Remember the great whale-oil age? Of course not. It started in the eighteenth century and was over by the end of the nineteenth century. But for a time, whale oil was among the world’s primary lubricants and illuminants. Society’s need for light and lubrication has grown exponentially, but thankfully for the whales a new source of oil appeared just as whale stocks were crashing toward extinction: petroleum. A few hundred years from now, our age will seem just as primitive and remote, because in less time than it took our ancestors to boil down almost all the whales, we will have sucked all the oil out of this planet. Whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist with respect to existing petroleum reserves makes only the difference of 40 years or so between now and a serious supply crash. Exponential growth in demand and finite supply will ultimately bring this terrific free lunch we’re enjoying to a close before this century is out. As Kenneth Deffeyes says (see below) “Fossil fuels are a one-time gift that lifted us up from subsistence agriculture and eventually should lead us to a future based on renewable resources.”
Here is a good National Geographic article on the topic with some fun facts and pretty pictures: The End of Cheap Oil.
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Here’s a book (Hubbert’s Peak) written by oilman and geologist Kenneth Deffeyes that does a good job explaining why even at this very moment we are at the peak of the peak of worldwide oil production. Demand will rise, but supply must inexorably fall. Take-home lesson: if you REALLY want that Hummer, buy it now.