I first read about Peak Oil a year ago and I've been meaning to write about it here ever since. But it's such a difficult concept to understand -- not so much intellectually as emotionally -- that I was unable to really deal with it for a long time.
Peak Oil is defined as the point at which we are extracting the most petroleum we'll ever be able to extract from the earth, with the rate of production declining dramatically thereafter. There will still be oil in the ground, but it will be the harder-to-get, less viable oil. Eventually it will be too costly to try to extract it. Some experts say that we've already passed Peak Oil, while others say it's in the very near future.
Natural gas is following a similar trajectory.
So oil is a finite resource. James Howard Kunstler, the author of several books on the topic of Peak Oil (including The Long Emergency, the book that first scared the hell out of me) calls the suburbs "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." I agree with this, but I don't think any of us, urban-dwellers or otherwise, are innocent. We've been throwing one hell of a party for the last 150 years, but the party is almost over.
A common reaction to this news is, "Fine, we'll just replace all of our energy needs with alternative energy." The problem with this is that oil is required to make solar panels, to build electric cars, and to construct windmills. By the time we as a society realize that our way of life is about to change dramatically, it will be too late to build a brand-new infrastructure. Even if we were to begin now we wouldn't be able to replace all of our energy needs ("needs" being a questionable label) with alternative sources.
And oil isn't just needed for fuel -- almost everything in our lives is made from oil. Computers, medical supplies, clothing, glasses, roofing, bike helmets, crayons, house paint. It's an astounding list.
So what now? This is what I've been grappling with. The blogs, articles and books I've been reading suggest that things won't suddenly stop.
What will happen is that the economy will crash, maybe slowly, with seeming improvements and then repeated declines. Sharon Astyk, a Peak Oil author, wrote this in her book Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front:
Peak Energy will appear as an economic problem; that is, the way we are likely to experience Peak Oil is not in the sudden disappearance of oil from our lives, but in the steady rise of gas prices, food and goods prices, and job losses, along with shortages and disruptions.
Anyone reading this in 2009 doesn't need me to explain that this is happening right now. Someday I'll tell Henry how beloved Milwaukee institutions like Atomic Records, Schwartz Bookstores and Brady Street Pharmacy all succumbed to the economic "downturn." My mom says she doesn't remember the economy ever being this bad, and she's seventy-three years old.
The price of gas will become volatile. Remember $4.50/gallon here in the United States last year? Everyone freaked out about it then, but it seems to have been dismissed as an anomaly. It's just over $2.50/gallon now, but how long will that last?
Global conflict will escalate as countries jockey for the most advantageous position as far as petroleum is concerned. Last August, when Russia attacked Georgia, I did some research and discovered that valuable oil and natural gas pipelines run through Georgia, and many people think that's ultimately what Russia was after. It makes me wonder how many of the conflicts in the world have to do with oil, even while taking place under the guise of religion or territory. I'm guessing a lot of it.
Power outages will become more common, as well, like what happened during the Northeast Blackout of 2003. Fifty million people lost power for up to two days -- in unseasonably hot August weather -- in the biggest blackout in North American history. At least eleven people died, and the overall financial cost was estimated to be $6 billion.
Food shortages are also possible, brought on by a combination of the death of the small-scale local farms and the rising cost of oil. What happens when it becomes too costly to ship food from across the country, or halfway across the world? What if gas prices spike again, higher this time, and for a longer period of time?
Violence could become common, as people struggle for survival. I think this is the part that scares me the most. I don't want to live in fear.
In fact, fear has pretty much paralyzed me since I first learned about this concept. It all makes sense to me, which scares me even more: I feel pretty confident that life as we know it is going to change a LOT. I think this past year was almost a time of grieving for me, when I thought about Peak Oil. Most of my sadness and fear is for Henry. What kind of world is he growing up in? What kind of world is he going to inherit? We've all fucked things up for our children and grandchildren, haven't we?
I had to stop reading about Peak Oil, because whenever I did I felt helpless and hopeless. But a funny thing happened a month or so ago. I started to think about what I could do, now, to prepare.
I've started gardening even more this year, though I have yet to turn our whole backyard into raised beds like I hope to do. But I'm learning a lot about seed starting and companion planting and organic growing practices.
I've begun a stockpile of food and hygiene items. It's all things that we eat and use anyway. But if something should happen and we'd need to live off what we have in our house for an extended period of time (interrupted service to grocery stores, unemployment, etc.), we'll be set. The recent "swine flu" outbreak, while not worrying me in and of itself, has made me think of another use for our stockpile: self- or government-imposed quarantine in the event of some kind of outbreak.
This summer I'm hoping to learn to preserve the food we're growing, too. I'm currently taking an online course on food preservation taught by Sharon Astyk. I've always wanted to learn to can, and now seems like the time to do so. Same with foraging for herbs and food.
I'm beginning to consider what we would do in any given situation: No heat. No food. No transportation. I don't have the answers yet, but I think it's promising that the questions are on the table.
I've also started to think about community more than ever. We love our immediate neighbors, and we have several friends in other parts of our village and surrounding area. But I'm starting to develop networks of people who are also familiar with the concept of Peak Oil and feel the same way about it that I do. The daughter of a friend of mine in the neighboring village had their board of trustees considering allowing backyard chickens (unfortunately, it was shot down). I think my village would be an even tougher sell, but now might be the time to start working on it.
I'm also hooking up with The Victory Garden Initiative, which has the tagline: "This is a grassroots movement. Move grass. Grow food." Last Saturday I participated in the VGI's blitz, where groups of people installed raised beds all across the city.
I've never been an activist, never one to get involved, but I am beginning to feel that it is necessary. The days of not knowing your neighbors, not participating in the growing and preserving of your own food, and throwing away and buying new things instead of fixing them are almost over. And while I still fear for the safety of my family and friends, and still feel unprepared for the future, I'm excited to be a part of the Transition Movement, which aims to build community in response to the challenges of peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis.
As one blogger put it, "People are starting to see peak oil as the Great Opportunity, the chance to build the world they always dreamt of."