“In a sense, peak-oil advocates were onto something. Should fossil fuels run out, then many—perhaps most—environmental problems would tend to self-correct. Almost inevitably, the end of oil, coal, and natural gas would deal a body blow to industrial society. If, as Hubbert and many others have suggested, the ultimate cause of our environmental dilemmas is uncontrolled economic growth, then the onset of peak oil would be an ecological godsend. Industrial fertilizers, a product of fossil fuels, would no longer create dead zones in lakes and oceans. Suburbs would stop expanding into wetlands. Factories would pollute fewer rivers in the race to sell gadgets for export. People wouldn’t be able to buy endangered fish if fuel costs explode. Climate change would be much less of a peril in a no-growth economy. So would air pollution. The skies are always blue in a dystopia.
But our situation is different and perhaps more difficult. The dilemma stems from relative abundance, not scarcity. As technology expands our reach, resources remain easy to take out of the earth. Even if today’s reserves of oil and gas become costly to extract, others lie waiting in the wings: extra-heavy oil in Venezuela, methane hydrates along the continental shelves. When a good is obtained cheaply and readily, humans take for granted that it is abundant; as gasoline prices drop, people burn it heedlessly. Sales of fuel-thrifty Priuses slip; sales of oil-hungry SUVs rise, along with their associated emissions. Like giddy drunks locked in a warehouse full of booze, humanity takes advantage of ease and profusion to throw a party. The next day is the hangover, with the floor covered in spilled booze and shattered glass. Nobody has ever solved a drinking problem by attributing the hangovers to a shortage of liquor.”
- Charles C. Mann, from Peak Oil Fantasy in Orion