As the era of cheap liquid fuels draws to an end, everything about modern consumer society will change. Likewise, developing societies pursuing the benefits of globalization will struggle to grow economies in an era of scarce liquid fuels. The most localized, self-reliant communities will experience the least disruption.
Oil is a fixed asset of the planet, representing stored sunlight accumulated over a billion years as early marine algae, and other marine organisms (not dinosaurs) captured solar energy, formed carbon bonds, gathered nutrients, died, sank to the ocean floors, and lay buried under eons of sediment. Like any fixed non-renewable resource, oil is limited, and its consumption will rise, peak, and decline.
World oil production increased for 150 years until the spring of 2005, when world crude oil production reached about 74.3 million barrels per day (mb/d), and total liquid fuels, including tar sands, liquefied gas, and biofuels reached about 85 mb/d. In spite of the efforts since, and tales of “trillions of barrels” of oil in undiscovered fields, liquid fuel production has remained at about 85.5 mb/d for three years, the longest sustained plateau in modern petroleum history. Discoveries of new fields peaked 40 years ago.
Meanwhile economies everywhere want to grow, so demand for oil soars worldwide. The gap between this surging demand and flat or declining production will drive price increases and shortages. That’s peak oil.
Peak oil is not a theory, but rather a simple observation of a common natural occurrence. Peak oil is only one symptom of an exponentially growing population, with exponentially growing demands, reaching worldwide limits of all resources.
“Peak oil has long been a reality for the oil industry,” says Anita M Burke, former Shell International senior advisor on Climate Change and Sustainability. “To believe anything else belies the facts of science.” In 2007, Dr James Schlesinger, former US Defense and Energy Secretary stated flatly, “if you talk to industry leaders, they concede … we are facing a decline in liquid fuels. The battle is over. The peakists have won.”
Global warming, caused primarily by forest destruction and the burning of fossil fuels, now aggravates natural limits and the human turmoil that these limits provoke. One might think that peak oil will solve global warming because less oil means less carbon emissions. Sadly, this is not so because humanity took the best, cheapest, and easiest oil first, leaving dirty, acidic, expensive oil in marginal reserves that require vast amounts of energy to recover. In the 1930s, 100 barrels of oil cost about 1 barrel in equivalent energy to extract. That ratio is now about 20:1 and sinking fast. The Canadian tar sands produce barely 1:1 net energy. By the time someone burns tar sands oil in his or her vehicle, the industry has burned nearly an equal amount retrieving it.
When we account for the net energy left after production, and population growth, we discover that the world peak for net-oil per-capita occurred three decades ago, in 1979. Many oil suppliers – Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and others – recognizing the limits of the resource, are now keeping more of their oil for domestic use, and saving it for future growth. Regardless of energy alternatives – ethanol, nuclear, solar, wind, tidal – humanity will never again enjoy the current consumption rates of cheap, convenient fuels. This fact changes everything.
We witness the impact in the increasing scarcity and cost of food and other critical resources that rely on oil. Most trucking firms now add a fuel surcharge to hedge against fuel price increases. As fuel prices soar, airlines cancel flights or simply close down. In many cities, police add a gas charge to traffic tickets because police departments have already spent their annual fuel budget on high-priced gasoline.
The post-peak oil era will require new human development patterns and strategies that cope with limits to growth. Humanity has no new continents to exploit or planets to occupy. Frantic industrial nations may drill in the Arctic and dig into dirty tar sands, but none of this will increase or even match the past abundance of cheap liquid fuel that we have already squandered. Nevertheless, the actual moment that world oil production peaks is less relevant than our preparation for the impact.
Well-financed voices promoting global industrialization claim our economies can grow “forever,” or “for the foreseeable future,” but these voices cry out against the evidence before our eyes. Our massive growth economies were built with cheap oil. Poorly planned development left behind disappearing forests, toxic lakes, soil erosion, species loss, foul air, dead rivers, drying aquifers, and creeping deserts.
The dream of a globalized world marketplace linked by airplanes and trucks will not endure. Monolithic superstores that rely on liquid fuels to ship cheap goods around the world will become the relics of the cheap oil era. These massive chain stores also undermine the local enterprise that communities will need to survive.
