Psst. Hey. Didja know that oil, coal, and natural gas, three very key ingredients in Industrial Civilization and Life As We Know It, are–contrary to popular economic opinion–finite? Which means that they will run out sooner or later? Yup. It’s true, sure as diabetic candy is sugar-free. But wait, it gets better (if you like disturbing news) or worse (if you don’t): the end may be near–but not in quite the way of the Rapture and other apocalyptic fantasies of far-right Christian fundies.
Gasp! What to do? First, let’s look at the basic facts, y’all. Oil, which Americans depend on to run their commutes to work and their drives to the grocery store and their jet skis and plane rides and lawnmowers and weedwackers and on and on, comes from oil reserves, deep pockets of sludge in the Earth that have been formed during large amounts of deep, geologic time. This means that, while new oil may be forming right now, it’s gonna take at least a couple hundreds of thousands of years (low estimate) to hundreds of millions of years (high estimate) for it to be ready to be pulled out by industrial machinery and refined into petroleum products like gasoline, plastics, and cosmetics.
According to many petroleum geologists and the school of peak oil thought, which has its origins in the work of M. King Hubbert during the mid-20th century, the discovery of oil fields in the world peaked in 1963 or 1964.1 Discovery since then has been slowing and decreasing in magnitude. The world has pretty much been exhaustively mapped in terms of oil fields. Discovery is one important factor, but the consumer-end of peak oil comes with the peak of oil extraction. Various predictions in the Hubbert school of thought place peak oil in the first decades of the 21st century. Like the peak of discovery, the actual oil production peak will not be clearly evident until we have gotten over the hump, although current indications, including the skyrocketing price of gas at the pump and barrels of crude oil, are beginning to scream, "The peak is here! The peak is here!" Imagine a rollercoaster full of scared, anxious, and excited consumers poised at the top of a rickety decline, peering over the precipice and thinking how quick, disorienting, and abrupt the rush to the bottom will be. That’s what people, if they have any sense, should be feeling about now–butterflies in the stomach, maybe about to lose the lunch, all of that. Now instead, imagine that same rollercoaster full of people, but distracted by myspace, txt msgng, Desperate Housewives and American Idol, a very interesting and historic presidential election, the demonization of Arabs, the death of both George Carlin and Tim Russert, and the long-standing availability of just about any damn thing you can imagine. That’s an accurate image of the citizenry of America poised at the peak of oil: obliviously suspended, tweaked on caffeine and gadgetry, and ridiculously unaware of how richly they have been living it up and how surprisingly little time is left for them to party like it’s 1984.
Okay, Now that I’ve Crapped on Your Day-Trading Parade, What Next?
Relax a little bit. Imagine a world where carbon emission standards have relaxed, not because Dubya has claimed his rightful place as the Great American Dictator, but because that amount of global and national policy-making is a thing of the past. That may be the world in 2075. Envision a cracked United States of America, splintered into regional enclaves like the Confederated Carolinas; the Banana and Pineapple Republic of Florida (with plans to invade Cuba, once the armored sailboats packed with catapults are up and running); the Apple Territories of Former Washington State; along with the Rainy, Drained Coffee Cup formerly known as Seattle; the Mormon Theocracy of Salt Lake; the Cannibalized Apple (formerly know as New York City); and the Fortified Authoritarian Stronghold of Presidential Power, District of Columbia.
Given the weak state of mass transportation and the automobile-heavy infrastructure of the
So in the mid-21st century, gasoline will be a luxury at 80.4999 a gallon; coal mining will be a lucrative vocation and city centers will be choked with smog from the burning of that coal for electricity and heat; people will be abandoning cities for hard-scrabble prospecting on patches of land where they will grow potatoes and desperately pray for a small yield of coffee beans; squirrels will be endangered because of an insane surge of squirrel hunting, but no one will really know that they are endangered, because no one works in the animal rights, resource management, or environmental fields anymore because everyone is working time-and-a-half to keep their family and tribe fed. Down the road from your trailer, the McKinney gang are burning cars for warmth. You take out your trash to the local dump, which is five hundred feet from your squeaky front door, and gets burned during the block party on every third Saturday of the month while people dance and bang on plastic trash cans, making a funky beat. Your ten-year-old son, who thankfully does not suffer from Polio, rejoices when the power comes on for a couple hours and he can play Super Mario Brothers II on that magical, vintage Nintendo you somehow managed to buy on e-Bay before the great internet crash during the blackouts of 2029. You spend the time of precious electricity mending and sewing new clothes together on your Singer sewing machine. During a prolonged energy glut, you can even make some extra jeans from old denim and terrycloth towels to barter at the local market. No one has much money anymore, but the Dickenson clan grows a mean tomato and sometimes, against all odds, has chickens to trade.
