Peak Thinking Revisited


My column for the magazine last week is finally online — it’s a critical look at the current craze for “peak” thinking, not just oil, but fish, carbon, debt, and so on.

I don’t buy into much of, for two main reasons. First, a lot of it buys into tired old Malthusianism. Second, it neglects the role of innovation, not just in technology but also in policies, institutions, even just in plain old moral consciousness. (Think of the scene in Mad Men when Don and Betty celebrate their new car by going for a picnic. When they get up to go, they leave their garbage strewn across the grass. That behaviour was normal then, and is completely unthinkable now.

Anyone else out there remember their “peak Christmas”? That was the Christmas when the number of presents I received, which had been climbing steadily each year, maxed out. After that, each year brought fewer and fewer gifts, and more and more relatives decided that I was too old to keep pandering to. Or how about “peak sex”? That’s the moment in a relationship after which the frequency of sex goes into terminal decline, and the cost of actually getting some gets steadily dearer.

The thing is, once you see how the pattern works, you can apply peaknik thinking to just about everything. But peak sex doesn’t mean the end of the relationship. Why? Because people find other, frequently more stable, reasons for staying together. Peak Christmas was no big deal — you realize there is more to the holiday than getting presents. In short, people innovate; they find replacements for whatever good is in decline, which actually end up not just preserving but also strengthening the relevant institution. I see no reason why peak oil is the end of our way of life, any more than peak sex is the end of marriage.

Filed under:

Peak Thinking Revisited

  1. "That's the moment in a relationship after which the frequency of sex goes into terminal decline, and the cost of actually getting some gets steadily dearer."

    Cost?–as in dollars and cents?

    • Either directly or indirectly it can always be converted to a dollars and cents number.

  2. After reading your last column and now this one, I suspect you are not serious and, having taken a few philosophy courses, trying to be clever. Sadly you are not serious in dangerous way about a vital issue. If you wish to get serious I suggest you read Chris Turner's current article in Walrus, "An Inconvenient Talk: Dave Hughes's guide to the end of the fossil fuel age".

  3. As much as I am always the last to admit it, parties do end.

    While there have always been handwringers and triumphalists, pointing out that there's no beer in the fridge is best down at 5 minutes before 11, and for the ROC God help you.

    I certainly hope for the best, but may just plan a little for the worst.

    Sorry to hear you've reached peak sex.

  4. "I see no reason why peak oil is the end of our way of life, any more than peak sex is the end of marriage."

    Are you kidding? Oil IS our way of life – our world runs on it. It feeds us, it makes globalization possible, it enables our prosperity. The technological advances that deniers point to (such as feeding an ever-growing population) are frequently just new and unanticipated ways to apply oil to a growing problem.

    For me, the scary part of learning about peak oil was not coming to accept that a rapid decline is inevitable, but discovering how pervasive oil is in our lives.

  5. With this effort, Let's add "peak mediocrity" to our list.

  6. One can generally secure a fresh source of sex, if desired. The same cannot be said for oil.

    And while I agree that we shouldn't be too doomsdayish about things, there remains the disquieting possibility that alternative energy sources will only amount to the equivalent of 'self-pleasure', to put it delicately.

    • Interesting analogy…to carry it a little further, sometimes energy is available in a high quality form, but the desired quantity might be hard to obtain; other sources provide low quality energy but the quantity is relatively limitless.

      • Oh, I think we've all found ourselves under the influence of too many beers, close to last call, finding that solar panel or windmill irresistable.

        • Nice one

  7. I think some of the commentors here are misinterpreting Andrew's point. I don't believe he is denying that peak oil is possible or a real threat…rather that the general dystopian approach for all “peak” theories seems to discount some of humanity's positive traits. We have proven we can change our behaviour and overcome obstacles in the past, so why should our current dependance on oil necessarily mean THE END?

    Besides, his “peak rocks” comment in the article made me laugh…

  8. The other day, I was looking at Jeff Rubin's book while in an Indigo store and I thought to myself that comes across as declinism and wondered if you (Potter) would write a blog post or column against the book. Looks like I was somewhat right.

  9. But hasn't your life changed since "Peak Christmas"? Haven't your outlook & behaviour changed dramically since then (although I grant probably not because of it)? Isn't the more rational response to Peak Oil to say that we will change our way of life without really lowering it, instead of to imply that things can go on as they are regardless?
    After all, the fact of peak oil is not in dispute. Oil is, for all intents and purposes, a finite resource (the earth produces it on a geological timescale; from a human perspective we're not getting any more than what's there). We may extract it more efficiently, but we're using it up and absent an alternative we will run out of it, some day. The only dispute is whether that happens sooner or later.
    By some measures, you are worse of for the changes in your life that have happened since Peak Christmas; I suggest those measures are a flawed indicator of your well-being.

  10. Part of the news media's decline is attributable to the hyperventilating it does when it comes to problems and issues. Writing "no, the sky isn't falling" articles throws our expectations for a loop, and the results can be seen in most of the comments above.

  11. Mr. Potter makes a comparatively neglected point, but it's not a valid argument: The fact that we've innovated to solve problems before doesn't mean that we will in the future.

    Doubtless, Mr. Potter recognizes this and his main motivation is to mitigate the rampant declinism prevalent in contemporary culture.

    That being said, my only concern is that Mr. Potter's observations should not be a prescription for apathy and nonchalance – not known to be catalysts of innovation.

  12. As a geologist who has studied energy for decades I am dismayed that journalists such as Mr. Potter get any print on these issues. In my extensive travels lecturing on these issues and meeting thousands of people I find that the scientists concerned about the issue of non-renewable resource depletion are predominantly geoscientists that have actually studied them, and the blind-faith believers in technology and silver bullets are classical economists, politicians and journalists such as Mr. Potter who have little firsthand knowledge of the issues. Mr. Potter's idle speculation is dangerous and the fact that it gets covered in a national magazine where it stokes hope in an infinite growth business-as-usual future makes it even worse.

    Posted at the original article and repeated here.