Whether we’re seeking stronger communities, a cleaner environment, better prospects for the Third World, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions or limits on corporate power, there is a clear way forward: economic localization. Lately a lot of other voices have joined ISEC in this refrain, as the implications of ‘peak oil’ become more widely known.
For those who haven’t read any of the recent books and articles about it, peak oil refers to the point at which global oil production – which has risen steadily for more than a century – finally peaks and begins its inevitable decline. Reaching this peak doesn’t mean that the planet’s oil reserves have run dry, just that the most accessible oil has already been pumped out of the ground – making cheap oil a thing of the past. With fossil fuel consumption in the west continuing to climb and with China, India and other countries of the South rushing headlong down the same petroleum-based development track, demand for oil is about to exceed supply – forever. As students of peak oil point out, this means endlessly rising oil prices, and the consequent demise of virtually everything that people in the industrialized world have grown to expect.
Although the peak oil crisis will affect the entire global economy, the implications for food production and marketing are telling. As we point out in Bringing the Food Economy Home, artificially cheap oil is at the heart of the global food system. Large-scale farm equipment runs on fossil fuels, and pesticides and chemical fertilizers are made from them. Cheap oil makes possible the transport of raw ingredients and processed foods around the world, and enables shoppers to drive to out-of-town supermarkets. Even the plastic packaging so ubiquitous on supermarket shelves is a petroleum-based product. Without cheap oil, in other words, the global food system simply cannot function, and people will soon have little choice but to rely far more heavily on local food.
Virtually every sector of the global economy is similarly dependent on cheap oil: goods that could be produced relatively nearby are routinely transported from far corners of the world, simply to take advantage of lower labor costs, looser health and environmental standards, even swings in currency exchange rates. Take away the cheap oil and globalization is finished.
Given the damage done by globalization, some of its critics are tempted to applaud the peak oil phenomenon and to sit back and wait for the inevitable and necessary shift to the local to happen. This, we believe, would be unwise for a number of reasons:
• Even the experts are unsure when the actual peak will occur. In the meantime our political leaders remain intent on pushing our economies to globalize still further – making the coming crisis more severe when it inevitably arrives. Active resistance to globalization is still crucial.
• Most policymakers are so wedded to the economic assumptions underpinning the global economy that they are likely to make every effort to shore up that system, rather than taking deliberate steps towards smaller-scale economies and local, renewable forms of energy. Without heavy pressure from the grassroots we are likely to see environmental regulations gutted, higher subsidies for nuclear power, and still more wars over oil. In particular, we need to continue to remind our political leaders that destroying the environment to ‘save’ the economy is a lose-lose proposition.
• Even now, the global economy is so distorted by hidden subsidies and ignored costs that fresh produce from halfway around the world can sell for less than local produce. Additional subsidies for oil – provided by borrowing from future generations – is already being proposed in the US in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Such steps might even stave off the peak oil crisis for a few years – or even a decade or more. Given the continuing social and environmental damage caused by globalization, simply waiting for inevitable collapse of this house of cards would be irresponsible.
• Perhaps one of the most important things we can do is to educate ourselves and others about the roots of the coming crisis. If people simply blame greedy oil companies, ‘anti-western’ Muslims or tree-hugging environmentalists for the disruptions to their way of life, little will have been learned that will lead to a better future.
Ultimately, the source of the peak oil crisis is an economy based on jobless growth, in which human needs and natural limits are considered irrelevant. This vision of ‘progress’ could only be embraced by political leaders who are far removed from the impact of their policies.
There is a great deal of uncertainty over what the world will look like decades from now, as the supply of oil slows to a trickle. Taking appropriate steps now – not only the hands-on work of renewing local connections, but the policy-level work to support local economies – could mean a far better world, one comprised of diverse communities with their own intimate connection to place, where real human needs are met with little cost to the planet. In the end, what will be gained is far more than what will be lost.