As an adult I visited the neighborhood I grew up in and was surprised to see how much it had changed. As we drove past our old home my heart sank when I saw that our property had been divided into parcels and was now surrounded by a chain link fence about eight feet tall. The fence made our old home look like a prison. I tried to put the image out of my mind and recalled instead the meadows and trees I had explored as a boy. I accepted this as proof that “you can’t go back.” Things always change, and if by some miracle they hadn’t, you would still be looking at them from the new perspective of a changed person.
I used to clarify “you can’t go back” by saying that you can go back to a place, but you can’t go back in time. Unfortunately even travel back to old places will soon not be possible for most of us. Whether we travel via plane, train, automobile, motorcycle, or ship all of these forms of transportation, and virtually all others, are dependent on petroleum. Combustion engines use oil as a fuel and lubricant; electric cars use oil in their manufacturing processes and are filled with plastics, an oil byproduct; oil is used in the mining and processing of metals; and several gallons of oil are contained in every single tire, even if those tires are installed on solar-powered vehicles made of wood. For a hundred years our transportation system has been dependent on oil. Our ways of life, our economies, our manufacturing processes, our food systems, nearly everything we do, is directly or indirectly dependent on oil.
Make no mistake: for a century this has worked well for us. America’s massive consumption of resources and energy has propelled us to superpower status. But because we’ve grown so dependent on an inexpensive and seemingly endless supply of energy we’ve been avoiding a sobering fact: the Earth’s supply of oil is limited, and has begun running out. No oil company or oil-producing country will admit that peak oil has been reached, but most experts agree that global production of oil peaked in 2005. In the six years since then global production has dropped annually, new oil has become increasingly difficult to locate and extract, and as a result oil prices have hit all-time highs. When prices reach the levels they did in 2008, people bought less oil and demand for it went down. That showed the oil companies that if they wish to maintain profits their prices can’t get too high. This forces them to limit their costs. In other words, if the cost of producing a barrel of oil will result in a selling price so high that customers won’t buy it, then oil companies won’t explore, extract, and refine. Why would they do that if it couldn’t be done profitably? This does mean that the Earth will never run out of oil. We on the other hand definitely will, and this process began in 2005.
When it becomes too expensive to turn oil into the products the world relies on, our lives will change in many ways. The most obvious is transportation, and this does mean that it will be much more difficult to travel further than a few miles. This is true not only for trips back to your childhood home, but also for any food you buy now that’s grown more than fifty miles away, and for any items you buy that are manufactured more than fifty miles away. As our reliance on fossil fuels goes away and our focus turns towards sustainable, locally-based lifestyles, things that relied on fossil fuel-powered transportation such as the travel industry, the hotel industry, the trucking industry, the courier industry, the airline industry, the cargo and cruise ship industries, the convention industry, the tourism industry, and others will all be forced to evolve into other things.
Transportation is just the tip of the iceberg. We rely on fossil fuels to either power or produce things in every facet of our lives. Fossil fuels have made our luxurious lifestyle possible, a lifestyle in which the majority of us survive and even thrive without knowing how to make anything, clothe ourselves, build shelter, or grow our own food. Evolving past our reliance on fossil fuels will necessitate a blossoming of human creativity and knowledge, and re-awakened senses of self, family, and community. I choose to evolve and look forward to this world. Others may refuse to evolve, clinging to what they know even as it disappears around them. We can’t go back but we can choose to evolve, and the sooner we make that choice the easier our transition will be.
Rob Branch-Dasch runs Pinyon Springs, a vegan business researching ways to incorporate organic native and desert-tolerant plants into a compassionate, sustainable, healthy American diet for the future. He is also the author of the blog KnowThankYou.com. Rob and his wife share their home with Marbles, an adopted rabbit; Rosie, a rescued dog; and millions of uninvited dust mites that they are struggling to name.