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A Great Future Is in Store for Us (If We Want It)

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 world’s history.

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 (2.9 million).

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 drilling. 

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 stopped!

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 uncomfortable dilemmas.  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!

Olga Bonfiglio

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is Contact her at

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