I had lunch the other day with Ken, my local Ph.D. in theoretical physics who somehow ended up with a career in telecommunications. He remarked that ethanol fuel wasn't cost effective because without the government subsidies it cost more energy to make than it yielded. This reminded me of the fact that we don't have to actually run out of oil; we just have to run out of oil that takes less energy to extract than it yields. There may be lots of oil left in the ground, waiting for some more cost effective method of extraction.
I'm a fan of the blogs of several economists. One of them wrote the other day that the best way to break the ethanol myth was quit having early caucuses in Iowa. The candidates all go to Iowa and come away with the notion that corn is really important. If we had early caucuses in, I dunno, Colorado, maybe they'd think oil was important. Or toxic waste. Or snow.
Corn isn't even nutritionally that great. Mostly it's sugar and fiber. And we lack the crucial enzymes naturally to break down what amino acids it does have. Which is why you can starve to death eating corn unless it's treated with lye. I think a really interesting thriller would be to have the bulk of the U.S. population develop a food allergy to high fructose corn syrup, rendering all processed food inedible. Not as crazy as it sounds. Mrs. Overclock (a.k.a. Dr. Overclock, Medicine Woman) tells me that the development of food allergies is not well understood, happens suddenly, and is at least anecdotally linked with high exposure.
In some ways I find this thread connected with colleagues' complaints on their difficulty finding competent technical people. Welcome to our (near) future. I worked at a university for years, and we followed the "engineer production" curve closely. It's been cyclic for many many decades. A guy I used to work with when I was at a national lab always said that the big U.S. Department of Energy labs (with whom we worked closely) were a welfare program for physicists, because it was likely we'd need physicists for reasons of national security, and if we needed them, we couldn't wait a generation for the system to create them. I'm wondering if something similar is going to happen with the Information Economy. We're going to find out that we need to artificially stimulate the production of engineers because we can't tolerate the latency in the manufacturing process. This is a case where free markets don't really work. (Adam Smith didn't believe free markets totally worked either.)
Another friend of mine passed along an article in the WSJ Online where Dow Chemical got into trouble with its biggest customers by daring to suggest that maybe we should be saving oil to make important stuff like plastic, instead of burning it up. They had to backpedal when auto makers said "increase mileage -- are you crazy?!?"
To to link the threads even more, the friend who passed along that article was a technologist with multiple college degrees who left a high paying job with a large telecommunications equipment manufacturer to become a mail clerk in a civil service job for his city government. He was disgusted and just wanted to have an 8-5 job where he could turn his brain off. Another old friend of mine who is my age left the same company a few years ago to enter the police academy, a decision that while I have no desire to emulate, I never the less greatly admire. Now he's a sargeant in the police department, training other officers. These guys aren't reflected in the unemployment statistics, because they aren't unemployed; they just bailed out of the technology domain out of disgust.
I admit that seeing simularities between finding competant software engineers and peak oil may seem kind of twisted. But oil and software engineers both are resources that are not easily found or produced. In some dark part of my mind, I'm kind of looking forward to the collapse of Western Civilization. I'm pretty convinced it's all built on a house of cards, requiring cheap energy and lots of technologists to keep it running, both of which we're exhausting (in all senses). I am confident I won't survive the collapse, but what the hell, it'll at least be interesting.
One thing for sure -- upper management will find a way to blame the engineers for all of it.