A Transient and Ephemeral Epoch
(Hubbert's Other Peak)

Dateline: 8 September 2014

Marion King Hubbert

I'm sure that most people who read this have heard of "peak oil." Some people think peak oil is hogwash. Many of these people assert that we are not running out of fossil fuels (coal, oil & natural gas). But doubters who say that reveal their misunderstandings about what peak oil is all about. 

Though fossil fuels are currently being used up as fast as they can be extracted from the earth, peak oil has never been about running out of fossil fuels as much as it is about not being able to mine enough fossil fuels out of the earth to sustain continued economic-industrial growth

Concerns about peak oil originated with M. King Hubbert,  a geoscientist who recognized back in the mid 1950s that the world's consumption of fossil fuels was increasing exponentially, that the once-plentiful worldwide supply would naturally decrease, and that the ever-expanding industrial era could therefore not sustain itself perpetually. 

At first, very few people took Hubbert's predictions seriously.  There was, after all, an abundance of crude oil to extract. Then, American oil production peaked in the early 1970's, just as Hubbert said it would (some 15 years earlier). He further claimed that worldwide oil production would peak around the turn of the century. His "peak oil" graph of world oil production (pictured below) is a familiar one to anyone who has looked into the subject of peak oil. 

Hubbert's famous "peak oil" curve

There are clear and compelling indications that we are today at the top (or rounding the top) of Hubbert's peak oil graph. Yes, it is true that there are vast deposits of oil sands and such as that, with enormous amounts of energy in them, and it is true that America is currently producing more energy from newer oil and gas extraction technologies. But it is also true that the new extraction technologies require a whole lot more energy input to get energy out. 

The net Energy Return On Investment (known as EROI) is more important than how much energy is being produced. The EROI is not very high on the newer extraction technologies, as compared to just pumping millions of barrels out of the once-vast oil reservoirs of the world. In the final analysis, it is the economics of energy extraction that determines its true viability.   

If you want to learn more about peak oil, I recommend this documentary on YouTube: A Crude Awakening. Also if you haven't already done so, be sure to read my essay about Professor Walter Prescott Webb's Boom Hypothesis of Modern History. I don't know if Webb (a historian) and Hubbert (a scientist) knew each other but they both came to the same conclusions about the rise of the industrial age, and it's certain decline.

As for Hubbert's other peak, here it is…

Figure 10
This is Hubbert's other peak 

That graph diagram comes from a 1976 technical article by M. King Hubbert titled, Exponential Growth As A Transient Phenomenon In Human History. Here is what Hubbert says of this graph:

"A better appreciation of the brevity and exceptional character of the epoch of the fossil fuels can be gained if we view it in the perspective of a longer time span of human history than we have considered heretofore. In Figure 10 the complete cycle of exploitation of the world's total supply of fossil fuels, coal and petroleum, is shown on a time scale extending from 5,000 years in the past to 5,000 years in the future."

So what we see is a 10,000 year timeline along the bottom of the graph. The vertical line of the graph appears to be a measure of fossil fuel energy consumption. The upwards "blip," representing the fossil fuel epoch, spans approximately 400 years of human existence. We are, I would guess, beyond the half-way mark, heading down the other side. Please note that there is a point, just over the top, where the decline gets real steep.

Hubbert refers to this sharp and lofty rise (and decline) in the span of world history as a "transient and ephemeral epoch." 

Here is another quote from M. King Hubbert's 1976 article…

"During the last two centuries we have known nothing but exponential growth and in parallel we have evolved what amounts to an exponential-growth culture, a culture so heavily dependent upon the continuance of exponential growth for its stability that it is incapable of reckoning with problems of nongrowth."


I want to point out that the 5,000 years of history prior to our current transient and ephemeral epoch were an "agrarian epoch." And the 5,000 years after represent the neo-agrarian future that awaits us. 

It actually awaits the generations that follow us. But I really do think we as a civilization are on the other side of the industrial epoch peak. It's all downhill from here.

I also want to point out that Hubbert's timeline doesn't stop at the end of the industrial age. 

Of course, Hubbert isn't the one who decides that history goes on, but his assumption was that it will, and I think we should all consider that it will. 

Each of us has a limited history of our own on this earth, but our children and our grandchildren will follow us and, Lord willing, they will play their part in this grand panorama of Providential orchestrations. When I look at the possibilities, and probabilities and realities that lie just ahead, I am left wondering what I can do now to help my children and grandchildren to be better prepared to deal with the world as it will be.

I think one important thing that can be done is to stay ahead of the curve, so to speak. That is, to personally embrace the agrarian paradigm that has been (and will once again be) the historical norm. If we don't do this, if we cling to, and are completely dependent upon the established systems and institutional promises of a civilization that can not be sustained, that is not being helpful, to say the least.

As a Christian man, I am compelled to think multigenerationally. When I look at how God works throughout history to achieve his purposes, I see that governments and institutions play their part, but God  does his greatest work over the course of generations through humble, God-fearing families. Which brings to mind a Bible verse that I take very seriously... 

