Monday, June 06, 2005

Practical Paranoia, part 2

As part one said, there are lots of chicken little warnings running around and I'm rather in agreement with some of them. However, I think it's right to not only run around warning of problems but to consider fixes as well. In this part I'm dealing solely with the Peak Oil problem.

As I said, we're not going to magically create new oil. Oh, biofuels will help reduce the pain, as will waste conversion projects of one sort and the other. In fact they may eventually make a difference. But to put it in perspective, if we covered all of our current wheatfields in biomass we'd increase our annual US production by (depending on the reference you read) 5 to 15% - and we import a lot more than that. And biomass is both seasonal and subject to all the other weaknesses of farm crops - a drought or other bad weather can wreak havoc. Waste conversion? Sure, eventually, if and after we put trillions into it we can probably meet almost half our current need. In short, we can slow the decline of supply if we're so inclined, eventually, but we're really unlikely to stop it.

Since we can't stop the decline in supply, we have two other avenues. Avenue one is to decrease demand. Avenue two is to prepare for and compensate for the failure to succeed in either other plan.

The problem with avenue one is that most folk aren't willing to take it. For that matter it might be a little too late. Consider for example the US transportation system. Sure, in dense urban areas mass transit is a possibility. But if you check the numbers you discover that mass transit in many if not most of those areas runs at well over 3/4 of capacity, and at the same time represents far less than half the total transitting population. In other words, the urban areas will have to at least double and more likely triple transit capacity. And that's of absolutely no help in moderately urban/suburban areas where there is little or no mass transit, nor does it give a reliable solution to the tranportation of goods. In most cases it's a last mile problem. That is, getting the trunk line is fine, but dealing with the four to five blocks from trunk line to house is really, really expensive.

Actually, let's be fairly honest about this. The reason avenue one suffers the most is what I'll call the "I want mine" syndrome. I sit here seeing what others had, and I want it. I'll have a sneaking suspicion that if I do the right thing you'll not - and so my sacrifice means you get to live high on the hog a little bit longer. Frankly, it's the prisoner's dilemna writ large. And the bad thing of the prisoner's dilemna is that if one party is purely self-interested then it matters not how enlightened the other might be - the best of the remaining bad choices is to be self-interested yourself. In other words, it takes us all to make a difference, and unless we're MADE to do it there're enough that'll ruin it for everyone that I might as well not act myself. Cynical, isn't it.

For this reason, I think the best option is to act under the assumption that peak oil is going to happen. I think it'll start hitting in the next year, though as noted it could be as long as a decade away. The consequence of peak oil is that everything will start costing more - either intrinsically if it's petroleum based, or due to the cost of transport.

1) Start working to be less petroleum reliant. Now on the surface this appears to be contradicting my cynicism of the preceding few paragraphs, and to some extent it is. But by focusing on greed instead of altruism I'm more likely to succeed - yay, cynicism strikes again. Anyway, less petroleumk reliant includes:
  • more fuel-efficient transportation. Use, or lobby for, or whatever, mass transit. Get more fuel-efficient vehicles.

  • local gets precedence. Go to local areas for vacations. Purchase local goods by preference. Grow or make if possible, but be wise enough to recognize the penalty cost of trying to do everything means nothing is done its best. Start working on local exchanges - what you do well in exchange for what others do well.

  • Work to localize your own transportation needs. Shorten the distance you need to travel overall - whether this is by carpooling or by moving closer or by working smarter shifts or whatever. In this, recognize that if you can pass the cost of the necessary transportation on to others, you should really consider doing so.

Boy, I'm cynical. OK, let's look at me, specifically.

I just bought a house that's 25 miles from the main office and am selling one that is 2 miles from the same. There are a lot of really good reasons for this but it's going to cost me in gas. Now I've got two supplemental options going on. First, I've got a co-worker that will be going to work almost right past my door almost every day. If I'm smart (and I intend to be) I'll make arrangements to split the cost of gas for that distance - she comes to my house and either we jump into my car or I jump into hers, and on we go. Second, there's a branch all of 6 miles from where I'll live. 6 miles is a lot closer than 25, so I'll be doing my best to get my normal duty site moved to that branch.

I'll be starting a small vegetable plot. I'm not a good farmer, but I think I'd better get better. Foodstuff not produced locally is going to get real expensive. Heck, local foodstuff that has to be farmed by tractors or irrigation systems which all burn fuel are going to get more expensive.

Housing efficiency. Here, I'm ahead of the game. First, the normal air conditioner temperatures are too cold for my comfort. Now 92 degrees is a bit high (that's what it hit locally today), but I can make do with fans and open windows - and those are a lot more fuel efficient. I've got a good hvac system in the new house - much more efficient - so those time when I HAVE to break down and use it (for heat and for cold) I'll be a lot better off than most. Yes, it's electric. Yes, I know electric will go up. But it'll go up less than heating oil and propane and natural gas - the savings are inherent in bulk.

Now there are a few more things I can think of for me, but they start falling into the other chicken little calls so I'll save them for then.

Later, y'all.


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