This summer, people could hardly talk about anything besides energy.
But with the election only three weeks away, candidates hardly mention it. They're much more interested in the scandal around former Florida congressman Mark Foley, when and how to leave Iraq, the outlook for the economy and nukes in North Korea and Iran.
You can hardly blame the candidates. Energy now ranks somewhere below gay marriage as an issue for voters, according to recent polls.
Few people care about energy now because gas prices are low. On average, last week Americans paid about $2.26 for a gallon of regular unleaded. That's down nearly 60 percent from prices a year ago. Cheap gas has put smiles on the faces of drivers and has allayed fears about a gas crunch.
"The interest we get correlates with the price of gas," says Pat Murphy. "At $3 a gallon, we got a lot of calls. But now, I don't think that energy is going to be an issue at all in the election."
Murphy runs Community Solution (www.communitysolution.org), an advocacy group based in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The group offers help to prepare for the energy crisis that many experts say is coming in the next few years.
But with sales of fuel-efficient hybrid cars slowing and sales of gas-guzzling SUVs back up, many consumers seem to be asking, "What energy crisis?"
Proponents of peak oil - who say that we've used up about half of the world's known sources of oil and that we are about to enter a period of scarcity and high prices as oil begins its unstoppable depletion - predict that oil prices will rise because oil production will soon peak, if it hasn't done so already.
On Sept. 30, oil-industry financier Matthew Simmons, author of the 2006 book Twilight in the Desert (a bestselling analysis of oil depletion in the world's largest producer, Saudi Arabia) said that peak oil may have already arrived.
"There's an incredible amount of data," Simmons told the Financial Sense Online Web site, "that is starting to show that according to the Department of Energy's latest monthly statistical oil report, in December 2005, crude oil production, which excludes natural gas, liquids and hydrocarbon processing gains, hit an all-time world peak of just under 75 million barrels a day.
"In the first five months of 2006, it declined every single month, and by May was down almost a million barrels a day. Now, if that trend continues for another 12 months, I think it will be fairly easy for people who want to be realists to say we actually peaked at the end of 2005."
The upside of expensive gas
Pat Murphy thinks that gas prices could rise again any time, but that this might not be such a bad thing.
"A spell of cold weather, another hurricane in the Gulf or a pipeline break in Alaska could do it," Murphy says. "We're so short of supplies now that the price of oil could quickly go back up to $70 or higher."
Only with higher gas prices will Americans start to plan seriously for peak oil. And the sooner we plan, the less painful it will be.
For 40 years, Murphy's group has been advocating a return from big cities and sprawling suburbs to small, rural communities because the quality of life is better. In the last three years, since Murphy took the helm, the group has focused on how peak oil is going to force America to decentralize whether we like it or not.
"From our perspective peak oil is not a tragedy, as long as it's handled correctly." As oil depletes and countries like China and India start to compete against the U.S. and Europe for increasingly limited supplies, Murphy sees a danger of more oil wars like Iraq.
But if the U.S. agreed with other big oil users to voluntarily cut our consumption, as peak oil guru Colin Campbell has proposed and Richard Heinberg has written up in his new book, The Oil Depletion Protocol, then petro-warfare could be replaced by peaceful sharing of a limited resource.
Murphy has written his own scenario of a future oil war averted, The Peak Oil War: A World Peace Story. The piece is available for free download from the Community Solution Web site.
Public complacency about energy in the last couple months has not kept Murphy and other peak-oil activists from their work.
At the end of September, Community Solution held its third annual conference approaches to peak oil at Antioch College with more than 300 attendees from 33 states.
The event's theme, "Plan C: Curtailment, Cooperation, and Community," was a word-play on Lester Brown's new book, Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble.
Like many prominent environmentalists, Brown is optimistic that renewable energy can largely replace the dirty fossil energy responsible for global warming and other environmental and political problems while allowing Americans to keep their current consumer lifestyle.
