I was standing in the almost uninhabited land around a stream called Pithole Creek. Within a few months of the discovery hundreds of derricks were up and pumping away. In every direction the landscape had been stripped of trees to build oil silos, oil barrels, oil roads—and a new oil city, population fifteen thousand. Conjured out of nothing, it was the world’s first petroleum boomtown.

The isolated city had no legal existence or official name. Up it went anyway, everything in a hot-brained hurry. Some people began calling it Pithole. Newspapers called it “Oil-Dorado.” Whatever the name, it was a frenzy of production, an orgy of consumption.

Entire buildings were thrown up in a few days, then caught fire and were rebuilt. People bought and sold drilling land in a fury, waving bricks of cash. The atmosphere was filled with smoke and ash and the baying sounds of human beings in chase of money. Everyone was sure they were at the beginning of something that would last forever and change the world.

Seven months after the first Pithole strike, a big well stopped flowing. Others followed—the oil was running out. Brothel owners, sensitive to customers’ moods, quickly vacated their establishments; other businesspeople soon followed. By the spring of 1866 scores of buildings stood empty. Pithole was barely a year old but already into its downward spiral. In 1870 only 281 people lived there. Eight years later somebody bought the entire town for $4.37. Today not one of Pithole’s original structures remains. I walked down paths that had once been streets past vacant land that had once been real estate. The age of oil seemed to have alighted there and left.

A brief, tawdry flowering, followed by collapse—surely Pithole’s inhabitants had not imagined this as their future. Poking through the city’s ruins, I found it impossible not to wonder whether our Industrial Age was not simply Pithole writ large: an evanescent surge of wealth, much of it squandered, doomed to end when the world’s supply of fossil fuels was consumed.

Our giddy modern lives have depended for decades on a steadily increasing supply of coal, oil, and natural gas. What would happen if they abruptly ran out? The answer comes easily to mind: industrial civilization, imploding in an awful smash. Pithole’s citizens, wannabe wildcatters all, had been sure they were creating a prosperous, long-lasting tomorrow. Centuries from now, will our descendants look back in scorn at our equally feckless view of the future?

 

FOSSIL FUELS are ancient light. Three hundred-plus million years ago, in the swampy Carboniferous epoch, strange forests covered the world. Many were ruled by giant, shaggy lepidodendrons: scaly, hundred-foot poles topped with grasslike leaves. Others were dominated by horsetails the size of trucks and ferns tall as an apartment building. Although these creatures resembled no trees on earth today, they were nonetheless the product of photosynthesis, which is to say that they were organic batteries, biochemical storehouses for energy from the sun. When plants die today, fungi decompose them, releasing most of their solar energy. In the Carboniferous, fungi had not yet evolved the ability to break down lignin, the tough compound that gives wood its strength and bulk. The climate changed, becoming too cool for most lepidodendrons, horsetails, and monster ferns; entire forests collapsed into muck. Buried in almost oxygen-free sludge, untouched by fungi, they decayed only slowly and partially, creating layers of peat. Over the eons, crushed and heated by the slow churning of the planet, the peat became coal. All the while, in a parallel process, the earth was crushing and heating ocean-floor layers of dead plankton, algae, and other marine organisms to form the sticky gumbo of oil, gas, and other compounds known collectively as petroleum. In these smashed jungles and seabeds, glossy and black, solar energy waited, frozen in time, ready to be tapped.

The first known use of fossil fuels—burning coal for heating and cooking—occurred in China, probably around 3400 bc. Coal didn’t catch on quickly, even in China. It was far from big cities, in places like Inner Mongolia, and had to be dug from the ground and transported. People found it easier to cut down nearby forests for fuel, and even burn grass and dung, than extract coal from faraway mines. Because Britain was among the first areas to be thoroughly deforested, Britons were perforce early adopters of coal. Records show that the black stuff has been powering iron foundries, limekilns, and brewery boilers since at least the days of Henry III, who ruled in the thirteenth century. The coal, mostly low quality and rich with impurities, released toxic smoke in a lethal fog. Indeed, Henry’s queen, Eleanor of Provence, fled coal-crazy Nottingham in 1257 because she could not tolerate the fumes. Britain and other parts of northern Europe kept using fossil fuels; having little wood, they had little alternative. The choice paid off in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the invention of the steam engine, the blast furnace, and the cement kiln vastly increased the demand for energy. People looked hungrily for novel energy supplies, which they found—new coal beds to begin with, then natural gas and oil.

The impact of fossil fuels exhausts hyperbole. Take any variable of human well-being—longevity, nutrition, income, infant mortality, overall population—and draw a graph of its value over time. In almost every case it skitters along at a low level for thousands of years, then rises abruptly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as humans learn to wield the trapped solar energy in coal, oil, and natural gas. In 1800 fewer than 1 billion humans walked the earth, most of whom were hungry and poor. Just two centuries later, our numbers have increased to 7 billion.

Before fossil fuels, even the wealthiest houses were cold when temperatures dropped. A visitor to the Palace of Versailles observed in February of 1695 that guests wore furs to dinner; at the king’s table, the royal water glasses were filmed with ice. A century later, Thomas Jefferson had a magnificent home (Monticello), the nation’s finest wine collection, and one of the world’s great private libraries, which would become the foundation for the Library of Congress. But Monticello was so frigid in winter (twelve degrees Fahrenheit indoors!) that Jefferson’s ink froze in his inkwell, preventing him from writing to complain about the cold.

In the decades after Jefferson’s death, these fundamental aspects of life were transformed, at least for the upper- and middle-class Westerners. For the first time in history, people in large numbers could heat their entire residence, bedrooms included; for the first time, they could, if they wished, light up the dark. Central plumbing suddenly became more practical, because houses were less likely to freeze, and pipes to burst. On a larger scale, fossil fuels lighted city streets, drove railroads and steamships, and allowed for the mass production of steel and cement, the physical underpinning of every industrial society. “Every basket [of coal] is power and civilization,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1860. “For coal is a portable climate.”

None of this was hidden from view. Educated and affluent nineteenth-century Westerners realized that they were living in a time of unprecedented prosperity. Their twenty-first-century descendants are richer than anything dreamed of by Solomon. To fight off cold, people used to chop down and cut up trees; today billions of people can flick a switch and feel hot air gush up from slotted holes in the floor. The average American car engine is, unthinkably, more than two hundred horsepower—as if every suburban Mom and Dad had two hundred ponies at their disposal, but without the need to feed the animals, take them to the veterinarian, or shovel their manure.

Those educated and affluent Westerners also understood that all of this wealth and well-being was tied to the lavish use of fossil fuels—which is why politicians and businesspeople have worried for more than a century about whether the petroleum would last. The world, these people knew, is finite; its petroleum supply surely must also be finite. The apprehension came out in the open as early as 1886, when Pennsylvania state geologist J. P. Lesley declared in a widely publicized speech that the state’s “amazing exhibition of oil and gas” was “a temporary and vanishing phenomenon.” “There is a limited amount [of oil],” he proclaimed. “Our children will merely, and with difficulty, drain the dregs.” One of the first and most enduring products of the age of fossil fuels was the fear that the age would rapidly end.

Today this idea is generally called “peak oil,” after the idea that global petroleum output will soon peak, then fall. Coursing through history in a series of panics, the conviction that civilization was hurtling toward an inescapable petroleum doom has, since Lesley, become embedded in Western culture. Time after time, decade after decade, presidents, prime ministers, and politicians of every stripe have predicted that the world will soon run out of petroleum. Time after time, decade after decade, new supplies have been found and old reservoirs extended. The scarcity proved to have been only of the easy oil whose location was already known. People forgot their fears until the next wave of alarm, the next prophesies of catastrophe.

None of this would matter, perhaps, if the peak-oil panics came without a cost. But that is not the case. Fear of peak oil has been a malign presence on the international stage for more than a century, driving imperialist forays, stoking hatred among nations, fueling war and rebellion. It has cost countless lives. Equally problematic, peak oil helped establish a set of wholly mistaken beliefs about natural systems—beliefs that have repeatedly impeded environmental progress. It laid out a narrative that has led ecological activists astray for years. Far too often, we have been told we are facing crises of scarcity, when the deepest of our problems are due to abundance.

 

IF ANDREW CARNEGIE didn’t think of himself as the smartest person in the room he certainly acted as if he did. Canny and ruthless, a cross-grain mix of avarice and generosity, Carnegie prided himself on his ability to see ahead farther than other people. In his later years he would become one of the richest people who ever lived (his net worth was equivalent in today’s terms to hundreds of billions of dollars). But he was just an ambitious twenty-six-year-old railroad executive when he became one of the first to ponder the consequences of peak oil.

In 1862 Carnegie toured the Pennsylvania oil patch and was taken aback. This frenzy, he in effect said, cannot possibly last. With a friend, Carnegie decided to set up a company that would profit from the coming collapse. As Carnegie recalled in his autobiography, his partner “proposed to make a lake of oil by excavating a pool sufficient to hold a hundred thousand barrels . . . and to hold it for the not far distant day when, as we then expected, the oil supply would cease.” When that happened, Carnegie’s partner argued, they would be sitting pretty.

The two men paid $40,000 to lease an oil field, dug a reservoir about the size of a football field, filled it with their oil, and waited for the apocalypse. Meanwhile, the reservoir leaked—a lot. Carnegie and his partner realized that if they waited for the end of oil it would be the end of their oil. They were forced to sell. Luckily for them, oil prices were rising sharply. The two men made almost a million dollars from their $40,000 investment. It was the beginning of Carnegie’s fortune.

Undeterred by Carnegie’s blunder, other oilmen continued predicting the end of the run. At the time Pennsylvania contained the world’s only big, proven oil field. Geologists at Standard Oil, the largest firm in the industry, reported to headquarters that the odds of finding another like it were a hundred to one. The looming end of easy oil became common wisdom at energy firms. Told in 1885 that oil might be found in Oklahoma, Standard’s John D. Archbold, one of the first U.S. petroleum refiners, scoffed, “Are you crazy?” (Similar warnings occurred about coal. Lord Kelvin, the great British physicist, proclaimed in 1881 that the “coal-stores of the world are becoming exhausted surely, and not slowly.”)

The fears were both prescient and misguided. Pennsylvania oil indeed hit a peak in 1890 and thereafter fell, though the wells never quite ran dry. Meanwhile new fields were emerging in Indiana and Ohio. In 1901, a raffish crew in east Texas, near the Gulf of Mexico, struck pay dirt. Oil shot 150 feet in the air at a rate of 100,000 barrels a day, a flow bigger than any seen in Pennsylvania. Flailing in the surreal black rain, workers took nine days to control the spout, by which time a new Pithole—Beaumont, Texas—was already forming. Unlike its Pennsylvania predecessor, though, the Texas oil patch produced oil for many decades.

Each new discovery was bigger than the last, but each seemed only to enhance the perception of vulnerability. President Theodore Roosevelt convened a meeting at the White House in 1908 of all fifty governors to warn of the “imminent exhaustion” of fossil fuels. A month after the meeting Roosevelt created the National Conservation Commission, with Gifford Pinchot, the pioneering forester, as its head. Pinchot asked the U.S. Geological Survey to assay the total volume of U.S. crude oil reserves, the first such survey ever taken. Its conclusions, released in 1909, were emphatic: If the United States continued “the present rate of increase in production,” a “marked decline” would begin “within a very few years.” Output would fall to zero in about 1935—a warning that the Survey repeated, annual report after annual report, for almost twenty years.