"[God's] mercy is on them that fear Him, from generation to generation." (Luke 1:50)


PioneerPreppy said...

Bravo. Nice post.

Those who believe the propaganda and place their faith in tight oil plays are not seeing the bottom line. At this point it isn't even about EROI as it is about currency manipulation. The price on oil has dropped and those companies can only compete now with zero interest rates and tax breaks (funded by us) and they are still hemorrhaging cash.

Once the cheap oil is gone the agrarian curve will plummet as well.

Eric said...

Herrick, I had read about peak oil a number of years ago and dismissed it because of the obvious hand politics plays in making energy extraction more difficult. I’m sure that BP really doesn’t revel in the added expense of drilling oil wells in deep water (Macondo?). I’m sure they would much rather work on terra firma. This is because they are not permitted to work on land as much as they would like (for various reasons).
You are looking at this from a different (macro) perspective and I appreciate that. You’re saying that regardless of the politics, or the technologies, eventually demand will outstrip supply based on current trends. Oil production cannot be infinite on a finite Earth.
I must admit that this is not something that keeps me up at night. I don’t think a sudden drop off in population will occur because of petroleum becoming unavailable. As petroleum production becomes more expensive, it makes business sense to pursue the strategies that have a lower ROI (like oil sands). Oil wells that weren’t cost effective to operate (and haven’t been run in years) will be switched back on. Drilling will be opened in new areas when the paychecks for allowing exploration on private property become larger. This will lead to a slow decline of petroleum usage caused by the increasing costs. I believe we’re seeing this trend already and society has groaned but eventually adjusted.
Personally I’m much more concerned about our central bankers’ belief that they can print dollars forever without adverse effects. Perhaps we can explore the idea of the “Peak Dollar”?

Lyle Stout said...

Peak oil is, as you have stated, about demand outstripping supply. Interestingly, the projected peak of oil roughly corresponds with the rise of the climate change debate; one goal of the group identified with what was formerly called "global warming" is to wean us off of oil. Thus, and integral part of the debate is a question of alternative energy sources. Early in this debate I remember watching some pseudo news special on television in which they questioned an engineer about the potential for net zero carbon dioxide emissions. He said at that point (2008?) there were only two viable options - bio fuels (most likely ethanol) or atomic power. He said given the projected world-wide electricity demands by 2020, the known uranium reserves in the world could sustain that demand for 25 years before they were exhausted. Or, if we should choose to use bio fuels to meet that demand instead, it would take every acre of farm-able land on earth just to produce the fuel. Remember, England was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. They invented the coal mine, and they did so because they had burned up almost every tree making charcoal to fuel their industry. So using fossil fuels began in response to the inability to sustain industrial growth via organic means.

Anonymous said...

Whether or not we should have ever exploited oil as a fuel, I'll leave to other philosophers and moralists; the fact is, we did - and we did it in a big way! The additional fact that it's limited, seems to escape an immature and sinful people, however.

While I believe it is wrong to continue to rely so heavily on such a limited resource, it is almost as wrong to go to the other extreme and believe it can be done cold-turkey. A rational and more gradual weaning of ourselves away from dependence, developing truly sustainable energy technologies, would be the way to proceed.

Sadly, I doubt we will behave rationally (and morally!) until forced to do so. After all, why do things the (comparatively!) easy way when you can do them the hard way? Expecting big industry - or big anything for that matter - to behave morally is madness; whatever solutions come, I believe will happen at the local level.

David Smith

Eric said...

Back in the mid 70's people were worried about a global cooling. Global warming came to the scene later. We’ll probably see global cooling coming back en vogue soon. Then it’ll be the warmers’ chance again.
People who believe in the theory formerly called "global warming" are trying to change people's behavior via government decree; using legislation to make fossil fuels so expensive that people organize their life to use less of them. I think this is the most generous way to characterize their actions.
Fossil fuels are a pandora's box. They cannot be un-learned. Using long-term thinking, we can only guess at how long it will be before these laws (and any new ones) are repealed (how long do countries last?) and fossil fuel becomes cheap again. I'm enough of a realist to know that fossil fuels will continue to be used for energy until the actual cost of producing the fuel (prying the substance from the depths of the earth) is so high that people seek another alternative. Even then, the change will be slow because of the massive inertia of our society (at what point do you sell your car and buy a horse?).

PioneerPreppy said...

Peak oil is not about supply and demand it is about energy return on investment. We are already using more energy to produce differing types of energy and subsidizing it behind the scenes by devaluing the dollar and stealth tax breaks.

It is also about plain economics. There is no use this type until it's gone scenario. Without cheap fossil fuels the entire economy stops and with it mass agriculture like we see today. When agriculture stops the population will decline quickly. The planet cannot sustain but a fraction of the world population we have today without cheap fossil fuels.

