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The following paper was written back in 2007. Since that time the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) struck and oil prices have not risen as projected. But we are now hearing about peak oil again and there have been two programmes on radio and TV in the last fortnight floating the prospect of peak oil again.
At the end of 2006 the documentary film A Crude Awakening warned that peak oil, ‘the point in time when the maximum rate of petroleum production is reached, after which the rate of production enters its terminal decline’, is at hand.
Perhaps the most important argument in A Crude Awakening is that energy, including oil, replaces human labour and does so very efficiently. It is the harnessing of energy that has allowed human civilisation to free people from slavery and serfdom and it is the harnessing of energy that has fuelled technological progress.
It has also fuelled an increase in human population from less than a billion in 1800 to over six and a half billion today.
The most obvious defect in the documentary is that it represents oil as the only source of energy available to mankind. This is not the case. Until quite recently coal was the dominant energy source. Coal fuelled the industrial revolution. In some parts of the world hydroelectric power was also an important driver of industrialisation before oil and, where available, is still the most environmentally friendly and least expensive energy source we have.
It is true that petroleum (oil and gas) has recently taken over the leading position as principle energy source; and contributor to carbon dioxide production. Petroleum is more convenient and has higher energy density than most other options (see below) and produces less carbon dioxide per unit of energy than coal. It dominated transport and chemical production for the last two thirds of the 20th century and will continue to do so for at least the first half of the 21st.
The following diagram shows the sources of energy (for all purposes) in Australia in 2007/8.
It was oil that made the Second World War possible, oil that provided a car to every family soon after and oil that opened the world to inexpensive air travel.
A Crude Awakening makes the point that we have already half used this amazing resource, in a shockingly spendthrift way, over an extraordinarily short period of time.
A personal view
This chapter can now be read at: 'Getting About'
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