The most consequential alarms, though, rang not in Washington DC, but in London. They were sounded by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Appointed in 1911, the ever-vigorous Churchill set about modernizing the Royal Navy, jewel of the empire. In the previous three decades, Britain had converted its entire fleet from the unsteady power of wind to the predictable force provided by fossil fuels, coal in this case. Now, Churchill proclaimed, Britain had to transform its navy a second time. Burning a pound of fuel oil produces about twice as much energy as burning a pound of coal. This greater energy density meant that oil, rather than coal, was the fossil fuel of choice.

Because Britain had little oil, Whitehall worried that converting would make the fleet dependent on foreigners. The solution, Churchill told Parliament in 1913, was for Britons to become “the owners, or at any rate, the controllers at the source of at least a proportion of the supply of natural oil which we require.” The United Kingdom soon bought 51 percent of what is now British Petroleum, which had rights to oil “at the source”: Iran (then known as Persia).

The initial oil concession with Iran, negotiated in 1901, had been on terms highly favorable to Britain. To protect these interests, Britain seized Iran, temporarily taking over its cabinet and military. An attempt in 1919 to make the arrangement permanent led to an uprising. Two years later, Whitehall helped coordinate a coup d’état that ultimately led to the installation of a new shah. He vowed to protect Iran from foreign interference while simultaneously promising those same foreigners not to interrupt the flow of oil.

Iran was not the only focus. During the First World War, Britain, France, Italy, and Russia made plans to carve up the Ottoman Empire, which had allied against them with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Except for Istanbul, the strategically located Ottoman capital, the most valuable spoils were the petroleum zones in what are now Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. These were parceled out in a series of covert meetings, but the United States refused to accept the deal—it would, for example, have given Istanbul to Moscow. Greece took advantage of the bickering to invade the Ottoman Empire. A breakaway faction of the Ottoman army fought off Greece, setting off a revolution. Unwilling to interfere, Britain, France, Italy, and Russia gave up their designs on the Ottoman heartland—modern Turkey—and focused on the oil regions, which the revolutionary army couldn’t defend. Only in 1928 did the parties hammer out a plan to divvy up the drilling rights, with Britain getting the biggest share.

From today’s perspective, the frenzied efforts to grab Middle East oil seem bizarrely disconnected from the facts on the ground—the world was awash in oil. At the time, two nations dominated petroleum production: the United States, responsible for about two-thirds of global oil, and the Soviet Union, which pumped an additional fifth. Both were finding and extracting petroleum at ever-rising rates. Between 1920 and 1929, U.S. crude-oil reserves nearly doubled, from 7.2 billion to 13.2 billion barrels—a bigger increase than ever before. Meanwhile, Soviet oil production, which had crashed during the Russian Revolution, came roaring back; its oil output almost quadrupled in the 1920s. And new oil sources were constantly coming online. Venezuela, for instance, went from pumping almost no oil in 1920 to producing 500,000 barrels a day in 1929.

Ignoring the petroleum glut, politicians throughout the West continued to invoke the phantasm of an impending petroleum drought. When I searched through 1920s newspaper archives, I discovered more than a thousand articles prophesying an inevitable “oil crisis,” “oil famine,” or “oil shortage.” Some of those articles mentioned that oil executives were baffled by the cries of doom. But the overall tone was dire. “The United States is face to face with a near shortage in petroleum supplies so serious it threatens the very economic fabric of the nation,” cried the Los Angeles Times in 1923. A year later, the Houston Post Dispatch forecast “oil famine within two years.” “Oil exhaustion in fifteen or twenty years,” said the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1925. A special twelve-part wire-service investigation in 1928 flatly proclaimed, “There is no possible excuse for assuming an adequate future supply of oil.” And so on.

The drumbeat of negative predictions had its effect: the United States and the European power rushed to control every possible drop of oil in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. In light of the last eighty years of history in these regions, it is difficult to view these moves as enduring political successes. Colonial resentments inflame oil states even as they wrest huge sums from the developed world; meanwhile, Western nations, blindly convinced of their own victimization, freely meddle in petroleum-state politics dispatching armies and spies. Coups and attempted coups in Iran, Venezuela, and Nigeria; oil shocks in 1973 and 1979; failed programs for “energy independence”; wars in Iraq, Kuwait, and Syria—this cancerous relationship, a mix of wrath and dependence, has continued unchanged for nine decades. Driven by the permanent panic of peak oil, it is as fundamental to the structure of global relations as the law of gravitation is to the order of the seasons.

Although many other factors, religion notable among them, have had their hand in this state of affairs, it is hard not to wish that peak oil had never existed. But this fantasy may be unreasonable. After all, the earth is finite, so the amount of petroleum must also by finite. Isn’t it wholly rational to expect it to run out?

 

MARION KING HUBBERT, an idealist through and through, believed in the power of science to guide the human enterprise. A geophysicist at Columbia University in the early 1930s, he was one of the half-dozen cofounders of Technocracy. Technocracy Incorporated, as it was officially known, was a crusading effort to establish a government of all-knowing, unbiased engineers and researchers—men rather like Hubbert himself, as it happened. (Hubbert had impeccable academic credentials: undergraduate, masters, and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago.) Technocracy adherents believed that the world was controlled by flows of energy and mineral resources, and society should be based on that understanding. Rather than allowing economies to dance to the senseless, febrile beat of supply and demand, Technocrats wanted to organize them on a quantity controlled by the eternal laws of physics: energy.

Politically neutral experts in red-and-gray Technocracy uniforms would assay every area’s yearly energy production, then divide it fairly among its citizenry, each person receiving an allocation of so many joules or kilowatt-hours per month. The leader of the system, the Great Engineer, would oversee a new nation, the North American Technate, created by merging North America, Central America, Greenland, and the northern bits of South America. No more would self-interested businesspeople and shortsighted politicians run rampant; the North American Technate would be smooth, efficient, and rational.

Surprising to Hubbert, Technocracy was mocked rather than embraced. Under the pressure of public disapproval, the group split into factions, and Hubbert learned to keep quiet about these beliefs. He soon became second-in-command at a newly expanded Shell Oil research facility in Houston. By the early 1950s, his gift for mathematical analysis had helped him become the company’s chief geological consultant. Although he had gained the respect of his colleagues, time had not slaked his desire to have an impact on society. In this he was wholly successful. Hubbert, one of the nation’s most important petroleum executives, would build some of the key intellectual framework for the environmental movement.

In 1949, visiting a friend at an energy conference, Hubbert was startled to hear a Stanford geologist claim that the world still had 1.5 trillion barrels of obtainable oil, enough to last another five centuries. “I nearly fell out of my seat,” Hubbert recalled later. “I was up here, relaxed, visiting with my friend—and good God Almighty! And nobody said boo.” Annoyed, Hubbert raised his hand at the end of the session. The geologist’s figure of 1.5 trillion, he said, was “just an utterly preposterous amount of oil, there’s no evidence whatever of that set figure.” The dispute grew heated, and did not end in agreement.

Lacking an overarching theory of petroleum formation, early geologists had assumed that oil and gas deposits must be located in zones similar to those where oil and gas had been found before. They looked, so to speak, for more Pithole Creeks. Because few such areas were known, researchers had the intuitive belief that petroleum deposits must be rare. In reality, new oil was found repeatedly—by wildcatters who, unaware of expert opinion, searched for it in all the wrong places. After many such discoveries, scientists had convinced themselves that petroleum was all over the place. The main obstacle to discovering oil, the famed petroleum geologist Wallace Pratt wrote in 1952, was the conviction it wasn’t there: “Where oil is first found, in the final analysis, is the minds of men.”

To Hubbert, this kind of thinking was hooey—sheer mysticism. The earth has physical limits, after all. By definition, it can contain only a limited number of hydrocarbon molecules in a limited number of places! The global oil output between the first gusher in Pennsylvania and 1947 was 57.7 billion barrels, Hubbert wrote two years later. “Of this, one half has been produced and consumed since 1937”—that is, in the previous ten years. “One cannot refrain from asking, ‘Where is it taking us? How long can we keep it up?’”

Hubbert developed the first formal model of petroleum peak production, a subject no geologist had previously addressed. Its conclusion, in his view, was as obvious as it was unassailable: the current rate of growth was unsustainable. As inevitably as night follows day, the rise would be succeeded by a fall. Energy from coal, oil, and gas, Hubbert believed, had allowed our population to increase exponentially. When fossil fuels ran out, human numbers, too, would fall. Direly he presented graphs showing the simultaneous rise in energy use and population—and the unavoidable future peak in both. Not only was capitalist-style growth unsustainable, it was actively pushing humankind toward disaster. Our species, Hubbert wrote, will have to cut back to survive: “The future of our civilization largely depends [on whether humanity will be able] to evolve a culture more nearly in conformity with the limitations imposed upon us by the basic properties of matter and energy.”

These beliefs drew little attention until 1956, when Hubbert explained his thinking at a meeting of the American Petroleum Institute in San Antonio. Between 1965 and 1970, he said, the crude-oil yield in the continental United States would peak. Production for the world as a whole would hit its maximum by the start of the twenty-first century. Just before Hubbert gave his talk, he later claimed, he was telephoned by an appalled Shell public-relations executive. “Couldn’t you tone it down a bit?” he recalled the man asking. “Couldn’t you take the sensational parts out?”

Hubbert, rarely in doubt about his own abilities, refused to back down, even after he left Shell and in 1964 went to work for the U.S. Geological Survey. As the University of Iowa historian Tyler Priest has written, Hubbert didn’t have it easy at USGS. His boss, Vincent E. McKelvey, became his most rabid critic. McKelvey was a long-serving USGS geologist who became its director in 1971. Like Hubbert, he saw himself as a grand thinker with wisdom to impart about society at large. But unlike Hubbert, his vision was sunny and optimistic, even utopian. Human ingenuity and technical prowess, he believed, were the sturdy vehicles that would carry us into a future of unbounded affluence.

Unsurprisingly, the two men clashed. McKelvey’s USGS sent out a flood of cheery projections of the country’s oil reserves, as did the oil industry. All the while, Hubbert broadcast jeremiads about imminent exhaustion, none of them published by the Geological Survey. The dispute soon grew personal. Hubbert accused McKelvey of stealing his papers; McKelvey accused Hubbert of withholding information; the two men wrote dueling reports for different branches of the government. Three days after McKelvey became the USGS director, he snatched away Hubbert’s secretary, a low blow in the precomputer era. According to Priest, Hubbert struck back by blackballing McKelvey’s nominations to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In a setback to McKelvey, Hubbert’s prediction proved to be correct: U.S. crude-oil production peaked in 1970. As output slowly fell, former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall mocked McKelvey’s previous projections as “an enormous energy balloon of inflated promises and boundless optimism [that] had long since lost touch with any mainland reality.” In 1977 incoming President Jimmy Carter forced McKelvey to resign—the first such ouster, Priest reported, “in the Survey’s ninety-eight-year history.”

McKelvey’s fate may have been sealed by the Arab oil shock, which resonated with Hubbert’s message of scarcity. Half a dozen Arab oil nations had launched an oil embargo in 1967 as a response to the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. It had little effect, because at the time the U.S. still produced much of its own oil. Six years later, when U.S. output was in decline, Israel and its Arab neighbors fought the Yom Kippur War. Many of the same nations decided to punish the United States for resupplying Israel. Arab petroleum producers ratcheted down their output for four months; at the embargo’s brief height, they cut production by about a quarter. U.S. oil prices quadrupled. Massive public alarm ensued. Passions boiled over as people waited for hours in gas lines; line-jumpers got into fistfights.

Today most historians view the oil shock as a consequence of mistaken government policies. Arab petrostates could not target individual nations, because national oil companies sell oil and gas to what is, in effect, a single worldwide pool controlled by middlemen. Any production cutback thus could only raise prices equally across the planet, rather than striking at a single nation. Or, rather, the cutback couldn’t have hit a single nation if President Richard Nixon had not imposed price caps on U.S. oil and gas two years before as an inflation-fighting measure. When the embargo drove up petroleum prices, middlemen could make more money by selling their oil to countries other than the United States. They did just that, transforming a minor global shortfall into a full-fledged U.S. oil drought.

This is not how events were understood at the time. One year previously, a MIT-based research team had created an international furor with The Limits to Growth, which used computer models to predict that unless radical measures were taken the world would soon run out of resources, precipitating civilizational collapse. Hubbert’s name does not appear in Limits. Nonetheless, his fingerprints are all over it. It was as if the MIT team had plugged his views into a computer model and applied them beyond oil to resources like coal, iron, natural gas, and aluminum. Graph after graph depicted a Hubbertian race to a peak of production, followed by a ruinous decline. Like Hubbert, the Limits writers saw a direct connection between economic growth and calamity. As the Yale historian Paul Sabin has argued, the oil shock seemingly confirmed the thesis of The Limits to Growth. The fistfights at the gas pump were seen as a herald of the coming global crisis caused by overconsumption. Hubbert’s vision of inevitable limits had become an organizing principle of environmental thought.

Propelled by the oil shock, fears of scarcity fanned across the nation like a bad smell. Rumors of shortages in any number of goods—gasoline, electricity, salmon, cheese, onions, raisins—caused brief, unwarranted panics, some of them in commodities one would never imagine could be subject to dearth. The Great Toilet Paper Panic of 1973 occurred after talk-show host Johnny Carson joked about a shortage, causing frightened consumers to buy out stores. Carson’s jest ricocheted to Japan, which imported almost all of its paper from the United States; toilet-paper shelves emptied from Hokkaido to Kyushu. The next elected president, Jimmy Carter, was a Hubbertian—unsurprising, given the tenor of the times. Soon after his inauguration, he warned in a nationwide address that the planet’s proven petroleum reserves could be consumed “by the end of the next decade.”

Perversely, the most enduring consequence of the 1970s belief that energy supplies were running out was not to use less—but to look for more. In this quest, Jimmy Carter, arguably the most environmentally concerned president in U.S. history, endorsed policies that today seem like environmental folly. Notably, his administration sought to offset the oncoming decline of oil and gas by boosting the use of coal, a much dirtier fuel. Coal-fired power plants, which Carter championed, are the single biggest source of greenhouse gases. Just as peak oil had provided justification for foreign-policy adventures in the 1920s and 1930s, it proved a friend to Big Coal in the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile, petroleum firms found so much crude that by the end of the 1990s real prices had fallen to as little as a fifth of what they were during Carter’s day.

Central to the misunderstanding was the concept of a “reserve.” Both Hubbertians and McKelveyans agreed that an oil reserve is a physical entity: a finite pool of hydrocarbon molecules. To Hubbertians, the implication is obvious: pump out too much, and you will eventually empty it. How long you can pump depends primarily on the size of the pool. To McKelveyans, what matters most is not the size of the pool, but the capabilities of the pump.

The reason for this apparently counterintuitive belief is that a petroleum reserve is not, in fact, an underground lake like the one by which Bilbo finds the ring in The Hobbit, but rather an imprecisely defined layer of permeable, spongelike rock that has petroleum in its pores. And this petroleum is not a homogeneous substance but a chaotic salad of hydrocarbons of every imaginable density, from purely gaseous (methane, or natural gas) to syrupy liquid (crude oil) to almost solid (the petroleum precursors sometimes called tar sands, for example). What you can extract depends on how deep your drilling operation can probe, the composition of the regions it can reach, which of the various compounds in that area it can handle, and whether the current price of petroleum justifies the effort you are making. If your technical people develop better, more sophisticated equipment that lets you pump out more petroleum at a reasonable cost, the effective size of the reservoir increases. Not the actual size—its physical dimensions—but the effective size—the amount of oil and gas that you can remove in the foreseeable future. The actual dimensions of the pool are much less important.

This leads to a corollary: Hubbert and Limits were wrong. Natural resources cannot be used up. If oil from one reservoir gets too costly or difficult to extract, people will either find cheap new ways to extract it or shift to a different energy source altogether. Because the costliest stuff is left in the ground, there will always be petroleum for another generation to mine later. “It is commonly asked, when will the world’s supply of oil be exhausted?” wrote the late MIT economist Morris Adelman, a prominent exponent of this view. “The best one-word answer: never.”

On its face, this seems ridiculous, even stupid. But centuries of experience have shown it to be true. As a practical matter, fossil-fuel supplies are infinite.

 

LAST MAY the fourth Mad Max movie came out to ecstatic reviews. Like the others in the series, Mad Max: Fury Road takes place in a post-apocalyptic Australia. Humanity has used up almost all the world’s oil and water, and the survivors have been reduced to fighting over what’s left. Aesthetically, the movie belongs to the School of Blowing Things Up in an Interesting Manner: automobiles crash; explosions destroy rock formations; giant sandstorms smash vehicles; a bald guy in a red bodysuit plays a guitar with a built-in flamethrower. For two hours people chase each other with lethal intent through a desert Aussie Pithole. I had a fine time watching it, but halfway through it occurred to me that the story only made sense if I assumed that everybody in Australia had taken a stupidity pill.

Australia is not an obvious venue for a movie about resource exhaustion. Its shale-oil reserve has been said to contain enough petroleum to rival Saudi Arabia. Even if one accepts for the sake of the movie that all of this petroleum was somehow sucked dry, Australia would still have the earth’s fourth-biggest coal reserves, enough to use for many decades. Engineers have known since 1913 how to convert coal to liquid fuel, a technique that Australia presumably could adopt. If the rest of the world were actually running short of petroleum, Aussies should be selling “guzzoline,” as it is called in Fury Road, all over Southeast Asia. (Similarly, the U.S. and Greenland, floating atop oceans of frackable natural gas, would be petro-superpowers.) Instead, the Australians in Mad Max have apparently forgotten coal-to-gas technology—a wave of dopiness that may explain why, when fuel is scarce enough to kill for, a red-suited nitwit is allowed to waste gas with his flame-throwing guitar.

Mad Max: Fury Road was released at a time when global oil prices had fallen to record lows. Yet that made no difference to its appeal: its setting perfectly embodied the narrative of oncoming scarcity.

The newest wave of these fears is traceable largely to the French petroleum engineer Jean Laherrère and the British geologist Colin Campbell, who argued in a widely read Scientific American article in 1998 that the global oil party was almost over. “Before 2010,” they said, global petroleum output would decline, inevitably and permanently. “Spending more money on oil exploration will not change this situation,” Laherrère and Campbell predicted. “There is only so much crude oil in the world, and the industry has found about 90 percent of it.” Humankind was not running out of oil per se, they stressed. What was vanishing was “the abundant and cheap oil on which all industrial nations depend.”

Laherrère and Campbell didn’t use the term “peak oil,” which would not be introduced to the public for another four years. Yet peak oil was what they were talking about. They used a sophisticated version of Hubbert’s methodology to make what was at base the same prediction: oil would begin running out at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In the next few years, a series of unrelated disasters jacked up oil prices: 9/11, war in Iraq, political turmoil in Venezuela (a big oil producer), Hurricane Katrina (which shut down most of the wells and refineries in the Gulf of Mexico), the Great Recession. None were connected to actual shortfalls at the wellhead, but all seemed to resonate with the narrative of peak oil. As the price of oil reached an all-time high—$147.27 in 2008—the Laherrère-Campbell theory’s stock went up with it. The cry of Cassandra grew ever louder.

“The supply of oil is limited,” President George W. Bush told the nation. Saudi Arabian petroleum is in “irreversible decline,” roared the late peak-oil pundit Matt Simmons in 2005. Oil baron/corporate raider T. Boone Pickens agreed; the world is “halfway through the hydrocarbon era,” he said at about the same time. Meanwhile, best-selling peak enthusiast James Howard Kunstler informed Americans that the United States “faces an imminent crisis with natural gas.” Warnings flooded from the presses: Hubbert’s Peak (2001). Powerdown (2004). Twilight in the Desert (2005). The Long Emergency (2006). Peak Oil Prep (2006). The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook (2006). Confronting Collapse: The Crisis of Energy and Money in a Post Peak Oil World (2009).

“The price of oil was an index to the Western world’s anxiety,” the novelist Don DeLillo had suggested. “It told us how bad we felt at a given time.” If so, people were feeling rather bad; petroleum fear had taken hold as never before. The University of Maryland’s Program of International Policy Attitudes surveyed fifteen thousand people in sixteen countries: 78 percent believed that we were running out of oil. Another poll: 83 percent of Britons thought that oil and gas could become unaffordable. Another: three-quarters of Americans feared that a petroleum drought was coming. “I don’t see why people are so worried about global warming destroying the planet,” Simmons said in 2008. “Peak oil will take care of that.”

 

NO BARS, no brothels, just derricks. Today, Western Pennsylvania, the world’s first big oil patch, is again dotted by oil rigs. When I visited Pithole, a half-dozen operations were pumping within a few miles of the ghost town. The region is part of the Marcellus Shale, a center of hydraulic fracturing. “Fracking,” as it is called, has brought new gushers of oil and gas to North America. In 2014, more than four decades after the time Hubbert predicted that U.S. oil production would begin to fall, the United States became the world’s leading producer of fossil fuels.

The man most responsible for this resurgence—the anti-Hubbert—was George Mitchell, an independent oil man from Texas, who demonstrated once again that the technology of the pump matters more than the size of the proverbial pool. The son of a Greek immigrant who ran a shoeshine shop in Galveston, Mitchell was born in 1919, worked his way through college, and joined the Army Corps of Engineers in the Second World War. He had an appetite for risk; when he launched his own small company, he would bet that he could find petroleum in places that others scorned. Often enough, he was correct. At some point in his geological education he learned that large formations of shale existed throughout the world. Between the countless thin layers in these zones were thin, diffuse bands of oil and gas. Conventional drilling, intended for ordinary, spongelike reservoirs, could not tap them. Mitchell believed that they could be extracted by combining two well-known techniques: fracturing rock (shooting high-pressure liquids into stone, which cracks the rock and creates pathways for trapped oil and gas) and horizontal drilling (cutting sideways to increase each well’s horizontal reach). Helped by government subsidies and initiatives, scoffed at by industry experts, this supremely stubborn man spent two decades trying to make his idea work. Only in 1997, in his late 70s, did he succeed. By the time of Mitchell’s death in 2013, the United States was producing more natural gas than ever before—an economic boon, an environmental problem.

