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Peak Oil as Wishful Thinking

-Tom Athanasiou is the director of the Earth Island-sponsored project EcoEquity and a member of the Greenhouse Development Rights authors’ group. His interests focus on distributive justice within the global environmental emergency.

Is our civilization doomed?

I don’t think so, though I’ll admit that the case for doom is a pretty good one. But I wish to be clear on two points. First, it’s not too late to avoid disastrous climate change. We’re in trouble, no doubt about that, but we have the science, the technology, and the money to save ourselves. Second, we simply won’t do so if we give ourselves up to the habits of pessimism.

Is “peak oil” a good way to talk about all this? The short answer is No, and this despite the fact that it draws attention to planetary limits, and to the great resource crunch that’s now rising on the horizon. Still, peak oil – as a stance and as a reality – is essentially irrelevant, and even distracting, at least in the all-important climate context. We’re just not running out of fossil energy soon enough, not in time to prevent climate catastrophe. It’s not even going to be close.

Bottom line: If we even get close to burning the fossils we already have on our books, we’re toast. And yet we’re dead certain to discover a whole lot more. All this has been clear for years, and widely known since Bill McKibben put “unburnable carbon” onto the map last year in his great Rolling Stone piece. But the human “carbon budget” is now official, for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just cast it into some pretty solid numbers. As Thomas Stocker, the co-chair of the IPCC’s “Working Group 1,” put it: “There’s a finite amount of carbon that you can burn if you don’t want to go over 2°C [of warming]…. That implies if there is more than that [in fossil fuel reserves], that you leave some of that carbon in the ground.”

Most of that carbon, actually.

In this context, it’s a bit grim to watch as the peak-oilers strain to save their epicycles. Recent strategies include arguing that the fossil fuel industry’s flacks are overestimating the size of the oil reserves; that the size of the frack-gas resource in particular is being radically exaggerated; that, in any case, they never said that oil would run out, only that it would get crushingly expensive. All of which is questionable, and all of which avoids the real issue, which is that, as the grassroots climate-justice folks have been saying for years, we have to “leave the oil in the soil.”

The key question is how we’re going to do this. How are we going to negotiate a “great transition” to a new world in which – despite planetary limits – all people, everywhere, are able to find paths to dignified and sustainable ways of life? Because if this isn’t the promise of the great transition, then we really are doomed. And this is a very different promise from the one suggested by peak-oil images of universal energy scarcity and “powering down.”

The deeper issues here turn on the problems of economic justice in a small world. Does peak oil help on this front? It does not. Nor does it help us counter the fossil-fuel cartel, which has essentially melded with the most oligarchic and nihilistic wings of the plutocracy (e.g., the Koch brothers).

Fortunately, there are other approaches: A breakthrough in the global effort to negotiate a fair and ambitious climate treaty would help a great deal. So would real campaign finance reform in the United States. So would the political deepening of the “climate preparedness” and “community resilience” movements. And the fossil-fuel divestment movement, especially, seems to be a harbinger of great things to come.

None of these strategies, however, can work unless there is simultaneously a technology revolution of the first order. And here’s where the problem of ritual pessimism raises its large and ugly head. Because most peak-oilers, it turns out, not only believe that we’ve entered a time of immutable and altogether generalized scarcity, they also believe that technological optimism of any sort is a form of denial. See, for example, their take on what’s called “Energy Return on Energy Investment,” and their tales of a world in which we’re so short of affordable fossil energy that we can’t actually build out the infrastructure of a high-functioning global renewable economy. Point them to alternative views – like, say, those in the Rocky Mountain Institute’s excellent Reinventing Fire – and they reply that they’ve run the numbers, and that Amory Lovins is wrong.

And there’s another strange twist in their tale, one in which “debt” is suddenly as big a problem as net-energy deficits. Take a look, for example, at Richard Heinberg’s The End of Growth, wherein we learn that “the world economic system is a kind of Ponzi scheme that is only kept going by the confidence of its participants,” and that “the Keynesian remedy doesn’t cure the ailment but merely extends the suffering.” Or check out Climate After Growth, a new Post-Carbon Institute report that announces that “the debate between stimulus and austerity is a distraction” and that the coming reckoning is caused by not only “the end of the age of cheap oil,” and “the diminishing economic impacts of new technologies” but also by “the vast mountains of debt that we have incurred.”

small excerpt of a poll pageReader OpinionWhat do you think: Is peak oil smart talk, or does it miss the point?
Vote and be counted.

Please understand me. I don’t intend to be divisive. But I read Climate After Growth on the morning of October 1, even as the House Republicans – the shock troops of idiot neoliberalism – were taking to the air to wave their “debt crisis” banners against the Affordable Care Act. In this context, seeing the peak-oil worthies go on about “the vast mountains of debt that we have incurred” struck me as a bit rich – and more than a bit dangerous.

We do indeed need a new politics of limits, but not one that tries to paper over tough realities – for example inequality, now hardening into a new caste system – with an overstated and tone-deaf pessimism. Just having a politics of limits isn’t good enough. Our politics are going to be a politics of justice within limits, or they’re going to drive the green movement into irrelevance. Or into something even worse.

