Losing Hot Water, Computer, Car, Electricity . . .
My hot water heater recently sprang a leak. So I dumped it. Inconvenient, but
not a big deal -- quickly replaceable, at least these days. But the incident
did stimulate me to reflect on temporary, annoying, but currently fixable discomforts.
But what will happen when breakdowns are not so temporary or so quickly or inexpensively
repairable or replaceable? What will happen when the impacts of declining petroleum
supplies grow numerous and persistent?
My computer sometimes crashes. What a drag. I’ve become dependent upon
that vulnerable machine. After a few hours or days without that apparently crucial
industrial tool I begin to go crazy. Typewriters now seem so ancient, time consuming,
and inadequate. “You’ve Got Mail” can be addictive. I enjoy
the hot baths, relaxation, clean feeling, and hydrotherapy that water heaters
provide. But live computers have become even more essential to me and my lifestyle
than the daily baths that I learned to love so much from my former mate, who
I recall times when my car would not start. How frustrating. I wonder if the
car sought revenge for the many nasty things I’ve said over the years
about automobiles -- while continuing to use them. Luckily, nearby friends got
me to repair shops in their still-running cars for a new battery, other parts,
or a relatively quick fix. But what if the parts or people to repair my car
were not there, busy for weeks, or so expensive that I could not afford them?
Some good friends recently moved from their well-wired house closer to the
place where they are building their home in the forest in Hawai’i. They
temporarily had no phone. So I could not easily reach them; I had to drive,
bike, or walk four miles further up the volcano under which we live. Our friendship
was disrupted, though we will recover. It is hard to imagine being without a
phone, even for a day. Think about it.
Incidentally, we had another tsunami warning as I write this, after an eight
point something earthquake on the Pacific island of Tonga. We live on an edge
here in Hawai’i (the most isolated occupied island chain in the world)
that provides a sometimes wild and primitive context that may become more familiar
to people living on continents, as the continued and growing burning of fossil
fuels worsens our climate globally. Peak Oil impacts are likely to hit Hawai’i
earlier and stronger than the continent.
Storms, hurricanes, and tornadoes have shut down electricity in California,
Hawai’i, the Northeast and the Midwest, where I have lived for most of
my over 60 years. After a few hours or days the electricity has always returned,
with its multiple gifts and conveniences. But what if it did not come back for
weeks, months, years, or ever?
How long can you go without -- fill in the blank? Ever have a refrigerator
go out? How long would your food supply last? Do you still have an old ice box
around? Could you even get ice to put into it?
Multiple disruptions will occur more frequently with the gradual unfolding
of Peak Oil -- the mid-point of our decreasing petroleum supply, as the world-wide
demand climbs, especially in industrializing countries like China and India.
Fixes will become increasingly more expensive and trusted fix-it skills or people
even more valuable.
What will happen when there is no quick fix for a broken-down water heater,
computer, car, or whatever? Perhaps the fix-it guy is busy fixing someone else’s
whatever. Or there is no available replacement, or you could not afford it.
What to expect? And how to prepare?
Much of Peak Oil writing has been theoretical -- by geologists, scientists
and other oil analysts who have helped us understand the deeper problem. They
make dire predictions with heavy words, such as “disaster,” “catastrophe,”
and “collapse.” This essay does not use such words, but seeks to
describe potential disruptions, nuisances, and irritants. The increase of such
discomforts will be yet another sign that we are on the down side of the Peak
Oil slope. Those of us who are convinced of the validity of the Peak Oil theory
now need to move more into considering some possible nitty-gritty problems and
potential practical solutions.
What I seek to do in this article is provide some perspective from my island-dwelling
and plant seeds regarding potential problems. Perhaps readers may want to consider
their own circumstances. As Ken Higgins of Sebastopol, a small town in Sonoma
County, Northern California, recently wrote in an email, “While driving
around the county or walking downtown I constantly have visions of ‘what
will change when energy is sporadic and expensive.’ It’s rather
Speaking of emails, an e-mail addict friend recently joined E-mails Anonymous.
He realized that he had lost control of this habit, which was dominating him
as if it were alcohol; many others are controlled by e-mail. Unable to give
up his addiction permanently, my friend committed himself to not using email
for a year. But he did not join Internet Anonymous, so he still surfs the web.
Can you imagine life without the web or e-mail?
When it takes letters a week to get from the continent to reach me Hawai’i,
I get worried. There is no home delivery to my place or to much of the rural
parts of the Big Island. The road where I live is unpaved and there is no number
on my house, which is OK. Slower mail service is a likely consequence of Peak
Oil. As gasoline prices soon rise to $4, $5 and more a gallon, stamp prices
will rise and delivery will take longer -- weeks, maybe even months to some
21st Century American society relies on complex, interlocking mechanical and
electronic systems. This includes transportation that gets food and other essentials
and non-essentials from one place to other places hundreds or even thousands
of miles away.
These complex industrial systems often clash with natural systems that pre-date
them, and hopefully will outlast them. Greenhouse gases already cause climate
changes that damage the Earth. If we continue our extensive burning of fossil
fuels, we will create even worse threats to industrial societies and the planet
itself. Peak Oil directly impacts complex human-made systems; it will slow things
down and eventually stop some of them. Though uncomfortable for many people,
this process may not be all bad for the Earth itself. Having less oil to burn
may in fact improve the Earth’s climate, unless it is replaced with more
polluting fuels, such as coal.
