We begin with a man, sitting on his porch in the morning sun. He relaxed, drinking coffee and storing up some solar energy. There was a smoky haze on the northern horizon and the unmistakable smell of burning wood in the air. A bird of some unknown provenance struck a note against a grinding industrial sound in the distance. Though his mind was momentarily calmed he knew he would soon have to jump on to the grid; that stream of energized activity, which flowed past his door into the wider world and became the increasingly shrill clatter of human endeavor. His job in the city required a daily commute.
Inside the cool confines of his domicile a single fly buzzed aggressively against a window, insistent that it had other plans and should not be trapped like this. If only it could get free, if only it weren’t restrained by the structurae of this world in which it found itself. He opened the window and let the fly have it’s wish while contemplating the true nature of our definition of freedom as humans.
The melodic tone of an incoming call on his laptop broke the man’s reverie and he answered to find an old friend online. The friend lived in the mountains of the west Chilcotin and prided himself on his independence from rattle and hiss of the ‘big smoke’. Several years ago the friend moved into a remote wilderness area and he now lived in a simple cabin surrounded by wildlife and wildflowers. He had learned the intricacies of wilderness living including survival techniques for both the body and the mind. He learned how to make connections with others that could keep tabs on him even though they might live across a valley or over a mountain. He also learned how to refine his situational awareness so that everything he did was monitored and checked by an inner consciousness, cognizant that even simple mistake or lack of attention could mean an encounter with unfriendly beast or a crippling accident.
Today his friend needed a favour; a simple thing, pick up a package in town and forward it on the afternoon truck, no big deal. They exchanged pleasantries then said their goodbyes. The friend expressed his latest concerns about his favourite subject “peak oil”. Peak oil refers to the potential decline in worldwide production of oil due to finite reserves and the increasing cost of extraction from less accessible sources. The increase in the cost of everything related to the cost of oil is predicted by some to crash our economies and change our way of life forever.
He thought it was a curious subject for his friend to be concerned about given his near complete divorce from the web of civilization but then he realized that his friend cut the firewood that kept him warm in the winter with a gas powered chain saw; he hauled the trees out of the bush on his gas powered quad; he went to the local village to pick up his parcels and supplies in a gas powered truck; even his kerosene lamps and propane refrigerator required resources that would become impossibly expensive in a peak oil scenario. Really, once you start to take inventory of the day-to-day requirements of existence even in a remote wilderness setting, there is no escape from the chain that links back to the oil well. Pretty much everything that requires energy in the modern world owes its existence to oil from food production to transportation.
Jeff Rubin, the former Chief Economist at CIBC World Markets recently did a presentation at ideacity 2012 in Toronto. His words are a sobering portent of what’s to come if the peak oil predictions come to pass.
"…when the price of oil has increased as dramatically as it has over the last ten years going from $20 a barrel to into triple digit range you don’t just change the speed at which you drive your car, you change the speed at which your economy can grow. Just like people require food, economies require energy. …no matter how you move yourself or goods around the world …you’re basically burning one fuel and one fuel only and that fuel is oil.”
Just then a helicopter flew up the river and on the regional fire center frequency that he monitored on his scanner blared a communication with the chopper. Some words were exchanged about a fire location in the northwest and air traffic including a water bomber. He thought about what might happen with wildfires if the price of oil became prohibitively high. In Canada one in every seventeen Canadians is employed in the forest industry and millions of dollars are spent every year in protecting the trees. A peak oil situation would likely mean that most fires in northern Canada’s less populated regions would be allowed to burn much like they do in large tracts of Russia’s boreal forests.
Many people scoff at the prospect of the world running out of oil and there is no shortage of studies suggesting there are huge untapped reserves. This may very well be true but Rubin’s ideacity comments once again come to mind:
Every major global recession that we’ve seen in the last 40 years has oils fingerprints all over it … the difference between those recessions in the past and what we’re dealing with today is that in the past someone has closed off the spigot, today the supply of oil has not been restricted, it is flowing and right now the spigot is wide open and 90 million barrels a day are running through it but the difference is we can’t afford what is running through it … peak oil isn’t what you can drill, peak oil is about what you can afford …the worlds never going to run out of oil in the geological sense, the only problem is the kind of oil prices needed to extract that oil translates into oil prices that take millions of drivers off the road, worse than that it causes oil economies to keel over and die.”
He wondered if knocking down the oil economies and limiting growth would be such a bad thing in light of environmental devastation that was paralleling economic growth worldwide. Which of the evils was worse? Sustainability concerns are all tied up in a wrapper of continued growth of economies and world populations but the lobster like pincers of environmental destruction and population increase actuated by economic growth have us in their grip. Something has to give.
Rubin has also been quoted as saying that without growth there can be only one end to the European debt crisis: default. The consequence of default on this scale is well beyond the scope of this writer’s insight but needless to say will be a game-changer for our market economy.
The man watched the fly he had released as it walked along the window ledge, slowly becoming accustomed to its newfound freedom. Abruptly it took flight narrowly missing a spider’s web and disappeared into the morning sun.
Ron Young is a Renewable Energy professional operating the earthRight store in Williams Lake, BC selling and installing RE systems. A series of articles on the basics of off-the-grid solar can be found at his website: www.solareagle.com
Copyright Ron Young 2012