From Bigger to Smaller(A)
On this page in the last Investing For a Better World, we wrote about the economic and environmental challenges of U.S. oil dependency. It’s easy to get discouraged by current trends. It’s perhaps even more disheartening to realize the advent of oil was only 150 years ago, and that we as a species have arguably done so much to threaten the health of the planet in so little time. Conversely, this brief history, this concentration of human activity, may provide the greatest source of hope for reversing the damage. Human beings have the capacity to create dramatic change in relatively short periods of time.
Prior to 1850, most of the energy powering economic and other human activity came from muscle power – from humans and domesticated animals. In comparison, oil as a source of energy was dramatically cheap and plentiful. According to author Richard Heinberg, “A single gallon of gasoline has about the same work potential as maybe six weeks of hard human labor. If we were to equate the two economically, either we would be paying people a fraction of a cent per hour for their labor or we would be paying over $1,000/gallon for gasoline.” Oil was also plentiful. As Heinberg states, “And then the question was, what else can we use this stuff for?” As a society, we’ve found plenty of answers – enough to equate to about 20 million barrels per day in the U.S. for transportation, agricultural production, plastics, and chemicals.
So we’ve built a world-dominating U.S. economy based on cheap oil, persistently finding more and more stuff to do with it. I can’t contemplate that these days without my thoughts going immediately to “The Lorax,” Dr. Seuss’ environmental tome, which my 3 year-old daughter (a budding environmentalist) counts among her favorite books. For anyone who hasn’t read it lately, “The Lorax” is told in the voice of the ambitious industrialist Onceler who chops all the beautiful and once plentiful Truffula trees to make non-descript but much in demand “Thneeds,” declaring “I meant no harm. I most truly did not. But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got. I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads. I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads… I went right on biggering selling more Thneeds. And I biggered my money, which everyone needs.”
Globally, we’ve “biggered” our oil consumption to the point where we’re now using oil at an estimated 4 to 5 times faster than it’s being discovered. The scenarios around reaching peak oil production (not to mention global warming) are consistently dismal. For the Onceler, biggering for the sake of biggering ultimately leads to a ghastly, smoggy world devoid of animals, sun and the Truffula trees that began it all. We don’t want similarly dire consequences.
There is great hope in new larger-scale global production of renewable and other alternative forms of energy, which in the U.S. is happening in spite of the lack of federal government leadership. It’s widely believed, however, that supply-side fixes won’t be sufficient to combat economic and environmental impacts of our oil dependency. Energy experts repeatedly remind us that the quickest and cheapest part of the solution is reducing demand. So it may be that the greatest hope comes from a shift in our thinking from “biggering” to “smallering” – which means rethinking transportation, communities, food production, and electricity on a global level. The big question is time. Can we shift away from oil dependency before we hit big energy shortages and/or irreversibly alter the climate? It’s conceivable that, if we could build an economy based on oil in 150 years, we could reduce our oil dependency more quickly than most experts predict. And that leads back to the Onceler’s ultimately wise warning: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”