Saturday, April 09, 2005

Peak Oil 'To Do' List: Why We Should Do These Things Anyway

There are economists who "know" that the world will come up with a cheap, effective, and widely available substitute for oil before we run short of it. And so, it follows that "getting ready" for a permanent oil shortage through concerted civic and governmental action is a "waste of resources." But even if they are right about the miraculous and timely appearance of oil substitutes, are they right that the things we would do as a global society to prepare for world peak oil production are a "waste of resources?" To address that issue I've prepared a Peak Oil "To Do" List. (I don't claim it to be exhaustive.)

1. Convert to organic agriculture and grow as much of our food locally as possible.

Why we should do it anyway: Besides the obvious energy benefits (no use of oil-based pesticides and herbicides or natural gas-derived fertilizers), organic agriculture would return fertility to soil destroyed by decades of industrial chemical agriculture. It would move us toward a truly sustainable system of agriculture. Beyond this, local agriculture would improve local economies everywhere and give all of us the much better food security that comes from locally produced food. In addition, relationships between farmer and consumer would restore the link in people's minds between the land and their well-being. Consumers would get farm produce that is by definition fresher and more healthful than anything trucked in from far away. For those who say we can't feed the world with organic agriculture, recent studies suggest just the opposite.

2. Relocalize daily living, work and commerce.

Why we should do it anyway: Do people still believe that the destruction brought to our communities courtesy of globalization is a plus? Does the devastation of main streets across America by Wal-Mart and the hollowing out of American manufacturing and loss of jobs make us stronger? People have lived in local economies until very recently in human history. This is not a new or radical concept. Shouldn't patronizing those in our community, in our state and in our country be a priority? Living in communities that reestablish the bonds of neighborhood, living near where we work, shopping near where we live--these actions not only reduce our consumption of resources, they improve our communities by bringing us closer together and involving us in the social, cultural and democratic life of those communities.

3. Vastly expand public transportation.

Why we should do it anyway: Beyond the obvious benefits of reducing our total energy consumption, public transportation reduces traffic congestion and the costs of maintaining our transportation infrastructure. Properly done, it can make travel more convenient than the current system. (Imagine high-speed trains between all major cities and compare that to a trip on an airplane.) Public transportation democratizes the benefits of our society by making them more easily available to all citizens regardless of their means. That's good for everyone. Public transportation also offers another venue for us to get to know one another and come to trust one another as fellow citizens.

4. Convert to non-polluting, renewable energy sources.

Why we should do it anyway: Even if we weren't facing hydrocarbon energy shortages, the dangers of global warming are so great that moving to renewable energy sources is crucial. Now, do I need to convince anyone that we need non-polluting energy sources? Besides this, the use of local distributed energy sources such a wind and solar would give communities and individuals more control over their lives.

5. Seek to stabilize and then gradually reduce world population.

Why we should do it anyway: Some economists fear that we aren't having enough children in Western industrialized countries. This is because they believe that older people will simply not contribute enough to our economy as they age. That has proven to be a groundless belief. Many older people go on to second careers when they retire or work part time. The main reason to reduce population over time is, of course, to reduce pressure on resources. A humane, gradual reduction flies in the face of our perpetual growth ideology, but such a reduction will head off the inevitable and perhaps not so humane reductions that nature would impose upon us.

6. Vastly increase the efficiency of industry.

Why we should do it anyway: Industrial societies have practically made a fetish of waste. Our economies won't function without it, it seems. But, it doesn't have to be this way. We can have many (but probably not all) of the benefits of a modern technical society with literally a fraction of the resources we now use. We just have to decide that efficiency is important and build in the incentives for it. The resulting smaller ecological footprint will be better for us and for every other living thing on the planet.

7. Lead fully engaged lives every day.

Why we should do it anyway: This is a very general and trite suggestion. But for those who believe peak world oil production may arrive soon, the future may seem incredibly bleak. This uncertainty about the future, however, should make us more appreciative of and engaged in the moment. We should attempt to enjoy what we have now as much as possible while working in the present for a better future. On a philosophical plane, none of us know what we as individuals will encounter tomorrow or the next day. Wouldn't it be a good idea to enjoy today as much as possible no matter what we believe the future holds?

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, and you are quite right - peak oil will force us to behave responsibly for once!

JMS said...

I second that - great collection of useful proposals. Peak oil is the voice from beyond "Clean your room!"

Of course we should clean up our world without anyone telling us we must...

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of those.

Having a degree in chemistry, I've always been aware that the "organic" label is a pretty broad catch-all. It works pretty well for general consumer education, but there are specific cases where good, safe, and sustainable practices get lumped on the "non-organic" side, just as dangerous and unhealthy ones pass the "organic" standard.

To name one example, feeding mad-cows to other cows is perfectly "organic."

