The world will end soon, and I didn’t even hear about it until a few months ago. What I am talking about is peak oil theory. It is common sense that oil reserves are finite and at some point oil production will decline and peter out. The peak may have been reached, or it may be reached sometime later in this century. That common sense observation is not what peak oil is all about. Peak oil theory is that oil production will not just peter out, it will fall catastrophically starting right now, and that no alternative energy source will arise to take its place. The result will be inevitable disaster, peak oil theorists claim.
I happened upon the theory when a friend was gifted with a copy of The Party’s Over1 showed me the book. I opened randomly to a page that declared “the earth is a closed system.” So what is a closed system?
There are two definitions of a closed system. One definition, we’ll call it Type One, is a completely self-contained system. No energy or matter enters or leaves the system. A property of Type One closed systems is that the entropy, very roughly speaking disorder, always increases. That’s doom in the long run, because everything in the system will tend to even out into a cloud. Unless there is something wrong with the theory, the universe is doomed.
There is a Type Two closed system. In that type, energy can enter and leave the system, but matter is contained. A Type Two closed system is a useful concept for various purposes. Two some approximation, the earth is a Type 2 closed system. Some mass is added by collisions with meteors, mostly dust. Some of the atmosphere escapes. The sun shines on it to the tune of 1500 watts per square meter.
In The Party’s Over the author notes that an enormous amount of energy is pouring in from the sun to the earth. That’s what makes it type 2. However, the author then invokes the theory of Type One closed systems to claim that disorder will overcome the earth, and thus we are doomed. If one redraws the boundaries to include the sun as well as the earth, then indeed there is ultimate doom, but that’s when the sun dies. We have billions of years to work on that problem. the whole premise of Peak Oil is that there is a crisis right now.
The author of the book is a college professor who certainly should know better. I ordered the book from Amazon and received a revised edition. Surely the monstrous gaffe had been detected and removed. No, it was still there.
Peak oil theory is popular. There are web sites2 as well as books devoted to it, and it clearly has a significant following. The theory includes arguments as to why any alternative energy source will prove a failure. I found an extraordinarily good blog, Peak Oil Debunked3 that discusses the technical issues systematically.
The doomsayers might be right for reasons having nothing to do with closed systems. If there are no alternatives to oil on the horizon, that’s still a serious problem. The Party’s Over skims over alternatives with blythe dismissal. Solar power is disposed of in a few pages. That 1500 watts per square meter is attractive. A major problem with earth-bound solar is storing the energy for use at night. A way to overcome that problem is to put the solar arrays in space and beam down the power 24/7 on microwaves. This has actually been studied for decades, and the microwaves won’t fry birdies flying through the beam. The issue is cost, and cost is not much of an issue compared to doom.
So shouldn’t peak oil theorists revel in the prospects of such a neat solution? Not a chance. Reveling in doom is more fun.
1. Heinber, Richard, The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies
3. Peak Oil Debunked