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May/June 2009


The Services We Seek

It is now almost de rigueur for any self-respecting peak oil activist engaged in a conversation about energy to announce that the automobile era will soon be over; that cheap air travel and cheap food will soon be a thing of the past; and that life as we know it will generally disappear.

If anybody - most probably someone already in the know - is still listening at that point, the conversation may continue. But just as often those who are out of the peak oil loop will ask to talk about something else, as if the peak oil activist has made some thoughtless remark about one of his listeners lacking an arm.  Perhaps a different approach would yield better results.

Economists tell us that it is not goods which people seek, but the services which goods provide.  We would have scant use for cars if they didn’t provide transportation.  Air-conditioners would be of little import if they didn’t produce cool homes and offices.  Processed foods would be of no interest if they did not satisfy our hunger and our need for pleasurable tastes.  Unfortunately, most people, especially those in North America, equate their cars with transportation.  They may also equate air-conditioners with a cool environment in summer.  And, they may unconsciously think of grocery store shelves as the point of origin for their food.  To simply tell them that all of this is coming to an end because it is unsustainable seems to imply that every service they depend on for mobility, comfort and nutrition will abruptly disappear.  People either won’t believe it or they’ll say that the situation as described seems hopeless.

But neither the need for these services nor the means to provide them will disappear.  Rather the mode in which they are offered and the cleverness and amount of effort needed to get them will change.  The challenge then is to get people to think not about such notions as electric cars, but rather about how to get the mobility they want, say, through public transportation, passenger rail, cycling and even walking.  They need to be led to contemplate how they can keep their homes and offices and themselves cool in ways other than turning on their air-conditioners.  They need to be encouraged to think about alternatives to getting the food they need such as farmers’ markets, local farms, and home or community gardens.  In short, they need to participate in the response.  All of this seems plainly obvious.  The point then is this:  It is only half a discussion to talk about the things we’ll have to give up after peak oil and not about the ways in which we’ll obtain the services those things represent.

It is precisely this “thing” orientation which has to date prevented us from thinking clearly about organizing our lives and our societies.  Instead of building beautiful, densely populated, pedestrian-friendly cities, we have sprawled out into the countryside because cheap energy and inexpensive private automobiles made it possible.  The result has been that the distance between the services we need everyday has gotten much greater - because it could. We think we’ve gained mobility and saved time.  All we’ve really done is swap the cheap, easy, low-energy mobility of walking, cycling and public transportation, for the privatized, high-energy, high-maintenance mobility of the car.  This thing called the car which was supposed to liberate us ends up only isolating us and degrading our social and physical health as well as the health of the planet.

Admittedly, it is difficult to convince people that a different way of doing something will provide satisfactory results.  But as long as the emphasis remains on an energy transition that for example, simply replaces one kind of car with another, the real work of adjusting to a low-energy society will be unfinished.  Rather, we need a thorough-going inventory and analysis of the services we seek and new ways to obtain them with a lot less energy

Much of that thinking is already being done, and many experiments are underway.  The task is to introduce the “services” way of thinking into peak oil discourse so that 1) we are not inadvertently promoting the idea that gadgets and products that are “greener” are always the best route to adaptation and 2) people can have confidence that there are, in fact, ways - perhaps many good ways  - to get the everyday services we seek.

Kurt Cobb is a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen and his work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, 321energy, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, The Wall Street Journal Online and many other sites.  Kurt is a founding member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas - USA and has served on the board of the Michigan Organic Food & Farm Alliance.   He lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan and maintains a weblog: http://resourceinsights.blogspot.com/  His email address is kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com

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