the Tank Goes Dry
By SHAWN STONE
the peak-oil theory is correct, the world is going to run
out of oil soon— will you be ready?
like an old vaudeville routine: There’s the bad news, and
then there’s the worse news; which would you rather have first?
Whether you laugh at either punch line depends on, well, how
dark your sense of humor is.
First, the bad news: World oil production is likely to peak
in the next five years. This, at the same time that demand
is going up in both the developed world (primarily us) and
those rapidly growing, 21st-century economic powerhouses,
China and India. You think $2.32 per gallon of regular unleaded
gas is expensive now? Just wait. For the foreseeable future,
there will be ever- decreasing supplies of ever-more expensive
oil. (Insert glib laugh at the expense of Hummer owners here.)
The worse news? Because we’re not ready for it, the economic
and social consequences will be, at the very least, wrenching.
You’re probably wondering where this gloom-and-doom scenario
came from. Not, as you may suspect, from crackpots. (Or, to
continue the vaudeville metaphor, clowns.) In the mid-1950s,
a “curmudgeonly” Shell geologist named M. King Hubbert predicted
that oil production in the United States would peak in the
1970s, followed by a steady decline. Which is pretty much
exactly what happened. Then, in the mid-1970s, Hubbert predicted
that world oil production would hit its peak around the year
This didn’t happen, but, according to a slew of peak-oil experts,
peak production will be reached sometime between 2010 and
2020. Kenneth S. Deffeyes—a renowned geologist who actually
worked with Hubbert at Shell—is the author of Hubbert’s
Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage and Beyond Oil:
The View from Hubbert’s Peak. Deffeyes says that the peak-oil
milestone will be reached this year.
The oil companies believe this too, if you connect the dots.
As David Lazarus pointed out in his April 8 column in the
online edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, why
would ChevronTexaco shell out more than $16 billion for rival
oil company Unocal (whose stock rose 75 percent this year)
if they didn’t believe oil prices weren’t going permanently
into “the stratosphere”? Amos Nur, geophysics professor at
Stanford University, told Lazarus that if peak oil production
hadn’t happened yet, “we’re in the neighborhood,” and that
the oil companies know it: “There’s no question in my mind
that they are aware of this and that they are right; oil prices
are not coming back down.”
everyone thinks this is a disaster. Market-oriented types
have suggested that technology will save the day, if not in
the form of better oil-extraction techniques then in the safer,
more sophisticated development of nuclear energy.
Noam Chomsky, for one, doesn’t see much benefit in technology;
he’d rather see a more sustainable economic model replace
our free-wheeling, oil-based one. Or, as he wrote on his blog:
“In fact, one could argue that the earlier production peaks,
the better off the human species (and a lot more) is, because
of the effects of unconstrained use of hydrocarbons on the
James Howard Kunstler, author, urbanist, Saratoga sage and
a leading intellectual foe of everything suburban, sees the
coming post-oil future in almost apocalyptic terms. The title
of his upcoming book, The Long Emergency, says it all.
As he wrote in an April 13 Rolling Stone article adapted
from the book, “this is going to be a permanent energy crisis,
and these energy problems will synergize with the disruptions
of climate change epidemic disease and population overshoot
to produce higher orders of trouble. . . . No combination
of alternative fuels will allow us to run American life the
way we have been used to running it, or even a substantial
fraction of it.”
So, to a lesser degree, does another celebrated urban-environmental
writer, Mike Davis. Expanding the fallout to a global perspective,
Davis has argued that it will also devastate the oil-importing,
impoverished countries of the Third World: “Poor farmers will
be unable to purchase petroleum-based fertilizers. . . . Already,
rising oil prices have brought chronic blackouts to cities
throughout the globe’s southern hemisphere.”
So, what should we do?
Community Service, Inc., which was, according to its own info,
“founded in 1940 as an educational institution focused on
the ideas and practices of small community,” has a plan for
the coming post-peak-oil realities. It’s called Agraria, and
it’s quite a proposal. (See www.communitysolution.org/agraria.html.)
The key concepts behind it are “low energy,” which is the
goal to use 75 percent less energy than the current per-capita
use; sustainability, which means limiting “inputs” of fossil
fuels and “outputs” of waste; and small, community based,
“cooperative way of life.” And, as the name implies, agriculture
is central to this way of life.
As Kunstler sees it, it’s already too late—for a number of
detailed reasons, mostly related to our development and “lifestyle
choices” of the last 60 years—to avoid big trouble. The upshot
will be that suburbia will be D.O.A., the Wal-Mart economy
of a “warehouse on wheels” will collapse when it’s too expensive
to keep the wheels rolling, and major cities without nearby
agricultural resources will have to contract. As he wrote:
“America will have to make other arrangements for the manufacture,
distribution and sale of ordinary goods.”
Maybe it’s time to sell the place in Clifton Park (and the
SUV), move to a small city (pick any one) and start a community
garden. And buy a bike.
Reuse, and Reuse
phenomenon puts the Internet to work redistributing the surplus
of a consumer society
Marquise of West Sand Lake had a broken car sitting in her
driveway. It quit running after she’d spent $1,500 on it in
the previous six months, and she’d given up on it. “It was
just a headache to me,” she says. In most cases this would
mean the car was headed for the junkyard. But Marquise had
just joined Capital Region Freecycle, a listserv that allows
people to post things they want to give away. She sent a message
about her car one evening, and went out to dinner. When she
returned, she had 117 responses. When she checked with the
new owner recently, he said he’d successfully gotten it running.
