The Fossil Fuel Depletion Crisis

Timothy Wilken

A Description of the Problem

The electrical power crisis in California during the summer of 2001 drew national and world attention to a shortage of crude oil and natural gas. The exposure of the ENRON corporation’s fraudulent manipulation of the energy market has lead some to believe there is no real problem. I wish this were true.

Fossil fuels are currently the primary source of the cheap energy that powers our modern Industrial Civilization. If we are running out of crude oil and natural gas, as some of the best scientists and engineers in the energy field are telling us, we have big problems.

Think back for a moment to the year 1801, only two hundred years ago, that was a time when there was no gasoline, no refined oil, no natural gas, and no electrical power derived from oil and gas. As a thought experiment, try to imagine what life was like at the beginning of the 19th century. If you were transported back two hundred years, how would the lack of petroleum affect your lifestyle?

While we might accurately imagine the loss of cheap energy from petroleum, most of us would overlook the 70,000 products that are manufactured using petroleum as a raw feedstock. This includes plastics, acrylics, cosmetics, paints, varnishes, asphalts, fertilizers, medications, etc., etc., etc..

Now, in addition to our loss of cheap energy and the 70,000 products that you and I have come to depend on, imagine our sharing that impoverished Earth with six billion other humans?

Industrial civilization, as we know it, cannot exist without petroleum. We humans are facing an extinction level crisis. Any careful examination of the writings and papers of the world’s leading energy scientists will convince the reader of the validity of the fossil fuel energy crisis.

This problem is real and it is even worse than it appears.

Richard C. Duncan, Ph.D. of the Institute on Energy and Man, explains our crisis in his Olduvai Theory:

“In 1989, I concluded that the life-expectancy of Industrial Civilization is horridly short. This hypothesis was defined in terms of a measurable index, world energy-use per person, and named the “transient-pulse theory of Industrial Civilization.” I sketched its maximum point at 1990, followed by a persistent decline. Ö By 1996, however, I had successfully tested the Olduvai theory against numerous sets of data. The following facts emerge.

  • The broad sweep of human history can be divided into three phases.
  • The first, or pre-industrial phase was a very long period of equilibrium when simple tools and weak machines limited economic growth.
  • The second, or industrial phase was a very short period of non-equilibrium that ignited with explosive force when powerful new machines temporarily lifted all limits to growth.
  • The third, or de-industrial phase lies immediately ahead during which time the industrial economies will decline toward a new period of equilibrium, limited by the exhaustion of nonrenewable resources and continuing deterioration of the natural environment.

“The life-expectancy of Industrial Civilization is less than one-hundred (100) years. Industrial Civilization doesn’t evolve. Rather, it rapidly consumes “the necessary physical prerequisites” for its own existence. It’s short-term, unsustainable. “This is a one shot affair – there will be one chance, and one chance only.””

“The Olduvai theory states that the life-expectancy of Industrial Civilization, defined in terms of world energy use per capita (e), is less than or equal to 100 years.

“HISTORY: We know that the peak of (e) occurred in 1979 and that (e) declined from 1979 to 1999 (the ‘slope’).

“FUTURE: The Olduvai theory predicts that (e) will decline even faster from 2000 to the so-named ‘cliff event’ (the ‘slide’). The ‘cliff event’ is forecast to occur in year 2012.


In Barry Carter‘s book Infinite Wealth, he recognizes and discusses the danger of our entering another Dark Age. He explains, that unless humanity reorganizes itself into a win-win society, there will be no worthwhile future for our children and their children. I am in full agreement.

Most of those aware of the fossil fuel energy crisis are focusing on trying to find more fossil fuels. So far this has proved very difficult. And, even if we could find more fossil fuels that might be even more dangerous because of Global Warming.

Jay Hanson (the Paul Revere of the fossil fuel depletion-over population crisis) as well as many first rate energy scientists see no solutions. Hanson fears a die off in which billions of humans could die with only a small nucleus, perhaps as few as 10-40 million humans, surviving as new hunter-gatherers.

Many of Hanson’s followers are peeling off and preparing to head for the hills, and return to a pre-Industrial Age lifestyle. This reminds me of the “survivalist thinking” that was common during the gas crisis of the 1970s. But our problems in the 1970s were political and blew over. Our problems today are physical and won’t blow over.

Richard Duncan has recently revised his predictions of the coming fossil fuel energy crisis to an even more urgent status. His most recent calculations using data on both crude oil and natural gas paints an even darker picture. No pun intended. He says the rolling blackouts that started in California this past month (February 2001) are only the beginning. His latest calculations published March 6, 2001 show:

“My previous study put the ‘cliff event’ in year 2012. However, it now appears that 2012 was TOO OPTIMISTIC.

“The newest study indicates that the ‘cliff event’ will occur about 5 years earlier than 2012 due an epidemic of ‘rolling blackouts’ that have already begun in the US. This ‘electrical epidemic’ spreads nationwide, then worldwide, and by ca. 2007 most of the blackouts are permanent. The ‘modern way of life’ is history by ca. 2025.”

If Dr. Duncan is right, then we have only a handful of years to change the world.

We are indeed facing crisis. But with the danger of crisis always comes opportunity. Our challenge is to deflect the danger and embrace the opportunity?

If we are to have a future, it will be one where we are enormously more efficient. We must organize in ways that allow us to do more with less. We must reduce our Energy use to less than 10% of its current level. This will require a major reorganization of our society. If you would like think about how we might work together to create some solutions to this crisis take a look here.


Here are Duncan’s 1996 paper on the Olduvai Theory, and his followup paper of November 2000. I also recommend two papers by Jay Hanson, Energy Synopsis and A Means of Control . For those who like their Truth unvarnished, the whole story can be found at Jay Hanson´s excellent website. Also see:

Colin J. Campbell’s address to Parliament

Colin J. Campbell and Jean H. Laherr‘re in Scientific American, March 1998

L.F. Ivanhoe, Get Ready For Another Oil Shock

Matthew Simmons is one of the leading energy advisors to President George Bush and the United States Congress.