Whether you accept the evidence that the consumption of oil is currently peaking or not, it is undeniable that a) the world’s fossil fuel resources are finite and we’ve already consumed a large fraction of it and b) we won’t keep consuming evermore per day until it’s all gone. So, inevitably, the shape of human fossil fuel use is going to look like this.
From a long-term perspective the precise point of the peak doesn’t matter, the pattern will play out. (and, isn’t it about time we start to consider human civilisation a long-term project – rather than apply large discount rates to the future actions of our present actions, such that anything more than a decade or two in the future doesn’t matter).
So, why do not only the peak oil deniers but the whole political-economic elite want to carry on as if fossil-fueled growth is going to be perpetual? An interesting post on the Oil Drum (from which I swiped the above graph) says it comes down to our evolved hardwiring for extrapolation:
We humans owe much of our success to our ability to recognize patterns and extrapolate trends to anticipate a future state. My cats, on the other hand, will watch a tossed toy mouse travel toward them across the room—getting ever-bigger—all the way until it smacks them between the eyes (no, they’re not strapped down—I’m not that sort of scientist). But far beyond an ability to avoid projectiles, our ancestors were able to perceive and react to changes in local food and water supplies, herd movements, seasonal cues, etc. Yet this fine tool can be over-used, and I see a lot of what I call ruthless extrapolation. In almost every case, extrapolation works until it doesn’t. When the fundamental rules of the game change, watch out!
We found a one-time resource in the ground—like an inheritance—and are doing everything within our means to promote the fastest practical use of this finite deposit. By this, I mean that we have engineered a world that rewards economic growth—thus far carrying a nearly one-to-one physical/energy aspect, requiring ever more energy to keep the growth engine running. The finite nature of the underlying energy resource is not seriously under question. The overall impression of the figure above therefore must be approximately correct.
When we realize that this incredible surge—of planes, trains, and automobiles; of radio, television, and the internet; of industrialization, industrialized agriculture, and swelling population; of supersonic, nuclear, and space capabilities—in the past century or so are all reflections of the scale of surplus energy derived from fossil fuels, we come to understand that we need to stare the plot above directly in the face and recognize the peril of extrapolation.
We sit near the peak of the fossil fuel saga (the star on the plot). Our tendency is to note the incredible slope of the past century and expect more of the same phenomenal performance for the foreseeable future. It’s not a bad model.
But this instinctive presumption that what is happening will continue to happen and current growth will be followed by future growth is very bad at telling us that peaks and downsides are coming, and creates a bias to see a peak as a temporary halt to continued growth.
The big problem with that, of course, is it hinders our ability to plan and act on the need for change.
So, maybe we’re being too hard in criticising Treasury for not being able to forecast its way out of a paper bag. They’re only humans following their instincts.