The coming permanent scarcity of fossil fuels will touch off a seismic cultural shift, and some Portlanders are planning for it now
Sunday, August 21, 2005
Farms in Lake Oswego? Community gardens on the Park Blocks? Every day a Bridge Pedal day?
Welcome to the post-oil future. All too soon worldwide oil demand will exceed available supplies -- and gas prices will go through the roof.
Oil's decline will have a profound impact on a society that's based its economy on a single, dwindling resource. Many will be stranded in the suburbs as grocery store shelves empty. Others will lose their jobs as our oil-dependent economy withers.
Oil industry observers say we have at most three years -- some predict as early as this fall -- before gas prices begin a permanent climb.
As those prices move into the stratosphere, petroleum-fueled factory farms will gradually give way to smaller, labor-intensive operations. Increasingly, human energy will replace machine energy. There'll be a greater need for farm workers and craftspeople with time-honored skills: glassblowers, shoemakers, soapmakers, seamstresses and the like.
Domestic oil production peaked in 1970, and last year the government warned that world reserves are being depleted three times faster than new discoveries.
With more than 60 percent of the world's oil concentrated in the politically shaky Middle East, it's easy to see why some observers already are predicting: economic chaos, widespread fighting about limited fuel and food, and the imposition of martial law if we don't immediately begin planning for the transition away from an oil-based economy.
"Without timely mitigation, the economic, social and political cost [of spiraling fuel costs] will be unprecedented," the U.S. Department of Energy warned in a report issued last February.
In his profoundly disturbing book on the post-oil future, "The Long Emergency," James Howard Kunstler predicts we must "downscale and re-scale virtually everything we do."
Not surprisingly, there's great resistance to any suggestion that our comfortable lifestyles might change; we Americans seem to believe plentiful oil is our birthright.
"The feeling is that someone, somewhere will have a solution that will let us keep living the great American consumer lifestyle," says Pam Leitch, a local activist who's working with others in the nonprofit Portland Peak Oil, gearing up to spread the word about the coming oil crisis. "They just can't believe it won't go on forever."
Denial, resistance and putting our hopes in techno-fixes like hydrogen-fueled cars won't delay the day of reckoning. But they'll keep the fantasy of easy mobility alive for a while longer, increasing the chances of a hard landing. Realities of less mobility
The reality is this: We're already in the transition to a less mobile society. Rising fuel prices are squeezing taxi drivers, truckers and the aviation industry. The post-oil era will bring a transformation from a transient society to one that focuses on home and neighborhood. Sprawling suburbs and subdivisions will give way to compact, walkable environments.
"Suburbia will come to be regarded as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world," Kunstler says. "It has a tragic destiny."
In the view of Kunstler and other post-oil activists, suburbs will disappear altogether. Developments in direct proximity to cities will be replaced by farms; those farther out will gradually be reclaimed by nature.
Prepare for "a way of life as different from industrialism as (industrialism) is from the medieval period," says Richard Heinberg, author of "Powerdown," another primer for the post-oil future.
Cities, even neighborhoods, will become more self-sufficient. Agriculture will play a heightened role in everyday American life. Cities such as Portland will have to find creative ways to feed their residents.
Rural folks have the advantage of more open space for crops, but, like city dwellers, they'll have to learn how to grow their own food. Farm populations have been decimated by the impact of large-scale corporate farming and the globalization of agriculture. Progress in Portland
The good news is Portland is heading in the right direction. Last June the city completed an inventory of all city-owned land available for cultivation.
The transition away from oil will be aided by Portland's progressive approach to alternative transportation: Two of the city's bridges -- the Hawthorne and Steel -- have been retrofitted for pedestrians and cyclists.
Another light rail line is planned between Gateway and the Clackamas Town Center along Interstate 205, and there's an aggressive policy of placing jobs and housing along rail routes.
In the coming years Wal-Mart and its "warehouse on wheels" will be remembered as a cheap-fuel-era relic. And it's hard to imagine a company such as Nike surviving if its factories aren't drastically scaled down and in-sourced, using a local labor force. Help wanted: blacksmiths
The end of oil is a challenge that lends itself to local action. Citizens are forming post-oil discussion groups up and down the West Coast. In Portland 30 to 100 folks show up at weekly meetings of Portland Peak Oil.