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Ignoring inconvenient messages
Scripps Howard News Service


July 27, 2006

I've probably spent too much time lately reading books with depressing titles like "Our Final Hour" by Martin Rees, "The End of Oil" by Paul Roberts or "The Long Emergency" by James Howard Kunstler. These are writers who aren't afraid to look unflinchingly at an event that most people are unwilling to contemplate, but which nearly everyone, at some level, must know is coming: the peak of worldwide hydrocarbon production, particularly oil and gas. There's disagreement about whether that peak is occurring right now or whether it will occur in 10, 20 or 30 years, but nearly everyone who thinks about things like this agrees that it will happen in the lifetimes of many people who are alive today.

The peak of worldwide production doesn't mean the end of oil, but it does mean that there will be less and less of the cheap, sweet crude that has shaped the modern world, which is largely based on the inexpensive transportation of goods and people by means of the internal combustion engine. Unfortunately, the best remaining oil reserves belong to countries that won't be all that sympathetic to our plight. As time goes on, oil will become harder and harder to extract until we reach a point of diminishing returns: It will take more energy to extract the oil from the ground than the oil itself contains.

What happens then? Some of the writers who take up this question are more optimistic than others. In "The Hydrogen Economy," for example, Jeremy Rifkin describes a post-hydrocarbon world that sounds better than the one we currently live in. But many writers doubt that any new energy source, including hydrogen or nuclear, will emerge unexpectedly from the wings with the kind of efficiency and power that hydrocarbons have provided for the past century.

Kunstler, in "The Long Emergency," is particularly pessimistic. He believes, quite reasonably, that our culture is so dependent on access to cheap oil that, as competition heats up over the last of the good oil, we are likely to stay in the fight (Iraq, Iran?) rather than to modify our oil-dependent way of life. Even then, the oil will eventually run out. The oil-less world that Kuntsler projects looks to the Amish for a model, a world in which the focus of culture will be local rather than national or global, where food will be grown locally using real horsepower, the kind that consumes oats rather than gasoline. The century-long joyride provided by the anomalous quirk of nature that created vast hydrocarbon pools beneath Earth's surface will be over. Depressing.

So depressing that I decided to spend the afternoon at the movies, a place where I can always find distraction. But I went to see Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." Here's the unfortunate flip side of the end of the age of oil: It won't occur before global warming has done what may already be irreversible damage to Earth. Of course, a few on the fringe still deny that global warming is real, and others reject any connection between global warming and human activity. There's no room for the details here, but the case that Gore makes is very, very convincing.

Unfortunately, for the most part, I suspect he's preaching to the choir. In the audience on the day I saw his movie were three college English teachers and four senior citizens, the kinds of people who are already inclined to pay attention to issues like this. A couple of days after we saw the movie, the theater re-scheduled it for a single nightly showing, at 10:05 p.m., a time which guarantees almost no audience at all.

So, is there an environmental catastrophe in your future? Given the extraordinary disruptions that will attend the end of the oil age and, on the other horn of the dilemma, global warming, which is already creating disruptions of its own, both of these prospects - combined with the fact that we're doing almost nothing to prepare for them - make a catastrophe of some sort or another seem very, very likely, perhaps inevitable. But, clearly, this is a message that people are reluctant to hear; it's extraordinarily ... inconvenient.


John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at
Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.
E-mail jcrisp(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.

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