Life After the Age of Oil
By Bill Moore
Jan Lundberg spent the first 34 years of his life as part of that he calls the oil industry fraternity. He helped found, along with his father, the Lundberg Letter, which is regarded as the 'bible' of the business. After his father's death, he continued to run Lundberg Survey until leaving the family business in 1986 to pursue a lifestyle built on principles of sustainability.
But the impact of the oil industry and the automobiles it fuels are never far from his mind. Neither is the belief that someday this world built on a finite resource will come crashing down around our heads unless steps are immediately taken to begin the transition away from fossil fuels to a system built on renewable resources.
EV World asked Lundberg about his time horizon for serious oil shortages and the consequent social and economic impact of such shortages. He first remarked about the problems already being caused by a surfeit of cheap oil, too many cars and too many roads.
"The inefficiency of the economy is quite remarkable when you look at all the people commuting and not only wasting all that energy and causing all that pollution, but they are losing their time. Then you have society unraveling with the family unit when people aren't at home. They're not raising their own children and people aren't in their neighborhoods. This is something that could start intensifying but it's been going on and a lot of things are going to have to change in direction. Car dependence, more miles driven, these things are going to change dramatically.
But I would say that it is all going to happen within a decade and you could even see some interesting developments this summer when you have electricity blackouts and run ups in gasoline prices. The whole economy could take quite a nose dive."
Impacting Our Oil-Dependent Agriculture System
Lundberg went on to point out that the impact of what he sees as fairly imminent oil shortages globally will not only impact our transportation system, but even more critically, our agriculture system. Modern agriculture is heavily dependent on fossil fuels for not only running farm equipment but also for the fertilizers and pesticides it uses, even the water it must pump for crop irrigation.
The system is so dependent on petroleum, Lundberg alleges, that even the organically grown foods we buy in the supermarket comes with a heavy fossil fuel and pollution price tag. He estimated that every pound of organically grown food created 15 pounds of pollution in the process of getting from the field to your neighborhood store.
"I think that people need to examine their dependence on distant, complex systems that are run by people who are total strangers and completely unaccountable," he said. Of course, he also admitted that there is currently little incentive for examining our fragile food system because, in his words, "people are making money off of it."
"World Watch can deliver a ten foot high stack of reports to folks who make decisions, but as it turns out they may not really be the decision makers. It may be some people on Wall Street or people benefiting from the people on Wall Street. It's just not something that's going to change from the standpoint of logical citizen planning. That appears to be the way things work."
Although Lundberg sounds somewhat pessimistic about the system being able to adapt itself to the reality of less oil someday, he also recognized that change is possible.
"On the other hand sudden change, recognizing a new reality is possible. You had the Berlin Wall falling suddenly to a lot of peoples surprise and delight. If people get wise to the energy reality and realize that they have been using a lot of energy that's not necessary. It's going to come down to community economics. I think a lot of people are going to say, 'Gee whiz, good riddens to the national and international economy that was based on conspicuous consumption. What are we going to do about securing local food and water and taking care of each other?'"
EV's Not 'The' Answer
Lundberg has written and often stated publicly that just making more efficient cars isn't going to solve the problems confronting a world with more and more people every year.
"It is very good to improve efficiency with industrial processes and appliances and cars and we support that. The amount of waste with today's petroleum driven cars is phenomenal. But our big picture focus makes us aware of some issues that aren't simply aren't addressed by changing the propulsion. I think having said that, I can launch into my critique of cars in general and cleaner cars, [including] electric vehicles, are still cars.
"I think it depends on your perspective. If you think about sprawl, more pavement generated and the automobile-dependent lifestyle, different technology for cars doesn't solve that. If you're thinking about safety, whereby almost a million people in this country died in the last twenty years in car crashes, different kinds of cars would not address that. When it comes to actually reducing air pollution, [electric vehicles are] great for the tailpipe to no longer spew that out and as a bicyclist and walker I rather an electric car or even a natural gas-powered car precede me, especially up a hill. But when you include all the mining of the materials for the car and the manufacturing of the car, it turns out that most of the air pollution coming from the car is not out of the tailpipe. So it comes from those other processes.
"This comes to us from the Environmental Forecasting Institute in Heidelberg, Germany that put this study out about five or six years ago. The same people calculated that if all cars today were electric, running on the grid, you'd be increasing the carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. That's because of the nature of the grid today."
(Editor's note: in the US more than 50% of all electricity is generated from coal-fired plants. If we did as the Bush energy plan suggests and made up the extra capacity required for battery EVs by building more coal-fired electric generators -- even "clean coal" plants -- then the cautionary conclusions of the group in Heidelberg would be on target.)
However, as Lundberg also noted, there is a very strong and encouraging push in Germany right now to shift from coal to wind power.
"We must maximize all these cleaner technologies, however the thing that disturbs some of us looking at the big picture and putting the environment first rather than continued economic growth is, how can renewable energy and various alternatives continue to float this size consumer economy and this size human population?"
