Peak Oil: Crisis alters lifestyles
By Morgan Josey Glover
Aaron Newton has a foot in two worlds.
Four days a week, the 33-year-old husband and father of two works as a land planner in Concord.
In his free time, Newton prepares for a time when energy could become unreliable or too expensive for his family.
“I don’t know exactly what is going to happen because I don’t know what that future is going to look like,” Newton said. “It’s important to be flexible.”
Opinions differ among economists, petroleum industry experts and grassroots activists about the challenges that declining oil supplies could present to the American way of life. But across the country, people who believe global oil production will soon peak and go into permanent decline are pushing for a transformation in how we grow food, transport people and build homes.
Newton represents a segment of Americans who now envision their lives in a post-peak world. Below, the Newton family and other North Carolinians share their stories:
Straddling the ages
Jennifer Newton never imagined that at age 35 she would eat out of a dorm-size refrigerator, grow unfamiliar produce in her backyard or discuss electricity-free kitchens with her husband. But now, much of the Newton household revolves around making it less dependent on fossil fuels, especially when it comes to diet.
“I’m not in denial, but I guess part of me thinks it’s not going to be as bad as he thinks it is,” said Jennifer, who has 2-year-old and 4-month-old daughters.
Her husband, Aaron, learned of peak oil from a co-worker about four years ago and grieved the loss of a materially comfortable future as someone grieves the death of a loved one.
Aaron said he even went through a period of depression where he drank more beer than usual and told his wife he “found out how the world is going to end.”
After much research, Aaron gradually accepted the need to change. He insulated his 78-year-old three-bedroom house and now gardens and raises chickens (against city codes). He cooks vegetables in a solar oven and sautés in butter the thick leaves of the lambs quarter weeds growing in his front yard.
“I like it better than spinach,” he said.
Aaron Newton rides his bicycle about 100 miles to and from work during the week and cut his 1988 Toyota Camry’s gasoline consumption by 90 percent from January to October 2007. He also completed a book he co-wrote called “A Nation of Farmers” set for release next year.
Newton longs for the time when the general public acknowledges peak oil, when he can chat about it with a friend at a bar and with art, civic and religious institutions.
“I think that point is a long way off where it’s just matter of fact,” he said. “The idea of just in general being able to talk about doing more with less or having alternative energy sources available ... I think that is happening now.”
Fretting in Greensboro
Ask Peter Kauber if he thinks Greensboro has the social and political will to restructure its business, transportation and living patterns and the white-bearded man gives a firm no. In fact, Kauber, 67, can’t explain why the grass-roots sustainability movement he’s been involved with for years has not borne more fruit.
“I’ve been at a loss for the last couple of years,” said Kauber, who coordinates the Guilford Solar Communities program. “I’m doing my own stuff, but I’m not really seeing myself as part of a viable movement that’s actually going to make a difference.”
Kauber gives an example: Four years ago a member of Guilford Solar Communities surveyed more than 100 people who had participated in workshops since 1990 and asked them what they had done in response, such as installing solar panels.
“You know how many people had implemented anything at all?” Kauber said. “Zero. What does that tell you? What does that tell all those poor bastards who organized those presentations and all that stuff for 15 years? It really makes you sit back and say talk really is cheap and there is a huge difference between having a huge curiosity in something and going home and doing something about it.”
Kauber has contemplated Greensboro’s response to peak oil since learning about it five years ago at an expo in western North Carolina. The concept resonated with him because he helped update an accounting system for Marathon Oil in Ohio in 1979, during a second oil shock caused by the Iran hostage crisis. He remembers the price of oil both rising and falling.
“If you had asked me in 1980 or 1981 whether there was going to be an oil shortage I would have said obviously not. All that has to happen is the price has to keep going up and when the price goes up we’ll start attacking sources of oil that up to now have not been economic to develop. Now if you ask me the question, I say there’s no guarantee that throwing money at the problem is going to solve the problem.”
Neither does Kauber believe that biofuels and ethanol as alternative fuels are the answer.
“There’s always the possibility that algae are gonna work and we could have a breakthrough and I could be dead wrong,” said Kauber, who drives a Honda Civic hybrid and powers his lawn equipment through solar energy. “But I don’t want to sit here and put my nickel on technologies that are way out there. If they come through then thank God, we’re lucky, we’re saved.”
Kauber said he thinks Greensboro leaders would be “crazy” to revive the city as a transportation hub based on airplanes and trucks, rather than rail.
He also would like to see residents produce and consume most of their food and goods within the region, instead of importing from thousands of miles away.
“For me, the things that I would do if peak oil were true are the things that should be done anyway,” he said.
Kauber said his wife tells him she’s tired of hearing about the Guilford Solar survey and that “sometimes you plant a seed and maybe it takes 20 or 30 years for that seed to germinate.”
After all, Kauber read his first issue of “Mother Earth News” in 1970 and didn’t do anything significant for decades.
“Problem is, we don’t have 30 years,” he said.
Gerald Cecil tried to run. To Australia. There, the 54-year-old physics professor at UNC-Chapel Hill planned to watch from a safe distance as the United States began its descent down the slope of declining global oil production.
Cecil, of Carrboro, weighed a job offer at a national observatory in Sydney last year, he said, but found the move too inconvenient for his family — and he found that Australians were not that much better prepared than Americans.
So, Cecil changed his plan. He now wants to make peak oil the central theme of education at the university he has taught at since 1989.
“With few exceptions, no one is looking at this, at the scope of the problem and the changes that need to take place,” he said.
Cecil stumbled upon the concept in 2001 while preparing an introductory astrophysics course. At the time, he figured NASA would continue to have a demand for new technologies and equipment to be used in space exploration.
Cecil started to doubt Americans would continue to support NASA’s multibillion dollar budget while struggling to put gasoline in their tanks. So he changed course and began introducing peak oil to his students.
“We are completely unprepared for this transition,” Cecil said. “It takes a long time for people to appreciate the level of change that needs to occur.”
But Cecil sees an opportunity to make higher education more relevant to students who will need a sound understanding of peak oil’s implications so that they can become part of the solution.
He plans to write an energy textbook and meets with five professors to brainstorm a freshman course he hopes will start in the fall of 2009.
He still needs clearance from Chancellor Holden Thorp.
“The basic idea is to blow the hair off the back of the students’ heads and say, 'Bam! You have no idea,’ ” Cecil said about the course.
As Cecil did, fellow professors might learn they teach in an obsolete field. Cecil expects research funding to dry up in most academic areas as the federal government focuses on practical solutions.
“This is a problem now,” he said. “We have to figure out how to fix this with what we can build now and produce in mass quantities.”
Meanwhile, Cecil mulls a Plan B. He invested money from an inheritance in alternative energy stocks after questioning the viability of the university’s retirement system. He’s exploring secondary career options through start-up companies nearby.
In many ways, Cecil turned on a dime to orient himself to a new future. So must his employer, he said: “If it continues to teach 20th-century thoughts to people, then I don’t think its future is guaranteed.”