(Warning: Long Post Ahead!)
James Howard Kunstler has a piece in this month's Rolling Stone on the impending Peak Oil. He also has an article in Backhome Magazine, which Mahigan at True North has quoted extensively from and added on to here (or you can download the PDF here.) It's good to see Peak Oil continue percolating in to the public consciousness (National Geographc did an article last summer, and I've talked about the all-powerful West Wing-Alias axis before. However, I have to take issue with some of the doom and gloom stuff that Kunstler and Mahigan engage in.
Preface: Regulars will know that I don't deny the seriousness of Hubbert's Peak for a moment. So this should not be read as me trying to "shoot down" Mahigan in any way. That said, I have a general disagreement with the idea that Kunstler advocates - we're facing some "end time" of this part of history. The disagreement can be summed up in three rather long points.
First, we still don't have a good idea when the Peak will arrive. I'm of the view that we're pretty close, but I'm not a geologist so my opinion is pretty meaningless. We should remember that, aside from a small group of believers, there is no consensus on Peak Oil - men like Simmons, Deffeyes, Laherriere are all smart men (and I'm sure they're excellent geologists) but they are a small group of the "near Peak" school. Others (like the US Department of Energy) believe the Peak may come as late as the 2020s. I've personally written before about why we shouldn't necessarily trust the DOE's estimates, but we can't really ignore them either. I know this sounds suspiciously Bush-like - questioning the science and all - but I also believe (and I'd like to stress that word, believe) that we are near or at the peak, and we should be doing everything we can to get ourselves off oil. I, Kunstler, and (I believe) Mahigan are still in the minority.
The second problem with the "we're doomed!" scenarios is that they overestimate the severity of the decline that follows the peak. While the US's oil production began declining after 1970, it hit another, albeit smaller peak in 1986 after the boom in secondary exploration (in the wake of the Iranian oil shock.) So the peak is not followed by an immediate decline. Rather, we get peak production, a long period of more or less flat production, then a decline (which can be steep or shallow, depending.) According to this BP presentation, US oil production is declining at about 2-3% per annum - this after being in decline for 30 years. Given that, in the period of 1973-75, Japan eliminated almost half of it's oil use, there's no reason to think that Peak Oil will draw down "our" oil supplies faster than we in the west can save them.
Third - and this is the most important point - authors like Kunstler, for whatever reason, paint the situation as hopeless. (I should say that Mahigan does not engage in this kind of thinking.) But even leaving aside possible yet-to-be-invented technical solutions, there are a number of extant possibilties for rapid oil and natural gas savings. Free mass transit (something now being advocated by the IEA) in combination with, say, a steep tax on downtown parking spaces, could quickly shift people from cars to buses and trains. As the price of diesel rises, moving our shipping from trucks to trains could garner an eightfold increase in fuel efficiency (and probably lower labor costs.) Kunstler says that there's no possibiltiy of renewables meeting our electrical demand, and here I think he's just wrong - and this is an odd thing for an environmentalist to say, isn't it? Oil makes up almost none of our electrical demand. Yes, natural gas makes up a lot of our electrical generation - but only in peak times. Peak electrical demand is something which solar is perfectly suited to replace, and will be rapidly coming down in price in the next few years. The vast majority of our baseload power is delivered by hydro, coal, or nuclear. None of these sources is expected to Peak before the next century (though hydro could be harmed by warmer weather due to climate change.) An important point to remember is that the countries which use the most oil are by definition the wealthiest, and therefore the one best prepared to make a transition to a post-oil economy.
Some points of agreement with Kunstler: Food production will be an immense challenge for the future, for a number of reasons. Overall global food production is already declining due to a number of factors (suburban sprawl in the west, the brith of large modern cities in China, "soil shock" from industrial production, etc) and the population is still growing. That said, there are solutions to these problems as well - organic farming is now regularly yielding 80-90% of conventional methods. Whether this can be applied generally I don't know, but I wouldn't bet against it. Kunstler also says that the automobile will be a thing of the past, and I'd agree, if all we're doing is talking about the gasoline-fired internal combustion engine variety. However, as I've written before, there are a number of contenders to replace that dinosaur (not just the as-yet mythical fuel cell car.) Finally, international shipping probably will decline post-Peak, but will likely be replaced by large companies rebuilding their national supply chains (something that was the norm before the 1980s, we should remember.)
None of the above should be construed to mean that the Peak isn't coming, or that we shouldn't prepare. However, I would argue that, for the near term, oil shortages will be driven by high demand and not shrinking supply. India and China continue to subsidize their oil consumption (by refusing to allow state oil companies to pass their price hikes on to customers,) meaning we are likely to see high demand for the forseeable future. But we aren't facing the end of capitalism as we know it (unfortunately) nor are we facing the end of the world. Kunstler dramatically calls it the Long Emergency. I'd call it the Long Test. Frankly, if we it fail then we deserve what we get.