May 2004: Living in a Fossil-Fuel Dream World

Why are we still acting as if oil supplies are inexhaustible?
May 1, 2004

As evidence mounts that the end of the Oil Age is near, the task of replacing dwindling fossil fuels with renewable energy sources remains largely unengaged--but it will soon take on a grim urgency, if not panic. Governments in North America, though warned four years ago by the International Energy Agency that oil supplies could start running out as early as 2016, have still done virtually nothing, preferring to keep their citizens in the dark. As George Monbiot noted recently in The Guardian, “This is a civilization in denial.”

This inertia can’t be maintained much longer. Some of the world’s most experienced oil geologists now warn that oil from all sources could begin to decline even sooner, perhaps even by 2010. This would trigger a seller's market in which any large supplier could hold the world at ransom and increase prices at will. The subsequent slow but inexorable drop in the supply of fossil fuels will usher in a period of great hardship for many individuals and organizations--including corporations. As one analyst warns, “The global market economy is built on cheap, limitless, reliable transportation. When the oil [for ships, planes, trucks and trains] runs out, that economy will cease to exist.”

The crisis will start when the decline in oil supplies becomes acute, and will last until renewable energy sources such as fuel cells are sufficiently developed and produced. Given the current ongoing failure to seriously promote renewables, this crisis period will drag on for decades. The German research group LTI predicts that the coming energy crisis will take at least 50 years to overcome, and then only if the development of renewables is given “unprecedented priority and urgency.”

But, as the cliché reminds us, every cloud has a silver lining, even this one that’s looming so ominously on the horizon. The rude energy-related wakeup call will compel us to make needed changes in all aspects of our present environmentally unsustainable lifestyle--not just those that relate to the consumption of energy. The alternatives will almost certainly be more humanly satisfying as well as sustainable.

One of the main problems is that we humans are gorging ourselves far too greedily on all the ecosystems that make our planet liveable. The U.S. Academy of Sciences put it succinctly when it stated that “it would take 15 months to regenerate the natural capital that humanity now uses in a year.” Peter Crane, director of Britain’s Royal Botanical Gardens, summed it up this way: “We are presented almost weekly with evidence that a growing human population, profligate use of natural resources, and habitat destruction are killing the world around us.”

Many serious analysts have observed these interrelated crises mounting towards some kind of apocalyptic climax, and have written numerous studies, reports and books exploring possible solutions. Among them are Guy Dauncey’s After The Crash, the essays edited by Paul Ekins under the title The Living Economy, and Kirkpatrick Sale’s Dwellers In the Land. Running through these and similar books is the theme of bioregionalism [or ecoregionalism], a philosophy that is becoming increasingly popular because of its communitarian emphasis and compelling logic.

It defines a bioregion or ecoregion as any area that is biologically distinct and coherent, such as a prairie, a mountain chain, a coastal ecosystem, or such components of larger systems as riverine complexes, microclimates, or forest belts. (See Terrestrial Ecoregions of North America, Island Press, in which 413 environmental specialists list and define 154 North American ecoregions.)

Giving stewardship of such regions to the people who live in them and depend on them makes obvious sense. If the dwellers in such lands are told it is up to them to find a way to live within the limits of these ecoregions--and that, if they don’t, they’ll have to face the consequences alone--they can be expected to become remarkably careful about how their region’s resources are used.

Nor should the inhabitants of a bioregion have any problem devising an effective program for making their local economy sustainable. Several years ago, William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel at the University of British Columbia worked out a now well-respected method of assessing the ecological impact of every human activity, from riding a bike to running a large corporation. [See Our Ecological Footprint, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, B.C.]

Using their technique, it should be possible to discern which activities are overburdening the capacity of an ecosystem and should therefore be curtailed, and which activities the ecosystem is absorbing and therefore might even be increased. The data arrived at should be sufficiently precise to leave little room for objection or debate.

