Monday, July 18, 2005

Life After the Oil Crash

June/July 05 Grassroots Press column:

Peak Oil is already here. The decline will accelerate before this decade is out. For an overview of the situation, I recommend James Howard Kunstler’s new book, "The Long Emergency." In his view, we will never find a form of energy as concentrated and cheap as oil. We will discover that there is no quick fix; in fact, there is no "fix" at all. Oil, which makes possible the affluent lifestyle we take for granted, will be impossible to replace. Our obscenely wasteful way of life will be severely curtailed. This will be "the end of Western Civilization as we know it." Personally, I think it’ll be a few years before things get really serious, but it never hurts to plan ahead.

Kunstler’s weekly commentaries, "The Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle," are always a good read:

Joe Bageant, a liberal living in a redneck town, always has an interesting perspective on a variety of topics: .

Other Peak Oil websites include:

Or, Google "peak oil" for over 600,000 web pages. It’s not like this is fringe information or anything.

We will not suddenly run out of oil, but the price will continue to climb, and we will experience chronic shortages. Once SUV drivers start paying $100 and more for a tank of gas, will they acknowledge their own lack of foresight, or will they will be told who to blame by Limbaugh etc.? Let’s be realistic here.

I doubt if there will be much good news on the political front, yet we might still be able to carve out little niches of semi-sanity for ourselves, or so goes my wishful thinking at any rate. Fortunately for Las Cruces, the Mesilla Valley contains an elegant, gravity-fed irrigation system which is as reliable as the year’s snowpack will allow. When it becomes profitable to do so, farmers will start growing vegetables and grain for local consumption, which is excellent news for those of us who like to eat.

The bad news is the housing bubble is destroying our farmland with appalling speed. Even since last fall, an amazing number of new subdivisions have appeared in the Mesilla Valley. A large acreage of farmland now lies fallow, awaiting subdivisions which seem inevitable. There has never been anything like this bubble, and it’s happening nationwide. Our nation is truly under the grip of a mass psychosis.

But come what may, people always find ways to cope. That much is guaranteed. We will continue to get around. If all else fails, we will walk or use bicycles. But more likely, we will see a vast increase in the number of motorcycles, motorscooters, electric bicycles... any kind of economical motorized transportation. Many more people will use mass transit. There will be a wide open niche for the Chinese (if they will grab it) – we need a seriously economical (and inexpensive) "people’s car." Such a vehicle would seat two people, have a small cargo area for groceries etc., would have a tiny 2-cylinder engine that would get 80+ mpg, and would have a top speed of maybe 60 mph. People would buy these by the millions, while parking their SUVs in the backyard to be used as storage units or playscapes.

Americans might finally start taking solar energy seriously for household use. There are three main applications here:

Heating. The concept is simple: south-facing windows collect heat during the day. Cover them with heavy curtains at night to prevent heat loss. If natural gas prices double yet again (which they will), there will be an opportunity for entrepreneurs to make a good living building add-on solar heaters for houses which were built without taking solar energy into account.

Water heating. Take a water tank, paint it black, cover it with glass, add a little insulation to the back. A do-it-yourselfer could build such a unit (with all new components) for about $200-300. Entrepreneurs will be able to sell millions of these nationwide.

Domestic water. People who are fortunate enough to own their own wells will find it wise to convert their water systems to solar. Pump the water into a storage tank on a tower and voila, plenty of water for household use and irrigation whenever the grid goes down (which it will). Real Goods has two solar water systems in the $1500-1700 range. Go to and request their free catalog.

(You will notice I didn’t mention solar electric. Although countless households are off the grid, solarvoltaic systems are expensive ($10k and up), and the batteries have to be coddled and periodically replaced. Most people simply aren’t techno-savvy enough to bother. This will create an opportunity for entrepreneurs to install and maintain solarvoltaic systems for a fee. People pay to have their swamp coolers maintained, so why not solarvoltaic systems as well?)

Unfortunately, these concepts remain alien to American mainstream culture. Even though more people are waking up to the reality of Peak Oil, most Americans remain clueless. The status quo power structure remains firmly in control. (The top 1% controls 90% of the wealth, and completely dominates the public indoctrination, or "discourse" as they like to call it.) In the Las Cruces area, all the major new projects – the Spaceport, the total development of the Mesilla Valley and East Mesa, and the new high-rise downtown – are predicated on unlimited energy, forever. As usual, short-term profit is the only criterion.

Merely talking about Peak Oil will not change American behavior. Only when gasoline prices double and double again will it finally dawn on people that we have actually entered a new era, and then it will be way too late to change the trajectory. Government has failed us, and will almost certainly continue to fail us. (Which is precisely what the Republicans intend.) The more farsighted of us might be able to create a bit of fragile leeway for ourselves and others. But in the final analysis, our fate depends on how the transition to a post-oil economy plays out, and how rapidly Global Warming spins out of control.

(Laura and I will be teaching a Dona Ana Branch Community Education course on "Sustainable Living Strategies" this fall. Look for our listing in the catalog.)


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