Americans already complain, big time, about what they experience as high gasoline
prices. Compared to what gas costs elsewhere and will soon cost here, those
prices are not actually so high. Europe’s gas prices have been double
ours for years. People manage there. But then, they are not as dependent upon
cars and do not live in suburbs as much as we do. Many nations are also more
used to disasters and wars, often supported by or even caused by America to
insure its continued domination of natural resources, including petroleum.
America’s response to Sept. 11, for example, was not as flexible or effective
as the responses by people in Bali and elsewhere to similar such crises. Americans
feel that we are entitled to Cheap Oil and its multiple “benefits”
-- fast industrial agriculture, immediate electricity, the freedom of single
occupant vehicles, petroleum-based medicines, clothes, etc.
When Americans turn on the faucet, they expect water to flow, often not even
knowing where it comes from. My home in Hawai’i is on catchments, so my
water comes directly from the sky to my roof to my water tank and then into
the house. When my water heater went out, my hot water supply failed for a while.
When I went to wash my face in soothing warm water, all I got was that terrible
On the other hand, there were unintended positive consequences to my water
heater loss. I had to take baths elsewhere, ask for help, share resources, which
built community -- all valuable post-carbon skills. I eventually hired a knowledgeable
friend to fix the problem. We even had fun going to the dump, hanging out, and
just being together getting business done. Loss is not without merit; it can
create and enhance friendships.
With a flick of a switch, Americans expect the darkness to suddenly give way
to the miracle of immediate light, even at night. Candle making is likely to
once again become lucrative work. Fire making may return as a necessary domestic
art to master.
What will happen when a large American city of many millions of people gets
thrown outside its comfort zones? In an e-mail to Puna Beyond Petro, Stephanie
Bath of Hawaiian Acres, wrote, “Some folks just don't want to shift out
of their comfort zones. They want instant solutions provided for them.”
Some people will pull together to help each other, especially in smaller cities
and in neighborhoods where people know and care for each other. This will reveal
our better selves. That is what I remember from blizzards in the Northeast.
They can even be fun, a needed disruption in daily routines, which can help
build community. But what happens when there is competition for limited food
and other essential resources, like toilet paper or chocolate?
Things can get ugly, especially when the market shelves lack food. The shelves
are already sometimes sparse in Hawai’i. 90% of our food arrives by ships
from over 2500 miles away. Shortages are already fairly common. People regularly
stock up on essentials. But such shortages have always been short-lived. If
the ships don’t arrive for a week, we will be out of imported food.
James Howard Kunstler describes our historical moment in his helpful book The
Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century.
Lets step back into the previous century. I was born before the middle of the
20th century. Our family farm in Iowa was on a unpaved road (still unpaved)
that didn’t have a name; our house did not have a number; and our mail
delivery was on Rural Route 2. Even the highways did not have speed limits,
so my Uncle Dale used to drive us over 100 miles an hour in his ’62 Chevy.
Great fun for a teenager. Yeah!
Most readers probably were not born before electricity reached their homes.
We did not have electricity on our family farm during the early years of my
life. Rural electrification finally arrived. We didn’t have television
until I was a teenager. Life without TV really wasn’t so bad. For entertainment
we watched barnyard animals during the days; I especially enjoyed the playful
piglets and chickens, who provided eggs for our rotten egg fights. At night
we had gaslights and Uncle Dale told stories that incubated our dreams with
animals, plants, and fantasy. “Once upon a time, a long, long time ago…”
are words that still trigger relaxation and comfort for me.
Some places in the world still lack electricity, phones and computers. But
they have their oral traditions and stories. Modern conveniences can make our
lives appear easier, but they also create vulnerabilities that are not yet so
evident to most people. We are now experiencing some of the downsides of the
over-use of fossil fuels and the climate change consequences. We may soon be
forced to give up some of our planet-damaging luxuries.
But now I have come to expect the comforts of electricity -- refrigerators
rather than ice boxes, computers and phone machines for communication rather
than party-line telephones, etc. It’s the loss that would be hard. I will
miss the many modern conveniences and the ease at getting most of them repaired.
But having already lived without electricity for years, it may not be as hard
for me as some post-digital people.
“How we are accustomed to our comforts!” noted Ann Weller of Willits
Economic Relocalization (WELL) in Northern California. “I returned recently
from India, where the cold water bucket and small dipper method is used to bathe.
It is simple, invigorating, and can be done outside even. But I find I am not
doing it here -- since I have a shower!”
I am preparing myself for experiencing losses, partly by appreciating all the
wonderful things that Cheap Energy has brought us. I also work to do what Richard
Heinberg describes in his book Powerdown:
Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World. We can do things to mitigate
As an apparently Arab quotation goes, indicating an awareness of oil's finite
supply and imminent shortages: "My grandfather rode a camel. I drive a
car. My son travels in jet airplanes. His son will ride a camel."
Nothing lasts forever. Everything that lives eventually dies. Even inanimate
objects and inorganic matter can finally dissolve or evolve into something else.
The lava stones on which my house in Hawai’i is built will eventually
become soil. We need long-term views to help understand what is happening here
at the beginning of the 21st century. But we may not have much time. We need
to inform people about what may happen, how to prepare and adapt, and work for
Dr. Shepherd Bliss has been a college teacher and journalist
in Hawai’i for the last three years. He is currently moving back to his
farm in Northern California, mainly to prepare for Peak Oil among his long-time
friends. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.