But even beyond the practical benefits of such an evaluation system, there could be greater rewards for the human spirit.

Several years ago, Franco-American biologist René Dubos pointed out that, since the human race has spent more than 98% of its known existence living in relatively small, close-knit groups, a need for that kind of life may have become hard-wired into our brains--a condition somewhat analogous to the concept of the collective unconscious formulated by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung.

If that is indeed the case, then the internal combustion engine and the vast quantities of oil used to operate it have combined to drastically weaken such communal ties. The mobility made possible by the private car, the moving van, and the jet engine has severed human relationships to the point where the average big city resident doesn’t even know the names of his or her next-door neighbours, let alone socialize with them. A case could even be made that it was largely this weakening of communal bonds that created the fertile ground for the selfish ideologies of individualism, social Darwinism and neoliberatism to take root and flourish over the past few decades. [“There is no such thing as society,” former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain was able to say with a straight face.]

For the growing number of people, including most CCPA members, who deplore the loss of human togetherness and compassion in the dehumanized world of mega-corporations, a return to a localized and more intimate lifestyle of the kind offered by bioregionalism is an attractive prospect.

The creation (or re-creation) of such a socially progressive society will be promoted by the nature of the technologies that will eventually replace oil. Fuel cells, for example, lend themselves to decentralization and to small or moderate-scale networks. Whether installed in an automobile or a stationary plant, the cell continues to produce energy in off-hours that can be collected and stored in local or regional grids. Connection to large national grids would be optional. Solar cell complexes and wind turbine groups can be independent on either a local or regional scale.

As economist Herman Daly points out, “The total community will be more stable if its units are independent and its supply lines shorter.” Goodbye, in other words, to the roller-coaster ups and downs of the globalized private market economy.

These are simply a few of the ideas conceived by various thinkers who clearly see the impending energy and environmental crises. As a result--regrettably, unlike our business and political leaders--they know how urgent it is that workable corrective measures and alternatives be adopted quickly.

It is already too late to avoid the gap that will inescapably open up between the onset of the decline in oil supplies and the development of adequate energy alternatives. This will be a period of such turmoil and upheaval that most people, belatedly, will be ready to grasp at any solution that promises stability, economic security, and social justice without stifling opportunities for creativity within the limits of the natural world.

Environmental, academic, church, labour, farm, and other civil society groups could help prepare Canadians for this inevitable transformation. They could sponsor a wide-ranging--and far-too-long-delayed--dialogue on what kind of society could or should be created to replace the existing one when the oil runs out. It is critically important that some broad consensus be reached and pressure exerted on our corporate and political leaders to act on the proposals such a consensus produces.

By the time renewable energy alternatives have replaced oil, most of the big corporations now operating over large distances will have gone bankrupt or been drastically reduced in size. Their CEOs will have retired. The next generation of would-be entrepreneurs will face a dramatically changed world, one fraught with environmental crises far more intensive and pervasive than those besetting us today.

Last January, Prof. Chris Thomas, director of the most sweeping study to date of the impact of global warming, predicted that by mid-century a quarter of all species will have become extinct--a figure he frankly describes as “terrifying.” To this ominous forecast, analysts at the United Nations have added their projection that, by 2030, human activity will have carved up three-quarters of the planet’s surface. The major European re-insurance firms, tracing the rising trajectory of climate violence, warn that by 2050 the cost of repairing storm damage could push many countries close to bankruptcy.

By that time, the pre-2004 wastefully consumptive global market economy will have become a distasteful memory, and any notion of somehow reviving it a pathetic fantasy. But if, by then, substantial parts of the world have devolved into human-scale bioregions whose inhabitants have learned to live modestly--and sustainably--in more stable communities, the future could turn out to be an appealing one that most people would find deeply satisfying.


(Colin Graham, MA, Ll.D, RCA, lives in Sidney, B.C., where he writes on environmental and communitarian issues. He was formerly an official with the federal Department of Foreign Affairs.)