Resolutions for a Post-Peak New Year

To my mind, the traditional habit of New Year’s resolutions has much to recommend it. Though it’s proverbial that most such resolutions are already on the endangered species list a week after the new year begins, and end up in the fossil record somewhere between the brontosaurs and last election’s campaign promises by the time February comes within sight, the idea of entering a new year with new aspirations is a good one. As 2007 approaches, worldwide conventional oil production remains noticeably below its 2005 peak, and the geopolitical situation in the Middle East and elsewhere promises at least its share of oil crises and economic shocks in the months and years to come.

Thus a set of New Year’s resolutions for a world on the brink of the deindustrial age seems timely just now. There’s plenty of material on the web right now about the mechanics of peak oil, and a fair amount on what we can expect once industrial civilization starts tobogganing down the far side of Hubbert’s Peak, but too many of the suggestions for what can be done about it either remain fixated on survivalist fantasies of apocalypse or go chasing after equally unlikely dreams of large-scale political reform. Mick Winter’s excellent new book Peak Oil Prep (and the accompanying website takes a large step in the right direction. Still, I have my own list of suggested resolutions.

For some people the following ideas will be impractical, and for almost everyone they will be at least a little inconvenient. All of them, however, will be an inescapable part of the reality most Americans will have to live with in the future – and quite possibly the very near future, at that. The sooner people concerned with peak oil and the rest of the predicament of industrial society make changes like these in their own lives, the better able they will be to surf the waves of industrial decline and help other people make the transition toward sustainability.

1. Replace your incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents

If you haven’t done this already you may not be paying enough attention. Compact fluorescent bulbs last around eight times as long as ordinary light bulbs, and produce the same amount of light for a quarter the electricity. The less wattage you use, the less of a burden you put on the electrical grid and the biosphere. Go shopping for compact fluorescent bulbs before the new year, and notice the impact on your electric bill.

2. Retrofit your home for energy conservation

Most of the lessons of the 70s energy crises were forgotten long before the recent housing bubble took off, and nearly all recent residential construction leaks heat the way a sieve leaks water – not a good thing in a world of rising energy costs. Fortunately this can be fixed easily with a very modest investment. Weatherstripping doors and windows, putting foam gaskets behind light switch and electrical outlet plates, and the like can be done even by apartment dwellers, and more extensive projects such as putting an extra layer of roll insulation in the attic to prevent heat loss is within the range of most homeowners and house renters. As energy prices rise, heat will once again be too precious to waste. Over the coming year, learn what you can do to conserve energy at home, and do it; your bank balance will thank you, and so will the planet.

3. Cut back on your gasoline consumption

American dependence on cars is as much emotional and psychological as it is practical, and few are willing to take the step we’re all going to have to take sooner or later, and actually get rid of their cars. Everyone can cut down on the amount of gas they use, however. Whether you do it by trading in a gas-guzzler for a more modest and more efficient car, cutting back on casual driving, walking or bicycling more, or switching to carpooling or public transit for your commute, each gallon of gas you don’t use helps stretch out the downside of the Hubbert curve and buys time for a transition to sustainability. Keep track of how much gas you use each month, and try to make the total go down each month for the next year.

4. Plant an organic vegetable garden

Today’s agricultural practices depend on fossil fuels to power equipment, transport produce, and provide fertilizers and pesticides. This makes organic food gardening one of the skills that will be needed most desperately as fossil fuels run short in the decades to come. Pick up a good book on organic gardening – John Jeavons’ How To Grow More Vegetables is among the best – and find a patch of soil for your garden, and you’re ready to go. Apartment dwellers can often use window boxes or half-barrels full of dirt on a patio or balcony as a micro-garden, arrange to borrow a corner of a houseowning friend’s yard, or get a patch in a community garden. It doesn’t matter if you can only grow a few pounds of vegetables over the course of the season – the important thing is getting past the steepest part of the learning curve long before you need to rely on your own produce. Plan your garden in the winter months, get the tools and seed you’ll need, and be ready to plant by the time spring comes.

