5 Jul 2009

Navigating the Peak Oil Challenge

If you're not familiar with it, peak oil refers to the the point where oil production falls below supply, leading to sky-rocketing oil prices, and since oil is the underpinning of modern society, a worldwide disaster -- basic institutions of society would break down, there will be food shortage, violence, endemic riots, etc. If peak oil hasn't happened yet, it's expected to, within a couple of years.

A more optimistic thesis is that we will adapt. After decades of accepting something as fact, we build society around that, and get so used to it that we don't see alternatives. Well, there are,  and lots of them. It's possible to live in a different way, which is not necessarily worse, unless you refuse to adapt.

The first casualty of peak oil is obviously suburbia. There will be smaller houses (why do you need a 4000 sq ft home, anyway?) and smaller lawns separating the houses. We will not waste space in the vertical dimension -- a lot of us will be living in apartments.

Next comes transport. Once again, people who cannot live without their SUV might as well stop reading now. If you refuse to adapt, you will go through hell.

We'll be living close to our place of work. The days of living 20 or 30 miles away just because you can will be over. Of course, both the husband and wife may not be able to live close to their place of work, but at least one should be able to.

We may do more things online, like working from home more often, downloading an e-book and reading it on an e-ink display rather than buying a book. A lot of learning may happen online in addition to at university.

Today's cars are very inefficient, using only 1% of the energy to transport the driver. So we will start using lighter, more fuel-efficient cars. For example, the Tata Nano weighs just 600 kg. Bajaj claims to be bringing out a car that gives a mileage of 30 km per liter. There are smaller, lighter proposals, like the personal transportation pod:


Not to mention the classic Segway. Or the motorbike. Yes, these are less safe, but people in countries like India use them for decades and do just fine. This is not even considering newer technology like carbon fiber composites which are light and strong. If fuel becomes exceedingly expensive, lot of people will reconsider their stand on safety, and realize that it's a tradeoff, and use a lighter vehicle, or a motorbike.

Finally there's the humble bicycle. A lot of us may save fuel and be healthy by biking. The world now has more obese people than under-nourished ones. That is sad. Peak oil may fix that.

When we go out of town, we may take a bus or train rather than a car or flight. Maybe ground-effect vehicles will be popular, since they are more fuel-efficient than planes.

If you live in an apartment, it may have fewer or no lifts, and you'll take the stairs instead. Guess what? You will be healthier. We are pampered to the point of ill-health.

Agriculture uses a large amount of oil, both for machinery and for things like fertilizers. And meat requires an order of magnitude more land, and hence energy input. So meat may become an expensive delicacy, which may also make us healthier. Even among vegetarian foods, some are more efficient at capturing solar energy. Maybe we will eat more of those. Or we will use human waste instead of fertilizers to improve crop yield, as is done in Shanghai.

Instead of using an air conditioner or heating, we can move to places where the weather is more temperate. I was reading an article about the abundant availability of wind power in central USA, where few people live. May more will, if it means much smaller energy bills and more money and resources to do other things in life.

There's so much scope for optimization in virtually every facet of life. Take something as simple as balcony handrails. Maybe we will use designs that minimize the amount of metal needed for the same amount of protection. Maybe handrails will be designed by solving an equation for this. Or, if there are two choices that are more or less the same aesthetically, you will prefer the one that's cheaper.

People who claim that peak oil will lead to a drastic fall in standard of living are blind to the innumerable opportunities staring us in the face, for doing things will less energy.

And if resource depletion leads to less stuff , that may be good. Maybe we will derive deeper happiness than is possible from accumulation of objects.

Finally, if the worst case happens, since a large fraction of the world's population is in just two countries -- India and China -- less energy and other resources may mean that these two countries go down the tubes, while the rest of the world is more or less okay. What are the politicians thinking? When there's limited resources, you can have a small population that gets of them per capita, and thus have a high standard of living, or a larger one at subsistence level. If some countries fail to learn this lesson, they will go down the drain while the rest of the world is in better shape.

Peak oil may result in a very different society but, if you adapt, it may not mean a lower quality of life.


  1. [...] here:  Navigating the Peak Oil Challenge Comments [...]

  2. Such an educational post, very informative and all the ideas are eye opener!