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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Peak Oil: the 20% Remedy

We interrupt FAR Future for a moment…

It has often been said that “less is more,” and that may apply especially to the suburban lifestyle that has come to define the American consumer in the last couple of decades. We end up with too much house, live too far away from work, drive vehicles far larger than needed, then we fill that house with too much stuff. We’re dissatisfied with our lives, and think even more stuff is going to make it better.

I read a great book a while back, Your Money or Your Life, which outlines an iterative process for defining (and having) “enough” — and then going beyond that, to becoming truly financially independent (defined as not having to work for a living). It’s actually quite logical: you track your spending by categories, analyze it every month, and then determine whether you’re overspending, underspending, or spending enough in each category. It’s not about depriving yourself of things you really want, it’s about figuring out what you really want instead of just shotgun-buying more stuff.

What does that have to do with peak oil? Well, both peak oil and the book use a bell curve to illustrate their main points. Oil production, whether looking at one well or the world in aggregate, starts out low, climbs to a plateau and peaks (which is, according to the most reliable experts, where we are now), then falls back. The book puts its own bell curve in a graph (PDF, see page 12), with “stuff” on the X-axis and “fulfillment” on the Y-axis. On this graph, the plateau is what defines “enough.”

Beyond lines on a chart, though, the Culture of More is really what is making peak oil a problem. Bigger houses require more energy to heat or cool. Bigger vehicles and longer commutes require more energy to run. Demanding more stuff at cheaper prices is what has sent our manufacturing jobs to Asia, and sacrificed so many local business to Wal-Mart. With all the money pouring into China and India, their economies are booming… and guess what their growing middle class is doing? Yup, looking to America as the model for the good life. So with production leveling off, and demand still climbing, the plateau is rapidly becoming “not enough.” In classic supply and demand terms, demand is about to overtake the supply, and supply is “constrained” (a fancy way of saying it can’t be increased, despite happy-talk from industry groups and the Saudis).

In FAR Future, I’ve been writing about what things could be like in five years, when there’s not enough fuel to go around. I’m making a rather large and optimistic assumption, though: that governments will accept that supplies are dwindling and most people will make the best of the situation. Delusional conservatives insist that “the free market” is capable of optimizing fuel distribution, but they overlook a crucial point: the “market” is reactive, and we need to be proactive to minimize disruptions in what President-in-Fact Cheney calls “our non-negotiable way of life.” Every gallon of gasoline we use now, every cubic foot of natural gas, is that much we won’t have in the future — when it’s gone, it’s gone (over geological time spans, that’s not completely true, but I don’t expect humans to be around in 50 million years).

Thus, the 20% Remedy. My personal theory is that the country as a whole has overshot the “enough” plateau, and that we would be happier and better off if we cut about 20% out of our resource usage. Why 20%? I’ll admit I pulled the number out of my back pocket, but it can represent (among other things) one day of the work week. Some people are using close to the optimum amount of energy for a satisfying life now, others are using more than 20% too much, so think of 20% as an average figure, or a first approximation. You can arrive at your own figure through the same iterative process as Your Money or Your Life advises for optimizing your expenditures.

What does 20% mean in practical terms?

Commuting: Telecommute, or use transit, once a week — or take a two-person carpool twice a week. Indirect benefits come with scale (i.e. enough people embracing 20%): less traffic means you get “there” faster, and reduces the need for road construction (lower taxes, and asphalt is a petroleum product). Replace your vehicle, when the time comes, with one that uses 20% less fuel for the same amount of driving. Better driving habits won’t net you 20% better mileage with the car you have, unless you’re a serious lead-foot, but 5% to 10% is certainly possible. Combine your trips and plan those combined outings to minimize mileage — it can be fun, like solving a puzzle.

Electricity: Hang out the wash instead of using the dryer, every fifth load. Set the thermostat so that the air conditioner runs 20% less often. Skip every fifth shower to reduce hot water usage. The old standby, switching to CF light bulbs (at FAR Manor, we’re replacing the incandescents as they burn out, to delay that trip to the landfill). Watch 20% less TV and spend the new-found free time walking or getting to know your family.

