Wandering around the web, I found this OECD graph on per-capita oil use in residential/commercial/agricultural uses reproduced here
It raises some interesting points
Most importantly, in sense that is actually relevant to most of the arguments on this topic, peak oil happened before most of us (not me, sadly) were born. That is, on average, people in our parents’ generation used twice as much oil each year, in residential, commercial and agricultural uses, as we are using today. The turnaround took a bit longer for motor fuel, but the basic patterns is the same. Looking at this graph, the idea that ever-increasing use of oil is necessary to modern life is obviously false. Extrapolation is dangerous, but the graph implies that OECD consumption of oil is converging to the LDC level, and not, as most peak oil analyses assume, vice versa
This outcome is mainly the result of the fourfold increase in the price of oil in 1973. Prices have fluctuated since then, but on average the 1973 increase has been sustained. In addition, the oil shock led to the adoption of a variety of policies aimed at reducing reliance on oil. As with the price increase, these policies haven’t been pursued consistently, but the general tendency has been to discourage oil use. Together, over four decades, prices and policies have reduced consumption per person by half. We’ll need more vigorous measures to reduce carbon emissions per person by 80 per cent, but there’s no reason it can’t be done.
Oil was mostly replaced by gas and coal-fired electricity, so there wasn’t a big reduction in carbon emissions. But there’s a strong similarity between arguments about the special properties of oil (easy storage and transport, energy density and so on) that made it the preferred fuel in nearly all uses in 1973, and arguments about the various inconveniences of renewables (intermittency and storage problems). The example of oil shows that if the price signals are right, people will find a way to switch from one energy source to another, regardless of the convenient properties of the original source.
The other source of reduction in oil use was increased energy efficiency. Again the graph above is a convenient refutation of claims about an inevitable ‘rebound’ effect. If increased energy efficiency is a response to a higher prices, there will be no such effect.
fn.1 BTW, it was my birthday yesterday – thanks to Megan (who dug this fact out of the archives) and others for birthday wishes