In a sense, peak-oil advocates were onto something. Should fossil fuels run out, then many—perhaps most—environmental problems would tend to self-correct. Almost inevitably, the end of oil, coal, and natural gas would deal a body blow to industrial society. If, as Hubbert and many others have suggested, the ultimate cause of our environmental dilemmas is uncontrolled economic growth, then the onset of peak oil would be an ecological godsend. Industrial fertilizers, a product of fossil fuels, would no longer create dead zones in lakes and oceans. Suburbs would stop expanding into wetlands. Factories would pollute fewer rivers in the race to sell gadgets for export. People wouldn’t be able to buy endangered fish if fuel costs explode. Climate change would be much less of a peril in a no-growth economy. So would air pollution. The skies are always blue in a dystopia.

But our situation is different and perhaps more difficult. The dilemma stems from relative abundance, not scarcity. As technology expands our reach, resources remain easy to take out of the earth. Even if today’s reserves of oil and gas become costly to extract, others lie waiting in the wings: extra-heavy oil in Venezuela, methane hydrates along the continental shelves. When a good is obtained cheaply and readily, humans take for granted that it is abundant; as gasoline prices drop, people burn it heedlessly. Sales of fuel-thrifty Priuses slip; sales of oil-hungry SUVs rise, along with their associated emissions. Like giddy drunks locked in a warehouse full of booze, humanity takes advantage of ease and profusion to throw a party. The next day is the hangover, with the floor covered in spilled booze and shattered glass. Nobody has ever solved a drinking problem by attributing the hangovers to a shortage of liquor.

Today offers an opportunity to at last cast away the narrative of scarcity. Peak oil resulted in far too many imperial adventures and only produced a scramble for more. The most important step to addressing any problem is to diagnose it correctly. People may differ on their suggested remedies, but none will be correct if they don’t understand the problem. The first lesson of Pithole is to stop learning the lesson of Pithole.

Charles C. Mann’s most recent books are 1491, which won the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Keck Award for the best book of the year, and 1493, which is now out in paperback. A correspondent for The Atlantic, Science, and Wired, he has covered the intersection of science, technology, and commerce for many newspapers and magazines here and abroad, including BioScience, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times.

A three-time National Magazine Award finalist, Mann has received writing awards from the American Bar Association, the American Institute of Physics, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Margaret Sanger Foundation, and the Lannan Foundation.

Comments

  1. Charles Mann’s assessment of peak oil discourse is one-sided and misleading.

    It is true that fears of “running out” of non-renewable resources have a long history. Naturally so, since basing an economy on ever-increasing rates of extracting such resources is obviously a bad idea. If resource depletion makes people nervous, it well should.

    The scientific study of depletion did (as Mann recounts) get its start with M. King Hubbert, and Colin Campbell (who deserves credit for coining the term “peak oil”) and Jean Laherrere made significant contributions as well. Others are at the vanguard of research today. As with all scientific studies, understanding is refined through a process of data collection and analysis. A quick check of the peer-reviewed literature turns up scores of papers modeling fossil fuel depletion but none (that I could find) arguing that fossil fuels are infinite in quantity.

    These are the questions that really concern us: Is the peak oil discussion helping clarify how long current rates of consumption can be maintained (or grown)? And is that information useful grist for environmentalists?

    Over the past decade, costs of production for a new marginal barrel of oil have risen by about 10 percent per year. Oil prices have become much more volatile than was historically the case. Regular conventional oil production rates have flatlined. The only significant new prospects are expensive resources like tar sands, tight oil produced by fracking, deepwater oil, and arctic oil. Most of the production increase during the past few years has come from US tight oil, which depends on high levels of debt to cover costs. The tight oil bubble seems now to be bursting, with US production starting to drift downward and companies specializing in this type of production bleeding red ink.

    Students of the peak oil literature find all of this quite understandable given the economic and geological dynamics of depletion. However, for those who have denigrated that literature (many of whom are pro-growth economists or fossil fuel industry PR flaks), the past decade of developments in the petroleum industry has presented one surprise after another.

    Finally, if Charles Mann is asserting that waiting for the planet to run out of oil is not an effective response to climate change, I would reply, “Who says it is?” Very few fossil fuel depletion analysts would make such a claim. Far more would say that depletion of the low-hanging fruit of fossil fuels (which is easily observable in Shell’s recent abandonment of arctic drilling) is a strong argument for greater haste in transitioning away from dependence upon oil, coal, and natural gas.

    Richard Heinberg
    Senior Fellow, Post Carbon Institute

  2. Mr. Mann argues that we have overcome limits before and we will continue to do so. He omits a lot of reality.

    Reminds me of Barbara Kingsolver’s description of the energy frenzy of our time where “extravagant excesses of one culture washes up as famine or flood on the shores of another.” She recalls Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days, where the hero of the novel is stranded in the mid-Atlantic on a steamship that has run out of coal. The decision is to pull up the spars and throw them into the boiler. “On the next day the masts, rafts and spars were burned. The crew worked lustily, keeping up the fires. There was a perfect rage for demolition.”

    Mann confuses this “rage for demolition” as technological innovation and does not acknowledge that these “innovations” invariably require beating up on other people and places near and far; the article does nothing to help us move with all our creativity away from a destructive economy.

    Kamyar Enshayan, Director
    Center for Energy & Environmental Education
    University of Northern Iowa
    Cedar Falls, Iowa

  3. As an 18 year old , some years ago, I thought about the fact that many things we use as humans to assist us come from nature and you can usually tell what the “natural” thing will do based on what the engineered thing does. We use petroleum as a lubricant. What if the tectonic plates need some of that lubricant to remain tucked away in the earth? I understand your argument and agree, with the caveat that never running out is an obtuse fantasy that should not be promoted either.

  4. Thank you, Richard Heinberg, for a reality-check here. All the way through Peak Oil Fantasy I felt a growing sense of disbelief in several respects. Am I really reading this article in Orion? Is this article really talking about petroleum and infinite in the same breath? How is this illuminating our present crisis, ie poisoning and over-running the earth? I kept waiting for the swerve at the end, some discussion of what we ought to be paying attention to (vs oil price fluctuations), like maybe the fact that no matter what fuel we are using, we are ABusing it by behaving as though it IS infinite and we can have and do anything we so please… if easy fuel does run out, we can abuse the next resource to continue a wasteful, self-centered, destructive and in many cases, trivial, way of living.
    EVEN IF petroleum fuels were infinite, we would still need to stop abusing them like the powerful “drugs” they are, and figure out, together, how to use less, how to use that less more wisely, so that we don’t kill off the rest of the lifeforms and wreck the remaining “eco-services” that have managed to survive our party-and- trash approach. The ocean is acidifying and filling up with detritus…okay, I won’t go through the litany of ways we have half-ruined most everything on the planet and yet keep right on building, expanding and “meddling” (Diane Ackerman’s word in The Human Age) with everything and anything we can get our greedy hands on. Meddling implies a lack of wisdom, of careful study and consideration before acting, of setting limits, meddling implies an adolescent attitude of let’s set the cat’s tail on fire and see what happens: why? Because we can, because it’s cool.
    Yes, we humans do some good things and there are lots of good people in every culture and human group, but because of the way our world is structured economically, the earth, our home, is less and less hospital for more and more creatures, including ourselves. One of the consequences of our greed- uber- alles is chaotic weather extremes: a direct clue that the Fantasy here is not that oil reserves are limited, the Fantasy is that we can continue the Party, come hell …AND high water.

  5. Kamyar Enshayan, thank you, too, for your comment! Did not see it until after I posted.

  6. As the bumper sticker says, “Nature Bats Last.” And so we can continue to pump and frack and drill and develop new extraction technologies for carbon-based fuels to power our economy (which is based on incessant growth at any cost), and the burning of these fuels will eventually make our economy irrelevant… when Nature smacks one (and us) out of the park. Or we can transition ASAP to sources of renewable, clean energy and leave the ancient sunlight in the ground.

    While this article is well-researched and informative as to the history of peak oil, it offers the sense that we will always have plenty, so party on. I wish the author had spent more than a few lines on the “hangover” called climate change we’re now in the midst of, how this history of always finding more oil has contributed to that, and how we might change things. The problem with the hangover metaphor is that people generally recover from those. I’m not sure humanity will from this one, because nature is already hefting a big bat and making her way to home plate while we diddle.

  7. Mr. Mann is blurring some important lines. Conventional peak oil has already arrived. We are now in what Ben Falk refers to as the Mordor stage of oil exploration. What the peak oilers were wrong about was not scarcity of economically recoverable oil, but that prices would rise. Gail Tveberg would argue this is not because easy oil is not scarce, it is because it is too expensive to get, thus perhaps making nearly everything too expensive. That outcome may keep us from the worst of the overshoots, but it also may portend economic collapse. Unfortunately for Mr. Mann, Hubbert and Limits were right, natural resources do, for practical purposes, get used up. But is is neither scarcity or abundance that has driven empire or pollution, it is the failure to understand and accept limits in a mature way.

  8. This is dangerous nonsense from a skilled writer. Mann does not understand the financial equation at all. The following equation pretty much says it all:
    Oil above $75-barrel crushes economies
    Oil below $75-barrel crushes oil companies
    Oil at $75-barrel destroys both
    Since 2008 we have been living in the Era of Accelerated Delusion.
    Watch what happens now.
    And shame on Orion Magazine for publishing this foolishness.

  9. There is one significant omission I see in the article, and the comments above.
    Our cancerous growth on the planet is possible because we can no longer imagine any limit to what we can voluntarily control, for bad, or… for good. For more than 500 years now we have been actively encouraged to believe that we will be able to rivalize with the power of what we used to call (some of us still do…) the Creator.
    When a species is out of control, it gets checked by factors outside its control, not by voluntary, conscious effort from within to “do/be good”.
    While this thought is very discouraging, it is what I think right now.
    In other words, the most significant obstruction to our finding a way out of our current impass lies in our incapacity to imagine our status as creatures, not creators on this planet.
    Until we regain the humility that we have lost to our considerable comfort, wealth, and perceived power, we are in dire straits. Our species behaves like a cancer on the planet.
    And few people seem to entertain the possibility that our destruction may arise from limits currently invisible to us.
    That wealth, comfort, and facility have formidable disadvantages that sap our will, our creativity, and intelligence.
    “We” have known this for a long time, moreover.
    This knowledge is part of a treasury of lore and wisdom handed down to us by the Ancients…

  10. A very studious and thoughtful article,My theory is that deep in the bowels of the earth more and more oil is produced at present due to compression of of millions of years of organic soup, that are constantly leaching out form the rock and sand, organic ooze that created it to benign with when the millions of large dinosaurs=died off.We a s a civilization will annihilate our selves with weapons of mass destruction before we ever run out of oil ,gas and coal .

