The Tragic Tale of Peat Village: A Natural Resource Fable

It was Ireland, during the 11th Century, in a tiny little community called Peat Village.

Peat Village was nothing special, just a tiny village on the edge of a huge peat bog. People there lived very simply back then, and life in this forlorn little village was at best brutish and short. Average life expectancy was 24 years, disease was rampant, and famine and hunger were constant realities.

One day in Peat Village a villager stumbled onto a significant discovery. The peat from the bog next to the village could be used as a fuel! Yes, it was a dirty fuel--it was awfully smoky when it burned--and of course it had to be harvested, treated and dried before it would really burn well, but without a doubt it could be used as a serviceable fuel. And there was so much of it! This villager began using peat to heat his home, his food and his water. In the following years, he and his family enjoyed a meaningfully improved standard of living.

Others in Peat Village caught on to the idea of using peat as a fuel, and they began heating their food water and homes too. Their standard of living also increased. It wasn't long before everyone in Peat Village was burning peat, and as this little community's living standards improved, things changed irrevocably for the better: disease became just a little less rampant, food became a just little more plentiful, and life expectancy became just a little bit longer. Life became a little less brutish and short.

However, there was a very intelligent villager living in Peat Village who began to worry. He wondered about the longer-term consequences if everyone in Peat Village continued to use peat to heat their homes and their food and water. He started to worry about what would happen if Peat Village ran out of peat.

And he was right to worry about this. It was clear--to the point of obviousness--that there was a limited supply of peat. Yet each year, villagers used more and more of it. What would happen when, inevitably, all the peat was used up?

The other villagers considered this nothing more than scaremongering. Some laughed. But this very intelligent villager was absolutely certain he was right. He could see the writing on the wall. After all, when the supply of a resource is fixed and demand is growing, it is only a matter of time before that resource runs out. It could be years, it could be decades, but the logic was inescapable: at some point--probably soon--Peat Village would run completely out of peat.

Clearly, this would be an unmitigated disaster for the Peat Village community. "Peak Peat" was coming, and with it would come a total collapse in the peat-based economy.

Our scaremonger friend traveled throughout Peat Village to spread the word. He created a list of rules and recommendations for peat conservation for all the residents to follow so they could avoid, or at least postpone, the inevitable Peak Peat catastrophe. He encouraged villages to use peat only when absolutely necessary, if at all. He got into many debates with villagers who didn't agree with him. After all, the villagers wanted to keep their heated homes and heated food. These things improved their quality of life and their standard of living. And some of the villagers thought it was silly to just leave the peat sitting there in the bog completely unused when it had brought about such improvements in their community. Finally, the villagers said, it will be a long time before we use up all of our peat. In the meantime perhaps we will discover another fuel source to replace it.

But our scaremonger friend didn't think very much of the intelligence of these villagers. He considered them unsophisticated and naive, and he mocked them by calling them "deniers." He told them they already achieved significant improvements in their standard of living, and it would be impossible (and not to mention irresponsible) to maintain their current living standards in the post-Peak Peat era.

There was another vaguely bothersome thing about this scaremonger villager. It a small thing, but bothersome nonetheless: since he traveled so much throughout Peat Village, he didn't exactly follow all of the peat conservation rules he set down for all the other villagers. When he stayed at inns and homes across the village, he would often enjoy peat fires and peat-heated food. He reduced his peat use slightly in his own home, but because he was so successful speaking, writing and teaching about Peak Peat, his thatched hut was one of the largest in the entire village. It took quite a bit of peat just to heat a small portion of his house! But in any case, he told himself, his personal use wasn't all that important. What was more important was that he get out the word about Peak Peat and the coming catastrophe that would inevitably follow.

Centuries later (our scaremonger friend lived for a very long time, you see), a new and revolutionary fuel came along. It was called "coal." Coal was hundreds of times more efficient than peat, far cleaner, and in every sense a superior energy source. In Coal County, which wasn't very far from Peat Village, homes and industries switched over to this new and advanced fuel. As a result, Coal County began to enjoy a significantly improved standard of living.

But not tiny Peat Village. They were still busy preparing for Peak Peat: conserving peat as much as they could, shivering over their tiny peat fires, huddling around their half-warmed meals, and earnestly following the rules and guidelines as they were told. Their standard of living hadn't increased at all for centuries, and their community never developed sufficient scientific or engineering expertise nor any extra economic capacity to make use of a newfangled energy source like coal.

In the meantime, our scaremonger friend continued traveling widely, spending the passing centuries getting the word out on the coming collapse of the peat-based economy. Since he’d already fully convinced everyone in Peat Village of his views (what few remaining "deniers" there were had been totally ostracized by the community), he often found himself traveling into Coal County to give speeches on Peak Peat. Sadly, he couldn't find many people in Coal County who were interested in conserving peat, as hard as he tried. Peak Peat just didn't seem to be a priority there.

