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Civilization Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card May 6, 2007

Oil -- Past the Peak

People have been crying wolf about running out of oil for a long time. Back when I was in college, I was reading estimates that we'd be out of oil before the end of the 20th century.

After those predictions from my college days, vast new oil reserves were discovered -- Alaska's north slope, for instance, and the oil of the North Sea.

So it's tempting to think that because those dire predictions were wrong about when, we will never run out of oil at all.

There are even indications that a few more discoveries are still possible. That's good news -- it means we have some breathing room.

Because oil comes from "ancient sunlight" stored in the carboniferous structures of long-dead plants (ironically, during a time when the earth was much warmer than it is today -- just one more proof that "global warming" is just another term for "good weather"), there is no more of it being made.

Not only that, but not all oil is created equal. Some is of better quality; some is easier to extract.

In the 2nd quarter 2006 issue of his newsletter Wealth Creation and Preservation, Charles W. Kraut pulled together quite a bit of information from various sources and reached the conclusion that we are past the oil peak and are on the downhill slope.

In Saudi Arabia, "at least one of their five 'super giant' fields may be in danger of collapse." The Saudis responded to the American request (under Reagan) that they pump enough oil to keep the price low by "pumping brine into the oil fields to make the oil easier to extract."

Kraut's sources tell him that many of those wells are "now producing up to 90% water and only 10% oil."

Some of those giant oil fields are running out. All the others will, too -- eventually.

What is obvious is that we have used up almost all the easy oil and the "vast reserves" remaining in shale and other such marginal deposits are very expensive to extract.

There are promising technologies that may make the extraction of that oil cheaper and cleaner. Great! What will that buy us? Another thirty years? Fifty years? What then?

How short-sighted do we have to be? We have been burning oil for only a century and we've nearly used up all the easy, high-quality stuff. What if we last another hundred years before it's all gone?

Do you know what that means? Six thousand years of recorded human history, and in only two hundred years we wipe out a precious resource that can never be replaced.

I remember reading about the forests that once covered Greece and Lebanon. In my student days we were told that the reason those forests are gone is that people cut down all the trees for construction and firewood; but once the trees were gone, they could no longer hold back soil erosion, and the forests could not grow back.

Now we know that there were other contributing factors -- like global heliogenic climate change. But humans did contribute to the local change in soil and vegetation, as a matter of historical fact.

I remember thinking, as a student: How stupid were they? Couldn't they see that they were destroying their own resource?

The same thing happened in historical times on Easter Island, where the trees were wiped out by humans who could see their forest disappearing but refused to stop their self-destructive behavior.

It's so easy to feel superior to those dumb people of other times and places who did not adopt sensible changes in their way of life in time to preserve their resources.

But we're just as dumb. No, we're dumber, because we still have plenty of time to change, and we're just not willing to do it.

Why? Because we still center our lives around the automobile.

It's so sad -- a real crisis is staring us in the face and hardly anybody is talking about it, because the phantasm of global warming is getting all the press.

For two installments of this column, I wrote about what it would require to make a serious dent in oil consumption. It would require government to stop forcing us to live car-centered lives, and then reverse their policies so that most new development would be car-free, or at least pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.

John Brown, a friend of mine, wrote to me after the first of those columns, expressing skepticism that we could do anything about that car-centered life. First, he doubted that we could get rid of the economic advantages of the big-box store that you have to drive to ("the economies of scale").

Then he brought up the single toughest problem: "Our preference for living space. The housing market follows the consumer demand. If consumers really loved living above shops and having public parks as their green space, and living stacked, then everything would be townhomes and alleys.

"People would clamor for it and it would be built. But the fact is that while some people love it, most people want a home with some space. Are you really suggesting that the demand for detached homes is artificially induced by some housing regulation that occurs in every locality in the nation?

"If the option is there, people choose more space. The only time they don't is when it's too expensive to do otherwise. How are you going to change that? Or are you suggesting that people have only been trained to want space?