We will never see an end to oil because the entire thing will fall apart before we use it all up.

Everett said...

I sent this to every member of my family, even the teenagers. I recommended they actually read it and then begin to plan accordingly! I have no idea when the bubble is going to break, but I have been trying to position "things" so that if it happens in the near to far future, they just might be able to make it through the the first winter or two. And then be learning all about being in an agrarian world again. They may be pulling the moldboard themselves if they haven't thrown out the one I have stored! Hmmm, cider press,cider, turn to vinegar, preserve food, live another year or so!

Have to stop now or I"LL STILL BE RAMBLING IN THE MORNING> thanks for the post!

Herrick Kimball said...

Good comments. There are a lot of things I could say but I'll limit it.

First, I have never had any interest at all in the subject of global warming (or cooling). But if global warming is happening as a result of industrialization, I can't help but think the problem (if it is a man-made problem) is going to correct itself on the right side of "Hubberts other peak."

Peak dollar is also more on my mind than peak oil, but I think there is a very close connection between energy and the economic crisis we're currently in. It was a recent economic discussion with Steve St. Angelo, who has studied the correlation between peak oil and the economy, that led me to write this blog post. Mr. St. Angelo is of the opinion that the economy will crash so significantly, and oil extraction efforts will be so economically crippled, that our civilization will never recover. I haven't heard him mention "Hubberts other peak," but he is envisioning that right side of the graph in our near future.

Lyle— that's some good history to know. Hubbert's 1976 article, linked my essay above, begins by discussing the history of coal use and how it launched the industrial revolution.

Finally, this subject of peak oil, energy, and the economy is so big and so complex that I don't think any one person has a full grasp of the subject. We (the amateurs) all see through a glass darkly. But so do all the so-called experts.

That said, from almost all viewpoints, there is a lot of concern about the energy situation and where we're headed as a civilization. There are no easy solutions, only harsh realities. The government will surely not solve these problems. Individual people and families need to come up with their own solutions, and take care of themselves.

Herrick Kimball said...


It seems to me that living on a 6,000 acre island, with a population of 1,000 people, 13 miles off the mainland, where your kin have lived for many generations, is an ideal place to be during the decline of Western civilization. You're a smart and decent man to be doing all the things that you are doing for your family. My hat's off to you!

CHazzercise said...

It is estimated that we have enough available oil in the Texas, N Dakota and other smaller plays to be an energy exporter into the '30s at least. That is, enough to fuel America at present and estimated future rate of consumption and enough left over to export. That is conjecture, a bit anyway, but so is peak oil. Notice fuel prices have been flat over the last five or so years due to increase in supply, not to mention, huge profits have been made by oil producers, and mineral owners here in Texas where I live and elsewhere around the country. So there must be some efficiency in production. You don't need to equal the efficiency of 100 years ago when it just bubbled up out of the shallows, just enough efficiency to turn a profit. The bottom line is you innovate or you run out of resources. We could be discussing "peak whale blubber" but for innovation. Maybe worrying about peak oil and global warming due to fossil fuels is as futile as trying to prop up the buggy whip manufacturer at the turn of the last century. Only pure hubris or foolishness could convince a policy maker of his 100 year plan for energy, climate change or whatever else. No one here so much as saw the iPhone coming 15 years ago. Yes, maybe at some point we run out of oil, but we didn't have to run out of blubber or coal or land lines to develop more advanced technology. I think we have as good of chance of running short of water as fuel.....

Anonymous said...

I am more concerned with cost. If prices were to escalate due to other forces like taxes to the level of say Norway where taxes make gasoline $9-10 per gallon you then have to decide whether or not to go work and when(say 12 hour days. If those same taxes effected heating oil and transportion fuels to the same amount the transport of food and corporate/chemical based agriculture would be affected. Everything we buy from outside sources would increase in price to a point where really hard decisions would have to be made.


SheilaG said...

I believe that my direction is to learn the land, plant the land, live on the land, prepare to be able to pay taxes on the land (I OWN)(with saved currency) and teach it to my children. Log everything I have learned and done, so that it can be passed down to my children and then to my future family members.
I intend, before I die, to be able to live fully on my land owing nothing I have no debt) and needing nothing to survive. I know that there will be a lack of some things when I'm gone, however I believe the Lord will show me what I am to do, and help me to do all He shows me.
It is my prayer that no matter what happens in this world, me, and my family, will continue to love and serve the Lord with all our hearts.
It won't be long before I will not need any of what I need today to "make it". I can't wait for that day to come, it's so close.

Tucanae Services said...

The issue is not whether we will have oil. We keep find more and more all the time. The real issue is the relative cost to extract the asset from the ground. Back in the hey days of the 50's sinking a well was not a technical marvel. Now we drill ever deeper, offshore, arctic regions, etc. That additional cost for the barrel of oil has to be pass on to the consumer at the pump.

What will happen over time is that some energy functions will transition off oil and on to some other energy source. What that is, is up for grabs.