We've all heard about peak oil -- the point at which petroleum production hits its all-time high and then declines forever after -- but over at Bloomberg News, they spent last week fretting about Peak Everything: a civilization running out of essentials from energy to chocolate. They've got a point. But it overlooks one small detail.
It's a fact that supply experts are talking about everything from peak tuna and peak coffee to peak water and peak iron. They're staring a world of finite resources in the face, consulting consumption stats, and finding that a lot of what we tend to take for granted is in increasingly short supply.
The big worry is the environmental elephant in the room: population growth. There are 7 billion+ souls on Spaceship Earth today and another 2.3 billion expected by 2050. If all those people start living a middle class life, well…Houston, we've got a peak problem.
Yet a crash landing is no foregone conclusion. For one thing, population growth is now stabilizing at replacement level in the developed world and the developing world is catching up. Population itself is peaking, and that's good -- according to the U.N., if 1995 fertility rates had held steady, there'd be 256 billion people looking for elbow room by 2150.
Human ingenuity, however, shows no signs of any peak at all. Peak oil, for example, was variously predicted for 1925, 1995, and 2015 to name just a few dates. But we invented new ways to find oil in new places and technologies to drill in previously impossible spots, and today the U.S.G.S. says there's 70 years' worth still untapped.
Whether it would be wise to burn that oil in an age of climate change is a question that leads to the biggest point of all -- if we're smart we won't have to. In fact, clever science often makes today's essential resources tomorrow's quaint anachronisms. In 16th-century England, they worried about running out of firewood until coal came along. In the 18th century America, it was whale oil supplies until kerosene was invented.
That's the ultimate message behind Reinventing Fire, a new book from Amory Lovins and our friends at the Rocky Mountain Institute: We don't need oil or coal and can be free of all the headaches they cause by 2050, the same year by which experts say we need to cut global carbon output by 80% to prevent catastrophic global warming.
This is no pipe dream. Lovins and company say we already have all the tricks we need to pursue this smarter path, and it will not only pay for itself but save us $5 trillion over what we'd spend addicted to fossil fuels. That's money for education, environmental repair, public works, medical research, and other better things.
We get there by redesigning everything from our homes and cars to our factories and power grids to do even more with much less energy -- a significant contrast from sustainability scenarios that say we'll have to make do doing less with less -- and by taking full advantage of the as yet unexploited potential of renewable energy sources.
This powerful portrait of a positive future is a book that everyone should read. It's a virtual road map to a sustainable future filled with viable solutions we can implement immediately. No magic bullet required. Governments will have to lead with the right policies, but all the nuts and bolts are out there waiting for assembly. We can do this right here right now, and build a world that's wealthier, cleaner, safer and saner, one that will have all the affordable energy we'll need from now until the end of time. It's ours if we want it.
And therein lies the crux of our tale. Bloomberg is right to worry about our supplies of crucial resources and to wonder when their peaks might hit and what sort of world will be left behind if they do. But in the end, this kind of handwriting on the wall fails to account for people wising up and getting smart. It's up to us to decide whether that oversight is prophetic or naive.
Reinventing Fire is published by Chelsea Green Publishing and is available here.