“Nobody has ever solved a drinking problem by attributing the hangovers to a shortage of liquor.”
The above is a quote from this article by Charles C. Mann, Peak Oil Fantasy, published in Orion Magazine and which is the inspiration for this post.
This article is a masterpiece of writing on the history of humanity’s discovery and addiction to the use and abuse of fossil fuels. If you feel that you don’t understand any of that, or even if you do think that you understand everything about oil, peak oil, and oil scarcity, then you will profit greatly from taking the time to read this article thoughtfully. Heck, it is interesting and engaging enough for its intrinsic self to make such an undertaking worthwhile, but its underlying message, which I have no doubt many people will incorrectly misinterpret and take offense to for a variety of reasons, requires an unbiased, free-thinking, clear-headed appraisal to be able to extract the true meaning from it.
Illustration by Nicolas Lampert
Here, briefly, for what it is worth, is my take on it.
The author uses the statement, quoted at the beginning of this post (read it again), as a metaphoric summary of the generally perceived problems surrounding fossil fuel use by our civilisation. He preceded that statement with this description:
“Like giddy drunks locked in a warehouse full of booze, humanity takes advantage of ease and profusion to throw a party. The next day is the hangover, with the floor covered in spilled booze and shattered glass.”
Let’s examine the various parts of this metaphor:
The Drunken party – what we have been doing since we discovered coal, oil & gas.
The Hangover – the results of partying too hard.
The Problem – now, that’s the hard part. Is it the booze or a shortage of booze? Is it the partying itself? Is it the resulting mayhem of ‘spilled booze and shattered glass’ or worse? Or is it the excessive, addicted behaviour of the partyers, incapable of knowing when enough is enough?
The author takes the position that it is a drinking problem, and I agree. But that is not primarily anything to do with the booze. Nor the supply of booze. Nor even the possible shortage of booze, other than that the partyers will, by consuming all nearby supplies of booze, need to go further and further away to obtain sufficient supplies to keep the party going. That makes supply or shortage of booze a secondary problem, at least for a while until the Law of Diminishing Returns kicks in.
No, the primary problem, and I think the author of this piece is being quite astute to have recognised this, is the behavioural attitude of the partyers in being unable to modulate their use of booze (dare I say it) sustainably.
Translating this to reality then, it is not that coal, oil and gas will eventually run out that is humanity’s problem (it never will run out, only get more and more difficult to obtain in sufficient amounts or quantities to keep our societal party going), but in fact our real problem is our inability, incapability even, or downright stupidity to recognise that we are a) giving ourselves an enormous future headache, b) causing mayhem and destruction to our one and only ‘party room’, and c) that there is an urgent need to call a halt to, or a dramatic toning down of, the partying.
So, this article is awarded my Solid Gold Seal of Approval. And if by some mistaken belief I have not interpreted the author’s intention correctly, then my view, in my world at least, prevails.