I’ve been very clear in stating that while I do believe Peak Oil is imminent (which doesn’t necessarily mean next week!), there’s no doubt that we still have billions of barrels available to us in the years to come. Our energy base is not falling off a cliff tomorrow.

Having said that, we must nonetheless start planning now for what happens when fossil fuel availability is significantly diminished and prohibitively expensive. While we still have a ready and adequate supply of oil and gas, we need to utilize those still-abundant levels of energy to begin the transition away from fossil fuel dependency. The reality is beyond dispute: our entire infrastructure developed, was built, and has since been maintained with coal, oil, and gas in mind. Until very recently, there had never been any considerations or concerns that we might actually have to completely re-vamp the transportation, power grid, communications, utility, food production, and/or other systems that comprise our basic infrastructure. We’re going to need lots of energy to make that happen.

When you stop for a moment and consider all the highways, the aqueducts, the power and electric grid systems (poles, wires, etc.), the schools, the hospitals, the bridges, the sewers, the farms, the waste treatment facilities and all the other components of our infrastructure, the amount of fossil fuels needed to design, build, repair, maintain, and renovate all of those elements are beyond staggering! Dealing with the impending reality that the fossil fuels which served at the heart of our infrastructure will no longer be available—thus requiring that the repairs, maintenance, renovations, re-design, delivery, and functioning of these complex components will necessitate something other than fossil fuels—means that the transition over to alternative energy sources or brand new design features will take years (read: decades.) We can’t wait until we’re up to our eyeballs in Peak Oil’s impact to start figuring out what to do. We’re too close as it is.

Our great dilemma then rears its head: We do not yet have the alternatives energies in place to effect an orderly and efficient transition. It’s going to take many, many years, much trial and error, and incredible amounts of research, design, production, and delivery implementation in order to achieve seamless transitions away from fossil fuels—assuming those efforts to identify efficient alternative energies prove successful! What are we supposed to do once the existing fossil fuel resources are not so plentiful ever again?

Disasters … or Opportunities?

In my last post, I cited the American Society for Civil Engineers’ 2009 report on the disastrous condition of 15 different infrastructure systems, and the assessment that we need several trillion dollars to bring them into some semblance of acceptable condition. Those systems do not exist in their only little cost-free vacuums, either. For example, when roadways or bridges become impassable for lack of timely funding to repair them, then the products and supplies needed for other elements of the infrastructure are undeliverable as planned, and those delays lead to other problems which create other issues that then lead to….

According to the International Energy Agency, if we continue to rely on fossil fuels, then some $26 trillion dollars in new investments are needed from now through 2030 to continue exploration for new resource fields and to utilize whatever new extraction technologies might be required to meet production and demand expectations. Does anyone doubt that a comparable amount will be needed to re-design, re-build, and/or re-configure our infrastructure so that its development, construction, repair, and maintenance are properly achieved without fossil fuels at the ready?

If we haven’t figured it out yet, then we need to recognize and appreciate the direct connection between a properly functioning infrastructure and the overall health of our industry and economy—and by extension the well-being of the citizens of this nation. A few tweaks and some tinkering here and there isn’t going to get it done. That’s a waste of time and resources, and we don’t have a lot to spare as it is.

The wonderful New York Times columnist Bob Herbert has stated that “We’ve become stupid about this.” Stupid can’t be a strategy any more than denial or delusion, and we’ve already got way too many people adopting those approaches.

I don’t pretend than any of this is pleasant to consider, but we are indeed presented with incredible opportunities to design an almost entirely new way of living, producing, and prospering. There are no elements of our cultural or industrial society that cannot (and will not) be impacted, and so the challenge is rife with the potential for great harm, or great opportunities. But success won’t happen if only some of us are on board.

So what choices do we make? What choices do our business and political leaders make on our behalf? Do we attempt to preserve a way of life that is inevitably subject to the reality of natural resource depletion; or we do we begin the lengthy, uncertain, and challenging path of finally moving away from fossil fuel dependence? There are no guarantees that we escape harm regardless of the choice made. We’re going to be affected and impacted regardless. And neither choice is free. But one is surely and at best only a short-term solution (and yes, decades are short-term in this regard).

Despite the amazing depths of foolishness (the kindest word I could manage) exhibited by those who have decided that ALL scientific assessments are completely wrong (a hoaxy-socalisty-changey thing, I guess), climate change is also going to impact us. Peak Oil is not going to help. We’re going to have to make fundamental, extensive changes in what we do to try and ward off the harm and destruction global warming will dump at our feet (even if that might be decades away as well). We need to start implementing those changes now, while fossil fuels remain plentiful.

These are not separate crises. We’ll need an extraordinary amount of wisdom and insight to make certain that fixing one problem doesn’t make the other worse … and we’ll need a fair amount of luck to try and make that work. We’re not going to come up with perfect solutions in the next couple of weeks, but we’re guaranteed to come up with none if we don’t recognize what we’re facing.

Despite the somber portrayal, I remain convinced that this is all about opportunity. The challenge of Peak Oil affords us a chance to determine and define growth and progress in new ways—and for many decades more than what continued reliance on fossil fuels will get us. Change is always difficult, more so now in the midst of great economic and financial uncertainty. Expectations about growth and prosperity along a comfortable and familiar path are understandably preferred. But they are now growing increasingly unrealistic, and the sooner we all understand this, the better off we’ll all be and the sooner we can begin to move in a necessarily different direction.

We have before us a great challenge, to be sure. Just contemplating the magnitude of what we have to undertake is overwhelming.  Designing and then undertaking all that is then required to actually implement this new vision is a feat well beyond our capacity to fully envision at this moment. But that does not make it impossible.

There’s no getting around it: we need to build a twenty-first century infrastructure. The one we have will not endure if it remains reliant on fossil fuels. We’re well past the stage where crossing fingers and toes is the answer. Our communication systems; food production; industrial development, production, and delivery; power grids; all that we consider transportation; water and sewer services, and all the other components that make up the infrastructure foundation that has brought us to this moment will have to be re-fashioned. All the pretending otherwise, denying, or ignoring isn’t going to change that. Those who’ve chosen some combination of these strategies must find the courage to look again.

A world of 6, 7, 8, 10 billion people simply cannot survive or hope to maintain (let alone enhance) economic growth and prosperity unless it embraces the changes contemplated here.

We have a choice, of course. But really, we have no choice. It’s up to us to recognize this and act, or fail. The opportunities are there.

Next: Part III