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Heinberg discusses 'peak oil' crisis

The world is facing “an approaching storm” fueled by an impending energy crisis, and Americans need to drastically change their lifestyles to survive. That was the message delivered by Richard Heinberg in his keynote speech for the “First U.S. Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions” last Friday at Kelly Hall on the Antioch campus.

Heinberg, the author of The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, spoke to an audience that almost filled the hall. According to Pat Murphy, executive director of Community Service, Inc., which sponsored the conference, more than 200 people from across the country attended the weekend event.

“What’s going on in the world right now is sobering,” said Heinberg. “If we have a better map, we’re better able to respond intelligently,” he said.

Contributing to the “approaching storm” are several factors, Heinberg said, including an impending decline in world oil production, continuing world population growth, a decline in per capita food production, climate change and habitat destruction and unsustainable levels of United States debt.

“All of these are daunting, and all are related to our 200-year-old party, which has been fueled by oil,” Heinberg said.

Each year Americans consume a huge amount of energy, Heinberg said. The average American uses 8,000 pounds of oil, 5,150 pounds of coal and 4,700 pounds of natural gas. Altogether, if seen in terms of “person power,” each American has the equivalent of 300 persons working for him to sustain his lifestyle.

But this country’s ability to sustain that amount of energy consumption has changed dramatically in the past 50 years, said Heinberg. In 1950 the United States was the world’s foremost oil producer and exporter, the largest exporter of manufactured goods, the foremost creditor nation and was self-sufficient in all resources, he said.

In 2004, however, the U.S. is the world’s foremost oil importer, the world’s foremost debtor nation and the foremost importer of manufactured goods, he noted.

“I suggest that these transformations are not just due to bad management but to a depletion of oil resources,” Heinberg said.

American oil production peaked in 1970 and has declined since that time, Heinberg said. However, Americans have been able to continue their energy-consumptive lifestyle as long as they can still import oil from other countries, but the time is drawing near when world oil resources will run out as well, he said.

While there is no official consensus as to when world oil production will begin to decline, many experts, including Heinberg, believe peak oil production will take place around 2007, and that after that resources will begin to fall off.

That prediction is based on several factors, Heinberg said, including the decreasing number of discoveries of new oil sources, the declining production of current oil fields, and the recognition that the expected global production ability has been overestimated for political reasons.

Discoveries of new oil sources in 2003 were so few, Heinberg said, that “you have to go back to 1920 to find a time when there were fewer oil discoveries.” Currently, he said, 82 billion barrels of oil are produced each day around the world, and each day oil producers extract four billion barrels for every million barrels being discovered.

Most of the current oil production takes place in a relatively small area, which includes parts of Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Heinberg said.

As world oil production decreases, Heinberg said, experts predict more “resource wars,” including wars between consuming nations and poorer producing nations, competition between consuming nations, such as the U.S. and China, and an increase in civil wars within producing nations.

While some people look toward alternative energy sources to ease the pending oil shortage, those sources can fill only a fraction of the energy gap, Heinberg stated.

“We can’t rely on the supply side” for a solution, he said. “We have to look at the demand side.”

Using fewer resources means a drastic change in lifestyle, beginning with Americans’ reducing their reliance on the automobile as the preferred means of transportation, said Heinberg. “It’s not about finding alternative fuels. It’s about doing without cars,” he said.

Americans also need to improve insulation and use less energy in heating their homes, said Heinberg, who noted that food production will have to decrease energy use as well, which translates into more reliance on local food sources.

“It means the end of eating bananas in Toronto in December and the end of the 3,000-mile Caesar salad,” he said.

As well as the impending energy shortage, the world faces other ecological challenges, Heinberg said, including decreasing sources of fresh water, declining numbers of fish in the ocean and the loss of species diversity.

“We have to find a way of making a smaller footprint on this planet,” he said.

Much of that smaller ecological footprint will be rooted in people’s ability to cooperate with each other, Heinberg said. “We have to cooperate,” he said. “We cooperate or we die.”

While Heinberg stated he has “no magical elixir” for the energy crisis, he offered several strategies, including aiming for maximum efficiency in use of resources, localizing and decentralizing population centers, using alternative fuel sources, using fewer resources and raising awareness. He offered as priorities ensuring local food and water security, reducing people’s need for transportation, supporting local economies and fostering local manufacturing of essential goods.

“It would be nice if none of this were true, but if it is true, we’re facing the greatest challenge of our lifetimes,” Heinberg said. “It’s not going to be easy. But what’s the alternative?”

Editorial Notes: Local paper covers the first U.S. Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions. See also their article on the conference organizers

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