The End of Oil Things

The End of Oil Things

I am a bad person.

I am supposed to have empathy for my fellow human beings, particularly when misfortune is the song that everyone has to dance to, but after reading this article about folks who have to shell out over $100 to fill up their behemoth SUVs, I caught myself muttering outloud: You asked for it.

Personally, I am getting tired of incessant news reports (whether print, radio or television) about the price of gas. They’re all the same: a reporter stating the obvious then a cutaway to a person filling up his or her car mouthing the “This is totally ridiculous” line that somehow passes for a revelatory remark. Finally, after a few talking heads have spent their requisite fifteen seconds on screen, the reporter closes off with another obvious statement that gas prices will probably rise again.

I am not immune to the difficulty of paying a lot of money to fill up the tank, especially for families who now have to budget (if they can) for the additional expense. At the same time, I find it astonishing that people really believe complaining about it is going to make a difference, or worse, that they had no idea it was going to cost so much to fill up their gas tank. And my patience has all but evaporated with SUV owners who sound absolutely wounded their vehicle is making the pump reach triple digits. What were these people thinking when they bought it? You can’t fault a person for failing to divine the price of gas, but with things tough all over, why should I be moved to tears because the owners of these hulking machines—who could afford them in the first place—now bitch about paying for the juice?

Still, it’s more than just about gas; it’s all about oil. When I see reports of people complaining about the price of gas, I cannot shake the feeling that most folks have no idea what an oil-based economy we have. While some people have made the connection between rising oil prices and the rising cost of going to the market (for the food that must travel from far away before it’s neatly put on the shelf), I suspect that for scores of people, the fact that our entire way of life is based on the burning of fossil fuel is something rather elusive. So when I hear talk about going green, or calculating your carbon footprint, it all strikes me as rather faddish, as if it’s something to dabble in because we need to feel better about ourselves, but it really doesn’t mean too terribly much.

I have no knowledge about peak oil other than you can get easily confused about the issue because either we’ve already passed it decades ago, or we are on the cusp of reaching it, or it’s still decades away. What I am certain of right now, is that our lives as we have known them—guzzling lots of cheap oil—is over. This is not something I can prove to you on a pie chart, or with a pile of studies. This is something at the gut level. And I cannot but help to be worried about the future: what happens when we do run out?

Virtually everything we have is based on extracting oil from the Earth, and within 150 years or so, we’ve expended so much of it that it almost seems criminal. What do we replace it with? Sure, there are scores of alternatives that are always rattled off: wind power, solar energy, biofuels, oil made from algae and the like. However, oil runs through our blood in such a way that all of those other alternatives appear second-rate; like they’re short-term substitutes for the real deal, and that’s black gold. And it cannot last forever.

I am not a doom and gloom person, but rather, someone who is unnerved about the consumption rate of oil, its price, and the fact that its an irreplaceable resource. It took millions of years to form, and as of right now, we’ve gone through about half of the world’s supply. Our ingenuity has taken oil and created dozens of byproducts, but I have not heard of a replacement resource for it. When it all goes away, then what? When the transition start to happen? If I decide that I want to have a family now, I can be assured that my child will be born in a powerful, affluent country, but what about near the end of his lifetime? Will the decline start, will there be enough oil to get him from one side of the country to another? And if he has kids, will they marvel at the stories of how to pass the time we drove around aimlessly simply because gas was so cheap?

It’s at this point that people start to put their faith in science and technology to solve the problem, whereas the standard operating procedure is to ridicule science for not being able to “tell us everything,” especially when it interferes with our religious beliefs. But I digress. If we merely depend on science and technology to save us, it suggests that we don’t need to do anything on our part. While we may be inundated with all sorts of marketing campaigns telling us to “go green” and we mouth platitudes about the environment, on the whole, we like things the way they are. Hell, we expect things to remain the way they are. If we feel like we need to invest in solar or wind power, so be it, but the unspoken demand is that we keep our way of life without any interruptions. I think that’s called having your cake and eating it, too.

I have no answers to any of these questions, but the more I ponder them, the more uneasy I feel that something fundamentally is wrong with our society. I am not against material possessions or the luxuries that most of us can afford; I am planning on buying a high definition television before the end of the year, and I absolutely luv my iPhone. I am uncomfortable with extreme environmental activists as I am their counterparts on the other end of the spectrum, who deny that global warming exists. Yet I am most perturbed by the quiet acquiescence of millions of my fellow countrymen, who appear blissfully unaware that some kind of change is needed in the way we consume our resources. I am not sure if other high civilizations reached a point in their development where luxury items where affordable for most and the populace at large became lazy and detached from the problem of how these goods are produced and what kept their flow strong. I do know, however, that these civilizations eventually collapsed. I wonder when we will get to that point, and history has to turn the page.