I have a recurring nightmare. I'm on a ship, hurtling toward an iceberg in the North Atlantic. We're headed for disaster-I know, I've seen the movie. We could slow down or change course, but we don't. We could pay attention to the warnings, but we don't. We just keep bearing down on that damned iceberg.
I don't want to be on that ship when it goes down. I know my odds of survival are not good. But when I wake up, I find that the nightmare is real.
We're shoveling fossil fuel into our boilers at an exponential rate. The throttle's wide open. The danger's right in front of us, but we don't see it. At the last minute, we'll throw the engines into reverse, crank the wheel, and slide past. But it'll be too late. There'll be a sickening grinding sound as the hull is torn open, and the watertight compartments flood one by one.
The mind struggles to accept the inevitable. We shudder and slide into the depths like that huge oil rig off the coast of Brazil.
Do we sink the unsinkable, or think the unthinkable? The choice is ours.
We've reached the peak of fossil fuel production, and from now on it's a slippery slope. It takes energy to make energy. That's a law of thermodynamics. Oil and coal and natural gas are getting harder and more expensive to extract. Very soon, the energy it takes to produce the fuel will equal or exceed the amount of energy that the fuel provides.
It used to take one barrel of oil to produce fifty; now the same investment produces only five. What happens when the output drops to one barrel for every barrel invested?
The point of diminishing returns is already here. When the fossil fuel's gone, that's it. We don't get another chance. Like the Titanic, we have a date with destiny. When the lights flicker out, life as we know it in the developed world will come to an end. At least then we won't have to worry about carbon dioxide emissions or global warming.
Consider the crisis in California. Okay, maybe it's a scam perpetrated by the energy companies to boost their profits, but it provides a glimpse of the real crisis looming in the not-too-distant future. Rolling blackouts. Hoarding. Profiteering. A stock market in free fall. This is the shape of things to come. Welcome to the post-industrial age.
How do we pull back from the brink? Forget NAFTA and FTAA and WTO. Forget drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Forget nuclear power. Stealing from other countries and destroying the environment won't solve our problem. Neither will going to war in the Mideast or the Balkans. The only way to achieve energy independence is to move toward a sustainable economy.
It's time for a new national energy policy, not the short-term fix that President Bush is proposing. It's time for massive investments in renewable energy sources. Time to conserve. Time to stop wasting irreplaceable resources. Time to stop destroying our environment. Time to rethink our priorities and our way of life. Time to change course, before it's too late.
Time, like fossil fuel, is a finite resource. And our time is almost up.
Susan Lina Ruggles is a member of AFT Local 212 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.