The sky really IS falling

Looking back at the essays I’ve written for this site, I see a lack of controversial topics. It’s time to change that.

I am angry, I am sad, I am frustrated. My dream of early retirement, living on a boat and sailing around the world, is threatened. I thought all we had to do was work hard and save our money, and we could then enjoy it. Sure, there is turmoil in the world, but it shouldn’t affect us personally. I was wrong. It will affect us personally, and sooner rather than later.

Joseph Conrad described my awakening in his 1900 novel, Lord Jim:

“It’s extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts. Perhaps it’s just as well; and it may be that it is this very dullness that makes life to the incalculable majority so supportable and so welcome. Nevertbeless, there can be but few of us who had never known one of these rare moments of awakening when we see, hear, understand ever so much — everything — in a flash — before we fall back again into our agreeable somnolence.”

My awakening came about a week ago, on Monday. Barry and I had enjoyed a delightful retired day, visiting with friends. In the evening, we sat talking with Dave over a bowl of red beans and rice. From his pocket, he pulled a folded piece of paper, a printout from a laser printer. “Have you seen this?” he asked.

It was a page from somebody’s website, as evidenced by the lengthy URL printed at the bottom of the page. A technical-looking graph was centered under the unwieldy title of: “Uppsala Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group — Oil and Gas Liquids 2004 Scenario.” Barry and I shook our heads, puzzled, but curious.

Back in the 1950’s, a fellow by the name of Hubbert figured out a way to model the production of an oil well. It looks like a classic bell curve. Each well starts out slowly, then produces more and more oil. Eventually, it reaches a peak and begins to decline. Interestingly, the model also works for a group of oil wells. So you can model the production of all the oil wells in a county. Or a state. Or a country.

The Hubbert model was applied to the whole U.S. oil and gas industry, and predicted that 20 years later, the top of the curve would be reached, and from then on, there would always be less and less oil and gas available in the U.S. In the 70’s, it happened, just as they said it would. I remember the lines at gas stations, schools closing to conserve heating oil, and Jimmy Carter lowering the thermostat and putting on a sweater.

But in the 1980’s, the U.S. became users of global oil, relying less and less on our own supply. We had no choice — here in the U.S., there was less and less available.

It’s been a long time since the 70’s energy crisis. Like many people, I became complacent. As long as there is plenty of oil in other parts of the world, and as long as the U.S. has the money to buy it, there should be no problem. Right?

Dead wrong.

You can use the Hubbert curve to model any group of oil wells, including all the oil wells in the whole world. That’s what Dave’s printout showed, the model for the whole world.

Dave took out a pen and marked a little “you are here” arrow. The year 2005 is right at the top. Like a roller coaster ride, we’re poised to tip over and start going down. Supplies will go down, while demand will continue to grow.

We sat around the table, talking about the implications, until late into the night. “Transportation’s going to be the first thing affected,” one of us commented, thinking of personal transportation. “What about transporting goods around the world?” I added. The discussion turned to the impending implosion of the airline industry. From there, one word came up: “Plastic.” We tried to imagine a world where the gas in your car has to compete with the fossil fuel used to make your plastic grocery bags. “Even food,” Dave pointed out, saying that much of it is fertilized with fossil fuels. Eventually we came around to the economic implications: No more fuel for growth in the stock market. Imagine a stock market that will shrink by five to ten percent every year.

I went about my business for the next few days, but the impending change was always on my mind. Why isn’t anybody talking about it? This is the end of an era, a paradigm shift beyond imagining. Does anybody know this is happening? Where are the news stories, the government statements?

The government knows. As Dave commented, “Why do you think Cheney’s energy commission is keeping their proceedings secret?” They know, but they’re afraid the public will panic. A blinding light bulb went on in my head. You mean to say the Iraq war really IS all about oil? Asked why the topic is getting so little press, James, a friend who is a journalist, says, “It’s not an exciting story. There’s no who, what, when, where, why.”

I was frustrated by this, and then I started getting angry. I’m angry because our culture is so wasteful, and I can’t do anything to stop the impending train wreck.

When I drive on the freeway and I see all the people commuting, one person per car, I want to shout the truth at them. “Ride the bus! Carpool! Get a bike!”

I’ve always hated stores that shrink-wrap the fruits and vegetables, so you can’t smell or feel them. Now, thinking of the wasted styrofoam and plastic wrap, I detest them. But I can’t stop people from shopping at Publix or Wal-Mart. I thought about standing in front of Wal-Mart with leaflets. I don’t think they’d let me do that for very long.

At the height of the dot-com boom, a friend of ours took a trip to Japan for the weekend. It was a total lark. He came back with a bunch of pictures of himself standing on Tokyo street corners, and a funny story to tell over beers.

But at what cost? His 747 burned gallons of jet fuel per mile. What if everybody on the plane was flying for a lark? Maybe I could accost people at the security gate and say, “Are you sure this is a necessary trip? Can’t you just do your business by phone or e-mail?”

I know everyone would accuse me of being Chicken Little. The sky is falling! The sky is falling! But it really is. According to “A volatile epoch of recurring price shocks and consequential recessions dampening demand and price is now regarded as more likely, with terminal decline setting in and becoming self-evident by about 2010.” Buckle up, folks. We’re headed down on the roller coaster, and it’s going to be an interesting ride.

One thought on “The sky really IS falling

  1. I buckled up a while back. When I asked my high-school science teacher when the oil would run out, he didn’t want to answer. I pressed him and he said, “Probably around the year 2000.” Back in 1975, that was a long way off. I never really forgot, though. The best thing I’ve done about it: learned how to use bicycles for groceries, laundry and commuting. I’m not doing much with it yet (except commute), but my cart’s in the closet and I have a “trailer hitch” for the bike handy.

    I’m not sure if some other fuel will finally be developed in time to prevent crises. I hope so. If not, well, I have plans for a bicycle cart or two that ought to sell like hotcakes in 10 years or less.

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