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For years, many expert geologists have been warning us that we’re rapidly approaching a point where we can no longer wring enough oil out of the Earth to feed our ravenous economies. The theory is called Peak Oil, and it indicates that once we have exhumed 50% of the oil from our planet, the remaining 50% will be become more and more difficult to extract. At the same time, demand for oil will continue to increase along with global population, which will result in a situation where demand for oil— an economically critical resource— rapidly overtakes the supply. This scenario would make the oil crisis of the 1970s look like a cakewalk.

When most people think of the price of oil going through the roof, they think of the price they see on the gas pumps. They think they’ll have to keep the SUV in the garage more often, and maybe ride their bike once in a while when the weather is nice. But oil is used in every facet of modern life, such as farming; transporting food and goods; making plastics; and manufacturing everything from computer chips to cars. Consequently, a permanent shortfall in oil supply would make the price of everything increase significantly, assuming one could afford the gasoline to go buy anything.

This rapid increase in prices and decrease in transportation would theoretically cause a sharp decline in sales, and reduce the modern world economy to a twitching, demoralized ruin. Wars would be fought over the precious few resources remaining, and countless people would die, unable to afford food, and lacking the skills to produce it themselves.

But is this joyless theory based on facts, or misinformation? The chaps over at LifeAfterTheOilCrash.net make some very well-reasoned arguments for data indicating Peak Oil, along with many citations and sobering observations. But then they throw all of those well-constructed arguments into doubt by trying to make money from them, selling post-peak-oil preparedness guides. That doesn’t mean their points are invalid, but it does mean that they have ulterior motives in their effort to convince the public of the threat of peak oil.

From the website:

Oil will not just “run out” because all oil production follows a bell curve. This is true whether we’re talking about an individual field, a country, or on the planet as a whole.Oil is increasingly plentiful on the upslope of the bell curve, increasingly scarce and expensive on the down slope. The peak of the curve coincides with the point at which the endowment of oil has been 50 percent depleted. Once the peak is passed, oil production begins to go down while cost begins to go up.In practical and considerably oversimplified terms, this means that if 2000 was the year of global Peak Oil, worldwide oil production in the year 2020 will be the same as it was in 1980. However, the world’s population in 2020 will be both much larger (approximately twice) and much more industrialized (oil-dependent) than it was in 1980. Consequently, worldwide demand for oil will outpace worldwide production of oil by a significant margin. As a result, the price will skyrocket, oil-dependant [sic] economies will crumble, and resource wars will explode.

The issue is not one of “running out” so much as it is not having enough to keep our economy running. In this regard, the ramifications of Peak Oil for our civilization are similar to the ramifications of dehydration for the human body. The human body is 70 percent water. The body of a 200 pound man thus holds 140 pounds of water. Because water is so crucial to everything the human body does, the man doesn’t need to lose all 140 pounds of water weight before collapsing due to dehydration. A loss of as little as 10-15 pounds of water may be enough to kill him.

The Peak Oil scenario is certainly worth paying attention to, given the potential consequences. Part of the problem is that the continual bombardment of dire warnings such as ozone depletion, Y2K, global warming, SARS, avian flu, and Peak Oil can cause disaster fatigue, and dull a society’s sense of urgency to the point of uselessness. How do we separate the signal from the noise, so we can address the truly critical problems?