Food: Fertilizer requires fossil fuels to produce, and winter veggies don’t fly themselves here from South America. Try to grow some of your own food — 20% might be difficult, though. Make up the difference by buying local produce — especially organic produce — at farmers markets or subscription co-ops. Get more than you need and preserve the extra for the winter (canning, dehydrating, etc.), so you aren’t as tempted to look for those South American tomatoes. Skip that fifth “dinner out,” or replace it with a picnic. Make Eat4Today a regular web-stop if you don’t already, and lose some weight (again, 20% might be difficult, but again YMMV).

Plastics: Plastics are a petroleum product! Over non-geological time, plastic doesn’t degrade much, so just using less of the stuff (say… about 20% less?) makes sense. Crafty Green Poet recently wrote a great article about how (and why) to reduce use of plastic in general. There was recently a flurry of articles about bottled water causing a huge upswing in plastic bottle waste — if you don’t like your tap water, consider filtering it and reusing those water bottles. Reuse the plastic you bring home as much as possible, then recycle it.

That’s a start, anyway. By using fewer resources, we can get ahead of the oil depletion curve — and when constraints become mandatory instead of voluntary, they won’t affect us as much. Even if you think a technology-fix is just around the corner, you might still find a more satisfying life inside a smaller footprint. I’m sure I’ve missed a few examples, feel free to provide them in the comments!


  1. FAR, this is a fantastic post!!!

    I'm going now to follow the links and I'll be back.

  2. Great post over at the Green Poet blog too FAR.

    I've stopped using plastic bags for some time now -- always carry various cotton or cloth bags. And I never pack veggies in a bag to be put in a bag ... Up here our milk comes in bags, which I recycle. I have a water bottle that I use for drinking water, and I carry it w/ me every day and wash it every night. Yeah, plastic ... ah, I have such conflict over plastic. I can't say that I don't see the benefits of it, but I do see the negatives ... :(

    We always keep the a/c up a few degrees and always wear long sleeves and sweaters and keep the furnace down as well ...

    And yeah, about that Your Money or you life ... I can't stand clutter ... and having stuff just to have stuff ... so I don't get the whole buying thing. I'm not interested in filling up my house w/ crap that I never use. And we've actually told family members this year to not buy us Christmas presents ...

    Anyways, rambling on here, but looking forward to what others have to say.

  3. Hi FAR, this was an inspiration. I'm going to check with someone to see if we could carpool a couple times a week.

  4. Excellent post! Thanks for the link too! I'm glad you're replacing your incandescent bulbs as they burn out, some people throw them out as soon as they get the energy saving replacements, which just creates waste. I'm surprised though, how long our remaining incandescents are lasting.

  5. Hi FAR.

    Great post today. I think as long as people have the money that the majority of them will always want more. There are still some people who lived through it and children of the great depression. They knew what doing without and doing with less was.

    I'm still always amazed by the differences between here and the rest of the world. I would have never even realized it unless I had lived in Europe. I think the majority of Americans and the industrialized nations are that way.

    We're just about down to the last incandescent bulb. Which is good, because when the rels are here, I'm always going behind them turning off lights.

  6. Superb post FAR! You've hit on some really great --easy-- ways to conserve and reduce consumption. Today is trash day here ... and in the huge barrel the city provides, there is one small bag of kitchen waste and an empty dog food bag. We recycle everything we can (which is a lot usually) and only the worst garbage actually goes out ... that one lonely bag each week. When I compare to the neighbors, I can't believe how one could fill up that whole barrel in a week's time! I don't think we could do that if we tried (well, unless we finally clean out the basement! lol).

    I'm surprised you didn't mention composting ... that's another way we get rid of organic trash and produce nice dirt in the process. Oh and btw, we are only 4 bulbs away from having replaced them all with compact fluorescents... like others have said, we're trying to wait till the old ones burn out, but I'm getting impatient.

