Monday, October 02, 2006

Peak Oil: Preparation and Cooperation.

Arguably, the threat of imminent Peak Oil could have been prepared for, beginning thirty years ago, however it wasn't, and there is no point trying to close the door of this particular stable. The horse is running on well ahead of us. It is certain, obvious even, that energy, of all kinds as we use it, gas, fuel, electricity, and the goods in the shops that we depend upon, will become more expensive, scarce and of more uncertain supply. This includes not only 'consumer goods', i.e. luxury items, but food. Hence, the prognosis is potentially serious, but not necessarily fatal.
It seems unlikely that governments will do much more than pay lip-service to any alternative to the oil-rich economics that the world has expanded upon, and the wheels of 'progress' as we know and mostly believe it, will turn in the same direction we are used to until the machine begins to grind down. Therefore, the only recourse of individuals is to prepare at the local level of person, family and community.
John Michael Greer has written in Energy Bulletin that the U.S. wastes so much energy on non-essentials that a large fraction of the nation's energy use could be saved without significantly impacting on anyone's life. He paints a stereotypical picture of the typical suburbanite: a guy who mows his lawn with a gasoline powered lawn-mower and then hops into his SUV (my image) to drive down to the gym to get the exercise he missed out on in mowing the lawn. There is an entire range of things, from Christmas lights, DVD's, four-hour round trip commutes to work and vacations in the Caribbean (or yet more exotic destinations) that are only options because fossil fuel energy has been so cheap for long enough that we accept such things as a 'given'.
Environmentalists aim their "Tut-tut" decidedly toward the U.S., pointing out that the average American uses anywhere between twice and four times the amount of energy as the average European. On closer perusal, this does not, however, mean that 'Americans per se, are "bad people"'. Life in America is a more diffuse affair, and it is necessary to travel over greater distances just to do basic things - like shop or get to work. European countries have a better infrastructure (e.g. railway systems) that permit a more efficient use of energy, but these could surely be implemented in the U.S. following the blueprint, say of Scandinavia or Germany (or the U.K. or France). Lessons could certainly be taken from the former communist states in terms of efficient local city transportation. I have mentioned Prague before which has an extremely impressive tramway (street car) network, and this could be implemented more in the U.K. for example in all major cities and large towns.
It is difficult to envisage a 'local' economy, and what our place will be within it. It seems clear that many businesses will at some stage become surplus either to requirements or feasibility. This means that we should perhaps take stock of what we do in fact 'do for a living', and whether our current occupation will be any use to us in the more energy-stringent age to come. Transportation is the biggest area where energy savings could be found. My idea of community 'pods' of up to say 20,000 people is based on roughly the size of an area which could be navigated mainly on foot, and principally without making recourse to fuel-engines such as cars. The urban SUV goes immediately - there really is no excuse. Such vehicles have their place in the countryside but not in traffic-jams in residential areas. This, as I have emphasised before, could save 90% of fuel, and leave a mere 5.4 million tonnes to be accounted for not the 54 million tonnes used currently. Certainly, 13 million tonnes of that is used by the aviation industry, but it is surely tacitly clear that cheap flights will be consigned to history.
The 'pod' is not really a novel notion, really it is a mirror of old fashioned mixed-use neghbourhoods (U.S.), 'villages' or small 'towns' (U.K.), but it is the same difference, since the actions in both cases are set by their scale of area and population and comprise homes, small businesses that provide for immediate needs, farms and public facilities such as schools, cottage hospitals and community libraries, all operating in fairly close mutual proximity. It would be quite possible to connect the pods using tramways for various purposes - including 'having fun', e.g. to go out to theatres, sporting events and other forms of recreation that work best on a 'town' rather than a 'village' scale. The electricity for such links could be provided using a town-size grid system, and generated using various means that are most convenient for that location. For instance, settlements near the coast or to rivers have a potential energy source at their fingertips.
Living in a conurbation of this kind is a better bet than shutting yourself and your family off in a farmhouse somewhere remote, armed with weaponry and plenty of ammunition, unless you really think you can provide everything necessary for life: growing food, providing medical facilities, yes, everything. Local economies could operate on a kind of barter system - goods for labour or labour for goods, and that brings me back to the point about finding a 'sustainable' occupation. [As an extreme example, working as a physicist on an energy-guzzling particle accelerator, and which provides no practical return beyond dumping hot cooling water into the nearest river, does not meet this criterion].
Kennedy's adage about 'country' applies equally to the smaller scale: "ask not what your community can do for you, but ask what you can do for your community." We will all have to contribute something, and to cooperate with each other to attain the most effective outcome from our resources.

No comments: