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Indirect Impacts of Peak Oil and Climate Change

January 2007

Fossil Fuels at Peak

Indirect Impacts of Peak Oil and Climate Change

by John Rawlins

John Rawlins has a B.S. in physics and a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. He retired in 1995 from the Westinghouse Hanford Co. at the Hanford site in Eastern Washington. Currently, he teaches physics and astronomy at Whatcom Community College.

Part 4

Decline of Suburbs

Because everything in today’s industrial societies depends directly or indirectly on fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal), the impacts of peak oil extend to all aspects of today’s way of life in all advanced societies. This discussion will focus on the U.S. and some of the other impacts to be expected in a post-carbon world. My way of thinking about the coming changes is to imagine the world of 2050, when only about 10 percent of today’s supply of oil (and even less natural gas) is available to a fortunate few — and then try to guess the process of getting from here to there in a large number of 5 percent decrements.

The U.S., with its relatively suburbanized living arrangements for about half the population, is likely more sensitive to future transport restrictions than other industrialized nations. James Howard Kunstler has written extensively on the likely future of suburbanites whose daily commute will become increasingly onerous with ever-increasing fuel prices and ever-decreasing fuel availability. In short, he predicts terminal decline in the value of suburban homes not amenable to walking, biking or mass transit commuting options.

Such suburbs will become dysfunctional slums of the future unless they manage to totally reinvent themselves to become walkable, self-sufficient communities. This possibility raises the obvious specter of massive disappearance of wealth in the U.S. middle class, and that in turn will exacerbate the difficulty of making a transition to the post-carbon life — particularly in those remote suburbs that most need to change.

Transition to Economic Decline

Most writers on the subject of peak oil argue that the overall economy will deteriorate to the point that continuing to use the national currency will no longer make sense. The recommendation for dealing with that situation is typically development of some alternative, local currency that facilitates trading of goods and services at the local level. Many cities and towns already have some kind of local currency in operation in a kind of underground mode, and the large-scale viability of such enterprises is far from clear to me.

Some of the well-known factors that will likely also contribute to U.S. economic deterioration include the federal debt, institutional and individual debt, the potential of loss of the special petro-dollar status of the U.S. dollar (as oil starts being sold using other currencies), and our negative balance of trade (which will increase as oil prices increase). If, in addition, we continue to experience increasing economic losses because of extreme storm and fire events correlated with a warming climate, then I begin to get the sense of a “perfect economic storm” within the next decade or so.

A potential bright spot could be in the computer/electronic sector. As people struggle to adapt to an inflationary, failing economy, computers connected to the Internet may be valuable tools for re-education in ideas for coping with the inevitable downturn. Electronic control devices for regulating home heating, for example, could pay huge dividends — especially for those dependent on natural gas for heat or on electricity produced by natural gas.

Solar photovoltaic systems and high-tech windmills for electricity production are another area of current growth — and their future right now looks quite bright. Advanced more efficient lighting systems, including outdoor lighting that illuminates only the ground instead of the sky, also have the potential of reducing electrical costs. Buildings designed to take advantage of passive and active solar systems of all kinds are also a growth sector with a promising future.

Local Production of Everything

As we contemplate a future 50 years from now, it is almost certain that living arrangements then will accentuate local production of almost everything still in use, except for luxury items for the relatively wealthy (tea, coffee, chocolate). This means clothing, all kinds of medical treatment, tools and waste disposal, for example, will be strictly local in extent. We will have to grow fiber (both plant and animal) for clothing; we will have to convert that fiber to thread and yarn, and we will have to make the clothing locally. We will have to find the metal for tools (from local dump sites?), fashion the metal into shapes and assemble tools locally.

Instead of hauling our landfill waste to eastern Oregon, we will have to reuse, recycle and dispose of it locally. The obvious incentive will be to strive for zero waste and choose products on the basis that any end product is a feed product for another use instead of waste. Chemical engineering enterprises have already begun (barely) to adopt this zero-waste culture to overcome resistance from locals to having their environment littered with dangerous chemical products.

In our daily routines, we will give up on non-biodegradable plastic packaging not only because it will be less available, but also because there will be nowhere to dispose of it properly. Instead of sending human solid waste into an energy-intensive sewer system, we will (again) have incentives to develop and use composting toilets associated with all buildings. Properly composted human waste is suitable for fertilizing tree and perennial bush crops, as we currently use composted animal waste for vegetable gardens.

Decentralization of Services Like Health Care

I have only seen a small amount of discussion of potential effects on health care. One highly likely impact will be less availability, and of course higher costs, of medicines produced in the petro-chemical business. This in turn may lead to a return to healthier lifestyles to delay or avoid the need for expensive medications.

For example, one of the simplest steps one can take on the road to sustainability is to stop eating farmed meat, which requires 10 times the energy input of edible plant matter. Not eating meat products results in reduced cholesterol levels, lower food costs (especially when food subsidies disappear), less intake of worrisome chemicals (fed to animals), and consequently less incidence of heart attacks, strokes and maybe even cancer — and therefore less need for petro-chemically produced medications.

