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05 July, 2008

Peaking into the Future

If you want to know why petrol costs so much these days, you need look no further than the phenomenon of 'Peak Oil'. This refers to the point in time when we are extracting the maximum amount of oil per day from the world's reserves. And that point in time appears to be with us. In 2005 we reached a rate of extraction of 74 million barrels a day and we have stayed there ever since. Oil fields are running dry and new discoveries are not keeping pace. Soon, the rate of extraction will start to fall. In anticipation of how valuable that will make oil, the price has begun to rise. It will go on rising as the oil runs out and demand stays more-or-less level. (Demand is already well above the extraction rate at 88 million barrels a day - the difference being met by liquified natural gas - until we hit 'peak gas' too. It has been increasing exponentially until now but rising prices are likely to counteract that trend.)

Since agriculture depends heavily on oil and gas to fuel equipment and to produce fertilizers, we are almost certainly approaching 'peak wheat' - the point where we just can't afford (or even find) the energy to grow more food. It is no coincidence that there is a world food shortage happening just after we hit 'peak oil'. The price of oil is part of the cause but the frantic (and half-arsed) attempts by the US government and others to reduce oil imports by turning farmland all over the world from food production to the production of biofuels is the rest.

And there is little anybody can do about it. Your vote counts for nothing when every candidate on offer supports stupid, ill-conceived, industry-pandering plans that amount to 'business as usual'. Your personal efforts to reduce your oil consuption will come to nothing if you must commute to work because of the way cities are laid out (everything in the middle and all the affordable housing way, way out on the fringes) and you can't switch to public transport because there isn't any, and using a hybrid car is actually no more fuel efficient on average than using a deisel car. Your personal efforts to reduce energy consumption in your home might be worthwhile, if you don't mind spending a lot of money on it, but this only helps the oil crisis if your local power station is oil-fired.

In the end, it is down to our politicians to force industry to make the changes we desperately need. And they are either too stupid (such changes would require them actually understanding the science and economics involved) too greedy (most politicians are in the pay of big business one way or another and they all want those chairmanships and consultancies when their political career is over) or too selfish (they would rather hang on to power than do anything good or worthwhile that might make them unpopular) to do what must be done.

Perhaps what has really happened is that we have reached 'peak intelligence' - the point at which the society we have made has become too complicated and difficult for our limited little brains to manage. It certainly looks that way.

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