“I was happy that I was able to help someone out!” says Marquise.
since the environmental movement began promoting the slogan
“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” there has been a peanut gallery
pointing out that nearly all the emphasis has gone to what
should be the last resort of the three: recycling. Freecycle,
now an international network with more than 2,000 groups and
1.1 million members, is moving at least some of the attention
toward reuse. The rules are simple: only free gifting, no
selling or even bartering. People post requests as well as
offers, and arrange individual meetings to pass off the goods.
Deron Beal of Tuscon, Ariz., started the first freecycle listserv
in 2003. The group, which coordinates all the local listservs
through freecycle.org, now estimates that it’s diverting 50
tons of trash from landfills (or basements and self-storage
units as the case may be), daily.
On the Capital Region list, offers have ranged from baby snapping
turtles to couches, church organs to wedding-ring pillows.
Not every item finds a taker, but as the listserv has
grown (exactly 2,500 members as of Monday), the odds of tinkerers,
handy people, or collectors being on hand to take things even
eBayers would never touch keeps getting higher.
Arlene Istar Lev, of Albany, started off her Freecycle experience
by offering a bunch of worn old wooden cows. “I felt guilty
every time I tried to throw them away, but never could actually
find a use for them,” she says. She was startled to get 25
requests for them. “Some were nearly pleading,” she recalls.
Susan Fessler of Edinburg sat tight through a whole bunch
of responses to her offer of a rowboat needing repairs until
she found someone she was convinced could actually do the
work (he showed pictures of a bulldozer he’d reconstructed).
Though most people give their offers to the first responder,
there’s no rule about that, and in fact Freecycle founders
encourage giving preference to nonprofit groups or others
who really need the item.
Freecycle as a group brings together some folks who don’t
always mingle: the environmentally minded, concerned about
not throwing useful things away, and those whose finances
make the possibility of paying for some of the things offered
on Freecycle an impossibility. Many a lower-income young parent
or college student has furnished a baby room or first apartment
through the list.
Heather Mose, of Troy, joined Freecycle to get rid of some
stuff she didn’t want. But she ended up getting more than
she gave away. Her sister-in-law was pregnant, “her husband
was having a rough time finding steady work,” and even with
the larger family’s help “we simply couldn’t afford everything
at once.” She posted an item describing the situation, and
was so overwhelmed with generosity that “I showed up at her
baby shower with a truck load of baby stuff.” And there was
more that hadn’t fit in the truck. “It really made a difference
in my new niece’s life,” she says.
mom was diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago,” says Nicole
Lawrence of Albany, “and my dad abandoned her (after 21 years
of marriage!).” Her mother moved to Albany, but “even though
she had a plethora of stuff that could fill two houses, most
of it was useless to her. She had loads of things she wanted
to get rid of and a great need for a few things she didn’t
have and couldn’t afford.” Within a few days she had gotten
winter boots and 5-lb weights for physical therapy, and off-loaded
everything from a juicer to scrapbooks. “The relationship
[with Freecycle] has worked out greater than any I’ve ever
had!” says Lawrence.
And it’s not just the receivers who benefit. “We lost my sister-in-law
to cancer at a young age,” explains one Freecycler. “One of
the things she wanted to learn to do was to play the keyboard.
She purchased one just before she got sick. She never got
the chance to face that challenge, as she had bigger ones
to fight.” After the young woman died, the family didn’t know
what to do with the keyboard. One of the first postings her
sister-in-law saw when she joined Freecycle was a church youth
group looking for a keyboard. “Being Christians, we decided
that the keyboard had found a home!” she says.
As with any community, especially an online one of 2,500,
CR Freecycle has its share of frustrations. As long as people
give items reflexively to the first respondent, points out
one user, it becomes very hard for most people to compete
with the people who have nothing to do but sit online all
day and snap up juicy offers. There are frequent admonishments
to the list about showing up when you say you will, and cutting
out the rude comments.
On the other hand, the process of bringing together people
who have stuff and need stuff has spun off some rewarding
connections. Michel Bouton tells of posting a “wanted” for
a cat window-shelf. “A woman from Saratoga responded,” writes
Bouton in an e-mail message. “I am disabled with a type of
Rheumatism, and I was unable to make it to Saratoga to get
it. The donor offered to bring it to the Stockade in Schenectady
for me. . . . When I got out to meet her, I realized she had
cerebral palsy. I felt bad I had let her come all that way
to give it to me, but also felt that there has been a touch
of something wonderful in that moment.”
Even before people meet, Freecycle posts on their own offer
little windows into people’s ups and downs through the lens
of their stuff. There are pets whose owners have developed
allergies, wedding paraphernalia from happy newlyweds, and
parents hoping to allow their kids a chance to play an instrument.
One woman sent a request for help furnishing an apartment
for her disabled brother who was moving out on his own for
the first time.
have 14 cans of Ensure Plus in various flavors that I don’t
want to throw out. . . . My grandson used to drink these when
he first came to us because he was so malnourished,” reads
one post. “I have 8 unopened cases of Peptamen 1.5. . . .
This is for people on tubal feedings. Can anyone use it?”
On Freecycle the answer is probably yes.