The best and brightest hope

The struggle to find an alternative to petroleum points toward local economies and renewable energy.

Nathan Paulsen

Last week the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a study concluding that global oil production may peak and begin a rapid decline “within a few short years.” Although there are no quick technological fixes to oil depletion, a turn toward more localized economies – along with research and development of renewable energy – is our best and brightest hope of adapting to a petroleum deprived environment.

In the past century, procurement of daily necessities and luxuries in the United States has become dependent on our ability to transport huge volumes of goods across vast distances. Even a casual observer of the American way of life would be struck by the gigantic scale of our economic activities. We are found wearing shirts produced in Southeast Asia, drinking coffee from Colombia, eating bananas grown in Central America, playing with electronics made in Japan and driving cars straight off European assembly lines. No wonder that of the nearly 8 billion barrels of oil the United States consumed last year, more than two-thirds was used to fuel our transportation needs.

This insatiable appetite for petroleum has at once inflated the material affluence of the U. S. middle-class and become an Achilles’ heel that is leading our nation headlong toward its final demise. As demand for oil exceeds production, soaring energy costs will render the global economy’s transportation infrastructure useless and create the conditions for a widespread financial collapse that might well make the Great Depression look like a picnic by comparison. When this scenario begins to unfold – as it almost certainly will in the very near future – the need to conserve energy resources will be urgently felt.

Besides efforts to increase the fuel efficiency of mechanized transportation, the idea that whatever decisions and activities can be done locally should be done locally is bound to gain traction in the age of oil scarcity. This is known as the principle of subsidiarity – that is, attempts to satisfy local needs should begin with local production before moving on to more geographically expansive levels of regional, national and world scales.

The benefits of subsidiarity are manifold. When local communities produce what they consume and consume what they produce, they use less petroleum in the distribution of products. Local economies also tend to rely on small producers who use fewer energy inputs in the production process than their large-scale corporate counterparts. Beyond lowering costs by conserving energy, production and consumption close to home reduces carbon emissions and counters the looming threat of global warming. Additionally, strong local and regional economies can help ameliorate the economic fallout of declining oil production by providing residents with secure and meaningful jobs, adequate funding for social needs and democratic participation in workplace decisions.

Although there are a growing number of highly respected geologists, physicists and investment bankers who anticipate the worse in the wake of peak oil – including constant war, extremist politics and economic depression – there are other possible outcomes to the energy crisis. For instance, one can easily imagine residents throughout the country coming together in town hall meetings to discuss how we can reduce imports, adopt fair trade practices and meet more of our basic needs through local producers. Once gasoline prices hit $7 to $15 a gallon, people from all walks of life will line up to trade in their oil-based gadgets for bicycles and the latest solar and wind technologies. Nor is it difficult to envision citizens planting bountiful gardens in every available nook and cranny while city planners redesign urban areas in more ecologically sustainable ways.

Our task now is to soften the impending catastrophe by taking steps to support local economies. This means purchasing food directly from local organic farmers through farmers markets or Community Supported Agriculture and learning useful skills such as sewing and gardening. We can also shop at stores that stock goods from local producers and get involved in organizations like the Permaculture Collaborative, Land Stewardship Project, Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, North Country Co-op, Seward Café or any of the many other groups dedicated to strengthening local economy.

Together with a turn toward the local, there is a clear need to design and fund a crash program in renewable energy development. Simply put, renewable energy is energy that is constantly replenished by natural processes. Classic examples of renewable energy sources include direct sunlight, wind, water, biomass (plant matter) and the heat of the earth. These sources of energy – if efficiently harvested – are abundant, cheap and clean. There is a catch however: The only hope we have of renewable energy ever accounting for more than a small fraction of the U. S. energy use – which it must if our nation has any chance of surviving into the foreseeable future – is to invest literally trillions of dollars into the development of renewable technologies and infrastructure.

The problem of how to make such a massive energy project reality in a country whose political process has been hijacked by the wealth of the oil industry is the focus of my last column in this series.

Nathan Paulsen welcomes comments at [email protected]