By Hilary Smith, Sustainability Resource Center
What would a post-fossil fuel society look like?
This was the question explored by author and peak oil expert Richard Heinberg at the recent“Live More With Less” conference at Utah Valley University, organized by the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance (MESA). Heinberg, along with area professors and experts, offered practical steps toward living sustainably, and left me thinking about my own preparations for post-fossil fuel living.
In his well-paced, inspiring and eye-opening talk, Heinberg argued that the U.S. economy, which for the past 150 years has relied on cheap fossil fuels, is due for an overhaul. He explained that world oil production has almost flatlined, and that now, oil prices are increasing in order to pay for the extraction of the tougher-to-extract oil that remains: deep-water oil, tar sands, and tight gas obtained through hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Heinberg says the industry needs even higher oil prices because exploration and production costs are increasing around 11 percent per year—but the economy can’t sustain those higher prices, and the environmental impacts get worse and worse as the oil becomes harder to access.
In short, he says, we are all going to have to curb our addictions to fossil fuels, and soon. “We do appear to be approaching the limits to economic growth,” says Heinberg. “It’s important to learn to live more with less now, and avoid the rush later.”
Heinberg founded the Post Carbon Institute in 2003 to study sustainability and alternatives to fossil fuel. When fossil fuels are gone, or are simply too costly to access, Heinberg says we will need to do things differently. A question he stressed is, will this societal, economic, and ideological change be adaptive, or will it be crisis-driven?
I often argue this point with my friends. How much of our stubborn clinging to over-consumptive behaviors is just human nature? How much crisis will it take before a critical mass of people will change their minds and actions? And what are the best ways to share information in a meaningful way so as to encourage people to make necessary changes before it’s too late?
Near the conclusion of Heinberg’s talk, he described what he envisions a post-fossil fuel economy might look like, emphasizing resilience and adaptability. Such a system would feature shock-absorbing structures, redundancy in critical systems, dispersed system control points, dispersed inventories, and balancing feedback loops. It would call for a less mobile society, more thoughtfully designed buildings, and a food system that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels for transportation or fertilization. Most importantly, he says, the new paradigm will require the use of renewable energy. On all counts, it looks quite different from our current growth-focused, efficiency-obsessed economy.
I was most excited by the practical tips offered by conference panelists, who described how they have answered Heinberg’s call toward post-fossil fuel living in their own lives. Keith and Celia Bell—self-proclaimed “urban homesteaders” who farm on every square inch of their half-acre yard in downtown Salt Lake City—were particularly inspiring examples. Celia Bell talked about maintaining her urban farm, from building and cleaning chicken huts to setting up drip irrigation to attracting predators, like snakes, to keep everything in balance. And she highlighted the rewards: free, rich compost, turned by the power of her
own chickens; 50 pints of salsa and 28 quarts of tomato puree put up for the winter; two and a half gallons of home-harvested honey; and a gratifying day-job that pays the food bills by growing almost everything at home. Other panelists, like John Loveless and Randy Wells, talked through the particulars of home solar energy systems, noting that each was currently generating more than enough solar energy to power and heat his home. Keith Bell spoke about a website he helped create that tells city residents, based on the size and location of their property, how much solar power they could generate from panels on their roofs.
Being a non-car-owning, frequent rider of public transportation, subject to a bus route whose timing has been unreliable of late, I was inspired by the words of U of U Ecology and Economics Professor Hans Ehrbar. He prompted audience members to “Ride TRAX, even if it’s inconvenient—and to bug UTA when it’s inconvenient.”
At the end of the day, the strongest message that emerged from the conference was one of community reliance—and to me, that’s the thing that makes these changes fun, and worth making. “We’re going to have some rough patches as we go along,” said Heinberg, “but we’re all in this together.”
Hilary Smith is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities. She is a graduate assistant with the Sustainability Resource Center.