What kind of a nation do we want to be?

This will be, if not the most important question we’ll collectively ask ourselves in the months and years to come, in the top 2 or 3.

The answers we produce—“we” being our political leaders, our business leaders, the media, and perhaps most importantly: each and every one of us—will obviously determine the strategies we adopt and the successes and prosperity which (we hope) will remain available to us. In this new series, I’d like to offer my two cents’ worth and provide some talking points to help us sort things out.

If we are not standing at the most critical crossroad of our industrial and economic history, the signs on the side of the road are letting us know it is coming up soon.

We face some challenges. The headlines tell us all we need to know about employment and economic woes, the increasingly disheartening hypocrisy and gamesmanship that continue to define politics here in America, and a growing unease about the direction of our country. I begin writing this post only 24 hours after the tragic, senseless, idiotic massacre in Arizona that nearly claimed the life of a by-all-accounts well-respected Congresswoman, and did in fact kill several other just-as-innocent bystanders. (A nine-year-old girl? Really? How is that justified under even the most insane of insane defenses?)

Climate change evidence continues its daily march into reality—the inability of deniers to grasp simple truths notwithstanding. And atop and amid all of these lovely and encouraging challenges, we have some fossil fuel resource problems knocking on our door.

Let’s hope that the convergence of these issues sparks a different level and quality of public discourse. Most would be hard-pressed to think that that would not be a good thing….

As I and others have taken great pains to explain, if we have not yet reached the point where we have extracted and sent to market the highest level of oil production we’ll ever attain (I think we have, as does the International Energy Agency, among others much more in the know than me), we’re pretty damn close. And as I and those same others have taken other great pains to explain, we’re not on the verge of imminent collapse, either. The process of ever-declining oil production, and thus ever-declining amounts of oil available to us, will unfold over a fairly lengthy period of time. I have no plans for a Chicken-Little-Sky-Is-Falling party anytime soon. Despite the efforts of peak oil deniers to attribute this false claim to us, we are not running out of oil—at least not for many decades.

That does not mean we are problem-free for years or decades to come, however. We need to shine some light on that distinction while starting the very lengthy and complex process of transitioning our everything away from never-ending reliance on fossil fuels … oil, specifically.

There are still many billions of barrels of conventional oil still buried underground, and perhaps many more billions—hundreds, perhaps—of unconventional supplies buried as well. If that’s where the discussion could end, then Peak Oil would indeed be the rantings of another group of paranoid conspirators rightfully ignored as should be those who continue to think President Obama was born on Mars or wherever.

But it’s a wee bit more complicated than that.

The fact that we may have enormous quantities of unconventional reserves/resources underground isn’t the be-all and end-all of the are-we-or-aren’t-we-running-out-of-oil discussion. What must be understood more clearly is that having those presumed resources in the ground is one thing and all fine and well as a starting point. But getting unconventional resources (by fact and definition available only with considerable extra effort, time, and cost) out of the ground and into the marketplace at reasonable costs and in reasonable time frames while conventional supplies continue to decline is a very, very different thing. They are called “unconventional” for a number of reasons, after all!

If it costs more (and let’s not even discuss the environmental degradation and water resource consumption issues that are part and parcel of unconventional oil extraction and production), takes more time to get to the market, is of lesser quality, and clearly much more difficult to extract, the math doesn’t work. Unconventional resources aren’t the answer … not even close. (Tighter supplies of the conventional fossil fuels our engines are designed to burn means higher costs at your local gas station, for one thing. Anyone experiencing anything like that nowadays?)

Demand worldwide is increasing, regardless of where the charts suggest U.S. demand might be right now. As much as we like to admire our exceptionalism and burnish our lofty perch as the One and Only, we’re not alone on the planet, and what we want isn’t the beginning and the end of discussions about resource consumption and supply.

There are many billions of people on this planet who do not now enjoy and have never enjoyed the levels of growth and prosperity this nation has been blessed with, and there are very few among those billions who would not like their own chance at their own version of the American Dream—tarnished and bruised though it may be. We—they—are confronted with a pretty simple yet very powerful obstacle, however.

Finite resources are … finite. Not infinite. Not not finite. Whatever spin one may wish to employ to make the problem go away, the math is what it is. It takes some impressive contortions to suggest that the increasing demand clashing with declining supplies shouldn’t concern any of us. In one sense, those deniers are correct on the “any of us” scale … it concerns all of us.

Production is declining, however slowly that may be; unconventional resources are not making up the difference; alternative energy supplies are many, many years away from supplanting the fossil fuels we’ve depended on for the last 150 years or so, more people are asking for more of this declining resource, we don’t have an infrastructure in place to accommodate the requirements of non-fossil fuel resources, and there is no magic out there which will enable the increasing demand to be satisfied in full, at acceptable prices, quality, or timeliness. That is not going to change, and not going to get better. A month bump-up in production here and there sounds wonderful, but long term, it means next to nothing.

Facts are indeed annoying as hell. But the sooner more of us take the time to understand and appreciate what we must deal with, the sooner we can devise and then employ the strategies we’ll need, and the sooner we unleash the still-awesome capabilities of this nation and its remarkable citizenry to create a future that may just turn out okay despite our seemingly-best efforts to keep screwing it up.

I am by temperament a very optimistic person, and it is that attitude that will guide my efforts in this humble little blog to get us thinking and being and doing differently. Not easy? Check. Highly idealistic at the moment? Double check. Not enough to dissuade me? Triple check.

We need to take a look at where we are and what we are doing in a world now filled with relentless and great change, complexity on levels never before imagined, and widespread hopes for progress intersecting on the back side of a nearly-overwhelming global financial crisis. At the same time, these circumstances demand that we come to some better understandings and decisions about what we are doing to both adapt to energy and environmental concerns as well as participate in that adaptation if we continue to hold on to hope.

That’s the hyper-broad overview….

Recognition that change is taking place is the first step to then embracing it and participating in its evolution. Opportunity, or crises?

I’m no historian, but my vague recollections of American History suggest that “difficult” has never been the one insurmountable obstacle that has kept us from achievement. No reason to change that now.

I’m going with “Opportunity”, and will devote most of my posts in these next few months to exploring what that means and what we might do to seize the moments that now present themselves. Hope you’ll stay tuned.

To be continued next week….