  11. It’s really too bad that Orion chose to give voice to the anti-environmentalist Charles Mann. I’m not disappointed in Mann: this is the sort of anti-environmental junk he’s been peddling for years, and is known for. This is the same guy who has written, when it comes to humans attempting to “run” the entire planet “for human purposes,” that “anything goes.” Those are his words.
    I am instead disappointed that what used to be “America’s Finest Environmental Magazine” has fallen this low. Mann writes (and Orion publishes), “As a practical matter, fossil-fuel supplies are infinite.” Really? What’s next? Will the editors bring Julian Simon back from the dead? How about other
    anti-environmental cornucopians? I’d like to thank Kunstler and Heinberg and the other commenters for their sanity.

  12. “If oil from one reservoir gets too costly or difficult to extract, people will either find cheap new ways to extract it or shift to a different energy source altogether.” As I understand it, there are real physical limits to extraction based on gradually decreasing EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested). The author doesn’t mention this concept, which is the basis for all Peak Oil predictions, so I can only assume that this is just another cornucopian dream.

  13. This is the second time since reading 1491 that I’ve read something by Mann; both times the dubious nature of his claims led me to wonder how reliable 1491, which changed perceptions of the Americas in preColombian times, really is. He actually seems to say here that since oil will soon become too expensive to extract, and therefore will not be extracted, that oil resources are therefore infinite. Or is he actually claiming that since there is a long history of worries about oil depletion, and the more recent crises have led to new technologies for getting previously marginal supplies out, that therefore this can go on forever? He does acknowledge climate change, so maybe he’s saying oil supplies are infinite because we will destroy ourselves via climate change before we can drain the last possible fossil fuel. I notice he assumes that humans are incapable of restraint based on ethics and reason. Well, sorry but this confirms my decision to drop my Orion subscription a year or two ago, if this is the sort of drivel I’m missing out on.

  14. Wow. Talk about a wolf in a sheep’s clothing. Mann uses a bunch of “Feature Writing 101” techniques to set the stage–the ultimately irrelevant tale of Pithole, the Carnagie sideshow, etc.–then before you know it, has assumed he has made the case for peak oil denial. Nice the way he refers to it as the “idea” of peak oil.

    In addition to the economic realities that Jim Kunstler mentions, and the EROEI issues that Mann also ignores, two other problems emerge for me reading this piece. First is that Mann seems to confuse technology with alchemy. He writes, of his epiphany halfway through the latest Mad Max movie may be really cool but that it is not based on science:

    “Instead, the Australians in Mad Max have apparently forgotten coal-to-gas technology—a wave of dopiness that may explain why, when fuel is scarce enough to kill for, a red-suited nitwit is allowed to waste gas with his flame-throwing guitar.”

    Actually, since a. Australia is running a bit short on H20 these days, and b. gasification requires lots of water, they probably decided to drink it rather than use it to transform coal into gas. On top of that, add the environmental, EROEI, and economic reasons for not being able to do it, and now who’s popping the stupidity pills? It’s like melting a pot of gold with new, special technology and then pouring it over some rocks and — voila, bigger pieces of gold!

    Second, and ultimately more to the point, is Mann’s total lack of perspective in terms of time. We are talking about a couple of hundred years since humans started monkeying with fossil fuels on any significant level. In geological time, that is absolutely…essentially nothing. What’s amazing is not that many of the people who made the startling prediction that oil is finite were off by a decade or a century as to when it would peak, but that Hubbert was so close in his estimates. (Also, the way I understand peak oil, the term refers to the point at which industrial civilization produces the most oil; thereafter production begins to decline. It is not a halfway point or running out. Again, economics and energy return values come into play here. This is why all his anecdotes of people crying wolf through the “ages” are misleading in the context he is creating, even thought those people were fundamentally correct. And smarter than Mann, with his flame-throwing pen antics.)

    The fracking stuff is also a red herring. Aside from all the land lease chicanery and financial hooliganism, it’s like a giant cocaine party. Lots of pure grade snow right out on the table at first. Then as that goes down, people start cutting it. Then you are looking in your pockets for a spare packet or two that you overlooked. Finally you are combing through the carpet. Doesn’t matter how good your expensive and complicated carpet combing technology is, either. At some point the lights go out.

    Why this insidious bit of reductio ad absurdum was published in Orion is a mystery.

  15. Sadly, Orion went off the rails on this one. I am sorry to see the editors fall into this trap. Abundance may be our problem, rather than scarcity, yes. But that alone is proof of the opposite message from this one: our human ability to keep coming up with the technology to extract more goo from the planet at more and more extreme levels of destruction to the working eco-systems of the atmosphere and biosphere is the very definition of ecological limits. There is a point where the unraveling of those systems that hold us and other life forms of this evolutionary era becomes irreversible unless we stop extraction, production, and consumption of these fuel sources – and if we push it too far, perhaps not even then. Another case of a narrow lens that refuses to see the whole of the crisis.

    What has changed is that we are beginning to realize that peak oil may not define the limits of the industrial growth economy, but rather its destruction of living ecosystems that make life possible. A world where life diminishes rapidly and in awful extremes of suffering with plenty of oil, gas, and coal still left in the ground – this could well be our future. And that ain’t no fantasy.

  16. The author does not mention that George Mitchell, whom he credits for optimizing fracking to make shale extraction economical (at triple digit and now high double digit oil prices, still higher than conventional oil), was also behind funding of the Limits to Growth study and many other initiatives in the direction of sustainability. It is only natural for a society that finds itself heavily dependent on non-renewable resources to try to understand the character of their finiteness and their effects on the society with the passage of time, and the character of substitution by renewable resources.

    The author mentions that the Limits to Growth study “predicted” that unless “radical” measures were taken, we would “soon” run out of resources. The study was a modest attempt at modeling the world using computer technology available at the time to give some level of understanding of what would be the dynamics of world based on some policy assumptions, it would be naive to think that it made “predictions” of when we would run out of resources. The business as usual standard run was only one of the several runs, most who quote the study drop mentioning of any other runs, in particular the equilibrium runs which showed that sustainable dynamics were possible if policy changes were to be made from the business as usual.

    The standard run showed trouble in the early part of the 21st century, about 40 years beyond the study, which does not look like “soon” even if you take it as a certain prediction at the time. Four decades is plenty of time for policy makers to make non-sudden adjustments to effect a smoother transition to a more sustainable path. This unfortunately has not happened, and we have doubled down on unsustainability during this time, with all nations competing in the race. The author is advised to go through presentation of Dennis Meadows (one of the scientists in the limits to growth study) in the following link:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2oyU0RusiA

  17. It’s disheartening to encounter, at this late stage, yet another dismissal of the basic argument and findings of Limits to Growth – especially coming from a putatively environmentalist journal. Mann’s willful misreading of Limits is so tendentious that may as well have been commissioned by an outfit like the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity or the Chamber of Commerce, perhaps.

    Unfortunately, it’s likely that “Peak Oil Fantasy” will be reposted ad nauseam on the websites of innumerable pro-growth, anti-environment organizations as yet more “proof” of the eco-hippie conspiracy against capitalism. ‘Muricans don’t need no stinkin’ limits!

  18. I find it interesting that Mr. Mann has presented a detailed account of the professional life of M. King Hubbert, including his 1950’s prediction of a peak in US oil production between 1965-1970 but then neglects to mention that US oil production did peak in 1970. So Hubbert’s legacy isn’t just Mr. Mann’s characterisation as being ultimately responsible for a flawed Mad Max plot, he was actually correct on in the modelling of US petroleum production, which I believe was the point.

    That would be strange in itself, but then The Limits to Growth was also characterised as predicting society running out of resources resulting in collapse. I had read this summary of the Limits to Growth many times and recently decided to actually read the book. I heartily recommend it to Mr. Mann, as it may clear up his misunderstanding. The Limits to Growth models trends resulting from the outputs of their dynamic models which in turn model behaviour of different aspects of the natural world and human societies. You know, like algebra with x and y and logarithms and such. It was not a work based on the shape of a model of another researcher. Finally, where the Limits to Growth does model a decline in industrial output and population, it is further off in this century at the earliest. The production of resources doesn’t ever reach zero and does not decline to negligible levels until the population has begun decline.

    I understand that there is more than a slight degree of futility submitting this particular comment to this particular article, as those that will take the arguments from Mr. Mann at face value most probably will not notice the inconsistencies or go on to further investigate the claims. Complacency is like that and after all, promoting complacency and trying to discredit critical thinking appears the most likely explanation of the motive for this article.

  19. In case readers are interested, I have a biography of M. King Hubbert—the geologist at the center of this article—being published by W. W. Norton in April. It’s now available for pre-order from major retailers:

    http://books.wwnorton.com/books/detail.aspx?id=4294989842

    In this article, most of the details about Hubbert’s life and ideas are accurate. But Charles Mann’s article falls down when he tries to debunk the concept of peak oil.

    He repeatedly switches between talking about the peak of production, and the time in which we run out. However these are two very different issues.

    Mann is right that we will never literally run out of fossil fuels, in the sense of having extracted and burned every molecule of them. But that’s not what Hubbert—nor any of the others concerned about peak oil—were saying.

    Just because we won’t extract every last molecule, it doesn’t follow that “as a practical matter, fossil-fuel supplies are infinite” (as Mann wrote). If supplies were infinite, as a practical matter, then production would continue going up and up.

    Instead, in nation after nation, production of oil—as well as other fossil fuels—have hit limits, and then declined. Globally, we have not yet hit the point of sharp decline in production for any of the fossil fuels. But that doesn’t mean that production will keep going up forever, or that supplies are infinite, practically speaking.

    For the past decade, the world has been having trouble keeping oil production rising. As other commenters noted here, the world’s production of conventional oil has apparently reached its peak, with production roughly on a plateau for a decade, perhaps even declining slightly. There’s little prospect of conventional oil production increasing for any significant length of time. (This is something the International Energy Agency, ExxonMobil, and BP all agree on.)

    To keep total oil production rising has required unconventional sources—and that requires high oil prices. But the world economy seems to be struggling with paying the bill. We are caught in a squeeze.

    The big issue—as Mann rightly points out—is that we’ve built society on consuming more and more, one based on unending growth. The one thing that seems to be truly infinite is humanity’s appetite for consumption.

    And that leads to two big questions: Will we impose limits on ourselves, before nature imposes limits on us? Or can we trust markets to achieve a transition off of oil—and later, off other fossil fuels?

    These were in fact the questions that concerned Hubbert throughout his life. He made his predictions about the timing of the peak of US oil to try to spur the development of alternatives, calling for advance planning—before dire shortages developed, without resorting to environmentally damaging alternatives—and definitely without resorting to wars over the remaining oil. He didn’t trust markets to be far-sighted and broad-minded enough to accomplish such a transition smoothly and fairly.

    Climate change poses the same kinds of questions. Will we impose limits on ourselves and plan ahead, before climate disruption becomes really dire? Or will markets somehow accomplish this for us?

