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“Peak Oil” and Sustainability

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Promoting International Peace
“Peak Oil” and Sustainability

The human race is facing difficult times. If this isn’t clear to you, the authoritative presentation is in Lester Brown’s book Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. See also James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency.

Broadly speaking, oil production worldwide has peaked, or soon will, while demand continues to grow. Water tables worldwide are falling, while fresh water is being used at an unsustainable rate, especially for irrigation. Large amounts of oil and fresh water are needed to supply agriculture to feed the present world population of 6.7 billion. Meanwhile, temperatures are rising, seas are rising, and natural systems are under stress. Without resources and stability, world economic and political systems may fail, leading to the breakdown of societies.

The problems will be global, but will disproportionately affect industrialized countries, and especially the United States, which have resisted preparations for an oil-restricted future.

There is a great deal that can and must be done to redesign human society for a successful future. That is the “Plan B” to which Lester Brown refers. Most importantly, we must change our beliefs about ourselves and our vision of society.

We Americans are stuck in a paradigm of growth, believing that human society can and should grow both the population and the economy indefinitely. The growth paradigm is supported by cultural stories that we teach our children, and which are promoted by government and the news media. These largely unexamined cultural stories underlie our institutions and control our behaviors.

The growth paradigm, which seems as natural and eternal as the sunrise, is relatively recent. It began with the “discovery” of the resource-rich Americas by Europe, and was given new life by the discovery of fossil fuels, and especially oil.

There are cultural stories we were brought up to believe, which need to be reconsidered for these times:

  1. we are rugged individualists, in competition with others for goods and status;
  2. consumption brings happiness;
  3. aggression is inevitable;
  4. hierarchy is normal, and partnership is weakness;
  5. we have earned the American lifestyle through ingenuity and hard work (or alternatively through God’s blessing);
  6. no one/nothing can take this away from us;
  7. we have been successful in the past, and must “stay the course;” and
  8. both economic prosperity and population can and should continue to grow indefinitely.

This triumphant growth paradigm, powered by fossil fuels, brought us fabulous prosperity for more than a century, but has led us to the “long emergency.” Scientific innovation now seems to be creating new problems as rapidly as it solves the old ones. Economists don’t seem to know how to give us prosperity without destroying the environment. Our religious beliefs are not keeping us out of wars.

We need to replace the growth paradigm with a sustainability paradigm. To do that, we need to confront our ideas about growth. People talk about “sustainable development” and “sustainable growth,” suggesting that sustainability can be an adjustment to “business as usual.” It cannot. Sustainability is, and must be, a central guiding principle of new cultural stories for a post-oil, post- fossil fuel future.

The more prosperous we are, the harder it is for us to let go of the growth paradigm. Everyone who drives a car, uses central heat, eats food grown at a distance, or appreciates hot and cold running water, is invested in the growth paradigm. But the growth paradigm must die and be mourned. We also need to grieve for the distressed state of the world we are leaving to our children and grandchildren.

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross described the “Five Stages of Grief,” by which people deal with tragedy, and especially terminal illness:

  1. Denial: "It can't be true."
  2. Anger: "Why weren’t we warned? It's not fair."
  3. Bargaining: "I’ll buy a better-mileage car, but continue driving."
  4. Depression: "It’s so awful, why do anything?"
  5. Acceptance: "Let’s figure out what to do."

Denial is everywhere. We see anger directed at environmentalists for pointing out problems, at industries, and at government for allowing problems to continue. Much “green” thinking in our society is largely symbolic—a bargain in which we change our light bulbs, but continue business as usual.

Paradigm is beliefs. We cannot defeat a dysfunctional paradigm as if it were an enemy. We cannot repair a broken paradigm. Once we have grieved the loss of the paradigm we grew up with, we must craft new cultural stories and live them, thereby creating a new paradigm.

A sustainable world must be based on population in balance with resources. The world’s present population of 6.7 billion is as high as it is because of oil. Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University has calculated that the sustainable human carrying capacity of the planet, once fossil fuels are no longer available, will be between 1 and 2 billion people.

Pimentel assumes a prosperous-but-frugal lifestyle for everyone. This is important, because after the age of oil, extremes of wealth and poverty will no longer be sustainable. Sooner or later, humankind must decide to get along and devise a world peace system, with justice, freedom, democracy, and basic human rights for all. Continuing the war system is unsustainable because it squanders resources and threatens our survival with nuclear weapons.

