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Peak Oil Matters

A fresh perspective on the concept of peak oil and the challenges we face

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Archive for July, 2011

[NOTE: This series (first one here) spins off from a recent series of posts in which I’ve discussed the need for all of us to move in a new direction as we anticipate the challenges to be confronted as a result of declining oil production in the years to come. The impact will be felt by all of us in one degree or another (a separate series, which began here and was re-established more recently here, addresses some of the day-to-day impacts.) It’s time to turn our attention to what the New Direction might be….]

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“A Gallup poll from late last year found that 80% of Americans believe their country ‘has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.” There are very few political propositions which can command 80% support; that this one does shows just how much American exceptionalism is solidified as political orthodoxy in the United States.’” [1]

For all the silliness about whether our President believes us to be an “exceptional” nation, the truth is that in many ways we are exceptional—at least our history, imperfect as it surely has been, suggests no less. (Although the insanity of the debt-ceiling debates legitimately calls that notion into question. The behavior of some “leaders” has been nothing short of both appalling and embarrassing.)

But being exceptional carries with it responsibilities, and not just on the part of our elected officials, those in the media, or industrial, academic, and business leaders.

Exceptionalism is not a birthright or an entitlement simply because….Exceptionalism—whatever its definition—must be earned, and reinforced by each succeeding generation—forged amid great conflict and challenge which has so often called on us to find our better selves and rise above petty and idiotic discourse. We have more than our fair share of that now, and we might want to collectively consider bringing the senseless dialogues that predominate to a not-so-merciful end, and soon. We’re better than that.

If we truly wish to believe and know ourselves to still be exceptional amid all the chaos and challenges and burdens that encompass us, then we need to harness a vision for the future that is not just incrementally better than this one, using the same resources and methods and strategies and ideologies that brought us to here and now. Peak Oil is going to change pretty much all of the dynamics.

We must ask ourselves—individually and community-wide—what we believe are the best opportunities for growth and prosperity going forward, and we must ask this with full awareness that we approach a future very different from the past and the present we will soon leave behind. In the years to come, the energy source which empowered and enabled us to rise to our lofty perch atop the world of technological marvel and progress will gradually but steadily fail to meet our expectations of ongoing, ready availability; ease of access, and affordability.

One of the traits which determine the extent to which an individual or group can be rightfully considered “exceptional” is the courage and honesty with which they face the challenges that lay before them and those which will surely arise in later days. Delusion, misrepresentations, outrights lies, obfuscation, confusion, and all their brethren have no role to play in the efforts required of exceptional nations. Leaders should know that being skilled at those efforts is not the “exceptionalism” we aspire to.

We will either create a new future with all of its advances and opportunities and expectations/hopes for prosperity and security and success by first acknowledging that our great progresses of the past have led us to a point where our the fossil fuel resources are on an inexorable path of decline—necessitating new ways of producing and consuming—or we stubbornly, foolishly, and futilely try to re-create the past by insisting that business as usual must prevail. Soon enough, and long before we have fully transitioned our industrial and cultural lifestyles away from fossil fuel dependency, that is the great truth we’ll confront.

Crisis or opportunity?

As difficult as it is to accept, life as we’ve know it will no longer be the same. As many other nations pursue their own ambitions and do what they can to grow their economies and rightfully fashion a better quality of life for their citizens—seeking in many respects to become more like the U.S.—just hoping or stubbornly insisting that we’re still exceptional just because we say so (or insist we must be just because … ) is not enough.

“Put another way, enthusiasts for American exceptionalism seem to love America because they see it as great and supreme, and there is the possibility that they might cease loving it if it were no longer great and supreme. When Americans say that ours is the greatest country in the history of the world, it is obviously not just a description of how they think America compares, but a claim that they must be in some way the greatest people in the history of the world by virtue of being Americans. It is self-glorification masquerading as praise of something else.

“To rephrase [Julien] Sanchez’s observation in terms of power, celebrating Americanness and congratulating ourselves for ‘our’ greatness are ways for those who feel relatively powerless to see themselves as participating in U.S. global hegemony and American ‘leadership’ in the world. This may help explain why enthusiasts of American exceptionalism on the right have become even more attached to the empire at the moment when conditions at home have worsened and America can least afford so many unnecessary commitments around the globe. It is also why there is such intense resistance to the reality that America   is experiencing relative decline in its political preeminence compared with other nations. If there is relative decline, conservative Americanists insist that it is only temporary and the result of a government that does not embrace American exceptionalism, which they then have to define narrowly so as to exclude many moderate and liberal Americanists who otherwise share their assumptions.” [2]

Not only are we better than that, circumstances mandate that we actively demonstrate it now in as many forums and to confront as many challenges as needed.

