The discussion of Peak Oil mitigation often assumes that other technologies will offset the flow of energy from oil. Unfortunately, inexpensive energy has masked trends that may create a multiplier effect for peak oil problems.
Earth’s expanding population of 6.5 billion seems headed to 9 billion, and the existing population does not enjoy a universally pleasant life. The rise of China and India, and the resultant impact of 2.3 billion aspiring consumers, has caused commodity prices of every sort to increase with energy prices. The demand for resources of every sort is increasing, and shows every sign of continuing to do so.
So far, we’ve used energy cover the shortages. If food is scarce, we can build pipelines that carry water hundreds of miles uphill, dig boreholes half a mile deep, and move riverbeds. We can build desalinization plants. If metals are in short supply, we can gather and process scrap or dig for poorer ores. Should an area lack supplies, we can move supplies in from other areas. Within this great dance, the common factor is convenient, plentiful, inexpensive energy.
What happens when the peak hits?
We will no longer have the energy to keep the mechanism going. We cannot grow enough food – not just because of a lack of fertilizer and pesticide, but because we cannot transport the seed to the farm, cannot bring water to the fields, and cannot move the crops to consumers. A decline of energy availability means more than not going out for pizza – it means death for a growing number of people. In addition, as people fight for life, they will also fight for energy; first in the figurative sense, with money. Later, they will fight for life in a literal sense.
Some will argue that shared sacrifice could prevent a mass die-off. Large societies don’t embrace such behavior for long. Expectations for the world to unite in sacrifice are baseless and absurd.
We must recognize the broad implications of peak oil. We may well need to conduct triage, deciding who survives and who does not. It is significant that energy availability will decline each year. Therefore, each year, we must conduct a new round of triage.
Eventually, energy income will match energy expenditure. We must prepare ourselves, as individuals and as nations, for the dangerous transition period between that future time and today. We will battle for survival, with no reward for second place.