Near Victoria Station in London they began to build a tower-block advertised as ‘The Peak’. I expected it to resemble Mont Blanc. After a few floors, it was finished, and the top of the façade projected like the peak of a baseball cap. I felt cheated.
Peak is a vogue word that itself has gone through peak usage. Earlier this month, Steve Howard, Ikea’s chief sustainability officer (yes, the chief one), said in a seminar: ‘In the West we have probably hit peak stuff. We talk about peak oil. I’d say we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff, peak home furnishings.’ It was an engaging observation, but poor Mr Howard was mocked as though he were Gerald Ratner. Mr Ratner had said of one of his own company’s products: ‘People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, “Because it’s total crap.” ’ I couldn’t see there was any harm in his remark, and there was even less in Mr Howard’s, since he went on to expand on the lovely sustainable things that Ikea was now selling instead. But peak has been so done to death that even its jocular use is becoming wearisome. ‘Aspen hits peak snow,’ said the Sun the other day in its skiing forecast. (It seems that Sun readers go skiing in Colorado.)
It all stems from ‘peak oil’, a theory made popular by Marion King Hubbert (a man), who lived from 1903 to 1989 and noted that the rate of petroleum production follows a bell-shaped curve. After you extract the most, you then extract less until none is left. The top of the curve is the peak. In 1974, Hubbert said that ‘if current trends continue’ world oil production would peak in 1995. They didn’t and it didn’t. People still wondered if we had reached peak oil, and asked the question of every other finite resource or fashion.
Worries about peakiness were adumbrated in 1899 when someone wrote in the Oakland (California) Tribune: ‘If the business houses should all want to illuminate their fronts with electricity, there would be serious difficulty about carrying the “peak load”.’ They found a way, as we do still, until the lights go out.