Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Life Without Oil

Is the world running out of oil?

Everyone knows that oil is a finite resource. But more and more people are embracing the concept of "peak oil," a theory positing that we may have or will soon have reached a point when half of all the planet's supply of oil has been used. That's a startling thought to contemplate, considering it took Planet Earth hundreds of millions of years to create the oil, and it took mankind only 150 years or so to use up half of it.

Even scarier, though, is that the "easy" oil has mostly been used up, never to be replaced. From here on out, extracting fossil fuels will just get harder and harder. Recently a barrel of oil topped $80 for the first time. Author James Kunstler believes we are on the cusp of a "long emergency," when the huge infrastructure and suburban lifestyle we've built around easy oil will begin to crumble.

The implications for food are huge. More oil is spent on food than in any other sector, from the natural gas used to make artificial fertilizers, to the diesel consumed planting and harvesting crops and trucking food to market. The United States in just the last generation has gone from an exporter of oil to the world's biggest importer. We are a nation of oil guzzlers. You might even say that the food on our plate is just fossil fuel transformed into something more edible.

So what would happen if we ran out?

For the answer to that question, you need look no further than the neighbor we most love to hate, Cuba. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1980s, Cuba lost its primary patron and benefactor. Almost overnight, supplies of fuel and food disappeared. Up to that point, Cuba had been even more dependent than the U.S. on artificial fertilizers for its agriculture. What ensued was a time Cubans now refer to euphamistically as "the special period," a time of hunger and privation.

In the ensuing years, the average Cuban lost 20 pounds. Malnutrition swept the country. Without oil, Cubans had to give up their cars and learn to ride bicycles. Getting to and from work often meant waiting hours for rare buses. Long power blackouts became common. Most importantly, the entire country had to band together and learn how to feed itself, meaning growing its own food without oil.

Last night I was in Greenbelt, MD, to view The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, a documentary about Cuba's struggle to become self-sufficient. Greenbelt, a town secreted just outside Washington's famous Beltway, is one of the original eco-villages, designed to preserve a corridor of greenery amidst the suburban sprawl. From the New Deal Cafe, where the film was being show, what you see mostly is parking lots filled with huge America vehicles. Still, the co-op cafe (which recently voted not to declare bankruptcy) was filled to overflowing with middle-aged hippy types eating bowls of vegetarian chili and eager to find out how Cubans persevered through their own oil collapse.

What Cuba represents is a kind of experiment that the rest of the world can look to, perhaps even a view into the future of a world where the oil wells have run dry. Cubans rediscovered natural farming methods, bringing fertility to the soil with compost, recycling everything and composting with worms. Ox-drawn plows made a big comeback. Just about every green space in the country has been converted into food production. Cubans, whose national dish was pork, have learned to love vegetables. Urban gardens are everywhere, even on the rooftops. Neighborhood produce markets are a common sight and farmers have gained new respect and viable livelihoods.

The U.S. was no help at all in Cuba's transformation. We only tightened our embargo during those years. But could this be a vision of our own future? Can you imagine our happy motoring society reduced to tearing up its perfect lawns and replacing them with vegetable gardens? That's exactly what some activists are advocating. Some communities are already oranizing, preparing for the day when growing food will become a matter of survival. Meanwhile, the rest of the nation goes about its business seemingly without a care...


Joanna said...

I wonder if that film will ever be on show here in the UK. We all need to be thinking about this .. cars, food production - also plastics, and all the other stuff we throw away without thinking about it. Where is "away", anyway?


Robert said...

Interesting, I'll have to look into that film. I generally agree with everything you say about food policy here, but I'm not convinced we're heading for disaster anytime soon (it's coming, but not soon). I grew up on a small farm my dad started thiry-plus years ago, largely for the same reasons people are encouraging vegetable gardens and local food now: he thought the economic system that provided almost all the food in the country was about to collapse. We ate well, with our own cows, chickens, and a big garden. But the collapse never came. Now I have a daughter of my own, and I find myself doing the same things he did, but not because I think the world's gonna end. I just think it's a better, healthier way to live and raise a family.

Ed Bruske said...

Yours sounds like a very sane attitude, Robert. Nobody has a crystal ball. What the experience in Cuba demonstrates, I think, is that the world does not come to and end. It just takes a turn...

Ed Bruske said...

Joanna, the film has a website where you can even purchase a copy of the film if you are so inclined:


Joanna said...

Thanks for that, Ed, I'll look into it. I wish I could share your calm point of view - here in Europe, or perhaps just the UK, some of us seem to be more jumpy about climate change ... the speed at which the ice cap is melting has spooked a lot of people here. But, as you say, no crystal balls ... and, just to cheer you up, my husband thinks it's too late for behaviour change to make any difference!

Confusing, isn't it? So, Robert, you're right, it's a good way to bring up children ... and, Ed, your garden is inspirational for many many people, even a lot of people who will never see it.


Ed Bruske said...

Watching the polar ice caps melt, I can understand why you are a bit jumpy, Joanna...