The distinctions between pessimism, optimism, and hope can make a
difference when it comes to envisioning the future.
A pessimist believes there is no hope while an optimist thinks
everything will turn out all right. A person of hope, however, looks
at reality and tries to solve problems with the faith that his/her
actions will make a difference for a better future.
Richard Heinberg, senior fellow-in residence at the Post Carbon
Institute, spoke in my town recently about peak oil and its
implications for our way of life. Although this subject can be a real
downer, he was actually inspirational and motivating as he sounded a
clarion call for the audience to help create the next major era in our
Peak oil is not for the faint of heart and in fact, government, the
media and most institutions resist or actively try to shut down any
talk about it. What a great disservice to the public that is!
Peak oil means that we're extracting oil at the highest rate we will
ever achieve. After peak, the rate of production falls even though
there's still a lot of oil left. That's when the problems begin
because our entire economy is designed to function properly only when
oil supplies are increasing.
A lot of people are depending on technology to come up with
alternatives to oil: biofuels, hydrogen, tar sands, switch grass,
wind, solar and the like. However, these resources cannot make up for
the huge demand for oil.
For example, Americans currently consume 19.5 million barrels of oil
per day while the rest of the world consumes 85 million barrels. ()
To give some scale to this, the United States, the top consumer, uses
almost as much as the next four highest consumers combined including
China (7.8 million), Japan (4.8 million), India (3 million) and Russia
It is important to note that peak oil doesn't mean we will be without
oil. It means that we are running out of cheap oil.
The oil we have been using over the past 150 years is the easiest to
pump out and it's called "light sweet crude" for that reason. You just
dig a well and the oil gushes out. That's why it is so cheap.
A land-based drill goes down into the earth 300 to 800 feet
and costs $1 to $15 million depending on the well's depth and
difficulty. Compare that to deepwater rigs
that cost between $200,000 to $400,000 per day with a single well
costing $100 million.
Heinberg says that about a third of U.S. oil comes from off-shore
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has shown how very risky offshore
drilling is. Birds, marine life and the tourist and fishing industries
on the coast near Louisiana have been devastated. Meanwhile, the media
and politicians have glossed over the fact that the Gulf of Mexico has
almost 4,000 rigs operating under the same set of loose safety and
regulatory requirements and enforcements as the Deepwater Horizon.
What are the chances of another spill? A second spill occurred in
June, southeast of the Mississippi Delta, before the first one had been
Many people think the high price of oil is due to greedy oil
corporations. What is not understood is that more and more oil is
being produced by difficult and involved processes like the tar sands
(a.k.a. oil sands).
They are literally ripping the earth apart over 54,132 square miles of
Alberta, Canada, to scoop up a heavy and viscous mixture of sand, clay,
minerals, water and bitumen that are then treated and sent to
refineries to produce gasoline and diesel. Each day 1.31 million
barrels of bitumen are extracted (2008). Total reserves are now
estimated at 171.8 billion barrels or about 13 percent of total global
oil reserves (1,342 billion barrels), second only to Saudi Arabia.
Many people think biofuels will save us but they evoke some
Land for biofuels would compete for space with land for growing food.
Secondly, it takes more energy to produce ethanol than it gives.
Finally, using land to grow fuel for our cars creates a moral and
ethical problem when we consider that in 2008 there were riots in 20
countries because of food shortages.
In the 1930s, America used to supply half of the world's oil, said
Heinberg. However, the U.S. rate of production peaked in 1970. Now we
import 65 percent of the 19.5 million barrels of petroleum that we
consume each day.
When we talk about running short of oil, people's eyes usually glaze
over--and for good reason. Nearly everything we do and have is
dependent on dread and/or disbelief, which means we will need to
confront many difficult questions about our way of life.
For example, how can we commute long distances by car or travel by
jet? How will we heat and cool off our homes or power our cities and
institutions? Most of our food is trucked 1,500 miles before it gets
to the local grocery store. How will we stock our shelves? Many
consumer products are made from oil like our clothes, plastics,
fertilizers, pesticides, cosmetics, deodorants, detergents, carpets,
toothpaste and shoes.
What will we have to give up?
What Heinberg makes clear is that the oil we use today will not be
available for us tomorrow. The Post Carbon Institute recently ran
computer-generated scenarios to explore the prospects of replacing our
current economy and it could find none. None! So that means we must
change our way of life such that we depend less and less on oil.
The primary strategy available to us is conservation, said Heinberg,
and he mentioned many grassroots projects that have already begun:
Many people also fear peak oil because it means the loss of more jobs.
However, as a new society emerges, we will require new types of jobs
and different skills. Heinberg suggested that the future calls for
farmers, energy coaches, home heating/insulation specialists,
solar/wind engineers, railroad construction workers, auto and pavement
dismantlers, psychotherapists and recyclers to name a few.
However, Heinberg's most hopeful message was that human beings as a
species are made to adapt to changing environments and circumstances.
We've been through hard times before, he said, and have succeeded in
adapting because we are resilient, intelligent and hard working. And,
with the future's new challenges, we have an opportunity to re-make our
society, which has the potential of improving on our current one.
Truly, we're in the driver's seat on this one, so to speak, and that
gives us a lot of freedom to act rather than rely on someone else,
government or some organization to solve our problems.
The solutions to our energy future will require vision, initiative,
experimentation, and courage. We can start by talking with our
families, neighbors and friends about how to reduce our energy
consumption as individual households and in our communities. We can
also remember that when it comes to running our own lives, we have the
power. Let's use it!