For an opposing view, read what Aaron G. Lehmer-Chang has to say.


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the very beginning of your piece demonstrates you haven’t done your homework on peak oil. It is emphatically not a doomsday analysis. John Michael Greer, one of their premier writers, has consistently and vigorously denounced apocalyptic scenarios. It also does not state we are about to run out of oil tomorrow-not anywhere in the literature. You have been reading too much monbiotism.You are the quintessential cherry picker of data

By rick on Sat, January 18, 2014 at 6:36 pm


I beg you to begin to think systemically!

You have hope about your planet’s future because you believe, “...we have the science, the technology, and the money to save ourselves.”

The piece you’re missing is the piece that every member of the cult of progress misses. Energy.

The science, technology and money you place your bets on are all fossil fueled! Everything!

To develop, engineer, manufacture, distribute and maintain this climate saving technology you’ll have to burn all the carbon you’re hoping to leave in the ground.

You can’t spend the money you want kept in the bank. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t shave all the hair off your face and still have a beard!

You can’t develop, manufacture and deploy climate saving technology without destroying the climate.

By The Universe on Fri, December 27, 2013 at 7:40 am

I think both “opposing” views fail analyze the root causes of our excessive CO2 emissions and how to address them. The Kaya equation, which is similar to the I=PAT equation (see, can be used to analyze the root causes of CO2 emissions. CO2 emissions are the product of “population” (number of people or consumers) times “material affluence” (GDP per person or per capita GDP) times “carbon intensity of the economy” (tons of CO2 emitted per GPD generated). 

We can reduce the carbon intensity by having more fuel efficient cars and power plants and by switching to renewable, carbon-neutral energy sources (see Amory Lovins et al.). However, as shown convincingly in recent book, “Technofix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment” (, it is unlikely that technological innovation alone will solve our environmental and climate problems. For example, renewable energy sources, if deployed on the large scale needed to replace fossil fuels, are likely to have significant negative environmental impacts.

We can stop the endless growth of material and carbon-intensive affluence by transitioning to a steady-state economy, as advocated by Herman Daly for decades. And we can reduce carbon emissions by reducing the number of consumers by having clear population policies, a subject that seems taboo.  However, according to an analysis by Paul Murtaugh and Michael Schlax (“Reproduction and the Carbon Legacies of Individuals”, Global Environmental Change, 19:14-20, 2009), avoiding the birth of a single child has a much a greater effect on reducing CO2 emissions than environmentally conscious consumer behavior. For example, it is estimated that an average citizen participating in personal conservation measures could reduce his/her lifetime carbon dioxide emissions by 486 tons, which is 20 times LESS than the CO2 emissions avoided by choosing to have one fewer child.

In summary, a three pronged approach is needed to address the root causes of climate change: Better technology (i.e., carbon neutral energy sources), a transition to a steady-state economy, and a reduction in population size.

By Dr. Lionel on Mon, December 02, 2013 at 8:41 pm

I think this article hints of cornucopian dreams and shows a lack of understanding of a debt driven economy.  The author criticizes energy return on energy invested without offering any substantive objection. 

The author is correct that many who write about peak oil “believe that technological optimism of any sort is a form of denial.”  In fact, I believe that those, like the author of this article, do a tremendous disservice to the creation of resilient communities by offering salvation through technological improvements that border on magical thinking when the specifics are examined.  The author also shows little understanding of the concept of peak oil by pointing out how much oil is left.  This is reminiscent of the criticism poured over Hubbard in the 1970s for his prediction that the U.S. would reach peak production in 1970.  Critics pointed out that the U.S. never had more oil and was awash in the stuff.

In fact, everything is turning out pretty much as those who have studied peak oil have predicted.  The price of oil has skyrocketed in the last decade.  The fracking boom has not returned the world to $30/barrel oil.  More energy has to be used to extract oil, leaving less for the gizmos that Mr. Athanasiou believes can continue economic prosperity.

Gobs of oil will be left in the ground because it will be too expensive to get out.  As economies contract, debt burdens will become heavier, more bankruptcies will occur, at the individual and organizational level.

What is most likely to save the planet is not techno-wizardry, is not defeating the forces that have co-opted the democratic governments, is not an increase in renewal energy.  What has the best chance of halting climate change is the plummet in consumption that will coincide with economic contraction.

Peak oil academics are deeply concerned about the transition to a smaller, local society, to creating resiliency.  On the other side of this mess there can be a much better world—one in which humans no longer seek to dominate nature but live within, where humans have meaningful lives built around relationships with those around them.  They will understand that their very survival depends on those relationships.

The suffering is going to be immense, and we need to look at how to limit the suffering as much as possible.  The fact is, our species now exceeds the carrying capacity of the earth and is living on borrowed time drawing down the renewable capital of the world.

By James Wagner on Mon, December 02, 2013 at 7:31 pm

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