There are so many ongoing problems that we're aware of but we put them on the back burner until they creep up on us. I focused a lot on this concept in a course aimed at discussing the economic, social and environmental implications of the climate crisis and the end of oil.
Every time I put gas in my car, all I can think is, "If we are already past peak oil, we've got to find another solution." And it's true, known world oil fields as a collective whole have peaked; now we are on the downwind side of oil production, despite Obama's recent proposal for offshore drilling in the Gulf Coast and in the Gulf of Alaska. What will we do when the curtain falls on oil's lonely stage?
I recommend a book I read for class: "The Long Emergency" by James Howard Kunstler. Similar to Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," but with a local spin, the book basically outlines how we have to change our lives in order to survive in what Kunstler coins "The Long Emergency" — the period of time our society will live through when we finally reach the end of oil as we know it.
This is a tremendous milestone — and quite a scary one — that is encroaching on us, whether we want to believe it or not. Oil is a finite resource, a product of millions of years of decomposition of dead algae and plankton. Once the world's oil fields are drilled dry, what our governments decide to do will ultimately decide our future.
I believe renewable energy is a given — the correct path to fueling our businesses, cars, and homes. But at the same time, wind and solar alone will not save us from oil withdrawal. Rather, localized energy sources will have to work together to fuel our country. Wind power is only efficient in certain locales, where prevailing winds are reliable, and the same goes for solar energy. At the equator, solar panels could potentially power the world, because the sun shines down on us at a whopping 1000 watts per square meter.
With the culminating need for local sources of renewable energy comes the switch that will require a major adjustment from our society. Our lifestyles will have to become more localized. For those of us who have enjoyed suburban living, where going to the grocery store means driving a few miles, we'll have to accept that that might be a thing of the past. Cities, according to Kunstler, will make a striking comeback, simply because of the walkability and ease of transit.
Cities are localized hotspots of basic needs, and our current standards of living might have to be reevaluated in order for us to survive "The Long Emergency." The time might come when four-car families scale down to public transit only. No matter where you live now, life will have to become local. More farms will emerge, especially in Western New York, where dairy farms are the main business for many small towns.
I feel pretty optimistic for a world without dependency on oil. I never thought about oil in a different context other than the fact that it contains long chains of hydrocarbons which contribute to global warming when burned. You might feel enlightened by this other fact about oil: oil has allowed for the world's populations to live beyond its means, to live based on wants, not necessities. Fuel propelled jets and trains, which fueled mass movement to new locations which naturally were not suited to being inhabited (Los Angeles, anyone?). Human population grew at an exponential rate, tipping our saddled Earth beyond its comfortable 2 billion people limit.
The end of oil will be the beginning of fixing our lifestyles in order to better ourselves and the earth. I'm not saying it will be easy, but it should be looked upon as a surmountable challenge, and with every challenge comes innovation and progress. It's funny, thinking that all we have done has stemmed from the discovery of something so simple, so finite, yet bearing the power to transform industry and allow humans to overlook their limits.
Photos: Katherine Bailey