Archive for July 16th, 2008

Sleeping Beauty and Why You Should Think About Peak Oil (Even If It Seems Much Nicer Not To)

Sharon July 16th, 2008

Crunchy Chicken is talking about peak oil.  I can’t wait to see what she has to say – the truth is that we need more voices, particularly smart, funny, honest ones.   And she was kind enough to send some of her enormous readership over here – that was nice.  Now many of the people who read Crunchy may already read me.  But some don’t – and quite a few of the people who took her poll are pretty nervous about what they are going to learn if they do figure out what peak oil is.

So I thought it might be good to do a post not so much on what peak oil is (if you scroll down there’s some resources in the sidebar that can help there) but on why it is better to know what’s going on than it is to not, even when it is scary and overwhelming.  And it can be.  But there are a lot of resources out there to help you.  And the truth is that we need people to screw up their courage and look hard at difficult stuff – because the problems caused by Peak oil, and the related crises (yup, they all go together) of climate change and the financial collapse are not something any of us can afford to ignore.

My guess is that most people reading this have some investment in the future – maybe in their own personal future, maybe in the future of their children or grandchildren, or the children of someone they know and care about, maybe in their dedication to the good of humanity.  The truth is that you are needed, right now, to safeguard your own future, and the future of our posterity – that’s not campaign rhetoric, or storytelling – that’s simple truth.  If you don’t participate in creating a decent future, we won’t have one.  We need you, and you need you to take as hard edged a look as you can.

A lot of what you read about Climate Change, Peak Oil or economic crisis focuses on the future. Their goal is to motivate you to action by describing what may happen. I do some of that, but over the last year or so, more and more I’ve found myself replacing the future tense with the present, describing not what might happen, but what is. Unfortunately, the hard times I’m talking about do not lie in the conveniently distant future but have begun already. The only question is whether you or I have felt them yet. 

By this I mean to say that though we do not know the exact shape of the long-term crisis we face from energy depletion or environmental degradation, we miss the point if we focus only on models and hypotheses. Right now we are in the midst of an environmental disaster, at present experiencing the high personal costs of energy depletion, at present losing economic ground to policies designed to increase inequity. I know that many of the people who read this blog won’t necessarily see the makings of a crisis — yet. Others will already be caught up in the early stages of the problem, experiencing job losses, foreclosures or the struggle to keep afloat economically as prices rise. So while we  speak of the future, my case that the world is about to change, irrevocably and deeply, rests primarily on the painful fact that it already has begun to do so.

And is there really any doubt that this is true? Is it possible to imagine any other time in American history when we would have consented to see an entire major city laid waste, without ever rebuilding even its most basic infrastructure? Is it possible to imagine another time when we would have shrugged and accepted the knowledge that our basic infrastructure, things like highways, sewers and subways, are simply falling apart and that we have no intention of fixing them? Is it possible to imagine another time when we knew we were in danger of handing our children a future of hunger, poverty and drought, and sat around debating whether congress might want to consider raising fuel efficiency standards? Has there ever been a time in history when citizens felt so powerless to stop the forces that were driving them to disaster?
If, in the face of all the evidence, we find we doubt that things really are falling apart, we might listen to the respected voices issuing the same opinions. There are some out there — despite the overwhelming lack of responsiveness of our government. For example, in the summer of 2007, David Walker, comptroller general of the US General Accounting Office said,

The US government is on a “burning platform” of unsustainable [ad1] policies and practices with fiscal deficits, chronic healthcare underfunding, immigration and overseas military commitments threatening a crisis if action is not taken soon, the country’s top government inspector has warned … there were “striking similarities” between America’s current situation and the factors that brought down Rome, including “declining moral values and political civility at home, an over-confident and over-extended military in foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government.” ([ad2] 

Few of us have put all the pieces together, but when we failed to rebuild New Orleans, when we accepted that we can’t afford the tax base to keep bridges from falling on motorists and sewers from backing up, when we accepted that electric grid failure will kill people in the inevitable heat waves, we implicitly acknowledged what we have not yet faced up to consciously — that things have changed, and many of our problems are going to continue getting worse because we either lack the will or the money or the energy or the time to fix them

When I realized that everything was going to change, I was at first afraid. Because, I thought, if my government or public policy or other choices weren’t going to fix everything, what could I possibly do? What hope was there, if I had to take care of myself, if my community had to take care of itself?

But when I began looking for solutions that could be applied on the level of ordinary human lives, that involved changes in perspectives and pulling together, the reclamation of abandoned ideas and the restoration of strong communities, I began to feel hopeful, even excited. Because I realized that when large institutions cease to be powerful, sometimes that means that people start being powerful again.

And that’s the other reason you should look, even when your instinct is to look away, why you should learn even when it is hard, and frightening to learn these things – because simply learning that we’re in the midst of something very difficult is not the end point.  Learning about peak oil doesn’t stop with “we’re doomed.”  We’re not doomed – we’re facing very difficult times, and the way we face them will determine whether they are just hard, or disastrous for us.  There is an enormous amount of mitigation we can do – personally, on the community level and at the political level.  It probably won’t be enough for your life to stay the way you want it to be – I feel like I have to say this upfront.  We’ve been told enough lies – we need to know the truth, and the truth is that we waited far too long to fix the energy crisis.

But this is when I remind people of the story of Sleeping Beauty.  You see, a King and Queen wanted something desperately.  And finally, bounty was showered down upon them, gifts beyond their wildest dreams - a wonderful daughter, one they named Beauty.  And in their delight and joy, the forgot something important.  They forgot that with gifts come responsibilities – and when they were planning a vast celebration of their good fortune, they forgot to do the unpleasant responsibility of inviting the fairy no one liked very much to the Christening.

Well, the fairy, the embodiment of what we have left undone, what we neglected, she noticed that we’d left it undone.  And she came to the Christening, after almost all the fairies invited had given wonderful gifts,  and took from the King and Queen what mattered most to them – their posterity.  At just the moment that Beauty was coming into her full potential, at just the moment her parents were most proud, she would prick her finger on a spinning wheel, and die.

Well her parents began to keen their grief, and all the guests did too – it was so terribly unfair, they had never intended this consequence, it was all just a mistake.  The King, in denial, began to order all the spinning wheels in the kingdom burned, believing that he could control the situation – even one so obviously out of his control.

But over the cries of grief, up spoke one voice.  It was the very last fairy godmother, the one who had not yet given her gift.  She said, “I cannot break the curse, but I can soften it a little.  I can make it so that you don’t lose everything.  Instead of dying, Beauty will fall asleep for a 100 years.”

I think this story is remarkably analagous – we received this enormous bounty of fossil fuels, and while we did not mean or intend it, while we did not know what the consequences were, we face consequences for what we have left undone.  We can’t make the curse go away.

But each of us a little like that last Fairy Godmother – we can soften the curse a little, we can make it possible, if we have strength and courage, that we in this generation, we who are now adults, can take on the burden of changing our society and our lives, and give our children and grandchildren, if not a perfect happy ending, a great deal more hope.

How often do you get to be the Fairy Godmother?  How often do you get to do so much, for something most of us value so deeply?

That’s why you need to know.