Doing Less With Less (Part One of Many)
Posted by atparish on January 17, 2010
Peak Oil will inevitably change the way humanity inhabits the planet. The last two centuries have been defined by a massive per-capita increase in energy consumption fueled by eons of solar energy stored underground in complex hydrocarbons. There’s lots of talk about finding or inventing a new magic bullet that will replace fossil fuels and allow unfettered human expansion to the stars and beyond, but for reasons I’ll go into some other time I really doubt it will work out that way.
We’re at the point where we’ve extracted about half of the available oil on the planet to power our ever-expanding need for motor fuel, electricity, synthetic fibers, and vaseline. This means that the oil that is left is going to be increasingly hard to get at and turn into a form useful for industry. Rather than sticking a pipe in the ground and moving to Beverly Hills, oil extraction these days involves hugely expensive and vulnerable deep-sea drilling platforms and enormous mining operations where tons of ore must be processed to obtain the low concentration of black gold within. We are quickly approaching the line where the energy we invest in obtaining, transporting, and refining a barrel of oil exceeds the energy contained therein.
In a global economy predicated on growth, with an emerging American-style middle class in the most populous areas of the world, it’s not hard to see that something is going to give. I get called a defeatist and a downer, but I personally take the stance that reality is going to do it’s thing regardless of the entitlement people feel about this (incredibly short lived and catastrophically damaging) way of life.
So, for me it’s not a question of whether we’ll make the transition to a smaller-scale, much more local, and probably much less exciting society. It’s also not really a question of when. If a hundred years of oil are discovered underneath that moose-infested tundra that those ivory tower liberals love so much, it would only postpone the issue and allow humanity to become even more deeply entrenched in an unsustainable system.
It’s the how that interests me. Will it be a gradual shift, or a hectic fall? Will there be panic, looting, and revolutions, or will society slowly collapse like a flan in a cupboard? Despite its apparent inevitability, will it take us by surprise? Or will it be planned for, somehow, by someone in charge of something?
There’s some chance we can learn from what has happened to others. You see, Peak Oil has already happened to Cuba (and to my knowledge, only Cuba). They had highly-mechanized industrial agriculture, an automobile-centric society, and they relied on the Soviet Union for fuel and 80 percent of their food. The documentary, “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil”, available here via Google Videos, describes the country’s transition from industrial food production to small-scale organic farming following the sudden collapse of the USSR. Summary: The citizens of Cuba banned together and planted their rooftop gardens and came out on top. It is supposed to be an inspiring story about a community’s response to a basic existential crisis, all sunshine and smiles and jazz.
But I doubt things would go so well if the US was faced with a similar threat, because we’re not communists. We’ve done such a good job of shutting ourselves off from real community, opting instead for knockoffs like brand loyalty and corporate culture. Everybody you see on your daily commute is an enemy, clogging up your freeway and driving even more recklessly than you do. Civic involvement at the local level only happens among bitter old NIMBYs. As much as I hate the religious right, I have to agree that the institution of the family is fairing poorly in the states these days. So where is this community supposed to come from? I feel that racial tensions, rugged individualism, and the aforementioned sense of entitlement would create a pretty ugly situation if we were suddenly faced with unreliable power and water in our homes, if Wal-Mart’s mobile warehouse fleet stopped rolling, if runaway inflation destroyed life savings and value of the dollar itself.
Okay, that’s enough for now. More later.