We need to play a bigger role in determining the course and quality of our future, and we do not succeed at that if we decide that we’re going to let the marketplace, “leaders,” and corporations dictate it all while we passively go on with our lives in hopes that this will all work itself out. The choice to blindly entrust our well-being to those others does not absolve anyone from responsibility for the consequences. Given the mind-numbingly ignorant statements from—and the destructive, narrow-minded, and shortsighted-in-the-extreme policies proposed by—a determined group of national “leaders,” that choice will exact a high cost on all of us.

More information about what we face, what options we have, and what the various consequences might be is always a good thing to possess. Participating in the planning and strategy can only be a better option than just hoping that others are indeed acting in our best interests. Evidence suggests something entirely different and is perhaps not fully understood by the electorate.

It’s not the leaders who will define and demonstrate exceptionalism (God help us if that were the case!). It is what we as citizens offer, share, and contribute which will provide the examples and the inspirations. We cannot be an exceptional nation if we abdicate responsibility to understand and participate in the process of envisioning and creating a better future for each and all of us—especially one where the fundamental tools and resources we’ve relied upon for decades will no longer be at the ready. (For those who might be looking for some added motivation, this recent essay provides an abundance of food for thought.)

We need a new vision for what a strong, prosperous, successful, “exceptional” America can and will be, and that can only come from us. Ceding that critical responsibility to “leadership” cannot be one of our options. It’s all fine and well to respect our leaders for the roles they undertake and the responsibilities they assume on our behalf. A thankless job, clearly….

But respect for them does not mean abdicating all personal responsibility for planning and participating. If we don’t provide leaders with both the demands to be met and at least some of the guidelines for attainment, then we run the risk that other interests (most often those governed by stronger financial motivations) will prevail, and too often they do so at our expense. In order for us to fulfill our roles, we need to make the effort to become better informed. Given the public discourses of recent times, evidence suggests too many are falling woefully short. Leaders, and the media, share blame.

“[A] disengaged community in a democracy tends to make bad political choices. When people work with others to identify problems, recognize resources, and implement solutions, they understand far better what is necessary to make their community what they want it to be. And they support both government and community efforts to address these issues much more fully. Problems get solved and communities achieve their dreams.” [3]

We thus need to not just encourage our local/regional governments to step up the pace of planning for a future supported by different sources of energy, we’ll need to become more involved as well. It can be as simple as get-togethers with neighbors to discuss matters that will now or soon affect our immediate community, with someone then taking the mantle of communicating interests or concerns to local leaders. Off the top of my head, two such organizations at the national level are AmericaSpeaks (here) and The Center for Deliberative Democracy (here). I’ll have more to say about this specific topic in an upcoming post.

I’m sure there are many effective, local organizations and efforts as well. These more structured gatherings of citizens across your city/town will likely be an important prelude to the topics becoming main agenda items for local leaders. They will prove to be even more important—critically so—as time passes. (Andrew Levison recently wrote a fascinating article on citizen participation that’s well worth reading.)

It is in our local communities where the most immediate impacts of Peak Oil will be felt … be it shortages of fuel, restrictions on availability, impacts of those limitations on our abilities to get around (thus reflecting a community’s current alternative transportation capacities), or the availability of all kinds of goods, services, and supplies as they in turn are impacted by declining fossil fuel availability.

With an understanding of these and many related concerns articulated at the federal level, our local communities should have at the very least some framework from which to then fashion solutions or formulate adaptations based on resources (e.g., available mass transit in the particular community) to help local residents adjust to Peak Oil’s direct impacts. The only way these more localized efforts can prove most effective is by having an educated community which understands the challenges and has already begun the process of structuring responses.

Leaving all of the details until the last minutes is not where anyone will want to be.

The choice is ours.

I’ll continue with this theme next time….

Sources:

[1] http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2011/03/29/exceptionalism?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+salon%2Fgreenwald+%28Glenn+Greenwald%29; Obama and American exceptionalism By Glenn Greenwald – March 29, 2011

[2] http://www.amconmag.com/larison/2010/11/05/patriotism-vs-american-exceptionalism/; Patriotism vs. American Exceptionalism by Daniel Larison – November 5th, 2010

[3] Reconnecting Government with People: Communities Solving Problems – Steps for building civic engagement infrastructure, and developing a culture of respect, sharing, and learning, to address our communities’ concerns and realize our dreams. A White Paper from the Local Democracy Collaborative by Jim Diers, Matt Leighninger, Paul Leistner, Valerie Lemmie, Ken Thomson, and Hank Topper, 3/16/11

[NOTE: This series (first one here) spins off from a recent series of posts in which I’ve discussed the need for all of us to move in a new direction as we anticipate the challenges to be confronted as a result of declining oil production in the years to come. The impact will be felt by all of us in one degree or another (a separate series, which began here and was re-established more recently here, addresses some of the day-to-day impacts.) It’s time to turn our attention to what the New Direction might be….]

