First there was peak oil. Then came peak wood and peak gas. What is it with all these peaks? Is the world really running out of the raw materials it needs to make it tick, move and communicate? Or should the next peak be in stories about peaks?
Attributed to American geophysicist M. King Hubbert, peak theory assumes that resource production follows a bell-shaped curve. Early on, the production rate increases as discoveries are made and infrastructure built.
Later in the curve, after the eponymous Hubbert’s peak, production declines as reserves run dry. U.S. oil production reached its Hubbert’s peak in the early 70s and has declined since. But what about the rest?
Coal started the whole peak theory craze when Hubbert used records of how its production levelled off to forecast future peaks in U.S. oil supply. Conventional thinking says there are hundreds of years of coal supplies left, but are the figures accurate? Predictions are complicated by there being several types of coal, with much of the high-grade stuff already burnt. Although production keeps rising, the total energy obtained may peak sooner.
Peak oil and gas
Every schoolchild is taught that world supplies will eventually run out. But when? Supporters and critics of global peak oil theory argue about the timing of the peak, with some insisting it has already been reached. Reliable, independent estimates of discoveries and production are rare, and most governments rely on statistics from the International Energy Agency, which has long been accused of painting too rosy a picture.
Earlier this month (December), Aaron Regent, president of the Canadian gold company Barrick Gold, reportedly warned there was a strong case that the world was already at peak gold. Global output has fallen steadily since 2000 and, Regent said, it was becoming harder and harder to find ore.
There is a serious academic school of thought that says the Earth’s water was delivered from outer space on the back of wet asteroids and comets. But there is growing concern that the water is running dry. As Alex Bell describes in his book Peak Water, we are using more water than is available in the places where we live. For some, in the wet regions, peak water will never occur, but for the people of the U.S., Africa, southern Europe, India, Middle East and China, he says, it is already here.
At an energy conference in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, the Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander warned that we should learn a lesson from history. When the Roman empire collapsed, he said, large parts of Europe had been deforested for farmland and to provide firewood. “Wood and food were essential to maintain the Roman empire,” he said. “So the demise of a seemingly invincible civilisation was partially due to the unsustainable use of their prime energy resource. What the Romans were experiencing, we would now describe as peak wood.”
Peak rock music
Most of the good musical ideas really have been used up. Last year, popular culture blog Overthinking It analysed Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 songs of all time, and found that rock music peaked in the late 1960s.
“It would seem that, like oil, the supply of great musical ideas is finite. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, the Motown greats and other genre innovators quickly extracted the best their respective genres had to offer, leaving little supply for future musicians.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009