How Will I Explain Peak Oil to My Son?

I haven't written or commented on TOD in quite some time, but the experience carries me forward everyday. I always came at peak oil not from an "if" or even "when" but "then what do we do"? At Kyle's invitation, I brought my personal blog, Peak Oil NYC, to The Oil Drum in September 2005. Peak Oil NYC was about what peak oil meant for my hometown and America's largest metropolitan area. This later evolved into TOD:Local with other writers from different parts of the world bringing their perspective to the group and then the TOD: Campfire. I wrote for 4 years on The Oil Drum and then the inevitable crush of competing work, family and other volunteer interests overcame my capacity to produce and generate new relevant content. I felt in many ways that I had said what I had to say on the subject and the site was going in a more technical direction.

The local neighborhood environmental group I founded in 2006, Upper Green Side, has largely achieved it's original goals - there are thriving Greenmarkets, protected Bike and Bus lanes protecting cyclists and speeding buses past traffic congestion. All steps in the right direction - people are more connected to local food and can travel faster and safer by sustainable modes of transportation. And now the people that made all that happen have moved on to different projects and different neighborhoods.

My current local sustainability endeavor is a Political Action Committee focused on livable streets issues in NYC: StreetsPAC. We've endorsed 15 local candidates that filled out questionnaires, interviewed with us and passed muster to be a livable streets champion for the next city government that will take office in January 2014. Just starting a dialogue with these future elected officials has been enormously helpful in changing the tone of the conversation around topics like bike share, parking reform and traffic enforcement.

But I recently thought about what peak oil means for my son(s) and how I should talk to them.

My son was born at 24 weeks gestation after my wife went into spontaneous labor. That's right on the border of viability and only in the last 20 years or so would he have been able to be saved. We spent 5 months by beside his isolette in the NICU. Although his twin sister did not make it, his mere survival, nevermind his only slightly delayed development is a true modern miracle. It is not lost on me that this miracle was something that could not have happened before the modern economy has built up around oil. The question is: will the other side of the peak allow for such miracles? This is very much up in the air.

Now I'm expecting another son (this week in fact!). So how would I explain peak oil to them?

I think I would start by saying that energy is a means to an end. Cheap, abundant and dense energy sources like oil and natural gas have obvious benefits that we have used in some ways that are amazing like advancing medical research, diagnostics and development of a wide range of pharmaceutical products that help people live longer and more productive lives. On the other hand you have the vast squandering of precious energy resources on the sprawling suburbs that ring most cities around the world. As energy becomes more expensive, less abundant and less dense, things will need to evolve and adapt. Burning oil and natural gas for transportation, generating electricity and heating seems to be a poor allocation of a precious resource. Living more densely in cities or modified suburbs centered around a rail station makes much more sense in a post peak oil world than living a car dependent exurb.

Second, I would explain that what makes people happy (aside from good health and adequate nutrition) is not necessarily having lots of "stuff". I might have them watch the Story of Stuff to see that a materialistic treadmill is not a path to happiness or a sustainable planet. I might also show some graphs of how income and GDP are not correlated with society's overall happiness, life satisfaction or overall well being after a certain point. A society with less stuff and more social capital could be a much happier place to live.

Finally I would conclude that while I think it's totally possible for a post peak oil world to be a happy, health and fulfilling time to live, it's possible that decisions at a macro level may not make that easy. If government is either too weak to act or acts in the wrong directions or if corporations have no better incentives than to only think in terms of short term profitability or if generally people collectively resist the changes that are necessary to adapt, it will harder for people to live happy and fulfilling lives. But that just means that they will have to become more self reliant and find their own independent path to happiness.

I hope that all of you have learned as much as I have from the past 8 years of The Oil Drum. I think it was the right decision to close the site down and take time to reflect on everything we've discussed here and think about what actions we can each take to help our corner of the world, or even just our family. I hope there is another group of thinkers that creates something like TOD 2.0 for the next generation. My bet is that it would be much more about the financials/economics of resource depletion or how we might re-envision our entire economic system around human well being instead of how much stuff we produce and consume.

Until then, if you live in NYC and you see someone wearing a StreetsPAC shirt, thank them and support our candidates.

What to tell your son

well in 25 years time I think there will be no need at .

in the mean time you'll have to justify the reasons you're not buying the latest fad gadget when all his friends will be getting them, atleast for a short while. I cannot predict when the general public will be aware of what peak oil means, Focussing that close on the great graph of oil production can be a bit of a bother and with the oil industry stuffing cash in all areas just to get small incremental increases has helped.

but only so far , draw out a little and its clearer whats going on.

I suspect that even in the 5-10 year frame we will know , I would posit that turning coal into gasoline will be the clearest sign. Expect a great play of this " new technology" , I expect there'll be some little techno gadgetry to say why its new ofcourse .

Tell your kids its their security and saftey you are looking after and that decions made are those made at time with what you knew at the time and its global warming thats the reason - that mem is better understood and tolerated

On that last point I dispare at the Oil Drum closing when in the next 2 -5 year time frame will be the most "interesting "

Its like Bush declaring victory in Iraq , thats it boys, time to go home..........


