The road ends in post-petro future
By Kelly Jones Sharp
Like many Americans, I came of age in the era of cheap gas, cross-country vacations, the family station wagon and the Beach Boys croonin' while I spent my high school years cruisin'.
Later, warming in the fumes of JP-4 on U.S. Air Force flight lines and relocating cross-country and around the world -- to Florida, South Korea, Washington state, Virginia, Michigan and finally Indiana -- mobility on the cheap was something I took for granted.
At a party during the 2004 election campaigns, I even said (aloud), "I don't give a damn about the environment." OK, what I meant was I didn't give a damn about it as a campaign issue among what I thought were weightier concerns like the war and civil liberties.
And when Hoosier Environmental Council activists tapped on my door a few years back with their petition to stop I-69, I told them I was not opposed to it. New construction is the quintessential "can't-please-everyone" issue. There will always be tree huggers prostrating themselves before bulldozers. If they had their way every time, nothing would ever be built.
Then I heard the phrase "peak oil production" at a presentation by self-confessed tree hugger Scott Russell Sanders at last year's Spirit & Place Festival. And it occurred to me that those words I'd heard many times before had fallen on deaf ears until that moment.
In 1971, the bubbling crude in the United States that was easiest and cheapest to get, peaked. Half of our petroleum, a non-renewable resource, had been burned up. Forever.
According to that same principle -- M. King Hubbert's 1956 "peak" -- the global supply of petroleum is likely also now half gone. Next is decline, and after that it's over.
James Howard Kunstler, in his book "The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century," outlines a gloomy scenario for post-petroleum America, warning that our "reality check is in the mail." He states, "The American way of life -- which is now virtually synonymous with suburbia -- can run only on reliable supplies of dependably cheap oil and gas. Even mild to moderate deviations in either price or supply will crush our economy and make the logistics of daily life impossible."
Consider for a moment those logistics. Although I grew up in a car-worshipping culture, nearly every service our family needed was within walking distance of our house. Our schools, grocery, drug store, doctor, dentist, library and church were all within a two-mile radius. And we walked to all of them.
Today I walk to none of those places, the closest being a couple miles from my house and the farthest being about 10 miles away. Like most Americans, my daily existence is centered on my car, which is powered by a resource that will someday be unavailable.
Kunstler says, "No combination of so-called alternative fuels or energy procedures will allow us to maintain daily life in the United States the way we have been accustomed to running it under the regime of oil." Among the proposed schemes he refutes are ethanol, tar sands and shale oils, saying the energy economics due to costly extraction and pollution make these things impossible to produce on the same scale as oil.
Matthew R. Simmons, chairman of Simmons & Company International, told the World Oil Conference in Boston on Oct. 26, "It's time to wake up! Preparing for post-peak oil and gas takes careful planning and implementation."
Next to John Mellencamp's gung-ho ode to Chevy Silverados, a looming crisis seems positively surreal.
Now we hear from Gov. Mitch Daniels about his proposed Indiana Commerce Connector, a $1.5 billion outer beltway.
Perhaps the best reason to stop hemorrhaging cash into these new construction road projects is that someday we'll no longer need them. The next best reason is those dollars might be better invested in post-peak planning, mass transportation and new urbanist living arrangements such as Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard's handiwork that could help stall dependency on automobiles.
When the governor pre-accuses those who might oppose his new road project of "provincialism," he's really projecting his own myopic view. Building roads is not new thinking.
To the HEC: Bring on your petition. This time, I'm signing.