Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Green Memo Guest Essay: When We Reach the Other Side of 'Peak Oil,' Our Whole World Will Be Different

Natural~Specialty Foods Memo Editor's Note: Oil industry experts have been arguing for a few years now that the world may be reaching what's called a "peak oil" era. "Peak Oil" refers essentially to that point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum production is reached, after which time the rate of production enters its terminal decline.
Others argue the world hasn't reached "peak oil" status as of yet. What is known is the cost of oil per-barrel is at an all time high currently. In fact, it's nearly double what it was a year ago. Further, just three -to- four years ago the per-barrel cost of oil was about $45, compared to about $160 a barrel today.
The world's major oil producing nations--Saudi Arabia and other Middle East country's and Kingdoms, Mexico, Venezuela, Russia and a few others--also are refusing to increase global oil production, saying things are fine where they are at currently.
Oil and the fuel (gasoline and diesal) and the energy produced by fossil fuel by are the lifeblood of the global food and grocery industry. Petroleum-based energy is used to manufacture food and grocery products, is part of much of its packaging, and is used to heat and cool manufacturing plants, warehouses and supermarkets, not to mention the intensive use of fissil fuel-based energy and fuel on the farm.
Gasoline and diesal fuels, made from oil, are the transportation fuels of choice in the food and grocery industry. Without an abundant suppley of such fossil fuels the industry will have to find alternatives to power its trucking fleets, which get food from the farm to the grocery store. Most shoppers also get to the supermarket in automobiles powered by gasoline.
In other words, few industries use more petroleum-based energy than the global food and grocery industry--from farm to shelf--especially in the United States and in other western industrialized nations.
Therefore, no industry has more of a vested interest as well as a responsibility to find alternatives to petroleum and its refined by-products, which many food and grocery industry companies are currently doing throughout the supply chain. However, petroleum still rules in the food and grocery industry, as it does in agriculture and in most every other industry in the world.
James Howard Kuntsler, author of the novel, "World Made By Hand," about the United State's post oil future, offers a guest essay about the global future at the other side of "peak oil." His essay is below:
Everywhere I go these days, talking about the global energy predicament on the college lecture circuit or at environmental conferences, I hear an increasingly shrill cry for "solutions." This is just another symptom of the delusional thinking that grips the nation, especially among the educated and well-intentioned.
Within their thoughts is a strident plea and desperate wish to keep our "Happy Motoring" utopia running by means other than oil. The truth is that no combination of solar, wind and nuclear power, ethanol, biodiesel, tar sands and used french-fry oil will allow us to power Wal-Mart, Disney World and the interstate highway system -- or even a fraction of these things -- in the future. We have to make other arrangements.
The public, and especially the media, misunderstands the "peak oil" story. It's not about running out of oil. It's about the instabilities that will shake the complex systems of daily life as soon as the global demand for oil exceeds the global supply. Such as:
>How we produce food
>How we conduct commerce and trade
>How we travel
>How we occupy the land
>How we acquire and spend capital. And don't forget governance, health care, education and more.
As the world passes the oil production record and watches as the price of a barrel of oil busts another record, these systems will run into trouble. Instability in one sector will bleed into another. Shocks to the oil markets will hurt trucking, which will slow food distribution, commerce, manufacturing and the tourist industry in cascading effects. Problems in finance will squeeze any enterprise that requires capital, including oil exploration and production and government spending.
As the interrelated systems fail, our wishful thinking will increase. And that's the worst part of our quandary: the American public's narrow focus on keeping all our cars running.
Even the environmental community is hung up on this. The Rocky Mountain Institute has been pushing for a "hypercar" for years -- inadvertently promoting the idea that we really don't need to change.
Years ago, U.S. negotiators at a U.N. environmental conference said the American lifestyle is "not up for negotiation." This stance is, unfortunately, related to two pernicious beliefs. The first is the idea that when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true. One of the basic differences between a child and an adult is the ability to know the difference between wishing for things and actually making them happen.
Companion to "wishing upon a star" is the idea that we can get something for nothing. This derives from America's new favorite religion: not evangelical Christianity but the worship of unearned riches (this belief's holiest shrine is Las Vegas). Combine them, and the result is the notion that when you wish upon a star you get something for nothing. This underlies our inability to respond to the energy crisis.
These beliefs also explain why the presidential campaign is devoid of meaningful discussion about energy and its implications. The idea that we can become "energy independent" and maintain our current lifestyle is absurd. So is the gas- tax holiday.
The pie-in-the-sky plan to turn grain into fuel came to grief, too, when we saw its effects on global grain prices and the food shortages around the world.
What are intelligent responses to our predicament? First, we'll have to reorganize our everyday activities. We'll have to grow our food closer to home, in a manner that requires more human attention. In fact, agriculture needs to return to the center of economic life. We'll have to restore local economic networks -- the links that big-box stores systematically destroyed -- made of layers of wholesalers, middlemen and retailers. We'll have to occupy the landscape differently, in traditional towns, villages and small cities. Our giant metropolises are not going to make it. The most successful places will be those that encourage local farming.
Fixing the passenger rail system is the one project we could undertake right away that would have the greatest impact on oil consumption.
We don't have time to be crybabies about this. The talk on the presidential campaign trail about "hope" has its purpose. We cannot afford to remain befuddled and demoralized. But we must understand that hope is not applied externally. Hope resides within us. We generate it -- by proving that we are a competent, earnest people who can discern between wishing and doing; who don't figure on getting something for nothing; and who can be honest about the way the universe really works.
This essay first appeared in the Washington Post. The opinions in the essay are those of the author only.

No comments: