I’ve just finished reading two compelling books that begin to paint a portrait of what life might be like in the North Country in the coming age when cheap oil is a fading memory.
I’ll acknowledge as a personal bias that I think this is inevitable.
After covering the Exxon Valdez and BP Gulf oil spills, I am left with the conviction that oil companies are already pushing into increasingly dangerous, volatile and unstable environments in search of our oil.
In a single century, we went from getting cheap oil from our backyards, where the stuff was literally bubbling out of the ground, to a pursuit that verges on science fiction in its technical challenges.
Whether it is a well drilled a mile under the surface of the hurricane-wept Gulf of Mexico or rigs that sit in war-torn regions of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, these are tough and costly places to get our energy.
Ten years from now, the pursuit will take us into even more troubled terrain — and ten years after that we’ll have to go farther and deeper.
It is worth noting that a single screw-up last year nearly destabilized BP, one of the world’s largest energy producers. The likelihood of catastrophic failures going forward seems certain to grow.
So what will life be like in our neck of the woods when a gallon of gas costs $10? Or when gasoline is all but impossible to find at all?
Jerry Jenkins with the Wildlife Conservation Society points out in his book “Climate Change in the Adirondacks” that “fossil fuels changed the Adirondacks, as they did the world.”
“Consider a small Adirondack town, perhaps North Elba, in 1840….A man and a [horse] team working steadily could do less work than a medium-sized riding lawn mower. A week of eigh-hour days netted them less useful work than we get from 5 gallons of gasoline. The town gristmill, or the massed person-power and horsepower of the town, had less mechanical power than a small motorcycle.”
Jenkins makes it clear that replacing the ease, simplicity and efficiency of fossil-fuel engines and products will be a very difficult task, and could result in sacrifices to “our material welfare…that none of us would willingly choose.”
In his novel, A World Made By Hand, Saratoga Springs author James Howard Kunstler imagines life in the Glens Falls area if we fail to make the transition.
His book posits a future where the oil crisis has been complicated by plagues, international crises, and terror attacks.
Kunstler suggests that our culture will relapse into an essentially agrarian post-urban model, comparable to the America of the early 1800s.
As the modern world came apart, and the local economy with it, Bullock took the opportunity to acquire at least eight other properties adjacent to the original family farm. They were not all in agriculture. One was an auction yard for second hand farm equipment and trucks. Another was a marina for pleasure boats on the river, which now served as Bullock’s landing…”
Obviously none of these portrayals are definitive. The United States had already developed into a largely urban and industrial nation before the advent of the oil economy.
It’s also possible that technology will soften the blow of dwindling oil supplies, as we develop better solar and nuclear power, and find cheaper ways to convert plant matter into energy.
But it seems worthwhile to begin pondering what it will mean to us — as a nation, as a region, and individuals — as the modern life blood of our economy dries up.
What do you think? Have you read these accounts? Do they worry you? Think they’re overblown? Your comments welcome below.