Science Magazine just published a great article about peak oil, and I realized it's been exactly a decade since I became "peak oil aware." 9/11 had just happened, and to try and understand the world I did something I wasn't, as an American, supposed to do -- I listened to Osama bin Laden and his complaints to try and understand why these attacks on my country had happened. It turns out I found them pretty legitimate. That is, I agreed with his reasons for being angry, but certainly not his method of killing civilians. Even if a percentage of those civilians could be considered "guilty" for their complicity in advancing American hegemony, death without trial was certainly not an acceptable punishment.
Instead it was his complaint about the permanent stationing of U.S. troops on Saudi soil that resonated. It was not hard for me to imagine being so pissed off if the situation were reversed, and Saudi troops were permanently stationed on U.S. soil, that I would join some rebel campaign against them. Patriotism, mixed with empathy, allowed me to understand the attacks from Al Qaeda's perspective. Granted those two emotions rarely join hands, but somehow I was able to fuse them enough to understand the motive for the attacks even if I abhorred the results.
So, why were American troops permanently stationed on Saudi soil? It certainly wasn't to defend freedom and democracy. There was only one answer -- oil. So I started to read about oil, and quickly came across a recently published book by Kenneth Deffeyes titled Hubbert's Peak. In it he explained something that I'd intuitively known for a long time but had never intellectually grasped -- oil is a finite resource, and will begin, at some point, to decline in production. Not stop flowing, and this is key, but simply to slow, stagnate, then decline. Armed with a bachelor's degree in Economics, my first instinct was to not seriously worry -- higher prices would mean more production. But I was also a grounded soul -- a carpenter and a gardener who understood that if there's a pile of rocks and you keep hauling increasing amounts of them away every day, eventually you'll reach diminishing returns. In terms of oil, the energy lifeblood of our economy, this implied an inflection point -- a peak.
Deffeyes estimated this peak to occur between 2004 and 2008, and used graphs and solid math to back it up. I bought it. A young man in my mid-20s, recently married and starting out in life, I felt that the assumptions guiding the world around me were built on a rotten foundation. Economic growth fueled by never-ending increases in consumption by an ever-expanding population on a planet that from all I could tell was staying the same exact size, was an outright impossibility. Oil price spikes and world-wide economic crises had the potential to wipe out civilization as we knew it. I freaked out.
It's been a long haul since then. I'm no longer married, for instance. Some of what I thought would happen came to pass. Most of it did not... or has not yet anyways. You don't change civilization on a dime, even though that's what I wanted to have happen when I dove into the sustainability movement and became heavily involved with renewable energy, edible landscaping, and all things local. I figured out a while back that the problem isn't peak oil, or global climate disruption, or peak anything else. And it isn't us. Humanity isn't inherently evil.
It's our attitude and the expectations that come with it that are the problem. Being the first species (but hopefully not the last) to evolve to the point of having an extremely powerful combination of intelligence and manual dexterity means we have the capacity to remake the world, literally from the ground up. We can do this in the way we've been doing it, and probably destroy almost every other species on the planet. But we also have the opposite potential -- to take this garden of Eden we were granted by luck or design and coax it along into an ever-increasing diversity of life and abundance. To accomplish this we need to come to the epiphany that we are an integral part of nature and do not stand in opposition to it, and from there we need to rearrange our behaviors and expectations so that we enjoy the fruits of this new relationship. That is, rather than gaining our satisfaction by consuming nature, we need to learn (or rather relearn) how to gain our satisfaction from the gifts that nature gives freely and sustainably -- healthy and delicious local food, energy from renewable resources, meaningful relationships with members of our local community, and spiritual connections with our surrounding environment, to name a few.
Stephen Hren is the author of Tales From the Sustainable Underground: A Wild Journey with People Who Care More About the Planet Than the Law, and maintains the website www.earthonaut.net.