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Oil, Technology, and Western Civilization

August 30, 2011

I decided to “go big” with the title of this post, because it’s a big topic, and one which I hope to explore in a number of future posts. I’ve been reading Daniel Yergin’s book The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power and will review it fully when I’ve finished.  At over 800 pages that may be a few weeks down the road.

The aspect of oil I’d really like to explore is the likelihood that technology, either improved extraction methods for oil, or alternative technology,  will allow the US to chug along at the same level of energy consumption.  I’m doubtful that we’re going to dodge extreme shocks to our economic life brought on by decreasing availability of cheap energy, but  since  I’ve been critical of the auto-centric development of the US  built environment for quite some time, I’d rather really get my head around the issue than to indulge in wishful thinking based on my political and lifestyle predilections.

A lot has been written about “peak oil” (the point at which maximum global production of oil is reached, and availability of oil begins to drop).  James Howard Kunstler, the well known New Urbanist writer, has written extensive jeremiads on the issue, both non-fiction and fiction, including The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, World Made by Hand: A Novel, and The Witch of Hebron: A World Made by Hand Novel

Kunstler’s view is that the voraciously energy consuming  world as we know it is going to collapse anyhow, no matter how much technology is thrown at the problem.  Further, his view of mainstream energy analysts in general, and Yergin in particular, is, to put it charitably, low.

While I’m not yet ready to invest in horse-drawn buggy futures,  Kunstler is probably more right than wrong in his alarmism.  As he points out, the notable thing about many of the currently touted extraction methods (including processing shale oil and drilling in deep water) are that they are much more expensive than conventional drilling, so while it may be possible to expand the production of oil, it’s doubtful we will ever really return to the era of cheap and abundant oil.

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