YELLOW SPRINGS, Ohio -- Until about five months ago, Mel Hutto had never heard of "peak oil," the belief that global oil production will decline and never return to the levels that have nourished American lifestyles.
Now the 66-year-old retired business consultant says he will change his lifestyle and campaign in his hometown of Bellingham, Wash., about the need to reduce reliance on oil.
"We're going to be without oil. The whole industrial culture will at some point start breaking down," said Hutto, who, out of curiosity attended a conference on the topic in this southwest Ohio town. "I tried to think this wasn't real and wasn't really going to happen."
Talk of peak oil is moving from obscure energy workshops and technical journals into the social consciousness via books, National Geographic and other magazines and college curriculum.
"It's beginning to move more to the mainstream of public discussions," said Frank Laird, associate professor of technology and public policy at the University of Denver's Graduate School of International Studies. "There is a lot of unease about oil and energy."
The notion began in the 1950s when geophysicist M. King Hubbert predicted that global oil production would peak between 1990 and 2000. The prediction _ based on production profiles and estimates of oil reserves _ was largely confined to scientific circles.
Paul Thiers, assistant professor of political science at Washington State University Vancouver, has added the topic to his natural resources class. He said the fighting in Iraq and rising gasoline prices are generating interest in the subject.
The world uses about 80 million barrels of oil a day, and consumption continues to increase. U.S. consumption alone is expected to grow nearly 50 percent in the next 20 years.
How soon production will begin to decline is dividing oil experts. Some believe it is imminent. They say discoveries of oil have slowed and that there is little left to be found. Others believe oil will be abundant for at least several decades and that new technologies to extract oil will help ensure plentiful supplies for a long time.
"I can't deny it's coming. What I do deny is it's around the corner. It's not peaking," said Robert Ebel, a petroleum geologist and head of the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
Ebel said consumers will switch to other forms of fuel before oil shortages occur.
But Matthew Simmons, who has been researching oil depletion and peak oil for 10 years, said the peak might already have occurred.
"We don't have the data to say it will happen in five years or it happened last year," said Simmons, president of the Houston energy-investment advisory bank Simmons and Company. "It might be two or three years or it might be seven."
About 200 people in November attended what was billed as the first national conference for laymen on peak oil. The session was held in Yellow Springs, a liberal-leaning village and home to Antioch College, which has a history of social activism and civil disobedience.
The main speaker, Richard Heinberg, believes oil production will peak within five years. Once production begins to decline, the oil-reliant U.S. economy will begin to shrink, and transportation, power and other oil-dependent products and services will become much more expensive, he said in an interview.
"It means the undermining of the whole way of suburban life that has been developed in America," said Heinberg, who wrote "The Party's Over," a book describing the imminence of peak oil.
The conference was hosted by Community Service Inc., a Yellow Springs group founded in 1940 and dedicated to developing a nation where the population is distributed in small self-sustaining communities.
Pat Murphy, executive director, believes a decline in oil production will force Americans to abandon gas-guzzling cars, long commutes to work and their large homes in the suburbs. He sees the suburbs being replaced by small, self-sufficient communities _ many in the country _ that use alternate energy sources and grow their own food.
"We can't ship Caesar salads from California to Canada any longer," he said.
Some people who attended the conference are acting on their fears.
Jifunza Right-Carter, a Chicago physician, has purchased 40 acres of land outside of the city to use alternate energy sources such as solar and wind power and to hold classes for people interested in ways to reduce reliance on oil.
"It's not something that we just have to throw up our hands and say we're doomed," Right-Carter said.
Hutto said he intends to try to establish a community of between 100 and 200 people devoted to using alternate forms of energy and growing their own food.
"My life is going to be very different than I planned it," he said. "It really is a historic conference. I think we're going to look back at this little event in Yellow Springs, Ohio, as a starting point."