PEAK OIL HAS ARRIVED — not just the geological phenomenon but the movement of the same name.
The geological part is straightforward: peak oil is the top of an oil field’s bell curve of production, after which demand can rise all it wants, but supply inevitably falls. Throwing more technology at the problem, as the United States has done, just runs the field dry sooner.
To understand the global movement, look around for a moment. Your computer keyboard, pen, food wrappers, nylon clothes, cold capsules, and a thousand other common items are made of plastic, which is made from oil. The machines that produced these items ran on oil. They were transported from factories, often across the world, in ships and planes that run on oil. Many of the ingredients in your last meal were grown thousands of miles away, sprayed with fossil-fuel fertilizers, harvested with oil-powered tractors, and transported in oil-powered trucks, ships, and planes to the supermarket, where you drove your oil-powered car to buy them.
Our lives would be far less petroleum dependent if we had listened to geologist M. King Hubbert in 1956, when he unveiled his peak-oil theory to a Texas convention of oilmen. He laid out the basic curve of oilfield production and, based on the sum of its fields, predicted the U.S. would hit peak around 1970.
Hubbert was mocked for the rest of his life, but the U.S. did peak around 1970, the Middle East became the world’s energy lifeline, and American foreign policy would never be the same.
Except for a brief flurry of hand-wringing during the oil shocks of the 1970s, the media ignored the subject for five decades — one of the few thoughtful articles on peak oil appeared in 1976, not in Time or Life but in the Wisconsin angler’s magazine Fishing Facts. Hubbert, meanwhile, expanded his research to the world and predicted a global peak around 2000. He was a little early — the earlier oil shocks slowed escalating demand — but not by much. It was not until the 1990s, shortly after Hubbert’s death, that a few retiring petroleum geologists took up his cause and set the movement rolling across the young Internet.
Several years ago, peak oil was still the realm of a few prophets and their followers and was usually discussed only on fringe Internet sites dedicated to conspiracies and aliens. By early 2007, however, a Google News search yielded hundreds of items, not from the mainstream press but letters to small-town papers, civic-center speeches from concerned neighbors, and thoughtful essays that stampeded across the far plains of Outer Blogistan. In the past year, with peak oil making headlines and writers like James Howard Kunstler appearing on national talk shows, the movement has gone mainstream.
Peak-oil believers have multiplied like religious revivalists across America and the world, describing on their websites how they became, in the language of conversion, “peak oil aware.” Still, the news coverage falls back on old stereotypes–environmentalist, survivalist, homesteader, and homeschooler–often dismissing peak oil, like most useful ideas, as an obsession of the far Left or far Right.
The simpler truth is that peak-oil converts are often young people reviving the personal habits and self-sufficient skills of their grandparents’ generation, thinking seriously about their tap water, transportation, income, food, heat, and electricity, and realizing how little would survive the end of fossil fuels. They anticipate that population trends, climate change, and other problems will compound the crisis, creating what Kunstler has called the Long Emergency. While others are preoccupied with the hot-button lifestyle issues of the moment, they are planting gardens, buying foreclosed farms, learning traditional crafts, taking crash courses in survival skills, and soberly preparing while silently counting down.
Describing the world they are preparing for, however, many believers fall back on terms like “crash” or “collapse,” the usual driving-toward-a-cliff metaphors and images from apocalyptic movies. Some envision a sudden snapback to an earlier era, in which we are Wild West pioneers (Kunstler’s World Made by Hand), desert nomads (James Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia), or cavemen (Richard Duncan’s “Olduvai Theory”).
At worst, they say, America will see an “orgy of bloodletting,” (Michael Ruppert), a “sad, tragic, hopeless, pitiful picture of the future” (Kunstler) where “there may be some cannibalism” (Dmitri Orlov). Even calls to mass action to manage the crisis—Lovelock’s “sustainable retreat” and Richard Heinberg’s “powerdown” — fall back on the language of defeat.
These writers are national heroes for sounding the alarm before anyone believed them. They have often been right, and any solar-powered Mayberrys of 2100 should have statues of them in the town square. But their long-held note of dread is useful only to the extent that it inspires people to do something more practical. The world we create will be, up to a point, whatever we were preparing for, and as we enter the opening years of the crisis, it is time we all take a deep breath and talk about what we realistically expect from the future.
A critical mass of Americans who believe in an imminent zombie apocalypse runs the risk of making the future more difficult than it need be. Just as a Depression-era panic could crash a bank that would not otherwise have failed, so a widespread belief in a violent and hopeless end could actually make Americans less likely to work together during the next outage or shortage.
In fact, peak oil will probably not be a crash, a moment when everything falls apart, but a series of small breakdowns, price hikes, and local crises. This creates a risk of complacency–see the usual frog-in-boiling-water metaphors–but it also gives us time to act, if we choose to.
People adapt quickly. If you had suggested in 2000 that the World Trade Center would be destroyed, or in 2004 that a major city would be wiped out by a hurricane, the public might have assumed the event would change everything. Those tragedies did indeed change everything for a few people and a few things for the rest of us, but generally life has gone on. The Long Emergency will be an era, not an event, and the challenge will be to see the larger trends as they unfold and to retool our habits and infrastructure, not to wait for major developments to “hit.”
Americans can afford to trim down in many ways. Seventy percent of us are overweight, about a third of our food is thrown away uneaten, and we spend billions transporting food that we could grow a short walk from our houses. Much of our agribusiness energy is spent manufacturing processed foods and their packaging–Wheaties instead of wheat, vegetable soup mix instead of vegetables–that are less efficient and often less healthy. The same goes for other arenas: much of our electrical power is lost in transmission, and much of our heat goes out the window.
