Climate Change And Peak Oil
May 10, 2006 - 11:02am ET
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One might think that a long-bearded representative of an eco-farm in Tennessee who talks about the oil addiction of America as “the karmic revenge” of Gaia and an academic who is one of the founders of ecological economics (or eco-economics) would be at opposite ends of some sort of spectrum in the green universe.
But this week was all about convergence in D.C., at least within that green universe. The weekend started with PetroCollapseDC, a public forum held at a community church in northwest D.C. Organizers from CultureChange.org papered the city with flyers and hit neighborhood email lists.
“Got cheap gas? Neither do we. But we have alternatives.”
PetroCollapse was where you might hear author Albert Bates (“The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook ”) describe the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma in Cancún—communities learning to live without major power infrastructure, relying on solar generators, and gathering each night to play music and dance. A collapse of our current civilization was the prevailing assumption—the discussion focused on how to build “lifeboats,” both metaphorical and quite physical, to survive what speakers described as almost certain catastrophe once our oil-driven economy collapsed. What speakers like Bates had to offer, though, was the theory that this would also “solve” the oil-driven problems of wars, social alienation and “political corruption and mindless intrigues.”
Hippies predict our corrupt way of life leads to certain destruction, think that complex economic conundrums like our energy dependence can be solved by eating local produce, playing guitar. Check.
Except ... except then I went over to the second event of the week in D.C. for the eschatologically-minded: the Sustainable Energy Forum 2006, titled “Peak Oil and the Environment.”
And I heard pretty much the same spiel from very respectable Robert Costanza, of University of Vermont. He started his presentation “A Framework for Understanding Future Energy Options and Opportunities,” by saying: “We could be happier by consuming less. Overproduction is like psychological junk food—it’s just making us obese, not making us happier.”
By putting it in nice, technical jargon and putting up graphs of quantifiable things like “Genuine Progress Index vs. Gross National Product”—i.e., what progressive economists have been using since the mid-1990s to explain the common sense that not all growth is good—Costanza was able to make a dent in my skeptical brain.
The Sustainable Energy Forum also represented a convergence—the top minds of environmental science, economics, and geopolitics discussing the same problem, with a few politicians, businessmen, historians, and journalists, from a wide variety of angles. Peak oil, the term used to describe the problem of running out of the main fuel of our economy for the past hundred years, and climate change—the description of the costs of that economy. Michael Klare was there to discuss the coming resource wars. James Hansen was there to discuss massive climate change. When else would a Swedish minister and a Republican representative be on the same page? There was a consistent message: our current way of life is neither desirable nor sustainable. The environment is not a luxury good.
Of course, within that consensus, there are debates. Brian Schweitzer, the Democratic governor of Montana, was there to plug coal-to-gas liquification and carbon sequestration as solutions. He’s frequently vilified by those who argue convincingly that simply replacing one fossil fuel for another is not viable. Yet even he agreed that the only solution available to us right here, right now, immediately to mitigate the alarming effects of our problems is to sharply, dramatically reduce not just oil consumption, but energy consumption. “Make conservation cool. How low can you go?”
Meanwhile, straight-up economists like Herman Daly argued that our underlying economic goals need to be rethought. The “American dream” as defined by Enron’s Ken Lay as “living a very expensive lifestyle” doesn’t work any more.
Jack Santa Barbara, a businessman and NGO director, gave the closing address. He summed up the conference’s agreements:
A full environmental impact is needed for all solutions ... Whatever we do now will be scaled up and done by others, repeated again and again ... Even renewable energy sources can be used unsustainably ... It’s not an oil addiction—it’s an addiction to high per-capita energy consumption ... We have to get the goals right. Is it a high GDP or high human wellbeing?
His optimistic advice?
We already have many of the tools available to us now ... A theory of a steady-state economy ... We already ban substances that are harmful ... we already have a system of ecological taxes ... all that is needed is political will.
These ideas are no longer fringe. They are seeping into the mainstream . I'll give the closing words to an unlikely political ally :
We've met the enemy and it is us: We, the people. Hey, folks—you can't have cheap gas, big-hog automobiles and not want a refinery in your neighborhood…. You can't have all three of those simultaneously. And so we've got to start making some choices here.
So spoke none other than Trent Lott yesterday. Maybe we'll see him at the Sustainable Energy Forum 2007.
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