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Peak Debt: The True Crisis May Be Our Inability to Afford the Dwindling Oil

Visit the Community Solutions website to subscribe to their newsletter, New Solutions, and to buy the book Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change by Director Pat Murphy.

Members of Community Solutions have distinguished themselves by their willingness to support the study of problems that many of their neighbors might regard as obscure, exaggerated, or even manufactured. Such problems might also have been assumed to be of the far-distant, "not-in-my-lifetime" category.

Together, fossil fuel depletion and climate change lead the list of these problems. Both share a quality captured by the word "peak." Peak Oil names the period of time during which the global petroleum production system reaches its maximum capacity to bring oil to the market. Peaks in natural gas and coal production lie ahead as well. Climate change can also be understood as a peak, namely the maximum capacity of the ocean and atmosphere to serve as a safe sink for carbon emission pollution.

These two peaks are closely interconnected since it is primarily through the burning of fossil fuels that man-made climate change has been induced. However, as Richard Heinberg pointed out recently, the relationship is not linear. On the contrary, the warming of the atmosphere seems to have begun a process of acceleration partly independent of cutbacks in fossil fuel emissions, as the northern permafrost regions melt and the methane trapped there is released.

Over the last five years, the effort to educate an often unwilling population on these two peaking problems has generated an impressive store of books, films, and conference proceedings. That work continues today at organizations such as ASPO-USA, Post-Carbon Institute, and our own. But while that work has been proceeding, yet a third peaking problem has caught up to us. And this one is unlikely to be a stranger to your neighbors.

Our friend Thomas Quinn called this month to urge us to turn our attention to what he's calling "peak debt." As we began to take Tom up on this, we discovered passages like the following:

Peak Oil (and peak gas, coal etc.) is a very real issue. But, by a very wide margin, it's not the most pressing, or the worst, issue the world will face in the short term, say the next 5 years. This is because long before the availability of energy becomes a real problem, the availability of money has set us to some further thought about how we can best be of service to our members, neighbors, and fellow citizens.

First, we ask ourselves if it's true that many among us will soon be so lacking in income or savings that "energy availability turns into an afterthought." Grim though it is, the current financial crisis seems a necessary correction to an extended period of growth and "prosperity" (albeit largely concentrated among the already prosperous). The boom and bust cycle is a familiar aspect of capitalist markets.

Against a broader historical background, today's level of national debt is challenging, but not unprecedented and in fact only of average size. Or is today's debt crisis in fact something new because of the advanced state of globalization, the failure of governments to maintain regulatory systems sufficient to protect their citizens, and the continuing rapid expansion in the number of human beings who need to be fed?

We are still exploring the answers to this question. One thing we are sure of is that from the Community Solutions perspective, a most troubling feature of peak debt is its implications for inequity. Our presentations on Peak Oil and climate change over the years have paid considerable attention to global inequity. Financial irresponsibility and market manipulations, with taxpayers shouldering the burden of subsequent bailouts, have increased inequity in the United States.

Our message for some time now has focused on voluntary curtailment to pay for the energy will be. And if the number of people who can afford to pay for gas, and heating oil, and electricity, declines, and does so at an increasing pace, energy availability turns into an afterthought, and even a moot point, for the time being.

Recent increases in the price of gasoline, home heating fuels, and electricity had not escaped our notice, of course. In fact, we've experienced a broader willingness to consider our concerns about Peak Oil now that increasing energy costs have become a clear trend, reported in the mainstream media and felt in the wallet. But the peak debt challenge of household expenditures. On the transportation side, we have made the case for downsizing personal vehicles, increasing passenger miles by ride-sharing, and traveling when possible by foot and bicycle.

Our housing recommendations have spanned the gamut from deep retrofitting for those with sufficient resources, to the lowest of low-tech solutions pioneered by members Larry Halpern and Gail Kean. During the cold months, Larry and Gail wear warm clothes inside, put fabric filled pop-in frames into their windows, and block off sections of their house from use. Just this month, they have achieved the long-sought goal of reducing their home electricity use to zero.

When it comes to food, we have been advocates of shopping at farmers' markets, subscribing to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm shares, and making nutritious choices low on the food scale.

All of these approaches involve reductions in personal fossil fuel consumption and so in carbon emissions. But they also promote a healthier and less costly style of life for the individuals who embrace them. In that sense, we have been advocating a way of life in which the pursuit of wealth is minimized, and happiness is thereby increased.

If peak debt forces toward significant curtailment of their energy use, a decline in consumption-driven behavior may yield an involuntary increase in healthful physical activity. An involuntary increase in happiness might not be far behind.