But still I give the broad category of "organic" the benefit of being mostly right.

Of course "intelligent agriculture" might be an even better goal, as this awesome article shows:

Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity

"The Committee on Sustainable Agriculture, a coalition of environmental and development-oriented groups, has become somewhat open to fertilizer use in Africa. 'The environmental movement went through a phase of revulsion against any chemical use in agriculture,' says Robert Blake, the committee’s chairman. “People are coming to realize that is just not realistic. Norman has been right about this all along.'"

Anonymous said...

I agree with the sentiment, but some of this is trite, treacly, and naive: "Get to know your fellow citizens by ridng public transport."

The US uses about 20 million of 80 million barrels of oil produced per day. The US is only 5% of the world's population. For the rest of the world to reach that level, the world would need to produce 400 million barrels of oil today. We know that won't happen, regardless of whether Peak Oil has arrived or not.

Therefore permanent energy inequity is built into the system, an inequity that will only worsen as oil depletes, bloated Third World populations swell, and Asian nations industrialize.

The pie chart is getting pretty thin, and those who don't get enough slices will get in turn recession, internal disorder, and starvation, once petroleum-based agriculture becomes economically unfeasible.

And so the final wars for the energy resources of the world have begun.

Anonymous said...

1) Convert to organic agriculture and grow as much of our food locally as possible.
Let others grow the food and then take it from these terrorists.

2. Relocalize daily living, work and commerce.
Do what you want - It's called FREEDOM.

3. Vastly expand public transportation.
Produce more SUV's - This is the USA

4. Convert to non-polluting, renewable energy sources.
Steal and burn all the oil - who gives a f*** about the envirnment.

5. Seek to stabilize and then gradually reduce world population.
Now this is something that I could do - what does "gradually" mean?

6. Vastly increase the efficiency of industry.
Why? We are consumers not producers

7. Lead fully engaged lives every day.
I'm the president - what more can I do?

Anonymous said...

Do people still believe that the destruction brought to our communities courtesy of globalization is a plus? Does the devastation of main streets across America by Wal-Mart and the hollowing out of American manufacturing and loss of jobs make us stronger?

Yes, there are people who believe this. And also earn livings from spewing out such nonsense, thanks to the large number of libertarian and "conservative," corporate-funded "think thanks." Take a look at and, for two of the most prominent anti-urban pundits around.

Anonymous said...

OK, let's sum it up:

Everybody back on the farm for 12-14 hours a day of manual labor;

Please don't have any kids. Of course, widespread promotion of same-sex marriages will greatly help that.

Wait for the smelly bus so you can get your dose of organic, local, communal flu strains every week.

Anonymous said...

Put down the crack pipe and come back to reality. History is full of famines, why? localized farming. thanks to modern transportation if there is crop failure in Ireland, surprise, they can buy on the open market.

Anonymous said...

Malthus lives, and has a blog.

Tell me you don't make a living spouting this crap.

Anonymous said...

A universal fact, "for the benefit of the species".
There are quite a few options for Americans, is one great option. Your true, real time, global village transportation.
We guys from the other side of the planet, are willing to share our knowledge base, living life on a 50c per week. I know people who live absolutely without money.
You think it's impossible, check out some swine. They know how to live, without. Yet they can convert any filth and waste to delicious meat and fat. The swine is an animal designed just to eat. Caution we also become what we consume.

Moe Fakih said...

I'm still waiting on teleportation devices to curb this oil issue. Talk about efficiency!!

Kidding aside, in a sick way I want to see the peak oil age arrive. This is due to curiosity in how the system will react, and the only way for many people to change their (bad) habits is to hit them in the wallet. It will also allow me to tell those people with their heads in the sand, "I told you so! You can join my farm if you want."

Teleportation may not be a bad idea though.

Anonymous said...

Great starting list! And to all the doubters who have posted comments, what are you doing to prepare for a very different future? 570+ species go to extinction everyday and we live as if we have no connection to this! Doubters are stuck in anthropocentric bs land and need a major ecological boot up the backside. Wake up! Plan and prepare now for a low energy, low impact future.
"The sign of an advanced culture is a light ecological footprint"

Anonymous said...

Countries that do not engage quickly in energy saving and other measures are those that will be a greatest risk over the next 30-50 year timescale. Japan for example already uses per capita half the energfy of the US, despite having a very competitive modern economy.
I am concerned but at the same time optimistic that $100 per barrel for crude oil will see the start of a new sense of realism and the start of a new age of innovation and progress.

Anonymous said...

Organic farming has become as industrialized as conventional farming, they just truck in the manure and soil amendments. Plus, in order to sell "organic" you have to get certified and inspected. A better approach would be "sustainable agriculture", local farming using no fossil fuel based fertilizers.