photo: Joost J Bakker via flickr
You'd have to be living in a cave since the beginning of the BP oil spill to not have heard, or made, statements about never letting this sort of environmental disaster happen again and kicking our oil addiction. There have even been checklists 50 items deep of ways you can use less oil. Before we act on that sentiment, (and let me be clear that we will be using less oil in the future, whether by choice, by supply shortages, or a combination of these), we need to get our priorities straight. Where are we using the most oil, and how can we decrease that? This Will Be A Long Transition
Before we begin though, let me add that transitioning off oil isn't something which is going to happen overnight--we're talking a decades-long transition. Petroleum is so thoroughly embedded into all aspects of modern life, that it's not really possible for any individual to give up using oil. Using less or no oil is something that has to happen at a national level, even if popular pressure can start the zeitgeist shift.
Nearly Three Quarters of Oil Goes to Transportation
A short while ago Good Magazine ran a nicely clear chart of how the US consumes oil. Here are the top line stats, some of which you may know:
Currently the US uses about 19.7 million barrels of oil a day (23% of the world total demand, for roughly 4% of global population). Of that, 71% goes to transportation via cars, trucks, buses, airplanes; 23% goes to industrial purposes (manufacturing, plastics, chemicals, etc); the remaining 6% goes to residential and commercial uses, plus a small amount of electricity generation. Those stats are so skewed that it's worth stating it plainly again.
71% of all oil use in the United States goes to transporting ourselves, the things we buy, and the things we eat. That's not the goods themselves, mind you, just moving them around, and moving ourselves so we can consume them. If we're really going to start consuming less oil, this is where we ought to be putting most of our effort.
Technological Change Part of Solution...
How do we transform our transportation? At a technical level this topic is well covered on TreeHugger and pretty much every other green website. Electrifying small motorized vehicles, shifting long haul vehicles to natural gas, using biofuels in aviation as much as possible, cleaner burning fuels in shipping, all can play a part.
Very crudely: More of this... photo: Poom! via flickr.
And less of this... photo: Alex via flickr.
...But Creating Different Communities the Bigger Part
On a policy level though, the issue is less flashy, and doesn't quite hold people's attention the way a shiny(!) new (!) Tesla (vroom) does. Which is too bad, because if we want to really use less oil, we have to construct our communities, our product manufacture and distribution chains so that less daily travel is needed. So the average person doesn't need to own a car at all. We have to create more walkable and bikeable communities. Beyond that we need to re-localize and regionalize economic activity for all those goods which can be produced in this way--recognizing that not everything can or should.
Normally framed as a quality of life issue, when it comes down to it, creating more communities where the average person's daily needs are met on foot, on non-motorized vehicle and via public transportation, is the most critical piece of using less oil.
Entire careers can be devoted to developing more pedestrian-friendly communities, so a few sentences here obviously won't suffice. But more than most everything else, this is what government policy and social norms have to begin supporting.
Personally Get Off Oil by Driving & Flying Less, Walking & Biking More
Where does personal action come in? Back at the start of the spill, the Nature Conservancy ran the numbers and found that if, on average, if everyone cut their daily driving down by 5.4 miles, the US could forego drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. That's a good first step on the individual level. Another one: Biking to work at least one day a week and then trying to expand it. Get that down and then move on to moving closer to where you work, and moving to a more human-scale community.
Again, drilling this into your head, nearly three quarters of oil usage in the US goes to moving ourselves and the things we buy around. Reducing the amount of oil-based products you use is a good thing for many reasons--waste, pollution, health--but even better than that is changing the way and how far you and these goods are transported.
More on Oil, Walkable Communities & Transportation:
50 Years of Selling America Oil (Video)
US Military: Massive Oil Shortages as Soon as 2015
Dense, Walkable Urban Cities Create YIMBY Neighbors
Ten Reasons Not To Bike To Work: All Debunked, Threefold
In Transition: The Transition Movement Documentary