It was the ongoing (now 73 days, I believe) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that made me consider getting back to writing this blog. I heard and read so many heated opinions on the topic, but nobody seemed to be echoing my own thoughts on the subject. It's a closely guarded secret that I got into bicycling because I was repulsed by the ramifications of oil dependence and the car-culture (now, I just like to ride my bike). Here are the key points that I think get missed.
1. This oil leak is under 5,000 feet of water. I read that the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig (the one that exploded) was capable of drilling under 8,000 feet of water to a depth of 30,000 feet. That's about six miles from the surface, and six miles from the people and equipment that could solve any problems in the course of operations. In this case, we've seen that even under a mere ONE mile of water, fixing this gusher, or even getting an accurate estimate of flow rate is extremely difficult. That we are now routinely going to such extreme places to get oil should be a little frightening. It reminds me of a recreational drug hobby that grows increasingly serious. It starts out innocently enough, just a fun thing to do once in awhile at parties. Pretty soon the user finds himself venturing into rough neighborhoods and dealing with dangerous, unsavory people to get his fix. Sooner or later, something bad happens, and anybody who hears about "another drug deal gone bad in that part of town" on the news is likely to be unsurprised.
2. There is no small amount of surprise and anger (from across the political spectrum) that the powers-that-be in the halls of government have not yet plugged the oil leak. This sentiment supposes that the government has not only technical know-how and equipment appropriate to this situation, but that they also have found ways of circumventing thermodynamics (static pressure a mile under water is around 2400 psi, and that is not a triviality). Because the government is big, powerful, and somewhat mysterious to most Average-Joe-the-Plumbers, the tendency is to assume infinite capability. Any failure to solve a technical problem is obvious evidence of a conspiracy. Whatever fucked up thing we can do to ourselves, we don't have to worry or take any personal responsibility, because the government either has a ready-for deployment solution or will create one on short notice. Now we are learning that the government cannot solve, or even try to solve every problem. There are really bad consequences to our actions, and there is not always a safety net.
3. We often hear about the problems of long-term storage of nuclear waste. But who's planning to maintain all these deepwater oil wells for the next one-thousand, one-hundred, or even fifty years? If the economy shits the bed (and it's more than a little flatulent already!), it's conceivable that maintaining all these wellheads will become a luxury we can't afford, if it hasn't already.
4. I recently got sucked into an online discussion among otherwise smart people who seemed to think that life in the not-too-distant future will go on, pretty much like it is now, with cars powered by something other than petroleum products. The old saw "the stone age didn't end because we ran out of stones" in the context of the Post-Oil Age is the stupidest fucking thing I've ever heard. We never ran cars on stones. In fact, during the Stone Age we lived in caves and ate raw meat, if we were lucky. Even well beyond the Stone Age, life was generally harder, less comfortable, and shorter than it is now. My middle-class American home has more creature comforts than were enjoyed by 17th Century Kings. Much of what we recognize as comfortable modernity could not have been possible without the abundance, energy density, and portability of oil products. Cars, aside from a very small number of experimental units and concept cars, have only run on petroleum distillates. There were no pre-petroleum cars that are worth mentioning. Sure, there are electric cars, but electricity doesn't come from our apparently infinite supply of fairy farts. Electricity comes, for the most part, from burning coal. If burning coal was a fine-and-dandy thing to do, it would be a no-brainer. But burning coal is widely known to suck ass in many respects, and it would be a lousy situation if we were forced to ramp up the burning of coal so 300 million people could continue to enjoy what Kunstler calls "the fiesta of happy motoring". The widespread use of cars is an anomaly in human history, dating back only a human lifetime or so. The presumption that the cars will keep going forever, even when refined oil isn't available, is ludicrous. Anyway, it was clear to me that these people who were having this discussion are to the point, as a result of the oil spill, of being fed up with oil and looking for alternatives. But they are still very much in the car-culture mindset, and can't see beyond that model. Also, most seem to be waiting for some clear directive from God, Obama, The Free Market, or some other authoritative entity that it's time to make a collective change. There was an undercurrent of community, as in "WE will do what is deemed to be necessary when the time comes". I wonder if it's possible that the next cognitive shift will be people moving toward direct action in their personal lives, rather than waiting to see where, if anywhere, the rest of the sheep herd is going.