Monday, November 26, 2007

The Great Relearning

About six years ago, there was an editorial in the Dallas Morning News calling for action on climate change. I used it as the beginning of the chapter on climate change in my book Silver in the Mine. It was a well written piece from a conservative but respected newspaper.

Well, yesterday, Dallas Morning News columnist Rod Dreher wrote about Peak Oil, or Plateau Oil as it seems to be shaping up. In talking about the end of the age of cheap oil, he says:

But what if it's ending? The authoritative International Energy Agency recently warned that the price of oil would remain high for the foreseeable future because of supply shortages. China and India are developing rapidly and consuming vast amounts of oil.

World supply can barely keep up with demand – a problem the IEA blames primarily on human failures. IEA forecasts that China and India alone will add about 13 million barrels a day to the global demand by 2030.

But the IEA forecasts world oil supply at 116 million barrels a day by 2030, up from 85 million barrels a day now – enough to meet expected demand. Some top oil company CEOs disagree. Christophe de Margerie, chief of the French oil giant Total, said in late October that a supply level of even 100 million barrels a day – barely enough to cover anticipated growth from China and India alone – is "optimistic."

"It is not my view. It is the industry view, or the view of those who like to speak clearly, honestly and not ... just try to please people," Mr. de Margerie said.

And ConocoPhilips CEO James Mulva told a financial conference earlier this month: "Demand will be going up, but it will be constrained by supply. I don't think we are going to see the supply going over 100 million barrels a day, and the reason is: Where is all that going to come from?"

That's the question adherents to peak-oil theory ask. They argue that the world either has or soon will have reached the maximum output level of its oil reserves and that supply can only decline from here on out – even as demand skyrockets.

Though some dismiss them as crude-oil Cassandras, the peak-oilers are not wild-eyed pessimists. Their number includes men like T. Boone Pickens, the Dallas oil tycoon, and Houston's Matt Simmons, who founded the world's largest energy investment banking company.

They point to hard data indicating that the world is quite simply running out of oil and doing so quickly. (clip)

What would life after peak oil mean for Dallas and its surrounding suburbs, a metropolis created by the availability of cheap energy?

Cars would be an unaffordable luxury for most, making life in suburbia difficult, perhaps impossible, to sustain. Likewise, air travel and shipping likely would be sharply curtailed as too costly, causing Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, a major regional economic engine, to slow substantially.

Truck transport, too, would diminish, causing a sharp slowdown in the consumer economy and, crucially, making the kind of grocery-store bounty we now enjoy a thing of the past. And with a general rise in energy costs blasting electric bills into the stratosphere, we may all have to get used to – wait for it – life without air conditioning.

Jeffrey Brown, a Richardson geologist who has been active in the peak-oil debate, advises far-sighted folks to abandon the outlying suburbs and exurbs and move closer to the city center. "The smart money has been moving in," he said. "The closer you are to job centers, the more stable the property values have been. That will continue."

Post-peak-oil conditions would reverse globalization, forcing a return to intensely local agriculture and local manufacturing. The stores and services that communities need in order to carry on everyday life would emerge in neighborhoods, as in the pre-automobile era. Cities would empty out, with rural areas and small towns in agriculturally rich areas reviving.

Culturally, all Americans would have to undergo a Great Relearning of skills and social habits that our ancestors developed to survive in community. (clip)

It is time, however, for discerning people – not only decision-makers, but every one of usto start talking about and urgently planning for a peak-oil future. It may come sooner, it may come later, but it's coming."

If the Citizens of Dallas who read their conservative, yet generally honest newspaper are now being urged to start talking about and urgently planning for a peak-oil future, perhaps we progressives should too.

In a moment of black humor, I sometimes say after presentations on Climate Change, that "that's the bad news...the good news is, we're running out of oil."

But if we allow the twin forces of climate change and resource depletion to unleash their combined furies, there will be little to laugh at. As Dreher says:

"We will be poor. Our sons probably would be sent overseas to fight resource wars. Back home, regions of America where tens of millions of people live will be uninhabitable – especially the Southwest and much of suburbia. The economic contraction and social dislocation will be, in many cases, nothing short of catastrophic and will produce political upheaval. "

The Great Relearning will come.

How it comes,

Depends on us.

orb photo courtesy of silverlifetriada

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