I am not a peak oiler, except in so far as my own rampant oil consumption contributes to leading us ever rapidly towards peak oil. Nevertheless, it does not take a genious to realize that our level of oil (fossil fuels, generally speaking) consumption is unsustainable. What is unclear to me is what energy future we face. Are the gloomers right? Will things come to a screeching halt? Will we see starvation, riots, and the like? Will we be faced with a situation in which we come face to face with the reality that we need to produce our own food and have no resources, cultural and/or physical with which to do so? Are the peak oil and climate change deniers right? Is there plenty of oil out there, enough to keep on keepin’ on without worrying too much about it? Is climate change not happening? Or, are the middlers right? We are faced with peak oil and climate change, but when push comes to shove altenative energy technologies will rapidly come on-line and be made widely available and technology and cultural changes will enable us to deal effectively with the worst consequences of climate change.
I am a cautious middler. I am not fool enough to ignore the cycle of the rise and fall of “great” civilizations throughout history. I just don’t see the challenges that we currently face as the catalyst for such a cataclysm. Regardless of how much I hate it, the remarkable thing about capitalism (and this is a thing for which Marx also regarded it with a degree of awe) is its ability to revolutionize itself. Barring literal impossibility, capitalism will come to our fossil fuel crisis rescue, as long as it responds to market signals in time. It is not widely known, for example, that there are currently fuel-cell powered vehicles on the road. The only thing keeping fuel cell technology from replacing the internal combustion engine is human will and the need to come up with a viable and efficient way to capture and distribute hydrogen. So too alternative energy production technologies. Once oil (and other fossil fuels) becomes unprofitable, or substantially less profitable, alternative technologies that prove to be profitable will quickly become available. Wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, etc. Companies will dive into them with reckless abandon. Some will thrive. Some will fail. In the end, a combination of alternative technologies, or even a single alternative technology, will be arrived at that keeps the infernal machine happily chugging along. Capitalism will not be toppled by a simple technological challenge. Only a concerted effort by people can bring capitalism to its knees.
Whether these changes will come about in time to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, or whether they will help us weather them, will of course remain to be seen. I do not think that can be predicted well enough to think too much about it.
What is “certain” (truthfully, I am about as certain about this as I am about tomorrow’s lottery numbers) to me is that our energy future is bright (sorry, couldn’t resist). Twenty-five years from now the only thing remarkable about my tractor will be the quiet of the electric motor and the fact that using it produces some of the water with which I water my livestock and gardens.
Oil will be seen for what it was, a dirty, slimy thing over which countless millions died brutal deaths, and by which hundreds of millions of acres and whole oceans of water were ruined, nearly beyond recovery. Oh, the brutality of capitalism will continue. Fuel cells need platinum, another mined, finite resource, after all. I said our energy future was bright, not just.