Thursday, June 12, 2008

Peak Petroleum and the Gifts of Change

--Feature: "Sustainable Soul w/Rebecca Hecking"--

Ouch. Gas prices. Like I said… ouch. I was watching my money fly off to Saudi Arabia this weekend while standing at the pump, and my thoughts began to wander to the concept of “peak oil”. In case you are unfamiliar with this, the basic idea is that eventually the world will reach a point of maximum oil output, after which output will be in a permanent state of decline. The “peak” of this bell curve represents the end of easy oil, and after that, what is extracted will cost much more in dollars and inputs to get it from the ground. We will invest much more effort for diminishing returns. Speculation about peak oil abounds. Have we passed the peak? Is it immanent? No one really knows.

Standing there in my price-panicked stupor , I wondered about other “peaks.” I recalled reading somewhere about the “spoiled birthday kid” peak, wherein little Johnny, after opening a certain number of presents, reaches “peak enjoyment.” Beyond this, more presents just make Johnny overwhelmed and cranky. As a writer, I am aware of the editing peak. Up to a point, re-reading and revising my work helps. Beyond that, I am just spinning my wordsmithing wheels and getting nowhere.

For the industrialized West in general, and the US and Canada in particular, I think it’s safe to say that collectively, we have overshot the “consumption equals happiness” peak. We are well into the stage where acquiring “more stuff” does not gain us significantly more happiness. I think it’s also safe to say that we’ve also overshot the “more busy equals more life satisfaction” peak. We aren’t more satisfied. We’re exhausted.

Living lightly on the earth takes effort and time. Many of us are simply too caught up in the dynamics of more-more-more-busy-busy-busy to make the lifestyle changes needed to move ourselves a little closer to sustainability.

Living mindfully also takes mental energy. Calling ourselves back to the here and now. Consciously pausing and centering ourselves. Making the time to connect.

One of the ironies of high gas prices is that they force us to become more mindful of our consumption. We find ourselves driving less, slowing down, scaling back and staying home. What a gift! Can we embrace it? Instead of scrambling to maintain our (ultimately unsustainable) habits, can we use the downscaling momentum to catalyze even more positive changes in our physical day-to-day lives and our spirituality? Doing so would help us step out of the dysfunctional cultural dynamic that has dominated our collective lives for so long. It would help us lay the groundwork for a truly sustainable future.

So…we meditate while hanging out the laundry to dry. We cultivate community with our carpool companions. We take up gardening, and spend some time communing with the earth. We waste less. We cook more, and connect over the dinner table instead of grabbing takeout. We drop extra commitments and spend the time journaling instead. We look closely at our lives and start to realize what matters most.

Like I said, what a gift.

“Peak oil” theorists speculate about a post-petroleum world. Some speak of an eco-utopia. Others speak of apocalyptic societal collapse. I tend to think that the reality will be somewhere in between. Are we past the peak? Who knows? Someday we will be. Change will happen, regardless. For now, let’s just accept the gift it offers.

Rebecca Hecking writes on eco-spirituality and sustainable culture from her home in northwest Pennsylvania. She holds an MA in cultural and equity studies. She frequently daydreams about what a truly sustainable culture would look like. Her cat Icicle saves energy by taking frequent naps. Find her at rebeccahecking(at)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of us are looking at it as a gift. It's hard to, especially with all of the insecurity that comes with a shaky economy and gas prices that gouge even deeper into our already-stretched pockets, but at the end of the day, it's become cooler, hipper, easier to stop focusing on the hamster wheel.

When you consider where we all (the royal we) were a few years ago -- the peak of the housing bubble, living fat and happy in an economy where extreme spending was encouraged -- it's hard not to see the silver lining here, which is that it's a relief to be able to get back to basics and get our lives focused on the right things.

It's about time our heads were screwed on straight.