So what might happen when peak oil comes?

A commenter on my peak oil article said that she thought that peak oil might mean a “move sideways,” rather than a move back, to other types of fuels and alternative energy sources.

Such a move would take some time, and I don’t think it will be an easy transition for our culture, which is based in so many ways on cheap and easy access to oil. I think the immediate impact would be on driving and other forms of transportation that rely on cheap gas, as well as shipping of products. Where I live right now, you have to have a car to get anywhere, and alternative fuels are likely to be more expensive then gas is now. So I see a fundamental shift in how we think about getting to places and getting the things that we need shipped to us.

A longer term impact will be on products that require petroleum, such as plastics and fertilizers, but I feel we have time to develop alternatives (or learn to live without). Some industries may go away entirely, but I wouldn’t mourn the bottled-water industry if it failed, for instance.

I can’t help but think that peak oil may actually be a positive event in the long run, as it may help reshape the way we live in positive ways and address many of the problems of modern life. For example, the obesity epidemic is caused in part by how need and opportunity to move our bodies has decreased with the advent of the car, and in part by access to cheap, high-caloric, highly processed food made possible by cheap gasoline for shipping and processing. Isolation from the community has become a problem that we may solve ourselves once we become less mobile by necessity. Also, if we aren’t spewing fossil fuels into the air anymore, it can only positively impact the problem of climate change.

Not that it will be all rainbows and unicorns. But here are some other changes I think might be brought about as a result of peak oil.

Small-scale changes in the way we live:

  • The way we work would change as rush hour becomes cost-prohibitive, accelerating moves to nontraditional work schedules and telecommuting. You may no longer have to live near your job.
  • In the suburbs, neighborhood networks might arise for exchanging goods and services, such as childcare, home repair, tailoring, restaurants and small stores, perhaps ignoring zoning or other laws. Some suburban neighborhoods could effectively transform themselves into small towns.
  • If suburbs are not able to provide local access to necessities and public transportation, they may be abandoned, and people may move back into city and town centers.
  • There will be more people gardening and owning small livestock such as chickens and goats, as well as more community gardens, even in urban and suburban settings. Already here a roving goat service is available for yard cleanup. But it is naive to think that each family can supply its own food, so we may have to dedicate more land to farming and grow more food locally.
  • Pastimes such as recreational shopping and travel will likely decrease as transportation and product costs rise. We will turn more to entertainment that can be delivered digitally.

Larger-scale changes we may see in our culture:

  • Inflation will rise. We will probably have to pay more for everything except digital goods. Our days of cheap food will probably be over. As a result, we will buy less, which will impact the foundations of our consumerist economy. I don’t know what the economic or political ramifications might be, but I think this shift would be good for our species in the long run.
  • Some industries will be negatively impacted and may go away altogether. I think we would see a steep decline in air travel, tourism and some consumer goods (particularly unnecessary items) causing economic problems as some businesses fail.
  • An increased investment in public transportation will be required. Personal transportation may become a luxury item.
  • Trains may become important again, especially if they can be designed to run efficiently on alternative fuels.
  • Manufacturing, especially of necessary goods like clothing and electronics, may be re-localized if overseas shipping costs become prohibitive. Goods may cost more, but on the flip side, we should see some outsourced jobs return.
  • Manufacturing may also be scaled down to serve local markets. New technology may make it possible to run a factory out of your garage.

In the end, it comes down to how we react and where we place our priorities. Do we take a short-term or long-term view? Do we approach the problem with optimism or pessimism? It’s up to us to decide whether and how we adapt.

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3 thoughts on “So what might happen when peak oil comes?

  1. All About the Apocalypse « Books Worth Reading

  2. All About the Apocalypse « An Empty Earth

  3. Worth Reading: World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler | Books Worth Reading

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