I’ve seen it in the news. Who hasn’t really? If it’s not the economy, crises in a country more poor than our own or which celebrity had a baby or checked into rehab (or had a baby in rehab?), it’s kind of hard to miss. Oil, energy, climate change; which all three boil down to the same thing if you think about it.
Global oil prices are climbing higher and even so, every presidential administration has been talking about oil independence since the 70’s (how’s that going by the way?). Increased mile per gallon ratings, lower emissions and electric or hybrid cars are the Band-Aids of choice for this particular issue. When it comes to clean energy we are finally doing pretty well, at starting. Two-thirds of the total solar photovoltaic power worldwide has been installed in just the last two and a half years. Don’t be too hard on the industry though, solar panels have only been around since 1954. Residential off-grid and grid-tied systems are getting bumps with tax credits and states like Oregon are working towards a goal to have 25% power generation come from alternative and clean sources by 2020. All of these things are gaining momentum and mostly due to the fact that climate change is becoming more and more a reality that’s hard to ignore given the droughts, record heat waves, super storms and melting ice sheets the size of small countries. But the more I read and observe while trying to do my own small part, the more there appears to be a massive disconnect of what the problem really is, or better yet, how big the problem really is.
There seems to be two main points to this whole oil/energy/climate change thing; too many greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere, and that we are dependent on a nonrenewable resource. The first part is almost a lost cause. Current models show that even if we stop our contribution of gases right this second, the planet will most likely continue to warm for centuries to come. Not to say we should stop trying, but what I mean is that we have already created a problem and we are just making it worse the longer we add to it. Part of our efforts to stop this warming trend has to do with our second point. Finding renewable resources of energy such as wind and solar will help limit our pollution but this is where we disconnect from how big the problem really is. We all know deep down inside that oil, natural gas and coal are limited sources of fuel, especially at the rate we use them up. They have an expiration date and the closer to that unknown date we get to, the less there will be and the more expensive it will cost to get. The problem is that the only discussion the news media and governments have about this dwindling resource is in the context of fuel, as I have done so far, but with a 42 gallon barrel of oil producing only 19.4 gallons of gasoline, where does the rest of it go?
Imagine this. There you are standing in the kitchen before work, drinking orange juice from the carton like you know you are not supposed to do. Unless it’s from oranges grown organically and labeled as such, it was grown with chemical fertilizers made from natural gas, sprayed with pesticides made much the same way. It was bottled in a plastic container, stacked in plastic crates and shipped by truck to the grocery store and then to your house where you now drink it wearing acrylic fiber clothes (petroleum), synthetic rubber shoes (petroleum), and standing on vinyl flooring (petroleum). Your toothbrush and toothpaste that you use before leaving home are both made from petroleum, even part of the packaging they came in. You walk across synthetic wall to wall carpet or Pergo flooring made from a petroleum based resin that looks like wood, grab your synthetic jacket, and walk outside to your car. As you buckle up, you notice all the knobs and buttons are made of some kind of plastic or another. The refrigerant (petroleum) blows cool air out the plastic vents located strategically in your synthetic dashboard (petroleum). You drive on tires powered by fuel that are both a petroleum product, the engine greased by oils and lubrications that are as well. You get to work and look at the plastic clock on the wall to make sure you are not late. You sit in a plastic chair with acrylic fiber seat covers, turn on the plastic computer and drink out of a Styrofoam cup. The ink in the pen, including the pen itself, and the ink in the plastic printer are all petroleum. The refrigerator, as well as the Tupperware full of your lunch you place into it to stay cold, and the plastic microwave to heat it up in later are all petroleum based products. The paint on the walls, the lipstick on the receptionist; even the shaving cream and plastic handled razor you shaved with this morning are all made of the same thing.
All life on earth needs energy to survive. It used to be said that it only needs light until we started finding microorganisms thriving at deep sea volcanic vents, now it’s just energy of some form. Michael Pollan does a good job in his book “The Omnivores Dilemma”, of showing us how our food supply (energy) used to be a renewable resource in the form of sun to grass to cows to humans. Now it’s petroleum to fertilizers to corn to cows to humans. We 21st centurions also know that life is no longer just about eating to survive but it also includes economic growth and investing and entertainment and technology and social media. This new life we have has only been made possible by the energy source we put into it; oil, natural gas and coal. So if we know that these energy sources are coming to an end someday, what does that mean for us and the life we made from them?
Well, it seems that most people want to ignore this fact, which is why I am writing this. We can make electric cars to replace gas guzzlers, and install solar panels to replace coal plants but we have no answers for the rest of it. The problem with plastic and other petroleum based products is that they have become such a big part of our lives that they practically make up everything in those lives. With almost seven billion people on earth, are there even enough natural sources of material to keep the machine going after the oil is gone? I am going to make a guess here and say not with how wasteful we are there isn’t.
Listen to this, in my neighborhood most people cut their grass and bag it. They pay to have a gas powered truck pick up the clippings and haul them away, while they drive to home depot to pick up fertilizer to replace the nutrients they just threw away. You can easily keep the clippings on your property as compost, add it with other natural food waste or plant material and spread that over the yard a couple times a year. This cost nothing more than a little sweat off your back and is about as zero foot print as you can get. This is the way we need to look at everything in our life. I told a friend of mine in a discussion about this once when he said burning wood and coal is bad, period. I said that burning it for heat is basically fine, but when seven billion people do it then it becomes a problem. We grew too fast to adjust our wasteful habits; we forget that we are not the only ones living here. Now we need to be more resourceful and act smarter in our daily decisions. I say ‘need to’ because we have no choice; this petroleum based lifestyle is unsustainable and will end someday. All it takes is small changes every day that eventually become habit in the long term. This is how we got used to our current lifestyle in the first place, and this is how we can change it. This is our part to play but it is not the only thing we have to make a difference.
A common idea gaining momentum lately and becoming more popular the more our politicians seem to be ignoring us common people is the idea of voting with your dollar. Stop buying plastic products made in foreign nations. Start buying from local places of business that work on the principles you are trying to support. You can protest Monsanto or big oil and write your congressmen all day long but if you swing by Wal-Mart on the way home to buy GMO produce and synthetic clothing shipped from Asia then you are wasting your breath. Stop buying fertilizers and learn to encourage plant growth the natural way, the way it had been doing so for 3 billion years before the industrial revolution. The organic industry has grown into a multibillion dollar a year industry by this principle alone, just from people supporting what they want to see happen in the world. Once the demand for petroleum products drop off the business will shrink. It’s time we talk about this dark side of oil that everyone ignores; it’s time we look for a renewable way of life.