Dear Umbra,

I have recently been alerted to what many people term “peak oil.” I don’t know how to characterize my feelings regarding this subject. Obsession might be a good term. I feel that I need to prepare. What do you think? Is “peak oil” another Y2K?

Pittsburgh, Pa.

Dearest Michael,

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Who cares if it’s another Y2K? Prepare away, my friend. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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Eternal sunshine of the oil-less mind.

Photo: iStockphoto

Peak oil is a concept originally developed by a geophysicist, Dr. M. King Hubbert, which is why it is sometimes called Hubbert’s Peak. Hubbert geophysicked his way through oodles of data and concluded that oil production would follow a bell-shaped curve. The peak of the curve would represent the highest production, and the curve’s downslope would represent the increasing difficulty of extracting usable oil from the field. On the downslope, oil costs rise, and eventually the difficulty of extraction is not worth the financial returns — id est, we basically run out of oil.

Those of you who are not yet obsessed can get more information about the current debate on peak oil from — well, why not start in our very own Gristmill? The debate there consists of all manner of claims, like “Hubbert was right about oil reserves in the U.S., so that proves a global peak exists!”; “Hubbert didn’t account for technological advances!”; “We have already started down the global curve, so get ready for global markets to collapse!”; “We’re not going to run out of oil, I’ve discovered reserves in my armpit!” and so on, with a few useful resources thrown in for good measure. You might also read Grist’s interview with peak-oil author Matthew Simmons, a former Bush-Cheney energy-policy adviser who is quite sold on the notion, and read up on biofuels in Grist’s special series that starts today.

I think to have a worthy, scientist-type opinion about peak oil, one needs to do quite a bit of reading about global oil supply, global oil politics, geophysics, and the like. I just can’t summon the passion you feel and do all that reading, because my obsession cancels out your obsession. My obsession, of course, is global climate change.

Our obsessions are related. I grant you, the action plans for them might differ a tad. For example, if you are mainly concerned about peak oil, switching to coal power is a choice you could make. You also might be more concerned about your oil-related market investments. If you are expecting petroleum to skyrocket in price sooner than your climate will irrevocably morph, your survivalist blueprints will reflect that bias.

But I’d like to argue that you should go ahead and prepare for peak oil’s imminence, in whatever ways you can. I’ll just have to imagine what you already have in mind, but let’s say it includes de-emphasizing your car; reworking your home heating, cooling, kitchen, and electrical systems; divesting of oil-related stocks; getting your home garden up to speed; building up food networks in your local community — things like that. None of these actions would harm you in any way should oil not skyrocket in price, and, save for using coal, all would certainly benefit the global climate.

If your obsession were slightly different — let’s say you thought cats were the answer to our fuel problems — I would do more thorough research for you and dissuade you. But this obsession seems a good one — so go for it, spread the word, and we’ll all be happy to come to you when you turn out to be right and ready.