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“Where there is no vision, the people perish”
— Book of Proverbs.

“We face a choice going forward. There’s a kind of false dichotomy, a false choice that we’re being presented between policies on the left or policies on the right. It’s not left or right, it’s forward or backward. It’s a choice between investing in the future, leaving a better future for the next generation just like parents and grandparents did for us, or ignoring these hard choices and sentencing the next generation to a lower standard of living, to fewer opportunities, and a future that we could do better by.” [1]

Are we really content with what is happening to us? Too many polls suggest we’re not, and given what we’ve all been experiencing and enduring of late, that should surprise absolutely no one. It’s nonetheless discouraging.

“Less than one-third of Americans are confident of reaching the ‘American Dream,’ and huge majorities say it will only get harder for their children and grandchildren, according to a comprehensive new survey on the American Dream. Worse, according to the second annual American Dream Survey from the Xavier University Center for the Study of the American Dream, only 23 percent of Americans see the nation on the rise with a majority—52 percent—saying China now represents the future….
“The survey is a depressing review of how people view their situation and the nation in general. Among the findings:
“– Only 23 percent believe the country is headed in the right direction with 67 percent saying ‘things have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track.’
— Just 27 percent say they are ‘extremely confident’ of reaching the American Dream, down from 40 percent a year ago.
— 78 percent say they have less trust in government.
— 69 percent feel it will be harder to reach the American Dream than it was for their parents; 73 percent say it will be still harder for their children or grandchildren to reach the American Dream.
— 23 percent believe America is a country on the rise, down from 32 percent last year. Only 39 percent believe America represents the future, with 57 percent saying that the world looks to other nations now. And 52 percent say it’s China that represents the future.” [2]

We face perhaps the most challenging set of conditions anyone of this generation has ever faced: politically, culturally, militarily, economically, globally, and environmentally—in addition to what we face with regard to the continuing ready availability of our energy resources and climate change. Our efforts, such as they have been to date, are not helping. While we may not be the actors directly responsible for sowing so much discord and stalemate, our passivity nonetheless enables. This should change, and we have the power and the wisdom to do so.

There are no easy answers to the challenges we face. There are no quick solutions. There are no readily apparent decisions which will effectively cover all of these challenges at once. There are no inexpensive outcomes. And there are no successful options that will arise or be implemented without a much more active involvement from all of us. Mostly, we’re going to have to learn to and prepare ourselves for adaptation. Peak Oil is not a challenge to be solved as we traditionally understand the concept so much as it will be an adjustment and revamping of … well, almost everything we produce and consume and require.

I’m already on record as emphasizing the importance of local government involvement as we move forward into a future with very different amounts and kinds of energy resources to power us. Guidance, as I’m suggesting, will have to come from the national level, and that will be no easy task, either. Our media will have to move beyond the normal and too often dysfunctional chatter, too.

No matter what will be proposed: more drilling; less drilling; Arctic exploration; no Arctic exploration; conservation; business (and waste) as usual; fuel efficiency; fuel use with no considerations at all; smart growth; sprawl; regulations; libertarian industrial freedom; mass transit; drive ‘til we drop; none of the above, etc.etc., some group will propose 15 reasons why this or that option can’t/won’t work, or is pointless, or all we need instead is blah, blah, blah.

Every policy proposal and suggestion will have critics with all kinds of both legitimate and irrelevant criticisms. I’m not sure we’d know how to interact otherwise!

But the most critical issue to be addressed by all of will be more direct: do we bog ourselves down by nit-picking—working harder to find out why something won’t work or why it is not perfect in every way under every condition and for every person—or do we adopt a grander strategy that will under no conditions be perfect or even acceptable to everyone, but provides us with the best long-term opportunities in the face of Peak Oil. If we cannot get beyond problem-solving-business-as-usual, we’ll be having these pointless partisan battles for another century … assuming we survive intact that long.

Do we lead? Can we? The current insanity that’s passing for debt-ceiling deliberations and the appalling lack of integrity and intelligence which now passes for one party’s political strategy suggests—sadly—that we cannot lead … not if this circus is any indication.

