Wednesday, June 30, 2010

10-Year Plan: Adjusting to a finite world of energy

By Rees Roberts

The Racine area, along with the State and the rest of the United States has been blessed with riches which compared to those who lived in eons past. We have been living like kings and queens compared to people just a couple hundred years ago.  This is because we were born into a special period of time when we had abundant and cheap energy to use. 

The next 10 years, however, will be very different than the previous 100 years.  Why?  Because we live in a finite world of resources and because we have reached a special time called “Peak Oil” where oil will become more expensive and difficult to produce over time.  This is because the easy stuff has been already extracted.  Only the hard stuff is left.  Google the term “Peak Oil” for more information.  This will have immense consequences for us.  If there was easy access to energy we would not be drilling the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico.  The risks are certainly evident.

What we are currently experiencing is the beginning of our changed future.  But that does not mean life, in general, will become worse.  We tend to confuse what economists call “standard of living” with “quality of life.” The two are not the same.  We have become a people who consume but don’t know their neighbor. A people who have lost their sense of community as well as their trust of one another.  This results in higher litigation and lack of hope. People give up trying to find jobs.  The time has come where that will need to change.  And that will be a very good thing.  
So how will this new lifestyle look like?

Imagine people who never talked before all this getting together for no other reason than to spend time with each other.  Imagine seeing your kids playing with others in the neighborhood instead of being glued to their tv or computer.  Imagine everyone recognizing we are all in this together and we do our level best to make each other’s life enjoyable.  Imagine having fun with people you do not currently know.  Imagine trading things just because they need what you have and they have what you need.  And no one keeps score because friends just do that.  That is what I call a richer quality of life.

We should be looking to the future together.  That is how it works best.  We need to create communities which will be resilient and self-reliant.  What will you do if the power goes out for a week because coal could not be delivered to WE Energies due to a lack of diesel fuel for the trains?  Or if gasoline won’t be available for weeks at a time?  Do we have plans in place so our municipal governments know what to do when these happen in the middle of the winter?  Do we react with rage or do we anticipate with a plan thought out that allows us to quickly rebound?  Should we have fun with a power down week and see how things go before it happens for real?  That is what a couple hundred people did in Milwaukee recently.  They felt it was extremely educational and fun.  Some built generator bikes which powered sound amplifiers used in a concert.  Think 6 people on 6 bikes generating power.

As previously stated, we are entering the terminal decline of energy.  It will affect the Racine area just like other communities.  But each community is different and has different needs.  This does not mean a switch will be thrown and we no longer will have gasoline or diesel fuel.  Then again, if an unstable country that exports petroleum goes crazy maybe that is exactly what will happen.  What it does mean, generally, is each year there will be less fossil fuels available.  And because our economy depends on growth, this decline in energy availability will have a large impact on all of our lives.  We will need to plan for this.

My vision for a 10 year plan is to bring the area communities together and let the genius of the people to provide solutions specific to their communities and neighborhoods.  To work out cooperative ways to use less fossil fuels.  Maybe we should envision a new transit system that uses electric power instead of gasoline.  Anyone remember the electric powered trams in the early 1950's?  We should grow our own food instead of depending on regional and national transportation systems to deliver it to us.  Or maybe a community wide ride share system would be appropriate.  In other words, we need to re-build and re-think our towns, villages and cities to allow for the eventual lack of energy that we currently are using up without thinking about it. 
A sobering statistic from the Department of Energy says 70 percent of our energy use is in the transportation sector.  We need to do much better at reducing that number because it will reduce no matter if we plan for it or not. 

While this, at first blush, appears negative and depressing, what goes unsaid so far is what is possible.  Can you imagine a vibrant economy which replaces global resources with local resources?  Can you imagine how this would leverage the overall economy because each community would replicate services and manufacturing?  Every community would manufacture widgets instead of a single large manufacture of widgets.  Think radically increased employment. 

Instead of making things in China because they have cheap labor, make them here because we won’t need to use priceless energy to transport products to the consumer.  Instead of using mega-farmers 1500 miles away, we should be using local farmers for the same reason.  Anything which reduces or eliminates the need to transport things using fossil fuels will become the single most important goal.  We should be using what oil we have to create and manufacture our daily needs, not for transporting them to us.

The side effects of this change will be the need to rely on neighbors.  This will necessitate getting to know them.  If their survival depends on you (and visa-versa), everyone will find ways to get along.  If you are good at making clothes and your neighbor is good at growing food, a natural barter system will exist, for example. 

In addition to barter, we will need to create a local currency, one which local businesses agree to accept for goods and services.  This will have the effect of keeping money in the community instead of leaving it.  This is legal.  Currently, much of our money leaves our community never to return.  Can you see our money going to China and the Middle East?  We are sending money overseas to pay the people who got our eliminated jobs as well as for gasoline.  That has to stop.

The bottom line is we should be planning for the future.  But we need to accept the reality of a finite world of energy.  Infinite economic growth in a finite world of energy is simply impossible.  We are at the cross roads of having to deal with that reality.  We should establish a group which wants to do that.  Fortunately, there exists an infrastructure which has been generating interest on all six continents with this very issue; the Transition Movement.  Racine has just started one.  It is called Transition Racine.  It meets at Gateway’s Racine Building at 6:30pm on the second Monday of each month. 

Through-out the country Transition groups are coming up with energy decent plans for their community.  We are hoping this could become a viable solution for our area.  We invite all those interested to join us with this concrete start for planning our energy reduced future.  Hopefully, you can help to create that 10 year vision and beyond.  That is what real communities do.

For more information go to:
Join us.  We need everyone.
Rees Roberts

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