My hot water heater recently sprang a leak. So I dumped it. Inconvenient, but not a big deal -- quickly replaceable, at least these days. But the incident did stimulate me to reflect on temporary, annoying, but currently fixable discomforts. But what will happen when breakdowns are not so temporary or so quickly or inexpensively repairable or replaceable? What will happen when the impacts of declining petroleum supplies grow numerous and persistent?
My computer sometimes crashes. What a drag. I’ve become dependent upon that vulnerable machine. After a few hours or days without that apparently crucial industrial tool I begin to go crazy. Typewriters now seem so ancient, time consuming, and inadequate. “You’ve Got Mail” can be addictive. I enjoy the hot baths, relaxation, clean feeling, and hydrotherapy that water heaters provide. But live computers have become even more essential to me and my lifestyle than the daily baths that I learned to love so much from my former mate, who is Japanese.
I recall times when my car would not start. How frustrating. I wonder if the car sought revenge for the many nasty things I’ve said over the years about automobiles -- while continuing to use them. Luckily, nearby friends got me to repair shops in their still-running cars for a new battery, other parts, or a relatively quick fix. But what if the parts or people to repair my car were not there, busy for weeks, or so expensive that I could not afford them?
Some good friends recently moved from their well-wired house closer to the place where they are building their home in the forest in Hawai’i. They temporarily had no phone. So I could not easily reach them; I had to drive, bike, or walk four miles further up the volcano under which we live. Our friendship was disrupted, though we will recover. It is hard to imagine being without a phone, even for a day. Think about it.
Incidentally, we had another tsunami warning as I write this, after an eight point something earthquake on the Pacific island of Tonga. We live on an edge here in Hawai’i (the most isolated occupied island chain in the world) that provides a sometimes wild and primitive context that may become more familiar to people living on continents, as the continued and growing burning of fossil fuels worsens our climate globally. Peak Oil impacts are likely to hit Hawai’i earlier and stronger than the continent.
Storms, hurricanes, and tornadoes have shut down electricity in California, Hawai’i, the Northeast and the Midwest, where I have lived for most of my over 60 years. After a few hours or days the electricity has always returned, with its multiple gifts and conveniences. But what if it did not come back for weeks, months, years, or ever?
How long can you go without -- fill in the blank? Ever have a refrigerator go out? How long would your food supply last? Do you still have an old ice box around? Could you even get ice to put into it?
Multiple disruptions will occur more frequently with the gradual unfolding of Peak Oil -- the mid-point of our decreasing petroleum supply, as the world-wide demand climbs, especially in industrializing countries like China and India. Fixes will become increasingly more expensive and trusted fix-it skills or people even more valuable.
What will happen when there is no quick fix for a broken-down water heater, computer, car, or whatever? Perhaps the fix-it guy is busy fixing someone else’s whatever. Or there is no available replacement, or you could not afford it. What to expect? And how to prepare?
Much of Peak Oil writing has been theoretical -- by geologists, scientists and other oil analysts who have helped us understand the deeper problem. They make dire predictions with heavy words, such as “disaster,” “catastrophe,” and “collapse.” This essay does not use such words, but seeks to describe potential disruptions, nuisances, and irritants. The increase of such discomforts will be yet another sign that we are on the down side of the Peak Oil slope. Those of us who are convinced of the validity of the Peak Oil theory now need to move more into considering some possible nitty-gritty problems and potential practical solutions.
What I seek to do in this article is provide some perspective from my island-dwelling and plant seeds regarding potential problems. Perhaps readers may want to consider their own circumstances. As Ken Higgins of Sebastopol, a small town in Sonoma County, Northern California, recently wrote in an email, “While driving around the county or walking downtown I constantly have visions of ‘what will change when energy is sporadic and expensive.’ It’s rather sobering.”
Speaking of emails, an e-mail addict friend recently joined E-mails Anonymous. He realized that he had lost control of this habit, which was dominating him as if it were alcohol; many others are controlled by e-mail. Unable to give up his addiction permanently, my friend committed himself to not using email for a year. But he did not join Internet Anonymous, so he still surfs the web. Can you imagine life without the web or e-mail?
When it takes letters a week to get from the continent to reach me Hawai’i, I get worried. There is no home delivery to my place or to much of the rural parts of the Big Island. The road where I live is unpaved and there is no number on my house, which is OK. Slower mail service is a likely consequence of Peak Oil. As gasoline prices soon rise to $4, $5 and more a gallon, stamp prices will rise and delivery will take longer -- weeks, maybe even months to some remote places.
21st Century American society relies on complex, interlocking mechanical and electronic systems. This includes transportation that gets food and other essentials and non-essentials from one place to other places hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
These complex industrial systems often clash with natural systems that pre-date them, and hopefully will outlast them. Greenhouse gases already cause climate changes that damage the Earth. If we continue our extensive burning of fossil fuels, we will create even worse threats to industrial societies and the planet itself. Peak Oil directly impacts complex human-made systems; it will slow things down and eventually stop some of them. Though uncomfortable for many people, this process may not be all bad for the Earth itself. Having less oil to burn may in fact improve the Earth’s climate, unless it is replaced with more polluting fuels, such as coal.
