Sunday, July 29, 2007

The End of the World

It’s the end of the world, but only as we know it. How do you feel?

The end of the world is nigh. I don't think we'll be wiped out by space aliens, overtaken by zombies or even destroyed in an all-out nuclear war. Also, when I say "the end of the world," I mean it more in the REM sense: It's the end of the world as we know it. I don't, however, feel fine.

For over 100 years now, the human race has transformed the way it exists on this planet through the availability of cheap oil. The detrimental effects of the "happy motoring era," as writer James Howard Kunstler calls it, were predicted at least as far back as Orson Welles's never-properly-completed film The Magnificent Ambersons, which noted that the onset of motor vehicles had displaced the sense of community that had been a binding force in American culture prior to that. Welles's film was about much more than just that, of course, but that certainly was one of the key points.

I started to become aware of the destructive impact of the automobile after reading Kunstler's two magnificent books The Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere, both of which make powerful cases for a return to a more sane and sustainable lifestyle, with people living in human-scaled communities which they can mostly navigate on foot. The obvious benefits of walking to and from work, home, school and local businesses almost go without saying, but at this late date most people have become so fully invested in the idea of their car as their main mode of transportation that it never occurs to them what the rates of heart disease, obesity and other illnesses might look like if we had all spent the past century walking everywhere.

I don't walk everywhere, but living half a block from a shopping center that includes a supermarket, video store, pizza shop, Chinese restaurant and more, I walk as much as possible. The April, 2005 accident that destroyed my last car opened my eyes a bit, and I decided the day that happened that I would not buy another car. For the six years previous to that accident, I had paid over $600.00 a month for my wife and I to each have our own car, but I was also commuting 100 miles a day to work in Albany. These days my wife and I both live less than five miles from our jobs, and while my not having a car of my own is occasionally an inconvenience, the cash savings are substantial. I also like knowing I am no longer contributing to the environmental problems and other issues associated with owning and operating a motor vehicle.

In addition to the environmental impact of the automobile era, Kunstler's most recent (and I think most important) book, The Long Emergency, also introduces a much more pressing issue into the mix, that of the peak oil phenomenon. Maybe you've heard about peak oil, and the fact that we're very likely running out of the fossil fuels that have so changed the planet in the past century. Optimists like to posit a future in which mankind has come up with an alternative fuel that will allow everyone to keep scooting around in their cars all day long, all week long, all year long, all their lives.

But a cursory understanding of peak oil shows that the chances of that happening have long since passed. Perhaps if an intense effort was made across the planet to conserve fossil fuel and create new sources of energy 50 or 75 years ago, there would be hope that mankind could mostly get through the end of the cheap oil era with its lifestyle mostly unchanged. I think it's pretty clear that that window has long since slammed shut, though. Virtually every alternative, from solar power to hybrid automobiles, depends largely on the continuing availability of cheap oil. And most optimistic theorists turn a blind eye to the growing hunger for cheap oil in other nations, especially China. Their increasing reliance on automobiles and the unbelievable mass-production mega-industry in China makes them the nation to watch in the Global Oil Sweepstakes.

And anyone who thinks high technology will rescue us from a lack of oil is probably unaware that everything from cell phones to home computers are made of plastic, which is made of -- you guessed it -- oil.

I used to think that America and the countries that have emulated its example could probably go on another 25 or 50 years before the scarcity of oil had a negative impact on the lives of the average citizen. Now I tend to think we have five to ten years at best before our lives are irrevocably altered by the end of the cheap oil age.

I don't have a lot to offer in the way of analysis or suggestions. For that, I would ask you to read some of the books mentioned above, as well as the one I read this week that got me started thinking about writing about all this: Deep Economy by Bill McKibben.

The worst estimated end-result of the end of the cheap oil era really does look like the end of the world: Kunstler, I think it was, predicted that only one out of every six people would survive on this planet after we stop extracting oil out of the ground. Not run out of oil, but stop extracting it. Because you need oil to power the machines that suck it up out of the earth. And at some point, it will take more than a barrel of oil to extract a barrel of oil from the ground. At that point, obviously, there is no profit whatsoever in continuing to drill for oil. The point is somewhere down the slope from the peak of oil extraction, a time many believe has either already passed or very soon will. And that worst-case scenario? Five billion people could be dead within this century. In fact, it seems likely that this planet never could have sustained the numbers it does if not for cheap oil, which has essentially provided most people in affluent nations with the equivalent of thousands of workers, labouring away for them without complaint.

Think for a moment how many people and how much time it would take to get a message across the country if you didn't have internet and cell phone technology. How many people and how long would it take to carry your entire family six states away on vacation? People living in countries with cheap, available oil are the luckiest and wealthiest people on the planet. But the luxuries we enjoy come at a price. The mis-allocation of resources across the planet means that while Americans sip lattes in air-conditioned Starbucks locations, across the globe others live in miserable conditions, with not enough to drink, not enough to eat, and no hope in sight for an equalization of conditions. No hope other than the almost-certainly inevitable end of the cheap oil era, a global market correction that will change the playing field for virtually everyone alive today.

Kunstler is seen by some as too negative and cynical; I find his tone and analysis to be simpatico with my own point of view, but McKibben's new book puts things in a more hopeful perspective, and it is to be profoundly hoped that Kunstler's worst predictions can be avoided (not that much is being done so far to achieve that laudable goal). McKibben looks to communities to weather the coming storm, and believes that by relying on our families and neighbours, by re-connecting with our local environments through social and commercial undertakings, we can better withstand the worst of what is almost certain to be coming in all our lifetimes. McKibben is a good deal more optimistic and hopeful than Kunstler, but I think both of them have very valuable things to say about where we are now, where we're going, and most importantly, where we can be if we take responsibility for ourselves and our communities. I can't recommend enough both The Long Emergency by Kunstler and Deep Economy by McKibben for background and insight on the issues that we all face.

If you can't afford to buy them, you should visit your local library and check them out. Given the way most of us have abandoned our own communities, it's probably a good idea to visit your local library anyway. And bring the kids. If we're going to make a better, more sustainable world, introducing your children to one of the most important parts of their local community would be a great place to start.