Your browser does not support modern web standards implemented on our site
Therefore the page you accessed might not appear as it should.
See for more information.

Whatcom Watch Bird Logo

Past Issues

Whatcom Watch Online
How the County Can Prepare for Energy Descent
  - Part 9

June 2007

Fossil Fuels at Peak

How the County Can Prepare for Energy Descent
  - Part 9

by 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.

Encourage local government planning, but don’t count on success. Awareness of impending energy problems and likely impacts will not make you the life of a party should you try to discuss them with friends and acquaintances. Most people in our society simply don’t want to hear about concepts that threaten their way of life and have the potential to make them feel guilty.

It is nevertheless important for citizen activists aware of peak oil and natural gas to urge their governing bodies to develop a plan such as the Portland one, titled “Descending the Oil Peak: Navigating the Transition from Oil and Natural Gas.”

Our lives will be far richer in the future if our local towns and counties succeed in “re-localizing” and we can find the things we need from local producers using locally produced material — like clothing (natural fiber), shoes (leather), hand tools (metal, wood) and bicycle parts (machined metal).

However, there is no guarantee that our governing representatives will want to hear or respond to our concerns — they are, after all, normal people. Furthermore, there is even less of a guarantee that Portland (or anywhere else) will succeed in executing their plan for any of a number of reasons.

Our response time is short, wealth destruction may be too rapid to do what we need to do, other economic interests may dominate the local politics, another Middle East geo-political blowup could lead to reduction of oil supplies overnight, an abrupt change in regional and/or world climate could occur (ironically partly because of our oil habit), or fill in your own favorite reason for failure.

In conclusion, the only behavior we can be sure of is our own, and it behooves all of us to look strategically at our individual situations, do a mental inventory of our needs, perform what companies would call a risk assessment of our overall situation, and make appropriate changes in our lives.

For example, if my highest need is chocolate, and I recognize that cacao beans only grow within 10 degrees latitude from the equator and that oil decline will prevent those beans from finding their way north to be made into chocolate, I’d better start looking for a place to live in a chocolate growing region and learning a foreign language (situation change). Or it might turn out that giving up chocolate (behavior change) is far cheaper, easier and safer in the long run.

Risk Management Exercise

In my last life working for Westinghouse Hanford Company, I organized and managed a small group of physicists who specialized in computer simulations of migration of radioactive elements in Hanford’s soil column. The group turned out to be of high strategic value to the company, and had virtual veto power over various proposals for treatment and disposal of nuclear wastes on site. This is a form of technical risk assessment very familiar to anyone in the business of waste disposal, whether or not it is nuclear.

I see our approaching dilemma as one demanding immediate personal risk assessment (the first part of the Portland report) and including brainstorming ways to mitigate the various risks (the rest of the Portland report).

Our needs list is relatively short:

•Safe, nutritious food and water

•Shelter with adequate temperature control


•Stimulation from the arts

•Human interactions, especially family

•Exercise to stay fit enough to enjoy life and prevent medical problems

•Adequate health monitoring and medical treatment

•For the first three items on the list, we compete with 6.5 billion other humans, or around 200,000 locally. Our challenge is to continue to meet all these needs with an ever-decreasing amount of energy. We can expect energy descent to last several centuries, with by far the largest decrease occurring during this century.

Along the way, our past, present and future consumption of fossil fuels may cause abrupt surprises, but at least we can expect a long-term warming from our changing climate. We have no record of thresholds for abrupt climate change in our relatively warm (and getting warmer) global climate, so we are literally doing a global climate experiment with at best hazy concepts of what kinds of surprises to expect in the future.

The overall challenge for this century alone may actually be beyond comprehension. Multiple bow waves of our own making have increased to near the breaking point, and we may not be able to outrun all of them. However, is there any choice but to try? So why not stick around as long as possible, experiment with doing things sustainably, and enjoy watching, participating and trying to understand the unfolding of the future during the historic coming period of adaptation by humans?

As indicated in previous articles in this series, the outcome of a person’s risk assessment and mitigation plan will vary even within this region, but certainly will vary hugely between regions and even more hugely from state to state and country to country. So one economic challenge for the future will be a continual, relatively rapid shifting of inter-regional and even intra-regional interdependencies.

Thus, trade practices we now take for granted are likely to change, and increased competition for scarce energy resources like oil could exacerbate the rate of such changes. This fluid future outlook complicates personal mitigation planning considerably. For example, suppose large numbers of people begin ordering electric cars made in China, and suddenly the U.S. finds itself in a military contest with China?

Aside from personally agitating for government to engage in organized risk assessment and mitigation, there are many, many actions to take at the personal level. One article cannot possibly cover all of these, so please consider the following my personal short list. Your own adaptations will depend on your own circumstances.

Things You Can Do

First and foremost, stay informed by reading news about energy, innovative agriculture, sustainable living advances, and geopolitics — at the global as well as regional level. You can do most or all of this reading with online resources. My personal online favorites are:

• for all kinds of global news related to energy use,

• for local environmental information,

• mostly analysis by oil experts about oil and natural gas,

• for reliable technical information about climate change.

The latter two references are blog sites, and the original posts at both sites are from known, respected experts in the fields of oil and global climate change, respectively. Some of the responses to original articles at both sites are good, some are meaningless and some are silly. The people in charge of both sites are ruthless in their verbal treatment of off-topic or silly responses, so it’s generally easy to spot a response not worth taking seriously.

