Global-warming predictions have long been tossed about by scientists, but until fairly recently, no one seemed to be listening. Now, "global warming" is the term of the day, and anyone who still doesn't believe in it, like the president of the United States, for instance, is considered by a newly moral majority to have the brain capacity of a newt. Once a term become readily accepted by society, the time arrives to delve past it and start making new ones. Enter "peak oil."
Coined by geophysicist M. King Hubbert in the 1950s, the term isn't so new as all that, but for those of us who do not travel among physicists, it is new enough to cause a little head scratching, as well as the usual accusations of Nostradamus-like extremism. The idea behind peak oil is logical enough. Any time you have a finite resource—meaning, it won't last forever—you will eventually reach a peak of production, at which point, there will be a decline. Sonoma County's Post Carbon Institute (PCI) not only believes in peak oil, it believes that the decline is happening now, it's happening fast, and that, if we fail to act now to get society off of this fossil-fuel addiction, this decline could be terminal.
I met with Post Carbon fellow and internationally renowned energy expert Richard Heinberg over coffee to discuss peak oil, the Post Carbon Institute and the PCI's upcoming launch of an inaugural lecture and community-networking event on Aug. 2. Heinberg and Julian Darley, cofounder of the PCI and author of High Noon for Natural Gas, plan to present on peak oil and local responses to high gas prices in a world that is running short of fossil fuels. Heinberg, a Santa Rosa resident, is the author of eight books, including Peak Everything, The Party's Over and Powerdown, has been featured in Leonardo DiCaprio's film The Eleventh Hour and has given over 300 hundred lectures on oil depletion across the globe.
Heinberg says that scientists have been forecasting this moment for decades, but now that it has arrived, society remains unprepared. What, he asks, are the consequences going to be if we do not respond accordingly? We have entered a new era, and no matter how much we may want to deny it, life is going to change. Our way of life is based on the extraction of nonrenewable resources, but the problem isn't only oil; it concerns fish and water and everything else that we use up at a rate so unprecedented that recuperation has long since become impossible.
Heinberg is careful to note that the depletion issue is different than the climate-change issue. Climate change is often framed as a moral problem, Heinberg says, something we must consider for the future generations. Depletion, however, is a matter of survival. There is no question, no debatable timetable. Eventually, the oil will be gone, and when it is, either we adapt or we go down.
The job of the PCI is to look at what this depletion means in regards to every aspect of our lives, from transportation to electricity to materials to food, and to then tackle each of these issues one by one. The answer, Heinberg cautions, is not just to figure out a way to make our "stuff" from something else. Yes, we need alternative sources, but we are starting too late. Our consumption is too big; we have to reduce our consumption, and no biodegradable disposable fork is going to change this fact.
Right about now is when your average listener decides to get up and leave the room. Too depressing. The PCI knows this, of course, and works furiously to frame this dilemma intelligently, and in such a way that we can begin to see the benefit of a shift in our current lifestyles. The PCI has a solar car share in place, a public service broadcasting website sending podcasts around the globe and demonstration farms set up across the country. They have created a 12-minute video, Peak Oil for Policy Makers, and actively seek to educate policy makers around the world, helping them, on the municipal level, to get off fossil fuels, and fast.
Richard Heinberg speaks on Saturday, Aug. 2, at the Sebastopol Veterans Memorial Hall at 7pm. A wine and appetizer reception precedes at 6pm. 282 High St., Sebastopol. $5&–$10; childcare available with RSVP. 707.823.8700. For more info, go to www.postcarbon.org.