My dependence on oil came into sharp focus as I worked on this issue. Driving a car (one with good gas mileage, but that still burns fossil fuels); heating my home with oil—those are the more obvious signs of my reliance on petroleum. But I now see that petroleum products permeate every aspect of my life, from the petrochemicals that make industrial agriculture possible to the plastics that make up the keyboard I'm using.
Can we live without oil? Can I?
Like it or not, I'm realizing that before long, we're going to have to learn how to live with a lot less. This is true for several reasons, any one of which would be motivation enough, but together, the picture is stark:
• Scientists, normally wary of emotional appeals, are issuing alarming warnings about the dangers of climate change.
• The war in Iraq is not going well, and the continued use of military force to guarantee access to oil supplies is deeply problematic.
• Exploration and exploitation of oil supplies continues to degrade what remains of pristine habitats and the lands of indigenous peoples.
• Production of oil is at or near its peak, and even the most optimistic estimates say production will begin an inexorable decline within a generation. Meanwhile, consumption continues to rise, notably in the U.S. and China. It is difficult to imagine that oil will remain cheap and available as this gap between supply and demand widens.
The age of oil may well be coming to an end, and the transition will not be easy. We may have to give up much that we have become accustomed to, not because doing so is politically expedient—it is not—but because the Earth can provide only so much.
Thom Hartmann points out that other civilizations have collapsed after exhausting their primary energy sources and running out of ways to conquer other peoples'. (See Hartmann article).
Since this is an interconnected world, this collapse, unlike previous ones, could affect the entire globe. But our interconnectedness also means we can draw on a wider range of capacities and wisdoms as we make the transition to a post-petroleum world. Our way of life in such a world will change—but it may be a change for the better.
If we were to embark seriously on a campaign to achieve energy independence through renewables and efficiency, as the Apollo Project proposes, millions of jobs would be created that could not be uprooted and sent abroad (see Din article).
We in the United States could begin mending a damaged international reputation by taking responsibility for our contribution to climate change and by moving away from a foreign policy driven by oil dependence.
We could stop degrading indigenous peoples' lands and waters and instead support their move to wind production (see YES! Summer 2003).
We would be safer. Renewables and energy efficiency measures are decentralized and less vulnerable to attack and to Enron-style market manipulation. (Try picturing a terrorist plot against energy-efficient light bulbs or solar collectors!)
We may re-localize our economies as the energy costs of shipping create a bias for local and regional production. Perhaps we'll travel less frequently, but stay longer to savor the experience.
We might have to abandon the failed dream of suburbia, which rests heavily on over-consumption, automobiles, and loneliness, and reacquaint ourselves with life in towns and cities, embracing them as they do in Europe. We might rediscover a sense of community and a sense of place, and see that our wellbeing relies not on the compressed remains of ancient organic matter, but on the water, sunlight, wind, and soils of our immediate environs.
We know a lot about why we must act, what to do, and how to do it. The question that will determine the sort of world our children's children inherit is a simpler one: will we choose to do what needs to be done?