Do we make the difficult choices we know going in do not and cannot possibly meet with everyone’s approval (even our own), but which have as their purpose first and foremost a vision about where we need to be 10, 20, 50 years from now (or, to be more specific, where we want our children to be) in a world without fossil fuels at the ready? Can we become motivated, informed, and guided always by providing ourselves and our children the best opportunities for a prosperous life given the conditions we will then be faced with and with the resources then at our disposal? Will we continue to make the perfect the enemy of the good to justify narrow ideologies and self-interests? Can we truly plan for the long term, summoning the courage to recognize the great changes that are soon upon us?

There is and will be simply too much complexity, too much change across too many boundaries and industries and communities resulting from the steady decline in fossil fuel availability as time moves on. Without guidance and vision originating at the national level, leaving implementation and adaptation as needed to the regional/local communities, we’re very quickly going to find out that 300 million people and several million businesses and media personnel and academic advisors will each have their own idea about what to do and not do as we confront Peak Oil. “Chaotic” doesn’t even begin to explain how that strategy will work out.

A future with diminishing fossil fuel resources—our future, more specifically—is going to be so different and in so many ways, and so much more constrained by that fact, it’s unlikely anyone can legitimately wrap their mind around that eventuality at this moment. We have relied on inexpensive, readily-available and easily-produced fossil fuels for so much, so long, in so many ways, for so many products and services that it is just about inconceivable right now to appreciate how many changes are in the offing. Anyone thinking that freedom to be free as one pleases without regard for others (so long as the same rights and freedoms of every other person are similarly respected) is sheer fantasy in a post-Peak Oil world.

A fossil fuel-driven life is all any of us have ever known, and there are virtually no aspects of production, transportation, or consumption that doesn’t depend in some part on inexpensive, readily-available and easily-produced fossil fuels. That is most certainly not going to change dramatically overnight, but the situation we’ll soon be facing simply isn’t going to get any better if all we’re counting on for many more years is more inexpensive, readily-available and easily-produced fossil fuels.

Transitioning to a non-fossil-fuel based system will be no easy or quick process. Very few aspects of our lives—personal or commercial— will be untouched. The evolution of new systems and production modes and transportation options will be years/decades in the making.  Accepting that is step one. The creativity and vision and skill and sense of community that first built this nation are the very same traits we will need once again as we usher in a new future.

It can be done! The choice is ours.

How do we get there? What must we do now?

Ideology has no place here. Both the Left and the Right are going to have to compromise, and in some cases perhaps a great deal. The overriding question will always be: what kind of a nation do we want to be?

This is about doing what is best for the most. The only way this is going to happen is for all of us to pitch in, to work from national objectives guiding—in most instances—regional/local efforts, which also happen to provide each of us with the best opportunities to play a role. We must begin focusing on the strategies, and not the ideologies. It’s okay for each side to not have the best solutions or positions all the time! We’re all in this together and each side does and will have great value to contribute, but the efforts must be predicated on the recognition that we enter a future vastly different from the past which brought us to this moment. Political philosophies will serve as excellent talking points at the dinner table, and that may serve as their only value for some time to come. Peak Oil’s impact is so much more than that.

Do we want to stay afloat as leaders for another day, guided by our partisan interests and ideologies, or do we lead for decades to come?

Do we want our children to be part of a better future? The choices will be ours….

Sources:

[1] http://transportation.nationaljournal.com/2011/04/infrastructure-whats-it-going.php?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+njgroup-transportation+%28Transportation+Experts–Q+with+Answer+Previews%29; USDOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari, quoted by Laura Barrett in her reply: Don’t Wait for a Miracle, Work for It, in the National Journal series: Infrastructure: What’s It Going to Take? By Fawn Johnson – April 4, 2011

[2] http://www.usnews.com/news/washington-whispers/articles/2011/03/30/fewer-confident-of-reaching-american-dream; Fewer Confident of Reaching American Dream By Paul Bedard – March 30, 2011

Per my last post on May 25, computer problems took a couple of weeks longer than anticipated to work themselves out, and thereafter I decided to take a couple of additional weeks to assess where I go from here with this blog.

For the next 10 weeks or so, I expect to post at least once each week on the topic of Peak Oil, consistent with the direction I’ve been taking in the past few months. A couple of weeks’ vacation coming up in August will be a (welcome) detour, and I will also be using this time to expand my writings elsewhere on the ‘net while also devoting a fair amount of time to turning my outline for this blog into a book outline. More details will follow.

Certainly the bizarre debt-ceiling antics on Capitol Hill have added a bit more drama to the economic challenges now confronting us, and I’m expecting that more political discussions will find their way into upcoming posts, although I’m not ruling out a separate blog.

So, my next post—a continuation of the series I started weeks ago (first one here)—will find its way into print early next week.

Stay tuned!