  20. Overall a well-written and provocative article and equally so the readers’ commentary. One challenge we have is that when predictions are wrong nobody admits they are wrong. For example, “Before 2010,” they (Campbell & Laherrere) said, global petroleum output would decline, inevitably and permanently. That didn’t happen. Did they offer an apology, or instead a new prediction? Pronosticators typically identify exact dates and are almost always wrong.

    Nonetheless, as Gail Tverberg so presciently noted, “The problem is, (pregnant pause) the Earth is finite.”
    In my humble opinion an equally pressing problem, as commentator ‘Richard’ first noted, is that the bottom line is that life depends not on money nor on economists nor on historians, but on energy. Any living organism has to obtain more energy from it’s ‘food’ source than it expends to obtain it or it will starve to death. From this perspective I would agree with Mann that fossil fuels will never run out, but only because the energy return compared to the energy invested to obtain them (known as ‘energy return on energy invested, or EROEI) will cease to offer an adequate payback. America and other industrial societies are addicted to a massive energy payback, which is now steadily declining. There is an option, and that would be to live more in tune with the energy flows and nutrient cycles of all other life on Earth. Strangely this would take awareness and intelligence on the part of humans, whereas all other living organisms inherit this capacity. With humans the universe is trying something new. As I like to say, “Pray for the evolution of intelligence.” Dana Visalli

  21. As publisher of the first website on peak oil, HubbertPeak, which contains much useful information about the urgent matter at hand – humanity’s first final exam – I have to wonder:

    Do we have the good sense to recognize the significance of Mr. Mann’s writing? 

    Namely, as we plan for survival, are we taking into consideration the large number of influential, intelligent people who can ignore the laws of physics and continue to plunder our earth by rationalizing that its stores are infinite?!

    Namely, folks like myself. I still drive a car. Do you?

  22. This is a response to the comment by Dana Visalli above, who wrote:

    ‘For example, “Before 2010,” they (Campbell & Laherrere) said, global petroleum output would decline, inevitably and permanently. That didn’t happen. Did they offer an apology, or instead a new prediction?’

    I would encourage you to read the article they published in Scientific American, which you can download here: http://nature.berkeley.edu/er100/readings/Campbell_1998.pdf.

    “Barring a global recession, it seems most likely that world production of CONVENTIONAL (emphasis mine) oil will peak during the first decade of the 21st century.”

  23. I kept expecting Mann to finalize his arguments by saying something sensible, like, “. . . hence, we must not wait for peak oil to get off fossil fuels!” But the article petered out without a coherent all-in-all summation. I’m glad I read it, though. Learned about the Technocracy Movement, which means a lot of my ideas about the inability of money and its brokers to marshal economics are not really new. But yes, Mann drops big fat attitude all over peak oil without saying anything constructive. Peak oil is what we might call a “knowledge event.” But arguing that a knowledge event should not have happened, should not be happening simply because some people to have a bad reaction is a very specious argument, indeed. Talk of peak oil makes me want to move on to energy alternatives, which, I dare say, is the sane response. It’s not the peak oil knowledge event’s fault that psychopaths like Dick Cheney want to start wars in the Middle East or foment trouble in other oil-producing countries. And of course, Mann talks like a cornucopia nut-bag when he says oil will never end. He seems to make great hay over peak oil’s, as well as sundry “limits to growth” theories’, shaky prediction record. Again, it’s cornucopian insanity to call something so obvious as limits to growth on a finite planet false simply because predictions of doom aren’t exact. Consequences to blind, profligate growth are forthcoming, full stop. . . . It reminds me of kids daring each other to throw bigger and bigger rocks at a plate-glass window. Eventually the laws of physics will produce a shattered window. Duh.

  24. My thanks to everyone who commented on my article. I didn’t expect everyone to agree with it, but after reading their critiques I’m going to stand my ground.

    In The Party’s Over (2003), Richard Heinberg, head of the Post-Carbon Institute, spent a chapter on estimating the date that peak oil would begin. Depending on how one estimated petroleum production, he wrote, there was a “likely peak date window of 2005 to 2013” (p. 106) or (quoting Richard Duncan) “forecasts… converging on Peak Oil in 2006 or 2007” (115) or (quoting Chris Skrebowski) “a seemingly unbridgeable supply-demand gap opening up after 2007” (118). But no matter what the estimation method, he wrote, “we are within only a few years of the all-time global production peak. We are virtually at the summit now [that is, 2003], with almost no time left for maneuvering before the event itself is upon us” (118). Although Heinberg provides a variety of caveats, it is obviously a warning that the world is about to begin running out of fossil fuels, probably in 2007.

    That didn’t happen, of course, and Heinberg has shifted his rhetorical ground. In his most recent book, Afterburn (2015), he wrote: “While we are not about to run out of [fossil fuels] in the absolute sense, we have extracted the cheapest and best-quality fuels first, leaving the more expensive, dirtier, and harder to produce fuels for the next year’s takings.” The first clause–“we are not about to run out”—is exactly what I say in my article. I am happy here to be in full agreement with Mr. Heinberg. The second bit—that we have taken out all the cheap, good stuff–is more problematic.

    It is true that oil and gas from tar sands is dreadfully dirty and costly. Unfortunately for Mr. Heinberg’s thesis, though, the natural gas obtained by fracking is just as good as any other natural gas. So is most of the oil. The “best-quality” stuff has NOT all been extracted.

    In addition, the technology is developing so fast that fracked petroleum is increasingly NOT more expensive. This year the offering price for fracked North Dakota oil has stayed in the $30-40 range, as shown in the Plains Marketing Crude Oil Price Bulletins (available at http://www.plainsallamerican.com). Last March, incredibly, the price of Williston Basin Sweet–a light, high-quality crude oil obtained by fracking–was $27.19 a barrel. Despite months of such low prices, Energy Information Agency figures show that U.S. crude oil production has barely budged from its July high; natural-gas output is still rising. (For a typical account of the situation, see http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-08-12/oil-at-30-is-no-problem-for-some-cost-cutting-bakken-drillers).

    Similar objections apply to James Howard Kunstler. I don’t like disagreeing with Mr. Kunstler, because his The Geography of Nowhere (1993), is among my all-time favorite books. But I think he’s got this one wrong. He writes that “oil above $75-barrel crushes economies, oil below $75-barrel crushes oil companies.” It is true, as Mr. Kunstler says, that very high oil prices are bad economic news; it is also true that super-low prices are bad for oil companies. But neither of these extremes are likely in the foreseeable future.

    Since the Second World War, the US has had two periods of real $75-plus oil prices: 1979-84, 2007-14. Both were bad economic times. But neither price hike, as I say in my article, had anything to do with a peak in petroleum production. One was due to the second Arab oil boycott and the Iran-Iraq war; the other, to Middle East political tensions (again), financial-market speculation, and the damage to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico by Hurricane Katrina.

    Except for these two periods, the inflation-adjusted price of oil has been below $75. Since 2000, at the height of peak oil warnings, the average price of a barrel of oil in real terms has been $64.52. The oil companies have been just fine with this. They have stated repeatedly–and are showing now–that they can live with lower oil prices. There is no $75 barrier.

    I am glad that Mason Inman has written a biography of Hubbert and look forward to reading it. But he and others misunderstand my point about fossil fuels being “as a practical matter, … infinite.” As I said in the article, this idea, though basic to natural-resource economics, is terribly counterintuitive. What it means is that non-renewable resources are unlimited or unmeasurable in terms of duration of time. An example is marble. Buildings have been constructed with blocks of marble since ancient Egypt. Eventually the easy-to-obtain marble began to be used up, and so the price increased. People did three things: find more marble quarries, learn how to use marble more efficiently, and discover substitutes for marble. Today, thousands of years and millions of buildings later, there is still a flourishing marble industry. People continue to use lots of marble, though usually in form of building facades rather than structural blocks. If you asked marble experts when global production would peak, they would think that was a silly question; it’s too far off in the future, too unknowable, to be worth contemplating. As a practical matter, the size of marble reserves are unlimited or unmeasurable in terms of duration of time. The same is true for petroleum.

    Why does any of this matter? The reason–unmentioned, I notice, by these critics–is that being wrong about peak oil has had some terrible consequences.

    First, the fear of imminent drops in petroleum output has been a major driving force–perhaps the major driving force–in U.S. Middle East policy since the 1920s. Decades of experience has shown that incorrect peak-oil predictions have led to political adventures in oil regions that have been a moral disaster. Why wouldn’t further incorrect predictions do the same? (In this respect, I was baffled by Kamyar Enshayan’s complaint that I was ignoring that “’innovations’ require beating up on other people and places near and far.” That is precisely what peak oil has done.)

    Second, the most difficult environmental problem of our time is climate change. Peak oil, to put it mildly, is no help. This is where I disagree with Gregg Kleiner. Nowhere in my article do I say, “we will always have plenty, so party on.” He has made this up out of whole cloth. It is like claiming that if patients come to a doctor believing they have heart disease, and if the doctor instead diagnoses their ailment as cancer, then the doctor must be a cheerleader for cancer. Instead the doctor is saying that the patients will never be cured of cancer if they persist in believing they have heart disease.

    An example of what I mean appeared earlier this year in the journal Fuel (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016236114010254), in an article written by a team of Australian environmental and energy researchers. After concluding that “ultimately recoverable resources” (URR) in fossil fuels would, in their Best Guess scenario, peak “before 2025 and decline rapidly thereafter,” the researchers pointed out that declining oil output would lead to lower carbon emissions. “Based on current estimates of URR there are insufficient fossil fuels to deliver the higher emission IPCC scenarios A1Fl and RCP8.5.” In other words, peak oil will take care of the worst possibilities of climate change. In the article, I quoted prominent peak-oil advocate Matt Simmons saying the same thing. It is hard for me to see how this type of argument, which stems directly from peak-oil beliefs, is anything but an obstacle to controlling climate change.

    As I argued in Orion, mistaken beliefs in peak oil have had dire real-world consequences in the past. I wrote my article because I fear, with climate change, that they will do so in the future.

    PS: I would like to reserve a word for Derrick Jensen, whose decision to pluck three phrases out of context to give a wholly false idea of what I was saying annoyed me.

    In his book, Endgame (2006), Jensen writes that human population MUST be reduced. Then he says, “it’s not possible to speak of reductions in population and consumption that do not involve violence and privation.” (p. x) One could easily cite this as an endorsement of the violent murder of surplus population. But that would be unfair, because Jensen then explains that the reason for the violence is that the system is based on violence, so anything that happens will be violent, there’s no way around it, etc.

    In my book, 1491, I use archaeological evidence to argue that there is no “untouched” wilderness in the Americas, because millions of native people lived there for millennia. For this reason, Americans can’t, as envisioned in many environmental laws (in language referring to “untrammeled by the hand of man,” and so on), measure our conservation efforts against a presumed unchanging, climax forest that existed for millennia before Columbus. Because that forest didn’t exist, we don’t have that kind of guideline. Instead people unavoidably must rely on their best judgment to manage the American landscape, as native people did before them. (This is where Jensen’s quotes come from.) Then I argue that a major mode in indigenous American land management is to think in terms of the creation of future landscapes–that is what they thought best. And I say I think that’s a pretty nifty rule of thumb.

    Mr. Jensen’s summary of my book as endorsing the notion that “anything goes” is much as if I summarized his book as endorsing mass killing.

