For some reason, the idea of local governments preparing for peak oil - despite the fact that no one disputes that oil is a finite resource - has not taken hold.
By Lakis Polycarpou
Published December 14, 2005
As we creep ever further into the new millennium, it is becoming increasingly clear (the highly doubtful claims of "cornucopians" notwithstanding) that the age of oil will soon be ending.
Oil is a finite resource. Its production will, at some point, peak and begin to decline, and there are numerous indications that we are at or past that point.
The picture for natural gas is slightly more complex, but potentially more dire in the short-term, as gas supplies in North America and the U.K. are in decline, and gas is not easily shipped overseas.
What will become of suburbia, where most North Americans now live and depend on oil and natural gas for transportation, home heating, and a large percentage of electricity generation?
Peak oil experts and commentators paint visions of the future that range from mildly pessimistic to apocalyptic. But the truth is that no one knows exactly how much energy will be available at any given point in the depletion era, or how different regions and populations will respond.
Rather than engage in pointless debates about precisely what will happen, it makes far more sense-especially at the regional and local levels-to begin serious planning based on differing scenarios, with the awareness that changes could come in phases and that any model must adjust to reality as it unfolds.
As an example, one could project three hypothetical scenarios for a typical, middle-class suburb:
In the best-case scenario, the rapid adoption of efficiency measures, renewable energies and synthetic fuels (including biofuel, if it can be produced with a significant net energy gain) gives society a long lead-time to adjust to depletion, gradually reducing its energy consumption to a sustainable level.
A series of recessions causes serious economic hardship for many, but also reduces energy demand. Energy substitutions in the developing world (from heating oil to natural gas and coal, for example) keep transportation fuel affordable, if expensive, in the short- to middle-term. Enlightened national leadership combined with market forces reverses the trend toward sprawl.
In this case, successful localities execute a long-term plan to stop sprawl and develop downtowns and main streets where they exist (or build them where they do not), and gradually shift toward a more sustainable (and sane) living arrangement, centered around relatively dense, walkable towns and neighborhoods connected by public transit with goods supplied by electric rail.
Policies to encourage local agriculture and the rebuilding of regional economies reverse globalization, saving energy. Some people notice a decline in perceived standard of living, but are compensated by the elimination of many economic distortions caused by the current globalization regime.
In the middle case, personal transportation in suburbia rapidly becomes unaffordable, and high oil prices spark either massive inflation or trigger a series of severe recessions.
Assuming policy makers use both the financial and legislative means available to avoid mass bankruptcies, suburbanites keep their houses, but find living in them increasingly difficult. Long commutes that cannot be accomplished through public transportation end.
Residents cut back drastically on consumption, bankrupting many chain merchants. Food is available, but very expensive, and there are regular spot shortages, leading to epidemics of hunger and malnutrition.
Home heating in cold climates becomes a serious problem; many families take periodic refuge in shelters. Work does not disappear, but jobs become increasingly scarce.
In this case, suburbanites survive with an ad hoc combination of car share co-ops, efficient vehicle purchases, biking, telecommuting and local gardening. Whenever possible, people install wood or even coal-burning stoves for heating, along with solar panels.
Towns and cities do better if they focus on facilitating organic changes (by building or designating bike paths and rewriting zoning rules to provide maximum flexibility, for example) rather than resisting them.
In this scenario, the importance of electricity becomes paramount. The grid still works to an extent, but electricity prices escalate rapidly, and there are sporadic blackouts which make ordinary business difficult. Places where small-scale solar, wind or mini-hydroelectric power is available do much better.
In the worst case, an economic crash causes mass bankruptcies. Collapse is not confined to one sector; everyone is affected. Global trade breaks down; nothing is available that's not produced locally.
National authorities take action, but are overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis; attempts to increase efficiency and develop alternatives come too late and accomplish too little. Gas rationing takes effect.
The food production chain also breaks down. In some areas, food supplies are so scarce that large numbers of people starve, while more successful regions soon find themselves overwhelmed by oil crash refugees.
Work as we know it vanishes, though trade and barter still exist.
At the local or neighborhood level, communities do better by developing a collective mindset, setting up co-ops or other legal structures to keep loan defaulters afloat and living in their own homes.
This is in the interest of everyone; the alternative is either a rapid depopulation of neighborhoods-a neither safe nor economically sustainable outcome for those who remain-or an epidemic of illegal squatting, with former owners staying on in homes they have defaulted on but have not been evicted from.
In the final scenario, energy intensive technology disappears, but the importance of knowledge remains. Skills for growing food, making clothes, insulating buildings, and fixing household items become vital.
Preparation for the final scenario includes the establishment of seed-banks and knowledge centers to disseminate information on how to most efficiently grow food on available land, using Permaculture, Grow Biointensive, or similar organic methods.
For a small investment, local governments could also sponsor classes on wood and metal working and other forgotten skills. After the crash, residents in successful suburbs could be encouraged to set up "cottage" industries, perhaps through a system of microloans.
In all cases, a mindset of using existing infrastructure is less important than one of refusing to allow blight to take hold.
Abandoned strip malls, for example, should not be allowed to fester for years as decaying buildings; rather, they should be torn down and either returned to farmland or converted to higher-density, mixed-use neighborhoods.
Even with oil supplies in decline, it seems at least plausible that a great portion of the resources now spent building sprawl could be diverted to retrofitting and revitalizing suburbia.
If, instead of building more spread out, single use neighborhoods and strip-malls, we used our current building energy for infill development (using principles of density, walkability and mixed use currently associated with "New Urbanism" but known since Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961), we could begin generating an ever-more efficient economy, and perhaps stretch out the tail of oil depletion.
The highest priority, then, should be to stop current and future sprawl development.
Scenario planning is not a new concept, but for some reason the idea of local governments preparing for peak oil - despite the fact that no one disputes that oil is a finite resource - has not taken hold.
But if local governments are able to develop response plans for the relatively unlikely event of a terrorist attack, then is it too much to ask that they consider how to respond to the eventual certainty of oil and gas depletion?
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