Peak Thinking Revisited

My column for the magazine last week is finally online — it’s a critical look at the current craze for “peak” thinking, not just oil, but fish, carbon, debt, and so on.

I don’t buy into much of, for two main reasons. First, a lot of it buys into tired old Malthusianism. Second, it neglects the role of innovation, not just in technology but also in policies, institutions, even just in plain old moral consciousness. (Think of the scene in Mad Men when Don and Betty celebrate their new car by going for a picnic. When they get up to go, they leave their garbage strewn across the grass. That behaviour was normal then, and is completely unthinkable now.

Anyone else out there remember their “peak Christmas”? That was the Christmas when the number of presents I received, which had been climbing steadily each year, maxed out. After that, each year brought fewer and fewer gifts, and more and more relatives decided that I was too old to keep pandering to. Or how about “peak sex”? That’s the moment in a relationship after which the frequency of sex goes into terminal decline, and the cost of actually getting some gets steadily dearer.

The thing is, once you see how the pattern works, you can apply peaknik thinking to just about everything. But peak sex doesn’t mean the end of the relationship. Why? Because people find other, frequently more stable, reasons for staying together. Peak Christmas was no big deal — you realize there is more to the holiday than getting presents. In short, people innovate; they find replacements for whatever good is in decline, which actually end up not just preserving but also strengthening the relevant institution. I see no reason why peak oil is the end of our way of life, any more than peak sex is the end of marriage.

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