So Long, Farewell

Remember Peak Oil? Before fracking opened up vast amounts of gas and shale oil, before the protests against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, before BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout, peak oil was one of environmentalists’ chief concerns. Greens said that, at some point soon, crude oil production would decline, forcing a spike in petroleum prices that would fundamentally alter life as we know it. The prediction was at once a warning and a hope: We had to prepare for an era of oil scarcity, and in those preparations lay the groundwork for a less consumption-driven lifestyle.

Advances in extraction technologies appear to have delayed that day of reckoning, and given Cornucopians plenty of ammunition for bashing their longtime adversaries, the Malthusians. But geology doesn’t waste its time with ideology or wishful thinking. The fact remains that global reserves of liquid petroleum are on the decline and that total global crude oil production has been on a plateau since about 2005. That plateau has only been sustained thanks to a fossil fuel boom here in North America. Here’s how energy markets analyst Chris Nelder explains the situation on the website Smart Planet: “The question isn’t ‘Can fracking save the world from peak oil’ but ‘How long can America make up for the declines in the rest of the world?’”

As long as crude oil prices stay high enough to justify the massive investments in new drilling, the answer is, frustratingly, a while. At the very least, long enough to do much more harm to the atmosphere and to the communities that are at ground zero of the extreme energy rush.

This summer reporter Tara Lohan took a roadtrip across North America to investigate what this long petroleum plateau looks like. “The view from the edge,” Lohan writes in her postcard from the energy frontier (page 18), “isn’t pretty.”

The fossil fuel industry’s determination to keep drilling confirms what we already know. We can’t wait for peak oil to somehow rescue us, because there will always be profit for the making, even at the gruesome bottom of the peak. There won’t be any geological deus ex machina to save us. Somehow, some way, we’ll need to make the conscious choice to turn away from fossil fuels.

I’m happy to report that this issue marks the first contribution from our new columnist, online video impresario Annie Leonard. If you’ve seen Annie’s “Story of Stuff” videos, you know that she’s an energetic and impassioned environmental activist with a knack for making complex issues seem simple. Annie’s “Material World” column will provide regular updates on what you can do to create a more fair and
sustainable society.

But I’m sorry to say that Annie’s arrival means we have to say goodbye to our longtime “Spyhopping” columnist, Gar Smith, Earth Island Journal’s founding editor. It has been an honor and a pleasure to work with Gar. I’ll miss his no-holds-barred commentary, his gift for muckraking, and his talent for puns.

As Gar is fond of saying … Vaya con Gaia.

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