Is there anything that isn't peaking?
Felix Salmon mused on the subject of Peakniks recently (and what a neologism that is!) after reading Ben McGrath’s entertainingly morbid piece, "The Dystopians" in The New Yorker ($ub. req’d). While it’s worth observing that "peaknik" has typically referred to Peak Oilers, I think it’s safe to say that we’re all peakniks now.
McGrath talks mostly about financial doomsayers, i.e. Peak Debt and Peak Dollars, but refers generally, if somewhat dismissively, to the "Peaknik Diaspora" and some of its adherents. These would be folks who "believe" in Peak Oil, Peak Carbon, Peak Dirt, Peak Fish. Personally, I think Peak Carbon is a not a terribly useful way to refer to climate change — although "climate change" is itself a not terribly useful way to refer to climate change (something that Gar Lipow has taken it upon himself to fix). Peak Things, in my humble opinion (speaking of which, why did IMHO go out of favor? Is there no longer any humility on the Internet?), should only refer to resource maximums. Switching that around for carbon — i.e. we’re trying to stop producing carbon so we can declare/achieve Peak Carbon and continue reducing from there — is just plain confusing. So let’s dispense with Peak Carbon.
Peak Dirt (aka Peak Soil), on the other hand, is very real. Or rather the underlying problem of soil erosion is very real. Industrial agriculture with its "fencerow-to-fencerow" monocropping techniques and mass applications of synthetic fertilizer further exacerbates the problem (although there’s a peak for fertilizer, too — Peak Phosphorus). Anyway, I happen to think "Peak Dirt" is also confusing — I prefer "The Soil Crisis." Yes, we’re losing topsoil at an alarming rate. But we’re also expanding the amount of land under the till in many parts of the world. Ironically, we’re doing it in most cases via deforestation or through expansion into marginal or ecologically fragile land, which only increases the rate of erosion. Indeed, farmers in the U.S. responded to spiking prices and damaging floods last summer by making a forceful but failed attempt to get government permission to plant on land protected under federal conservation programs.
Meanwhile, development pressures in urban and suburban areas continue to reduce farmland in and around cities, which has nothing to do with erosion. The land is still fertile, it’s just more valuable with a house on it. Well, maybe not at the moment — which begs the question, when will we start plowing all those McMansions under and planting organic vegetables on top of them? No one wants big houses anymore, right? And, of course, none of this takes into account the coming conflicts over land use for alternative energy as solar, wind, and biofuel development contend with agriculture for acreage around the world. Definitely less of a Peak than a Crisis.
Some even argue that soil is a more precious resource than any of our other supposed peak resources. As food progressives Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson declared in their NYT op-ed on soil, "Unlike oil, it has no technological substitute." Without soil, there is no agriculture, full stop. Does that mean food is a candidate for Peak-hood now?
As for oil, yes, Salmon is right that peak oilers tend towards shrillness. But their number includes the International Energy Agency (a 28 member intergovernmental body that has historically assumed oil production would simply increase with demand. Not anymore.) along with several CEOs of major oil companies. Oh, and half of oil company CFOs cotton to the idea as well (thanks for all that, Joe). Are they shrill, too? They seem more like Very Serious People.
Of course, the mother of all Peaks is one that McGrath didn’t even mention — Peak Water. Sure, we’re surrounded by it, but most of it is too salty. And though we drink, bathe in, and flush a lot of it, agriculture uses the most by far. The water cycle doesn’t itself increase the amount of freshwater in the world and we’re draining most underground aquifers far faster than they are replenished (especially this one). Meanwhile, soil erosion contributes to flooding and leads to less efficient watersheds. And climate change is expected to bring superdroughts. It’s enough to make you wonder how we’ll have enough of the wet stuff to satisfy the needs of 9.2 billion people by 2050. Let’s hope GE is right that soon we’ll be able to drink the ocean thanks to clean-powered desalination.
So I will leave to others the worries over Peak Debt and Peak Dollars. I’ve got enough on my plate as it is.