January 6, 2009 – With so many dire forecasts about the aftermath of peak oil, maybe it’s time to examine some of the positives.
By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond
Many of my posts related to economic collapse, civilizational collapse and so forth, as well as many similar posts by other authors are rather dour. The turmoil in which we find ourselves embroiled today is genuine and serious. Worse, our “leaders” are doing everything possible to prolong the agony and delay resolution of these crises and impede the changes we desperately need to undertake. Writing truthfully about the magnitude of the crises we face is discouraging to many people, who unsurprisingly prefer to tune out such dire news and attempt to carry on as blissfully ignorant as possible and hope for the best.
When writing about our serious problems I’ve usually tried to imbue my writings with a sense of my own optimism rather than deliver a depressing tale of doom and gloom. I probably haven’t been as successful in sharing my optimism as I would like, but the truth is I have great optimism about the future, if we are given a chance to work things out for ourselves. I have utterly no faith whatsoever in our “leaders” to solve our problems. Any genuine and lasting solutions will come from we the people.
With respect to the peak oil crisis, the first thing we need to do is relax, take a deep breath, and remember that life before the discovery of oil was pretty darn good and can be just as good, if not better after peak oil. This is the single biggest reason to be optimistic about peak oil.
Our over-dependence on oil is actually a very recent development even in terms of our relatively brief human history. Oil production began in earnest in the mid-nineteenth century, so we’ve only depended on oil for about the last century and a half of several thousand years of recorded human history!
Has anyone ever seen the TV show, The Beverly Hillbillies? The premise of that show is that the family patriarch, Jed Clampett, fired an errant bullet which struck the earth, revealing an oil well which made him rich. In fact, I believe that here in the U.S. oil was discovered in Pennsylvania literally oozing from the ground, so the premise of that TV show is not all that preposterous. The discovery of oil was less a case of satisfying an existing need, and more a case of discovering this oily black substance and then searching for a way to make use of it. Little did anyone realize just how many uses we would eventually identify for oil.
Many people incorrectly equate peak oil with running out of oil. The “peak” is merely the point of highest production, after which the supply slowly diminishes (hopefully), eventually “running out.” However, according to M. King Hubbert, one of the first authorities on peak oil, the time between the global peak and effectively running out (reaching 90% depletion) in only about thirty years, or the year 2032 by Hubbert’s estimate. So although we didn’t abruptly run out of oil when we reached the peak of production, which has been estimated to have occurred in the year 2005, it won’t be long until we are, for all intents and purposes, out of oil. What’s more, some countries, notably Mexico, are running out of oil far quicker than anticipated, and in just a couple of years Mexico may no longer be an oil exporter.
The point of the brief history cited above is to allay the darkest fears about peak oil by demonstrating that our history of oil dependency is brief! Humanity thrived for many centuries before oil was discovered and can do so again after the oil is gone. Consider how many of our greatest painters, sculptors, composers, writers, philosophers and inventors are from the era before the discovery of oil. Consider how many of our most treasured monuments were constructed before the discovery of oil. Aside from modest technological advancement, our most worthy discoveries and accomplishments occurred before oil was discovered. Arguably, the free and abundant wealth embodied in oil has made us lazy, complacent and unimaginative, temporarily arresting our intellectual and social development this past century and a half.
Seemingly in lock-step with our growing dependence on oil has followed the rise of tyrannical governments world-wide; and in the U.S., decreases in educational quality and increases in ill-health despite longer lifespans. We are actually less fit than our ancestors, but thanks to medical science and a cornucopia of expensive drugs, we are living longer, though not better. Witness the explosive growth in the use of drugs to counter mental depression for evidence that we are not living better than our ancestors.
Oil has enabled and demanded an ever more rapacious destruction of the environment, culminating in today’s egregious practice of “mountaintop removal” to reduce the cost of mining for coal. Without oil to power the immense machinery required in such massive mining operations, they wouldn’t be feasible.
Oil has also enabled ridiculous new businesses, such as overnight delivery services. Such businesses are completely unnecessary, the “need” for them having been manufactured by clever advertising agencies. Overnight delivery service had not yet been “invented” when I was a child, but the world worked just fine, better perhaps than today.
One of the biggest problems resulting from oil dependency is human overpopulation. Many people correctly point out that after peak oil we won’t be able to sustain the overly large human population in existence today. The implication is that the excess population will “die off” rather horribly, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
I’m not going to propose methods by which we might reduce the human population other than to leave the reader with this food for thought. Assuming an average global human lifespan of sixty years, for a nice, round number, if we just stopped having babies for thirty years the population would be reduced by half, without any violence or suffering.
Granted, most people will find defying their genetic programming to reproduce a nearly impossible feat, but I’m doing my part by consciously electing not to have any babies.
Although coping with and adjusting to a post-peak world will be challenging, there are many reasons to be optimistic about what could follow peak oil.
One response I see as a solution to both peak oil and economic crisis is a return to the earth, returning to abandoned rural areas once inhabited by our not-so-distant ancestors, becoming more self-reliant, and reacquainting ourselves with nature and its cycles of life.
Our sterile, self-imposed segregation from nature has made us callous, not only toward nature, but toward each other. Is it any wonder that we hold life, human or otherwise, in so little regard when we have so distanced ourselves from the genesis of life and its cycles?
Speaking for myself, as I alluded in If I Could Live In Any Place And Time, I relish a return to a simpler, sustainable existence and am in the process of inching myself in that direction right now. I can honestly picture myself living someday in a handmade cabin on a verdant plateau in the mountains, relying on a wood burning stove for heat and cooking, a well for water, and my fields for food. I find that dream enticing.
Between the shortage of money and energy, we will be less able to “consume” in the future. Consumption implies extracting resources from the environment, which is directly degrading to the environment. But consumption also implies production, which pollutes the environment. So consumption is doubly destructive to the environment. Less consumption, therefore, means a whole lot less environmental degradation.
Concomitant with less consumption will be a diminished idolization of materialism. Forced to prioritize needs above wants, and limited by monetary and energy resources, people will have no choice but to abandon materialism and rediscover what’s truly important in life and which can be enjoyed for free: each other, nature, community, thinking and learning.
As we abandon the mass production of nonessential toys intended to satisfy artificially manufactured needs, in favor of small-scale production of useful goods, individuals will have the opportunity to regain a sense of self-efficacy as they become the principals behind the new production model. As we nurture our own new and useful skills, we will also acquire an appreciation for the useful skills of others, leading to a renewed respect for one another.
The future products of our labor will not only satisfy a genuine need, but reflect the individuals responsible for their creation rather than arbitrary suggestive imagery created by a marketing firm, giving such people-made products meaning. Which would be valued more, a unique piece of furniture manufactured by hand by a neighbor, or a piece of furniture cloned by the thousands in some unknown factory, in some unknown location, by some unknown individual or perhaps even a robot?
As people lose jobs in the “old” economy, whether family members or otherwise, necessity will force them to live with others who have houses and incomes. This is, in fact, starting to happen today. I view such a trend as a fantastic development, and always have. I’ve always thought it “unnatural” for each generation of a family to separate from the others and form its own household, even though that scheme is regarded as normal and desirable in the U.S., and probably in many “western” countries as well.
Besides being more efficient resource-wise, larger, multigenerational households offer intangible benefits, such as constant supervision of the children by family authority figures, the dissemination of wisdom from the older generation to the younger, and the necessity for all members of the household to learn to get along. Today, children are shooed off to be cared for by a stranger in a day care center and grandparents are sent to a “home” to be cared for by a another stranger. Why not keep the two generations together in the same house, which would be good for both of them? In addition, individuals today need not learn to tolerate or be civil to one another because they can sequester themselves off in their own homes and cars. Not surprisingly, when people adopt an “isolationist” attitude in their personal lives, it eventually radiates outward, affecting the planet at large.
