Why I'm not scared of peak oil

Every morning, I wake up and turn off the air conditioner, fan, or humidifier (depending on the season) that has been running all night. Sometimes I'll leave it on all day, too, so my apartment will be comfortable when I arrive home from work almost 10 hours later.

I walk past my three computers, which run 24 hours a day for my convenience, even though most of their time is spent completely idle. My DVR also stays on constantly so it can record many hours per day of South Park, Modern Marvels, and cop shows, of which I'll probably only watch 1 in 5 before they get deleted to make room for more.

While I don't drive to work, I'm in the minority. As I walk, city buses struggle through the thick traffic, often holding fewer than 10 passengers.

Soon, I arrive at work. Every computer in the office has been running all night so my coworkers don't need to log in and reopen all of their programs every morning.

Our office, like most modern office buildings, has windows that don't open. We've completely sealed ourselves off from the outside air. A heavy-duty HVAC system consumes most of the ceiling space and fills the office with the sounds of a subway tunnel. Even on the nicest days, when the temperature outside is perfectly comfortable, this HVAC system expends millions of BTUs to force the inside air to be a similar temperature. On the hottest days of the summer, the air conditioning cooled the office so strongly that many of us brought pants and sweaters to wear inside.

The windows are so large that during some morning hours, the sun shines in and produces glare on the computer monitors that face the windows. We installed massive blinds to combat this annoyance, but we usually forget to raise them after the problematic hours, so they stay closed for the entire day. To offset the forced lack of sunlight, our office is lit by hundreds of incandescent floodlight bulbs. Despite their extraordinarily wasteful energy consumption, we chose them over efficient fluorescent bulbs because they're more stylish.

Our salesmen, like most salesmen around the world, frequently fly across hundreds or thousands of miles simply to attend a 2-hour meeting then fly home. Such "business travel" represents a large portion of all domestic air travel. They can do this, instead of simply attending a conference call or videoconference, because the airfare is only a tiny fraction of the potential profitability of the deal.

After work, I often stop at the grocery store. It's the worst grocery store I've ever needed to patronize on a regular basis, but it still has most types of fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy, and grain products from across the world in every season of the year. I spend more for cellular phone, internet, and satellite TV services than I spend on food. Even if I had to cut my food expenses, I could just buy more of the cheap essentials instead of eating at restaurants so often. In the middle of January, I can buy 10 pounds of bananas that weren't grown on this continent with less money than I spent on lunch that day.

If I really needed a car, I could buy one within an afternoon. I could get a safe, efficient, reliable 4-door car with lots of perks and luxuries for monthly payments of less than a quarter of an average middle-class income - including insurance and enough gas to drive 1000 miles.

What does all of this have to do with peak oil?

I won't point fingers, but some people provide very convincing arguments that the peak and decline of global oil production is going to bring about the collapse of American society, starving most of our population and bringing forth a dark age that will last hundreds or thousands of years.

Spooky, isn't it?

The fundamental flaw in this argument is the assumption that our current energy use as a society cannot decrease, and that a minor change in energy prices will destroy our entire civilization.

Regardless of when it occurs, peak oil will only cause decreases of a few percent per year, at worst. If this happens, a lot of people will make a lot of noise, but fundamentally, we'll be fine. We won't starve to death if food becomes more expensive - we'll just be more conscious of what we eat, and maybe switch to a cheaper cable TV plan. We won't die if gas prices go up - we'll just stop buying huge SUVs and driving them on five unnecessary 1-mile trips every day.

As illustrated above, we have a lot of room for energy savings. We waste energy as much as we do because it's so cheap.

Eventually, we'll need to severely decrease our oil usage. But we'll have a long time to do it, and it'll happen gradually.

Maybe the "collapse of society" will force office buildings to install windows that can open to let in fresh air and sunlight for free. Maybe business people will stop flying around constantly in an age where we can transmit live, high-resolution video across the world using commodity hardware. Maybe we'll have to endure 80-degree houses in the summer. Maybe the simplest products won't be able to keep all 6 layers of plastic packaging. Or maybe we'll have to turn our computers off at night and wait an extra 45 seconds in the morning for them to start.

How awful.