One day, however, after giving yet another sparsely attended speech in Coal County, our very intelligent villager stumbled onto a brilliant insight: The supply of coal had to be limited too!

Once again, he could clearly see the inescapable logic: when the supply of a resource is fixed and demand is growing, it is only a matter of time before that resource runs out. It could be years, it could be decades, but the logic was inevitable: at some point--probably soon--Coal County would run out of coal. This would be an unmitigated disaster. A collapse in the coal-based economy was coming, and coming soon.

And he was right to worry about this. It was clear--to the point of obviousness--that there was a limited supply of coal. And yet every year more and more people were burning more and more of it. What would happen when, inevitably, all of it would get used up? Peak Coal was coming. Anyone who doubted so was clearly a denier.

Our scaremonger friend began traveling even more widely (even using coal-based modes of transportation) in order to get the word out. He created a list of rules and recommendations for coal conservation for the residents of Coal County to follow so they could avoid, or at least postpone, the inevitable Peak Coal catastrophe.

By this time, he hardly ever visited his friends back in Peat Village any more. With all of his important work on coal conservation, there was just no time.

Another century or two passed. Coal began to be replaced by a new and even better energy source called "oil." It was far more efficient than coal, hundreds of times less polluting, and all around an infinitely more flexible and useful fuel. In fact, it was such a superior fuel that throughout Oil Nation (which was just few days' journey by coal-powered steamship from Coal County) most homes and industries quickly switched over to this advanced fuel. As a result, Oil Nation enjoyed a much improved standard of living.

The residents of Coal County, however, were still preparing for Peak Coal: conserving as much coal as they could, huddling over their modest coal fires, and earnestly following the rules and guidelines set down by our scaremongering friend, just as they were told. Sadly, however, their standard of living hadn't increased at all for several generations, and needless to say, their community never developed the scientific expertise nor the extra economic capacity to make use of a newfangled energy source like oil.

Our scaremonger friend continued to travel widely, often using coal- and even oil-based energy to the extent he needed to. After all, spreading the coal conservation message was far more important than following a few minor rules, you see.

Interestingly, by this time, he never used peat-based energy at all. Why would he use such a laughably primitive fuel source, especially with such important work to do?

One fine day, while he was speaking to a mostly empty auditorium in Oil Nation (oddly enough, there wasn't very much interest in Peak Coal there), he hit on yet another truth. Admittedly it was a somewhat derivative truth, but it was staggering in its implications: the supply of oil had to be limited!

Once again, he could clearly see the inescapable logic: when the supply of a resource is fixed and demand is growing, it is only a matter of time before that resource runs out. It could be years, it could be decades, but the logic was inevitable: at some point--probably soon--Oil Nation would run out of oil. This would be an unmitigated disaster. A collapse in the oil-based economy was coming. And coming soon.

It was clear--to the point of obviousness--that there was a limited supply of oil, yet every year, more and more people used more and more of it. What would happen when, inevitably, it was all used up? Peak Oil was coming. Anyone who doubted it was a denier.

Our scaremonger friend redoubled his efforts. There was important work to do! He created a list of rules and recommendations for oil conservation for all Oil Nation citizens to follow, so they could avoid, or at least postpone, a Peak Oil catastrophe. He began traveling even more widely, all over Oil Nation and beyond, and his utterly logical and inescapable conclusions became so widely accepted and respected that he began receiving invitations to speak internationally at major conferences like Davos and the World Economic Forum. He became one of the world's wealthy elites, sharing his important and far-seeing knowledge through books, speeches and media appearances.

Needless to say, he never visited Coal County any more. His work on Peak Oil was far too important.

And of course, by this time we'd all but forgotten about the people of Peat Village.


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7 comments:

Guy T. said...

Scoff all you like, but Peak Sun is coming!

I enjoyed that post. Great analogy.

Ronda said...

Excellent!

Lauren said...

Tell me, why do you insinuate that energy conservation of any kind leads to the stagnation of all social and technological progress? Efficiency is not anathema to capitalism.

Daniel said...

Lauren, I really think the more central idea here is that resources give way to other, future, resources. And that scaremongering about a coming collapse in "X" can be really good, economically, for the people doing the scaremongering and making the rules.

I'm in no way making an argument that we should all just... waste all our peat. :)

DK

Anonymous said...

Wind power, however, will always be renewable because of the hot air expelled during the raging debates about peat vs. coal. vs. oil vs. the next big thing.

Lauren said...

I work in public health; I HATE scare mongering. It is poison to informed choice, which is my guiding principle in pretty much all things.

B'ville Dan said...

Cool fable. But I think your protagonist would have been harder to lampoon if his issue had been climate change from unrestrained fossil fuels instead of resource scarcity.