"Given the economies of scale and the desire for space, we are going to have large distances between all the places we want to be. So the only way to make cars go away is to make it cost less and save time using public transportation.

"It's got to be more convenient than cars. But that still doesn't deal with the fact that the distances are large."

Brown's objection is a real one. I share the common love of open spaces. Meadows and trees are pleasing to the human eye. We like to see green life around us.

We weren't trained to want this, unless you consider evolution to be training -- the landscape the human eye generally finds beautiful to live in is precisely the savannah landscape in which predators can be seen from a distance, yet water and food are plentiful.

What we have been trained into is the need to own that space individually. It is a fact of social history that whatever only wealthy people can have, other people adopt as symbols of status.

Back when only the rich could be fat, stoutness was a sign of status. Now everybody's fat, so the rich hire personal trainers and have liposuction.

When only the rich could spend their days indoors, Europeans shunned freckles and suntans as signs of low status. Then the poor and middle class moved indoors for their labor, and the rich moved out onto the tennis courts and swimming pools.

Suddenly a suntan was a status symbol, and guess what? Fake tans! Tanning booths! Anything to seem rich!

Ownership of land has long been a symbol of status and still is. The more land, the higher the status. So what good does it to do build a million-dollar house if it isn't sitting on at least an acre, in a neighborhood where all the lots are huge.

Never mind that most of us don't have time to enjoy those huge yards; that many of us only spend time in our yard when we're mowing and weeding.

Never mind that our actual outdoor pleasures could easily be met by small patios and gardens, coupled with small public parks within walking distance of our homes.

We can't give up those big lawns because it's a symbol of our status. That land means that we've arrived. To give it up would mean that we're not successful!

Yet big house lots mean greater distances to get out of the residential neighborhood to where the retail space is. When lots are smaller and houses are closer together, you can get out of the neighborhood on foot far more easily.

That's why I said we have to change our social expectations. We have to make it a mark of shame to be stuck in a neighborhood where the lots are so huge that you can't walk in order to get anywhere.

It's already a huge inconvenience and expense. I daresay most readers of this column spend most of their gas money and transportation time on two things: Shopping and commuting. And how much of that is spent just getting out of your neighborhood?

Admit it: You're sick of those drives you take every day. You dread getting in the car time after time, just to get through the day.

But you can't quit because ... because where would you move? Into a poor neighborhood? That wouldn't put you any closer to work, would it? And you spent all that time and money getting out of neighborhoods of small yards and small houses, didn't you?

What we need, then, is for people with money to do what money buys you the power to do: improve their lives. And the first improvement is to get out of those miserable island neighborhoods where you own a lot of land but have no time to enjoy it because you're driving driving driving all the time.

Look at how you actually use your big yard. Backyard barbecue on the patio or deck. Toddlers playing in a fenced and protected space. Gardening -- flowers and vegetables. Now and then, a big athletic activity or party that uses the whole lawn space.

Now imagine living in a house where your garage opens onto the alley in the back. You still have a deck or patio in back, and a small but decent grassy area with trees. Big enough for the barbecue. Big enough for toddlers to play in. Big enough for trees to grow and tree forts to be built.

Your front yard is small, too, but you can make it a garden spot and sit on the front porch and watch people pass by just beyond your picket fence, while the toddlers play inside that fence.

Across the street or just around the corner there's a park with wide open greenspace, where those occasional games of hide-and-seek and ultimate Frisbee and touch football can be played. Where neighborhood kids can get together for pickup games of soccer or softball, without having to drive them to league games.

Neighborhoods where everybody walks to school on sidewalks, and shops on foot or on bicycles (or has purchases delivered).

You know, the neighborhoods in It's a Wonderful Life.

Those neighborhoods have disappeared, at first because everybody wanted to appear rich, and later because local governments legislated to make everything more convenient for drivers.

