On EnergyBulletin, permaculture-guy Toby Hemenway does his part to cool off some of the more overheated peak oil apocaphilia. He doesn’t deny the basic physical facts of peak oil, but he says for peak oil to be truly catastrophic, the following five propositions must be true:

1. Our demand for oil is unchangeable and is not significantly affected by price.

2. We are so badly addicted to oil that we will watch our civilization collapse rather than change our behavior.

3. Significant oil conservation is not possible in the time frame needed.

4. Even with conservation, demand will be more than oil plus alternatives can possibly meet.

5. Society is so fragile that it cannot withstand large shocks.

In fact, Hemenway says, all five are false.

He makes a good case, and I don’t really dispute it. But if someone did want to dispute it, I think it would go something like this:

No. 2 is a strawman. So, to a certain extent, is #3: The question is not whether conservation is possible, but whether a market so tied to quarterly earning reports and so sheltered from warning signals will start ramping up conservation before crisis strikes.

Some combination of No. 1 and No. 4 is, in fact, true. Demand is somewhat flexible, but with India and China rapidly industrializing and global supply plateauing, the upward pressure on global demand will dwarf whatever can be accomplished through conservation or alternative fuels, at least in the relevant time frame. The best we can hope for is small variations in rate of growth of demand. Of course rising prices will eventually affect demand, but less through clever conservation strategies and more by thrusting segments of the global population into privation and chaos.

No. 5 is, of course, the nut. Other societies have been destroyed by environmental crises. Maybe ours is stronger. But of course no one will know until it happens. The question is whether a globalized economy built on cheap oil can survive not just a relatively sudden shortage of said oil, but do so while facing other simultaneous environmental crises (water shortages, species loss, desertification, global warming, etc.) and political crises (failed states, resource wars, resurgent nationalism and xenophobia). Perhaps some sort of society would survive all this, but it will be more than enough to qualify as catastrophe.

Anyway, I’m basically simpatico with Hemenway. But I think it’s important to clarify exactly what peak-oil doomers think could happen, and exactly why we think it won’t. Much confusion surrounds the topic.

(via Oil Drum)