    Anyway, great job FAR! Looking forward to more words of wisdom.

  7. Great post, FAR! After living on a ship for 100 days and traveling through 10 countries, some third world, I found myself needing a lot less than I used to. I simplify wherever possible - recycle - use less power - everything I can. I look forward to having my own home again, with a garden, and more control over than I currently have in my rental. If we all did just a wee bit, think of how far we would go. Thanks for the ideas, everyone!

  8. Hey FAR, and here's the bonus, the 20% you get rid of, that will be 20% less that you'll have to worry about!

  9. Heh... I see I'm preaching to the choir in a lot of ways. Thanks for all your thoughts & kind words.

    KB, if I had someone to carpool with, I'd jump on it immediately. My problem (for carpooling) is that I'm in one of those office jobs where the hours are pretty flexible. At least I can telecommute once a week.

    Crafty, FM, IVG, it's funny how those last old bulbs just hang on… and hang on… and hang on. Seems like those recessed lights in the living room were always burning out until I put in the first two CF replacements (had to find dimmer-compatible bulbs), but now the rest seem to want to live forever!

    FM & Beth, you're fortunate to have had that experience. I've never even been to Canada, although moving from Michigan to Georgia should count as interplanetary travel. :-P As far as "more" goes, I think people are conditioned (through TV etc) to want it, but when the stimulus is gone they likely to start wondering "why the #3!! do we have all this junk anyway?". Minimalism can be the new chic, just as easily as anything else.

    Beth, you could try container gardening. When I lived in an apartment, I tried it and all but the strawberries worked pretty well. You just have to water more often, unless the rains are reliable.

    IVG, good catch about composting… especially since I'm already doing it. I've seen compost bins going for around $130; seems kind of expensive. I'll bet you could make one with two large (plastic, naturally) garbage cans and a little knife work. The renters have a "compost shredder" that they say isn't worth doodly, but I wonder if it could chop up paper & cardboard.

    Yooper, good point, especially since it's one I should have mentioned in the first place. By the same token, that's the reason I prefer "beater" cars over fancier ones: I don't have to worry about anyone bothering a beater, so I don't have to splash out for insurance or alarm systems.

    Thanks again, everyone, and keep the discussion going!

  10. This was a very interesting post, Far. (And very thorough.) We have so much and are still disatisfied. So much for the fabled American dream. But I would think that we should cut our ueage back by a third, and still live well.

  11. I WOULD be jumping on the car-pooling thing, FAR. But, it's his job that's got the irregular hours. For example, he's worked until 3am the last two days (nights.) He's a film editor and has to be at 'shoots' no matter what the time. And stay on the job to get stuff done on schedule.

    That's why I've hesitated to suggest it.

    Also, I forgot to mention that I haven't put my clothes in a dryer since 1977. I use the dryer for linens and underpants -- but everything else goes on the line. Always has. I don't like throwing away bits of my clothes from the lint-trap.

  12. Thanks for the suggestion re container gardening. I had a great tomato plant in a pot in ID - they were all getting ripe when I left. :-(

    kb, I never thought about lint in the dryer like that...I'm going to think a lot harder about drying clothes from now on! My poor clothes, dying shred by shred...

    At one time in my life I lived in a solar home way out in the woods - huge garden - heated with wood we cut ourselves - seems like a lifetime ago. No beaches...:-)

  13. Funny comments about the lint filter. I've joked in the past about spinning yard from lint & making new material from it… I had a thermal blanket in college that my roomie (waves at CS) referred to as "the lint blanket" because the texture was very lint-like.

    KB, too bad about the weird hours. You pretty much have to all be able to start & end the workday at the same time to carpool effectively.

    Wow Beth, that does sound like a nice place. FAR Manor is already in the woods, especially relative to a high-density area like you're in now, and we use some wood for heating. No solar (not even passive) though, but I certainly wouldn't mind having it.


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