Could Inefficiency Save Us From Peak Oil?


Image credit: Franco Folini, used under Creative Commons license.

Whether it is activists claiming that a "globalized consumer society without oil is nonsense"or Richard Heinberg arguing that we'd best get used to life without growth when peak oil hits—the idea that the end of cheap oil means a permanent and drastic change to our entire notion of economics keeps cropping up recently. The argument that our economy can't keep functioning without cheap oil because no replacement for cheap oil exists is, on the surface, pretty convincing. But I'm wondering whether our very inefficiencies might prove to be our savior too. The fact is that cheap oil has lead us to us to believe that oil is cheap. And when you undervalue something, you use it without thinking. From driving around in over-sized cars, to unquestioningly accepting a status quo where we sit in traffic for two hours every day, just to get to a building where we can do the work we could easily have done at home, it's hard to deny that we have followed a pretty energy intensive model for developing our economies.

It's tempting to paint this model of development as stupid (I myself has asked before whether this stupidity might be our silver lining), but in many ways it was an intelligent and logical response to the conditions of the time. The discovery of oil provided a cheap, effective means of improving our lot. Just as it makes sense for a millionaire making $1000s of dollars an hour to pay someone else to clean their home, solving our technological challenges by throwing more oil at them made more sense than worrying about efficiencies or waste.

But now that we are beginning to understand the true value, and cost, of oil, we need to start following a different path. Fortunately, our energy profligate ways of the past mean there are massive, immediate savings to be had in almost every aspect of our lives. From learning to slow down on the highway to encouraging telecommuting, there are plenty of changes that can be made right now that require little to no technological innovation or financial investment. In fact, many of them could improve the quality of our lives.

Likewise, whether it's the adoption of universal phone chargers, or encouraging gadget minimalism, technological innovations offer the opportunity to seriously cutback on the hardware we need to get any given task done. And having exhausted the bigger-is-better model of cultural development, more and more people are discovering how to live large in small spaces, and may even finally be embracing the end of cheap materialism and the value of enough.

I'm not saying that peak oil won't result in significant disruption. I'm not sure anybody knows what the future will bring. But just as we shouldn't under-estimate the significance of the end of cheap oil for our way of life, we also shouldn't let our previous reliance on this addictive stuff limit our visions for our life without it.

Learning to grow our own food is a valuable, rewarding and fun experience—but that doesn't mean we should uncritically accept the inevitability of returning to subsistence farming or back-to-the-land neo-peasantry. No growth economics, or aspects of it, may offer a real prospect of making money work for us, not the other way around, but we should move toward alternative economic models—whatever those may be—not because we assume they are inevitable, but because we believe they offer the best possible future for ourselves and our comunities.

Yes, we may have to stop throwing cheap energy at every problem we see. But that might just be an opportunity to make things better. Whether the solutions are cultural, technological, political, or all of the above—there is only one thing that is certain about our future: it will look nothing like the past.

More on Peak Oil, Economics and Sustainability
Richard Heinberg on Life After Growth
What Would a No Growth Economy Look Like?
Living Simply: An Alternative American Dream?

Tags: Alternative Energy | Economics | Oil | Peak Oil | United States

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