Stone age coming, or just some belt-tightening?

A peak oil expert eats his apocalyptic words. He was just funnin' around.

By Andrew Leonard
March 9, 2006 11:22PM (UTC)
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Whether you're a peak oil doomer or debunker, it was worth taking note, yesterday, of the 50th anniversary of geologist King Hubbert's correct prediction that U.S. oil production would peak in 1970. For those so inclined, the indispensable Energy Bulletin has posted a full, searchable-text version of his paper, "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels."

Another geologist, Princeton professor emeritus Kenneth S. Deffeyes, who once worked in the same Shell laboratory as Hubbert, made some peak oil news earlier this year when he announced that we had already passed the point of worldwide peak production. He also thrilled the apocalypse fan-boy community by noting, on his Web site, that "by 2025 we are going to be back in the Stone Age."


It seems he's thought better of his words -- as PeakOilDebunked notes this morning, Deffeyes retracted his earlier comment yesterday, calling it "hyperbole."

How the World Works finds this all very interesting, because on the strength of Deffeyes' now retracted hyperbole, I picked up his most recent book, "Beyond Oil: The View From Hubbert's Peak," and nearly finished reading it this week. And while it paints a fairly glum picture of the world energy situation, it is far from apocalyptic. In his first chapter he even notes, "On a fifteen-year time scale, I have no doubt that human ingenuity will find adequate energy sources with nice adjectives like 'renewable,' 'nonpolluting,' 'sustainable,' 'alternative,' 'organic,' and 'natural.' For the five-year time scale, we have a shortage of good adjectives. 'Diesel,' 'coal,' 'nuclear' don't sound warm and fuzzy."

However, Deffeyes does note, in the very next paragraph, that war, famine and death are "serious possibilities" -- "While a new energy economy is being implemented, there will have to be some sort of regulation of scarcity." But his book is far from a tract of doom. For example, he's reasonably optimistic that fusion power will become a reality, although he doesn't expect a workable prototype for at least 20 years. In any case, the words "Stone Age" are never mentioned. He's no James Kunstler, predicting cannibalism in the suburbs the day after tomorrow.


But he does like to have some fun. Professor emeritus Deffeyes must have given well-attended lectures. He is a sucker for the wry, sardonic joke, and sometimes one gets the feeling that he's sitting back and viewing the entire oncoming energy bottleneck with a little grin on his face. Silly humans, he seems to be saying, look at the mess you've gotten yourself into. Maybe it's time to get off your lazy couch-potato ass, and start figuring a way out. Reading "Beyond Oil" is a reasonably good way to get acquainted with the basic problem, but don't go looking for any cheap, Armageddon-is-coming thrills in its pages.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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