How will I explain peak oil...? Better, perhaps, to explain surplusses and full cycles, since peak oil is really a symptom of our refusal to understand these things. So much of our 'advantage' as a society was made possible by ignoring that we often squander surplus resources for short-term gain, comfort, growth and profit, rarely considering consequences that will be suffered by others, essentially stealing from the future while leaving the leftovers for future generations to deal with. It's very much a moral issue, whether or not one feels a sense of obligation to ensure that one's use of any surplusses have lasting, possitive impacts and that wastes aren't foisted onto others. It's hard to purge a child, or a society, of a sense of entitlement once it sets in. Never having invested in the wrong things in the first place means never having to dis-invest in those things.

Of course, being born into a world that has seen humans investing in so many of the wrong things means our children will bear the brunt of forced dis-investment; goes back to surplusses and full cycles... no free lunch; someone gets stuck with the check. Raising a child that doesn't understand and incorporate these things is raising a sociopath. We have a surplus of those.

Thanks, Glen, and good to see you investing in things that, hopefully, will last.

The thing about ToD 2.0 is what would it be about? The problem with this problem is no one has anything that useful to say about it that hasn't already been said. We will just carry on and muddle through. It appears to be more about the human condition and evolutionary biology as much as anything else. I am not sure about this sense of handing the torch over to a new generation thing really fits. It is more like we just gave up. Bit too pessimistic? I think this returns to the point raised that no consensus could be reached even by the hardcore leadership.

Mulling it over it is probably better that the arch deacons of ToD move onto to a new way of framing the issues without being too tied to the perception of "peak oil theory" so in that respect it is time for change.

How do we explain peak oil? As unfashionable as it is and breaking every taboo in the peak oil rule book the simplistic expression "it ran out" springs to mind. I could qualify that with a whole lot of "we did run out of cheap oil production growth" type talk but why bother. No doubt I deserve a good slating for that but after going full circle on the description issue and after absorbing countless different explanations and insights over the years as a short hand it works for me.

But it will not run out until next century if ever. Crude oil production could be sustained at a low rate as long as life remains on Earth. It is unwise to give children an incorrect explanation for the sake of simplicity because ultimately they will realize their parents lied to them.

So position your children to be among the few who benefit the most from whatever flow rates can be sustained, or position them to have little or none of it. There are going to be a lot of upset people in between.

Hi Glenn:

Congratulations on all you have accomplished! It is a true legacy that you may use in explaining to your sons about the new world (to you, standard issue to them) that they will have to cope with.

Let me ask a question. Do you think that the subject of Peak Oil might be better communicated as a ‘fact package’ that includes both the step down that will have to happen, and the inevitability that this will result in lowered taxes (and be caused in part by the need to lower taxes), and not only fewer material things, but less government?

It seems to me that most of the screeds that I read make the assumption that, somehow, government will take up the slack, and yet fail to note the impossibility of that taking place. What will have to happen is a greater community involvement in ways that do not cost money or energy, and in fact that save on both. It will seem foreign to us who are adults, living in this truly cornucopian age. To our children less so, and to our grandchildren it will have to become the natural way of things.

What must occur, at least in my opinion, is that we need greater ‘buy in’ to the concept of reduced consumption resulting from reduced availability of all things. Also, we must have greater acceptance of the simple fact that we cannot continue to overpopulate the earth and expect anything but disaster to result. If it is not too late, we need to communicate the need for gradualism in reductions. The entire living adult generation must be educated, and it should be done in a way to show that we hope to make necessary change, if not enjoyable, then at least livable. And, that it can be done in our existing societal paradigm, without need for violence, anger or revolution.

Of course, I realize that this is expecting a great deal from the human family. You have shown, though, that it can be done in your locale. And, if you can accomplish that much in an intensely urban environment, the rest of us should be able to do as much.

Thank you again for your input, your effort, and your success. I wish you the best with your sons.


Just say that collectively we are no smarter than yeast.

It is not true! We are smarter than yeast.

Yes, I can prove it.

One playwright, the most famous one, hid a secret message about coal (fossil fuel) depletion in his plays. It all started with Romeo and Juliet.

The lovers (when they are together) never interact with other characters. Their scenes comprise an allegory about Man and the Sun: Man worships the Sun (party scene); Man is separated from the Sun (Christianity) (this is the famous balcony scene); Man is exiled from the Sun (Romeo hs to leave Juliet to save himself); then economic collapse, return to return to the Sun (tomb scene; Juliet is comatose).

I do think that Shakespeare really tried to send us this message. A hidden message in a famous play. A message in a bottle, cast into the ocean of time and circumstances.

Fascinated by the idea, I wrote a novel called "Juliet is the Sun" (I use the pen name Gemma Nishiyama). It sells so-so, so far. I just published it a few months ago. But people who have read it have told me they love it.

As an academic, under a different name, I have slowly gotten my ideas out there and published, though, it must be said, my articles only get accepted by journals in Japan, which has a strong cultural connection to the sun. In the west, however, my ideas are basically heretical.

This does not bother me at all.

A writer has to be way ahead....otherwise, what is the point??

My 16 yo son is peak oil aware...

I wonder how he ever figured it out? :)

I have also tried to teach him the perils of mindless consumerism and surprisingly he also gets that. Now if I can only convince him to get to the non-discretionary side of the economy when it comes to thinking about a career, my work will almost be complete...