According to the Environmental Protection Agency, sustainability is based on one simple principle:

“Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony that permits fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

The challenge of course is achieving this balance.  It can be argued that the end of many cultures over the ages was the result of not achieving such a balance.  Today we are faced with a global problem so immense that most cannot grasp the issues, let alone the projected consequences.  And it is unlikely that the majority of the world’s population will voluntarily make the necessary lifestyle changes to establish this balance.

One looming reality of the end of the Petroleum Era is that the availability and rapid use of large quantities of petroleum has allowed the human population to radically overshoot the carrying capacity of the earth. Therefore as oil production declines, the earth’s human population must be radically reduced by billions to bring humankind back into balance with nature.

The following is a brief history and explanation by one of the world’s leading petroleum experts.  He is a founder of the Association of the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO). After being awarded a Ph.D at Oxford in 1957, Dr Campbell joined the oil industry as an exploration geologist. His career took him to Borneo, Trinidad, Colombia, Australia, Papua New Guinea, the USA, Ecuador, United Kingdom, Ireland and Norway.

By Colin J. Campbell – Written in 2001

“The reality is that there is no real reprieve. Gradually the market – and not just the oil market – will come to realize that OPEC can no longer single-handedly manage depletion. It will be a dreadful realization because it means that there is no ceiling to oil price other than from falling demand. That in turn spells economic recession and a crumbling stock market, the first signs of which are already being felt.

The United States is perhaps the most vulnerable to the coming crisis having farther to fall after the boom years, which themselves were largely driven by foreign debt and inward investment. The growing shortfall in oil supply since its own peak of production was made good by soaring oil imports, now contributing more than half its needs, and a move to gas. The rate of import cannot, however, be maintained as other countries pass their own production peaks, putting ever more pressure on the Middle East. The North Sea is now at peak, with the UK being off 7% in 2000 and 16% off October to October, meaning that production is set to fall by one-half in ten years. For every barrel imported into the United States, there will be one less left for anyone else, a situation inevitably leading to international tensions.

The move to gas proved to be only a short-lived palliative. Gas depletes differently from oil. An uncontrolled gas well would blow it all away in one big puff. Production is, accordingly, capped by infrastructure and market, leaving a large, unseen balloon of readily available spare capacity. In a privatized market, trading on a daily basis, production becomes cheaper and cheaper as the original costs are written off and as this almost free spare capacity is drawn down. There were no market signals of the approach of the cliff at the end of the plateau. It accordingly came without warning, causing prices to surge through the roof, and bringing power blackouts to California. Canada is trying to make good the shortfall, but its stocks are falling fast too.

The US has to somehow find a way to cut its demand by at least five percent a year. It won’t be easy, but as the octogenarian said of old age “the alternative is even worse”. Europe faces the same predicament as North Sea production plummets. Although it may draw on gas from Russia, North Africa and the Middle East to see it over the transition, assuming that new pipelines can be built in time, that creates a new and unwelcome geopolitical dependency.

All of this is so incredibly obvious, being clearly revealed by even the simplest analysis of discovery and production trends. The inexplicable part is our great reluctance to look reality in the face and at least make some plans for what promises to be one of the greatest economic and political discontinuities of all time. Time is of the essence. It is later than you think.

Oil was formed in the geological past under well understood processes. In fact, the bulk of current production comes from just two epochs of extreme global warming, 90 and 150 million years ago, when algae proliferated in the warm sunlit waters, and the organic remains were preserved in the stagnant depths to be converted to oil by chemical reactions. Natural gas was formed in a similar way save that it was derived from vegetal material. It follows that these are finite natural resources subject to depletion, which in turn means that production in any country or region starts following the initial discovery and ends when the resources are exhausted. The peak of production is normally passed when approximately half the total has been taken, termed the midpoint of depletion.

Oil has been known since antiquity but the first wells were drilled for it in the mid 19th Century in Pennsylvania and the on the shores of the Caspian. The Industrial Revolution was already in progress being driven by the steam engine, fueled by coal. But then in the 1860s, a German engineer found a way to insert the fuel directly into the cylinder inventing the Internal Combustion Engine, which was much more efficient. At first, it used benzene distilled from coal, before turning to petroleum refined from crude oil, for which it developed an unquenchable thirst. The first automobile took to the road in 1882 and the first tractor ploughed its furrow in 1907. This cheap and abundant supply of energy changed the world in then unimaginable ways, leading to the rapid expansion of industry, transport, trade and agriculture, which has allowed the population to expand six-fold in parallel. These remarkable changes were in turn accompanied by the rapid growth of financial capital, as banks lent more than they had on deposit, confident that Tomorrow’s Economic Expansion was collateral for To-day’s Debt, without necessarily recognising that the expansion was driven by an abundant supply of cheap largely oil-based energy.

The peak of oil discovery was passed in the 1960s, and the world started using more than was found in new fields in 1981. The gap between discovery and production has widened since. Many countries, including some important producers, have already passed their peak, suggesting that the world peak of production is now imminent. Were valid data available in the public domain, it would a simple matter to determine both the date of peak and the rate of subsequent decline, but as it is, we find maze of conflicting information, ambiguous definitions and lax reporting procedures. In short, the oil companies tended to report cautiously, being subject to strict Stock Exchange rules, whereas certain OPEC countries exaggerated during the 1980s when they were competing for quota based on reported reserves. Despite the uncertainties of detail, it is now evident that the world faces the dawn of the Second Half of the Age of Oil, when this critical commodity, which plays such a fundamental part in the modern economy, heads into decline due to natural depletion. A debate rages over the precise date of peak, but this rather misses the point, when what matters — and matters greatly — is the vision of the long remorseless decline that comes into sight on the other side of it. The transition to decline threatens to be a time of great international tension. Petroleum Man will be virtually extinct this Century, and Homo sapiens faces a major challenge in adapting to his loss. Peak Oil is by all means an important subject.

According to Dr. Campbell, the near future will be grim for humankind. Dr. Campbell is a petroleum expert and his perspective of petroleum, while absolutely accurate in today’s society, may not be worth consideration within 20-25 years.  Join the Migration – Article: U.S. Migration