Let us return to peak oil, which is the issue at hand. Oil geologists know that oil production over time, for a single oil well or a region or for the whole world, follows an approximately bell-shaped curve. World oil production has been essentially flat at about 84 million barrels per day since 2006, and new oil being discovered is nowhere near enough to make up for old wells with declining production. Meanwhile, India and China are industrializing rapidly, and their demand for oil is soaring. This means we will soon come to a time of very high oil prices and/or disruptions of supply.

Oil is important to our way of life because it powers transportation, drives industry, provides chemicals, and heats homes. Oil is also central to our production of food. Agriculture uses fossil fuels to build and fuel tractors, make pesticides and fertilizers, transport food, process food, package food, and heat the buildings where food is sold. We use ten calories of fossil fuel energy for each calorie of food we eat. As one observer put it, we eat oil.

This suggests that after the oil supply becomes expensive and/or disrupted, our food supply will become expensive and/or disrupted. But if food and fuel are expensive, families living on the edge of poverty won’t be able to buy so many goods and services, which will cause businesses to reduce production and lay off workers. Unemployment will lead to more poverty, and potentially economic collapse.

The difficulty of our situation is that the amounts of fossil fuel we depend on are so enormous, that even extraordinary growth of new energy technologies will not be enough to allow business as usual to continue. The amount of oil we use in the U.S every year is the equivalent of a tank of gasoline the size of a football field, 200 miles high!

Suppose we decided today to build enough solar power plants and wind turbines to substitute for current fossil fuel use in the United States (there is sufficient solar and wind potential to do this). We don’t yet have the technology to efficiently turn electricity into liquid fuels, or the infrastructure to use electricity directly, or the decades necessary for a crash effort to scale up renewable energy production, all the while continuing the American way of life.

Suppose a car is speeding toward the edge of a cliff. It’s not that a safe road to the bottom couldn’t be built. It’s a question of the timing. What we can’t do is continue our prosperous lifestyle, toward the cliff's edge, with confidence that technical solutions will ease us down when cheap oil is gone. The long emergency, with poverty, unemployment, disrupted food supplies, and social unrest, may continue for as long as it takes for human society to rebalance itself after the passing of the oil age.

Fortunately, we know in broad outlines what this new society must look like. We will have to cooperate with the Earth, in a partnership rather than dominion. We will have to give up the war system of dispute settlement, not only to avoid becoming extinct, but because we can no longer afford its environmental costs. We will need non- coercive incentives and disincentives leading to smaller families, because after the oil age, the present world population will be unsustainable. We will need to create walkable and bikeable neighborhoods, on a human scale, with food grown locally and local jobs, to minimize our need for energy. We will have to find new ways to take care of each other, because getting from here to there may be difficult.

Unfortunately, knowing things about the way a post-carbon world will have to look does not guarantee that we can make the transition easily. Our American economy, our infrastructure, our institutions, our economic system, our government, our religions, and our secular cultural stories all strongly resist change. People depend on the services they are getting (or hope to get) from society, and determinedly resist as heresy any idea that threatens their personal survival or their prosperity, and threatens to plunge society into the chaos of the unknown.

So the new paradigm trying to be born is being ignored, denied and ridiculed. The profound change we need will be opposed by wealthy and powerful people who cannot imagine they could be winners in a sustainable world, and they have no intention of finding out. People who oppose change are not bad, or our enemies, just human.

It falls to you, to the thoughtful, to those who understand the problem, to make room in your own thinking for the change that the human family needs. Just think about what changes you are already convinced are necessary, and what they imply for the larger society. Think like a resident of your neighborhood, a citizen in your town, your country, and the world. The changes we are talking about are so profound that no one who publicly declares them is likely to be elected president in the United States at this time. But when the next president is elected, the scope of the change we need will have to be discussed and acted upon quickly.

Of course, change to a culture of respect for the natural world, sustainability, and preparation for a successful human future need to be done in every country. However, the world needs the principal economic and military power, the United States, to lead by example. And our present election is an important opportunity to redirect our government toward change.

However, voting is not enough! We must also lead as individuals, using the cooperative tools of the new paradigm. We must read, think, talk to people, and listen to people, to help society create the change we need.

If we rethink our way of life and develop strong communities, but hard times never come, we can celebrate together. But if we remain stuck in denial, or anger, or bargaining, or depression, perhaps we will do too little to protect the people we love.

Hank Stone is a retired engineer with a long-time concern about the human future – see his article, Renewable Energy Revolution, in the Spring 2004 issue of PEACE in Action []. At his Citizens for a United Earth website, Hank offers free peace bumper stickers and essays. E-mail Hank at hstone at to be put on distribution for his [PEACE] List – where articles forming the basis for this essay first appeared.

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