We need to get government to stop forcing all developers to follow the car-centered pattern of development, and to start requiring that new developments be foot-friendly and connected rather than islanded.

And we need to change our values. We need to recognize that these big yards and exclusive neighborhoods are sucking time and money out of our lives.

We need to start demanding not to have real estate agents show us isolated, lonely, yard-heavy houses that require us to drive all the time and then, when we're home, spend all our time tending the doggone yard!

We need to say, "I want to be within an easy walk of a grocery store, with sidewalks all the way." "I don't want a huge yard -- who has time for it? -- I want to see a house near a public park where the kids can play and then come home when I call."

But you don't even think to ask for those things because you already know that they don't exist.

They will if you want them.

My friend John Brown reminded me that people like privacy, and I agree -- we do. But small yards with fences offer as much privacy as we have now with big yards.

And along with privacy, we also have a need for human company and a dread of complete isolation. Right now we isolate ourselves to an uncomfortable, unnatural degree. It's one of the reasons we are so susceptible to fearmongering politics -- we close our garage door and huddle alone in our television rooms and watch the screen and tremble because there's no easily-accessible dose of human company just outside the house.

John Brown asked me, if we dread isolation so much, "Why don't cities and communities start with bunched-up tight quarters? Why do they always start spread out and then begin subdividing as demand and, therefore, prices rise?"

But my friend has forgotten his history (or, knowing America's educational system, he never knew it). Towns all start bunched up. Even tiny villages bunch up -- for protection, so you know who belongs and who doesn't. The spreading only began with the car.

Now you see suburban developments get plunked down in the middle of nowhere -- but that's because the developers know that the government will build roads to connect them, so the developers go where the land is cheap.

Think about that. The developers go where the land is cheap, which means land outside the city, far from any useful destination. And why is it cheap there? Because nobody wants to live there. Property values are much higher closer in, so only the rich can afford to build big, status-sized houses close to town.

The rising middle class has to go miles from anywhere to find houses they can afford. They hope that when enough of them have moved into an area, somebody will build a grocery store.

But my plan would require the developer to build the grocery store into the plan for the village he's building right from the start. The streets would all connect; no cul-de-sacs. There would be sidewalks everywhere, and retail close at hand. It would be a neighborhood from the moment you move in.

Right now, the reason we build in distant, isolated neighborhoods is because they are undesirable and therefore easier to afford. If they were desirable, then that is the land that would be in the most demand, and therefore it would be the most expensive.

Even if you like things fine the way they are -- you're proud of your SUV and love spending most of your free time in it, and you adore mowing the yard every week instead of doing things with your family -- then think about this:

Because of the rate we're burning oil, our kids, or maybe grandkids, won't have any.

So they'll have to live in smaller neighborhoods. They'll have to walk or take public transportation.

The difference is, it will have come on them as a disaster, an economic collapse, and they really will be poor.

We could do it now, voluntarily, virtually without cost. The money you save by burning less gasoline and the time you save by driving less and the health you gain by walking more -- these will easily pay for any rise in prices of commodities (though I don't think there will need to be any).

By cutting car use in half, we'll have enough oil to keep airplanes flying for three or four hundred years (solar powered, coal-fired, or nuclear airplanes are not a serious option on anybody's timetable).

We can keep getting those out-of-season fruits from South America into our kitchens, and taking vacations on distant islands.

We can continue to live richly, by ceasing to consider huge houses, endless driving, and big box stores a desirable thing in our lives.

Remember, truly rich people have drivers take them on those tedious commutes, so they can do something better with their time during the drive. Which is what people who take the bus and the train also get. It's only the middle class that's suckered into wasting all those hours driving themselves everywhere.

If you're spending all your time on the road, my friends, then you have definitely not arrived.

Let's get our status symbols in order, get out of our cars, live in our neighborhoods, and make sure that our children don't have to pay for the irreplaceable gasoline we so ignorantly combusted.

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