Peak Oil and the Vision in the Mirror
By Aaron Wissner
If you don't know what peak oil is, then, first of all, you are not alone. Most people don't seem to have a clue about it. And, even some that do, don't seem to get the full implications. Let me lay it out for you as succinctly as I can...
Money is nothing. Energy is everything.
The energy supply has been growing for many years. So has the food supply. So has the population.
What happens when the energy supply stops growing, but the population continues to grow?
More importantly, what happens when the energy supply begins to decline, as population continues to grow?
The answer, of course, is things we would generally consider very bad. Keep in mind that the Great Depression happened. World War II happened. Famine and starvation have and do happen. Civilizations themselves have (and probably normally) collapse. In general, bad things do happen on a national and global scale.
The illusion that we live every day is that we are immune from these things. The Great Depression couldn't happen again, could it? We couldn't really get into another World War, could we? Most certainly, our civilization... in other words, the high-energy-consuming industrialized world... it couldn't have a bad ending... could it?
Well, there are movies out there, and undoubtedly books, that talk about these bad things and explore what happens, so we do think about these things... but probably not all that seriously.
Peak oil, on the other hand, is serious. In a nutshell, we humans are reaching the all time maximum rate of oil extraction from the planet. In fact, we very well may be at the point where the extraction has simply stopped growing. Some time in the near future, as in either now, or next year, or perhaps a few years hence, the oil extraction rate will begin to decline... and will continue to do so forever, no matter what we do. You see, oil is a non-renewable resource, and we have consumed perhaps as much as half of all that we will EVER get out of the ground.
I don't want to go into the details (which are many) but oil is essential to everything we do: making food, electricity, water, heat, moving things around (transportation) and more. A world without oil would be bad, very bad. If it happened suddenly, we would be in bad, bad, bad shape.
What would you do if all the gas pumps ran dry? What do you think would continue to work? Could you get to the store for food? Could the food get to the store in the first place? Could you get heat for your home? Could those that deliver the heat get to their jobs? Could you get to your job? Could you get to money to buy things? Would the ATM's and the credit cards work if the power plant operators couldn't get to work? What if the new loads of coal couldn't get to the power plant, what then?
Luckily, I don't think it is going to happen this way. I mean, I can't be sure. It might happen. Let's just say that there is a 10% chance of it happening that way within three years of now. That means, it probably won't happen... but I for one don't want to be caught unprepared for something that would be that catastrophic.
What is likely to happen? Now this is the part that a lot of the peak oil folks don't quite understand, so allow me to enlighten you... The problem is that people don't seem to understand supply, demand and price. People forget that price is part of the supply and demand formula.
In the recent past, the oil extraction rate has not increased (that is, not like it did in prior decades). So, did people want less oil? No. Did they use less oil? Yes. Why did they use less? Because that is all they could afford to buy. Why? Because, via a string of events, they bid up the price. Instead of being able to buy 1,000 barrels of oil for $30,000 they were only able to buy 400 barrels. Perhaps they found some more money, and were able to buy a bit more... but some people (companies, countries) simply could not buy as much.
For us in the industrialized world, that doesn't mean a whole lot. We still are buying the same amount. The USA, for example, is still using up 20 million barrels per day. It costs two or three times more than it used to, but we have the money, and so we are buying it.
Peak oil is impacting those that don't have the money to buy the same amount. Those countries that can only afford to buy a certain dollar amount of oil are stuck trying to figure out how to live with that. In turn, their companies and people are, in turn, trying to figure out how to buy more expensive fuel, services, and products (yes, that would be inflation). The governments are trying to decide if they need to fix the prices of the fuel (like gasoline, diesel, propane, etc.) or to start rationing. For these nations, these companies and businesses, and these individuals, peak oil is already having a big impact.
For us though, we are watching... watching the price go up... watching the supply stay the same... wondering if it will go down... wondering how high the price will go... wondering how it will impact our economy... gas prices... foreclosures... unemployment... medical costs... retirement savings... and etc, etc, etc... Although most of us don't realize that ENERGY is what wags the dog, not dollars... so most don't see the connections between peak oil and everything else.
What is a person to do? First off, they have to deal with the fact that this is something totally new, and in most cases, unexpected. It is a sea change, a paradigm shift, a life changing event. All those emotions and actions common in the grieving cycle will come to play... I've already felt the anger, despair, bargaining, and etc...
