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Oil won't last; our ingenuity to live with less of it is our test now

The times we live in go by many names. To some, we have just exited the American Century and are in the New Millenium. Some may call our times the Space Age, others the Age of Terror.

Thing is, it's doubtful that there have been many times in history when people called the age they lived in what historians viewing it through the lens of time called it. It's a bit hard to picture someone in the Middle Ages saying they were in the Middle Ages, for example.

There are obvious exceptions. Folks in World War II knew good and well they were in World War II, for example. However, it seems a safe bet that we are living in a time that will be bestowed a different name than, say, the New Millennium.

It may well be called The Oil Age.

And we may well be on the downhill side of it already.

It's impossible to overstate how oil has impacted our lives. Cheap and plentiful oil, combined with human ingenuity, has created a world unimaginable to those who lived only a few generations ago. It gives us freedom to send ourselves, our products and produce great distances - if you're inclined and can afford it, you can decide in the morning to eat a salad of California-grown greens, hop a jet and traverse the country in time for dinner. You don't have to do that, of course; those greens are shipped right here for your purchase.

In fact, the way we farm today has been called converting petroleum into food, and that's a pretty accurate assessment. Oil fuels the tractors that turn the soil, is a vital component of fertilizers and pesticides and is used in harvesting and transporting crops. We use oil to heat our homes, to make our clothes, to build amazing things with plastics and polymers. Our lives are built upon it. Our world is built upon it.

It's an amazing gift. It's hard to imagine a time when our way was lit with wax candles or wood or oil from whales captured on the high seas. It's hard to imagine a time when food wasn't cheap and plentiful.

But we'd best imagine, because the oil is running out. No one seems to be sure how quickly - some think the lines denoting production and consumption have already crossed for the final time - but no serious person disputes that it will eventually run out, sooner rather than later.

Serious persons, though, are hard to find these days. In America, oil production peaked around 1970. Our consumption had already created a need for oil imports years before that. But our national energy policy, aside from tossing a bone to coal and nuclear and a few scraps to hydrogen and renewable resources, is still focused on oil. It's akin to standing at the edge of the era of the automobile and keeping our national focus on procuring horse blankets and hayfields.

In a word, shortsighted.

It's hard to see the big picture on a day-to-day level. Recent gas price fluctuations impacted people to varying degrees across America and produced a number of political solutions ranging from bad (drilling in ANWR) to worse (tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve) to the worst humdinger of them all, steeply raising the national gas tax.

The argument to raise the gas tax 50 cents or a dollar or two is that it would force people into changing their habits. No more SUVs, no more wasteful habits. But the fact is that such a move would be wildly regressive, hurting the people who lack the means to change vehicles or jobs the most.

And at its heart it's un-American. It's better to give people options than to force such a huge change.

Unfortunately, we're not getting options from our government. Energy policy initiatives are currently bogged down in a series of court fights over the secrecy involving Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force and a series of pointless bills circulating in the House that seem focused more on removing environmental standards than anything else. Given that, bogged down doesn't look so bad.

But movement is required to cushion the blow that will surely come when supply no longer meets demand. There is no single silver bullet that will ease the transition from an oil-based economy, but there are many small steps that can help. Investing in fuel cell technology is one. Building walkable communities is another. Looking at other energy sources is yet another.

And it's important to look at existing technologies and resources. An improved rail system could more efficiently transport goods and people than the tangled web of highways we are sinking billions of dollars into. Telecommuting is an established technology that is not being taken full advantage of. Small things like bike paths and sidewalks could help wrest our society away from the car.

But we have to realize that the car, personal transportation, is never going away, and should not. The convenience and freedom afforded by the automobile can't be replaced by mass transportation.

Some point to Europe as a model and say we can do the same thing here, but America is not Europe. There, people are concentrated in cities and towns, making mass transportation sensible. Here, we're spread out into suburbs and far-flung communities. And a simple glance at a map shows there's nothing like a jog from Fargo, N.D., to New Orleans in Europe. We're a big country, with huge distances between points on the map. That will never be completely overcome with a public transportation system, no matter how efficient.

But the oil is running out, and the world is going to change. We can handle that change sensibly or wait for the bottom to fall out and see that change be traumatic.

We're on the latter path, and we need to get off it.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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