I attended a gathering at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health last week and walked away astonished. Not the good kind of astonished, but the awed, where-do-I-begin, how-could-we-let-it-get-so-bad kind of astonished. The gathering only tangentially had to do with climate change. But it had everything to do with the resources of this precious earth and how we handle them.
The gathering was on Peak Oil, a name that definitely calls for the overhaul of a media specialist. For the name is not only vague, but has a slight nuance of goodness. At best, even if the overwhelming darkness that is foreshadows is evident, it only tells us where we are when what it needs to do is alarm us for where we are inevitably and ineluctably heading. (Check out http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/ and other google search sites for Peak Oil.)
Peak Oil - which most scientists agree is occurring now - is the state of maximum extraction of the world’s oil reserves. Which means that after only 125 years, modernity has managed to raid and consume half of the earth’s stored power from “ancient sunlight” that took 300 million years to create. The gathering explained some things we all know, but ignore, and some things most of us don’t realize. We all know, and ignore this: that oil is limited resource. That someday, relatively soon, access to oil will begin to decline and the cost of oil will begin to soar. That will make our current standard of living almost impossible for most of us to afford.
We usually think of the cost of oil as it relates to filling up our gas tank. That is troubling enough. The shortage and cost of oil will force us to rethink where we live, reduce the value of our homes in our sprawling communities, affect how - and if - people get to work, where our children go to school. Our dependence on oil, and our sudden weaning from it, will create financial nad social upheaval as we struggle to re-orient and redesign our resources, land use and living spaces. There will be some winners, but most of us will be losers as society rearranges itself.
Personal travel is not the only issue. Almost all of our food and goods travel by truck. So if gas prices soar, so will the cost of food, and all our household and business commodities. In addition, much of our “stuff” is made with the energy from oil and made from oil products themselves! Increased production and transportation costs will lead to vastly increased purchase prices.
As if that isn’t scary enough: Our food today is not only moved but is largely grown with the assistance of petroleum-based fertilizers, necessary due to the overuse, over-plowing and harsh land techniques of factory farms. Cheap food comes from cheap oil. When oil prices begin to rise, so will the cost of food, and the incidence of hunger.
Petroleum is also the source of cheap plastic, the magical product that makes safe, lighter containers, toys, auto parts, computers, bags, you-name-it. Try going through a day, or even an hour, without touching or benefitting from plastic. Of most concern, perhaps, is the role plastics plays in medicine, from instruments, to IV tubing and bags, to pill containers, orthopedics and other untold devices.
In short, we are running out of cheap oil, and the world is heading for a petroleum crash that will alter the foundations of our civilization. This liquid fuel is powerful. One barrel of oil does the work 12 able-bodied people can do in one year. One barrel = 12 people-years’ worth of work. Which means that the cost of one barrel of oil, say $1.90 as it is today, buys you the work of 12 people for one year. Where else are we going to get that kind of dense, inexpensive power?
And even if some day we are able to extract that kind of power from the sun or some unknown remarkable physical property of the universe at such a reasonable expense, we are nowhere near doing that now. So, in the short run, we are heading for a global upheaval at best and catastrophe at worst. And the thing is, this would be a problem even if petroleum and fossils fuels weren’t fouling the earth and driving it to destruction. No matter how you look at it, then, we need to move away from fossil fuels of all kinds as quickly as possible.
We need to do two things immediately:
1) support private and public funding for research and development of alternative ways of fueling our society. No matter what the economic climate, we cannot afford NOT to do this. Life will only get unimaginably worse if we don’t get a handle on the cost and availability of energy that supports our daily lives.
2) conserve energy now. Estimates are that 30% of our current US oil consumption today is discretionary. Simply by altering our current habits and patterns, we can “produce” 30% more oil tomorrow. Nothing will be simpler, or cheaper, or buy us the necessary time to find solutions to this crisis that we are speeding towards.