Those who have half a clue are trying to come up with ways to produce more energy, to keep the energy flowing. What they fail to realize is that there is no way to make that much energy. The fossil fuels are simply incredibly energy rich, and we are using them up as if they were infinite, which of course, they are not. So, all sorts of things get tossed around... "energy independence", "ethanol", "CAFE standards", "renewable energy portfolio standards", "hybrid cars", "tar sands", "deep water drilling", "wind", "solar", "biomass", "cellulose"... the list goes on and on and on. What these folks fail to see is the big picture... there will NEVER be as much...
So, what are the solutions... easy... each and every one of us needs to live absolutely on our own, growing food for our own family, providing our own water - heat - shelter and etc. Well, I hope not quite that extreme, but much closer to that than now. Look at that series of questions up top again... those are the things we should all be attempting to find solutions to in our own lives.
Where would you get food if the stores were empty? You need to have an answer to this. Where would you get water if the electricity was gone? You had better have an answer to that. What about heat? What would you do if your heating system was gone?
Peak oil, peak oil, peak oil... it is not a good thing for those of us who are unprepared. It is quite possible that there will be very bad times... super fast inflation... famine... rampant diseases... war. Our population is probably bigger than we will be able to support without a growing supply of oil. There will likely be widespread famines that begin... and then continue, worsen, and spread... as the oil supply declines.
The planet could probably support all of the nearly seven billion of us humans, but not spread out the way we are... in hot deserts... in snowy winter lands... in huge cities and suburbs... in dried out and soil depleted countries. How will food get from where it is grown to where all the people are? Will the people be able to move fast enough to get closer to the food? Will the decline in the fuel supply mean less food is grown? Will everyone eat less, or will we simply say that there is a shortage, so some will just have to starve? Will we try to throw money at the problem when money means nothing compared to energy?
On the other hand, peak oil is a good thing... for the planet. I can practically hear it speaking.
"Thank the Universe, they won't have the energy to deal me the finishing blow! Sure, I'll probably lose most of my biodiversity and biomass. I'll probably even have decimated areas where the humans have gnawed me clean like a dog to a bone. But at least their numbers will diminish, and they will have less and less ability to destroy me."
I wish this was not what I heard, but I have only to look out the window to see what we have done... and yet, the enigma, we are the earth...
Think of the past. The earth formed... then life formed of the earth... then more complicated life formed of the simple life of the earth... and after many millions of years, here we all are... and humans are one, just one, of the many living species which are part of the earth.
We are part of the earth.
Oddly, we think we are not.
We imagine we are apart. We dream that we are more; that we are more than water and dirt and sunlight. But that is all we are. We are part of the earth. A thousand years ago, every bit of your body was part of the earth. In a thousand years from now, every bit of your body will be part of the earth. And this very moment, you are part of the earth. You are a part of the earth... a very, very, very tiny -- almost microscopic -- and lightning short lived, bit of the earth.
The world beyond peak oil... I'm not sure how far beyond, maybe three generations, or maybe a hundred... the world beyond is one where we recognize that we are part of the earth. We "belong", so to speak, to the earth. We will live in harmony with our surroundings. We will realize that there is no such thing as waste, only a stream or cycle of matter and energy; that there is no such thing as an escape from death, but that it comes, often without warning, no matter what we do; that we are one of many thousands or millions of other living species that are also part of the earth; and that there is no good or evil in the world... (A culture or society without concepts of "good and evil" is so beyond our current sphere of comprehension that I can't even articulate a description for it.)
But how do we get there from here?
I have a vision of this future of our grandchildren, and the grandchildren of all the species, where all live together following only the laws of nature and the universe. Those humans recognize and respect all species and strive to follow the same rules that the others follow, to be in balance and in harmony with the rest. I have a vision of a garden planet, lush and green, with deep blue seas and rushing streams, and that humans would be there, in the garden, not separated from, but integrated with all the rest.
Would this be the perfection of Eden or paradise? Will our grandchildren have shed the remnants of "civilization"? Will we be few in numbers or many? Will we be living together as tens or thousands? Will we be altering the earth to grow food, or will we eat from the perpetual garden? Will we repeat our species current extreme cycle of growth and decline? Will we have accepted that evolution can only take place when those best adapted thrive while the rest decline?
I wish I could see this far. I wish I could see the ultimate and final fate of our species, and indeed all species, prior to the universe's curtain call to earth's habitability. I wish that I could be the ever-man that could live to see it all pass. But I am but a bit of the earth made conscious and aware for a moment... and while the atoms of my body will be here, the continuity of my conscious thought and mind will not.
