Life After Oil
Bill Ford Has a Better Idea
The Rail Revival
Car-Sharing in Portland
Motorless in Montreal
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Long after the oil age has burned itself out, the future will assign a date to when the flame first wavered. It might have been 30 years ago when the world’s great energy consumer, the United States, started using more oil than it produced. Or it might be tomorrow, if we end up drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for what amounts to six months’ worth of fuel. In any case, the crucial point will not be when the end begins, but how long after that we’ll go on denying it. This lag will determine how well our country and the world move beyond the oil age; the longer we hesitate, the more brutal it will be.
We actually have a pretty good idea of when even car-loving Americans will have to face the truth. Certain energy experts have seen the moment coming for decades. They’re waiting for what a recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey calls the Big Rollover—the point when the world starts needing more oil than it supplies. These forecasts began with a guy named M. King Hubbert, a geophysicist who in 1956 correctly predicted the initial American rollover in 1970. In 1974 he estimated that the global peak would occur in 1995—not a bad guess. Current forecasts range from 2003 to 2020.
In other words, we won’t have to run completely out of oil to be rudely awakened. The panic starts once the world needs more oil than it gets. To understand why, you’ve got to fathom how totally addicted to oil we’ve become. We know that petroleum is drawn from deep wells and distilled into gasoline, jet fuel, and countless other products that form the lifeblood of industry and the adrenaline of military might. It’s less well known that the world’s food is now nourished by oil; petroleum and natural gas are crucial at every step of modern agriculture, from making fertilizer to shipping crops. The implications are grim. For millions, the difference between an energy famine and a biblical famine could well be academic.
With a global oil crisis looming like the Doomsday Rock, why do so few political leaders seem to care? As independent policy analyst David Fleming writes in the British magazine Prospect (Nov. 2000), many experts refuse to take the problem seriously because it 'falls outside the mind-set of market economics.' Thanks to the triumph of global capitalism, the free-market model now reigns almost everywhere. The trouble is, its principles 'tend to break down when applied to natural resources like oil.' The result is both potentially catastrophic and all too human. Our high priests—the market economists—are blind to a reality that in their cosmology cannot exist.
Fleming offers several ex-amples of this broken logic at work. Many cling to a belief that higher oil prices will spur more oil discoveries, but they ignore what earth scientists have been saying for years: There aren’t more big discoveries to make. Most of the oil reserves we tap today were actually identified by the mid-1960s. There’s a lot of oil left in the ground—perhaps more than half of the total recoverable supply. Fleming says that’s not the issue. The real concern is the point beyond which demand cannot be met. And with demand destined to grow by as much as 3 percent a year, the missing barrels will add up quickly. Once the pain becomes real, the Darwinian impulse kicks in and the orderly market gives way to chaos.
'The United States will fight hard and dirty,' Fleming warns, because we’ll have the money to feed our addiction. Other countries won’t. 'The United States will export oil scarcity to the rest of the world,' adds Fleming, and he’s blunt about what happens after that: 'There will be economic destabilization.'Some insist that industrial societies are growing less dependent on oil. Fleming says they’re kidding themselves. They’re talking about oil use as a percentage of total energy use, not the actual amount of oil burned. Measured by the barrel, we’re burning more and more. In Britain, for instance, transportation needs have doubled in volume since 1973 and still rely almost entirely on oil. Transportation is the weak link in any modern economy; choke off the oil and a country quickly seizes.
This wouldn’t matter much, Fleming laments, 'if the world had spent the last 25 years urgently preparing alternative energies, conservation technologies, and patterns of land use with a much lower dependence on transport.' (He figures 25 years to be the time it will take a country like Britain to break its habit.) Instead, 'the long-expected shock finds us unprepared.'
Insuring food is a major concern, he says. We need to localize food production and return to using more human labor. Solar and wind power must be developed. Fuel must be rationed, on both a domestic and an international scale. We must resist the rising cry for more nuclear power, he says; it’s too pricey, and radioactive waste gets even more dangerous in times of political disarray. Fleming believes that burning more coal may be the 'lesser evil.' Despite coal’s negative impact on the climate, we’ll have to burn something while we’re working on alternatives.
In any case, nothing will happen until political leaders and other social engineers accept the problem and get the public involved in solving it.
There are dissenting views. Some argue that the world’s immediate problem is too much oil. They believe that low oil prices over the next 20 years could trigger turmoil in Central Asia, the Middle East, and other oil-rich hot spots. On a different front, the astronomer Thomas Gold and others question whether we really know what oil is. The usual rap is that oil began as tiny dead plants and animals filtering down through ancient seas. These stagnant beds were then buried under sediments and pressure-cooked into the tarry goo that runs our world. But according to Gold, oil may actually be an inorganic substance created deep in the earth’s molten innards—not a fossil fuel at all. And depleted fields might just fill again as more oil oozes upward.
Sounds hopeful, until you factor in global warming. The only thing worse than running out of oil might be not running out of oil. The carbon dioxide we create by burning oil continues to heat the planet, yet the economy and the environment are still usually discussed as separate issues. Again, this reveals the need for better models than the ones social engineers now rely on. We also need a better worldview than the militant market optimism that so often underlies them. Without such a shift, the tension between reality and ideology could resolve itself in tragic ways. Fleming implies that our governments should take the lead, which is probably true, but can we wait?
There are several respected estimates as to when the Big Rollover will occur. They all fall within the next 20 years. If you average them out, it doesn’t take much voodoo to end up on 2012. The winter solstice that year is said to mark the end of a 5,125-year cycle in the Mayan calendar. Decades ago, the late thinker Terence McKenna landed on the same date when he plotted out his 'Time Wave Zero' theory. He did so before he knew of its significance among the Mayans, he claimed, though he was just enough of a showman to make you wonder.
McKenna predicted modern society would descend at that moment into a 'soft dark age,' followed a few years later by a major mind shift that will lift us out of the dead-end thinking that shaped the angry, smoggy, smoldering 20th century. Some modern Mayans have interpreted it as a moment of cultural rebirth, stressing its positive aspects. Whatever led their star-gazing ancestors to pick that date, it is a good reminder that cultural patterns do change, and that other peoples have tried hard to anticipate why and when.
We should do the same—if for no other reason than to keep from being caught in traffic when it happens.
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