In reading James Howard Kunstler's book, The Long Emergency (see excerpted article here), I was struck that many of the statistical arguments seem intuitive - how could we not run out of a resource as central as oil, given our rising and apparently unslakable dependence? I was very depressed immediately after reading The Long Emergency because I could not see a way around his arguments, both on the exhaustion of oil, the shift in politics as shortages increase, and a lifestyle based on endless supplies, which will soon hit a wall of rising global demand.
Since then, I have become involved in a renewables energy fund, especially a project to help finance the development of an enzyme found uniquely in the gut of the panda bear. Because the panda has learned to process the nearly indigestible bamboo shoot, its intestinal bacteria have extraordinary abilities to convert cellulosic materials to sugar, a few steps shy of alcohol (ie. ethanol!). A scientist working in this country now is developing this enzyme for commercial application. It may also be that this enzyme can be produced in plants, harvested as sileage, and “activated" by light rays or other stimulus to be a digestive that promotes ethanol production far more efficiently and with less impact on the food supply than corn or sugar cane.
Without going into the chemistry here (which I am largely unqualified to do) I would only say that this is one among many technologies being explored and which may well provide answers. It's hard to see a future that is not fraught with shortages, tensions, disruptions, etc. But I have gone from a feeling of near-hopelessness to one of greater optimism. Malthus, it would seem, was wrong (so far).
The Rocky Mountain Institute under Amory Lovins has outlined extraordinary energy resources in efficiencies alone. Solar thin-film is showing potential to both shade and power "green buildings" as governments (much more in Europe than here) are beginning to force sensible changes on the building industries. This is just one area where change is coming, and some of it will have radical impacts. Ged Davis, the former scenario planning chief at Royal Dutch/Shell, now engaged with a range of renewable projects, has likened the current renewable technology fever to the early days of the auto, when more than 100 companies in the US were vying for capital. Many would fail, but the automobile would be born. Do we now really believe this was the beginning of the end of life as we have come to know it?
I wish this note to sound a little hope that perhaps all is not lost as oil supplies run down (and by applying greater extractive and use efficiencies we may have more time than we think). Mankind is highly inclined toward invention, and Necessity remains the Mother of it. Perhaps we are not ultimately self-destructive, but self-preserving. That being said, we can all find evidence to fit just about any argument, and arguments to fit just about any evidence. Better we find solutions in the middle, where we need to have faith they may exist, than disagreements at the poles, where extremism extracts its own price – particularly if hopelessness sets in.