5. Compost your food waste

Vegetable waste from your kitchen should go back to the soil, not into a landfill. Composting is a simple technology that does this quickly, cleanly and efficiently. Read a good book on composting – Stu Campbell’s Let It Rot! is one of the classics – and go to work. If you have a yard, get a compost bin set up in one corner and use it for your kitchen and yard waste. If you don’t, talk to a friend who gardens – if she composts, she’ll likely be grateful for your compostable waste. If you own your home and your local code permits (most do), consider replacing your flush toilet with a composting toilet. In the deindustrial age, survival will depend on understanding nutrient cycles and working with them, not against them. You might as well get started now. Get your compost bin started as soon as the weather is warm enough.

6. Take up a handicraft

The end of the age of cheap energy means, among other things, that economies based on centralized mass production are on their way out. In the future, just as in the past, most goods and services will have to be produced by local craftspeople or the end users themselves. The coming of peak oil requires the recovery of the old handicrafts people once used to preserve food, make clothes, fashion tools, and produce a hundred other things now shipped worldwide from Third World sweatshops. All these crafts require practice to master, so the sooner you learn them, the better off you’ll be. Choose one and begin practicing it during the coming year.

7. Adopt an “obsolete” technology

In recent decades, the social changes we are pleased to call “progress” have replaced many older, sustainable technologies with newer ones that use energy more extravagantly, wear out or break down more frequently, and depend on an ever widening network of other machines. These changes will come undone in a big way as the end of cheap energy makes most of the 20th century’s technological changes unsustainable. As energy supplies peak and begin to decline, a window of opportunity exists for some of the older technologies to be brought back into use before they are forgotten and have to be laboriously reinvented decades or centuries in the future. Many of them work just as well as their more modern replacements—a slide rule can crunch numbers as effectively as a pocket calculator, for example, and a hand-cranked beater will beat eggs as well as an electric one. Choose a technology from your grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ time and make it part of your daily life during the coming year.

8. Take charge of your own health care

Health care in the industrial nations has become a massive industry even more dependent on extravagant energy consumption and international supply chains than most. In America, at least, it has already become so costly that close to a majority of Americans can no longer afford even routine care, and it will likely be among the first to break down as energy supplies contract and the global economy fractures. Older, less energy-dependent healing methods, most of them part of today’s alternative healing movement, offer one of the few ways of responding to this. Many of them can be learned and practiced, at least in a basic form, without a great deal of training. Over the coming year, choose a method of providing your own health care, learn its strengths and limitations, and use it to maintain your health and treat your minor illnesses.

9. Help build your local community

The Petroleum Age saw the twilight of community across the industrial world, and the birth of a mass society of isolated individuals tied to the larger society only by economic interactions. The results have not been good, and will likely get much worse as the Petroleum Age ends and the economic glue of mass society comes apart. Many of the old institutions of community still exist, and new networks have begun to take shape in many communities. More than anything else, they need people willing to invest a modest amount of time in them. Choose one of them, get involved, and stay active in it through the coming year.

10. Explore your spirituality

At the core of the consumer society, and the fossil fuel-powered industrial system that spawned it, lies the conviction that the highest goals of human existence can be found in sheer material consumption. This notion took shape in opposition to an equally dysfunctional belief that despised the material world and grounded all human hopes in another world on the far side of death. The bitter sibling rivalry between these twin ideologies has hidden from many people the fact that many other options exist. In the twilight of the industrial age, the faith in progress that buoyed the consumer economy faces extinction, and the hopes once confided to it deserve better homes. In spirituality as well as ecology, diversity is a positive good, and the Druid tradition I practice and represent as an archdruid rejects the claim that every human being can, much less should, approach the great mysteries of existence in the same way. Whatever your own vision of spirituality may be, then, explore it more deeply over the coming year, and study its teachings in the context of the coming deindustrial age. You may find that, seen in that light, those teachings make an uncommon amount of sense.

With that, I wish all the readers of this blog a safe and sustainable new year!