By Roger Diamond

There is a train moving across the countryside and we are all on board. Somewhere, ahead on the tracks is a bridge that ends in space where the tracks have been blown up long ago. If the train carries on moving, it will eventually plummet over the edge of the bridge and into space, condemning the occupants to death. Many of the occupants are unaware of this sure disaster coming up, but the influential passengers and the people in command of the train are fully aware of it. Yet no one is doing anything, except perhaps talk anxiously about it in hushed tones.

This analogy applies to many of the world’s environmental problems. Soil depletion, deforestation, climate change, water pollution, extinctions and so on. It also applies to oil depletion. If there is one thing that is certain, it is that oil is finite. So the train will run off the tracks when the last drop of oil is consumed. However, there is another dimension to this story.

Less certain than the finite nature of oil, but becoming clearer by the day, is where we sit on the timeline for oil depletion. Peak oil is the point at which we produce less oil today than we did yesterday. Opinions vary, but most give dates around 2005-2015 for the oil peak.

In the train analogy, peak oil is a hill in the countryside. After that hill has been passed, it is downhill all the way to the blown-out bridge. The consequence of this is that as we speed up on the downhill side, not only do we race ever faster to the end of the line, but also it becomes harder and harder to stop the train, and, as an oil super-tanker captain will tell you, the train will not stop as soon as you apply the brakes. Supertankers can take many hours to go from full steam ahead to a stop and similarly, as the train plummets down the hill, with a larger population, bursting from the windows and doors, clamouring for more oil (speed) as we go, the momentum becomes almost unstoppable and the point of no return is in fact long before we even lay our eyes on the immense chasm and the twisted, stretched filaments of railway track that lead into the emptiness.

Thinking laterally you object to this argument and ask why we cannot simply jump off the train. Very simply, you can, but you will be all alone and left behind as the rest of society races ahead, computers and internet buzzing 24 hours, goods shipping around the world and oil powering most of this. The solution lies in convincing everyone to take action — either jumping off the train, or working out a way of stopping the train. The former is a back-to-basics approach, the latter a more technological option. In reality, both will be needed.

The problem is that, if we have passed or are on the hill now, we don’t have much time. Yet the train has 6 billion people on board and a bunch of train drivers who are dead set at acceleration (economic growth) no matter what anyone says. How does one get this message out in time to save the train or the passengers? I certainly am no advocate of violence, but if history can be our lesson, sometimes the only way to change is to remove the drivers. But remember the South African story, our own proud story of political change, and there is reason to hope that negotiations can save the day.

Oil depletion is real. Peak oil is here. We are the people who make this choice: to pass over the hill and let the train continue towards the abyss with us all on board, or to stop the train and jump off into the countryside and save ourselves a certain fate.

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