There are economists who "know" that the world will come up with a cheap, effective, and widely available substitute for oil before we run short of it. And so, it follows that "getting ready" for a permanent oil shortage through concerted civic and governmental action is a "waste of resources." But even if they are right about the miraculous and timely appearance of oil substitutes, are they right that the things we would do as a global society to prepare for world peak oil production are a "waste of resources?" To address that issue I've prepared a Peak Oil "To Do" List. (I don't claim it to be exhaustive.)
1. Convert to organic agriculture and grow as much of our food locally as possible.
Why we should do it anyway: Besides the obvious energy benefits (no use of oil-based pesticides and herbicides or natural gas-derived fertilizers), organic agriculture would return fertility to soil destroyed by decades of industrial chemical agriculture. It would move us toward a truly sustainable system of agriculture. Beyond this, local agriculture would improve local economies everywhere and give all of us the much better food security that comes from locally produced food. In addition, relationships between farmer and consumer would restore the link in people's minds between the land and their well-being. Consumers would get farm produce that is by definition fresher and more healthful than anything trucked in from far away. For those who say we can't feed the world with organic agriculture, recent studies suggest just the opposite.
2. Relocalize daily living, work and commerce.
Why we should do it anyway: Do people still believe that the destruction brought to our communities courtesy of globalization is a plus? Does the devastation of main streets across America by Wal-Mart and the hollowing out of American manufacturing and loss of jobs make us stronger? People have lived in local economies until very recently in human history. This is not a new or radical concept. Shouldn't patronizing those in our community, in our state and in our country be a priority? Living in communities that reestablish the bonds of neighborhood, living near where we work, shopping near where we live--these actions not only reduce our consumption of resources, they improve our communities by bringing us closer together and involving us in the social, cultural and democratic life of those communities.
3. Vastly expand public transportation.
Why we should do it anyway: Beyond the obvious benefits of reducing our total energy consumption, public transportation reduces traffic congestion and the costs of maintaining our transportation infrastructure. Properly done, it can make travel more convenient than the current system. (Imagine high-speed trains between all major cities and compare that to a trip on an airplane.) Public transportation democratizes the benefits of our society by making them more easily available to all citizens regardless of their means. That's good for everyone. Public transportation also offers another venue for us to get to know one another and come to trust one another as fellow citizens.
4. Convert to non-polluting, renewable energy sources.
Why we should do it anyway: Even if we weren't facing hydrocarbon energy shortages, the dangers of global warming are so great that moving to renewable energy sources is crucial. Now, do I need to convince anyone that we need non-polluting energy sources? Besides this, the use of local distributed energy sources such a wind and solar would give communities and individuals more control over their lives.
5. Seek to stabilize and then gradually reduce world population.
Why we should do it anyway: Some economists fear that we aren't having enough children in Western industrialized countries. This is because they believe that older people will simply not contribute enough to our economy as they age. That has proven to be a groundless belief. Many older people go on to second careers when they retire or work part time. The main reason to reduce population over time is, of course, to reduce pressure on resources. A humane, gradual reduction flies in the face of our perpetual growth ideology, but such a reduction will head off the inevitable and perhaps not so humane reductions that nature would impose upon us.
6. Vastly increase the efficiency of industry.
Why we should do it anyway: Industrial societies have practically made a fetish of waste. Our economies won't function without it, it seems. But, it doesn't have to be this way. We can have many (but probably not all) of the benefits of a modern technical society with literally a fraction of the resources we now use. We just have to decide that efficiency is important and build in the incentives for it. The resulting smaller ecological footprint will be better for us and for every other living thing on the planet.
7. Lead fully engaged lives every day.
Why we should do it anyway: This is a very general and trite suggestion. But for those who believe peak world oil production may arrive soon, the future may seem incredibly bleak. This uncertainty about the future, however, should make us more appreciative of and engaged in the moment. We should attempt to enjoy what we have now as much as possible while working in the present for a better future. On a philosophical plane, none of us know what we as individuals will encounter tomorrow or the next day. Wouldn't it be a good idea to enjoy today as much as possible no matter what we believe the future holds?
Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer who focuses on environmental and natural resource issues. He authors a weblog called Resource Insights.