The Coming Discontinuity
"The answer is that it can't," he warned. "If you look at the petroleum infrastructure it is really not set up for renewables to run it. Now one of the reasons is the petroleum industry has kept renewables suppressed, and the current (Bush) administration is not really helping that. Throwing some money at technological developments and research and some conservation is good for getting people to think about that and to eventually make that the whole priority. But we are going to be experiencing what Colin Campbell, the oil geologist, says is a 'discontinuity' and that is from our massive petroleum dependency."
Lundberg added that progress towards an orderly transition to a more sustainable society is stymied because we can't seem to envision a world without fossil fuels.
We asked him to paint both his most pessimistic and most optimistic views of the world after the realization finally sets in that there won't be oil available in the quantities with which we've grown accustomed to living and planning our futures.
Lundberg responded that the instinct to survive will eventually meld communities into action with one of the first priorities as a group the management of nuclear weapons and nuclear waste. This is because, in his words, "those simply need babysitting on a grand and competent scale for thousands and thousands of years.
"That is essential for survival of [our] species and many other species, life as we know it," he stated. "But if the transition involves what could be a joyful process of change and people cooperating more to obtain things they need instead of money to get things that money buys, then this will be orderly and I think human over-population will be decreasing in a conscious way over an appropriate duration.
"But if we keep extending this every wasteful and unsustainable economy I think we are going to see a lot of havoc and upheaval that will make it very hard for an orderly transition. We end up getting to the same place in a few decades after the dust settles and after a likely population die-off since it is such a petroleum-oriented food growing and distribution system that will not maintain this size population.
"When things shake out either it will be a livable world or it will not. I am obviously hoping for the best and I don't know about planning for the worst, but looking at real threats, acknowledging them, talking about them and trying to get policy reoriented towards some of the things that are coming down the pike seems quite essential.
"We can't let our political connections or allegiances mislead us much longer, although that is being tolerated. The public is tolerating a very unworkable energy plan because people just have to keep going day-to-day, paying their bills. But when people can't pay their bills and they see a recession as the result of an energy system that is totally wasteful, although some may blame certain parties for price gouging, I think this is going to be the undoing of the Bush presidency."
What We Can Do Now
Obviously, even if only a portion of Lundberg's scenario comes true, it could portend serious disruptions to society as we know it. So, we asked him what he thinks people should be doing to prepare for this alternate future.
|Lundberg says he stays fit and healthy by walking or peddling most places, including shopping for groceries by bicycle in Arcata, California|
"I think that people can do a lot more than they think they are able to. When people begin to think for themselves, turn off the television and start to take action, there are so many things to do that they would end up liberating themselves greatly. And it's not like, oh just get rid of the car, turn off all the power. For everyone to do that right now, there would be massive chaos and starvation and more pollution as a result, probably.
"What people can do on a planned kind of a basis is to question decisions that they are making or assumptions that they have got. Let's say that some one figures on working a great distance and making the extra money to pay for the excessive commute and they are able to buy a house in this fashion. Many times people don't think of the most appropriate location for where they're living or where they're working. So that's one thing that can be done.
"Another thing is to buy local. When people buy local items, whether its food or products of any kind and when people patronize local business they're cutting down greatly on global pollution from trade that is so petroleum dependent. And its good to foster community by dealing with people you know and who will be accountable to you. So, that is something people can do."
He suggests that consumers press local supermarkets to offer locally grown produce, organic if possible to encourage local food production instead of shipping in produce from another hemisphere.
"We have a long, long way to go and the discussion on energy that is taking place today in public is very, very limited and off-base, in my opinion. Change will not wait for people to start discussing or realizing what is actually happening and what kinds of big changes are around the corner."
The End of Globalization?
We asked Lundberg one last question. Describe for us his vision of the ideal community of the future in the age after oil.
"This is an excellent question," he replied, noting that he thinks human power will again play an important part of the future, just as it did in the age before petroleum. If a globalized economy is the consequence of cheap, abundant petroleum, then localization and a more tribal-oriented community may be the consequence of the post-petroleum age.
"If that is ultimately where we are going," Lundberg speculated "or at least one would have to acknowledge a way of living that is not so profligate, using the earth, which is a closed system, as our sewer, then we will have to look at what is actually sustainable.
"The kind of society you that you might see probably is going to be bio-regional. It'll be local-based. Carrying capacity of the eco-system is something that determines the population size over time. That's what people have to calculate. It turns out that the average American city as an ecological footprint twenty times its own size, so that is something that obviously doesn't work when there's continual sprawl and we pave over more and more of the farmland.
"I think people are going to be living a slower paced, more community and family oriented with a lot less pollution being generated there won't be 'over there' anymore because there won't be any 'away.'"
The Sustainable Energy Institute and Paving Moritorium web site is www.lesscars.org.
blog comments powered by Disqus