Like you, I get worried. Who doesn't these days?
Chronic unemployment. Rising health care costs. Failing schools. Growing debt. Looming climate change. The influence of money in politics. The trivialization of the media. And so on, and so on.
Yet recently I have become aware that these worries, though perfectly valid, are nothing when seen in light of our greatest worry of all.
Draw back a little from the usual litany of complaints, and it becomes obvious, upon even a moment's reflection, that we are living in an era of extraordinary material wealth, made possible by one simple factor: the burning of fossil fuels.
And that is about to change.
It began just about 200 years ago. We began to burn coal and draw from oil and gas fields, lying under the surface of the land and sea. Due to the earth's movements over literally hundreds of millions of years, living creatures were compressed into a form of stored energy. How fortuitous for us! We now use fossil fuels to pave our roads, build our toys, wash our teeth and hair, fuel our transportation, generate most of our electricity, heat our houses, refrigerate our food, and ship our products worldwide, among thousands of other uses. It is the lubricant, if you will, for our consumer-driven modern life. Without it, we go back to how we lived for most of human history: namely, close to the ground, with our hands in the dirt...
What is important to keep in mind here is that we humans are only marginally better than any other animals on the face of the earth at consuming energy. We have learned to use tools to assist us, yes. But without the additional power provided by fossil fuels our tools provide only limited benefits. Humanity's default condition is one of scraping by, searching for sustenance -- in short, bare-boned survival.
We need shelter. We need to eat. If you take away the boost given to us by fossil fuels, this is a full-time, dangerous, exhausting, daily operation for humans, just as it is for every other living thing on the planet.
Well, folks, it's not debatable. Fossil fuels are going to run out by the end of this century. Look it up. To get you started, here's a report from an oil company, that's right, an oil company (TOTAL). Here's some more data in the form of a pdf. Go to the Oil Drum for up to date information.
The world is expected to hit the point from which our reserves of oil will henceforth grow smaller and smaller every day, called Peak Oil, in 2020. Others, more skeptical, suggest it could happen as early as next year.
Some will say: Yes, but we will invent new technologies! Hydrogen cars, etc. Doesn't this seem unlikely to you? The source of ALL energy on the planet is ultimately the sun. The heat and light from the sun is limited; after all, that's why we are able to inhabit this planet. Does is seem likely that we can somehow access, generate, concentrate, and otherwise make use of the sun's energy, unaided by geologic time? These fields of fossil fuels were created over millennia! They were a cheat, ladies and gentlemen. A boondoggle. And we have lived well on this find, for some two centuries. But it is coming to an end.
What will society look like when are children are grandparents? Some think we can sustain a growth economy, an urban culture, a semblance of democratic, rule-abiding, late 20th century capitalism, indefinitely. Solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectric, nuclear, new technologies -- all this, it is suggested, will help humanity to lurch along. Of course there may be increasing pollution, radiation poisoning, carbon dioxide, climate change. But it will be recognizable.
I am inclined to think otherwise.
People do not like to give up that to which they think they already have (this psychological phenomenon is real and even has a name: "the Endowment Effect"). People now living will resist mightily the changes -- the freefall -- that takes place in their way of life. Laws will be trampled. The obligations and duties of citizenship will be forgotten. A cascade of events may lead to an almost unrecognizable world. My only hope is that our children, lacking the same sense of endowment, will adapt to a more minimalist, local existence more quickly than we do.
What can we do now? Prepare our children. Learn and teach them basic skills: how to build a wagon, how to light a fire, how to plant a potato, how to tell a story, how to ride a horse. Learn and teach our children languages to make us all more adaptable and mobile. Most of all, with a strong sense of irony, we can enrich our minds and our children's minds with the greatest gifts of our age: the ideas and discoveries and research results born of a society based on fossil fuels, never to be witnessed again.