Climate Change Contrarians’ Rant

Ever since the movie “An Inconvenient Truth” featuring Al Gore explaining the potential future pitfalls from global climate change, there has been a spate of climate change denialism (not a new pseudo-science, by the way, it’s been alive and well-financed for 20 years) at local and national levels.

Since almost everything these people say contradicts the rather conservative consensus position documented in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports issued every five to seven years, I don’t even take them seriously any longer. The IPCC includes more than a thousand climate science specialists in almost 100 countries.

Whatever you do, don’t mention the actual name of a denialist — that only encourages them and allows them to attract funding from, for example, ExxonMobil, via any of a number of “think tanks.” Denial has taken various forms over the past two decades, including (but certainly not limited to) the following:

•there is no warming, it’s just natural variation

•there is a bit of warming, but it’s no big deal because the Earth has been warmer in the past and everything was fine

•warming will be good for us because plants will grow faster

•there is warming, but humans are not causing it and it will go away.

The IPCC has debunked all these claims, and the RealClimate blog site scientists continue to deal with a never-ending number of such follies. One further note — the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the IPCC conclusions and concurred. The science is overwhelming that humans are the cause of the climate change we are now experiencing through burning of fossil fuels as well as other human-induced causes (methane, for example, from livestock).

Here is an excellent investigative report on some of these denialists and their tacky tactics (sorry):

Incidentally, the Al Gore movie won high praise for “getting it right” from reviewers at RealClimate (

Bottom line — compost all those denialist articles and claims along with your human waste, fertilize your permaculture crops with it and turn it into something useful.

Back to Staying Informed

Read the news online, instead of collecting and recycling all the paper involved in not just the “news” but also the ads (which seem to outweigh the “news”). We have evolved from subscribing to the local paper and occasionally taking home The New York Times, to reading real news at a variety of non-MSM (Mainstream Media) news sources on the Web.

We get to read articles by reporters who actually do investigation and reporting, and we are not subjected to the slant in emphasis from corporate owners of the MSM (

Eat Locally, Grow Sustainably

Second, start making new arrangements for the food you will be eating. High on the list of changes we’ve made is to buy locally grown food — organic if possible — preferably grown on small farms. Small, organic growers use minimal oil/natural gas inputs, use no artificial chemicals in the form of fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides, and they try to manage their soils to assure high levels of nutrients that plants and humans need.

There is a steadily growing list of places around Whatcom County to purchase such food. One of the more innovative recent developments is the fostering of CSAs, Community Supported Agriculture farms. The 2007 Whatcom Farm Map and Guide lists 64 farms of different kinds, including 13 CSAs:

To purchase from a CSA, you agree to pay a fixed price per person for a share in the season’s production of food, which you can pick up weekly at the farm or in Bellingham. Some have an option for work on the farm in return for a lower yearly fee — a wonderful learning opportunity for anyone wanting to do their own growing in the future.

If possible, invest in whatever it takes to begin growing your own food in a sustainable manner. This may require major soil amendments to provide a healthy, sustainable soil for the long term, and that process could take a few years. I’ve gotten most of my initial ideas from reading the Energy Bulletin, which includes articles on agriculture.

Permaculture and Bio-Intensive Gardening

The two sustainable methods described in earlier articles in this series are permaculture and bio-intensive gardening. Permaculture emphasizes perennial fruit and nut trees, berry bushes and vegetables. Bio-intensive gardening focuses on high-density annual planting of vegetables and has a lot of promise especially in towns and cities where growers have limited space.

We’re experimenting with both these techniques and may be in a position to report on lessons learned in a few years. It really helps if you have more to work with besides yourself and a book or two — explore your neighborhood for other growers to exchange ideas and seeds with. We’re lucky to have a neighbor who is amenable to sharing growing knowledge (which he has a lot of), supplies and books (thank you, Peter).

Finally, remember that growing your year’s supply of food during a six-month growing season will require you to learn about all kinds of food preservation as well.

Any sustainable form of growing food will, by definition, include waste composting and recycle of that waste to the garden (this replaces nutrients removed from the garden). Strive for zero waste production by segregation of wastes, composting all food and human waste, recycling anything that can be recycled, and use any waste you can for projects around the home. Above all, limit the stuff you let onto your property.

For shopping, purchase cloth bags to carry your stuff in, and make sure you use them by keeping some in your transportation vehicle. At the grocery store, purchase bulk food items without containers or wrapping to the extent possible. If you do use plastic bags, reuse them as many times as possible, then recycle them in the grocery store.

Every year about this time, we get several e-mail messages exhorting us not to purchase gas on a certain day, in protest against high gasoline prices. This year it was May 15. This idea is so silly it’s not even wrong! If you want to make a difference, stop driving! If we all did that just one day a week, that would reduce gasoline consumption about 20 percent for the automobile/small truck sector, and that would have a modest effect on near-term gasoline prices.

If we all stopped driving all the time, we wouldn’t even care what the gasoline prices are. Most of us live within a mile of mass transit, which is pretty good throughout the county. Walk or use your bicycle to get to the transit stop, then either lock the bike up there with a heavy duty lock, or put it on the bus if there’s space on the bike carrier rack.

If you intend to use the bike/bus option, remember to think in terms of contingency plans — where I live, there is about a 20 percent risk that the bus bike rack will be full before it arrives at my stop. §

Next Month:

Electric Vehicles, Heating Bills, Education and Organic Farms

Back to Top of Story