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  • Monday, January 23, 2006


    Mad Max in the New American Century

    I went to a local library to watch The End of Suburbia. I'd never seen it although I am quite aware of Peak Oil implications it's based on and what it means for the future for America and the world in general. (See the "Mad Max" trilogy of films for a few signposts.) The question after accepting the near-future inevitability of these events is: What sort of actions can be taken to ameliorate the impact of a declining oil supply?

    While developing alternative sources of energy will help, such sources will probably never be able to keep pace with our voracious modern industrial appetite for energy. Biodiesel? My understanding is we would have to devote over 90% of the US's arable land to such crops to supply our current automotive needs, much less our increasing demands. Wind, solar, tidal, hydro, and nuclear all have similar limitations. Currently, hydrogen production takes more energy, gallon for gallon, to produce than it (hydrogen) gives off in released energy. [I can't completely vouch for these figures but I believe they are generally true.]

    Besides implementing commonsense personal energy conservation measures, we also need to develop different economic strategies. The whole "buy locally made products and services" approach is good but limited. We've had decades of systemic dismantling of local businesses and manufacturing capabilities and moving these functions far away from our communities.

    The End of Suburbia used an example which stuck with me: The 3,000 mile Cesar Salad. To me, this cuts to the core of the problem. On the East Coast of the US where I live, we are used to being able to have fresh vegetables year 'round. What happens when it becomes profoundly uneconomical to ship lettuce or any food across the country? Or, to use another example, when it becomes impossible to get new clothes or shoes from China, 12,000 miles away?

    I think many people in the US are unaware of just how the government subsidizes and protects the oil industry in this country. Without these protections, gasoline prices at the pump would be much, much higher. There are different ways of looking at it but at a minimum, prices would be at least 50% higher. Other factors give larger values. According to this story, taking other factors into consideration, "...external costs push the true price of gasoline as high as $15.14 a gallon, according to a new report released by the International Centre for Technology Assessment." (A more detailed source is The Roads Aren't Free: Estimating the Full Social Costs of Driving and the Effect of Accurate Pricing.) Try filling up your car, even a very fuel efficient one, much less an SUV, at $15 a gallon and perhaps you have an inkling of a real and near future. How near? Probably within 10 years, possibly within 5 years. The war in Iraq will not change this. Drilling in the Arctic will not change this. All such control over oil resources only means the drop-off period of a limited supply will be much more precipitous when it comes.

    As I've said before, now would be a good time to learn how to raise your own food in a garden and perhaps, if you can, keep a few chickens around. As Gil Scott-Heron sings, it's winter in America.

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