When breakdowns do happen, people are often more neighborly than Hollywood imagines. Recent blackouts in St. Louis and New York did not result in mass hysteria but in friends helping each other out. Even the stories about New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina mostly turned out to be urban legends.
The Long Emergency could look like the Victory Garden movement during World War II, when Americans responded to a national threat by turning backyards into gardens and freeing food production for the troops. Within a couple of years, such gardens were producing almost half of Americans’ vegetables. Contrary to popular myth, the movement was not a big-government initiative–the Roosevelt administration discouraged the effort at first, unsuccessfully, until it joined in and turned the White House lawn into crops. Similarly, Americans formed scrap and rubber drives and practiced emergency drills.
The same habits that helped us through that crisis–recycling, thrift, gardening–will help with this one. They made Americans healthier as well, for a time anyway: a now forgotten 1977 Congressional panel observed that heart attacks and strokes went down in the war years, even with the stresses of war and a demographic shift toward the elderly, because of an improved diet. Crime, depression, and suicide dropped dramatically when the war began, as often happens during a crisis.
While peak-oil literature often considers the world to be at the end of a 200-year industrial era, it is only in the last few decades that we have truly binged. By some estimates, the world has used as much oil in the last 25 years as in the entire previous century. Restoring a low-energy world, for many Americans, would not mean going back two centuries.
Take one of the more pessimistic projections of the future, from the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, and assume that by 2030 the world will have only two-thirds as much energy per person. Little breakdowns can feed on each other, so crudely double that estimate. Say that, for some reason, solar power, wind turbines, nuclear plants, tidal power, hydroelectric dams, bio-fuels, and new technologies never take off. Say that Americans make only a third as much money, or their money is worth only a third as much, and there is only a third as much driving. Assume that extended families have to move in together to conserve resources and that we must cut our flying by 98 percent.
Many would consider that a fairly clear picture of collapse. But we have been there before, and recently. Those are the statistics of the 1950s — not remembered as a big time for cannibalism.
The world in 1950 used 10 million barrels of oil a day instead of our 85 million, and only a third of that increase is due to population growth. The rest is just us–and it is mostly us in the West–driving, flying, buying, consuming, and discarding more in a month than our grandparents did in a year. The popular image of the ‘50s as an age of conspicuous consumption, suburban sprawl, and TV dinners misses the point. Those things were newsworthy then because they were new and unusual. Their equivalents today have so insinuated themselves into our lives that we accept them as natural, like omnipresent casinos or television violence.
The golden image of the ‘50s is not just nostalgia. In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam showed that all habits of community voting, volunteering, PTA chapters, Elk and Kiwanis memberships, card games, family dinners, all the way to hitchhiking and sidewalk courtesies–peaked in the mid-20th century and have since steadily declined. Happiness, as defined by survey responses, peaked then as well and has plummeted even as our incomes tripled.
The tight bonds and sanguine outlook of young people in the ‘50s, Putnam believes, originated in their shared experience on the home front during World War II. Working together during a national crisis made them lifelong model citizens, who swelled rates of optimism and civic activism at every age as they passed, like a pig through a python, across a demographic lifetime. Today’s sullen youth may not seem likely candidates for such a destiny, but neither did the Depression urchins who would later plant Victory Gardens. Putnam blames the post-‘60s decline chiefly on commuting, which has grown from almost nothing to as much as four hours a day, and television, which has supplanted human interaction as our entertainment. Both are likely to become less central in the decades ahead.
We usually imagine that tomorrow will escalate the trends of today: science fiction in the 1950s pictured a future even more nuclear-powered, futurists of the ‘60s and ‘70s anticipated a world ever more psychedelic, while those of the ‘80s and ‘90s foresaw one more broken and violent. It is possible, however, that today’s traffic jams, cheap Chinese-made goods, endless Mideast wars, casual air travel, and fractured families are not a taste of 21st century, but a brief era out of which we will pass.
We need a common vision that avoids post-apocalypse yarns as well as Star Trek fantasies in favor of something both realistic and hopeful. Handled right, peak oil could bring a revival of small-town America, local farming, small businesses, and an economy that centers around Main Street rather than Wall Street. It wouldn’t require us suddenly to turn Amish. With solar, wind, and nuclear power to maintain the Internet, commuter rail, and other technologies, we could continue the global exchange of ideas.
So, for our new vision during this national crisis, I nominate “The Andy Griffith Show.” No, really, I’m serious.
Many Americans hold up Mayberry as a symbol of everything they miss, but after watching episodes for the first time in 30 years recently on DVD, it seems to me an idealized, broadly comic picture of the society to which we might return. No one has much money, but extended family helps raise the kids, neighbors pass the hat around for each other, and the town functions just fine.
If Andy Griffith is too corny, pick your favorite portrayal of a simpler American life. It may not exactly map the future, but it is likely to be more accurate and hopeful than the images we’ve been given for generations and would be familiar, popular, and attainable.
It would serve to remind us that just a few generations ago Americans lived, and often lived well, before everything was cheap and fast and thrown away. We, with far more wealth and power than they had, are capable of walking into the Long Emergency unafraid, and with a plan.
Brian Kaller is a journalist in County Kildare, Ireland who has written and spoken about peak oil for several years, and who blogs at www.restoringmayberry.blogspot.com. This piece originally appeared in The American Conservative, www.amconmag.com, in August 2008.