The Coronado Club, in downtown Houston, is an unlikely place to contemplate the end of life as we know it. Plush and hushed, with solemn black waiters in crisp black jackets, the private enclave practically exudes wealth and stability. Captains of local industry enter and exit purposefully, commanding their usual tables, wearing the best suits. Everybody knows everybody else. The light is flattering. The wine room is nicely stocked.
But here is Matthew R. Simmons, the head of one of the largest investment banking firms in the world, stabbing at his salad greens and heatedly discussing the chaos to come when, as he has long predicted, global oil production peaks and for the rest of our time on earth we struggle and suffer and barely endure under a diminishing supply of fuel until it disappears entirely. This idea is known as “peak oil,” and Simmons is its most fervent, and fearsome, apostle. As he puts it, “I don’t see why people are so worried about global warming destroying the planet—peak oil will take care of that.”
Slashing through his entrée, barely stopping for breath, he describes a bleak future, in which demand for oil will always surpass supply, the price will continue to rise—“so fast your head will spin”—and all sorts of problems in our carbon-dependent world will ensue. As fuel shortfalls complicate global delivery routes and leave farmers unable to run their tractors, we will face massive food shortages. Products made with petroleum, from asphalt and plastic to fabrics and computer chips, will also become scarcer and scarcer. Standards of living will fall, and people will not be able to pay their debts. Lending will tighten, and eventually there will be major defaults. Growth will cease, and hoarding will set in as oil becomes increasingly rare. Then, according to Simmons, the wars will begin. That is the peak oil scenario.