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Peak Oil and Power Down


I’ve recently read Richard Heinberg’s books The Party’s Over and Power Down, which don’t pretend that a terminal energy crisis isn’t already upon us, and I’ve now moved on to the classic Small is Beautiful by EF Schumacher. Schumacher may be a bit of a rhetorical genius, plus he’s got a good bit of common sense and wisdom.

The reality of our situation, as I see it, is that we have been progressively and exponentially squandering–wasting!–the once-given geologic reserves of fossil fuels.  Not only is oil finite and destined to be exhausted by our ever-increasing energy demands; the economic precursors and descendents of that super-industrial fuel–coal and natural gas–are also finite. 

Renewable resources are certainly an option, but solar, wind, and tidal energy cannot begin to replace the vast energy glut we have been increasingly wallowing in during the period of industrial civilization.  Besides that, each of them–with the arguable exception of solar panels–comes with a rather heavy environmental price: farms of windmills pose the threat of slicing up mass numbers of birds, while both tidal and river dams threaten fish and other marine life.

Even if these negative environmental impacts were somehow mitigated or even completely done away with, indications are that we would need hundreds of thousands of square miles of wind and solar farms to create a workable amount of energy for civilization at its current scale–and even then, we would be operating at power levels much lower than we have become accustomed.

Nuclear power is just stupid, because at any level it creates radioactive waste that takes tens to hundreds of thousands of years to decay.  The costs of building nuclear power plants plus creating tombs in which to bury and monitor the waste are astronomical, from what I gather.

So to me it seems clear that we are all in for a rude awakening as we power down from our industrial binge.  What we need is a return to human-scale communities and technologies, and to work towards humanely decreasing population and getting right with the comparatively meager energy income we receive as a bounty from the sun. 

While turning off lights, minimizing computer and teevee usage, biking and walking are all noble steps that we can take as individuals, we need a concerted, concentrated effort from the highest levels of political organization to dismantle corporations and other large-scale energy consumers–which ironically means that we will have to ask governments to scale down their own bureaucratic bulks.  Finally, we should see the "War on Terror" for the corporate lie that it is, divest our resources from the military, and re-invest those resources (really, it’s all just debt anyway) into civil programs that will help grow local and regional economies in the best sense of that word–economies based on people, community agriculture, crafts, and necessary services–not the production and marketing of useless plastic crap. 

This is a radical prescription, and we need to seriously think about advocating and implementing strategies like these that people like Heinberg are suggesting, in the very near future.  Already we are in for a shocking, bumpy decline. The sooner we can get started in real, good work, the better off we will all be.

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