Americans already complain, big time, about what they experience as high gasoline prices. Compared to what gas costs elsewhere and will soon cost here, those prices are not actually so high. Europe’s gas prices have been double ours for years. People manage there. But then, they are not as dependent upon cars and do not live in suburbs as much as we do. Many nations are also more used to disasters and wars, often supported by or even caused by America to insure its continued domination of natural resources, including petroleum.
America’s response to Sept. 11, for example, was not as flexible or effective as the responses by people in Bali and elsewhere to similar such crises. Americans feel that we are entitled to Cheap Oil and its multiple “benefits” -- fast industrial agriculture, immediate electricity, the freedom of single occupant vehicles, petroleum-based medicines, clothes, etc.
When Americans turn on the faucet, they expect water to flow, often not even knowing where it comes from. My home in Hawai’i is on catchments, so my water comes directly from the sky to my roof to my water tank and then into the house. When my water heater went out, my hot water supply failed for a while. When I went to wash my face in soothing warm water, all I got was that terrible sucking sound.
On the other hand, there were unintended positive consequences to my water heater loss. I had to take baths elsewhere, ask for help, share resources, which built community -- all valuable post-carbon skills. I eventually hired a knowledgeable friend to fix the problem. We even had fun going to the dump, hanging out, and just being together getting business done. Loss is not without merit; it can create and enhance friendships.
With a flick of a switch, Americans expect the darkness to suddenly give way to the miracle of immediate light, even at night. Candle making is likely to once again become lucrative work. Fire making may return as a necessary domestic art to master.
What will happen when a large American city of many millions of people gets thrown outside its comfort zones? In an e-mail to Puna Beyond Petro, Stephanie Bath of Hawaiian Acres, wrote, “Some folks just don't want to shift out of their comfort zones. They want instant solutions provided for them.”
Some people will pull together to help each other, especially in smaller cities and in neighborhoods where people know and care for each other. This will reveal our better selves. That is what I remember from blizzards in the Northeast. They can even be fun, a needed disruption in daily routines, which can help build community. But what happens when there is competition for limited food and other essential resources, like toilet paper or chocolate?
Things can get ugly, especially when the market shelves lack food. The shelves are already sometimes sparse in Hawai’i. 90% of our food arrives by ships from over 2500 miles away. Shortages are already fairly common. People regularly stock up on essentials. But such shortages have always been short-lived. If the ships don’t arrive for a week, we will be out of imported food.
James Howard Kunstler describes our historical moment in his helpful book The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century. Lets step back into the previous century. I was born before the middle of the 20th century. Our family farm in Iowa was on a unpaved road (still unpaved) that didn’t have a name; our house did not have a number; and our mail delivery was on Rural Route 2. Even the highways did not have speed limits, so my Uncle Dale used to drive us over 100 miles an hour in his ’62 Chevy. Great fun for a teenager. Yeah!
Most readers probably were not born before electricity reached their homes. We did not have electricity on our family farm during the early years of my life. Rural electrification finally arrived. We didn’t have television until I was a teenager. Life without TV really wasn’t so bad. For entertainment we watched barnyard animals during the days; I especially enjoyed the playful piglets and chickens, who provided eggs for our rotten egg fights. At night we had gaslights and Uncle Dale told stories that incubated our dreams with animals, plants, and fantasy. “Once upon a time, a long, long time ago…” are words that still trigger relaxation and comfort for me.
Some places in the world still lack electricity, phones and computers. But they have their oral traditions and stories. Modern conveniences can make our lives appear easier, but they also create vulnerabilities that are not yet so evident to most people. We are now experiencing some of the downsides of the over-use of fossil fuels and the climate change consequences. We may soon be forced to give up some of our planet-damaging luxuries.
But now I have come to expect the comforts of electricity -- refrigerators rather than ice boxes, computers and phone machines for communication rather than party-line telephones, etc. It’s the loss that would be hard. I will miss the many modern conveniences and the ease at getting most of them repaired. But having already lived without electricity for years, it may not be as hard for me as some post-digital people.
“How we are accustomed to our comforts!” noted Ann Weller of Willits Economic Relocalization (WELL) in Northern California. “I returned recently from India, where the cold water bucket and small dipper method is used to bathe. It is simple, invigorating, and can be done outside even. But I find I am not doing it here -- since I have a shower!”
I am preparing myself for experiencing losses, partly by appreciating all the wonderful things that Cheap Energy has brought us. I also work to do what Richard Heinberg describes in his book Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World. We can do things to mitigate pending problems.
As an apparently Arab quotation goes, indicating an awareness of oil's finite supply and imminent shortages: "My grandfather rode a camel. I drive a car. My son travels in jet airplanes. His son will ride a camel."
Nothing lasts forever. Everything that lives eventually dies. Even inanimate objects and inorganic matter can finally dissolve or evolve into something else. The lava stones on which my house in Hawai’i is built will eventually become soil. We need long-term views to help understand what is happening here at the beginning of the 21st century. But we may not have much time. We need to inform people about what may happen, how to prepare and adapt, and work for social change.
Dr. Shepherd Bliss has been a college teacher and journalist in Hawai’i for the last three years. He is currently moving back to his farm in Northern California, mainly to prepare for Peak Oil among his long-time friends. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Articles by Shepherd Bliss