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Where the gloomsters go wrong

By Robert Downes - October 11th, 2010
We don’t lack for information: several dozen peak oil books are
currently on the market, and there have been more than 500 studies,
which tend to predict that global oil production will start heading
downhill with the speed of an Olympic bobsled race by 2020, especially
with the booming economies of China and India piling on the demand.
The claim is that within a generation we’ll all be freezing in the
dark, unable to travel anywhere except by sailboat or zeppelin, and --
you know -- the starvation thing, once the Frito-Lay and Sara Lee
trucks stop rolling down the highway for lack of gasoline.
Considering that we burn approximately 1,000 barrels of oil per second
on earth, as one author claims, you’d think we’d be taking the peak
oil crunch a little more seriously. But Americans have responded with
their usual aplomb -- paying not a lick of attention.
I personally am not worried about the threat of peak oil, because you
see, I’ve been to the future. In fact, I’m living there now.
I’m talking about the future we envisioned back in the ‘60s. It turns
out that virtually everything the science writers and “futurologists”
predicted back then turned out to be dead wrong. In fact, “the
future” became the exact opposite of what we expected.
Our vision of the future back in 1962 wasn‘t far off from “The
Jetson’s” which came out the same year. People would be uniformly
slim and dressed in the unisex unitards favored by “Star Trek.”
Scientists predicted (and still do) that we highly-educated Americans
would take pills to make us even more intelligent. There would most
likely be flying cars and we’d all live in high-rise apartments with
our robot pets. A colony on the moon was certain to happen by 2000.
In our high school social studies class, we shuddered to think of
what life would be like in “1984,” with Big Brother watching our
every move, as envisioned in the novel by George Orwell.
Of course, this was all dependent upon whether we blew ourselves to
bits in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
Cut to the future and we find that 65% of Americans are overweight,
with more than 30% being obese. Unitards? The gangsta’ thug look is
more in vogue for the 30% of high school kids who drop out each year
(apparently, they forgot to take their intelligence pills). As for
the rest of us, social critic Camille Paglia has this to say about our
sartorial habits: “visually, American men remain perpetual boys, as
shown by the bulky T-shirts, loose shorts and sneakers they wear from
preschool through midlife.” We’re no Star Trekkers, that’s for sure.
As for the snooping of Big Brother, today, people are relieved when
they see police video cameras on the streets as a deterrent to crime,
and millions could care less about sharing their most intimate details
on Facebook, or for that matter, RedTube. Also, no flying cars yet and
no lunar colony. Soviet Union? Gone since ‘91.
What the futurologists failed to predict was the hippies, The Beatles,
disco, the drug culture, Johnny Rotten, Reagan Democrats, global
warming, Muslim terrorists, PCs, the Internet, cable TV, Facebook,
iTunes, video streaming and thousands of other things that shaped “the
future” we live in today. None of us had a clue that we would someday
become slaves of credit card debt -- credit cards were nonexistent for
most Americans in the ‘60s. And most people hadn’t even heard of
health insurance, much less the need to reform it.
So, when I hear the prophets of gloom going on about what life will be
like after peak oil takes its toll, I stifle a yawn and think, life in
the post-oil era is probably going to be a paradise.
For starters, global warming will be on its way to being solved.
Perhaps more people will ride bicycles and plant gardens and we‘ll be
healthier as a result. Perhaps high-speed hydrogen-powered trains
will become the order of the day, cutting the 40,000 highway deaths we
face each year in America. Perhaps we’ll take our vacations to
Florida or Europe aboard solar-powered zeppelins or giant sailing
liners. We‘ll have more leisure time once our jobs have been
digitized and automated out of existence.
The problem with those who predict a peak oil dystopia is that they
underestimate human ingenuity. As with the current revolution in
consciousness we’re experiencing via our integration into the
‘virtual’ online world, there will be advances in technology in the
near future that we can’t begin to imagine.
Consider that just last week two Russian physicists won the Nobel
Prize in Physics for their research into an ultra-thin material called
graphene. Talk about a game-changer.
“Graphene is a form of carbon in which the atoms are arranged in a
flat hexagon lattice like microscopic chicken wire, a single atom
thick,” reports the New York Times. “It is not only the thinnest
material in the world, but also the strongest: a sheet of it stretched
over a coffee cup could support the weight of a truck bearing down on
a pencil point.”
Perhaps graphene will be used to construct the cable of a low-orbit
space elevator, which will be helpful in colonizing or mining other
worlds; or for ferrying nuclear waste away from the earth; or for
building huge microwave collectors in space that will bring us the
unlimited energy of the sun.
Predictions, as we’ve seen, can be hazardous, but here’s one you can
take comfort in: no one is going to be freezing in the dark and going
nowhere when the last drop of the oil age goes down the drain.
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