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The Gift of $200-a-Barrel Oil

Necessity is the mother of conservation.

Let’s face it, we, as a society, will not surrender our excesses until we are forced to do so—primarily because we don’t see our excesses as excesses. One car per driver, cell phones in every purse, MP3 players in every pocket, strawberries in January, bananas in the northern hemisphere…these all, at various times, would have been seen as extravagant luxuries. In most places in the world, they still are. However, now, in our society, they’re commonplace to the point where to go without them seems absurd. These are the everyday items of life.

Yet, the world is changed. Peak oil is approaching, if not past. Cheap energy is over. The consequences of our oil consumption is choking off the ecosystems from which we were born and which we need to survive. Many of us have realized this. Many of us remain unconvinced—though this summer’s iceless north pole will pull more heads out of the sand.

Conservation is no longer optional—conservation of land, oil, soil, water, energy, food, and money. Yet, we do not because we do not have to. The planet’s tipping point will not be advertised on TV or be available in 10 minute clips on YouTube. We won’t know. We can’t watch, and therefore the threat of humanity’s destruction—as funny as it sounds—is not enough to demand action.

The good news is that there is one potential catalyst which will universally prompt immediate conservation across this culture: money. We will all drive less if we can’t afford the fuel. We will all forgo our cell phones if the monthly bill interferes with feeding the kids. We will stop buying power-hungry devices to entertain ourselves if our electric bill is already unmanageable. We will reform our lives as necessary to fit new economic constraints—because we will have no choice.

It’s already begun. As the price of a barrel of oil climbs, so too does the level of conservation. Oil at $100 per barrel forced us out of SUVs. Oil at $120 per barrel kept us home on the weekends. Oil at $140 per barrel forced us to plant vegetable gardens, ride a bicycle to work, and research solar hot water heaters.

I have hope for the future of humanity because I have faith in our ability to adapt to the pressures of the world. The pressure, however, must stay on. I welcome $200-a-barrel oil and every incremental increase in between. It will be a difficult transformation. Our society was built on the idea of everlasting fuel and the permanence of car culture. As we now know, this was a devastating miscalculation.

We will need to evolve toward sustainability. Cities will grow as people migrate toward public transportation. Suburban homes will rot in place as they sit on the real estate housing market—too expensively far from work. Gardens will replace yards. Solar-raisings will replace barn-raisings. Communities will rediscover themselves to help members through a difficult and shared transformation.

A sustainable society isn’t only possible, it is inevitable. Whether through total collapse of the world’s economic market and infrastructure, or through careful steering of society before the end, the next generations will inherit a planet where gluttonous consumption is no longer an option. The oil is gone. And with it, our oil culture.


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