“We are on the brink of a new energy order. Over the next few decades, our reserves of oil will start to run out and it is imperative that governments in both producing and consuming nations prepare now for that time. We should not cling to crude down to the last drop – we should leave oil before it leaves us. That means new approaches must be found soon….The really important thing is that even though we are not yet running out of oil, we are running out of time.”
– Fatih Birol, Economist – International Energy Agency, 2008

With the IEA having now admitted Peak Oil occurred several years ago, the urgency of addressing the myriad impacts of having reached the summit of oil production is all the more pronounced. As I and others have discussed, it’s going to take many years for us to fully move away from our longstanding reliance on fossil fuels to power our economy and support our lifestyles. Unfortunately, we’re already years behind in preparing and doing.

In recent posts I have raised the issue that in order for us to have some hope of successfully transitioning away from fossil fuels (and despite continuing opposition in some quarters about the need of an active and involved federal government), it is only from strategies as created, directed, supported, and financed by our federal government that this hope can find fulfillment. To be sure, much of what needs to be done will be provided by the private sector—as shaped and guided more specifically by local or regional entities. One or two approaches aren’t the answer! But without a national strategy and framework for deciding on priorities, we’ll be confronted with a hopeless mix of ad hoc attempted solutions from literally thousands of directions. Chaos, anyone?

No less an authority than the esteemed Tom Whipple echoed that theme in a recent post of his [1].

“In short, 200 years of abundant energy have allowed us to build an extremely complex civilization based on dozens of interrelated systems without which we can no longer live – at least not in the style to which we have become accustomed. Food production and distribution, water, sewage, solid waste removal, communications, healthcare, transportation, public safety, education — the list of systems vital-to-life and general wellbeing goes on and on.

“Those who believe that ten years from now we will be able to get along with much reduced government have little appreciation of how modern civilization works or how bad things are going to get as fossil fuel energy fades from our lives….

“Whether one likes it or not, the size and complexity of the coming transition will be so great and unprecedented and there will be so much at stake that only governments will have the authority and power to cope with the multitude of problems that are about to emerge. Be it heresy in some as yet unknowing circles; all this is going to require a massive transfer of resources from private hands to public ones.”

That’s the reality. We can continue to debate it ad nauseum, but in the end, we will have no choice. How quickly can we muster the intelligence and courage and wisdom to understand what is at stake—and how widespread will be the changes—so that we take advantage of the resources we’ll need right now, rather than coming to the same conclusion only after needless ideological battles?

Take a glance at the following list [2]:

Solvents       Diesel fuel       Motor Oil       Bearing Grease       Ink       Floor Wax       Ballpoint Pens        Football Cleats       Upholstery Sweaters       Boats       Insecticides       Bicycle Tires       Sports Car Bodies       Nail Polish       Fishing lures       Dresses       Tires       Golf Bags       Perfumes       Cassettes       Dishwasher parts       Tool Boxes       Shoe Polish       Motorcycle Helmet       Caulking       Petroleum Jelly       Transparent       Tape       CD Player       Faucet Washers       Antiseptics        Clothesline       Curtains       Food Preservatives Basketballs       Soap       Vitamin Capsules       Antihistamines        Purses       Shoes       Dashboards       Cortisone       Deodorant       Footballs       Putty       Dyes       Panty Hose       Refrigerant       Percolators       Life Jackets       Rubbing Alcohol       Linings       Skis       TV Cabinets       Shag Rugs       Electrician’s Tape       Tool Racks       Car Battery Cases       Epoxy       Paint       Mops       Slacks       Insect Repellent       Oil Filters       Umbrellas       Yarn       Fertilizers       Hair Coloring       Roofing       Toilet Seats       Fishing Rods       Lipstick      Denture       Adhesive       Linoleum       Ice Cube Trays       Synthetic Rubber       Speakers      Electric Blankets       Glycerin      Tennis Rackets       Rubber Cement       Fishing Boots       Dice       Nylon Rope       Candles       Trash Bags       House Paint       Water Pipes       Hand Lotion       Roller Skates       Surf Boards       Shampoo       Wheels       Paint Rollers       Shower Curtains       Guitar Strings       Luggage       Aspirin       Safety Glasses       Antifreeze       Football Helmets       Awnings       Eyeglasses       Clothes       Toothbrushes       Ice Chests       Footballs       Combs       CD’s & DVD’s       Paint Brushes       Detergents       Vaporizers       Balloons       Sun Glasses       Tents       Heart Valves       Crayons       Parachutes       Telephones       Enamel       Pillows       Dishes       Cameras       Anesthetics   Artificial Turf       Artificial limbs       Bandages       Dentures       Model Cars       Folding Doors       Hair Curlers       Cold cream       Movie film       Soft Contact lenses       Drinking Cups       Fan Belts       Car Enamel       Shaving Cream       Ammonia       Refrigerators       Golf Balls       Toothpaste       Gasoline

This is just a very small sampling of the thousands and thousands of items made from and/or dependent on oil for their existence. When the true decline of oil sets in (many suggest we’re on a several years long “plateau” of production as the precursor to experiencing actual limitations in availability), which one of these items should first be eliminated?

How do we make the assessment as to which if these products should no longer be produced? Who delivers that message to the designers and producers and shippers and end users? What’s their Plan B?

Or if doing away with product lines entirely is not the strategy, then what percentage of production should be curtailed? What criteria will be employed in making determinations that other products or services or consumers will have priority? Who among us will volunteer to make do without some of these items so as to permit others with the same needs to enjoy them instead? How well is that going to work if we’re all instead flying by the seat of our pants with no guidance whatsoever?

Picking just one item from that list: Who determines which patients will get access to artificial limbs that can no longer be produced in the same quantities and with the same availability nation-wide? Is that product more important than a heart valve? Or might we decide that more people need anthistamines instead, so we’ll curtail production on those medical items even more so as to satisfy that need instead?

Examining what is arguably a less important need (as I had mentioned in the first of a series of posts several months ago), which teams will make do with fewer basketballs or footballs?

When we no longer have nearly enough gas to fuel all of our automobiles (forget for the moment all of those other oil-dependent products we use), who takes the hit? Where do we point fingers for the terrible short-sightededness in failing to invest in public transportation and infrastructure now and how much will that help? All those billions that are being committed to building new roads … how do we get that money back when a much smaller percentage of us are driving? What kind of costs will we all have to absorb and endure in years to come when the existing transportation infrastructure is completely inefficient and useless given that there will be no fossil fuels to speak of, and when even more will have to be done in a much shorter period of time to address even bigger problems in a society where mobility is key?

“Some have suggested that this is acceptable policy, that the Obama Administration was failing to address the needs and desires of the U.S. population in its focus on developing new and better modes of transportation.” [3]

With all due respect, our population at large has demonstrated a less than admirable understanding of some basic political and economic issues in recent months. Everyone’s plate is full now, and there is no shame and no blame for the majority who simply cannot invest the time needed to understand the important issues of the day, burdened as they are just trying to survive each day. But do we really want to rely on the opinions of a populace that at the moment does not have at hand the information it needs to make knowledgeable assessments?

Part of the challenge we now face, as I’ve suggested, is that each of us is going to have to take some time to better understand what’s at stake. Let’s not make the adaptations even more burdensome by imposing them on the unsuspecting and unknowing. We owe it to ourselves to commit to becoming better informed, because we are most definitely all in this together. My liberal philosophy will no more stave off the adverse impact of declining oil production and fossil fuel availability than will one’s Tea Party inclinations. We all need to move beyond that. Idealistic? Certainly! Necessary? Absolutely!

Of course everyone wants more of the same! Who in their right mind would voluntarily undertake or accept the massive changes Peak Oil suggests we’ll have to endure? But those changes are coming … perhaps not in the usual near future that most of us are limited to considering, but the changes will begin long, long before we’re ready for them. We have a choice to begin the occasionally painful process of adaptation and transition now when we can do so with far less pain than will surely be the case in the years to come, or we can sit tight and hope for the best.

That is a choice. It’s not a good one, but it is a choice.

It is not my intent to frighten or disconcert. But this is the reality we now must contend with, and it is a reality that is not going to improve. Demand is increasing, supplies are harder to come by and no longer available at the same quantities in any event, and changes are in the offing. The more we understand exactly how potentially drastic Peak Oil’s impact will be (or at the very least appreciate how widespread will be its effect) the more involved and aware we all become. It is the future. More information and more input is always a good thing.

So are we going to be content to let the marketplace sort all of this out? Do we think that unregulated industries will immediately step to the plate and direct all of this fairly and efficiently on their own? Can we expect that industry leaders will just band together across the nation and put together a coherent plan? Think there might be some enforcement or distribution challenges, for starters? Piecemeal approaches that address some small aspect of need for some short period of time in some limited geographical area for just a few consumers is in the end a monumental waste of limited resources, time, and effort. We’re going to have to be much better, much wiser, and much more focused.

For all the bluster and nonsense about getting the federal government off our backs and out of our tea bags or whatever that nonsense might be, what happens when oil availability declines and these types of decisions have to be made? Are we willing to allow a thousand different voices to make decisions based on their own understandably narrower concerns and hope that everyone is coming to the same conclusions so as to maximize the efficacy of these choices, or can we recognize that a nation speaking with one voice in the face of these daunting challenges is indeed our best hope?

As I’ve repeatedly stated: there are no easy, quick, simple, or inexpensive solutions. So too are there no easy, quick, or simple approaches that lead us to the strategies and solutions we’ll have to rely upon. “Business as usual” or notions that what’s worked before will work now are not options for us. Quite frankly, there is nothing simple or obvious about any of this!

We’re going to have to attempt a lot of different solutions from many sources, but we will ultimately be best served if the efforts and strategies and inputs derive from a vision and from plans and determinations that have as their source an informed national agenda. We need to speak up, and we’ll need our national leaders in and out of government to listen and utilize their skills in ways they all too infrequently demonstrate. They too, must expand their vision and express far more courage and wisdom than they typically show us. The process will take enough time as it is. Let’s not add problems to the mix.

“If we’re to meet the crises ahead with even the smallest hope of something other than total failure, the options that need to be explored cannot be limited to those that the current political and business elites – the people whose decisions by and large got us into this mess, remember – happen to find acceptable. The resources that those elites can bring to bear are important, and need to be directed into anything that can be made acceptable to them – the rebuilding of the US rail system comes to mind as a very good start – but the options that can be made acceptable to today’s elites will only contain a small fraction of the options that need to be put to work.” [4]

All hands on deck.

Sources:

[1] http://www.fcnp.com/commentary/national/7980-the-peak-oil-crisis-the-future-of-government.html; The Peak Oil Crisis: The Future of Government – December 8, 2010
[2]http://peakoil.com/consumption/things-you-didnt-know-were-made-of-oil/; Things You Didn’t Know Were Made of Oil – May 30, 2010
[3] http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2010/12/01/growing-conservative-strength-puts-transit-improvements-in-doubt/; Growing Conservative Strength Puts Transit Improvements in Doubt by Yonah Freemark
[4] http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-12-08/futures-further-shores; The future’s further shores by John Michael Greer