26 September 2006

What's going on

I haven't been here that much lately. Something has happened to me in the last few months; my life is changing rapidly, though from the outside, it probably doesn't look that much different.

Where to start. You know about global warming, right? It's taken a few years, but the facts have finally started to sink in. But as scary as global warming is, it still feels abstract, hurricane Katrina notwithstanding. There are two other trends that make this a particularly strange time to be alive.

First: Do you know about peak oil? Peak oil is shorthand for the idea that at some point, we will have pumped half the amount of oil that exists out of the ground. Then there will be a ever-decreasing amount of it. And while the first half of the oil supply was relatively easy to get at and out -- in early days of oil production, it took only 1 barrel of oil to get 100 out; now that ratio is closer to 1 to 3 in U.S. production and 1 to 10 in Saudi Arabia -- the rest won't be so easy. It won't be of as high quality, either. There are geologists and economists who believe we may have passed global peak oil a year or two ago; if that's the case, it will become clear in another year or two. You can read much more about peak oil here, and here, and here.

Everything about our lives in the West runs on oil and products derived from oil. Gasoline is only the most obvious. Our food travels thousands of miles in trucks and on planes. Much of our clothing and other consumer products comes on ships from China. Every plastic fork, water bottle, crayon and rubber tire you use is made from oil. Our economy depends on all those things continuing to work as they do now, and more. There’s a reason our world runs on oil; it’s a great energy source, and there is no miracle alternative out there that can come close to replacing it.

When these simple facts finally sunk in, sometime in late July, I got anxious, depressed, obsessed. I'm no longer those first two things, but obsessed, yeah, you betcha. And while on many days I have the overwhelming sense that there's nothing I can do about what's to come, because I'm not going to buy land in upstate New York and learn 19th-century survival skills (not yet, anyway), and my individual efforts to conserve energy, buy local food, and cutback on unnecessary purchases is so much spitting into the wind, there are other days when I feel: yes, we still have time; I can be a part of the movement to turn this around.

Because here's the thing: no one knows when this is going to happen, and what it’s going to look like. Some people are planning for an energy and economic crash in the next few years and are organizing their finances and learning permaculture accordingly. Others think it will be more like 30 years, in which case we may still have time to invest in alternative energy sources. But even the most optimistic oil company executives, who, after all, owe their survival to the stuff, concede that the oil will be completely gone in 150 years. They are full of shit, but even if they weren't, should we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere until the gulf stream shuts down? Should we extract every bit of coal out of the earth until every child has asthma and we're all swimming in acid rain? It's possible that my great-grandchild will be alive in 150 years; it's close enough that I should feel responsible.

What's the third thing making this so worrisome? Population. 6.5 billion of us live here. 1.3 billion of us have an economy growing at the rate of 8% a year (that would be China). We only want the best for the rest of the world, or so we would say if someone asked us directly whether we'd prefer African countries remain in abject poverty or develop modern economies. But as countries get richer, they use more energy. Look at the United States. We are 4% of the world's population and use 25% of the oil. And yet, world population continues to climb, and I have a sick feeling that our world leaders are secretly hoping for an avian flu epidemic.

Now that I've dumped this all on you, what do I plan to do about it? I'm still working on that part. There are cities (Portland and San Francisco are two of them) who have passed peak oil resolutions in their city councils. The next step is to enact "energy descent" legislation that force cities to cutback their fossil fuel consumption in a wholesale way. There are people working on a plan for NYC. It will be an uphill battle to convince our political leaders and neighbors that such a thing is necessary and possible, but it's one I will join. Finally, my operations and PR experience starts to feel like it might have an important real-world application.

It's not enough, but it's a start, and it's something I can actually do. And while some of the people who I'm meeting who have similar concerns are of the conspiracy theorist crank variety, most aren't. I'm enjoying finding a new community; one that is finding a mission.

And so, while I am still going to be writing about walking, and NYC, and walking in NYC, there are going to be a lot more posts about my obsession. I know a lot. I've been following some of these issues for years, and have been fully immersed in them lately. But being well informed is not the same thing as knowing what to do. There are plenty of sites where you can get news and information about these issues, and I’d encourage you to check them out. What I'd like this blog to be is part personal observation and critique of that information and part group project in figuring out how we get from where we are now to where we'd like to be.

I hope you'll stick with me.


Blogger tammara said...

I'm up for it. I tend to get depressed about this kind of stuff, and think about how little I can actually do about it. I think many people feel that way. I've always believed that the best people to show others how to do something are the people who are fanatic (obsessed) about it. We might never get as fanatic - but we just might make some changes in how we do things.

6:47 PM  
Blogger PG said...

Oh go on, become a survivalist, I don't know any!
Seriously, I am very interested in this, keep posting. I'm sorry you've had a bad patch. State the world is in, I'm not surprised...

4:03 PM  
Blogger PeakEngineer said...

I definitely empathize with you. I've also been finally connecting all the dots together and realizing the truth of all these crises. Good luck with sorting things out, I'll be checking back to your blog.

7:17 PM  
Blogger Jassy said...

Ellen, I'm glad to find your blog via PeakOilBlues.com/blog. I empathize with everything you say here. Being well informed is definitely better than being ill-informed and I'm glad you have the skill-set you have...it will be sorely needed. I used to spend a lot of time in NYC a while back (it's been several years since I spent any time there) and hearing you talk about your city makes me "homesick." I'm definitely going to stick with you and your blog!

6:18 AM  

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