Three years ago, David Fridley purchased two and a half acres of land in rural Sonoma County. He planted drought-resistant blue Zuni corn, fruit trees and basic vegetables while leaving a full acre of extant forest for firewood collection. Today, Fridley and several friends and family subsist almost entirely off this small plot of land, with the surplus going to public charity.
But Fridley is hardly a homegrown hippie who spends his leisure time gardening. He spent 12 years consulting for the oil industry in Asia. He is now a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a fellow of the Post Carbon Institute in Sebastopol, where members discuss the problems inherent to fossil-fuel dependency.
Fridley has his doubts about renewable energies, and he has grave doubts about the future of crude oil. In fact, he believes to a certainty that society is literally running out of gas and that, perhaps within years, the trucks will stop rolling into Safeway and the only reliable food available will be that grown in our backyards.
Fridley, like a few other thinkers, activists and pessimists, could talk all night about “peak oil.” This catch phrase describes a scenario, perhaps already unfurling, in which the easy days of oil-based society are over, a scenario in which global oil production has peaked and in which every barrel of crude oil drawn from the earth from that point forth is more difficult to extract than the barrel before it. According to peak oil theory, the time is approaching when the effort and cost of extraction will no longer be worth the oil itself, leaving us without the fuel to power our transportation, factories, farms, society and the very essence of our oil-dependent lives. Fridley believes the change will be very unpleasant for many people.
“If you are a typical American and have expectations of increasing income, cheap food, nondiscretionary spending, leisure time and vacations in Hawaii, then the change we expect soon could be what you would consider ‘doom,'” he says soberly, “because your life is going to fall apart.”
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Fridley says too many Americans believe in solutions to all problems, but peak oil is a terrible anomaly among crises, he explains, because there is no solution. Fridley doesn’t even see any hope in solar, wind, water and other renewable energy sources. Even nuclear power creates only electricity, while crude oil is the basis for thousands of synthetic products.
“There is nothing that can replace oil and allow us to maintain life at the pace we’ve been living,” he says. “Crude oil is hundreds of millions of years of stored sunlight, and we’re using it all up in a few generations. It’s like living off of a savings account, whereas solar energy is like working and living off your daily wages.”
The sheer cost-efficiency of oil eclipses all supposed alternatives. Removed from the ground and burned, oil makes things move almost miraculously. A tank of gasoline in a sedan holds enough energy to equal approximately five years of one person’s rigorous manual labor.