peak oil


peak oil
 
Now we’ve heard of what a big problem peak oil is, and we know all about global warming, but what do we do? Is going green going to be enough? How many false starts are we going to have before we find something that works? I’m not sure that any of us know. I’m not sure it really matters.
 
This isn’t about changing the world. It’s about changing your life and those around you. It’s about people putting down roots and knowing that they care enough about that place they’ve chosen to stay, that they’re willing to do everything they can to save it.
 
People ignore the issue, plug in and tune out. No one wants to admit that most of us don’t know the first thing about really providing for ourselves. We live in an industrial nation with cars and grocery stores, people don’t need to grow their own food. Energy’s limitless so why conserve it? Only that’s not the whole picture, but now that you know what do you do?
 
At the talk that I went to, the presentation started out with a painting of two boats falling off the edge of the world, Columbus’s story. In a way, this is the same thing. We can’t see it so it must not be there. It doesn’t exist because it challenges out preconceived notions of what the world around us is.
 
That’s perhaps the biggest issue, no one wants to hear bad news, especially something they can’t do anything about. One person can’t fix it, so nobody tries. We’re so caught up in the consumer culture that most of us aren’t aware of how much it controls our lives. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s nice to have what you need when you need it, but it can be an issue. When consumerism turns into apathy we’ve got a problem.
 
It’s gotten to a point where we’ve got to stop living through someone or something else and start being citizens instead of consumers. We’ve got to reconnect with the earth and see where it takes us. It’s not a pretty picture, but we can change it.
 
Start small, community gardens, timber frame raisings on main street. Take something fun and turn it into an educational experience. Children building birdhouses teaches them valuable skills and the pride that comes with making something for themselves. Try having a clothing swap at the local community center, start up a monthly potluck.
 
This isn’t about saving the world it’s about building communities. It’s about caring about the people around you, learning from them and letting them teach you. When you’ve got a friend to tell you a story or a garden to tend with your neighbor you don’t need that movie that was on sale last week at the local supermarket, or that new pair of shoes that you bough to wear out to dinner.
 
As things change, and distances suddenly grow to size, it won’t be the end of the world, but a new beginning. Life won’t be about keeping up with the Jones’s it’ll be about community and caring. Now that’s not such a bleak picture after all.

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.