Will the coming oil crisis be the end of suburbia?
By ERIC R. GREEN
Three years ago, when I started to teach Introduction to Sociology for Lamar Community College, my brother sent me the DVD, “The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream,” concerning the “coming oil crisis."
I showed it to my class to help the students better understand “social change” and what would happen to society during such a crisis. They hadn’t even heard that we were going to face such a crisis. It’s no surprise, most Americans hadn’t heard of it either; that was three years ago.
Today, the mainstream media are beginning to wake up to what geologists and environmentalist have been warning us for years.
We have reached “Peak Oil.” The demand for oil has outreached the supply and there are no new cheap alternatives. We have many years of oil left; this just means that it’s going to get a lot more expensive because of demand. We think $3 a gallon is bad now; it could possibly go up to $10 a gallon in a few years, even more.
This will be a world crises and not just an American one. Countries like Brazil, which is self-sufficient in energy, will weather this crisis much better than most. Even poorer counties of the Third World, who use less oil, will be able to adapt to living simpler.
Every semester I’ve shown “End of Suburbia” to my classes to mixed reviews to the message. I’ve warned them that it will be too expensive for most Americans to own big trucks or SUVs, especially at the current way they are made to consume gas.
This means our lives are going to change dramatically. Predicting social change can be difficult, especially for long-term future. The worst-case scenario is the total decline in our economy with a depression, social disorder and wars between states and communities for the remaining sources, much like the CBS TV action series “Jericho” in which residents of a small Kansas town are cut off from the rest of the world after major terrorist attacks.
The best-case scenario is that we have minor inconveniences and we find ways to use energy more efficiently and wisely.
Alternative energy sources will need to be developed to their full potential, out of necessity, like wind and solar. Whatever happens there is one truth that many Americans will have to face. We must change our lifestyles. We cannot continue to use natural resources the same way we have in the past and present.
In the last 60 years, the United States, only 5 percent of the world’s population, has used as much natural resources as of all of human history combined! This lifestyle change does not sit well with my Generation X and Y students, and I guess it will not sit well with most Americans.
Is there a political solution? With the national election coming up in 2008, some of the presidential candidates in both parties are talking about energy policy and this crisis, but few are telling us that we have to give up our lifestyles and big SUVs.
Even if it’s the truth, who is going to vote for a candidate who tells us we have to live with less in the future? What we will need is a “World War II kind of effort” to deal with this issue just like the “greatest generation” that had to deal with in personal sacrifice and rationing of goods and services. Our current greedy culture stresses individuality above all so the psychological aspects of this type of change will be one of our biggest challenges.
One question my students always ask is, “So what about this crisis in suburbia? I live in a rural community, how will this affect my life?” Well, first farming will become more expensive. Using gas guzzling tractors and machinery may not be affordable. Farming will become more labor intensive and most Lamar town residents will have to grow some of their food in their backyards and in community gardens.
Rural people will have to make most of their clothing locally along with many other items, which in turn will boost the local economy and create many jobs. Many people in cities like Denver, where I lived for 20 years, will be looking to get out to towns like Lamar, where transportation and living cost are less. For all rural and urban areas, cheap imports from countries like China will become too expensive to ship, but smaller family-owned stores will be making a comeback, with more locally grow food and made goods.
I also give my students one final challenge: “If in 22 years, when I hope to retire, come find me in the nursing home or hippie commune and if gas prices are still about $3 a gallon or less, I’ll take you out to lunch." Of course, I warn them even if gas is cheap and we are using fossil fuels at the same levels or even somewhat less amounts, we will still be facing an even bigger threat: “global warming.”
Eric R Green is the library director at Lamar Community College and an adjunct sociology instructor. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, West Africa.