Competing doomsday scenarios are making life awfully difficult – I can’t decide whether I should be suicidal about burning too many fossil fuels or not enough. Maybe if Tim Flannery, Richard Heinberg and Andrew McNamara can coordinate their apocalyptic visions we’ll happily drown because we have no means of escaping them rising sea levels.

The “peak oil” worrywarts are having a nice run at present, most recently Queensland National Party state MP McNamara on 60 Minutes and about-to-visit professor and book flogger Heinberg in The SMH, never mind Four Corners last month. At Heinberg’s extreme, the peak oil folks are forecasting a return to the 19th century with little and expensive travel and we all have to grow our own food in the backyard as civilisation as we know grinds to a halt.

It is the nature of journalism that catastrophic bad news is goods news. But it is also astounding that that there is such a uniform ignorance or calculated ignoring of the great twin realities of our society: the ability of the market mechanism to efficiently allocate resources and our incredible capacity for inventiveness and problem solving.

We’ve gone through “peak oil” before – only then it was whale oil. The truth is that we’re not running out of oil and never will. At a price, we can make all the oil we need. The oil lubricating my car’s delightful engine already is artificial. As crude oil becomes more expensive, we start to use it more efficiently while the economic stimulus leads to product substitution. Oil remains wonderfully cheap, especially in a handful of low-tax countries like Australia, but in time it will become more expensive and we’ll use less per head of population.

Does it end tourism, global trade, the plastics and pharmaceutical industries? Of course not. The scaremongers themselves have no economic incentive to suggest how our incredibly adaptive species will move forward with less oil, but it’s not hard.

For example, the combination of China’s needs, greenhouse pollution and inventiveness means the next generation of nuclear power plants will effectively be mass-produced – modulised and much cheaper. Once you’ve built your nuke plant, the running costs are low and electricity is cheap. Cheap electricity makes the electric car a goer when oil is expensive, but it also provides the power to make alternative fuels – the hydrogen car just one of the possibilities.

There are bugs being trained to eat coal and excrete plastic. If the polyester shirt dies though, no-one will mind. Filling my Alfa with premium might become a luxury just for a special weekend excursion, but that’s a matter of choice. And we can always start farming whales.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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