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Dan Tamir

Going Back and Downhill: Why Peak Oil Makes the Study of History Crucial, and Why We Should Do It Together
Wednesday, 13th September | 14:00 – 15:30

Some perceive history as a way of telling stories about the past in an aesthetic, moral or philosophical manner; others dare to understand history as a tool for learning from our past, rendering it a practical and applied science which enables us to engage with the present and the future and inform ongoing cultural and social processes. The problem, though, is that historical repetitions and similarities are usually traced and found in retrospect, not in real time. But what if tomorrow is going to have many similarities with the past? The era after peak oil may be such a historical era.

Human cultures are embedded in their material environments; their cultural heritages are shaped by their respective environments. Like all other animals, humans need external energy sources for their existence; human societies, accordingly, may be seen as a mean for distributing energy. Energy resources are needed for all human activities. The history of mankind may therefore be divided to eras, according to the prevailing “energy regimes” of each: the old regime which was based on annually renewable energy cycles, and the new regime, which is based on the usage of fossil fuels. The new regime can also be divided into sub-eras, of coal, of petroleum and of gas.

During the past 120 years, an entire industrial civilisation was built and became dependent on the constant and increasing use of petroleum. But since petroleum is a finite, non-renewable resource, its supply curve should take the form of a hill: first increasing, and then – after reaching its peak –  dwindling and going down. This natural process, which may soon deprive industrial civilisation from one of its most crucial resources, could take it gradually back to material and environmental conditions resembling those of pre-industrial societies. And this is where history becomes highly practical: in preparing us for a future already witnessed in the past.

The paper first briefly reviews the place of energy research in contemporary historical analysis. It then looks at the deep meaning of the introduction of petroleum to human life and the way modern societies became totally dependent on this resource. Thirdly, it will present three examples  of cases in which the decreasing availability of this resource may soon force us to go back in time in order to re-adopt or restore past technologies, methods and institutions – arguing finally that this re-adopting and restoring process will best be made in a de-centralised yet connected and communal manner.