I saw a documentary recently called A Crude Awakening, where a bunch of experts said what they thought about oil. Documentaries tend to have an agenda, so you’ve got to be cautious about what you take from them. In the 1970s, scientists worried over the coming of a new ice age; now it’s global warming. As for oil, the experts seem to think that it’s all going to be gone in the next twenty years.
I’m not going to get too attached to specific projections, but there are certain inescapable facts we can take away from a documentary like this. The main one is: it doesn’t matter when the oil’s going to run out, it is going to run out. Oil is a limited resource. It doesn’t matter how many new repositories we discover, there can only be so many. Whether we use it all up in twenty years or a hundred, one day it will be gone. And the human race will be in big trouble. And I can’t help but smile.
You see, I don’t like the way the world is. On a simple practical level, as a cyclist, I hate these lethally fast, carbon-monoxide spewing, four-wheeled metal monsters that I share road-space with. I can’t help but smile at the thought of oil prices rising and rising, as oil becomes less and less available, while our pay checks stay the same. Eventually, I think people will have to consider bicycles, as it will simply be too expensive to drive. Flying somewhere on holiday may become a luxury that only the elite can afford.
I’ve been a fan of the idea of the electric car, but this documentary gave me a new perspective on that. With electric, there’s no longer any need for petrol, so that solves the immediate oil crisis problem, but all we’ve done is transfer the demand for the needed energy to our home electricity supply. And where does that come from, in the majority of cases? Electricity power plants based on non-renewable fossil fuels: coal. The electric car is also almost as much a pollutant as the regular car. It’s just that the pollution is all spewed out at the power plants instead of distributed evenly across the country via the tailpipes of millions of cars.
Even nuclear power isn’t the answer to the oil crisis. I personally hate nuclear power because of the deadly waste product it generates and our need to store it somewhere safe on our very unsafe planet. But even if I could get my head around that objection, nuclear power depends on – surprise, surprise – a limited, non-renewable source: uranium. And when it’s gone, it’s gone forever. So, with nuclear power, all we’re doing is pushing “The End” forward another by another few years, and not very many years according to the documentary.
They say there’s no way to build enough wind turbines to serve entire countries, in keeping with the energy consumption that we’re used to. Solar panels are very expensive to buy, in comparison to the small amount of the energy they generate. The bottom line is, the oil is going to run out, and there is nothing to replace it with. The modern world is living in a state of addiction to a drug, and someday the dealer isn’t going to have any more product. When that happens, we’re all going to experience withdrawal symptoms. No more long-distance travel. No more import-export trade. No more plastics. The impact sounds monumental, but it will likely happen in stages. Everything will simply start to get more and more expensive, and we will lose our privileges by degrees.
But you know what? It’s absolutely fine by me. Funny, even. I have grown to care a great deal about the environment, and it’s heartwarming to know that man can’t keep doing what he’s doing to the world, in the name of expedience and big business, indefinitely. The means of his destructiveness will run out and the earth will recover. I would love to see the roof of my home decked out with a big solar array, and a wind turbine blowing in the garden, while I learn to live a simpler life (something I’ve already started doing in many ways). Mankind lived for thousands of years just fine before the invention of electricity. We’ll never have to go back to that, but we won’t be able to enjoy anywhere near the level or energy we’re used to. I can’t help but think that in several hundred years time, our children might be sitting in schools having history lessons about the horrors 20th and 21st centuries. And they will be shaking their heads in disbelief at the things we’ve done to the planet in our pursuit of wealth and affluence. “Yes, children. In some population centres there were so many motor vehicles causing so much pollution that entire cities became encased in a smog that was so dense you could photograph it. The smog made it more difficult to breathe and caused illness. But people thought this was normal life, and they refused to change.” And the children will gasp in disbelief. People don’t accept their personal responsibility for the planet’s welfare when they see themselves as one among billions. But when all those billions are spewing out pollution, we are indeed all collectively responsible. There’s a saying that I love: No snowflake in an avalanche ever felt responsible.
I understand the predicament people are in. Not everyone is free and single like me. Not everyone works within two miles of their home. Not everyone can say, like me, “Screw cars. I’m gonna ride a bicycle from now on.” Not everyone feels they can change. But the change is coming. And I think that’s great. You can cling to the present system tooth and nail, feeding your oil addiction while the government makes you poorer and poorer through rising prices, until finally you are broke and beaten; the oil is gone and your money is in the hands of the fat cats. Or you can look for ways to beat the system and turn it into personal empowerment.
Of course, the discovery of alternative energy isn’t something that I can completely write off, and it’s certainly something to hope for. The past hundred years have seen massive technological leaps, and I think we can expect more. It’s only fair to say that change of one kind or another is coming, and none of it looks bad to me. The sooner the better, for the sake of the health of the planet and ourselves. To quote a song by REM: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”