...more valuable than the whole of his kingdom.
"Why not seize the pleasure at once? How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation?"
There's been a lot of talk about Peak Oil lately. Both on livejournal and elsewhere. For the record, with a strong interest towards sustainability, I do believe that peak oil is coming. I remember in seventh grade my biochemistry teacher told us all, children unknowing of politics, that within our lifetime — not soon, but within our lifetimes — that we would have to choose whether the remaining reserves of petrochemicals should be spent for power or for plastic.
It has even been suggested, for those who don't believe in peak, that it is largely irrelevant whether or not the notion matches objective physical reality because so long as people believe it to be the case they will act in accordance with that belief. But this is not what I'm here to talk with you about today.
Today I'm here to talk about a different facet of peak oil than the political force behind the meme. A couple days ago I came across the Life After the Oil Crash page. For those who think that peak oil is only referring to one's ability to drive their car around, I highly encourage you to read that page to get a better idea of the true implications of decreasing supply of oil.
As LAtOC points out, the whole of our socioeconomic system, every level of the chain from seed in the ground to your plate, is dominated by a requirement for oil. Even alternate energy sources like solarcells and windfarming require an initial payment in oil to construct the necessary facilities. However, I don't think their assessment's entirely accurate, or well, it's accurate but it's not quite precise. Many sectors of our econosystem do indeed require petrochemicals and, as yet, would fail without easy access to them: fertilizer for agriculture, plastics for microwafers and screens for computers, etc. But many of the other levels — such as powering combines and tractors, transporting food to market, u.s.w —, while they use oil, do not require oil per se.
What they require, is power. Energy. It does not matter what form that energy comes in, though the system is set up in such a way as to require a cheap ubiquitous supply of energy. So part of the problem is that the system as constructed is frivolous with its energy use. That is not to say that this issue should be downplayed — restructuring the system would take an enormous involvement and would require us to alter many of the basic assumptions about our lives — but that frivolity hides a greater systemic failure.
If we have learned nothing from computer science (and it is certain that we've learned nothing ;) the one thing which should never be allowed in a load-bearing system is to permit a single point of failure. The robustness of a system is not determined by it's strongest element, nor even by the average strength of each element, but rather the strength of a system is defined entirely by the weakness of its frailest element. If there is a single element which all other elements depend upon and that single element goes down, the entire system has collapsed and the cost of the loss, let alone the cost of recovery may be astronomical.
The problem with out econosystem is not that it requires oil at every level but rather that we've allowed the costs at every level to be traced back to a single resource. Single resource fails, the entire world economic system collapses. What is necessary then is that, while we still have the cheap resources available, we use them to reconstruct our economic system so that it no longer has a single point of failure but rather that the energy costs at every level are abstracted out of the heart of the system so that any source of energy may be plugged in to be used at any level, and at the same time designing the energy-supplying subsystem so that it draws from multiple resources rather than just a single fickle source.