Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Peak Oil, March 02005 - my death

This post is the big one; this is where I'm focused now. As the timeline in the title indicates, Peak Oil isn't a campaign with a discrete ending point. Whether we know it or not, almost all humans are now entering the onset of Peak Oil. We'll almost certainly be coping with its effects for the rest of our lives, and for a few generations beyond.

In some ways I was already beginning down the Peak Oil preparation path a few months before March. Without Kucinich as the Democratic nominee for President, it was clear to me that people wanting to prepare for existing and looming environmental crises need to bring it down to small-scale local efforts. I didn't expect even Kucinich to "save us" top-down, but at least Kucinich as President would have set the stage for greater awareness of what's really happening and assisted people in their efforts to save themselves. The PUD campaign was part of that switch in focus, but Theressa and I also began thinking about a fundamental of life: food. Last summer we experimented with a tiny vegetable garden in Theressa's yard, and we got together with neighbors during autumn and winter to prepare a vacant lot for a community garden to be planted this year.

The November election was disappointing almost across the board from national to state level. Only local city results turned out well, which further drove home the importance of saving what we can while we can at a local level. Shortly after, I read neighbor Toby Hemenway's book Gaias's Garden, which applies permaculture principles to home-scale landscaping and gardening. I was fascinated by this introduction to permaculture and the integration possible between humans and their immediate environment, and especially by the potential to drastically reduce my environmental footprint even further while preparing for coming crises. Pretty soon I'd talked Theressa into turning her yard into a forest garden, with the goal of fruit and nut trees and shrubs, edible and herbaceous ground layer plants, vines to utilize vertical space, and root crops, all arranged in an ecological mesh to create a gorgeous and largely self-sustaining landscape with multiple useful outputs for humans and wildlife.

Shortly into the forest garden planning, I happened to read Paul Roberts' The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World. I had come across the concept of Peak Oil during the Kucinich campaign, but this was the first time I really "got it," and boy did it turn my world upside down! I can't recommend too strongly that you devote a chunk of 2-3 hours to googling "peak oil" and reading what you find, perhaps starting with www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net. For those of you who already blew your spare 2-3 hours reading the recent story of my life, here's Peak Oil in a nutshell:

Just as the US extracted the most oil it would ever extract per year in 01970, the entire world is at, past, or very near to the point where it will extract less and less oil each year, instead of more and more. When the US peaked, it set us up for the oil shocks of the 70s, with economic recession and temporary shifts in lifestyles and consumption. We were ultimately bailed out by expanded imports from the rest of the world. Being a global peak this time, there is no "outside" from which to import oil, and there is no combination of "alternative energy" sources which will allow us to continue living the way we do now. Meanwhile, natural gas extraction has just peaked in North America, and the infrastructure is not even in place to allow the costly import of supplies from overseas, which means for the short term we have to make do with what we've got. For both natural gas and for oil, as demand continues to rise and supply continues to fall, prices will continue to skyrocket even neyond the quadrupling we've seen in the past few years.

Almost every human society around the world is to some extent organized on the premise of constantly increasing supplies of cheap energy, ie oil and natural gas. In the US, everything we do or use is based on these fossil fuels. This includes the obvious: transportation, home heating and cooling, and electricity generation. The more subtle dependencies are our consumer goods: clothing, electronics, plastics, pharmaceuticals. Our most basic needs are currently met with infrastructure based on cheap energy: housing, water supply and sewage treatment, and perhaps most critically, food. Across the US, our agricultural land has been paved over and most of what's left has been eroded and abused. As Dale Allen Pfeiffer of From the Wilderness puts it in "Eating Fossil Fuels", "Much of the soil in the Great Plains is little more than a sponge into which we must pour hydrocarbon-based fertilizers in order to produce crops."

The repercussions of Peak Oil are as widespread as our fossil fuel dependencies. The best case scenario is an ongoing national and eventually global recession, leading into an economic depression which never ends. That means the continued decay of our physical and social infrastructures, accelerating loss of jobs and capital, harder work and longer hours for those holding on to paying jobs, widespread bankruptcies and disruptions for millions of families with associated homelessness and poverty, power and control moving even more firmly into the hands of corporations and elites (to the point of a potential return to feudalism), inflation and higher costs for everything including basic commodities such as food, and generally making do with much less economic and material wealth. The ultimate result will have to be more localized economies and societies, producing most of what they consume at a bioregional level. Unfortunately, the skills and economic networks for functional local economies have been mostly destroyed, so there's a lot of relearning and rebuilding necessary. The best case scenario is reason enough to take stock of our lives and evaluate how we're going to weather the changes to come and what preparations we need to start making now.

