Friday, August 08, 2003

Crying Wolf

A short digression from annotation. I recently finished Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage by my old geology professor (and character in John McPhee's excellent Basin and Range, now available as part of The Annals of the Former World) Kenneth Deffeyes. His premise, quite briefly, is that within the next few years, the world will reach a peak of oil production, and it will decline from then out. Not that we'll run out of oil; we have decades left of reserves, even at extrapolated SUV-oil-guzzling rates, but for inescapable reasons of geology, we will not be able to extract the oil as quickly as we did in the past. Basically, we've already hit all the good oil fields, and the rest is all inaccessible or in inefficient forms such as oil shale. (A similar methodology, applied in 1958, predicted a US oil peak in the early 1970s. Of course, it was met with great skepticism. US oil production peaked in 1970 and has declined every year since.)

The first reaction most people have to hearing that someone's predicted an oil shortage is "They've always predicted that, and it never comes true." Well, leaving aside that it's usually political activists or economists saying it, but now it's actual geologists, there's an important point I think people are missing.

In the fable "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," the obvious moral is that you shouldn't cry wolf because then people won't believe you. But there's a moral for the villagers, too, although not explicitly stated: eventually, the wolf really is there.