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The Oil Spill and You

About 100 people gathered in downtown Madison in early July to take part in “Hands Across the Sands,” an internationally organized protest against continued oil drilling in and along the world’s coastal waters. Against the backdrop of the weed-choked waters of Lake Monona, they joined hands for 15 minutes to express their fervent desire to see a cleaner, less destructive energy future emerge from the liquid melanoma spreading across the Gulf of Mexico.

No doubt the protestors would like to do more, much more, than simply engage in ritualized protest in front of a few camera crews. But we live in a society that is organized around the expectation of a limitless supply of nonrenewable hydrocarbons feeding concentrated energy into our economic bloodstream. Most of us have not bothered to comprehend the yawning gulf that lies between our best intentions and our abject dependence on the wealth-producing properties of petroleum. Nor how this addiction fills us with delusions of godlike mastery over our environment while blinding us to the reality that we humans have grossly overshot our planet’s carrying capacity.

For those who read and still remember the science fiction classic Dune, the “spice” on Arrakis remains the quintessential literary analogy to the reality of Earth’s oil. Like our oil, the spice held a special place in that world as the ultimate prize worth waging wars and plundering hostile environments for.

To carry the analogy further, if oil has become the spice, as it were, of America, then America has become our planet’s House of Harkonnen. Each great power has been willing to deploy their military supremacy to launch pre-emptive strikes on distant lands to assert control over the most valuable resource in their domain. In Dune, the invasion of Arrakis began as a rout, but over time evolved into a wearying, treasury-sapping occupation that ultimately cost the House of Harkonnen its status as a great power. Sound familiar?

Extracting these highly prized resources is dangerous business. On Arrakis, careless spice miners wind up as snack food for giant sandworms coursing through the sands. On our fair planet, British Petroleum’s stumbling ways a mile below the sea surface let loose a lethal eruption and a tide of goo now washing over countless estuaries and coastal outposts dense with life.

Just as the universe in Dune revolves around the spice, petroleum sets the rhythms and beats that make up life in America. It powers our comings and goings, our getting and spending. It is the fuel that carries us and our possessions across continents and over oceans. It makes possible the transporting of lettuce grown in California to supermarkets in Florida, and enables an envelope picked up in Phoenix to be flown to Memphis and then to Seattle in under 24 hours.

In fact, petroleum is the fuel of fuels, powering diesel trains that pull 130 carfuls of Wyoming coal to electric generating stations in Wisconsin and Georgia. Diesel seems to be everywhere, in tankers carrying crude oil, in trucks hauling solar electric panels, and in cranes assembling 250-ton wind energy turbines.

It’s worth mentioning that all the boats that gather shrimp and oysters from the Louisiana coastline are equipped with engines that run on diesel fuel. Gone are the days when baymen reached their favored fishing grounds using muscle power and wind energy. Without petroleum, shrimping ceases to be the industrial enterprise it is today.

But while diesel is ubiquitous, crude oil is not. The big, shallow reservoirs have all been discovered and many of them are showing signs of exhaustion. But as long as the demand for petroleum remains at current levels, oil companies have no choice but to fan out to the most remote corners to find the next big strike. Yet because we have fashioned an economy that can’t operate “normally” without petroleum, it will be extremely challenging, if not downright impossible, to effect an organized program of reducing oil consumption through political channels. To the extent we’ll see any policy response to our energy predicament, it is highly unlikely that it will be anything more enlightened than what the House of Harkonnen cooked up under similar circumstances.

Americans from all walks of life believe that we can accomplish anything if we put our collective will and ingenuity to it. But invoking that appealing myth will not help us extricate ourselves from our present predicament. What we need instead is the capacity to envision a fulfilling and livable world without copious quantities of petroleum. Only then do we have a chance of breaking the spell that has put us in the thrall of this wondrous energy source.

Need I mention that once you begin to appreciate the finitude of the Earth’s endowment of petroleum, there’s nothing to stop you from taking immediate steps to curb your personal consumption of this irreplaceable fuel. Whatever you do to lessen your dependence on petroleum will turn out to be a much more satisfying and meaningful response to our energy predicament than any canned protest promoted through Facebook.

As for myself, I made two resolutions since the Macondo well erupted. The first is to go through this summer without activating the household air-conditioner. So far, so good, I can report. (Luckily, we were spared the triple-digit temperature swelterfest that gripped the East Coast last week). It wasn’t that long ago that life without air-conditioning was the norm rather than the exception. If we all resolved not to turn on air-conditioners, we could force the retirement of two to three coal-fired plants in this state.

The other change was to ratchet up my reliance on my bicycle and make it the default vehicle for all my local travels, irrespective of weather conditions. I have been a fair-weather bicycle commuter for many years, but after watching everyone on TV blame someone else for the catastrophe, I felt the need to push myself a little harder. My objective here is to regard my car as a luxury that one day I might do without.

Though the extra perspiration and the occasional dodging of raindrops may take some getting used to, you are going to sleep better at night. Trust me on this.

If the oil spill has prompted a similar response from you, feel free to describe them and send them to the moderator of our Peak Oil blog below. Thank you.

Michael Vickerman is executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a sustainable energy advocacy organization. For more information on the global and national petroleum and natural gas supply picture, visit "The End of Cheap Oil" section in RENEW Wisconsin's web site: www.renewwisconsin.org. These commentaries also posted on RENEW’s blog: http://renewwisconsinblog.org and Madison Peak Oil Group’s blog: http://www.madisonpeakoil-blog.blogspot.com

Editorial Notes: On a similar note but at a more political level, see Hans Noeldner's article, "The spill and you" posted here. It would be interesting to gather some statistics on how many people have been motivated to reduce their fossil fuel dependence because of the oil spill. -KS

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