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When the Tank Goes Dry

If the peak-oil theory is correct, the world is going to run out of oil soon— will you be ready?


It’s 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 2000.

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.”

Not 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 environment.”

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 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, Reuse, and Reuse
By Miri

Freecycle phenomenon puts the Internet to work redistributing the surplus of a consumer society

Lynn 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.

Ever 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, 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.

“My 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.

“I 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?” reads another.

On Freecycle the answer is probably yes.

maxel-lute@metroland.netam Axel-Lute


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