Wednesday, March 22, 2006

"On a treadmill to tragedy"

I couldn't go to sleep without pointing out this great article in Salon today, called The oil is going, the oil is going. The media is slowly waking up to the mother of all crises: the end of oil. We live on a planet in which nearly everything you see, hear, and touch was created and delivered thanks to oil. Most of our electricity is generated with it. Most of our food was grown with petroleum-based fertilizers. International commerce depends on it. Even the computer you are reading this on owes its creation, in part, to oil.

Whatever will we do without it? Salon talked to Alice Friedemann, "a systems analyst for a large transportation company" who's been "studying the history of agriculture in California and learning sustainable farming techniques." Her thoughts are, to say the least, provocative:
"How do you reengineer society to go backward? How do you carve up container ships and turn them into sailboats? We can't go back to steam engines burning wood because we burned all that wood when we were clearing the fields for farms," she says. And even going back to beasts of burden, using the muscle power of horses for transportation, isn't straightforward, not when horses and people are competing for local, arable land.

"On average, a horse needs six acres of pasture," she says. "So you can't use that for food if you're growing the food to feed the horses." At an upcoming meeting of the East Bay peak oil group, she'll be teaching a class on milling your own grain and cooking it. "These are skills that would be useful to have. I suspect that there'll be oil shocks and food shortages but grain is something that keeps for years and years and years. It's something that you can have at home as the grocery store shelves empty. It's going to be more Third World-like and people are going to need to cope."
Mike Ruppert, the former LAPD cop who took up this issue sooner and more passionately than most, recently moved his From the Wilderness operation to Oregon because he too feels the need to be closer to land that can bear food, open space, and a community small enough to make the pain of the fantastical oil prices yet to come more bearable.

CNN last weekend ran a CNN Presents special six different times, called "We were Warned," about the end of the age of oil. For the first time in history, we are faced with the end of an all-important resource while its replacement is not yet in sight. One group featured in the CNN story has been touring the country putting on Oil Shockwave events, where they bring together a bunch of current and former government officials to take part in a mock cabinet meeting over a series of events that set the price of gas rocketing into teh stratosphere. What's scary is that a couple of these events have since happened, and the price went up just as predicted. So we really do need to start not just paying attention, but moving towards legislative action.

There are, of course, the debunkers, or rather, the would-be debunkers, as the Salon article notes:
Plenty of social critics see the peak oilers as the latest horsemen of the environmental apocalypse. Take "J.D." (the only name he would give me), a 44-year-old American living in Japan who runs the blog Peak Oil Debunked. "Clearly, the radical environmentalists and primativists love peak oil," he writes in an e-mail. "It's like a dream come true for them." To the "doomers," peak oil is the "deus ex machina that will fulfill their long-cherished dream of bringing down 'growth' and modern, globalized, corporate, industrial society."

The fact is, though, the Cassandras of peak oil are not all wearing fleece and Birkenstocks, and using peak oil as a convenient reason to rekindle back-to-the-land fantasies. They are geologists and energy experts in governments, universities and think tanks. And many of them echo the core conviction of the activists: Oil-drunk America has to go on the wagon or it will soon be heading into a dauntingly thirsty future.

Experts point out that U.S. domestic oil production peaked in the early '70s. The world is expected to consume 85 million barrels of oil per day this year, with the U.S. guzzling some 21 million of that. Even Chevron admits that the era of oil that's easy to extract -- "the easy oil" -- is over. The question of when exactly global production will peak and then slide down the bell curve, with demand outstripping supply, is disputed by geologists, but some believe that it's already here and the world is already experiencing the fallout.
The title of this post comes from a comment in the Salon article from David Room, the director of municipal response for the Post Carbon Institute, a group dedicated to teaching the rest of us how to live in the world when oil is no longer available. I, for one, need to reevaluate a lot of my ways and dependencies. I don't take these warnings seriously enough. I hope enough of us wake up in time.


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