Becoming aware of the pervasiveness of oil also means becoming aware of the total dependence of our society on oil and fossil fuels. In the last sixty to seventy years, all of our major systems have become dependent on cheap oil and energy. Food. Material goods. Water. Daily household activities - cooking, cleaning, baking, laundry, heating and cooling the house. Transportation to work, school, daycare, errands, appointments, entertainment. Commerce. Communication.
As these cheap energy systems arose, replacing the old infrastructure with incredible speed, our other systems were lost. The skills and tools that we used to produce food, get our water, conduct business and move our bodies around began to decay and rust away. Now, for the most part, the remnants of the diverse systems we depended on for centuries exist only in other countries (places we don't care to visit outside of picturesque resorts), cultures such as the Amish, and on paper. Most Americans can no longer even remember a time before plastic or cars.
Excessively cheap energy enabled the removal of our most basic systems from our sight, and removed the most basic skills from our repertoire. Farming as a human activity largely disappeared, and the rhythms of agricultural life died. The understanding of our fundamental dependence on ecology faded. Knowledge of soil and sky was replaced by rote memorization of random facts soon forgotten, meaningless without connection to our lives. Seasons were replaced by time clocks and bells. Community and social networks were replaced by money and jobs.
And for some people, this is preferable. For some, a life of cheap energy means a life of freedom and ease, an escape from drudgery and boredom and toil and strife. They have no yearning for fresh air or physical labor. They enjoy an existence in the cocoon of climate control and contrived safety and things that appear on-demand. Some people manage to enjoy the benefits of cheap energy while avoiding the pitfalls caused by the stresses, pollutions, and demands of modern living. They are successful in our age of cheap energy, and the thought of a future based on anything different is so foreign as to be quite distasteful.
But other people feel that something has been lost. Even in my generation - a generation raised as computers began to dominate - or in the generation after - raised on a diet of commercials and infant formula - some of us seem to know that the most essential aspects of our lives have been replaced with cheap conveniences and diminishing returns. Although we've never known another way to live, we recognize that the things that make humans happiest have been replaced with whatever we can get to fill the void.
Peak oil may mean the peak of many good things - but perhaps many bad things will peak and decline as well. When we think of peak oil, we think of the positive things we will lose, but not the negative things that will also fade away. Peak cars may mean peak transportation, but also peak roadkill, motor vehicle accidents, wetlands paved with generic strip malls. Peak medicine may also mean the peak of side effects, pill popping, and interventions that do more harm than good. Peak computers could mean a peak in eyestrain, carpal tunnel syndrome, days spent in a disembodied haze moving digital information.
We may discover that the trade-offs forced by declining energy supplies are not so bad as they might seem, that horse manure is not so much worse than poisonous gasoline fumes, and hauling hay is not worse than assembling widgets. We may discover that a more plant-based diet makes the chicken dinner on Sunday infinitely more tasty and less consumerism makes birthday presents much more exciting.
We may discover that increases in efficiency have only resulted in increased expectations and isolation. We thought we were gaining time with our washers and dryers, but instead we got the expectation that we always be spotless. We thought we were just gaining mobility with our cell phones, but we also got the expectation that we leash ourselves to our jobs day and night. As our energy base erodes year after year, we may need to let go of some of these technologies. Yes, the loss of things like these are painful at first, but we may find that the loss of dishwashers could mean the gain of conversations with friends after dinner as we wash our dishes together, the loss of television might mean the gain of literature. The unknown is frightening, but the unknown is not always bad.
Let's not spend time romanticizing the past, or pretend that we can all go back to a way of life now lost. We have seven times the people on the planet as we did before the age of oil began, and we have degraded many of the ecological supports that provided our way of life. Along the way, we've achieved miracles - miracles that we can choose to save if we shift our attitudes. But let's recognize that past ways of living offered many benefits that we can regain if we consciously choose to let go of our desperate clutching at the status quo.
Is our present situation so incredibly fabulous that we can't imagine anything better? Is our isolated, status-oriented, insecure, substance-addicted, anxiety-riddled, ecologically destructive society so damn wonderful we couldn't prefer any alternatives? Do we really love this way of life? Do we love it so much we are willing to sacrifice our children and the world? Or are we just too scared to step into the abyss and design something better?
Could peak oil mean the beginning of something good? Our lives are so intertwined with cheap oil that the vacuum of it's loss could mean catastrophe, or just an ugly descent into poverty and conflict. No doubt that will happen in some places, in some times. But not everywhere. If some communities can manage the energy decline, embrace the possibilities, preserve the best of what we have achieved even as the excess vanishes, and envision a different path, we can choose to make the future a place where we can really enjoy the meaning and pleasures of our lives.