  25. Perhaps a minor mistake, there were only 46 states at the time President Roosevelt convened the meeting on fossil fuel exhaustion in 1908. According to an article by C. Sharp Cook that appeared in the September 1976 edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 44 of the then 46 governors attended this meeting. See https://books.google.com/books?id=NwwAAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA21&lpg=PA21&dq=theodore+roosevelt+1908+fossil+fuel&source=bl&ots=XsRZofq5Xl&sig=W368yl8AwLsUPbr1LZ57fBSWAGQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCYQ6AEwAWoVChMInuqrrrm-yAIVCfJjCh1F0gBz#v=onepage&q=theodore%20roosevelt%201908%20fossil%20fuel&f=false (p. 21).

  26. Ryan Talbott is 100% correct. There were indeed only 46 states in 1908, not 50 as I unthinkingly wrote. My apologies for the silly error.

    Out of curiosity, I looked up the proceedings, and according to the included photographs of the attendees 36 governors attended, along with lots of other high officials–I was surprised to discover that a bunch of Supreme Court justices attended.

  27. One thing I did not read in this article is that by 1998 the U.S. was importing 50% of the oil we needed on a daily basis. This may have been lost on the media, but was not lost on Dick Cheney, who was CEO of Halliburton. In 1999 he addressed the London Oil Institute with a speech that included the following:

    …… we as an (oil) industry have had to deal with the pesky problem that once you find oil and pump it out of the ground you’ve got to turn around and find more or go out of business. Producing oil is obviously a self-depleting activity. Every year you’ve got to find and develop reserves equal to your output just to stand still, just to stay even .…… there will be an average of two per cent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead along with conservatively a three per cent natural decline in production from existing reserves. That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional fifty million barrels a day. So where is the oil going to come from? Governments and the national oil companies are obviously controlling about ninety per cent of the assets. Oil remains fundamentally a government business. While many regions of the world offer great oil opportunities, the Middle East with two thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies ,…..

  28. There has been a massive squashing of the peak oil meme over the last several years. First, Saudi Arabia didn’t run out as Staniford or Simmons predicted. Then we got the US fracking boom that no peakers predicted and that they poo-pooed the whole way it was ramping up (cf. The Oil Drum articles). Now even price of oil has dropped substantially. At this point, The Oil Drum has shut down. ASPO has stopped doing its annual conferences and overall interest on the web in peak oil has dramatically declined. Very, very few peak oil writers have really confronted what happened and admitted they were wrong. But the detritus of past peak oil hype is all over the Internet.

  29. Thanks to Charles Mann for engaging in discussion with my earlier comments. Interestingly, while he lists several of the peak oil forecasts quoted in my 2003 book, he omits the one I came closest to endorsing. He might have reproduced the following passage from page 118: “Colin Campbell estimates that extraction of conventional oil will peak before 2010; however, because more unconventional oil—including oil sands, heavy oil, and oil shale—will be produced during the coming decade, the total production of fossil-fuel liquids (conventional plus unconventional) will peak several years later. According to Jean Laherrère, that may happen as late as 2015.” Conventional oil did hit a plateau in 2005, and now that U.S. tight oil production is drifting lower a peak for all liquid fuels in 2015 or 2016 hardly seems far-fetched.

    Mr. Mann notes that unconventional oils like tight oil and tar sands oil are “good-quality” oils, contradicting my claim elsewhere that the “good-quality stuff is gone.” True, once they are produced and refined these are just as good as any other oils, but from the standpoint of producers the difference between these and conventional oil is dramatic: the latter accumulated over geologic time in easily drilled traps; super-giant conventional fields can produce enormous quantities of crude from relatively few wells. Tight oil produced from low-porosity source rocks requires drilling far more wells, plus hydrofracturing and horizontal drilling. Tar sands requires mining or steam injection.

    That’s why these oils are much more expensive to produce. Mr. Mann insists, “fracked petroleum is increasingly NOT more expensive. This year the offering price for fracked North Dakota oil has stayed in the $30-40 range….” This merely confuses costs with prices. Fracked North Dakota oil can be produced in the $30-40 range only at a financial loss; that it is much more expensive to produce than conventional oil is simply a fact. Even when world oil prices were hovering at the stratospheric level of $100 a barrel, many tight oil producers were relying on enormous amounts of low-interest debt to keep operations growing.

    The peakists have given society some valuable information–that conventional oil’s days are numbered, that unconventional oil will not be able to substitute for it for long, and that for purely economic reasons it is vital that we immediately find ways to dramatically reduce our reliance on this substance. Climate concerns align perfectly with the depletion imperative in this regard. The peak oil discussion (despite the insistence of its critics) has NEVER been about “running out” of oil, and one can reliably assume that anyone who frames the conversation around “running out” either fails to grasp the issue or intends to mislead.

  30. I was a bit stunned reading this piece in Orion. Not sure what the point was since the author never really came around to one. I can only imagine that whatever agenda he is peddling, I’m not buying.

    I always find the Orion articles engaging and thoughtful. Surely you can do better next time.

  31. There is a newer dimension to this since Hubbert’s time, that Mann ignores — increase in atmospheric CO2 and acceleration of global warming. Plus explosive overpopulation of the planet by humans. That means many hydrocarbons will need to be left in the ground, unburned, if we are to avoid disastrous global warming. That is not a matter of pumps and technology, but of self-control. I don’t believe humans have collective self-control, that instead we will “burn it all” even as solar and wind power grows rapidly in use. Some day I’ll be on a Heavenly cloud looking down at an Earth that has 1,000 ppm of CO2 in its atmosphere.

  32. Mann’s beautifully written essay is cursed by a fatal flaw, which Richard Heinberg intimates in his comment. Peak oil is not the same as changes in the price of fossil fuels. We are transitioning into an era in which fossil fuel is no longer cheap. The energy return on investment (EROI: how much new energy we obtain from the energy in a barrel of oil) has decreased from over 1000 in 1900 to something around 3 today. Why do we drill into the Gulf of Mexico or send behemoths to the Arctic? We have exhausted the supply of cheap fossil fuel. This is an inexorable trend that has huge economic implications because the last 200 years of GDP growth have been driven by the availability of cheap fossil fuels. Without cheap fossil fuels, there will be economic contraction. [Despite wishful thinking, economic growth has not been decoupled from energy costs. And today’s fluctuations in oil prices are superficial temporary reactions to the manipulations of supply and and efforts by international finance institutions to keep GDP growing.] Unless there is a miraculous (literally) breakthrough in energy technology that unfolds quickly before the economic implications of this trend in EROI shake the foundations of today’s economy, we are headed toward economic contractions. I don’t believe in miracles.

  33. And now in his comment-rebuttal Mann alludes to the old cornucopia argument that Native Americans significantly altered the North American forests. I’ve heard this often from clear-cutting rationalizers. They’d have us believe the natives were just a lower-tech version of Georgia-Pacific and Cargill. In fact, their numbers were between 3 and 9 million, and their animist, nature-centered belief systems kept whatever they did to the environment very minimal and highly respectful. Did they hover in the lotus position like Tolkien’s Lothlorien Elves? Some, not all. But their impact on the land was many orders of magnitude less that ours has been; and trying to cloud this vast difference is again, specious. Native Americans were a part of nature, which means their impact and extraction never threatened the overall balance. We, however, don’t just threaten nature, we remove nature entirely to create vast, wholly artificial environments suited only to us European Americans. Big, big difference.

  34. Bravo for the truth-telling.

    We simply can’t be credible as environmental truthtellers if we are not willing to admit when the facts conflict with a favored delusion (that an external nonhuman event will somehow intervene to deliver us from climate change).

    A breakthrough with cheap solar power might yet deliver us to a different sort of climate ‘deus ex machina’ — but that too will likely take further messy political changes in order for it to happen in time to make a difference.

    There is probably no techno-fix or other external change available that can deliver us from a necessity to make society wide conscious choices.

    A friend said to me many years ago, “we will run out of atmosphere before we run out of oil.” While his statement was hyperbolic and non-literal, it strikes me equally that the “peak oil” thesis — to the extent it is substantive — is likewise best understood as merely an unfortunate and not that accurate metaphor for fossil fuel depletion.

    Such depletion is real, but an imminent ‘peak’ of extraction is not. That doesn’t mean depletion isn’t a problem — we have to look further from home and take bigger environmental risks (off-shore, Arctic, etc).

    Misunderstanding that distinction between things getting harder to procure versus “running out” altogether has unfortunate consequences.

    To take the peak metaphor too literally as a hypothesis was to open it up to falsification ; to encourage ‘extreme oil’ exploitation of tar sands, oil shale, etc and imperialist adventures; and to promote complacency about the genuine problems like climate change and war

  35. I can add nothing concrete to the cogent rebuttals by Heinberg, Kunstler, Jensen, et. al. I recently subscribed to Orion again after a long hiatus, because I wanted to support a publication that I’ve always found enlightening, engaging, and enheartening. So I, too, am open-mouth appalled at the publication of Mann’s article in this issue. I’d like to hear from the editors in this discussion regarding what they were thinking – did the solicit this thesis? Or was it an unsolicited manuscript? In either case, what did they hope to gain from it? It seems to me to fly in the face of everything they’ve always stood behind, so I’m curious.

  36. You can tell Mann is a mercenary from the title of his essay. The word “fantasy” tells all. Peak oil is under any standard of the dialectic a hypothesis. It has many proponents, including petroleum geologists with solid impeccable credentials. In keeping the wild, Dave Foreman explains that the myth of the landscape scale alterations alleged against native Americans is utterly false. It is similar to the pseudoscience of eugenics(well born-coined by Herbert spencer)In fact NA skulls were measured by phrenologists attempting to prove Indian inferiority.Now,the ruling class has taken the opposite ,but very clever tactic of-wait…. that’s racism to say Indians cant destroy the fabric of life .this is in fact Winston Smith at work in the Ministry of Truth.Again-this planet has Limits of every kind.Shunryu Suzuki said if your life was unlimited, you would have all manner of problems. Your life is just the right size, as it is, for you to have happiness in this life.no=Mr. Mann, there is nothing whatever original in your article. Just rearranging deck chairs. The very first warning about Peak Everything was prescient not mistaken. The petroleum age is starting its decline, and we need to start thinking about how to manage the aftermath. The party isn’t over yet, but the end is in view. What will you do,Mr. Mann-for your grandchildren. They cant eat your erudite article.

  37. In desperation and by carving out unprecedented exemptions to legal protection like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, we have created 14000 hp compressors that can carpet bomb shale a mile below the surface at a cost of millions of dollars and millions of gallons of water per well. Not surprisingly this ruins communities unfortunate enough to be saddled with the “resource.” But in the meantime and for a little while we we can continue to heat and cool our hopelessly uninsulated houses. Mr. Mann sees this as a triumph and somehow thinks we can finally abandon the narrative of scarcity. A less foolish and more knowledgeable voice, Professor Tony Ingraffea of Cornell, calls fracking “an inelegant solution to an intractable problem.” I’d call it legalized organized crime. Or peak stupid. We might stand a chance if we can get beyond the absurd denial of people like Mr. Mann.

