Peak oil and lifestyle: Ready for a transition?

An ongoing environmental concern regarding peak oil is that it will be used to justify getting more energy now regardless of human and environmental costs.

If a temporary surge in energy supplies and lower prices occurs and increases consumption, it will make the transition to a sustainable energy system all the more difficult.

We will be left with a dirty planet and fewer resources available to develop new energy. We would be better served by a decade of high, stable energy prices to provide essential economic incentives to implement a sustainable energy system.

Robert L. Hirsch’s report, Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management, acknowledges that previous forecasts of the end of oil that failed to materialize were followed by collapses in energy prices.

While peaking will occur some time, Hirsch takes recent estimates seriously. If it has not already occurred, the most optimistic estimates assume it will within the next 25 years. When it does, it will create enormous economic disruptions unless we have prepared in advance. Obviously, we will only know after it occurs.

James Howard Kuntsler, author of The Long Emergency, has correctly labeled the situation as “the long emergency.” The decline in oil supplies will be continuous and require a massive reorganization of the global economy to avoid widespread suffering.

Hirsch believes that with the U.S.’s and the world’s huge consumption of oil and natural gas, at least a decade of intense, expensive and aggressive efforts will be required to reduce demand and increase supplies.

While increased efficiency is essential, Hirsch believes it is neither timely nor sufficient to solve the problem. He calls for expansion of technologies to produce vast amounts of substitute liquid fuels. Government intervention is considered essential to avoid social and economic chaos resulting from peaking oil. The major premise of the report is a sense of urgency about securing the liquid fuels necessary to continue living as we do.

Although uncertainty surrounds the timing of peak oil, prudent risk management requires planning and implementing mitigating strategies well in advance of the actual event. Hirsch considers conservation, improved oil recovery, heavy oil and tar sands, liquid fuels from coal and stranded natural gas to liquids technologies essential. However, liquid fuel conversions are energy intensive and add to global warming; some require massive water consumption.

Since two-thirds of our daily 20 million barrels of oil consumption is used in transportation, it is the obvious target for change. While significant improvements in energy efficiency are possible, at least a decade will be required to achieve them. New fuel efficiency standards for SUVs saving nearly 11 billion gallons of gasoline over the vehicles’ 15-year lifespan falls far short of a serious commitment to energy efficiency.

Unfortunately, the last 50 years of economic development in this country has focused on hooking the American public on the freedom of travel. We have taken the bait. A survey by the U.S. Department of Transportation established that 67 percent of personal automobile miles and nearly 50 percent of airplane travel are discretionary. We do not have to travel; we want to travel. Our federal government’s cheap energy policies have made it possible.

With the loss of our industrial base, many community development plans focus on creating facilities and events to attract more tourists. Better roads, streets and parking facilities, which remain the rallying cry for economic growth imply, more vehicle use and fuel consumption. Other community development plans increase air travel to vacation and recreational destinations. It would seem the problems of peak oil, global warming and the ongoing loss of living wage jobs would call for community development plans for living well with less travel and energy consumption.

If current energy, climate and economic trends continue, travel will move far down the list of what most people can afford. From necessity, our lives will become locally focused.

In our youth, we heard frequent references to how the Depression changed people’s lives. They learned to live with less money, goods and services and do more for themselves. They had fun with simple activities such as hiking, biking, dancing, visiting, reading library books, making craft projects from scrap materials and playing informal games of softball, volleyball, croquet and cards. They relied on one another to make their lives interesting.

Behavioral change, lifestyle change and community change must be an integral part of any serious effort to develop a sustainable energy system.

From the April 5-11, 2006, issue

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