Special Report: Peak Oil

A Personal Peak Oil Discovery Process, Part II

Taking steps to prepare for a world of diminishing oil resources.

By John Rawlins
Published June 16, 2006

(Ed. Note: This is Part II of a two-part series. Part I chronicled the process by which John Rawlins discovered the scale and extent of the coming peak oil crisis. Part II details the steps he has taken to prepare for a world of diminishing oil resources.)

We live on the west side of Cascade mountains in Washington state, a moist and moderate climate where everything grows fast. Our ten acre [four hectare] plot is about half forested and half open field with grass that a local farmer cuts for his cows.

Our home is all-electric, including the furnace. I began intensively cutting dead and down trees for heating and found that our home heats well enough with an air-tight wood stove to get by during most winter weather, with wood I collect on our own property - one problem solved (using a gasoline powered chain saw, however)!

The Pacific Northwest is lucky to have most of its electric power produced by hydropower, so peak oil and gas would impact our electric supply relatively little compared with the rest of the US We also generate very little electricity with coal burning, and if the world decides to reduce coal combustion to limit greenhouse gas emissions we again would be relatively immune.

Because we have a relatively decent outlook for our electric supply, we decided to experiment with electric propulsion for transport. However, just try to buy an electric vehicle in the US! It made little sense to use a heavy electric car to move my weight back and forth to work, so I bought an electric motor kit for my recumbent bicycle from a guy in Toronto who purchased the parts from China.

That worked pretty well, but the speed was rather limited for rainy days (of which we get a lot here). So I shopped around and purchased an electric scooter (top speed 30 mph) from a guy in Florida who owns a business that imports from China and distributes from Chicago.

Thanks to China and a couple of North American entrepreneurs, I now have electric transport that's really cheap, albeit unprotected from wet weather. With enough oil-based clothing I can stay dry.

As soon as we understood the food/oil linkage, we began planting fruit and nut trees in our open field areas. Soon after that I discovered the concept of permaculture, which originated in Australia, and "edible forest gardens" (one of the permaculture ideas).

We are still in the process of planting food-producing trees, bushes, and groundcover as rapidly as two aging people can, while still trying to enjoy all our hobbies and dealing with an intensively-managed vegetable garden. We anticipate that, when economic tough times do arrive, we may have some of our children (or even local friends) sharing our home, and our food planning takes that possibility into account.

One of the more bizarre aspects of this entire discovery process is the reactions we experience from others when we try to share our knowledge. Most people just dismiss the warnings and seem to ignore them completely! Some appear to take us seriously, but make no changes in their lifestyle. A small minority start reading and making serious changes.

These reactions helped us decide to change our retirement plans - we will stay right where we are rather than move into the city of Bellingham where obtaining enough food and staying warm in the winter could be real problems a few years from now. Cities that do not plan and begin preparations for this future could soon become very unpleasant places to live.

The dean at our college convinced me to make one more attempt to inform our college and community before retiring completely. The community college has adopted as its "Issue of the Year" for 2006-2007 the combined topics of peak oil, climate change, and permaculture (some folks think of this as sustainability).

I outlined some pretty aggressive possible outcomes, including lifestyle changes among college students, faculty, and staff. We also will attempt to do the research needed to plan for energy descent at the city and county levels, following models created by people in scattered places like Kinsale-Ireland, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon.

I've showed the documentary film "The End of Suburbia" [read the RTH review] several times at the college, and we're beginning to view the second great documentary "The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil."

The latter DVD is the story of how Cuba responded to falling off the oil cliff in the early 1990s. In contrast, the "developed world" will probably experience a much more gradual decline. Within a few years during which many people thought they might starve, the Cubans discovered permaculture and began growing food just about everywhere, after they spent considerable effort revitalizing soil depleted by the green revolution growing methods.

This film has several powerful messages for people existing in their comfortable bubble of the "consensus trance", as James Kunstler describes it. You owe it to yourself, your family, your friends, and your community to watch one or both of these films, do your homework on peak oil/climate change/permaculture, pass your information on to anyone who'll listen, and start making drastic changes immediately.

If you want to see a list of books, websites, and web-based articles that have influenced my thinking the most, go to my college course website and become a peak oil addict yourself.

And Good Luck - we'll all need it.

John Rawlins is a retired nuclear physicist who lives in Washington with his wife (a psychologist). He teaches physics at Whatcom Community College. They live on ten acres of mostly wooded land about sixteen kilometres (ten miles) northeast of Bellingham and enjoy bicycle trips on the islands, skiing (near Mt. BGaker), sea-kayaking in the Sound, and occasionally some river kayaking. Prior to his retirement, Rawlins worked for 19 years for Westinghouse-Hanford Co, but took early retirement because he wanted his work to make a difference. Visit his website: http://faculty.whatcom.ctc.edu/jrawlins/.


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By EV Rider (anonymous) | Posted June 17, 2006 at 13:01:40

The entire edifice of American civilization—from our mega-scale methods of food production to our great repositories of national wealth, that is, the equity invested in our sprawling suburbs—is propped up, trembling as if balanced on matchsticks, on cheap oil. And there is no substitute for cheap oil.

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By nerfer (anonymous) | Posted June 19, 2006 at 13:01:43

Permaculture makes a lot of sense. Why plant flowering trees in your yard that don't make fruit? Why spend so much of your resources on grass? The vast majority of the rest of the world doesn't live like the U.S. In Eastern Europe, people grow grapes in arbors over the porch, and keep fruit trees and vegetable gardens instead of grass. Those in cities often have a small 'dacha' or 'villa' outside the city. The farmers still use animal and hand labor for many crops. Beyond the obviously better mass transportation, I think they will be much better prepared for very expensive oil & oil-dependent products.

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By Oilman2 in Houston (anonymous) | Posted June 20, 2006 at 09:23:32

I went through all of this Peak Oil mind freak 10 years ago, after reading Hubbert's papers. You can do sustainable, and you can get as ready as possible. But don't forget that the real underlying reason for our resource problem is population overshoot. Because of this, and the coming 4th Turning, things are likely to get very nasty for an extended period. Prepare, prepare, prepare!!

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By under_hog (anonymous) | Posted June 20, 2006 at 19:30:31

Ask your local atmospheric scientist if an AVE


is right for you!


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