Resource Peaks

Peak Oil

Oil is a finite, non-renewable resource, so the volumes of oil being pumped out of the ground will therefore eventually reach a maximum and then inevitably decline. This has already happened in many individual countries, including the US—which once was the world’s foremost oil-producing nation. The global maximum may already have been reached in 2008; in any case, it will almost certainly arrive in the near future.

In a nutshell, peak oil is not about running out of oil, it is about running out of cheap oil. It is the historic moment when the world shifts from harvesting the “low-hanging fruit” of high-quality petroleum to having to drill for smaller deposits in inconvenient places, or to using low-quality substitutes like tar sands, that have horrible environmental impacts and are very expensive to produce.

Over the past few decades, the ready availability of cheap oil has fuelled the growth of industrial economies. All the key elements of our society - transportation, manufacturing, food production, medical systems, heating and air conditioning, construction – are highly dependent on oil.

According to the Hirsch Report, prepared for the US Government in 2005:

“The peaking of world oil production presents the US and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking”.

(Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation & Risk Management, Robert Hirsch, SAIC.)

Technology is often heralded as the panacea for fossil fuel depletion. However, a careful review of technological “solutions” indicates their immaturity; their disastrous environmental consequences; or their inability to supply energy on the scale we are accustomed to. We could wait for technology or government to solve the problem for us (a rather high risk option) or we could take the matter into our own hands.

Many schemes are being put in place in place to respond to the challenge of peak oil at the global and national levels. These responses can be read here. Transition Initiatives are part of this response, at the local, community level.

The Transition Movement believes that is up to us in our local communities to step into a leadership position on the issue of peak oil. It is easy to wonder just how much difference you can make in your own community when the problems are so huge and overwhelming. But remember: whenever you do this kind of work, you are inspiring other people. And then they take up the challenge and inspire others. In this way, your small contribution can ripple out into your community and the wider world, and become truly significant. Together we can make a difference.

Peak Everything Else

(this is an excerpt from Richard Heinberg’s article at

Fossil fuels are not the only important resource rapidly depleting. In this century we will see an end to growth and a decline in all the following areas:

  • Population
  • Grain production (total and per capita)
  • Uranium production
  • Climate stability
  • Fresh water availability per capita
  • Arable land in agricultural production
  • Wild fish harvests
  • Yearly extraction of some metals and minerals (including copper, platinum, silver, gold, and zinc) )

The general picture is one of mutually interacting instances of over-consumption and emerging scarcity. We are today living at the end of the period of greatest material abundance in human history.

It is no happenstance that so many peaks are occurring together. All are causally related by way of the historic reality that, for the past 200 years, cheap, abundant energy from fossil fuels has driven technological invention, increases in total and per-capita resource extraction and consumption (including food production), and population growth. We are enmeshed in a classic self-reinforcing feedback loop:

Fossil fuel extraction
--> more available energy
----> increased extraction of other resources, and production of food and other goods
------> population growth
--------> higher energy demand
----------> more fossil fuel extraction (and so on)

Fact: growth in population and consumption cannot continue unabated on a finite planet.

If the increased availability of cheap energy has historically enabled unprecedented growth in rates of the extraction of other resources, then the coincidence of peak oil with the peaking and decline of many other resources is entirely predictable. Moreover, as the availability of energy resources peaks, this will also affect various parameters of social welfare:

  • Per-capita consumption levels
  • Economic growth
  • Easy, cheap, quick mobility
  • Technological change and invention
  • Political stability

AAll of these are clearly related to the availability of energy and other critical resources. Once we accept that energy, fresh water, and food will become less freely available over next few decades, it is hard to escape the conclusion that, while the 20th century saw the greatest and most rapid expansion of the scale, scope, and complexity of human societies in history, the 21st will see contraction and simplification.

The only real question then is whether societies will contract and simplify intelligently or in an uncontrolled, chaotic fashion.

Addressing the economic, social, and political problems ensuing from the looming peaks requires an enormous collective effort. That effort must educate and motivate people at a massive scale, and the motivation must come from a positive vision of a future worth striving toward. Most of the peaks that are before us cannot be avoided, but there are many things we can do to navigate down and around them so as to enhance human sanity, security, and happiness. The Transition Movement provides a model and process for this, through unlocking the creative genius of our communities, and working together to collectively begin the great task of navigating a soft landing down from the peaks.