The worst case scenarios are grimmer, since they involve the potentially rapid breakdown of one, many, or all of the systems on which we now depend. No one has ever built a globalized society as complex as what we have now, so we don't know what happens when the underpinning of cheap energy is gone. What happens if gas shortages, hoarding, price spikes, and worker strikes grind the shipping industry to a halt for as little as two weeks? Do you have enough food in your house and growing in your yard to feed your family once the supermarkets run out of their three day supply? What happens to cities when blackouts lasting days or weeks exhaust backup generator capacity and water can't be pumped to households while sewage treatment plants shut down? What happens as global climate change, spiking costs of chemical inputs and fuels, gasoline shortages, and unpredictable supply chains make industrial agriculture more volatile than ever? What happens when a collapse in yield can't be offset by importing food from thousands of miles away? What happens when millions of people can't get jobs to pay for whatever food there is? What happens when people can't afford to heat their homes through freezing winters, or when sudden natural gas shortages mean even the affluent just plain can't run their furnaces? What happens when blackouts shut down air conditioners in highly populated deserts like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles? What happens when a global population of 6.4 billion and growing, a more than threefold increase from the days before cheap energy, has neither that cheap energy as a crutch nor the skills to live from the land? These questions hint at where things could end up, and though apocalyptic nightmare is not inevitable, it's important to take all the possibilities seriously and keep an open mind while evaluating where we're headed and the importance of personal preparation for different Peak Oil scenarios.

So there's the gist of what I learned from Roberts' book and further research. Once I fully understood the nature of peak oil extraction, how close we are to that point, and the severe consequences, I had one of those rare perception shifts where the whole world looks permanently different. Since that short, intense burst of reading everything I could find, I've spent my time primarily on personal preparation, with some energy devoted to spreading the word and networking with others via Portland Peak Oil. My vision for now is to develop useful skills for a post-carbon world, centering around ecological food production and permaculture principles. I hope to build a physical "lifeboat" of food, shelter, and water for myself and whomever else joins me. Having learned necessary skills and having secured my own needs, I can make myself available as a resource for others in Portland as they react to Peak Oil, whether in advance or as the negative impacts hit. The safest thing for pure self preservation might be to find some rural land and do the homesteading thing, but I'm more interested in helping as many people as I can through the crisis ahead. I think that if any major US city can pull through Peak Oil in a civilized way, it's Portland...so I'm digging in here.

With that vision, the forest garden for Theressa's yard took top priority this spring and summer, and we designed a layout including 15 fruit trees and dozens more shrubs and vines. I moved in to to Leah's house across the street from Theressa, joining Pete who had just moved from Los Angeles to escape Peak Oil and build a lifeboat somewhere more sustainable. Theressa, Pete and I planted the tree, shrub, and vine layers of Theressa's yard, and Pete and I also began planting Leah's yard. We began holding weekly Peak Oil neighborhood preparation meetings, but unfortunately we didn't hit a critical mass of enough people with enough spare time to get research and implementation of preparation steps really flowing.

One of the primary preparation recommendations from most Peak Oil thinkers is to get out of debt! Any kind of "soft crash" or controlled decline will probably favor corporations and the rich at the expense of middle and lower class folks. Debt is already a major lever of control over people's lives. The freer you are of it, the more options you'll have as the economy collapses. With that in mind, Theressa decided last month to sell the house she hadn't chosen in the first place, the legacy of her recently ended marriage. She's never been really happy where she is, and by selling now at the top of the housing bubble she can wipe her mortgage out and have cash left over. So my planning stage for the herbaceous and ground layers of her forest garden was interrupted; the next residents will have to plant the annual and perennial flowers, herbs, vegetables, ground covers, and so forth! It's a little disappointing to leave the work I've done, mostly because I know there's still so much for me to learn by observing what we've done so far and how it works out, but I'm OK with the change in plans. It makes a lot of sense for Theressa to get out of this trap, and I can keep learning anywhere I go. With luck, the new owners will allow me to come back from time to time and take a look at what's happening.

Theressa isn't entirely sure yet what her long term relocation plans are, but for now she and I are excited about moving in to the Portland Permaculture Institute (PPI) with Pam & Joe (we both knew Pam already from the Kucinich campaign!), Bob, Tony, and Michael. They have a 1.6 acre lot in the middle of Portland, and the community is focused on learning, practicing, and teaching permaculture. There's a general awareness of Peak Oil and Pam and Joe are specifically preparing for it, so it seems like a good place for us to learn more about permaculture, live in and learn from intentional community, and build a lifeboat with more people who share the same preparation vision. We'll be moving in by the end of October, assuming I'm accepted by the community members.

With Theressa's house going up for sale and my impending departure from Leah's yard (with no one committed to caring for further edible and ecological plantings), I decided to jump on a timely opportunity: an internship at Mossback Farm, a permaculture farm 40 miles out of Portland. I'll be spending about two months there learning as much as I can before moving into PPI and devoting myself to preparations there. It promises to be a very exciting experience; I'll write updates from there! The same can be said, really, for Peak Oil...so stay tuned!


Anonymous said...

farmer scrub have recently over just a month become aware of peak oil...and of course a great shift in my world view! we have seriously thought of moving to brazil (selfish i know)....but i feel completely overwhelmed by the immensity of all the new skills i have to learn in order to survive!!!!!!!! we are in cully neighborhood and have tiny house on big double lot which save for a couple of huge cedars has nothing but non productive grass on.....do you attend portland peak oil as i intend to start going there....i am also wondering what the portland peak oil task force has come up with? for the city...

FarmerScrub said...

Hi Janice-

Thanks for the comment! My friend Theressa and I were heavily involved in Portland Peak Oil for a while last year but only rarely attend meetings now--there's just so much to do here!

You're welcome to come visit if you like--email me directly at scrub@corrupt.net and I'll give you our address/phone number/etc.

Farmer Scrub