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As Long as We Remember...

June 15, 2005

Peak Oil and a Bumpy Ride

Tony Soltero

It wasn't all that long ago that my cell phone was about the size of a small refrigerator, fitting into my pocket about as comfortably as a Silverado in a Patrick Street parking spot. And it didn't even flip shut, resulting in the occasional unwitting 50-minute call to San Bernardino.

We've gone from rabbit ears to satellite dishes in a generation, and from clunky one-dimensional VCR's to sleek multi-featured DVD players in even less time than that. When I was in high school, Pac-Man and Intellivision were seriously far-out-dude cool; now you need a master's degree in software engineering if you want to survive a week dealing with the complexities of online gaming. And I've run through Mosaic, Netscape, Internet Explorer and now Firefox as my web browsers of choice. As the great British rock band "The Jam" once belted out, "Technology is the most!"

But we're STILL using gasoline to power our cars, just as we did in 1930, 1950, 1970, and 1990. And automobile fuel efficiency has improved only marginally over the decades. If we'd had a similar pace of innovation in the electronics industry, we'd be bragging today about being the first on our block to get a color TV, and complaining about eight channels and nothin' on. And now we're all about to pay a very steep price for our shortcomings and lack of foresight in this area.

Peak oil is upon us. Within a few years, if not this year, we'll be pumping the maximum amount of oil from the ground we'll physically be capable of pumping, and then world oil production will begin a long, slow slide downward. (America hit its domestic peak-oil level in 1970.) Meanwhile, demand for petroleum will continue to spiral upwards, as the heavily populated nations of India and China continue to ramp up their industrialization efforts. The cost of extracting ever-more-inaccessible oil will rise steadily, and we'll become nostalgic for the good old days of paying $2 a gallon for gas.

Driving will increasingly become a pastime of the wealthy and privileged, much as it was during the dawn of the automobile in the early 20th century. The monster commutes - that many of us (myself included) have become accustomed to - will turn into too much of a burden upon our wallets to sustain, leading to six-person carpools, four-day workweeks (hmmm...), and a mass migration to urban environments where cars are less necessary. The value of real estate in suburbs and exurbs will decline dramatically, wiping out many people's retirement nest eggs.

Our lives will change profoundly, and could come closer than we'd like to resembling the futuristic dystopia described in H.G. Wells' classic novel "The Time Machine." We'll have to get used to being far less mobile, and deal with the inevitable social tensions and resentments such a situation will engender.

With oil scarcer and scarcer, international competition for this indispensable resource will become fierce, leading to more and more oil wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, and more and more of our troops placed in harm's way.

Air travel will become an exceedingly rare occurrence for most of us; we'll begin to rediscover kerosene lamps and ceiling fans. And higher transportation costs will ripple through every aspect of our economy, triggering massive inflation. There will be much unpleasantness.

The sad thing is that this was hardly inevitable, if we'd made the right choices a few decades ago. While the reality of our economy's dependence upon a finite, nonrenewable resource was going to eventually catch up with us in any case, we could be vastly better prepared for this juncture than we are now.

We got an early wake-up call in 1973, after the first oil shock, and briefly began conserving energy. But once the oil spigots were opened up again, we forgot all about that newfound discipline. President Jimmy Carter sounded the alarm in the late 1970's, as we endured another temporary interruption of the oil flows.

But he was dismissed as a naysayer and a pessimist for his trouble (which tends to happen to politicians who suggest that Americans' sense of entitlement has its limits). And after Ronald Reagan got elected in 1980, most government-sponsored research into alternative fuels withered away into the mist. None of our leaders has really re-committed to it since - not George Bush Sr.; not Bill Clinton; and certainly not George W. Bush. (Al Gore did raise the issue, at least, as did John Kerry, but never mind.)

Environmental concerns aside, the current administration's "solution" of opening up more of Alaska for oil exploration reeks of Titanic deck-chair rearranging, a proposal that will do little to address our long-term energy needs but a lot to line the pockets of the oil industry, perhaps the most powerful lobby in Washington.

The secret energy meetings from four years ago, assuming that's what they were about and now largely forgotten by the media, don't seem to have yielded much in the way of long-term vision. What passes for an energy policy from Capitol Hill and the White House amounts to little more than subsidies for Big Oil.

And we get a lot of happy talk about how there's plenty of oil sloshing around and there's nothing to worry about. From the same people, of course, who reassured us that Iraq would be a 30-day cakewalk. Forgive me if I'm a tad skeptical.

There are a few encouraging signs. Hybrid-car technology is beginning to mature, and Priuses are now becoming a fairly common sight on our roads. The spiraling gas prices, aggravating as they may be, are at least forcing Americans to consider that the party may be coming to an end, and that it's time to pressure our leaders into looking out for the public interest. There seems to be a growing realization that concern for the environment isn't mushy tree-hugger stuff; it's a concern for our very own livelihoods.

But it is very hard to see how an economy as large as America's can adjust nimbly and effectively to peak oil. Big ships take a long time to turn around. We can't all switch to hybrids overnight, and even then the technology still has a long way to go.

And there's the matter of political will - when the oil industry has its tentacles embedded so deeply in the workings of our government, how will we be able to develop meaningful alternative energy initiatives that focus on benefiting the public?

I don't know if it's too late or not, but one thing is certain: we're in for a bumpy ride over the next couple of decades. Let's hope for the most optimistic projections, but prepare for the most pessimistic ones. And let's hope we muddle through with a minimum of disruption.

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