Do you know how to make shoes? Can you build a house? How about grow food? Do you have a doctor and a dentist in your circle of friends?
These are the questions that Andre Angelantoni thinks you should be able to answer in order to plan for the next 10 to 15 years. Angelantoni believes there are radical changes ahead for our society — and no, it’s not the rapture he sees coming, but a post-peak-oil world.
Simply put, peak oil is the point when the world hits the maximum rate of petroleum extraction, and after that, production begins to decline. Since the calculations of geophysicist M. King Hubbert, Ph.D., in 1956, there has been speculation about when (and for some, if) the world will hit its peak production of oil.
Angelantoni is among the crowd of geologists, oil-industry experts and numbers crunchers that believes we are at or near peak, and the way down will be a painful and bumpy ride.
A few years ago, Angelantoni left San Francisco’s dot-com (or dot-bomb, as he says) rat race to start a business helping people prepare for life after cheap oil. He offers an online "Uncrash Course" that covers things like how to survive potential disease outbreaks, what career path you should be on and what skills you can offer your community, how you should prepare for an environmental disaster, what do you do about your finances, where should you live, how you will eat and how you will get around.
And he’s not alone. Across the country, groups known as "transition towns" are gaining steam, helping their communities become more resilient in the face of a changing energy landscape.
Is Peak Oil for Real?
It would be infinitely more convenient at the moment to dismiss Angelantoni as an end-of-the-world extremist, like the survivalists who have taken to the hills to grow their own food and otherwise live off the land.
Except that there is growing evidence about peak oil and when we may actually hit the top of production (and likewise, what that means for our slide down the decline).
In 2008, Richard Heinberg, a well-known author and educator about peak oil wrote:
Petroleum is a finite substance, and we have reached the inevitable point at which it simply isn’t possible to increase the rate at which we extract it from the ground. Most oil-producing countries, including the U.S., have already seen their glory days and are now watching output from their wells gradually dwindle. Only a few nations are early in the production cycle and able to ramp up the rate of flow.
Not everyone shares his certainty. Bill McKibben, the renowned environmental writer and climate-change activist is a little more cautious:
Who knows if we’re actually going to see oil production peak sometime soon? Not me. I’ve read persuasive arguments that we will from writers like Michael Klare and James Howard Kunstler and Paul Roberts. I’ve also read confident counterarguments from people who’ve been right in the past, like Daniel Yergin of Cambridge Energy Research Associates.
Oil depletion is not a straightforward physical law, like the fact that the molecular structure of carbon dioxide traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space. Instead, it’s a detective story that turns on questions like, are the Saudis lying about how fast oil is being depleted in their giant field at Ghawar?
Energy consultant Michael Lynch recently wrote an anti-peak-oil op-ed in the New York Times by. He wrote, "Like many Malthusian beliefs, peak-oil theory has been promoted by a motivated group of scientists and laymen who base their conclusions on poor analyses of data and misinterpretations of technical material."
Joseph Romm, who writes for Climate Progress and previously served as a high-ranking member of the U.S Department of Energy during the Clinton years, quickly challenged Lynch’s op-ed.
But the most compelling evidence may now be coming — the U.S government itself. Michael Klare, author of Resource Wars and Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Petroleum Dependency, wrote in June about the findings of the 2009 report, "International Energy Outlook," from the Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy. The EIA has previously scoffed at peak oil charges. Until now.
For the first time, the well-respected Energy Information Administration appears to be joining with those experts who have long argued that the era of cheap and plentiful oil is drawing to a close. …
For years now, assorted petroleum geologists and other energy types have been warning that world oil output is approaching a maximum sustainable daily level — a peak — and will subsequently go into decline, possibly producing global economic chaos. Whatever the timing of the arrival of peak oil’s actual peak, there is growing agreement that we have, at last, made it into peak-oil territory, if not yet to the moment of irreversible decline.
This is groundbreaking coming from the U.S. government, although don’t expect President Barack Obama to mention peak oil in any upcoming speeches.
Determining the peak is not so cut and dried, McKibben points out. In addition, tiny market changes, like a period of economic decline where less oil is consumed can mask depleting supplies. But for those who are convinced of the data, they aren’t waiting around for the federal government to jump into crisis mode.
What Will a Post-Peak-Oil World Look Like?
It’s an intellectual exercise to even imagine what our lives would look like if oil was no longer cheap and plentiful. Sure, there will always be some in the ground, but when it becomes too expensive to get it out, there will be big changes afoot.
We depend on oil to get us to the store and to get our food and goods there as well. It’s a huge component of the industrial agriculture model that feeds most of our country. And petroleum is in just about everything we buy — from bubble gum to tires to eyeglasses.
And when you consider how oil powers our economy, things look bleak.
"The global-energy equation is changing rapidly, and with it is likely to come great power competition, economic peril, rising starvation, growing unrest, environmental disaster and shrinking energy supplies, no matter what steps are taken," Klare wrote.
Peak-oil prophet James Howard Kunstler, who has written extensively on the subject, echoes his sentiments. In his book The Long Emergency, he cautions: "What is generally not comprehended about this predicament is that the developed world will begin to suffer long before the oil and gas actually run out. The American way of life — which is now virtually synonymous with suburbia — can run only on reliable supplies of dependably cheap oil and gas."
And it gets worse in his eyes. "Oil led the human race to a threshold of nearly godlike power to transform the world. It was right there in the ground, easy to get. We used it as if there was no tomorrow. Now there may not be one."
Life After the Peak
But Angelantoni doesn’t quite see it that way. There will be life after cheap oil, at least for many of us, but it will be vastly different from what most Americans are accustomed to.
We may crash and burn, or we can aim for something Angelantoni calls "creative descent." This involves teaching people about the coming crisis, retraining them in skills that will be useful and helping communities to be more localized.
"The first thing, really is to figure out where you want to live," said Angelantoni. Some areas, like the Southwest, may prove to be fairly unlivable as climate change kicks in as well. And disaster-prone areas, like geological-fault-riddled California may be dicey, he says.
But it’s not all bad.
"There will be a lot of opportunity to start new businesses," he said. "We have to localize."
The relocalization movement has been around for decades but has gotten a second wind as the stumbling economy and mounting environmental pressures have shocked many into action. The basic premise is for communities to become more self-sufficient, and hence more resilient. This often means more local-food networks, more local energy and water systems and robust community businesses.
This idea has recently spun into transition towns, which has spread around the U.S. and in 14 countries. They provide a structure for communities to relocalize. Towns form working groups on issues like energy, food, transportation and local economics.
"It’s not a political movement, it doesn’t have a political bias," said Transition US Executive Director Carolyn Stayton. "Different types of people can be interested in it — it is an us, not a them, it is about how we all can together create a future that works for us."
Each town has its own priorities and issues it is working on. For instance, in Santa Cruz, Calif., they are holding a reskilling expo where people can learn about composting, beekeeping, water catchment and nonviolent communication, in addition to workshops about peak oil and local economics.
Folks in Berea, Ky., just held a 100-mile potluck to help promote local food and farmers and to grow community awareness about their transition initiatives.
It’s easy, she says, to become paralyzed by fear — global warming, economic turmoil and the loss of cheap energy can be a lot to take in. Transition towns examine those issues, but then "imagines what can be on the other side," Stayton said.
"What would our future look like? People imagine it looking like a healthy, wholesome place where people don’t have to commute, where neighbors know each other, where business is local and vibrant and people have skills that they are sharing. The vision becomes so enticing that the problems shrink in their power, and people get propelled to create a future that solves the problems."
For Angelantoni, this kind of community resilience is the opposite of many survivalists, who head to the hills to see if they can live independently. His version of surviving a post-peak-oil world is dependent on communities coming together and adapting to new ways of supporting each other — leaving their big cars and their big houses and their many toys behind.
"We are going to have to get much more practical," he said. "Are you going to be the butcher, baker, or candlestick maker in your local community? What are the skills you need? What are the skills you have?"
And the time to start answering those questions is now. "Some people think we have until the end of the century to get off oil. I’m not one of those people," he said. "I think we goofed. I think we are going to see, with the economy cratering, that we may have as little as 10 to 20 years."
Angelantoni echoes what folks like Kunstler have been saying for years — new technology won’t bail us out of this one, and we’ve started too late on renewable energy and alternative fuels to have them quickly replace fossil fuels in our energy diet.
Taking it to the Next Level
There is a least some amount of shuffling above the neighborhood level when it comes to peak oil.
The city of San Francisco recently put together a Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force, which is getting ready to present its findings to the city’s Board of Supervisors. Like most of Americans, San Francisco is fossil-fuel dependent, with 84 percent of the energy consumed coming from oil and natural gas, both likely at or nearing peaks.
So what’s a city to do? Here’s what the task force says:
- Encourage the installation of local, renewable, distributed electric-generating facilities
- Pursue the conversion of the electric system to a smart grid
- Convert vacant and underutilized public and private properties to food gardens
- Vastly expand urban agriculture programs and services
- Expand passenger capacity of all mass transit
- Avoid infrastructure investments that are predicated on increased auto use
- Convert city equipment, buses and trucks to 100 percent biodiesel from reclaimed lipids, as feasible
- Discourage private auto use by disincentivizing car travel and ensuring that alternatives (walking, bicycling, public transportation) are competitive with driving
- Expand the potential for rail and water transport, for both passengers and freight
- Encourage local manufacturing that utilizes recycled material as feedstock
- Retrofit the building stock for energy conservation, efficiency and on-site generation
- Begin an education plan, to inform San Francisco residents about peak oil and gas and its implications
One of the main things the task force stresses is beginning to take action … now.
We will only know when we’ve hit peak oil after it is has already happened, and that means we may be nearing too late.
"The recent spread of peak-oil resolutions and projects by cities and towns across America is thus a very hopeful sign," John Michael Greer wrote in the task force report; he has authored essays about "catabolic collapse."
"It’s going to take drastic changes and a great deal of economic rebuilding before these communities can get by on the more-limited resources of a deindustrial future, but the crucial first steps toward sustainability are at least on the table now. If our future is to be anything but a desperate attempt to keep our balance as we skid down the slope of collapse and decline, these projects may well point the way."
And what can the average person do?
"If you own a house, think about putting solar on it, making it more energy efficient or moving to some place smaller," said Jeanne Rosenmeier, a member of San Francisco’s task force. "You should be thinking about how to get around without a car and if you have a place to grow a bit of food. There are people out there saying ‘hoard gold, buy guns,’ but I’m not advising that."
Angelantoni believes courses like his are a good place to start.
"When people go down the tunnel of thinking about what it will look like, they get stopped at ‘I lost my job, how do I make money, what do I do for food,’ " he said. "We aim to show them a glimpse of what it could be like on the other side — people are now thinking about how to become business people — and less about who’s going to hire them.
"People need to get in action now and think of how they can be a resilient citizen, a contributor. We’ve labeled ourselves as consumers for so long, we don’t see ourselves as citizens."
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