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Peak oil and our response

A shorter version of this article, written by Dave Kane, a Maryknoll lay missioner and Global Concerns staff member, appears in the January 2009 issue of Maryknoll magazine.

Go here for a list of resources on the topics of peak oil and economies for a future with fewer natural resources.

João da Silva, who lives and works in Joao Pessoa, Brazil, profits from the world’s increasing shortage of raw materials. As those shortages mount, João gets a better price for the recyclable materials he gathers from the city dump. While this is beneficial for João, most of us do not realize what the growing scarcity of raw materials means for all of us unless we radically change our lifestyles.

As we approach more and more physical limits to our planet, life as we know it quite possibly will become much more difficult in the next 20 years. Most of the explosive economic growth that has taken place over the last 120 years or so has depended on fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas, incredibly powerful and cheap sources of energy. Unfortunately, we are rapidly a point called “peak oil.”

In 1970, U.S. oil production “peaked,” which does not mean that we have run out of oil – the U.S. continues to produce oil today. It means that we have reached the point where we have taken out half of all the oil in the U.S. We are not able to extract it as quickly as in 1970, despite incredible advances in oil discovery and extraction techniques.

According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 54 of the 65 most important oil-producing countries have also passed their peak production. It is only a matter of time until global oil production also peaks. After reaching peak production, oil production will continually decrease. The National Energy Technology Laboratory reported that the majority of expert predictions show that global peak will occur between 2005 and 2020.

Walter Youngquist, retired geology professor and author of GeoDestinies (National Book Co., 1997), warns, “Peak oil will affect more people in more places in more ways than anything else in the history of the world.” So what will the end of cheap oil look like for an average U.S. American? We had a preview of it in the 1970s. Remember long gas lines? Rationing? Rising inflation? Rising unemployment? Coming years will look quite similar, but most likely worse because of one big difference this time. In the 1970s the shortage was caused by a political decision of OPEC countries to cut production. The crisis was resolved by simply opening up the spigot again.

That simple solution no longer exists. After reaching peak oil we will never again be able to increase oil production. Alternative sources of energy offer the potential to lessen the impact of the coming crisis, but it is unlikely they will come online in time to avert a significant energy shortage. In the words of a 2007 Government Accounting Office study, “Key alternative technologies currently supply only about 1 percent of U.S. consumption of petroleum products, and the Department of Energy projects that even under optimistic scenarios, by 2015 these technologies could displace only the equivalent of 4 percent of projected U.S. annual consumption. Under these circumstances, an imminent peak and sharp decline in oil production could have severe consequences, including a worldwide recession worse than the one currently threatening us.
Almost everything we use in our daily lives depends on oil. From cars to medicines to food additives to make-up to anything plastic, almost everything we use is made of oil or depends on oil to be produced. Even our food is highly dependent on oil – from power tractors that spread insecticides and fertilizers made from petroleum, to vessels that ship food thousands of miles around the world. According to a CNN report, “To feed an average family of four in the developed world uses up the equivalent of 930 gallons of gasoline a year—just shy of the 1,070 gallons that same family would use up each year to power their cars.” When oil becomes more expensive, everything else becomes too.
We face two paths to adapt to this future with less energy: 1) Struggle at all costs to maintain our current lifestyle or 2) drastically simplify our lives and use far fewer resources. The first path is tempting as most everyone wants to continue living as they are accustomed, but it will lead to increasing conflicts, wars over resources and accelerating climate change. A real danger is that in order to maintain our lifestyle, we will do things that will exacerbate problems for the people with whom Maryknoll works around the world. Proposed alternatives to oil, such as producing liquid fuel from coal and oil from tar sands, are heavy pollutants that would drastically increase levels of greenhouse gases that cause climate change, while farmland used to produce biodiesel and ethanol fuels would compete with food production and drive food prices skyward. While peak oil will hit U.S. society harder than most of the world due to our high levels of use, climate change will more drastically affect people living in the tropics. The answer lies not in finding new sources of energy but in finding ways of reducing our energy and resource uses.

Kessai Boseto, who lives on the Solomon Islands, is already experiencing the effects of climate change as he sees the fish that he and his family depend on moving further north in search of cooler waters. As his catches shrink, he worries about how he is going to feed his family. People living on smaller islands like Vanuatu that are in danger of disappearing desperately negotiate with those living on larger islands for land. Four inhabited islands off the coast of India have already been permanently flooded, forcing 6,000 families to abandon their homes. At least a dozen other islands face similar fates.

A strong moral argument leads us to choose the second path of lifestyle and economic changes if we are to maintain a livable planet and move into the future.

Far-reaching changes must be implemented. On an economic level, we need to move quickly from a global economy to innumerous localized economies. With current rises in fuel prices, we already see factories that were shipped to China returning to the U.S. and Mexico to be closer to consumers here. The U.S. steel industry is growing for the first time in decades as transportation costs from China and Brazil climb. In the end we will see blue collar jobs returning to the U.S. while white collar jobs that can be done by computer will be increasingly globalized and performed anywhere on the globe.

We also need to move away from a growth oriented economy toward a steady state or zero growth economy. An ever growing economy cannot exist within a finite planet. It is time to say “enough” and find how we can live in harmony again with God’s creation instead of at odds with it. In the same way that John Keynes gave us the economic tools to overcome the Depression, Herman Daly and other ecological economists have concrete proposals of what the new economy should look like. Policy makers need to start trying to implement his and other ecological economists’ ideas. Either their ideas lead us into the future or our future will be brutish and short.

Each of us must play a part in helping our families, communities, country and world to adapt to these radical changes. While forecasts can be grim with the real possibility of a general breakdown in society, many of the changes that are needed will actually enhance our lives, not diminish them. Peak oil will finally force us to slow our lives down. Think of it as God’s way of making us slow down.

The frenetic pace of life will be reduced. Soccer parents will still be soccer parents, but instead of driving each child to a different activity in a different location, they will just walk with their children to the nearest park to play soccer with neighbors. We will spend less time in front of TVs and computers that will become more expensive to operate, and spend more time talking with family and friends. We will all do more physical work, shed pounds, and become healthier. People all over the world show that it is possible to lead dignified lives while using little energy and resources. God created this planet with everything we need, if we take only what we need.

To prepare yourself and family for the coming changes, it is important to learn more about what peak oil means and what to expect. Some specific things you could do to prepare for the coming changes are: get rid of outstanding debts; move closer to your work or, if possible, negotiate a way to work at home more often; get a motorcycle, which uses much less gas than a car; learn useful skills like cooking from scratch (processed foods will become much more expensive); farming; making/repairing clothes; bike/motorcycle repair; animal raising. This is a time to be more diligent in exercising daily – your physical health will be important as medicines and health care will be more difficult and expensive; form communities of people interested in adapting to peak oil. The permaculture movement and transition towns initiatives show great potential for creating sustainable local economies prepared for a post peak oil reality.

While we prepare for peak oil as individuals and communities, it will be crucial to not forget people around the world who are experiencing even greater difficulties than we are. Global solidarity will be more necessary than ever. It will be easy to want to only focus inwardly during the crisis, but we must continue to find ways to help others around the world to adapt as well. As the richest country in the world, and biggest causer of climate change, the U.S. should have an important role in stemming a larger global crisis by providing financial support to countries needing to adapt to peak oil and climate change.

The difficult times that are coming will catch many off guard. After peak oil has been declared, everything will become more expensive rather rapidly. The more you prepare, the better off you will be. This goes for all levels of society. Unfortunately, at least on a national level, little discussion is held about the inevitability of peak oil and how our society will adapt to it. The National Energy Technology Laboratory report shows that severe shortages will occur without a concerted effort at adapting our economy, energy sources, transportation, etc. beginning at least 20 years before peak oil. Unfortunately, it looks like it is already too late to avoid shortages, but the sooner we begin to change, the more effective we will be.

Go here for a list of resources on the topics of peak oil and economies for a future with fewer natural resources.

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