We need to imagine life without oil, says legendary ecologist Buzz Holling

03 Mar 2012

At the Resilience 2011 conference in Arizona, I was excited to hear what legendary ecologist Buzz Holling had to say. I’d read about his work on resilience, and understanding how ecosystems bounce back after being hit by shocks, like forest fires or bettle outbreaks.

His talk, “Business, ecosystems and tipping points,” was fascinating, but one thing in particular made me ecstatic: he mentioned peak oil!

He cited peak oil as one sign—along with growing use of tar sands, the financial collapse with growing debt, and the U.S. Supreme Court removing control on lobbyists—as evidence that we’re entering a “back loop,” a period of tumult and reorganization. Or as he put in accepting the 2008 Volvo Environmental Prize:

Change that is important is not gradual but is sudden and transformative. There is a common base cycle of change in individuals, in ecosystems, in business, in society. Increasing rigidity halts a long, slow period of growth and increasing efficiency. That begins a period of creative destruction and a fast period where uncertainty is great, where novelty emerges, and where new foundations are formed for a new cycle to begin. This is where we are now heading internationally.

It was great to hear him connect the dots between disparate developments—but why had I never run across him talking about peak oil before? So after his talk I went up to ask him about it more.

He said peak oil is absolutely crucial to people to grasp. “If there’s one thing I’d like to get my students to do, it’s to imagine what we would do if suddenly, in 10 years, there was no more oil,” Holling said.

(Just for the record, peak oil is about the time when the world is producing oil at its fastest, before the production is expected to decline over many decades. People who say that the world is now at peak oil production are not saying that we’re going to suddenly run out. Holling was just using this as a thought experiment, which could get students to realize how dependent we are on oil.)

It seems that not many scientists talk about peak oil, though, I said.

“That’s true,” Holling said, “not many scientists take it seriously—but they should.”

But then, frustratingly, he said he’s written about peak oil for his friends, but not for publication. Why would this retired researcher, who has nothing to lose, not speak up about this issue that he feels is crucial?


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »