I was graced by the presence of my granddaughters this past weekend. Khadija has taken benefit from her schoolteacher mom and knows how to read well before the 1st grade. Her mom told me to have her read to me, so I pulled out the 1916 copy of Pinocchio and sat down with her to read. The pages were yellowed and a bit fragile but Khadija and I had a great time reading the first several chapters of the book. I only had to help her with a couple of words and we laughed as we made the voices of Pinocchio and Geppeto.
After Khadija went to sleep I finished the book that I was reading, “The Long Emergency” by James Knustler. My good friend, Larz Barber from Merrill Lynch had suggested that I read the book and I devoured this non-fiction, social commentary. Knustler makes the case that the explosion of progress and wealth of the last 200 years was a result of the oil-economy. He says what many of us that have been involved in the alternate energy field have been saying for years – that the rapid consumption of millions of years of stored solar energy in the form of oil and gas will have dramatic social impact as the supplies go away.
“The Long Emergency” has these dire warnings:
- The oil age began in 1859 and peaked in 1970. The oil endowment allowed us to use the stored energy of millions of years of sunlight. Unfortunately the fossil fuel honeymoon is almost over.
- It has been estimated that without coal, oil, or natural gas, it
would take several planets just like Earth to support the current
number of humans living.
- World oil discovery peaked in the 1960s. Since 1999, the
discovery of large oil and gas fields has collapsed: sixteen in 2000, eight in 2001, three in 2002, and none in 2003.
- There are half a billion cars and trucks currently in use around
- We will not be rescued by the wished-for hydrogen economy. Our daily enjoyment of oil and gas has given us the energy equivalent of three hundred slaves per person in the industrialized nations. No combination of alternative energies will permit us to continue living the way we do, or even close to it.
- All the major systems that depend on oil, including manufacturing, trade, transportation, agriculture, and the financial markets that serve them, will begin to destabilize. The boundaries between politics, economics, and collective paranoia will dissolve.
There are several books on “Peak Oil” which talk about the fact that we have (or will have in a few years) extracted over 50% of the available oil on our planet. That’s not so bad, right? We still
have 50% to go. Well, not so fast, bucko! A couple of facts make
the downward part of the oil supply bell curve more alarming. The first is that of the 50% remaining oil reserves, much is inaccessible or uneconomical to obtain (i.e. it takes more than a barrel of oil to extract a barrel of oil). The second is that world-wide demand for oil is growing at an astronomical rate as countries such as China and India with their immense populations begin to compete for the available oil reserves. It is the same picture that Donella Meadows painted in her 1972 classic – “Limits to Growth” and updated in her 30-year update.
When you talk to people about this frightening vision the reactions are pretty predictable. First people start measuring how long they are likely to live and shrug their shoulders. Then they have this blind faith that we will somehow use our intelligence and innovation to somehow come up with an alternative to oil. After all, we sent men to the moon, conquered smallpox and polio, why can’t we just invent a new power source. Knustler goes into each of the technologies that are held up as solutions, hydrogen, atomic, solar and makes that case that none are sufficient to replace the oil economy in the time we have left.
He makes the case that oil impacts so much of our daily lives beyond transportation that the social and economic upheaval will hit agriculture, manufacturing and just about every part of what we have come to take for granted in the oil economy. Agriculture has become agribusiness because of the availability of oil to power farm machinery and move produce to market, from natural gas to make fertilizer and to distribution systems. The valley where we live was a farming community. One by one most of the farms have stopped farming. We have gone from over 50 working dairy farms in the valley to only a couple. If you take away oil from the agriculture equation, feeding yourself is going to become a local thing. With farms broken up for homes and development there will be barriers to reverting back to farm land.
As I read about what life might be like in various parts of the
country, I began to think about what life might be like when my
granddaughters are grown up and raising their kids. When I was in the windmill business I used to go into schools and the first
question I would ask the kids was “where does electricity come
from?”. The common answer then was a pointing motion to the socket on the wall. That was 30-years ago and now the knowledge base for basic skills seems even more remote. I had the advantage of living in a rural area and trying to live off the land. I learned how to preserve food, garden, butcher, hay, sugar, pump water, cut wood, work horses and raise animals. Who is going to teach these skills to today’s children?
It is an alarming vision made even more alarming by the realization that conserving energy, buying hybrid cars and drilling in the arctic wilderness are all only small delays in the inevitable deletion of our bank account of stored solar energy. I used to think that conservation, alternative energy sources and recycling would be the solution to the day when oil was as precious in dollars as it is in reality. Now, I have a more pragmatic approach and am going to spend some time teaching my grandchildren how to feed themselves by growing and preserving food. We don’t do much canning anymore,
since our children have grown but we still have the big pressure
cooker and boxes of Mason jars. I guess it’s time to put up some
pickles, tomatoes and jams and make sure Khadija and Lil G are there to help.
I am not saying that it is unimportant to conserve and to be
aggressive in developing alternative energy sources, as they will be important tools for survival. It puts the current political tug of
war here in Vermont over whether to site wind turbines on our hills, in a completely new perspective. If there was an awareness of just how close this energy crisis is to you and your children, perhaps the true value of renewable energy sources will be realized.
Thinking about the political implications of the competition for the
remaining oil on the planet as that supply dwindles is frightening.
Whether we are fighting current wars for oil resources is debatable, perhaps, but future conflicts are likely to be almost exclusively about who gets control over the remaining oil. It is probably no coincidence that the world’s worst current conflicts are centered in the one area with the greatest reserves of oil.
I highly recommend “The Long Emergency” – but it is not bedtime reading.
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