Oil prices reached a two-year high of US$117 (Dh429) per barrel last week, as world markets prepared for a US strike on Syria. While Syria itself is not a major oil producer, investors fear that intervention in that country could lead to tumult across the region, choking off oil supplies from Iraq and elsewhere. Some analysts fear a spike to $150 per barrel.
Higher oil prices reverberate around the world, pushing up the price of petrol, affecting food prices and weakening economic growth. But some experts say that current high prices reflect a deeper, more worrying reality: the world is running out of oil. Are we really at “peak oil”? And how can we prepare for a post-oil future?
Peak oil refers to the idea that at some point – and some say it will be soon – oil production will reach a historic maximum and it will be all downhill after that. For an introduction, read The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man (John Murray, Dh57) by the journalist David Strahan. We’re on the verge, he says, of the largest and last oil crunch in history: car use and leisure flights could be two causalities.
One consequence of peak oil? The end of perpetual economic growth. In The End of Growth (Clairview Books, Dh85), Richard Heinberg argues that the economic growth of industrial countries has reached a natural limit imposed by resource depletion and environmental change. We must come to accept, he says, lower or zero levels of growth – and that means eating less, buying less and travelling less. But amid all that, says Heinberg, we have the chance to escape the trap that is our relentless consumer culture and rediscover what really makes us happy.
For a more vivid image of life after oil, though, turn to fiction. In Last Light (Orion, Dh46), the novelist Alex Scarrow imagines a world in which the oil has finally dried up. It’s not good news: widespread riots and societal breakdown keep Jenny and her husband Andy thousands of miles apart, with little hope of a reunion. Still, even if peak oil means economic pain, at least it makes for good reading.