I’ll follow-up my last post by starting with two truths that (I hope) seem beyond rational dispute:

* “If the ecological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico tells us anything, it is that we need a new national energy policy—a comprehensive plan for escaping our dangerous reliance on fossil fuels and creating a new energy system based on climate-safe alternatives. Without such a plan, the response to the disaster will be a hodgepodge of regulatory reforms and toughened environmental safeguards but not a fundamental shift in behavior. Because our current energy path leads toward greater reliance on fuels acquired from environmentally and politically hazardous locations, no amount of enhanced oversight or stiffened regulations can avert future disasters like that unfolding in the gulf. Only a dramatic change in course—governed by an entirely new policy framework—can reduce the risk of catastrophe and set the nation on a wise energy trajectory.” [1]

* “[I]nfrastructure is really about the quality of life we want for ourselves, our families and our communities. It affects our lives each day.
“It’s the roads and bridges we drive on, the schools we learn in, the trains we ride on, the water we drink. It’s the energy grid that powers our TVs and refrigerators and the dams and levees that protect us. Like the skeleton in our bodies, it is the framework that every other important thing is built on.
“Without a strong and vibrant infrastructure, our nation will fall behind our competitors in productivity — and lose the high quality of life Americans have enjoyed for decades.” [2]

Michael T. Klare’s excellent discussion about the need for a new energy policy dovetails nicely with those of us concerned that we’re soon going to be faced with the problems and challenges of Peak Oil (oil production and supply no longer being unable to match oil demand). We’re going to have to figure out how to make do with something else. Unfortunately, for all the talk of alternative energy, something else doesn’t exist yet … at least not in sufficient quantities or adequate scale to even come close to enabling us to make effortless and consequence-free transitions away from fossil-fuel-based economic growth and industrial production. That’s a decades-long project under the best of circumstances.

Governor Ed Rendell has been an ardent and tireless advocate of infrastructure spending, and he is absolutely correct in his assessment about the importance of adequate and capable infrastructure. (The fact that this op-ed piece was co-written with Senator James Inhofe—the very same right-wing Senator Inhofe who has indicated that global warming is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”—is more than a bit surprising, but give credit where credit is due. Let’s hope that the good Senator understands that this requires that government play a key role. The money and planning for infrastructure investment is not going to come from the marketplace.)

The problem is clear but hardly a simple one: How do we match the need for a new energy policy that will enable us to continue to grow our economy and expand opportunities for all with the fact that we have no infrastructure in place to support that growth with anything other than fossil fuels as the engine? Spending countless tens of billions of dollars on roadway improvement or bridge repair or sewer renovations (while using lots of fossil fuels in the process) are perfectly appropriate expenditures if we are looking to boost demand, create jobs, and solidify the foundations that enable us to grow and prosper.

But those specific kinds of expenditures may very well lead us on roads to nowhere. We cannot—we must not—expect that in the coming decades we will have the same lifestyles or enjoy the same products and services; the same suburban environments; the same industries; the same modes of transportation, and the same lots of other things for one simple reason: we are not going to have the quantities, affordability, and availability of fossil fuels that would continue to make those things possible as they presently exist.

Something else is needed.

I despair for our future only because I am concerned that we might not appreciate the collective national will or understanding needed to truly grasp and accept what is at stake. The disingenuous and occasionally misleading commentary that passes for facts, the pettiness, the idiotic ideas proffered by some, and the complete relinquishment of intellectual curiosity by far too many to the loudest, most narrow-minded and uninformed rantings of “leaders” and celebrities makes me question whether or not we will ever do anything more than advance in thousands of self-serving, incrementally small steps that will ultimately be of no benefit to any of us.

I worry that we lack the boldness of vision to recognize what we have to do and the opportunities we’re being presented with. I worry about what we stand to lose, and I wonder too often if we truly understand what we all need to do to at least try and provide ourselves with the best chances for prosperity in the years to come. Doing more of the same simply is not going to be an option for much longer.

We need to think beyond the next election cycle, and I am not convinced yet that enough of us are willing to do so. Our (and not always inappropriate or incorrect) selfish concerns for getting what we need—consequences-be-damned—stands solidly in the way of formulating and then implementing the plans we’re going to have to take in order to effectively move away from our dependence on fossil fuels and provide new foundations for future prosperity. (And let’s not forget that we will almost certainly find ourselves defining “prosperity” differently than we ever have. “Growth” is likely to take on a different hue as well.)

We lack courage. Or perhaps more accurately, we don’t know that we have the courage we need, and so we shy away from taking the big and bold steps that will be the only way to preserve some semblance of the lifestyles and industries and economic prosperity we believe is our birthright. And we will have to display that courage in the face of billions of others who want what we’ve had, as we’ve had it. There’s no way to satisfy all those demands and expectations if we continue on our present course.

