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Media Release for Immediate Use
24 August 2004, Wellington


“[The] problem is that electricity is taken for granted. Just flip the switch and things happen. In short: Electricity is the quintessence of the 'modern way of life', but the electric power systems themselves are demanding, dangerous, and delicate. All this suggests that permanent blackouts will be strongly correlated with the collapse of Industrial Civilization — the so-named ‘Olduvai cliff’.”

Dr Richard Duncan


Modern life is beholden to electricity. Most people don’t give it a second thought believing this way of life will continue indefinitely, in fact the United States have made it their slogan — “the American way of life is not negotiable”. We’ll still be flying around the globe, driving SUVs, watching LCD TV screens, purchasing processed food, CDs, DVDs, living in our energy hungry suburban McMansion’s in 20, 30, 60 years time. In actual fact we’ll get better at doing all this stuff in future years, right? Wrong!

Dr Richard Duncan’s “Olduvai Theory” (1) predicts the life span of the industrial era to be around 100 years: 1930-2030. Duncan’s theory is based on empirical energy production data which shows energy production per capita peaking in 1979 and subsequently declining at a rate of 0.33% from 1979 to 1999. As the peak oil event begins to take hold in the next year or two and depletion becomes evident, as populations, economic growth and demand continue to globally explode unabated we will approach what Duncan calls the “Olduvai cliff”.

Duncan states, “Should this occur, any number of factors could be cited as the causes of collapse. I believe, however, that the collapse will be strongly correlated with an epidemic of permanent blackouts of high-voltage electric power networks — worldwide. Briefly explained: “When the electricity goes out, you are back in the Dark Age. And the Stone Age is just around the corner.”

We ought to be quite careful about dismissing Duncan’s ideas out of hand. After all the UK, the United States and other heavily developed countries have already seen crippling major electricity blackouts caused by demand exceeding available supply during peak consumption periods. New Zealand currently teeters on a knife-edge, balancing supply and demand.

ACT’s Ken Shirley (2) is just another politician who thinks it is possible to maintain strong economic growth and at the same time depend increasingly on a fossil-fuel driven economy. This kind of thinking is fatally flawed.

The problem with the equation is that it completely ignores the fact that the depletion of finite resources (such as oil and natural gas) at ever increasing rates is in every respect unsustainable, it seriously underestimates the dependence on energy to drive our economy. As these fuels inevitably become scarce and more expensive our current way of life will significantly erode. Multibillion dollar multilane highways will empty of drivers, unemployment, breadlines and homelessness will follow.

Ken Shirley’s call for the electricity market to be reformed is nothing more than deck chair rearrangement. One of the primary objectives of modern economic theory and free markets is to exploit finite resources at ever-quicker rates. This is called competitive advantage. Until this fundamentally flawed dogma is overturned we are on the road to the Olduvai Cliff. Growing the creation and consumption of “value-added” products and increasing the amount of electricity we consume will just shorten the time it takes us to get there.

PowerLess NZ
24 August 2004

(1) Dr Duncan, Richard., (2000). THE PEAK OF WORLD OIL PRODUCTION AND THE ROAD TO THE OLDUVAI GORGE http://www.dieoff.org/page224.htm.
(2) Ken Shirley, Aug 23, 2004. Electricity Reforms Need Kick-Start Now, http://www.scoop.co.nz/mason/stories/PA0408/S00387.htm.

PowerLess NZ is a growing group of scientists, energy analysts and concerned citizens whose principle objectives are to alert both Government and the general public to New Zealand’s looming energy crisis. Our aim is to support development of renewable energy resources at both a private and public level, as well as encourage a firm move away from dependence upon fossil fuels.