The Stone Age Didn't End Because We Ran Out of Stones.

“The Stone Age didn't end because humanity ran out of stones.” — Ronald Bailey

We used to be afraid of something called Peak Oil. Peak Oil was the idea that oil production had reached its zenith, or would soon, and was poised to plunge; we inevitably faced a drought of the black gunk. In 2007, CNN reported:

The world has reached the point of maximum oil output and production levels will halve by 2030 — a situation that will eventually lead to war and disaster, a report claims.

The physicist Niels Bohr said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future.” Some time has passed and we can see how this particular prediction has panned out.

In 2006 the world produced about 72 million barrels of oil a day. Last year (despite an ongoing financial slump) the world produced about 73 million barrels of oil a day. If this is a decline, we're doing it wrong.

We aren't scraping the bottom of the barrel. Huge new reserves have been discovered. 6 trillion barrels were found in the Green River Formation on the Colorado / Wyoming border. Another 233 billion barrels were found under some place called Coober Pedy, Australia. To put that perspective, little Coober Pedy has about as much oil as Saudi Arabia. Colorado has 30 times as much.

It wasn't just oil — new sources of all sorts of petroleum have been found. Fracking, an environmentally controversial but undeniably effective way of sucking natural gas up from deep underground, pushed the price of that gas down so low that oil imports were noticeably affected as big power-generating companies switched to cheaper gas. Just last month, a Japanese company started mining methane clathrate from the sea-bed. Methane clathrate, nicknamed fire-ice, is by far the world's most abundant petroleum source. There's more fire-ice on Earth than there is oil, gas, and coal put together and up until now, it's been completely untapped.

Peak Oil has been pushed off for the foreseeable future.

Various people have been claiming we were going to run out at various times since about 1870. Superficially, the fear makes sense. There has to be a finite amount of oil, so there has to be a limit. Even if the Earth were nothing but one titanic droplet of oil, it would still be theoretically possible to run out. 

Still, the fear of Peak Oil is basically childish, and I'll tell you why in a bit.

Some of the same people who worry about Peak Oil also worry about Peak Water. The Earth almost is one big droplet of water. If this planet were perfectly smooth, its surface would be covered by an ocean two miles deep. There are 60 million gallons of the wet stuff for every person alive.

And we don't use up water. We don't burn it, we don't freeze it. Irrigate plants with it and it runs back to the ocean; boil it and it joins the clouds and rains back down on your head. Even if you drink it, you just pee it out again a few hours later.

Of course, the Peak Water people aren't worried about water generally, only about clean water, which is a little less silly, but not much. The technology for cleaning water is just that, technology, and technology famously marches on. Last month, Lockheed-Martin announced they had developed a water filter that was 100 times more effective than the current best filter at removing salt from water, making sea-water drinkable. This new filter is essentially manufactured, and I'm not kidding, from pencil-lead and Scotch tape.

It's possible that the Lockheed-Martin filter won't be workable in practice — too difficult to mass-produce, too fragile, something — but it demonstrates that the problem is solvable. Water can always be purified; the only question is how much will it cost, and the answer seems to be: not much.

Peak Water is nonsense, Peak Oil is nonsense, Peak Fish (another thing people actually go on about) is nonsense. I'm sure someone somewhere is worried about Peak Trees, Peak Rare Earth Metals, Peak Helium, and hell, probably Peak Glass and Peak Asphalt. All utterly impossible.

Why am I so sure? All these things are resources, and resources are by definition finite. Why can't we run out?

Economics.

When you burn gasoline in your car, you aren't doing it out of hostility to gasoline. You aren't trying to eliminate gasoline from the Earth. You are burning gasoline because it's cheaper and more convenient than burning coal or wood or Gutenberg Bibles for fuel. If it were economically more efficient to use some other fuel — once all your costs, including the cost of the vehicle, the convenience, and so on are accounted for — you'd switch.

Whenever we start running out of oil, Adam Smith's famously dextrous Invisible Hand starts working. The price goes up, oil-companies and wild-catters start digging for more; companies pay scientists to find ways to get oil out of more places, to get more oil out of each place, to get more gasoline out of oil, to get more miles out of gasoline; other companies pay scientists to find alternatives to the pricier oil. On the other side, consumers start to conserve oil, to walk instead of drive, to buy hybrids.

Every resource works the same way. As clean water becomes scarcer, it becomes more expensive, and technologies like Lockheed-Martin's filter or like crop varieties that need less irrigation become worth developing and using. Ditto with fish: when wild fish become hard to catch, people find ways to raise them in tanks — or eat tofu instead.

Every imaginable resource, when it becomes rarer, it becomes more expensive and inevitably, people find way to produce more and to consume less.

Ronald Bailey, Reason Magazine's science editor, wrote “The Stone Age didn't end because humanity ran out of stones.” The Stone Age ended because humanity found better — more economically efficient — technologies. The Oil Age will end, but not because we run out of oil, because because we will transcend it.

Guaranteed.

Guest Author Michael Lorton is a San Francisco-based programmer and writer. He writes the daily blog Blue Apsara about culture, economics, travel, law, and the occasional giant, carnivorous lizard.

Oil Pump image via Shutterstock

blog comments powered by Disqus

The Featured Five