Saturday, April 17, 2010

Oil is the Least of Our Worries

I spent last week at the annual Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, Colorado, as I’ve done early in the month of April every year for the last twenty years. This conference brings together over 100 leading intellectuals from the fields of business, politics, science, entertainment (mostly Hollywood), education, medicine, religion, technology, and modern culture, and one thing I’ve always appreciated about the CWA is that the conference discussions tend to explore global problems with refreshing candor, seldom trivializing bad news with Pollyanna, “glass half full” happy talk. Not that I’m a Danny Downer, but I’m realistic enough to know that any glass— whether half-full or half-empty— will still eventually need to be washed and put away.

And so I eagerly attended a panel discussion titled, “Peak Oil,” where I fully expected to hear the latest data on petroleum production and extraction and depletion— all of which was predicted half a century ago on a bell shaped graph called the “Hubbert peak curve.” I knew the drill. I just didn’t know if the latest predictions called for the oil to run dry in 30, or 40, or 50 years. Not that it will make any difference to me since I’ll be dead by then.

To my surprise, the discussion veered off into the “Hubbert peak curve” as it applies to finite, non-renewable commodities other than petroleum. It turns out that oil is probably the least of our worries. Before the world runs out of oil, it will run out of platinum and copper (not to mention edible fish and fresh potable water), and all of the rare earth minerals that make our micro-electronic gadgets possible. The calculation has often been cited that it would take six earth-sized planets to supply the raw material if every nation in the world had the American standard of living. It’s no wonder that current Exxon Mobil television commercials now talk about job creation rather than “sustainable” fossil fuel.

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