By contrast, Murphy is skeptical that any amount of renewable energy technologies can replace the large amount of energy we get today from oil, coal and natural gas
"We are no longer attracted by the siren singers of breakthrough technologies that promise us we can continue living in a manner that denies a future for our children," Murphy told conference participants. "The solutions are not going to come from the same people who created the problem. The answers are not in the corporations of technology but in the villages and neighborhoods."
In his own talk Murphy contrasted "Plan C" to deal with both peak oil and global warming with what he described as Plan A and Plan B.
"Plan A is to find alternative fuels like clean coal, tar sands, and oil shale. Plan B is to use wind, solar, and biofuels," Murphy said. "Both assume technology will save us and that we must increase economic growth by increasing energy consumption.
"Yet the results of an economic model based upon increasing consumption aren't good. With high crime rates, record high incarceration, continuing environmental degradation, soil depletion, growing inequity, deteriorating health, and the loss of civic engagement and community, we need a better way."
Designing a new American dream
Other conference speakers focused on ways in which having to use less energy because of peak oil would actually be a good thing for Americans.
"Who feeds you and who do you feed will be the central questions for the next few decades," said Peter Bane, publisher of the quarterly magazine Permaculture Activist.
As fossil fuels are withdrawn from America's current industrial agriculture system - now, the average meal travels 2,000 miles from farm to plate - Bane estimates that U.S. food production will seriously decline.
He says that more Americans will have to grow our own food. Though scary for some, this could give families higher quality food while freeing them from reliance on big agribusiness
"Going beyond conserving, permaculture aims to turn people who are now consumers into producers, making them independent of a centralizing authority that is increasingly derelict," Bane said.
Bane estimated that land now used for lawns in the U.S. could feed 70 million to 150 million people if converted to personal or community gardens.
Vicki Robin, coauthor of the popular 1999 book Your Money or Your Life and leader of the simplicity movement, said that 25 percent of Americans already want to live a more simple life for their own reasons.
"Simplicity is about having enough and living frugally with a high joy-to-stuff ratio," Robin said. "It is living a life that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich and where we live simply so that others may simply live."
David Orr of Oberlin College connected the danger of running out of oil with the danger of continuing to use it. Citing a World Health Organization report that global warming now causes more than 150,000 deaths worldwide every year, Orr said that the world faces even more deaths from catastrophic glacial melt and a sea-level rise of 20 feet or more if we do not reduce global warming pollution 70 percent by mid-century.
Framing the problem as big corporations versus ordinary citizens, Orr said that liberal and conservative are not the relevant categories anymore. "The real dividing line is how we relate to future generations. Those on the left and right of the political spectrum need to work together."
"The challenges of peak oil and climate change aren't just a matter of technology or politics," Orr said. "They are a test of our heart and our goodness. When we get to the post-peak world after we've stabilized carbon and protected the rights of future generations, it needs to be a world of compassion and joy, a lot better than it has been."
Like Orr, Murphy told me that he doesn't talk about peak oil separately from global warming anymore.
"There's this need to change our oil use driven by the supply question and from another direction by the global-warming question," Murphy said. "That's been causing a lot of cognitive dissonance. It took me about six months to understand that the issue is not how long the other half of the oil will last but that we can't burn the other half of the oil."
Murphy thinks that energy will again become big news in 2007 - and he is heartened by the growth of the peak-oil movement.
In the meantime, he isn't waiting for political candidates to become champions of energy conservation and simple living. Nor is he spending too much breath on convincing Americans that peak oil is real.
Instead, he and the activists at his conference are trying to come up with nothing less than a new American way of life.
"From my perspective, the solutions are not clear, and people are still in the process of investigating what the best ones are. You can say, 'Go local,' but that becomes a slogan until you actually move it into practice.
"If America called me tomorrow and asked what to do with my car, I'd say I don't know. Right now, the community is developing the solutions which the rest of the country will follow in the future."
Erik Curren is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press. Curren is the author of Buddha’s Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today. More information about Curren's works is available on-line at www.alayapress.com. The views expressed by op-ed writers do not necessarily reflect those of management of The Augusta Free Press.