Deer in the Headlights

For those of us who grew up during the energy crises of the 1970s, there's something eerily familiar about recent headlines. Now as then, soaring energy costs make the news almost daily, part of a wider economic shift that's sending the prices of most raw materials through the roof. The countries that export the oil we in America waste so casually (OPEC then; Iran, Venezuela, and Russia now) are showing an uncomfortable eagerness to cash in their economic chips for the headier coin of international power. Meanwhile America's balance of trade sinks further into a sea of red ink as imported consumer goods from our largest Asian trading partner (Japan then, China now) overwhelm faltering US exports, sending the dollar skidding downwards against most foreign currencies. In Yogi Berra's famous words, it's deja vu all over again.

Then as now, too, the rising cost of oil isn't simply the result of market vagaries or the alleged wickedness of oil companies. It comes out of the awkward fit between our current economic arrangements and the hard facts of petroleum geology. In 1970, the United States reached the crest of its Hubbert peak -- the point at which so much oil has been pumped out of a given area that production declines from then on, no matter what you do. A society raised on fantasies of endless supplies of cheap domestic energy had to retool its foreign policy, its economy, and its culture to deal with a new reality of dependence on overseas reserves. Much of the economic and cultural turmoil of the decade after 1970 came out of the wrenching changes demanded by that shift.

Fast forward to 2006, and the same crisis looms on a global scale. The exact timing of the whole world's Hubbert peak is hard to judge, not least because many oil producing countries treat accurate information about their oil reserves as state secrets, but production worldwide has been bumping along an uneven plateau since midway through 2004 -- a good sign that the peak isn't far off, and may already have arrived. Today's predicament has fewer solutions than the crisis of the 1970s, though, because postpeak America could simply import oil from countries that hadn't yet reached their own Hubbert peaks. Today, most of the world's oil producing countries have already peaked, and newly discovered oilfields brought on line only help to cover the deficit from old fields that are running dry.

But speaking of solutions points to an unsettling difference between the energy crises of the 1970s and the one we face right now. When energy costs soared in the early 1970s, there was just as much finger-pointing and scapegoat hunting as there is today, to be sure, but plenty of people went to work on constructive responses to the crisis. The 1970s were a boomtime for the now-forgotten appropriate technology movement, which evolved an impressive toolkit of methods to conserve energy and raw materials. Two other movements, organic agriculture and recycling, moved off the drawing boards to become profitable industries during those same years. More generally, conservation had a pervasive presence on the cultural radar screens of the time. Most Americans in those years knew about insulation and weatherstripping, and at least glanced at the miles-per-gallon numbers when shopping for a car. Ironically, the success of these gambits turned out to be their undoing -- declining demand for energy in the US was an important factor in crashing the price of oil in the 1980s and convincing too many people that conservation was a thing of the past.

At this point we're several years into the current energy crisis. We've seen electricity shortages, rolling brownouts, and epic spikes in the price of oil and natural gas, but somehow the constructive attitude of the 1970s has yet to surface. If anything, things are moving the other way. Other than a few independent thinkers on the cultural fringe, politicians and pundits alike insist that nothing can be done about energy prices in the short term, and their proposals for the long term add up to business as usual -- spend more, drill more, pump more, consume more. Conservation hasn't even begun to enter the national discussion about energy yet.

It needs to appear there, and soon. The experience of the 1970s showed that Americans can cut their energy use much further and more easily than current assumptions allow. As oil and natural gas start to slide down the far side of their respective Hubbert curves, the sooner those cuts are made, the more energy will be available in the future, and the sooner we begin to adapt to a new and more frugal way of using energy, the less disruption we'll face as frugality stops being an option and turns into a hard necessity.

Fortunately, we don't have to wait for the politicians to extract their heads from the sand to do something about the situation. It doesn't take an act of Congress to put a new layer of insulation in the attic, weatherstrip the door, turn down the thermostat a bit, or walk those two blocks to the grocery store instead of driving there -- and it might not hurt to pay a visit to the local used book store, and see if they've got any copies of durable 1970s appropriate-technology classics like The Integral Urban House or Rainbook in stock.

If the people lead, eventually the leaders will follow. It's that or stand there like deer in the headlights until the future we don't want to face crashes into us anyway.