I finally put the studded tires on my bicycle. With a little care and good bicycle handling skills, it's possible to ride much of the winter without them — though I wouldn't recommend it. The dirt road outside my house last Wednesday was like a skating rink when I went out for the paper, and I knew I'd been postponing the tire swap too long. I was scheduled to be in Plainfield around 8 a.m. the next morning, and the forecast sounded like it could be more of the same. Roads this slick would be impossible for me to drive on, even if I wanted to. I wanted studs so I could bike the ice.
It's a great feeling to bicycle with studded tires on ice. I've ridden confidently across iced-over pavement, past pedestrians shuffling uncertainly. I can ride at a decent clip, and bank into turns, without fear of falling.
A car won't tip over like a bike can, but it can be a bear to pull out of a snow bank or a ditch when it slides off an icy road. On my bicycle, if I do go off the road, it's a simple matter to pull it back onto the road and continue riding.
My wife and I run snow tires, not studded tires, on our cars. There's maybe half a day a year that the road is too icy for us to drive up the hill without studs. Studded tires would cut gas mileage all the time, not just the 1 percent or so of the time when we really need them. Chains would be more appropriate. They provide traction when needed, and they don't affect gas mileage the 99 percent of the time they weren't on the car. For whatever reason, though, we don't have chains, so that makes the bicycle with studded tires my preferred option for icy trips that cannot wait for the sand truck.
At any rate, it took a near-ice experience and tomorrow's potential challenge of an early, icy, 11-mile trip to get me to do a simple thing with immediate rewards like change out my bike tires. What, then, does it take to get people to make much bigger changes in their lives to prepare for a world with less abundant energy?
Climate change can be tremendously motivating, as anyone knows who has been to a Step-It-Up rally or followed the Statehouse debate on energy. I think peak oil provides some extra urgency for changes in individual lives, which the prospects of climate change do not. For example, Aaron Wissner, a 38-year-old middle school teacher who became what he calls "peak oil aware" about two and half years ago, is making the sort of profound changes in his life that face all of us, and he's making them now. Wissner was featured in a page 1 story in last weekend's Wall Street Journal.
The Wissner family has planned for supply disruptions of food and fuel by doubling the size of their propane tank, buying some extra cans of gasoline, and filling the pantry with many weeks of processed foods and staples like rice. They have made their house more energy efficient, with new, insulated windows, thermal drapes, and higher-efficiency light bulbs. They've also become more self-sufficient, tripling the size of their garden, and they're looking for land away from their Grand Rapids, Mich., suburban development, hoping to find somewhere they can grow more of their own food, harvest wood and have a secure source of running water.
That's not all: Wissner is also traveling widely in his community, giving talks about peak oil and urging others to prepare as well.
The thought that the energy we take for granted may be much less available in a relatively few years can concentrate people's faculties. How many people are learning to garden or building a root cellar, or re-locating, because of climate change? Some, I'm sure, but my utterly unscientific impression is that a lot more are doing so because of peak oil. Changes like those are harder than installing more efficient light bulbs.
I see two reasons why peak oil may motivate some people more in their daily lives than climate change. One is that people perceive peak oil as being able to force changes upon us more quickly than climate change. Notice I say, "perceive." The climate has changed dramatically in as little as 10 years in the past, when it has passed some tipping point. If the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets continue to accelerate their melting, then rapidly rising sea levels could inundate ocean coasts within our lifetimes. Droughts, floods and deadly heat waves of recent years are consistent with climate change hitting us now. Despite all this, I suspect most people see climate change as a long-term phenomenon, not likely to hurt their generation much.
It's easier for people to see how peak oil could cause severe hardship during the lifetimes even of most retirees. If the world is at or near its peak in oil production now, and the post-peak decline is a modest 2.6 percent, then world oil production drops by half in 25 years. If oil production declines at a higher rate of 8 percent, world oil production would halve in less than a decade!
A second reason peak oil may motivate people more urgently than climate change is that individual and community actions in isolation have so little effect on climate change. Greenhouse gases are emitted everywhere on the planet, and global climate change is, well, global. My decision to ride a bicycle to work instead of driving will reduce my carbon emissions, but it will be offset by a newly rich Hollywood star buying a Hummer or one or two relatively prosperous Indian families buying a Nano — that new, barebones car being marketed for $2,500 in India.
Similarly, all of Vermont may reduce carbon emissions, but a new coal-fired power plant in South Carolina or in China can wipe out the reductions.
For peak oil preparedness, on the other hand, individual actions and community actions are hugely important. If you own a bicycle and are in good enough shape to ride it to work and back, you have transportation to work no matter how acute gasoline shortages become.
Similarly, every building owner decides how much energy and what kind it takes to heat, cool and light the building. Insulation, passive solar design, awnings to keep out summer sun and solar hot water or electricity are all things that the building owner decides to add to the building, or not. If you're worried that future oil shortages will cut off your heating fuel, then you can insulate the building so well that it takes little to heat it, and install one or more backup fuel sources. You'll be prepared, even if no one else is.
At the community scale, if your community invests in buses or trains, they'll be there to serve you when gasoline for cars is hard to come by — no matter what the rest of the country or world has done. If the community has made space for community gardens, those will be there to feed people, even as corn ethanol plants swallow crop acreage in the global food system.
I would think that climate change or peak oil, by itself, would be enough to motivate people to change their lives dramatically. Yet with the focus primarily on climate change, policy is moving too slowly in the right direction, and people are making few changes in their own lives. Shouldn't peak oil be a more prominent part of the discussion?
Carl Etnier, director of Peak Oil Awareness, blogs at vtcommons.org/blog and hosts the weekly radio show Relocalizing Vermont on WGDR, 91.1 FM Plainfield. He can be reached at EnergyMattersVermont@yahoo.com.