Being momentarily or, perhaps, permanently carless has given me the opportunity to reflect on the long term future of oil. As coincidence would have it I stumbled on CNN commentator David Frum’s delusional editorial, “Peak Oil Doomsayers Proved Wrong,” at the same time as I discovered Renaissance physician, alchemist and philosopher Paracelsus’ treatise, On Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies and Salamanders. They have a few things in common. First, Frum’s notion that oil has no limits:
Predictions that the world would imminently “run out of oil” have been worrying oil consumers since at least the 1920s. They always prove wrong, for reasons explained by the great oil economist M.A. Adelman after the last “oil shortage” in the 1970s:
Oil reserves, Adelman writes, “…are no gift of nature. They (are) a growth of knowledge, paid for by heavy investment.”
For all practical purposes, the world’s supply of oil is not finite. It is more like a supermarket’s supply of canned tomatoes. At any given moment, there may be a dozen cases in the store, but that inventory is constantly being replenished with the money the customers pay for the cans they remove, and the more tomatoes that customers buy, the bigger an inventory the store will carry.
Paracelsus uses a more poetic metaphor. Instead of ordering shipments of tomatoes, it’s our task to command gnomes,
The earth is filled by gnomes even to its center, creatures of diminutive size, guardians of mines, treasures and precious stones. They furnish the Children of the Sages with all the money they desire, and ask little for their services but the distinction of being commanded. [Source: Arthur Edward Waite, Real History of the Rosicrucians]
Apologies to Paracelsus for the comparison–he is a much better read than Frum. And, just so you know, the wives of gnomes are, “tiny, but very pleasing, and their apparel is exceedingly curious.”
Just to be clear I don’t think we’re on the verge of a Beyond Thunderdome/Tina Turner future. But I don’t believe that we can order up oil like canned tomatoes anymore. And it’s possible to piss off the gnomes.
For more on this debate I can’t do better than to direct you to Archdruid John Michael Greer who is on a roll right now on his blog The Archdruid Report. Check out his most recent posts. And we’re going to go hear him speak at the Age of Limits Conference. Perhaps we’ll see some of you there . . .