Medical care is a good example of a community service that we now take for granted, and as with most services it has become highly centralized. As transport fuel becomes less and less available, we might have to return to a system in which doctors or nurse practitioners travel to patients instead of the opposite. This will mean a need for far more health care professionals per person than we now have, and a more even distribution of them around the county. If we retain the centralized system for specialty health care services, we will also have to reserve transport fuel on a priority basis for emergency vehicles.

Changes in Water Management

Water management in a post-carbon world merits special consideration. The post-carbon world will also be a period of time during which we will be experiencing consequences of advanced climate change. The water-related effects of climate change will certainly be (and already are) highly regional in nature. In Whatcom County (and other locations on the west side of the Cascades), the outlook is for higher precipitation amounts but lower snowfall in the mountains and disappearance of mountain glaciers.

Our late summer water supply in most places depends on glacial runoff, so we do expect a need to change water management to cope with that expectation. In particular, we will have to include more water catchments at all levels to get through dry periods. Drinking water reservoirs will be highly desirable where they don’t exist now. Home water catching systems (impermeable surface runoff stored in cisterns, with appropriate on-site natural water filtration and treatment) will likely become popular, especially in more remote areas.

Since city water requires energy-intensive treatment, we will likely experience increased regulation of all activities impacting natural water supplies such as Lake Whatcom. It will be infinitely cheaper to avoid contaminating water supplies than to clean them up to drinking water standards. Finally, use of graywater for watering food crops will likely become routine.

The long-term water outlook for some parts of the U.S. is so grim that entire cities will likely disappear from the national scene. Regions that depend on fossil water (a.k.a. underground aquifers with low recharge rates) will generally be in serious to terminal trouble in 50 years, and climate change in many of those regions will make living there next to impossible.

Lester Brown, in his book “Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble,” has an extensive discussion of regions in the U.S. to avoid moving to at this point in time because of near-term water problems. Some of these locations may have ideal conditions for solar or wind production of electricity, so small groups of people assigned to managing those types of plants could be all that remain in a place like Las Vegas.

Changes in Forest Management

Another regional concern will be forest management — both natural and intensively managed forests. As climate change unfolds, it’s highly likely that at least some (possibly most) trees in a given region will be unable to adapt sufficiently. This scenario is already playing out in British Columbia and Alaska, where pine beetles (no longer killed off in hard winters) are devastating pine trees. Trees in Alaska that are growing on permafrost are at risk of literally falling over as the permafrost melts.

As climate zones move north in our hemisphere, even fruit trees will be affected. How will we replant these impacted tree species, and with what species will we replant? Foresters and permaculture practitioners must become familiar with the best regional climate change predictions to know how to recognize problems and how to deal with tree loss — and the replanting effort is sure to require a large input of human labor. And replant we must, for Earth without trees is no place for humans.

Decentralization and Content Change in Education

Education now focuses on teaching young people about a wide variety of topics so they can work in a wide variety of jobs in a complex, globalized world economic system. In a far simpler, localized, collapsed world, education will likely be more focused on producing adults who can do things that will be useful in that world. The sciences will probably focus on providing background for growing food, managing water, managing waste and all the other topics previously mentioned in this article. Reading, writing and math will continue to be important skills.

The importance of population control will be obvious to all by then, regardless of ideological orientation. High-cost, low-value-added endeavors such as organized sports may be replaced with training in self-defense skills for everyone, not just natural athletes. Since all entertainment will be localized, the arts may come to be viewed as essential skills for everyone — as important as reading, writing and math. Hopefully, history will focus on lessons learned from futile military conflicts of the past that rarely solved any problems and were a huge drain on resources — also known as follies.

School systems have tended toward centralized facilities, even at K-12 levels. It seems likely that smaller, more numerous schools will be desirable in an energy-deprived world, so that students can walk or bicycle to school routinely. Universities represent the extreme in centralization, and we can expect a reversal of that trend. In Cuba, the loss of half their oil supply with the collapse of the former Soviet Union resulted in replacing a couple of big universities with dozens of much smaller branches scattered around the various population centers.

Computer technology and Internet access will become a far more valuable tool for educators — as necessary as buses are now. Recent advances in online education will pay off big-time in that future. Community members in all professions will likely play a far more prominent role in education through tutoring and internship programs.

Fabrication and Training of Everything Else

I also wonder about availability of a host of other things now taken for granted: bicycles and spare parts, musical instruments, sheet music, books, computers, batteries for all kinds of electrical functions, eyeglasses, hearing aids, light bulbs, furniture, toilet paper, electrical wiring, garden tools, fencing, and on and on and on … . Who will make those things locally when it’s too expensive to ship them from China, or even from Oregon? Do we have time to train people to make them? Who will train them?

This process of re-localization becomes more mind-boggling the longer I contemplate it. I feel very lucky to have lived most of my life on the upslope of the oil production curve, and I am not looking forward to the downturn. §

For references, see preceding articles in this series.

Next article in the series:
Resource Wars, Famine and Water Shortages

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