‘PEAK OIL’ HAS entered the global lexicon. It refers to the moment in time when the world will achieve its maximum possible rate of oil extraction. Most analysts agree that this will happen during the next two or three decades; an increasing number believe that it is happening now. The consequences are likely to be severe as the world is overwhelmingly dependent on oil for transportation, agriculture, plastics and chemicals.

Petroleum is not the only important resource quickly depleting. Regional production peaks for natural gas have already occurred, and global coal production is predicted to peak in ten to twenty years. Because fossil fuels supply about 85% of the world’s total energy, peaks in these fuels virtually ensure that the world’s energy supply will begin to shrink within a few years regardless of any efforts that are made to develop other energy sources. In addition, during the course of the present century we will see a commencement in the decline of population, grain production, uranium production, climate stability, fresh water availability per capita, arable land in agricultural production, wild fish harvests, and metal and mineral extraction rates. The general picture is inescapable; it is one of mutually interacting instances of over-consumption and emerging scarcity.

It is not a coincidence that so many peaks are occurring together: for the past 200 years cheap, abundant energy from fossil fuels has driven technological invention, increases in total and per capita resource extraction and consumption (including food production), and population growth. We are caught up in a classic self-reinforcing feedback loop: fossil-fuel extraction Þ more available energy Þ increased extraction of other resources, and production of food and other goods Þ population growth Þ higher energy demand Þ more fossil-fuel extraction (and so on).

It is hard to escape the conclusion that, while the 20th century saw the greatest and most rapid expansion of the scale, scope, and complexity of human societies in history, the 21st century will see contraction and simplification. The only real question then is whether societies will contract and simplify intelligently or in an uncontrolled, chaotic fashion.

Addressing the economic, social and political problems ensuing from the various looming peaks will require enormous collective effort. If it is to be successful, that effort must be co-ordinated, presumably by government, and enlisting people in that effort will require educating and motivating them in numbers and at a speed that has not been seen since the Second World War.

Part of that motivation must come from a positive vision of a future worth striving towards. People will need to feel that there will be an eventual reward for what will amount to many years of hard sacrifice. The reality is that we are approaching a time of economic contraction and that consumptive appetites that have been stoked for decades by ubiquitous advertising messages promising ‘more, faster, and bigger’ will now have to be reined in. People will not willingly accept the new message of ‘less, slower, and smaller,’ unless they have new goals towards which to aspire. They must feel that their efforts will lead to a better world, and tangible improvements in life for themselves and their families.

The massive public education campaigns that will be required must be credible, and will therefore be vastly more successful if they give people a sense of investment and involvement in formulating those goals. There is a much-abused word that describes the necessary process – democracy.

THERE ARE JUST a few core trends (such as population growth and increasing consumption rates) that have driven many others in producing the global problems we see today. Those core trends themselves constellate around our ever-burgeoning use of fossil fuels. Thus, a conclusion of startling plainness presents itself: our central survival task for the decades ahead, as individuals and as a species, must be to make a transition away from the use of fossil fuels – and to do this as peacefully, equitably and intelligently as possible.

At first thought, this must seem like an absurd over-simplification of the human situation. After all, the world is full of crises demanding our attention – from wars to pollution, malnutrition, land mines, human rights abuses, and soaring cancer rates. Doesn’t a monomaniacal focus just on fossil fuels miss many important things? In defence of the statement I would state that globally, there are two problems whose potential consequences far outweigh most others: climate change and energy resource depletion. If we do nothing to dramatically curtail emissions of greenhouse gases soon, there is the substantial likelihood that we will set in motion the two self-reinforcing feedback loops – the melting of the north polar icecap, and the melting of tundra and permafrost releasing stored methane. These would, if set in motion, lead to an average global warming of not just a couple of degrees but perhaps six or more degrees over the remainder of the century. And this in turn could make much of the world uninhabitable for many species, including our own.

The world is currently as reliant on hydrocarbons as it is on water, sunlight and soil. Without oil for transportation and agriculture, without gas for heating, chemicals, and fertilisers, and without coal for power generation, the global economy would sputter to a halt. While no-one envisions these fuels disappearing instantly, we can avert the worst-case scenario of global economic meltdown only by proactively reducing our reliance on oil, gas and coal ahead of depletion and scarcity. In other words, all that would be required in order for the worst-case scenario to materialise would be for world leaders to continue with existing policies.

IF WE DO focus all of our collective efforts on the central task of energy transition, we may find ourselves contributing to the solution of a wide range of problems that would be much harder to solve if we confronted each one in isolation. With a co-ordinated and voluntary reduction in fossil-fuel consumption, we could see substantial progress in reducing many forms of environmental pollution. The decentralisation of economic activity that we must pursue as transport fuels become scarcer could lead to more robust local economies. A controlled contraction in global oil trade could lead to a reduction of international political tensions. A planned conversion of farming to non-fossil-fuel methods could mean a decline in environmental devastation caused by agriculture, and economic opportunities for millions of new farmers. Meanwhile, all of these efforts together could increase equity, community involvement and intergenerational solidarity. Surely this is a future worth working towards?

Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines is published by Clairview Books, 2007.

Richard Heinberg is author of several books including The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse.