I ended up going to the talk on peak oil like I’d wanted and I’ve got to say it was so much better than I had hoped. The focus, at least for me, in this eco-movement has for the most part been on global warming, on climate change and on sustainability. However, for the most part, I’ve ignored the inevitability and consequences of peak oil. Sure I knew what it was, the theory, the implications, I wasn’t about to deny that it was important, but nonetheless I mostly ignored it. I focused on changing my life and tried to encourage others to do the same. I didn’t spend a lot of time on the how’s and why’s and what if’s.
Until last night. Sitting there this little light bulb went off in my head, one that showed just how interconnected this all is. I’d always just assumed that peak oil would come and go but it wouldn’t matter because we’d all be dying in a hazy fog induced by global warming and pollution. I never stopped to think that the end of suburbia and urbanization means a lot of the problems we’re dealing with on the climate change front would be solved. What it means is that they have the same solution, and while we can’t stop the global warming that’s underway we can definitely stop it from worsening just like we can cushion the effects that peak oil will have.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, because you can’t understand the possible solutions until you understand the problem. Peak oil is the midpoint in oil production, meaning it’s the highest possible amount of oil that can be produced at any given point. After that point oil production decreases, producing less and less as time goes on, and in a world highly dependent on oil, this is a problem.
There’s a lot of controversy over when oil production will peak. Has it already occurred? Is it occurring now? How far in the future will it peak? No one knows, and in all reality, I’m not sure that it’s all that important. It’s going to happen, we know that much, and we know that right now oil production’s no longer meeting demands. As was said last night, “translation, surplus nations are drawing down their reserves”. Oil’s going out faster than it can come in, and that in and of itself is a problem.
One third of the top fifteen oil-producing countries are past their peak. Production’s declining, and eventually expansion’s going to have to stop and contraction’s going to set in. But what’s the big deal? You’re asking yourself. We’re investing in alternative and renewable energy, and with people going green maybe we’re cutting down on our energy consumption. That’s what I thought too, but it’s not that simple.
Oil, natural gas, and coal, our main sources of energy, are particularly energy dense. They create a lot more energy than it takes to produce them. Switching to something less energy dense is impractical not only because we’re used to using forms of energy that yield more power but also because many of these sources take more energy to produce than they create. Sources like ethanol and hydrogen take a massive amount of energy and infrastructure to produce. Hydrogen gives a negative rate of return, you can’t find it anywhere, you have to create it, and that’s inefficient. Ethanol faces a similar problem even as it’s being toted as the wave of the future. Furthermore, most alternative and renewable sources of energy make electricity, not the liquid fuel most of our economy is used to running off of.
What does this mean in the end? It means we’re headed for an energy crisis. We can already see it happening in places like Haiti with the food riots, in Mexico with the tortilla riots, and in the airline industry. It’s our warning signal that globalization’s not as efficient as we think; large economies of scale are impractical in a world with rising energy prices. It goes without saying that life’s eventually going to go a lot more local.
Conservation and community are going to become our main focus. We’re going to have to rebuild a collective understanding and begin to value life. We’re going to have to unplug and face who we’ve come as a species. We’re going to have to take a hard look at where our food comes from and what that means to us. We can do it but it’s going to take change, and a lot of it.