The Sky Is Falling: Peak Oil and Y2K

Excerpts from Jamais Cascio’s Peak Oil and the Curse of Cassandra below suggest that if the people who believe we are running out of oil can scare enough middle-of-the-road people to mobilize preventive solutions, perhaps the major disasters will be averted. This positive message defines a middle ground between hiding our heads in the sand and the oil-starved world of Mad Max.

I see Y2K as an example of people managing to fix a problem at the last minute, only to be roundly derided by a public that saw the lack of disaster as proof that there was never a danger to begin with. This should have been predictable; even before the Y2K issue arose, I saw, again and again, problems averted before they happened through careful planning and (sometimes expensive) preparation — and I saw, again and again, executives and accountants complaining that the computer techs were wasting time and money with nothing to show for it. Too few of them saw that the "nothing" was precisely what was intended — potential (small-scale) disasters were prevented before they happened.

Y2K is a lesson in what can happen when sufficiently-motivated people around the world work hard to avert disaster. The key here is "sufficiently-motivated" — without the Cassandra-like voices of Y2K doomsayers, fewer companies and government agencies would have given priority to the problem. Ironically, it was the very success of the Y2K disaster crowd that kept the disaster from happening.

When I compare Y2K with peak oil, then, my goal isn’t to underplay the potential seriousness of the problem or insult the peak oil specialists. Quite the opposite, in fact; the peak oil Cassandras — Kunstler (James Howard Kunstler) included — are perfectly positioned to trigger the kind of anxiety-induced focus needed to accelerate a move away from petroleum dependence. What I hope to suggest to them, therefore, is that they need to keep in mind that there’s another scenario besides global doom and blind optimism — a scenario in which their warnings work.

This isn’t a world where everything goes smoothly and everyone transitions to post-petroleum technologies without any issues; rather, it’s a world in which lots of people are convinced that it’s too late and are desperate to try anything, to do what’s needed, to avoid the "collapse of civilization" scenario that seems all too likely — and they succeed. And then they wonder what all the fuss was about.

So here is my advice to peak oilers: after all is said and done, you’re going to be ridiculed, just as the Y2K people were (and still are) ridiculed. Not because you were wrong, but because you were right enough to keep the disaster from happening. In 2025, when most people in the world are driving cheap, Chinese & Indian-made battery/fuel cell/bioflexfuel hypercars, relying on smart agriculture to reduce or eliminate petroleum fertilizers, and using bioplastics as raw fabber materials, those reminded of the "peak oil" scare are going to look around and say:

"Peak oil? What a bunch of nuts. Look — nobody actually drilled in the Arctic Wildlife Preserve or off the California Coast, ExxonMobil went out of business because nobody needed their liquified coal "oil," and people were more freaked out by oil at $60 a barrel than at $120 a barrel. Where were the wars, the starvation, the collapse of civilization and the ATMs spewing out money we were promised?"

When you hear them say that, feel free to smile and nod, and know that you were right.