Two years ago, one sunny summer day I went with my family to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Along the verdant slopes of the brook where my two children were building dams, I shared my bench seat with another parent, a father from Brooklyn, it turned out. As we conversed, I discovered that he was an independent analyst of the world’s reserves of petroleum. He asked me if I was aware that the world’s supply of oil had peaked. When I said vaguely, he introduced me to the concept of “peak oil.” Briefly, peak oil is when a well’s endowment of oil has been 50 percent depleted. Once the peak is passed, oil production begins to go down while cost begins to go up. The world’s oil reserves, the analyst explained, will rapidly decline during the next 40 years, despite claims by oil industry CEO’s that peak oil is a myth. Peak oil is a hard reality—just check out the website www.mypeakoil.org.
I introduced this concept of peak oil and its related statistics to the class of college freshmen I teach. The 16 young people looked at me blankly. Peak what? It was not a mainstream news item.
Two years later, peak oil is receiving greater currency as a media term, thanks to greater public awareness of global warming and the obvious link between the two. Therefore, I went to the recent “Newark’s Green Future Summit” curious how my home city plans to go green. Spearheaded by Newark’s maverick young mayor, Cory Booker, the summit featured featuring prominent authorities on sustainable development and job creation. Newark is on its way to be a national model for clean and efficient energy use in a green economy and a “shining example of how to rebuild the very core of America, its cities,” asserted Phil Angelides of the Apollo Alliance, the summit sponsor. (Angelides is the former Treasurer of the State of California, and ran for California governor in 2006 on the Democratic ticket, with impeccable environmental credentials.) At a press conference held in the lobby of the conference site, the New Institute of Technology’s student center, Phil Angelides stood next to Cory Booker, and spoke words I thought I would never hear: “As it was the end of steam power in the 19th century it will be the end of oil in the 21st century.” Here was the outcome of peak oil said in stark terms.
Awareness of peak oil consequences further emerged during lunch, when the keynote speaker was Ralph Izzo, the CEO and chairman of PSE & G. A bright and articulate speaker, Izzo is moving his company toward implementing green changes in its own practices, and encouraging its customers to do so. Izzo asked the audience to image a future based on “three ridiculous assumptions.” Assumption number one is that energy consumption in 2050 will equal the energy consumption of today. This will mean no more electrical gadgets, period: No more refrigerators, no more air conditioners, no more personal computers. The second ridiculous assumption is that fossil fuel will be outlawed by 2050. One can only walk, pedal, or swim. The third ridiculous assumption is that by 2050, “anything that plugs into a wall is illegal.” Ridiculous? Unless carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by 80 percent by 2050, “these ridiculous assumptions will become reality.”
Now, imagine a future where there are no tailpipes on vehicles because they all run on electricity, said Izzo. “Appliances are mandated to use the lowest possible electricity; and electricity is generated by solar, wind, nuclear, and natural gas (in that order). “ Izzo concluded his remarks by outlining how his company will help bring its New Jersey customers to this kind of future.
Woe to the U.S. that its Secretary of Energy is not a Ralph Izzo. For his statements are backed by facts. Indeed, the carbon dioxide emissions of the U.S. are projected to increase 15 percent by 2050 if no mandatory cuts are made on emissions from tailpipes and from coal-based electricity production. Emissions have already increased 20 percent since 1990. Which of Izzo’s scenarios seems most likely given the model of development that the U.S. has embraced since it became industrialized in the mid 1800’s?
Perhaps some words of E.F. Schumacher are in order here. Before a green revolution can reverse current trends, before Newark can become the national model for a green city that generates high-quality, green-collar jobs for its residents that Cory Booker envisions, one must look at the economic system and the role of technology in maintaining that economic system. Schumacher is the author of Small is Beautiful, the famous 1973 book that renounced complex, expensive technology and substituted in its place “appropriate technology,” technology that fits the given conditions of the area. Big is not better; simple is better than complex. Schumacher believes that U.S. industrial society is bound to fail because “it has disrupted, and continues to disrupt…organic relationships in such a manner that world population is growing…beyond the means of subsistence.” He goes on to say in his 1979 book Good Work that “it [industrial society] is rapidly depleting the earth’s nonrenewable stocks of…resources—mainly fuels and metals,” another element in its inevitable failure.
Schumacher then states the heart of his argument: “It is no longer possible to believe that any political or economic reform, or scientific advance, or technological progress could solve the life-and-death problems of industrial society… I know of no better way of changing the ‘system’ than by putting into the world a new type of technology—technologies by which small people can make themselves productive and relatively independent.”
Schumacher, like Karl Marx, was interested in the structural effects of modern technology, i.e., how man’s ideas, views, and conceptions change as his mode of production changes—as how and what he produces changes. This, in turn, changes the social relations. With inappropriate technology, i.e., vast industrialization and mechanization, man has become alienated from himself, from what he produces, from others.
The hope for an advanced industrial society like ours is that its green revolution embrace human-scale, appropriate technology. It must be community-based, community-driven, and use local resources. But first, reader, go back and reread the opening paragraphs about peak oil. Newark’s ability to serve as a model for green development rests solely on its residents’ ability to understand that the years of cheap, plentiful oil are over. Its unique geographic position as a transportation hub will never be realized unless the city can create its own non-renewable energy sources to power its mass transit. Its potential to be a sustainable community where residents work where they live, play on green grounds that formerly were black-topped parking lots, and walk to shop at their local food cooperative will never be realized unless Newark’s leaders educate its residents that the time to switch to non-renewable energy sources is not tomorrow, it is now.