A few months ago, I gave a presentation at Alfred University about the global energy crisis. Before I began, I was curious to know if anyone in the crowd knew of the subject by its more common name: peak oil. A show of hands revealed that two people were familiar with the term, a surprising number considering how little is generally known about the subject. Although peak oil refers specifically to the depletion of petroleum, the phrase is often used more broadly to describe the peaking and depletion of all hydrocarbon fossil fuels. To "peak" means that an apex of production has occurred, from which point output levels begin an ultimately irreversible and terminal decline. This phenomenon of peaking, of obtaining less and less, is widely misunderstood and yet crucial, particularly in regard to fossil fuels.
As a measure of fossil fuel’s capacity, consider that before the fossil-fuel-laden Green Revolution in agriculture of the 1940s, approximately 40 percent of U.S. citizens were farmers, whereas today it is less than 2 percent. In 1940, a single farmer could feed only 15 people, whereas today one farmer can feed well over 100 people. Our personal corporeal capabilities have been hyper-exaggerated, like planes for moving our bodies, or telephones for moving our words. For reasons like these, fossil fuels allow us to function at a very high level of social and technological complexity. Out of this complexity, we have tapped into the highest levels of human potential and achieved some of our most wonderful and remarkable feats. We certainly would not have made it to the moon being pulled by a team of oxen.
However, there is a host of intertwined and potentially disastrous downsides to all of this complexity. When combusted, fossil fuels emit, among other gases, carbon dioxide. Even those who deny humans’ role in global warming will acknowledge that weather patterns are changing—the winters are warmer, we’ve been getting too much rain for this time of year, it never used to hail here, etc. Depending on who one listens to, the problem is anywhere from manageable to catastrophic, but all camps agree that reducing fossil fuel consumption is a very necessary step in the right direction.
There can be no overstating the vast environmental degradation brought on by fossil fuel use. The devastation wrought by humans in the last 200 years can be understood at its core by two interconnected amplifications of human potential: our ability to thrive in ever-increasing numbers, and our powers of extraction and force. Fossil fuels have artificially expanded the Earth’s carrying capacity, which is its ability to house human life. Before the Industrial Revolution, the world’s human population was approximately two billion, but has since grown to over six billion. This was in large part due to the industrialization of agriculture—increasing crop yields dramatically through mechanization, using fossil-fuel-based pesticides and fertilizers, and powering irrigation pumps—turning previously unarable land into usable soil.
A friend once commented to me that overpopulation was a non-issue since every single human being could stand shoulder to shoulder in the state of Pennsylvania. Clearly, this equation does not account for the vast amounts of land and infrastructure needed to produce food and goods for all of those people standing side by side. In pursuit of those needs, we have developed near godlike powers to reconfigure our physical environment, all the way from mountains to molecules. The consequence of this has been a systematic and relentless destruction of Earth’s biosphere, leaving behind toxic entrails, scorched earth, and filth-ridden bodies of water. The prospect of our immediate needs has grossly overshadowed the needs of future generations and seriously compromised the ability of the Earth to sustain life.
Perhaps the most disheartening downside of the great fossil fuel experiment is the attrition of human connectedness. Wherever machines and fuel could profitably replace a human laborer, they have. This phenomenon has convinced us that we don’t actually need each other, furthering the insidious belief that human life is expendable. Despite being surrounded by more humans than ever, fossil fuels have, ironically, decreased our opportunities for daily human interaction. When profitability and efficiency are measured by how few people one can employ, it follows that I should be able to place my sandwich order on a touch screen, or use the self-checkout at Wal-Mart.
The car, the long-romanticized emblem of the fossil fuel era, is very much at the center of the attrition of our communities. On its own, a car does not lend itself to human interaction, with its highly automated environment of climate control and surround sound speakers; it is meant to act as an insular individual unit. The dangers of a car’s power and speed also limit one from a great deal of human interaction; one could no more throw a party in a car than one could stop to chat with someone on a freeway. Unsurprisingly, building civic environments around these isolating and antisocial machines produces equally unhappy, relationship-poor physical spaces.
Whether we admonish or adore all of its systems and functions, our society is, at its base, fundamentally flawed because of its dependence on resources that will not last. Many independent energy experts, most notably the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO), believe we are at the ceiling of oil production right now. Furthermore, ASPO and the Energy Watch Group of Germany project a worldwide peaking of natural gas and coal around 2010 and 2020, respectively, at which point the supply of all major hydrocarbon fuels will be in a terminal decline.
Why does this matter? Don’t we have other forms of energy? Yes, but not like oil, coal, and natural gas. Hydrocarbon fossil fuels are a special resource—they can be transformed into a huge variety of fuels, products, and chemicals with a myriad of daily applications. Most importantly, fossil fuels are very energy-dense, and with a high energy density