At The Oil Drum, a detailed article by 'Gail the Actuary' speculates on how declining production of oil combined with rising demand will cause an economic catastrophe, leading to the global economy contracting so severely, that by 2040 it is much smaller than it is today. The author actually believes that in 2040, most people will no longer be able to afford cars, electricity will be unreliable, and goods and services will be fewer and rarer than today.
Another article submitted by an different contributor on The Oil Drum arrives at the same pessimistic conclusion, stating that 'economic growth will end one way or another'. Most of the commenters on both articles are in a groupthink state of agreement that can best be described as a Maoist-Malthusian cult.
I would normally not bother to rebut something like this, except that this particular essay is so stunningly wrong and annoyingly pessimistic, despite the seemingly meticulous research the author has conducted, that I am compelled to disect how insulated groupthink can spiral into a zone where even the most extreme conclusions are accepted.
Note that I happen to be someone who actually does believe in Peak Oil theory, but that such a condition generates long-term positives that outweigh short-term negatives.
The assumptions that the 'Peak Oil' doomsday scenario makes are :
1) That rising oil prices do not cause a long-term downward adjustment in demand. Oil demand may be inelastic in the short-term, but in the long term, people will buy more efficient cars, carpool, ride bicycles, reduce discretionary trips, conduct more commerce online, etc. To assume otherwise is to ignore the most basic law of economics. This is before even accounting for the indirect benefits of declining oil demand such as a drop in traffic fatalities (which cost $2 million apiece to the economy), less wear and tear on roads and tires, less pollution, less real estate consumed by gas stations, less competition for parking spaces, etc.
2) That rising grain prices will not move consumption away from increasingly expensive meat towards affordable grains, fruits, and vegetables, thereby reducing grain and water demand. This, too, is economic illiteracy. If the price of beef triples while the price of rice and potatoes does not, consumption patterns shift.
3) That there will be very little technological innovation in alternative energy, automobile efficiency, batteries, or information technology from this point on. In fact, there is innovation in all of those areas, so we have multiple layers of protection against the doomsday scenario, as detailed by these articles :
4) That most economic growth is not in knowledge-based industries, which consume far less energy per dollar of output. The US economy today produces twice the financial output per unit of oil consumption as it did in 1975, with information technology rising as a portion of total economic output.
5) That a major economic downturn, featuring skyrocketing food prices for people in poorer countries, will somehow not translate to a lower birth rate that inhibits population growth and hence curbs demand, and that population projections will somehow not change.
6) That there will be no humans living beyond the Earth (whether in orbit or on the Moon) by 2040. The reason this point is relevant is because a society cannot advance in space travel without simultaneous advances in energy technology. I say that advances in photovoltaic efficiency make Lunar colonies closer to viability by that time.
7) That we are going to have over 30 years of negative growth in World GDP, despite not having had a single year of negative growth since 1973, and despite the trendline of growth solidly registering at 4.5% a year even today. I happen to think that by 2040, the world economy will be 4 times larger than it is today. Even the Great Depression was only 5 years of negative growth, followed by a recovery that elevated prosperity to levels higher than they were in 1929, at a time when World GDP was only at a trendline of 2% annual growth, or less than half the level of today. Yet Gail the Actuary thinks car ownership will no longer be affordable to most people by 2040.
Peak oil may be on the horizon, but the US economy has already adapted to oil at sustained prices of $70 or $80/barrel (which is the biggest story that no one is noticing yet), and will soon adapt to $100/barrel. I want oil to hit a sustained $120/barrel by 2010 to start a virtuous cycle of technological and geopolitical chain reactions that make the world a better place in the long term. If oil hits $200/barrel, that will cause a deep recession that could last several years, but after that point, we will have adapted out of the oil burden almost entirely, and World GDP growth will resume at 5% a year.
Could I be wrong and they be right? Well, let us first see if oil rises substantially above $120/barrel, and if that year has negative World GDP.
Does anyone feel like defending the doomsday prediction from The Oil Drum?