Simply a Lack of Imagination?

Not only our nation but the whole planet seems to be in dire straits, and I keep wondering how this came about. Today I’m thinking it’s just a colossal failure of imagination.

One aspect of our common problem is peak oil, or in other words, the moment when worldwide oil production tops out and begins to decline. It seems to coincide with the point at which we have used about half of all the oil that exists, including that in hard to reach places (like under the oceans) and that which will be difficult and expensive to produce (like from Canada’s oil sands).

I want to talk at another time about what our dependence on this finite resource means for Americans, but today I’m just thinking about what it has done for us and what it could do for future Americans if we don’t use the last drop (besides saving them from the worst of climate change).

The myriad of petroleum products – from plastics to fertilizers to fuel – have created modern life as we know it. It will be very difficult to produce even things that aren’t directly made of oil-based materials without the energy to run factories and fuel to distribute products.  Some are just wishful thinking, like bio-fuels or hydrogen.

Alternative energy ideas are often highly reliant on the existence of enough oil: to build and run nuclear plants, to build and distribute batteries, solar panels and wind generators, etc.

I can easily imagine a not-too-distant future for my grandchildren where oil is scarce and expensive, and life is very, very different. What is harder for me to imagine is what I’m going to say to them to explain why I and my fellow Americans didn’t foresee this disaster and seriously curtail our use of fossil fuels.

Will “I couldn’t,” or “I’m just wasn’t ready,” or “It would have hurt the economy” stand up to their scrutiny as acceptable excuses for our lack of commitment now before it’s too late. Or will we just have to drag out that old saw, “I didn’t know this would happen.”

What will you say?


  • Robert Hirsch who is the main energy policy adviser to the Dept of Defense says the peak is now, and the decline of world oil supplies will start by 2015, so this is not only a grandchildren issue, it is definitely also one for us here and now. It seems that most peak oil analysts expect this to be a “surprise” for individuals and governments alike, followed by shortages, panic and some level of disruption. There are however a number of communities who are already planning for the transition to a low energy economy – local food, local jobs, local skills and re-use and repair rather than throw away. It would be great to see River Falls start this level of planning. Buying green energy is a start, but we really need to step up to a whole higher level to plan for this low energy future.

  • David,
    I couldn’t have said it better myself. River Falls definitely has the wherewithal and resources to get these kinds of forward thinking projects started. What seems to be lacking is the will. I fervently hope that will take off soon and grow to meet the challenge.

  • Candace Bettendorf says:

    Oil and oil products permeate our existence. I would like to see us not so dependent on oil, but where do we start? not only the products of life, but the energy to create these products depend on oil. What solutions exist? If we burn wood, it pollutes the atmosphere. Wind turbines are no longer in favor because of their noise, and because neighbors think they’re unsightly. Horses instead of cars? There is a manure problem. And what can replace asphalt roads? In farming, oil helps the US feed the world. Without oil and oil products, farmers would be bankrupt, and crops would be less than half of what they are now per acre. I’m not being negative, really, just confused, and somewhat discouraged. I feel like dependence on something other than oil is merely a dream, and not really a possibility. I would love to see some oil-replacement ideas from some serious inventors and innovators.

    • Ah yes, this does seem like an insurmountable dilemma. When we begin to realize that so much of our lives depend so heavily on oil, and the replacement options are either entirely insufficient or non-existent, it appears that we can do no better than shaving a little off the top of our oil consumption and continuing business as usual. However, that “dependence on something other than oil dream” you mention is NOT OPTIONAL. We are facing an immediate future of scarcity as production goes down and demand goes up. Costly wars to control production sites will bankrupt our country and we might not even win them! As other markets (China and 3rd world countries) open for crude oil, it is certainly possible that our “friends” in the Middle East will decide to send their oil elsewhere. In that kind of a world, our oil producing allies like Canada and Great Britain will most likely need to keep their diminishing production for themselves. We will be reduced to only what America produces, which I believe is about 40% of what we use, and that is assuming we can still import manufactured goods from China and don’t have to start producing them ourselves.
      As I mentioned, the production of alternative energies consumes an inordinate amount of energy itself, sometimes, as with ethanol, the net gain is almost nothing.
      Since oil is a finite resource, and all indications are that we are coming to the downhill slope on production, we can face a world without oil now or later. If we wait until later, we won’t have oil to use to produce replacements.
      I believe the confusion we all feel when we think about this is caused by our instinctive refusal to accept that the numbers just aren’t going to add up. We CANNOT replace oil. There is nothing, and no combination of clean energy producers, that will allow us to continue to live like we have. This has been an aberration, a short blip in the history of mankind where those living in the ‘first’ world have had the luxury of what amounts to the use of hundreds of slaves to do our bidding and satisfy every whim. The hard-to-accept bottom line is that we are going to have to change our lives, bringing our energy usage into line with our clean energy production, which will result in a much different life for us in America.

  • Don Richards says:

    Another disturbing aspect of the problem is that Peak Oil gets no, or little, publicity nationally, despite numerous books on the topic. I emailed National Public Radio and asked them to discuss the topic and got a response that they would consider doing so. But that was over a month ago, and unless I missed it, there has been no discussion.

    James Howard Kunstler’s book, “The Long Emergency,” says presidents as far back as Carter, including both Bushes, have known about Peak Oil, but except for Carter, have not discussed it for fear of spooking the stock market/economy. There needs to be a wide-spread national conversation about the problem so that more people are made aware of the need to conserve and develop sustainable practices.

    • I highly recommend reading Kunstler’s book. It is a real eye-opener!

    • It would be great to see some national discussion or leadership on this, but I think it will not happen till the crisis is actually happening . Meanwhile , there are a few towns and cities in the US , Canada and UK, who have prepared “Transition Plans”. They look at how they would handle a world with 60% less oil – how would they allocate the gas they do have ( farmers and police and ambulance only) – how they feed themselves when food imports from California stop – what skills would they need to create a sustainable community – what businesses do they want to attract now so they have the infrastructure they need – how do they redeploy all the commuter workers, etc, etc. It would be wonderful to see River Falls start this kind of effort now, and not when we are all in panic mode.

      • I would like to get on that bandwagon. Do you have more information on the Transition Planning process, names of cities that have done so, etc. so we would not have to reinvent the wheel? This is a movement that needs to start in our town soon!

  • Probably the best place to start is at Transitions Towns
    Wiki has a good description of what it does and has links to the WW group and to Transition Towns US. A good Energy Descent plan is the one from Totnes in Devon UK This plan is written as an online book, so it can be a bit hard to plow through, but it is worth it.
    In the US, here is a list of the places that have at least started planning
    There are also some guidelines out there for local government bodies on how to approach this issue

    • Thank you very much David. You are a storehouse of great information on this topic. I’ve been thinking about putting together a citizens group here in RF to address this issue, unless there already is one I’m not aware of? I’ll definitely take a look at the sites you’ve mentioned. It’s really nice to hear that there are already guidelines for local governments that we can build on instead of starting from scratch!

  • Katie,
    If you do start something, I would be very happy to join in and help in any way I can. I think there is/was a local green energy group that started looking at that aspect of the issue – don’t know how far that got, but I haven’t seen or heard anything for a while.
    I will dig out links to the local government guidelines and pass that on.

    • A couple of years ago I was involved in a local group working on building a more sustainable River Falls using “The Natural Step” as a template. That group lost focus and faded away, but I personally know a lot of people who I think would like to get back to work on this. I will definitely let you know when I get something together. Anyone else out there interested in participating in a working group dedicated to starting the planning process for a transition to a local world with diminished oil supplies?

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