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Small Change

Mad Max Meets American Gothic

Is there a friendlier option for the post-peak future?

by Bill McKibben

Published in the November/December 2005 issue of Orion magazine



Ice Box
Ice Box
Photograph by Dan Blagg/Kidder Smith Gallery, used with permission

CAN YOU FEEL THE MOOD SHIFTING? I can. A year of spiking speculation about peak oil and the death of suburbia has rattled lots of Americans. Plenty of people suddenly feel that real, civilization-shaking change might be around the next corner. And plenty of them also feel frozen in the headlights, unsure what, if anything, to do about it. Other than wait.

It reminds me a little of the very early days in the fight over global warming. Appalled at the forecasts of global destruction, some of us demanded immediate and strong action—high taxes on carbon emissions, for instance, and never mind the pain. Others—more moderate or more politically realistic—advocated a suite of what they called “no regrets” policies. They suggested, say, gradual rises in gas mileage, higher efficiency standards for appliances. Even if climate change proved to be overblown hooey, they pointed out, such rational and easy measures would still save us money, reduce conventional pollution, and so on. These steps were like taking out a modest amount of insurance; whatever happened we’d have no regrets about having adopted them.

In actual fact, of course, we took neither the urgent nor the more relaxed steps. Instead we bought Ford Explorers. Now everything that was frozen is melting and soon we will have . . . regrets.

Who knows if we’re actually going to see oil production peak sometime soon? Not me. I’ve read persuasive arguments that we will from writers like Michael Klare and James Howard Kunstler and Paul Roberts. I’ve also read confident counterarguments from people who’ve been right in the past, like Daniel Yergin of Cambridge Energy Research Associates. Oil depletion is not a straightforward physical law, like the fact that the molecular structure of carbon dioxide traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space. Instead it’s a detective story that turns on questions like, are the Saudis lying about how fast oil is being depleted in their giant field at Ghawar? My suspicion had always been that we’d run out of sinks before sources—that is, run out of atmosphere before oil wells—but it’s beginning to look like the race will be tight.

In any event, the real question is what to do in the face of uncertainty. In policy terms, the answer is easy, since cushioning the end of oil would require precisely the same steps as slowing down climate change: raising gas mileage, converting to hybrid cars, building trains, imposing carbon taxes, giving tax breaks for insulation.

But in personal terms? That’s how peak oil affects the imagination, after all. You can’t hear about it without starting to wonder, what’s my life going to be like? Authors have provided helpful guesses about which regions of the country to move to (New England good, suburban Atlanta bad) or what items to install on your homestead. The trouble with such advice, however, is that it’s altogether too personal, too private. If the nightmare of a globally warmed world is, say, a storm-raked, mosquito-ridden, sea-besieged city on a tropical shore, then the nightmare of a post-oil world is a lone family holed up on its new farm using its cache of firearms to guard its stockpile of food. You can imagine it coming to that—Mad Max meets American Gothic. It’s hard to underestimate the degree of rage that might accompany the end of the cheap-fuel culture in a country as entitled as ours. But the loner option is full of unhappiness, no matter what. At best it offers survival.

The no-regrets options are different, and seductive. They all involve communities learning to fend more powerfully for themselves—communities ratcheting down their dependence on the overstretched and oil-dependent lines of supply that mark a globalized economy, and ratcheting up the semiforgotten, close-to-home economies that might prove more stable in an energy-starved world. Some of this work is already underway, but it will be given a new urgency if the price of oil just keeps on leaping.

Consider, for instance, the fine small city of Burlington, in Vermont. It has its own in-town farming district, the Intervale—land that once served as the town dump and now has about five hundred acres of vegetables and berries and grains, selling mostly to people who appreciate freshness, who think organically, who want to support their neighbors. The Intervale already provides 8 percent of the fresh produce that the town’s residents consume, and 8 percent is not insignificant. But it still leaves 92 percent arriving by truck, boat, and plane from around the planet—apples from China, say, even though Burlington lies in the Champlain Valley, one of the planet’s finest apple-growing belts. In a cheap-fuel economy you can take advantage of cheap Chinese labor and sell Chinese apples for a cheap forty cents. Say that the price of oil rises to the point where that apple costs fifty cents, and sixty, and seventy—each increase should make it easier to extend the Intervale farms over a few hundred more acres. Oil at a hundred dollars a barrel means fewer bananas and more local apples and blueberries.

But that process needn’t wait until shortage requires it—until we’re scrambling. With a little lead time, we can put in place the no-regrets kinds of policies that make sense for a less spendthrift society. Consider, for instance, Burlington Bread. That’s the local currency that a few people developed in Burlington six or seven years ago—one of several thousand such currencies that have sprung up around the world. But like most of the American experiments, Burlington Bread has never broken out of the backrub and vegan-restaurant ghetto; it’s basically a medium of exchange between earnest masseuses. Now, though, locals led by University of Vermont economics professor Bob Costanza are trying to make something more of it. Costanza, one of the founders of ecological economics, has proposed having the city issue Bread. If they could use the currency to pay some municipal expenses, and in turn accept it for taxes and fees, then it would stand a chance of gaining a real foothold. In time, say Costanza’s colleagues, 20 percent of Burlington’s economy might use Bread instead of greenbacks—which, because it would give people money that only had value in the metro area, would automatically make local goods more competitive. Move that produce number from 8 percent to, say, 28 percent. Suddenly the town is a lot better situated for the post-oil world. And suddenly the town is not just a collection of unrelated individuals living in a vast planetary economy, but a real community in a real place filled with people who depend on one another in real ways.

Right now organizers are trying to persuade some of the city’s many vendors to accept Bread in payment for their services—that’s the test the city’s mayor, Peter Clavelle, will use to decide if the project goes ahead or not. “It’s a classic chicken-and-egg problem,” says Ed Antczak of the city’s Community and Economic Development Office. “The onus is on the local-currency people to prove over the next twelve months that there are vendors willing to take it from the city. It’s like, ‘Bring me the broomstick of the Witch of the West.’ Because otherwise it’s a little out there for the city to get involved.”

Out there, sure. But in a world where business as usual seems less and less likely, that may be the only place beyond regret.

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Bill McKibben lives without regrets in the Champlain Valley, which he describes in his book, Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America's Most Hopeful Landscape, Vermont's Champlain Valley and New York's Adirondacks.

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