Addiction to oil
By Joseph Prows
Thank you, John Crisp, for your thoughtful letter about peak oil and its implications for humanity. I agree, we are dependent on oil for just about every aspect of our lives, not simply as fuel for our automobiles and to heat our homes. Oil is used either directly or indirectly at virtually every stage of every type of production and manufacturing of virtually anything you can think of. Looking around my room right now: the paint on my walls is almost completely petrochemical based. The keyboard I am typing on is plastic, which comes from oil. The metal in my computer was mined using huge, oil-powered equipment, and huge amounts of energy went into smelting it into usable metal. My backpack is nylon, which comes from oil. The carpet is made out of God-knows-what, but it's mostly oil. The cotton in my clothes was grown in huge fields that rely on huge inputs of fertilizers and pesticides (which are largely made of oil), and the fields were planted and managed by huge pieces of farm equipment that all run on diesel. Also, because petroleum makes transportation so cheap, it was economical to ship this cotton to a variety of poor countries thousands of miles away, where people were paid very little to turn that cotton into clothes, at which point petroleum provided the energy to ship it thousands of miles to a distribution center, which then shipped it thousands of miles to my local store. Petroleum is the most useful stuff you could possibly imagine, and the global population has been able to grow to almost 7 billion people as a result... but we are running out of oil much more quickly than most of us realize, and there aren't any good replacements.
Until the day comes when we can use nuclear power provide the energy to specially engineered microbes and enzymes that are able to pull carbon dioxide out of the air and use it to assemble chains of reduced hydrocarbons (oil), the price of oil is going to increase linearly, exponentially, or geometrically. I am a biochemist, and believe me when I say that this sort of technology is many, many decades away. Too many. This worries me a lot.
There has been a lot of hype lately about "biofuels" - you know, people running their cars off of biodiesel, ethanol, or even waste vegetable oil. Even President Bush mentioned biofuels in his campaign speech. But it's a ridiculous fantasy to believe that biofuels could ever replace petroleum; at most, they could provide a teensy tiny fraction of the amount of petroleum we use. Currently, if every drop of vegetable oil that we produced in this country were turned into biofuel (this would mean no more french fries), this biofuel could supply a measly 1/360 of our current demand for petroleum. Furthermore, all that vegetable oil that we produce is only possible because of the massive inputs of petroleum (as pesticides and fertilizers) inherent in modern industrial agriculture, not to mention the resultant loss of topsoil and the depletion of aquifers. We probably spend around two gallons of petroleum to produce one gallon of vegetable oil.
No discussion of the magnitude of a problem is complete without some suggested solutions. The end of oil could be very, very bad - as in, billions of people worldwide dying of starvation, exposure, and resource wars. Personally, I don't want to die of starvation, or of any of these things. I want to live in a cozy home that passively heats and cools itself without ANY need for electricity, oil, or even a fireplace. I want to grow all of the food that I need to eat inside my home and in my yard. I want my home to capture its own drinking water and all of my waste back into food. The technology to do these things (EVEN IN ALASKA) is actually incredibly simple. You can build a house like I just described (in my opinion, they're the most beautiful homes in the world) using little besides dirt, glass, and (!) old tires. Interested? Order a copy of the book "Earthships" by Michael Reynolds (check out http://www.earthship.org/), and if you want to grow huge amounts of tasty food (y!
es, it's possible in Alaska - especially if you have an earthship with a nice, warm indoor garden), look at the techniques described in the book "How to Grow More Vegetables" by Jon Jeavons (available at the Ketchikan Public Library!). Earthships are usually built for about $40 per square foot, and they're great for the economy because they put a lot of people to work without hardly having to spend any money on materials.
Let's not be in denial about how bad the end of oil could be! It's time to demand intelligently designed homes from our architects. ARCHITECTS: GET SMART! PEOPLE: DEMAND SMART ARCHITECTS! Homes should be habitats that provide their inhabitants with everything needed for comfortable survival. Homes should be durable, should look after themselves, and should treat their own waste. Homes should produce their own food. Homes should be inexpensive to build, and they should be built out of locally abundant materials. Let's start taking REAL steps to protect ourselves and future generations from the terrifying fallout of our addiction to oil.
Houston, TX - USA
About: Joseph Prows used to live in Ketchikan. He moved to New Orleans last July to go to medical school at Tulane University School of Medicine; because of Hurricane Katrina his school has moved to Houston for the year.