What I can see from here is that we are the destroyers.
The earth was a garden not so long ago. The garden stretched from shore to shore and from highest mountain to deepest ocean trench. And now, much has been destroyed. It continues to be destroyed. By both our individual action, and our collective action, we continue to destroy the living earth. This is due to not only our instincts and our innate behavior, but also due to belief in good and evil, right and wrong, and our mistaken belief that money does not inherently lead to destruction. It is due to not only our dominant values, virtues, principles or beliefs... but also due to our ignorance about the mechanisms we have created and employ in the world.
Even the best of us falls prey to the misconception of money.
Indeed, even the most intelligent of us goes ahead and buys food from the grocer... who in turn pays others (via a string of intermediaries) to chop down and grind up nature to grow that food.
Even the keenest of us goes ahead and buys clothing from the shop-keep... who in turn pays others to rape the land and poison the seas to get this clothing made and to the sale rack.
Even the most peaceful of us goes ahead and asks the library to buy books on MLK, Gandhi and Tolstoy... that money which, by and by, goes into taxes which pay for "defense" a.k.a. government sanctioned murder, cruelty and torture.
The examples are limited only by the almost uncountable number of different transactions that are made with money throughout the world, for indeed, every dollar spent will continues to change hands, practically forever, and this money gets spread out to motivate the sum total of the behavior of our entire civilization.
This is a difficult concept to grasp. Even though energy is the thing of true value in the world, money is the mechanism which determines how, when, and where that energy will be consumed. This energy, in our hands, is the destroyer.
What could an individual do to escape participation in this monstrous, destroying system?
There are choices, and for fun, let's list them...
* Die - (I imagine there must have been at least one person who has done this... although I don't know who or how often.)
* Become 100% independent of everyone else, live as part of the earth, and swear off money forever
* Become 100% independent along with others, all live as a community which is a part of the earth, and swear off the global money system
* Strive to become 100% independent, and work towards this everyday, in every way, so that when things do get "bad" that you can take that last step towards sustainability and harmony with nature... and work with friends, family, neighbors, and community to do the same... and to be ready to work together when the time comes.
It is not enough to be green, or an environmentalist, or a conservationist, or a good person, or a pious person, or a happy person... if we participate in the system then we are guilty, so to speak, of the torture and cruelty that we as a species are inflicting on the rest --- that is, on that which we all are... the earth.
I know that I participate. I know that I am as guilty as the rest. It is not good. It is not evil. Neither exists. But it is causing killing. It is causing pollution. It is causing destruction. And I feel guilt and anguish that I continue to participate... and yet I continue. And as I seek for a rationalization, I think it is because I am comfortable... or because I have innate drives to survive, and I cannot allow myself to see survival apart from participation. This could be considered weakness... I certainly consider it such in myself... and yet, I participate... I continue my part in the destruction and decimation of life.
Peak oil is not simply an issue of learning to conserve or finding ways to do more with less. It isn't simply about the possibility of economic collapse, war, starvation or global pandemic. It isn't just about changing our behaviors or our beliefs. It is about turning ourselves inside-out, and not only surviving the transformation, but also being and living equal and in harmony with all the rest.
A Word From Author
(I moved this to the end so you would read the article first, so I guess this is more of an epilogue, reflection, or explanation.)
Lots of thoughts have been spinning in my head for the past week, month, year... and it is sometimes difficult to get them all out... trying to figure everything out is interesting, but also upsetting, and confusing, and (sometimes) seems a bit impossible.
A month or so ago, I wrote a journal entry, which was a rambling mind-walk through these thoughts... It was long... hours upon hours of stream of thought writing... going deep into philosophy and religion and self... I didn't publish it. I don't know if I want people to know the places that my thoughts can go. I have yet to complete it, although I may revisit it in time.
Still, I have a need to share... a feeling akin to admitting something aloud... a disclosure of sorts... or perhaps a confession.
I am still trying to work everything out. I feel like I am closer. But if you ask me about this writing in a week, or a month, or a year, I may have an entirely new perspective on everything... Which is to say... everything written here is simply a snapshot in time, at this instant, of my thought stream... and I can not know what thoughts and beliefs might or will change between now and any point in the future.
If by some odd series of events, you are drawn to quote me, or to refer to my ruminations to others, to me, or even to yourself, make it clear that this was the why and the when and the where... this, after all, is a journal entry... an exploration of one individual of his own thoughts and feelings.