Guest Commentary

It's time for me to leave my current life and start living in a post-peak-oil world

According to a recent headline in The Wall Street Journal, "There's No Pill for This Kind of Depression." The New York Times adds, "Has a 'Katrina Moment' Arrived?" The Globe and Mail admits 10 of the 11 recessions since 1941 have been preceded by a spike in the price of oil, and the cover of Newsweek screams, "We Are All Socialists Now."

What do these headlines have in common? They all describe the economic predicament arising from the world passing peak oil four years ago, and they merely hint at what's to come. The world has experienced a .5 percent decline in crude oil supply since passing the peak in May 2005, and the International Energy Agency—which had never previously admitted that oil would reach a peak in production—forecasts a 9.1 percent decline, year after economically punishing year, from 2009 forward.

By the end of President Obama's first term, if the IEA is correct, we will be extracting about the same amount of oil we extracted in 1970, when the planet had roughly half as many people, and we were far less industrialized.

In other words, the Greatest Depression is just getting started. The industrial economy is slipping through our fingers like mercury from a broken thermometer. Facing a rapid terminal decline in crude oil—the lifeblood of Western civilization—there is nothing you, me or President Obama can do to save the industrial economy.

But as we near the end of the industrial economy, complete with the collapse of our fuel-, food- and water-delivery systems, individuals can make arrangements to thrive in the post-carbon era.

My own set of arrangements includes a rural property with moderate elevation, shallow water, deep soils and a close-to-the-land community of neighbors. I'm moving full-time to my two-acre rural property when the spring semester ends. I've got gardens to plant, a root cellar to dig and considerable catching up to do with my new neighbors.

Soon enough, paper money will have little or no value. Water, food, shelter and community, on the other hand, will become vital currency as we re-engage with the natural world and our neighbors.

University of Arizona administrators have benefited me by continually discouraging my pursuit of timely and important topics, and then disparaging me when I pursued them anyway. My work on energy decline and its economic consequences represents the best and most important scholarship of my 20-year career. Ditto for my outreach with Poetry Inside/Out (see "The Power of Poetry," Dec. 4, 2008)¸ a unique program focused on giving voice to historically silenced people and on connecting incarcerated people with the rest of us. Although I'm no longer allowed to teach courses in my home department, the teaching I'm allowed to do, in the classroom and out, is the broadest and most relevant of my life.

Although university administrators made it easy to flee the university's sinking ship, they did not force my departure. They tried unsuccessfully for a while, before giving in to my tenured status. I'm leaving on my own terms to live a life close to Earth and close to my neighbors. Retaining emeritus status at the university will allow me to voluntarily satisfy commitments to the many students I advise, but my days teaching in university classrooms and detention facilities are behind me.

Soon enough, we'll all be living close to our neighbors and close to the land that sustains us. I remain hopeful we will power down with the tranquility of Buddhist monks. But I've studied enough anthropology to know the odds are not in our favor. So my post-carbon community is small, rural and isolated, a far cry from the shabby rental house near campus I inhabit during the week. Nearly everybody in my new community is aware of the looming threats of peak oil and runaway climate change, and most have been making other arrangements for years.

I'm not romantic enough to believe this transition will be easy, for me or my community. Indeed, as I leave the cruise ship of empire for a lifeboat, all I see are dark, choppy seas. But if our species is to survive in the years ahead—and even thrive—we must embrace a reality different from the suburbanized, globalized system that landed us squarely in the massive dilemmas of energy decline and runaway greenhouse effects.

The alternative is literally unthinkable. So let's put our hearts and minds together to think of something else.