Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Oil, Food, Water: Is Everything Past Its Peak?

An unprecedented crisis faced America. Oil production was going to peak in just three to five years, resulting in foreign oil addiction and economic calamity.

The scientist responsible for slapping the nation into consciousness implored industry and government to act: "The smug complacency that habitually blinds the American public must be torn," wrote David White, chief geologist of the U.S. Geological Survey. It was 1920.

More than 90 years later, tempers still flare over the prospect of global "peak oil." Last week a commentary in the prestigious journal Nature argued, "oil's tipping point has passed." It's the most recent high-profile salvo about whether, or how soon, the petroleum extraction that drives the global economy will reach a plateau and then, inevitably, decline.

"Peak" alarms going off aren't unique to oil. There's peak coal: Production could top out around 2025, according to the Energy Watch Group, an international group of legislators and scientists studying long-term trends. Peak food: The U.N.'s Food Price Index reached a new high in February 2011, exacerbating poverty in developing countries and creating potential for civil unrest. "Peak water" entered the popular lexicon in 2010, after two scientists classified threats to human use of rivers and underground aquifers, and to ecological stability. Peak coffee, peak chocolate, peak rare earth metals, peak travel have all followed suit. It's "peak" season. Read More