Stop! I Get the Apocalyptic Picture! What the Heck Can I Do?
Okay, okay, but I was having fun with that.
The first thing we should all do as individuals, I think, is conserve energy and reprioritize our daily lives by doing things like walking and biking, turning off lights when they are not in use, buying local and regional goods when we can, boycotting mega-corporations like Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble, and growing our own food as much as possible. But individual conservation and change, while important and empowering, is not enough to meet the challenges of the coming post-cheap-energy era.
Somehow we must use our individual talents to organize radically new ways of living, producing, and consuming. Cooperation, which has not been a very strong point in the extremely rugged individualism championed by both American culture and its mutant offspring, corporate culture, must become the basis for our economic activity and livelihood. It may very well be a matter of survival and not mere quality of life.
Quality of life itself is going to be subject to massive and radical shifts, whether or not we cooperate with such shifting or not. While most Americans and complacent citizens of industrial cultures equate quality of life with commodities and efficiency–things as diverse as iPods, mass-market paperback books, microwaves, central air conditioning, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Desperate Housewives, and the speculative economics of stock markets–there is another, more sane way to measure quality of life. And this is where the post-cheap-energy era can be seen as the proverbial blessing in disguise (yet while accounting for food shortages, scarcity of medical care, and periods of wild inflation and deflation, of course).
How a Low-Energy Future Could Bludgeon Insatiable Consumerism into a Grateful Appreciation of What Is
One of the things I never could understand about or get with while living in America is the incredible striving for money that people are deeply engaged in. Now, I understand that we all need money and food and shelter to live, but the typical American citizen wants more–always more, even when more has been gotten and gotten again. Driven by advertising, the whip of production-and-consumption-driven state education, a strange religion of economic and afterlife rewards2, the stereotypical American–and I am aware that this is a caricature that does not apply to you, reader–wears khakis or a suit for 8-10 hours a day while debasing him- or herself on the killing floor of corporate culture, living for the weekend and those weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly pay-offs: the paycheck.
Given my personal bias against this insanity, I can see a potential benefit of the coming post-cheap-energy reality: people may be forced from dehumanizing jobs and compelled to get back in touch with the Earth outside their suburban homes, to get to know their neighbors, to remember how to do basic things like grow food, make and repair clothes and shoes, ride horses, and maintain low-energy technologies like bicycles and water- and windmills. People may indeed begin to cooperate with their neighbors. They may actually develop some compassion for the human condition and poverty and animals and plants. They may suddenly have very basic spiritual epiphanies like, "Damn, it’s amazing and miraculous to be alive on a planet that has water and breathable air and food to eat," which may be followed by sensible thoughts like, "Gosh, that was really stupid how governments and people squandered all this nice natural stuff in favor of plastics, gasoline, fast food, and cheap stuff."
Damn, This Article Makes me Feel Angry/Guilty/Depressed/Hopeless/etc. Where’s the Hope?
Guilt is not a productive emotion usually, and I don’t advocate it. Anger is sometimes necessary and can be empowering, but it can also be dangerous, destructive, and crippling. Depression and hopelessness are bad options that don’t do much for anyone in the world. They, like a proposed hydrogen economy, are net losers of energy.
What I would like to promote is the empowerment of individuals and communities to approach and solve the challenges of the post-cheap-energy age with creativity, compassion, love, and respect for the Earth. I would also be a very happy person if my rambling, rambunctious thoughts on this digital page spark some a-ha moments in my readers, freeing some minds from some constraining boxes manufactured in the age of cheap energy.
The coming crisis is also an opportunity, as the Chinese are fond of reminding us, and as all crises are. Humanity has had a fairly dismal track record for cooperation throughout our recorded, western-centric history. Fortunately for us, there are surviving wisdom traditions that are community-based. These are the indigenous people of the world, who have been struggling to survive for centuries under the technological "superiority " of western and industrial civilizations. We would be smart to be humble now and adopt some of those conservative, reverential, natural, and subsistence-oriented ways. Doing so may ease the transition from an era of exuberance and abundant energy to the coming inevitable time of limited energy and environmental consequences, and would certainly allow us to appreciate the blessing of being alive in a profound, basic way. Plus, indigenous people would probably breathe easier. We all might.
1. See The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies by Richard Heinberg
2. For an example of the economic entitlement and motivation of contemporary Christianity in