Another intangible benefit of a larger household is that those who are forced by necessity to seek economic sanctuary in such a household usually have a pressure-free opportunity to take a time-out and figure out what they’d really like to do. Having such an opportunity can be stimulating and lead to the formation of creative new businesses that the beneficiary may never imagined was possible.
As the old economic order whithers away and government becomes less effectual in “taking care” of us, we will be forced to rely more on our family, friends and neighbors, and they on us. Just as in the past we will find it necessary to share things instead of buying our own.
Of course, you cannot expect your friend, family member or neighbor to be magnanimous toward you unless you similarly show them proper respect and courtesy. So this renewed need to rely on each other will inspire a new civility among people.
One of the more disheartening consequences of cheap, abundant oil has been the homogenation of the planet. Cultural, dialectical, religious, architectural, economic and judicial differences between regions have been slowly diluted by a combination of low-cost travel available to tourists and corporate dominance of the planet, both fueled by oil-based transportation fuels.
As travel becomes expensive once again, different regions will have the opportunity to diverge and differentiate again, not only producing a more colorful mosaic for us to enjoy, albeit less frequently than before, but also creating a climate conducive to more innovation and creativity.
Adversity and challenge have historically been the mother of invention, which is why I feel our lazy reliance on cheap, abundant oil has temporarily arrested genuine innovation and creativity in our species. As the future challenges intensify, we will be forced to become creative and innovative again.
I have little doubt that if people spent less time sitting on their butts in front of computer screens (like me) and pushing papers around their desktops, and spent more time moving around, occasionally even exerting themselves, that they’d be more fit than fat and enjoy better mental health as well. Fortunately, the return to a small-scale agrarian and production-oriented economy in the future will necessitate a more active workforce.
In addition, less oil will cause a greater reliance on walking and bicycling for transportation, which will have obvious health benefits for us.
Home-grown food, which will be increasingly necessary, will be more healthful than today’s food, processed, unripe, irradiated and chemical-laden as it is.
A lower standard of living, combined with the inability of governments to fund their lavish health care (sick care) systems means that we will no longer be able to operate a health care system based on expensive treatment, including with expensive pharmaceutical drugs. As people get more exercise and eat better food and our focus shifts from treatment to lower cost preventive health care, they won’t need to rely so much on pharmaceutical drugs. Add in forced abstinence from pharmaceutical drugs due to future economic realities, and I suspect our health will improve substantially.
Governments operate on oil, just like everything else does. Without oil-based fuels, governments cannot power their death-delivering ships, tanks and aircraft. Without money, governments can’t fund their domineering, freedom-crushing bureaucracies. Likewise, corporations will be forced to “downsize,” perhaps to the point of nonexistence. Admittedly, tyrannical governments existed before oil was discovered – the Roman empire comes to mind – but those ancient governments couldn’t hold a candle to the tyrannical governments that have arisen since the advent of cheap and abundant oil supplies.
And in marked contrast to the obvious trend today toward global government, a future of oil scarcity may actually produce the opposite trend, the disintegration of large nations into smaller ones, a process that I believe will enhance freedom, albeit at the cost of more personal responsibility, vigilance and effort.
Change is coming whether we like it or not, so we might as well embrace it while we still have abundant supplies of oil and other fossil fuels. The most prudent use of our dwindling fossil fuel wealth is to apply it toward preparing for what comes after peak oil.
The existing power structure is currently resisting any change whatsoever. That’s what the financial system bailouts are all about, preserving the obsolete status quo. If one thinks about the exigencies of peak oil from the standpoint of those currently in power, they’re not appealing. The decentralized, localized, grassroots model of production and economy demanded by peak oil is anathema to those presently benefiting from the highly centralized, hierarchical society, which is so very efficient at transferring wealth from the masses to those leaders at the top. Obviously, they are going to continue to resist the changes demanded by peak oil with all their might, even to the point of destroying the planet to prevent change. Resistance to change by those in power is, in fact, the biggest impediment we face, other than getting ordinary folks to acknowledge and accept that we must change. The present economic crisis is at least performing the valuable service of waking people up to the need for change, and by change I don’t mean a mere changing of the guard.