Peakists, Peak Oil, and the coming world

Excerpts from an online chat with futurist / sf author Bruce Sterling on the State of the World 2008.

Moderator: The real question is how adaptable or fragile civilian institutions are to a rapid rise in the price of oil/rapid decline in supply

Sterling: I agree, but my problem with Peakists is that they’re desperately eager to prove that civilian institutions are fragile, mostly because they’re weird cranks who’ve never found one they like.

Some of whom seem positively wed to and delighted by the possibility of the end of society as we know it. Like some End Timers and Marxists, they want the current order to collapse, seemingly unaware that it will fall on them too.

M: Will the financial system go into cardiac arrest?

S: It might, but the financial system isn’t the heart of a civilization. Communism went into cardiac arrest. The GDP of Russia dropped something like 30 percent, the whole shebang was privatized to mobsters… The Asian financial system went into cardiac arrest a couple of years ago.

Yet they all just kept on keeping on, didn’t they?

M: Would we be able to raise sufficient quantities of food and get them to market?

S: Cuba had a peak oil experience when the Soviets stopped shipping it. The average Cuban lost thirty pounds, or so I’m told. It was a calamity of sorts, they called it the “special period.” Cuba is still there.

Cuba by necessity then went to organic gardening and locally produced food on a mass scale. That’s how they fed themselves now and once the blockade is lifted, will genuinely have quite a lot they can teach the rest of us about low petroleum farming.

M: Presumably there is a rate of change in price/supply that society can accommodate fairly gracefully, and no doubt a point at which the rate of change becomes uncomfortable, and another point at which it becomes catastrophic.

S: There’s also a rate of change of zero when oil is no longer consumed, and that would be the victory condition. So, anxiously wondering whether a loss of oil is merely bad or catastrophic is a little short-sighted. Oil has to go away like whale-oil went away.

M: Which scenarios are most likely? Is there anything we can do to influence the likelihood of a better outcome — and if so, how much influence can we have?

S: Stop using oil. Coal is worse, mind you.

M:What about the possibility of exporting economies like Mexico simply consuming all the oil they produce as they grow?

S: Texas does that already.

Texas also has their own internal electricity production and grid. They don’t need power from anyone else. Smart.

M: Examining the end stages of the Third Reich doesn’t provide us with much guidance.

S: If you wanna talk catastrophe, it’s important to have a coherent understanding of genuine historical catastrophes, not make-believe pipe-dream catastrophes that serve to feed somebody’s cornball apocaphilia.

Or, if you wanna explore the mental space of ALL POSSIBLE catastrophes, you can try this:

in which peak oil would barely register as a “class zero.”

This is Sterling’s key point. The human race will survive global warming and peak oil. Indeed, governments and private industry are just now beginning a huge mobilization and shift to a low carbon, renewable energy economy. This process will continue and speed up. Will there be speed bumps along the way? Sure. Like the human race hasn’t faced lots of them before?


  1. The human race has indeed survived any number of catastrophes: the Plague, the fall of the Roman Empire and the ensuing hundreds of years of Dark Age, and so forth. I think the question is not will we survive, but rather what our lives will look like. “The average Cuban lost 30 pounds”? Think about that for a minute. That’s not business as usual. Recent societal collapses have resulted in warlordism more often than mafiaism, but both are lawless conditions that cannot be shrugged off as merely “acceptable” alternatives to a healthy financial system.

    A historian once described life in Dark Ages England (using the words of Thomas Hobbes) as “nasty, brutish and short.” That is an apt description of life for half the human race right now, living on $2 a day or less and often in conflict or lawless conditions

    A peak oil crash is not inevitable– but these survival scenarios Sterling cites if one occurs should do little to reassure us: we would survive, but life would not be pleasant.

  2. And so a respected futurist philosopher goes into denialism against a future he’s emotionally incapable of dealing with.

    The tropical climate and geography in Cuba favor low-petroleum agriculture far more than the continental US does (you want to try growing wheat in the Dakotas by hand in quantities sufficient to put bread on all our tables? Can I watch?) and the average Cuban STILL lost 30 pounds during the transition.

    Not to say that we can’t dig ourselves out of the combination of peak oil and global warming if we get serious about green / renewable replacement energy, but “don’t worry, be happy” just doesn’t cut it. The transition has to be done as far in advance as possible, and if we’re very, very lucky, it’ll start when George Bush is replaced.

    Google on:
    “North Korea” cannibalism starvation
    (including the quotes) to find out what happens when a country feeding its people via mechanized agriculture has to go cold turkey on oil and gets it wrong. Perhaps they had a Bruce Sterling type giving advice to Communist Party leadership?

  3. Cuba has successfully done organic, locally grown produce. They may have lots to teach the rest of us so we can do the same, minus. of course, the losing of 30 lbs. per person and the unelected leadership.

  4. Oil will never go below $85 again. In 2010 oil will be over $250 a barrel and gas will be $10 a gallon. Even though reserves are rising which should make oil prices drop the fact they don’t drop in price is because the political tensions are rising. With that you will either buy a hybrid which will still be expensive to operate or ride your bike or take the public transit. There are ways to reduce your fuel cost.

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