Couple does its part to avoid guzzling resources
By Leanne Josephson
“The party’s over.”
“The mortgage is due.”
“You cannot take more than you put back forever.”
Astorians Caren Black and Christopher Paddon have hundreds of ways to describe peak oil, but they all lead to the same conclusion: Life is going to change dramatically as a result of oil depletion, and that change is happening now.
Peak oil refers to the fact that global oil production is at its height. There is only so much oil in the ground, and the world has produced or is near producing the most it ever will.
In other words, half of the earth’s oil has already been consumed.
Even with a move toward alternative sources of energy, there won’t be enough energy to meet the demands of society. This includes running factories, heating homes, producing pharmaceuticals and fueling the large-scale agriculture that feeds the public.
Black and Paddon’s research over the last decade has led them to establish a nonprofit organization to provide information about peak oil and to discuss its ramifications. The Lifeboat Academy is affiliated with the larger Post Carbon Institute, which explores what culture might look like without the use of hydrocarbons.
The husband-and-wife team are also working on converting their 1970s home and their own lifestyle to sustainability. They hope their home will serve as a demonstration and resource center where people can learn about sustainability and alternative and pre-petroleum technologies.
“We hope to help build a counter-culture that is sustainable, so when the other one goes down you can have the information,” Black says, sitting at a table covered by books published on peak oil. Above her, a single energy-efficient light shines down.
For anyone who doubts industrialized countries’ dependence on oil, Black says to pick a product at the grocery store. Take milk. It takes oil to drive to the store to buy the milk, and it takes oil to get the milk to the store in the first place. It takes oil to run the refrigerators that keep the milk cold, and it takes oil to run the milking machines that suck the milk from the cow. Trace it back further, and the cow likely ate feed harvested with a tractor fueled by, what else, oil.
With the use of fossil fuels so integrated into today’s lifestyle, converting to sustainability isn’t an overnight process, and it can’t be done successfully without the support of the community and major investments in the development and production of renewable energy sources, Paddon says.
But the couple says that instead of using the remaining oil to research and develop wind and solar power, current oil supplies are being used to feed the U.S. appetite and to secure the remaining oil fields in the middle east.
“Their entire focus is profit, to make as much as they can in the time that’s left,” Black says.
Black and Paddon are afraid that by the time people wake up to what is going on it will be too expensive to produce and develop alternative energy sources, and there won’t be the fuel to do so.
“There’s a lack of awareness that things will go wrong,” Black says. “Technology will save us. The economy will save us.”
But eliminating a dependence on fossil fuels isn’t that easy, they say.
While television commercials are promoting cleaner coal, it still causes acid rain and smog. Most of the easy-to-get coal has already been extracted, which means that eventually it will take more energy to mine the remaining coal than can be produced from the coal itself.
Natural gas isn’t the answer either, because it will peak in 15 years then drop off, Black says.
Paddon and Black call hydrogen power a “diversion to give the public hope.” They say hydrogen production always uses more energy than the resulting hydrogen will yield, and that current hydrogen fuel cells are powered with hydrogen extracted from natural gas.
“Other countries are all aware of peak oil,” Paddon says. “Spain just launched a tidal power plant. Germany is buying solar panels up all over the world.”
The couple say transitioning to a post-petroleum world isn’t a blip of a challenge, or a scare like Y2K. Before the expansive use of fossil fuels, the world’s population was about 1 billion. Today it’s 6.5 billion.
“We cannot feed the earth’s population with current farming methods,” Black said, referring to the reliance on fertilizers that dramatically increase output and the method of transporting food long distances.
What to do?
For now, Black and Paddon are starting by changing their own habits.
“We don’t want to do the hard-core survivalist thing. Hole up in a cabin with ammo. What’s the point in that?” Paddon says.
They’re conserving energy by things as simple as using energy-efficient lightbulbs and hanging their wash to dry outside. They’ve cut their garbage in half, and make sure to separate out burnables and cardboard for mulching. They’ve put thermal windows in their house to make it more efficient.
There’s a “chicken tractor” in the garden, where chickens are put in a tiny house without a floor. There they eat, defecate and scratch, helping with composting and fertilizing the ground. The tractor is moved around the garden to fertilize different areas.
They buy local, organic produce and local materials, and produce some food themselves. An Oberhasli goat, Fanny, gives about 2 quarts of milk a day. Their other goat, Bhri, is still a kid.
They aren’t keeping up the lawn, and will use the yard in the front of the house for a pasture for the Percheran draft horse they plan to purchase, after they finish building the barn.
Solar thermal and photovoltaic cells to provide hot water and some electricity are propped up against an outside wall.
There’s a wood and coal-burning stove in their garage. Rusty farm implements from 100 years ago sit waiting for Paddon to restore them. Even a horse-drawn carriage sits in the garage. But while some of the items are dated, Black says they aren’t trying to go backward.
“We as a culture are not going back to the 1800s,” Black says. “We’re trying to model another way of life.”
Instead they hope to combine current technology with the old, for example, applying regenerative breaking to a horse carriage.
They’re also trying to adopt a positive view of the future, focusing on how the end of fossil fuels might allow people to spend more time with their friends and families.
“We need to look at it as an opportunity to lead a simpler, slower life,” Black says.