Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

April 14, 2008

Host: Ted Simons

The End of the World as We Know It

  • Last week University of Arizona Professor Guy McPherson wrote a provocative article in The Arizona Republic predicting the end of the world because of peak oil. McPherson joins us to discuss his theory.
  • Guy McPherson - University of Arizona Professor

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
On Sunday, April 6th, an Op-Ed piece appeared in the "Viewpoint" section of the Arizona Republic, entitled "The End of The World as We Know It". It was written by Guy R. McPherson, a professor of natural resources and ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona. Starting with a concept of peak oil, McPherson did nothing less than predict the end of the world. I spoke with Guy McPherson last week.

Ted Simons:
Peak oil spells the end of civilization. Provocative, you really think so?

Guy McPherson:

Ted Simons:
Talk to me about it.

Guy McPherson:
Well, our entire way of life in this country is built on ready supplies of inexpensive oil. And we know that oil supplies follow a bell-shaped curve. This was said by M. King Hubbard in 1956, the year he predicted the United States would reach its peak in 1970, and it did. We've passed the world oil peak, that halfway point of the production, about three years ago. And it looks as if we're going to fall off the oil supply cliff later this year, going from 74.3 million barrels a day at peak to 73.3 million per day all of last year on average, to somewhere around 70 or fewer barrels per day this year. It only gets worse from there in terms of the production of oil. And we lose probably on the order of 6\% or so a year. That's a significant problem given that demand is screaming up, and supply is falling down. So the disparity between those suggest that we'll hit $400 oil within the next decade or so, and we won't be refining $400 oil to put into gas tanks or turn it into diesel. Therefore we won't be able to use to it supply food to the grocery store or deliver water through our taps. That's the end of civilization.

Ted Simons:
Okay. But you mentioned production peaked. What about reserves?

Guy McPherson:
Reserves are -- well, there are stated reserves and actual reserves, and there is discovery. Discovery peaked in 1964 in the world. We haven't found significant sources of new oil for a very long time. Stated reserves are questionable because there are political reasons to increase the reserves in OPEC countries, for example. They get a portion of the income based on their stated reserves. So while they've been pumping like crazy for the last 15 years, no reserves have declined in any country. That sounds a little dubious to me. And then there are actual reserves which are very, very difficult to get a handle on. But we know that the model suggests when we peak, in terms of production. And countries are producing flat out at $112 oil now. Countries are producing oil as quickly as they can.

Ted Simons:
And you're right that in 2015 the depression will seem like the good old days. Most experts predict complete collapse followed by reckless anarchy. Does this only look at one result, without maybe some huge innovation, which between now and reckless anarchy, whatever it may be, something might give and develop?

Guy McPherson:
Well, sure. And my hope is that people will behave, right? So the existence of Buddhist monks says that we can power down with the tranquility of Buddhist monks. The country suggests otherwise. If you look at Katrina, which everybody recognized as a temporary inconvenience, look at how people behaved in that situation. It makes me wonder how people behave when the power goes out and the supply is disrupted at the gas tank, when the water's not coming through the taps. I think anarchy is the best we can hope for. It's a form of government, and chaos is probably a more likely outcome. Can we innovate out of this? I don't see any way. Can we organize out of this? I don't see any way. And furthermore, I don't see any leadership.

Ted Simons:
With so little offered, it's really hellish times in the future. I can see where critics are saying this is a series of scare tactics, pushing a political agenda. There isn't even an end to the tunnel. How do you respond?

Guy McPherson:
Well, I have no political agenda. It certainly doesn't serve my so-called career, or my own economic situation to talk about -- to know about what's coming. In many ways I wish I didn't know what was coming.

Ted Simons:
I can see where some would say, I think this guy really wants to see economic and cultural collapse. He's almost -- the way you put things, the end of this and the nature of that, I'm not hearing fear, I'm not hearing alarm, I'm hearing almost a matter of fact. You don't want to see this, do you?

Guy McPherson:
From a personal perspective, it's disastrous for me, just as it is for most living Americans. But let's take a broader view. Let's be concerned for example about other species and cultures or even about our own species. I think if humans exist beyond the end of the next century or two, it will be only because we didn't fry the planet beyond the point of habitability, and if we stop burning fossil fuels relatively cold turkey. The climate change assessment suggests the business as usual projection will get us temperature increases by the end of this century, three degrees. That's dinosaur days, no planetary ice. If we're going to prevent that, it'll be only because we stopped burning fossil fuels. On the one hand, while it will completely destroy my 401(k) and basically my way of life, on the other hand I think the only way for humans to exist beyond another generation or five, is if we stop burning fossil fuels right away.

Ted Simons:
Thank you so much for joining us, Mr. McPherson.

Guy McPherson:
Thank you, I appreciate the opportunity.

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