Summer gas prices are going through the roof, oil stocks are hitting the stars. And sunny-side-up environmentalists and alternative energy promoters are busy with their I-told-you-so's.
But what if they're dead wrong? What if there are no benign and feasible substitutes for fossil and nuclear fuels after all? What if we've all been blowing hot air and solar, wind, corn and hydrogen are doomed as solutions to the gap left by dwindling cheap oil supplies?
Meet Richard Heinberg, ecologist, pagan, professor, author of Powerdown: Options And Actions For A Post-Carbon World and now a hot item on the international lecture circuit.
When Heinberg made the case a few years ago about how we will hit global oil peak sometime between 2006 and 2015, it sounded intriguing but doomsdayish. Now it's the industry standard, accepted as inevitable by oil giants like Exxon Mobil and Chevron, not to mention U.S. industry policy insiders like Robert Hirsch.
But what sets Heinberg apart from other greens in this developing international debate is his concept of an imminent, long-lasting and cataclysmic "energy famine' and his call for drastic lifestyle changes - voluntary simplicity, and perhaps even poverty.
I met him this summer in Dublin at a conference and had a hard time reconciling his calm and gentle personality with his dire messages. Even-handed and mild-mannered, Heinberg was a member of an intentional community and the rock group Shambala when he lived in Toronto in the 1970s before taking up his teaching job at activist-oriented New College of California. His own preferences are for a gentle and cooperative Kropotkin-style anarchism and communitarianism, he freely admits. But he argues that he has no choice but to engage the logic of the facts.
High demand for cheap industrial-quality fuel in Europe, North America and now India and China will collide with low supply long before any alternatives that can drive change, he says. And none of the proposed substitutes for cheap oil - unconventional oil, natural gas, hydrogen, wind power, solar PVs, nuclear, clean coal or even dirty coal - are up to the job. There is no magic elixir or technical fix, Heinberg insists.
His books, Powerdown and the earlier The Party's Over: Oil, War And The Fate Of Industrial Societies, make a convincing case that each of the imagined substitutes for today's cheap oil is either too expensive, too hard to transport, too scarce, too dangerous, too politically charged or too counterproductive - that is, like Alberta's tar sands, its production consumes more fossil fuel energy than it delivers.
To make matters worse, this fuel crisis will coincide with broader energy and enviro crises, namely peak fish, peak water, peak atmosphere, peak climate. We're all in hot water.
"Peak oil will bring these simmering issues to a boil,' he says.
But its not just his lack of faith in the standard green-energy options that separates him from the rest of the eco community. It's his call for breathtaking population reductions. Here he cuts loose from the lefty and humanist crowds, whom he deems unwilling to confront the need for far-reaching cutbacks in human population and conventional comfort levels.
The planet, he says, simply doesn't have the "carrying capacity." Easily accessible fossil fuels, the energy stored up over hundreds of millions of years, allowed the global human population to swell from less than 1 billion at the onset of the European industrial revolution to over 6 billion and heading to 9 billion today.
Fossil-fuel-powered farm machines freed up about a quarter of the land that once went to feed oxen, buffalo, horses and other working animals, while fossil-fuel-based fertilizers allowed farmers to grow nutrient-hungry crops on the same land every year. Both changes freed up resources and space that made populous cities and industries possible.
Ready or not, we'll all be caught when that energy windfall is burnt up, Heinberg says. The choice is to plan our way into a long, relatively slow decline, or to be forced into crash-speed changes when the inevitable arrives in the not-too-distant future.
I'm having a hard time with the policy implications of limiting human population - and just as rough a time coming up with a realistic alternative scenario to Heinberg's. If we really only have a 10-to-30-year time slot left to influence public opinion and the political process - and even mainstream thinkers believe this - then the new infrastructure is way, way behind.
Fact is, I'm less optimistic than usual. It's now inescapably clear that neither the powers that be nor ordinary folk around the world will ever limit fossil fuel use simply because those fuels upset the planet's climate systems or cause pollution that endangers humans and other species.
The 1990s were supposed to be the turnaround decade, but nobody turned.
This June's G8 conference in Scotland came to an abrupt end after terrorist bombings in London, and the discussion about global warming had to make way for another front-burner. The Kyoto Accords don't cover China or the U.S., the two biggest fossil burners.
Peak oil and Heinberg's analysis of it at least give us something to work with. We've been unable to turn environmental necessity into economic virtue. Maybe we can do a better job turning economic necessity into environmental virtue.