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Solutions Scenario

The exhaustion of cheap oil will not be catastrophic.

Conversations among energy wonks can remind listeners of the adage about the half-full glass. Pessimists think that oil production will peak sometime in this decade; optimists believe that new technologies could extract untapped oil reserves for at least a few decades more. But there is one thing no one disputes: we will soon run out of cheap oil.

A growing, influential body of writers believes that the exhaustion of cheap oil will be disastrous. In this issue, we take a look at The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, by James Howard Kunstler. The author, a novelist and journalist who has written for the Atlantic and Rolling Stone, writes that we will fall into “an abyss of economic and social disorder on a scale that no one has seen before.” Are he and his fellow doomsayers right?

Hardly. To agree with Kunstler is to believe that alternative sources of energy cannot replace oil. This means dismissing the combined powers of natural gas, solar power, wind, coal, hydroelectric, biomass, and nuclear power. Doomsayers argue that these alternatives are a “mirage,” as Kunstler puts it, because they will never produce as much energy as cheaply as oil. But that assumes we will not devise ways to use energy more efficiently. It also ignores the rapid progress in improving energy technologies, particularly in solar, wind, and nuclear power.

We have faith in human ingenuity: as oil prices increase, technologists will find new ways to generate energy.

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