“The current solutions being bantered about are inadequate to the conditions we are faced with,” says Anita Burke, after decades inside the oil industry. “We must embrace adaptation strategies that immediately create whole new ways of being in relationship to each other and the planet. Buy local, get off of hydrocarbons in every aspect of your life, gather in community, and espouse only love - your grandchildren’s lives depend on it.”
Communities addicted to cheap oil, especially suburban environments without public transport, will become untenable. Regions that still build highways for cars are simply designing their own demise. Smart communities will design light, convenient public transport to run efficiently on the most locally available energy source.
The post-peak oil era will require that we re-establish local manufacturing and food production, and refurbish economies that have been gutted by globalization. Smart urban designers are now planning for the end of cheap energy, global warming, and the human migration that these changes will set in motion. Smart neighbourhood and regional planners are preparing communities for the inevitable transition from escalating consumption to conserver societies, built on a human scale and linked to social services and the natural cycles that sustain them.
Building communities in nature
I recently walked through an abandoned industrial section of Vancouver, where I live. The empty, poorly designed, decaying buildings seemed depressing, but I noticed how much actual green space flourished with wild plants. Squatters with gardening skills, I kept thinking, could make a life for themselves here.
Human society can change. Witness the historic changes to establish democracies, end slavery, secure civil and women’s rights, or eradicate polio and AIDS. Humanity can harness its resources to change destructive habits and improve living conditions. The crisis of peak oil provides an opportunity strengthen the two pillars that nourish real quality of life: local community and wild nature.
Relocalize: The end of cheap oil means less products arriving from around the world and less jobs making junk to sell elsewhere. Globalization is literally running out of gas. As fuel prices soar, communities will have to supply more food, water, and vital resources locally. If you are thinking of earning a degree in international finance, it might be smart to take some permaculture courses as well.
Preserve Farmland: Wise communities will preserve agricultural land, support farmers, provide local food for local consumption, compost all organic waste including sewage, build soils, apply efficient water use, move toward vegetable diets, and restore and replenish water resources. Rather than building suburbs and highways on farmland, smart communities will design small residential neighbourhoods on the least-arable land, integrated with the life-giving farmland and natural bounty that supports a healthy society.
Change the pattern of community: The entire distribution of public activity, public space, and housing must adapt to less fuel and resource consumption. Past planning in the cheap-oil era created public dysfunction, decaying city cores, foul air, and squandered energy. We do not have generations to correct these mistakes – the time we have to act is now best measured in months, not decades. We now face the choice of responding gracefully and wisely or reacting later in chaos.
Productive urban green spaces: Cities face huge challenges and require green space, not only for play and peace of mind, but for food. Suburbs and urban neighbourhoods must be redesigned to transform lawns and streets into productive green zones linked by public transport. Planting trees anywhere reduces global warming. Cities such as Bogotá, Columbia, and San Luis Obispo, California have shown that degraded cities can revitalize community and economic life with programs that increase green space.
Public transport: Basing development and land-use patterns on the private automobile may be the worst design decision in human history. The automobile is responsible for resource depletion, global warming, degraded farmland, alienated neighbourhoods, aesthetic eyesores, time wasted in traffic, and an epidemic of transport death and injury. Light rail public transport is clean, energy efficient, safe, community-building, and allows travellers to be productive rather than stressed. Smart cities will implement public transit, encourage bicycle use, and create neighbourhoods that encourage walking for most services and family needs.
100% recycling: Nature recycles everything. There is no “away” in nature where garbage and waste is thrown. Human communities must mimic the 100% recycling of nature, eliminate designed obsolescence, and turn garbage landfills into recycling centres. Sewage is natural compost that can be converted to productive soil, as demonstrated in Sweden, India, and Mongolia.
Preserve wilderness: Smart ecological planning not only nurtures people but also preserves wilderness habitat for species diversity. In regions where indigenous people still live on the land, wilderness also preserves cultural diversity and knowledge of local food, medicines and resources.
Modern consumer cities – made possible by the age of cheap fuels, designed for cash profits, or not designed at all – alienated people from each other and from their organic roots. When we gaze upon degraded cement landscapes and the lost souls of inner city children taking refuge in gangs and drugs, we see the cost of broken communities. The end of cheap fuels may help us reclaim an authentic quality of life, not purchased with more stuff but with relationship: our affiliation with each other and with nature.
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