By Tim Hjersted
Apr 12, 2008
By Tim Hjersted. From Lawrence.com
You wouldn’t know it from the mainstream media’s coverage of rising gas prices, but the squeeze we’re all feeling at the pump is just a small part of a much larger picture.
The current price of gas is more than a just a little rough patch that might get worked out by the markets or policy wonks in Washington. Global oil production today is at or near its max capacity, and in the next few years current supply will begin a long and irrevocable decline that will mean dramatic changes for nearly every aspect of our lives.
We’re moving from an era of cheap, abundant energy to an era of increasingly expensive, scarce energy. Given that our entire modern industrial society has become heavily dependent on the availability of cheap fossil fuels to power everything from our transportation to food production, to a myriad of commercial goods and our overall economic growth—this is *kind of* a big deal. For college kids, soccer moms, and business tycoons alike—peak oil is going to bring a major smack down on our way of life.
While global warming has finally begun to break into the mainstream, its twin brother—peak oil—has yet to be talked about in our national discourse. However, the economic crisis that peak oil presents will likely be felt much sooner than global warming. Major price spikes may come in the next few years, and with rising demand from China and India, among other developing nations, the battle for remaining oil reserves will invariably lead to resource wars and increased conflict in the Middle East. Combine this with teetering financial markets and a devaluation of the dollar, if we do not begin to prepare for peak oil now, the overall financial chaos from all this may jeopardize our ability to address global warming with the stability and financial resources necessary to avoid an even greater environmental catastrophe.
Great news, right? Well, there is some good news. The essential solution for both of these problems is roughly the same thing: eliminating our use of and dependence on fossil fuels. The more our society transitions to renewable sources of energy, the less we’ll emit global-warming-causing CO2 emissions, and the less we’ll be racked in the balls by expensive fossil fuel costs.
Ultimately, a post-carbon society is inevitable. Whether that future looks remotely desirable to us depends on what we do now. The sooner businesses, private citizens, and elected officials stop futzing with little tweaks to the status quo, and get serious about the big picture at the end of the road, the better off we’ll be. These distractions include ethanol, nuclear power, “clean coal,” hydrogen, more efficient cars, and many of the other single-fix responses being proposed by industry and government currently. Many of these approaches may actually exacerbate our problems.
Case in point: though it may help in the short-term, we don’t need more efficient cars; we need radically redesigned cities that are not dependent on cars to get us everywhere. The city and suburban infrastructure necessary to support the speedy movement of the personal automobile requires an immense overall supply of energy and resources to build and maintain. It seems natural that the suburban model of design would have developed during the 20th century when there was such a vast supply of cheap energy to make it economically viable, but with an end coming to cheap energy, we’ve got to go back to the basics. We need to rethink the whole system.
Solutions that take into account a “whole-systems” approach do exist. In fact, the more I’ve looked, the more I’ve discovered sustainable and innovative ideas that are already being implemented in places all over the world. A resident of Oakland, California, Richard Register presents an inspiring vision of what a post-carbon, ecologically healthy city might look like in his book, “Ecocities: Building cities in balance with nature.”
Similar to New Urbanism, the places where people live would be built in close proximity to a mixed combination of work, shopping, food, and recreational spaces, allowing for easy use of bicycle or mass-transit to get wherever you need to go. The city’s economy would be re-localized, from organic food production to basic goods and services. Decentralized wind, solar, and geothermal energy systems would provide energy to the grid, while advanced efficiencies in building design would reduce energy demand by over 70 percent. Long distance travel would be accommodated by light rail or boat, and electric cars borrowed through community car-share programs would be used for medium distance trips. Gardens and plants would be integrated throughout multiple floors of buildings, and streams would weave through public centers and parks.
Finding an abundance of ideas for how to create more sustainable cities is not the problem. What we need is a national discussion at all levels of society, and at all levels of our communities, so we can start to talk about how we’re going to address peak oil here at the local level. How are we going to get from here to there?
We need to get our schools involved. We need to get our city and planning commissioners involved. Businesses, elected officials, and private citizens all need to come to the table and get to work.
Now, at the end of most problem-themed articles I’ve read, specifically ones dealing with global warming, I’ve noticed a curious trend. After spending most of the time talking about the problem, the one paragraph at the end devoted to “things you can do” usually centers solely around personal suggestions: Change your lights to compact fluorescents. Turn down the thermostat. Bike more. Buy less, and try to buy used more than new.
These are all things we should be doing to cut down on our own energy use, but I wonder why it always stops there. Presumably it’s because Americans are too lazy to expect they’d be willing to do anything more ambitious. I want to prove this assumption wrong.
Great change has never been inspired by small requests. If it seems like people in America haven’t been doing much lately to address global warming, it’s because not much has been asked of them. Most of the time, our leaders simply ask us to shop. I think if we do start to expect and ask more of each other, though, we’ll be surprised by the results. As Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R, Md.) has said, “There is no exhilaration like meeting and overcoming a big problem... and I think that Americans could be exhilarated by the challenge.”
So there it is. We’re facing some pretty unprecedented challenges. The time for just making small, personal changes is over. As I heard Alex Steffen say recently, “Don’t just be the change. Mass-produce it.”
Tim Hjersted is the director of the Films for Action project. To read his online blog, visit www.filmsforaction.org.