  38. To state it again: Peak oil is about extraction rates(production is a deliberately misleading term). You can still get oil from the long abandoned oil fields but only for a less than break even energy input and maybe a few gallons a day. It does the world no good if extraction rates of 100mbpd are needed but the rate than can be achieved is only 40mbpd. I find it hard to accept that even the author can’t understand this. And counting it as effectively infinite because there will always be some left underground is foolish since it will be left there simply because we will never physically be able to get it.

  39. Some have commented about predictions by the peak oil side to be wrong, they should check out the predictions of those who imply that peak oil doesn’t exist and compare those to reality as well.

  40. “As a practical matter, fossil-fuel supplies are infinite”.- Of course the Author does not even seem to understand that it takes energy in the form of oil to find more reserves. He should really read some William Catton, to dispel his ignorance. quite disappointing that Orion would publish such a fantasy based article

  41. Charles Mann’s writing has appeared in Orion for over twenty years, and his books are often cited by our readers as ones that are important to them. Charles’s previous Orion article, “State of the Species,” was a finalist for the National Magazine Award. Most important, Orion is, and always has been, a platform for new ideas — for the delivery of them, the exploration of them, and — sometimes — the dissection of them. We would never publish anything that is contrary to the Orion mission, but we challenge ourselves to publish content that pushes boundaries. Since Derrick Jensen’s name has been invoked in this chain of comments about Charles’s article, I will point out that Derrick pushed boundaries in his Orion columns for years, to the consternation of readers who took issue with his ideas. We stood by Derrick — happily and proudly — for all of those years, just as we stand by Charles Mann now. And we trust our readers to stand by us as we try out new ideas — or at least we hope they will. H. Emerson Blake, Orion’s Editor-in-Chief

  42. The fantasy that many (most) people actually live out is the belief that we can continue to live a way that will require a second (or third or fourth) earth and then expecting it. Not just through a belief in a life after death and a new world after this one but by the faith in human enterprise and the faith in more. Visions of a “sustainable” future via this creed are very likely to contain a heaping platter of oil, gas and coal. Which considering our continuous building out on fossil, it is difficult to envision a bridge to the future without dragging our heavy footprint across it. Such is our catch 22 — keeping the wheels on the unsustainable while needing a big dose of fossil to build something sustainable (which may not be remotely possible given our trajectory). Considering the current cheapness of oil, now would be a good time to start our weaning from the deep time tit. Record sales of F-150s ain’t gettin’ that job done. But we are sure making progress on that mission to Mars, under our feet. Survival pods to the rescue — Gold, Silver and Platinum models! Not so that far out here in our fantasy world.

  43. H. Emerson Blake: As someone with a MS in Geology I can say without equivocation that Mr. Mann’s article does not push any boundaries nor does it present any new ideas. It fails your very own test for those things. I’ve been following the Peak Oil discussion for 15 years. When Mann uses the phrase “running out” interchangeably with Peak Oil, it’s insulting to anyone who knows anything about Peak Oil and it renders the rest of his arguments worthless. All Mr. Mann does is repeat the same arguments that Peak Oil denialists have been repeating for years. I’m sorry, but if this is the kind of thing that Orion is going to publish, there is no reason for your readers to “stand by you”. Best regards.

  44. H. EMERSON BLAKE,

    In retrospect, perhaps it would have been wise for Orion to have invited someone to provide a counter-point to Mann’s piece. Orion is fortunate that it has an audience of engaged and knowledgeable readers who took the time to respond to the piece in the comments. Otherwise Orion’s (online) readers would have been left with only one side of the story. In fact, it’s not too late for you to invite someone to pen a rebuttal.

  45. Jhttp://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-10-29/the-patience-of-the-sea

    John Michael Greer said:

    Mann’s article was a little more disingenuous than the run of the mill anti-peak-oil rant—it takes a certain amount of nerve to talk at length about M. King Hubbert, for example, without once mentioning the fact that he successfully predicted the peaking of US petroleum production in 1970

    ——————-

    From the 11th paragraph in the Mann article’s section on Hubbert:

    “Hubbert’s prediction proved to be correct: U.S. crude-oil production peaked in 1970.”

    It takes a certain amount of nerve to lie in print about what another author wrote. Looks like some peak-oilers are so angry that they’re willing to make up stuff in order to besmirch Mann’s integrity.

  46. S G: Whether or not John Micheal Greer missed what Mann said deliberately or accidentally, doesn’t change the fact that Mr. Mann’s article is merely a rehash that doesn’t even get the basic concept of Peak Oil correct (Peak oil does not mean and never has meant “running out”).

    Asher Miller: I agree with you that Orion should invite someone to pen a rebuttal. There is no shortage of qualified people who could do so. They can be contacted through the website Resilience.org or through ASPO or ASPO-USA. Rune Likvern who who used to publish at The Oil Drum would be a good choice.

  47. From the article:

    “…Hubbert and Limits were wrong. Natural resources cannot be used up. […] On its face, this seems ridiculous, even stupid. But centuries of experience have shown it to be true. As a practical matter, fossil-fuel supplies are infinite.”

    Sigh. It’s business as usual with these tired old cornucopian screeds: Long on opinion, straw man arguments, and other dubious claims that are easily falsifiable, never mind being woefully short on factual analysis, or anything even remotely resembling actual data.

    I won’t bother trotting out all of the usual facts, figures, and thermodynamic realities that directly refute the premise that natural resources cannot be used up, or that fossil fuel supplies are “for practical purposes” infinite, despite the authors unsubstantiated hand waving and magical thinking about new discoveries, efficiency, and substitution.

    Instead, I invite the discerning reader to ask one very simple question that is conspicuously absent from the authors view of the world: At what cost?

    I am not speaking here of the price of energy in any one superficial currency or another. I am talking about the cost to human lives, the cost to countless future generations, the cost ultimately to all life on the planet.

    If fossil fuels are so spectacularly easy and abundant as claimed, then why the incomprehensible price paid in blood fighting endless wars for control of oil-rich regions? Paid in permanently fouling (for all “practical” purposes) the only planet found for trillions of miles capable of supporting human life? Paid in stripping that precious world of living forests, the very lungs of the planet, for tar sands and palm oil? Paid in drilling for dry holes in an Arctic that is rapidly melting away for the first time in millions of years, thus throwing our otherwise remarkably stable climate into chaos? Paid in countless beaches, wetlands, and reefs destroyed by massive tanker spills and by well-head “blowouts” miles beneath the waves? The list goes on.

    Anyone with even a rudimentary comprehension of history, science, and the universal laws of thermodynamics can see that fossil fuels have enabled a gigantic and unprecedented bubble in both human population and human consumption of resources.

    Great Acceleration:
    http://www.slideshare.net/fullscreen/IGBPSecretariat/great-acceleration-2015/

    A trajectory that is clearly unsustainable (and has been for decades) and therefore must, by definition, at some point collapse.

    Something both Hubbert and the Limits to Growth report got exactly right! This despite the spurious claims to the contrary which (after a brief moments reflection) do seem to be, in the authors own words, “ridiculous, even stupid”. Ironically true, but on many more levels than simply the face of it.

  48. It’s difficult to refrain from smirking at those who here have written disparagpngly of Mr. Man’s thesis that peak oil was & is a joke, because on this date, 28 December, 2015, so much oil has been discovered & retrieved that the price of a barrel haqs fallen to $36.50 and is projected to tumb.le under $20. next year. That’s quite a come-down from oil’s high of $105. or so a few years ago.

    Technology & innovation contnue to thawrt the fantasy of peak oil., albeit that the day must come when there is no “ancient light” left to tap. For decades, perhaps centuries , to come that day will not arrive. Consequently, I for one am not5 going to dump my oil company shares in response vto the peak oil panic.

  49. Well-researched or not, this article reveals a vital point: that scarcity or victim mindset is part of the same coin as exploitation or aggression. Eurocentrism, humanism, industrialism, and colonization which are often seen as stemming from a superiority complex in fact stem from a defensiveness, a need to take extreme measures to protect against the natural world. Mann exposes the psychology of our Western culture: that with a perceived threat, we respond with hysteria. We are addicted to the sense of our own volatility, and have never felt secure in our own capacity for self-sufficiency. So long as we entertain ourselves with the idea that our country, our economy, our species, what have you are in dire straits, we will lash out maniacally in order to save ourselves. In the victim-aggressor mindset, nothing is more important than the needs of the individual; and in the case of fossil fuel, nothing is more important than our oil-dependent technologies for rescuing us from climate disaster.

  50. Oh how silly. Peak oil was about reaching peak production, not about running out of oil. And, by the way, if you exclude the U.S. and Canada, the world CRUDE or CONVENTIONAL production peaked in 2005. It also appears that the world peak may have been reached in 2015. We have been on a plateau for crude oil since 2005.

    Reaching the peak has resulted in a different effect than expected higher prices. It has led to deflation and collapse of the ability to product growth. IMHO, the two inputs to our growth-based system are cheap energy and cheap debt. We have reached the end of cheap energy, and so the system compensates with cheap debt.

    As incredible as it sounds, it is perfectly human to assume that the past is strong indicator to the future. Our in-ability to intellectually confront and deal with the limits of the finite will provide thought-provoking debates in the future. Nature is going to construct the equivalent of a hyperspace bypass, regardless of what we think of ourselves.

  51. (more thoughts…)

    As incredible as it sounds, it is perfectly human to assume that the past is strong indicator to the future. Our in-ability to intellectually confront and deal with the limits of the finite will provide thought-provoking debates in the future. Nature is going to construct the equivalent of a hyperspace bypass, regardless of what we think of ourselves.

    Unlike the mythology of the Bible, our species did not fall from perfection, but rather, we have been tempered by eons of scarcity. Our emotional decision-making mechanisms were molded during this long evolutionary process to overcome scarcity, not to achieve a happy and sustainable equilibrium. Thus, we are really glorified apes, not fallen angels.

    It is hard to say when and how. But the path before us always has hope. Being human in the far future will be far different than our life experiences of the last 250 years.

  52. I note that a number of comments attack the article as unworthy of publication, usually because the authors are advocates of peak oil and dislike his arguments. My book on peak oil was published in July 2016, and it goes through the math to show that Campbell and Laherrere’s work is unscientific and invalid. The world’s oil resource is much greater than their estimates and the problems the industry faces are nothing new.

  53. Folks who have come this far may be interested in my recent book on the peak oil phenomenon, Peak Oil: Apocalyptic Environmentalism and Libertarian Political Culture, which you can find at http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/P/bo21028360.html. In my research I also found evidence for peak oil being something of a “fantasy” for certain believers, who hoped that it would potentially solve climate change and also deliver an ecologically superior future.

    That said, I agree with some commenters on the tone of Mann’s article. I view his claim about oil being practically infinite as somewhat silly, but also somewhat true — there are lots of hydrocarbons out there, and we’ve shown the will (and the stupidity) to develop technologies to extract all of them. (What he and some commenters seem to disagree about is whether “oil reserves” are a geologic fact or an economic judgment.) I would also tend to agree with his point that viewing scarcity as a solution to climate change (or other environmental issues) might lead to some problematic politics — or, more specifically, the absence of politics.

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