by Charles Lemos, Sun Jul 04, 2010 at 05:10:17 PM EDT
We all, I would hope, have epiphanies when we realize certain undeniable facts about the world we live in that challenge or even shatter the comfort of previously held beliefs. I have often said and deeply hold that my world view has been largely shaped by my travels, much of was forced fed to me in the classroom was thankfully unlearned or tempered by experiences in both near and far flung points of this globe.
For example, I came to realize that something was seriously amiss with the American way of life on visits to Detroit and rural Cherokee county in southeastern Kansas. The former was once the world's fifth wealthiest city in 1950, but such is its fall from grace that the Motor City does not even rank in the top thousand today. After visiting Detroit but feeling I had been transported to bombed out Dresden circa 1945, the problems of urban America and the loss of its manufacturing base were all too painfully evident.
My visit to the land of Dorothy demonstrated the devastation of big box retailing upon the landscape of small town America. Hurricanes called Wal-Mart and Home Depot coupled with the rise of industrialized agribusiness have simply wiped out thousands of small businesses and family farms leaving ghost towns scattered across what is for many of us "fly-over" country. Across much of this country, Main Street has been replaced by strip malls anchored by big box retailers on the edge of town. To make the Walton and Tyson families billionaires several times over required the destruction of an entire way of life. And like Gertrude Stein once remarked of Oakland, there is no there there. Towns across America have simply been wiped from the map or are shells of their former selves.
Energy is something most of us simply take for granted. We flip a switch and the lights go on. Most of us are simply unaware of the vast infrastructure and the tremendous effort that goes into making such turning darkness into light an effortless flipping of a switch. But for much of humanity's time on this one Earth of ours, the fall of night has meant a plunge into the darkness and cold of space.
I can remember as a boy walking in the Andes on my grandfather's farm and seeing the night sky full of stars, a view that has bewitched generations of humanity but one that most of humanity is no longer afforded due to the effects of light pollution. Part of my rationale for travelling off the beaten path is simply to gaze up at the night sky to enjoy the spectacle of our universe and to connect with what has so captivated the human mind for millenia. This mania for the exotic less travelled path has taken me to places where by happenstance I also came to see first hand the devastation that my comfort and the ease with which I can turn darkness into light is having upon areas once pristine and though still remote now connected to the world economy and exploited for our benefit with generally deleterious effects for the native population. It was on a visit to the Ecuadorian Amazon in 1994 that I first discovered the dark side of oil, a fact which many Americans are now grasping for the first time but which Nigerians and Amazonians have long had to endure. It's touted as development but it's hard to countenance the destruction of entire ways of lives and the despoilment of wide swaths of the Earth as progress.
Look around you. Just about everything you see is made possible by our ability to exploit the energy that has laid trapped in the Earth's crust. Absent that energy, much of the civilization we have built simply disappears. We live in numbers, now fast approaching seven billion more than doubling in my lifetime alone, only made possible by that exploitation of hydrocarbon magic and its transformation into items we now depend on for our very survival. Ours is the Age of Oil.
We are but 150 years into this Age of Oil but it is increasingly evident that at the present rate of consumption and given present reserves that the Age of Oil is going to come to an end within the space of a human lifetime. The implications, thus, for a civilization built on oil are then dire. But even if we did possess a limitless supply of oil to fuel our growth to sustain the numbers we now total, it should be clear that our dependence on this elixir has had a cost in ways we are only now beginning to fully realize and never will be able to fully discount. Ours may be the last generation to enjoy a bite of tuna or to see a polar bear in the wild if you're so lucky to visit Churchill, Manitoba where they still congregate in numbers every November before heading to hunt on the Arctic ice pack. Eco-tourism is rapidly devolving into a see it before it's gone trade. Such is the world we will leave future generations and I suspect that we will be cursed by them for our improper avaricious stewardship of the planet's natural resources.