If one accepts that climate change could be catastrophic for many ecosystems, including the multiple ones humans inhabit, what could possibly be considered more critical, more demanding of our full attention, right now?
The mother of all asteroids intersecting with our planet's orbit? All-out nuclear war? Aliens?
Well, try "peak oil" (put simply, the point at which the rate of global oil production begins to decline).
Peak oil has "the imperative of urgency," according to Richard Gilbert, an urban-issues consultant based in Toronto.
"The likely outcome of not dealing with this issue is not an environmental catastrophe. It's an economic and social catastrophe that may leave us unable to deal with the environmental catastrophe," he said in an interview.
In Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil, Gilbert and co-author Anthony Perl, an urban studies professor at Simon Fraser University, make a persuasive argument that global oil depletion is more imminent, and for that reason more important, than climate change.
One way or another, they say, there is a revolution coming.
"It is as if the power for our life-support system were about to be cut off by a blackout," the authors write in their book, the cover of which is adorned with a photo of a freighter attached to a SkySail, a large, wind-propelled towing kite that substitutes part of a ship's engine power.
The gushers are gone
For predictions from Anthony Perl and Richard Gilbert regarding how Canada would fare in an oil crisis, read excerpts from their interviews with Eve Savory.
In case you've missed the vigorous and contentious debate about peak oil, think of it as the time when half of all the oil that ever could be produced has been produced, whether that is from one particular field or from the planet's total supply.
More importantly, think of it as the end of easy oil.
"It's the end of the Beverly Hillbillies oil," Perl said. "The kind of oil that you stick a hole in the ground, and it starts squirting a gusher out under its own power."
In other words, the end of cheap oil.
At the same time as cheap oil declines, demand is increasing. Supply cannot keep up.
Predicting the date of peak oil is tricky. It involves many variables, such as the projected rates of consumption, how much oil is actually still in the ground and whether new technology could allow reserves that are currently unreachable to be tapped in the future.
What do you think about the peak oil issue? If you have questions for Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl, pose them here. We'll forward the questions to the authors and publish their answers.
If peak oil is many decades away,as some believe, there will be time for alternative energy technologies to be developed and adopted. The economic argument is that a free market will solve peak oil as soon as the price is high enough, by encouraging people to develop other sources of energy.
Gilbert and Perl believe those arguments underestimate the danger.
"The geological literature is more compelling than the economic literature," Perl said.
But whether one concludes, as Perl and Gilbert have, that the peak in global oil production is likely to occur in 2012 or far in the future, oil is inarguably a finite resource. More importantly, oil post-gusher will be more expensive, dangerous and politically risky than previously.
If peak oil theorists are right, countries such as the U.S. and the U.K., which have managed to increase consumption by importing oil, may eventually find there won't be oil to import.
The $1,000 plastic Santa
So, what does this mean for you?
Well, 95 per cent of all motorized transportation is fueled by oil. Almost half of that is freight. And freight has shaped what our economies, and hence our societies, have become.
To read Eve Savory's Q&A with the authors of Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil regarding how they expect Canada would fare in an oil crisis, click here.
"The economies of the countries of the world in a sense float on a sea of oil," Gilbert said. "They need that transportation to function in the way that they do now."
Oil at $250 US a barrel would be "the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane hitting the entire North American continent at the same time," said Perl. "There is no way for society to continue with these price increases without either an economic collapse or some kind of military crisis, or both."
How much would you be willing to pay for the plastic Santa from China? Orange juice in Calgary? And what about things our society considers essential — say, hospital beds and medicine, fire trucks and computers?
So, as we enter what Gilbert and Perl believe is the era of global oil depletion and oil prices rise (they have roughly quadrupled in the last four years), both men speak soberly of possible chaos.
"It's the kind of thing that could tip different economies, maybe the whole world, into an economic recession, which we know brings profound social disruption." Gilbert said.
Think the dirty thirties. And war.
"People will not just sit by and watch their societies and communities go extinct without some kind of response, beyond economic responses. That leads to a more turbulent world," said Perl.
Oil-rich Western Canada would be a choice morsel to court or conquer.
Revolution = sudden and dramatic change
Which brings us to the authors' transport revolution. Or revolutions, for they posit two.
In one, it is business as usual, and slowly the lights go out.
Gilbert and Perl see expensive oil turning life in the developed world cold, dark and bitter. They write that in a worst-case scenario, "car-dependent suburban residents … will have to abandon their homes or live at a subsistence level on what they can produce from their land."As The Atlantic magazine recently wrote in a different context, suburban McMansions will become the country's slums.
That's the "bad" revolution. Or, say the authors, we can electrify our world.Here is the authors' prescription for a successful transport revolution:
Start by moderating demand. Tax oil. Stop the planning and construction of all future infrastructure intended for oil-based transport, i.e. airports and freeways.
And start planning — by 2010 — for a rapid shift to electric propulsion. Electrify the existing railways and roadways and shift freight and personal travel to rail, trolley and bus, to electric scooters and personal grid-connected vehicles (known as GCVs).
Ships would move by sail, reserving oil-powered engines for tricky maneuverings in port and in storm. Aviation would be confined to very large, fuel-efficient planes.
"Electricity is the perfect energy carrier for an uncertain future because it's a carrier; it's not a source of energy," Perl said.
Hydro, tidal, geothermal, wind, ethanol and, yes, coal and nuclear all can feed into the grid during the transition, Perl and Gilbert write.
By 2025, the authors believe, 30 per cent of transportation in the U.S. can, and must, complete the shift away from oil. The cost, not surprisingly: trillions of dollars. On the other hand, they say, some of that money would be redeployed from airport and highway construction and maintenance. Against the rising cost of oil and the risk of societal collapse, those trillions are a bargain, they say.
"There will still be, hopefully, a global economy and trade and such. The difference is it will have to move differently than it does now," Perl said.
And more slowly.
WW II's recipe for change
Wildly impossible? Sci-fi fantasies dreamed in an ivory tower? Perhaps not, for the authors looked back as well as forward when devising their proposals, examining five previous revolutions in transport. One in particular is remarkable.
They call it the Great Pause. In 1941, before Pearl Harbour yanked the U.S. into the Second World War, American auto companies manufactured 3.8 million cars. Priorities changed on Dec. 7.
Among the multitude of websites dealing with future energy production and consumption is the U.S. National Petroleum Institute's 380-page document Hard Truths.
A widely quoted source is the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas. The Canadian branch of the international organization is here.
And if all this has made you need a laugh, check out these topical cartoons.
Within weeks, the War Production Board ordered a halt to the production of cars and light trucks. Steel, assembly lines and labour were turned to the making of bombers and anti-aircraft guns. Gasoline and tires were rationed.
By 1943, just 143 vehicles were produced. A "golden age" for public transit lasted through the war years.
"Individual sacrifice was justified in the name of national security, a recipe for legitimizing sudden and dramatic behavioural change," write Gilbert and Perl.
That is their recipe for action today.
"We need systemic change, and systemic change can only be initiated by governments," Gilbert said. "If people wait until the world really is in crisis, the risks … are much higher," said Perl.
Yet governments that claim to be greatly concerned about climate change have done little to attempt to change our behaviour. Whether peak oil is imminent or half a century away, what likelihood is there that governments will take action before a crisis hits?
Perhaps we will have to first experience the "bad" revolution, the one where our world gets small and cold and dark, before we are convinced to tackle the one that slows us down — but keeps us moving.