It’s politically popular for both parties to prattle on about reducing our dependence on foreign oil right now. Both sides are seeing that our current adventures in the Middle East are bleeding the country dry, stretching our armed forces (Army & Marines, at least) to near the breaking point, and really solving nothing when it comes to our energy problem. Instead of offering any real debate on the issue, or (god forbid) actually offering solutions, they just kick out the usual techno-fix ideas about ethanol, tar sands, deepwater oil, heavy oil, oil shale, etc. Why don’t these jokers ever want to really talk about solutions? My guess is because the truth is unpalatable to both business and the average citizen.
Ending our addiction on oil means more than just buying a hybrid/flex fuel vehicle. The systems we depend on for living all are based around oil. You like fresh produce from Chile in the middle of winter? It’s flown or trucked in from the far side of the planet. We’ve outsourced most of our manufacturing jobs, so the stuff we buy is shipped from overseas. We burn tremendous amounts of oil in the growing and processing of our foodstuffs. Our houses are designed to be heated and cooled by fossil fuels, either directly (natural gas/heating oil/propane) or indirectly (electricity from coal, natural gas, etc). Without it, most houses would be unlivable for parts of the year.
Our dependence on car culture is also bankrupting us. The average highway in the USA costs between $1 million and $5 million per mile to construct. A single traffic signal can cost between $100,000 and $150,000 to install. This doesn’t even include maintenance costs for repaving, fixing potholes, bridge work, etc. Yet politicians are quite happy to tout their ability to bring in federal highway dollars and other such projects while rail transport and other forms of public transportation usually are neglected. How is this ending our dependence on oil?
We’re now reaching the point where our road networks are so far-flung that we’re having trouble paying for their upkeep. Repair projects keep getting pushed out due to lack of funding, yet we continue to build residential communities farther and farther away from the business centers of our region. How is this ending our dependence on oil?
The real solutions will involve admitting that our allocation of massive amounts of money on suburban and exurban infrastructure have been misguided, and that we will need to re-engineer our basic patterns of living. Here’s the speech on energy I’d love to see a real candidate make:
My fellow citizens, there has been much discussion of energy and how our growing dependence on all forms of energy, but especially petroleum, is hobbling our great nation. Are we running out of oil? No, but the oil that is left will be more expensive to produce, and we are facing increased competition for oil from the developing nations of the world. While there is plenty of oil left, we seem to be reaching the maximum threshold for the amount we can produce at any one time, and it’s not enough to keep all of the consumers of the world happy. This leaves us with two choices.
The first choice is to continue living our life the way we have been and face the consequences: We’ll keep paying more and more for gasoline, natural gas, food, goods, and pretty much everything else. In order to keep the flow of oil coming in, we will need to continue to meddle in those areas of the world where the oil reserves are, and that will mean lasting military commitments and conflicts for the duration of our lifetime, as well as far into the lifetime of our children. It also means the continued risk of terrorism, and world conflict, and it will likely require true sacrifice on our part. Whether that sacrifice details compulsory military service for our children, higher taxation, rationing of essential commodities like gasoline, I don’t know. I do know, though, that we cannot continue to operate like we do now, running up huge debts for our oil dependence that we will force our children and grandchildren to pay off. This form of generational debt slavery cannot last indefinitely, and likely will not be tolerated by upcoming generations.
The benefit is that we will be able to live where we want and drive where we choose for a while longer. How much longer, I don’t know. Five years, perhaps? Maybe ten at the outset. After that, all bets are off.
We do have a second choice, though. We can take a serious look at how we have chosen to organize our society, identify the waste in it, and fix it. This too will require sacrifice, but it is of a different sort. While we cannot drop our dependence on oil immediately, we can start taking concrete steps to mitigate the problem.
We’ll need to live in smaller, more energy-efficient houses.
We’ll need to live closer to our workplace, we will need to build communities that promote pedestrian traffic, with local shopping areas, markets, restaurants and other services.
We will need to rethink our agricultural industry, for the massive amounts of petrochemicals we use as fertilizer and pesticide are both increasingly expensive and harmful to the soil.
We’ll need to eat more food that’s grown locally and in season.
We will need to address the one topic that no-one wants to discuss: population. Our world’s population has grown to the size that it has due to the ‘miracle’ of artificial fertilizers boosting crop yields, even in marginal farmland. With the price of this product increasing and possibly becoming much scarcer, crop yields will drop, and the population will decline accordingly. Whether that happens by conscious choice or by bloodshed is up to us. It is time for us to behave like the mature adults we claim to be and start discussing this difficult subject before it solves itself.
We have two paths ahead of us. Both contain sacrifice, but only one shows us a way forward. I hope that all of you will take these words to heart and vote accordingly this fall.”
I don’t have a future as a speechwriter, I know. Still, I’d really enjoy seeing a candidate show the intestinal fortitude needed to start seriously talking about the issues that are awaiting us a decade or two down the line. It’s not just about peak oil. That’s just one piece of the puzzle.