Pretend otherwise or deny all you want if that is your inclination, but the facts about oil production are facts. The world has been using more oil than it’s been finding for forty years. There are no economics double-speak or market-based rationales that can spin that away. No one is hiding vast quantities of readily available and inexpensive oil anywhere. Before too long, and certainly well before we have put into place any solutions on national or international scales even remotely adequate to deal with the problems of Peak Oil, we’re going to be dealing with the reality of Peak Oil and its impact on almost everything we do.

So what do we do? What got us here will not get us there.

The truth, painful as it is, is that there are no perfect solutions and no guarantees about the ones we ultimately employ. We are in an era of great uncertainty, and we are going to have to each summon the courage to move beyond our comfort zones and understand that our expectations and desires to have life return to the heady and prosperous days of the recent past (however poorly created that prosperity may have been) are sure to meet with great disappointment. Things are going to be different; not necessarily bad, but surely different.

An added challenge will be trying to get several hundred million people here and many billions more elsewhere—billions who have witnessed the American dream from afar for decades and now want a piece of that for themselves—to understand this as well. Dashing their hopes and dreams before they can be reached is no easy or pleasant task. They will not acquiesce quietly. (And ask any billion of these people what we all need to do and we’re likely to come up with somewhere around 825 million different responses.)

We have our work cut out for ourselves.

We have opportunities, but no guarantees. So do we continue to make the perfect the enemy of the good? Do we wait for some fanciful perfect idea to solve the problems of declining oil production? Are we just days away from magic technology coming to the rescue? Are our geologists and oil explorers suddenly about to realize that they forgot to look at a huge chunk of this planet for oil? Do we play on misguided and narrow-minded fears perpetuated by some for reasons and benefits unclear at least to me, and regardless of the long term costs to others? Can we continue to afford to ignore the facts (and costs) surrounding the production of unconventional oil and the likelihood that this can solve our problems? Are we ready to move on from (or forget) the Gulf of Mexico tragedy and keep our fingers and toes crossed that that won’t happen again?

Do we continue to think in a nation of several hundred million people facing all the challenges we currently face and the ones we will confront in the near future, that we can all go it alone without the essential assistance of government? Do we really think that the unfettered “market” is the answer? Have we forgotten that much already? The financial collapse in 2008 and its preceding causes are not that far removed from us.

The costs to effect a meaningful transition are probably as close to incomprehensible as can be imagined right now. Trillions is a good bet. I’m not unmindful of the opposition to more government spending. Unfortunately, the arguments of some on the Right are less than truthful at best, but I respect the philosophy behind it, even if I completely disagree. I’m a firm believer that we need more stimulus money, and deficits (at least for now) be damned. Not a perfect solution by any stretch; but on balance I think this is the “better” option. (For an excellent and to- the-point discussion about public spending v. deficit reduction, see this.)

We are all in this together: advocates, deniers, and the vast in-between who don’t have enough information or concern to know which way to turn. And as much as it may chafe some who are disposed by knee-jerk reaction to condemn the possibilities of government for the good (and to be fair, not always without reason), any hopes of digging ourselves out of this economic mess and dealing with the looming challenges of Peak Oil on our own are a waste of time. Solutions are going to have to come from all quarters, and many can only find voice and implementation at the hands of our government and national policies and strategies.

In the end, I think the only question that’s going to matter is: what other choice do we have? Plans and changes on the scale and scope necessary can only be effectively produced at the national level. Five thousand individual plans won’t work, and anything less than a comprehensive plan to overhaul our fossil fuel-based energy and industrial infrastructures is destined to come up short. The transition required can only take years, if not decades. We simply cannot wait until every last denier is convinced by the facts before we start. We have to develop and implement new strategies for energy production and economic growth while there is still sufficient fossil fuel capacity to assist us. To try and effect the changes leading to a different infrastructure and different economy no longer supported by fossil fuel will itself require massive amounts of declining oil supplies. Waiting is only going to make the efforts that much more difficult, if that’s even possible to imagine.

So do we decide once and for all that in this environment—with so many hundreds of millions soon to be competing for a shrinking supply of essential fossil fuels, with millions now suffering from this great economic upheaval we’re mired in, and with looming energy challenges left and right—we had better start thinking a lot more long term than the November elections and boneheaded short term “solutions” or ideas that play to fears and ignorance more than to long term benefit?

This is not a fun topic to cover. Every time a Peak Oil advocate writes or speaks about the challenges we face, a delicate balance must be struck between providing useful, positive information, and an inclination to run screaming into the night. Fear is rarely an effective motivator, but if we do not come to understand the breadth and depth of Peak Oil’s impact on all our activities, we’ll be left with a lot of fear and panic we could have avoided by summoning our best collective efforts to start addressing the problems now … before they overwhelm us.

That’s a choice … and opportunity.

Sources:

[1] http://www.thenation.com/article/37529/clean-green-safe-and-smart; Clean, Green, Safe and Smart – Michael T. Klare | July 15, 2010

[2] http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0710/39894.html; Expand investment in infrastructure By: Gov. Ed Rendell and Sen. Jim Inhofe, July 19, 2010