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Peak oil

05/09/06 12:00AM By Vern Grubinger
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(HOST)Some people claim to see the future in tea leaves, but commentator Vern Grubinger thinks you can see what's coming in the rising cost of gas.

(GRUBINGER) We'll always need land. I don't see a future where our food and fiber will be made in factory vats or laboratories. We'll need land for farms, and forests, greenhouses and sugarbushes. We'll need all that plus cheese caves, biodiesel facilities, grass pellet factories and manure digesters. We'll probably need a lot more farmers markets, home gardens and community gardens, too.

That's because Peak Oil is happening now...or soon...but certainly.

The year of Peak Oil, when worldwide oil production reaches its highest level, can only be determined in hindsight. It will be followed by a steady decline in annual output. 1972 was peak oil for the United States. Today, the U.S. produces only half of what we did in 1972, but we consume more than ever.

What's just as impressive as our own petro-gluttony, is that of some Asian economies. They act like they're on petro-steroids. As China and India grow, so does their demand for oil.

These facts suggest that things may be quite different in the not-so-distant future. For one thing, we'll need a very different kind of agriculture to meet our needs. We'll want more farms, and many more farmers, close to home, since shipping will be expensive. We'll need farms to produce a wide array of fresh products, on a regular basis, since refrigeration will be costly. And we'll need to take back some of the land. Maybe this will be the ultimate Take Back Vermont campaign, when superstores and parking lots that cover fertile land are removed to make room for farming.

It may sound funny, but it's not. Experts say we've pumped a trillion barrels of oil out of the planet, and there's about a trillion left, plus or minus. Much of that will be hard to get, both geologically and politically. We use so much oil that no other technology is ready or even poised to take its place. Therefore, we should try and stretch out the oil that's left. If we're smart, instead of using it up in thirty or forty years, we'll make it last for eighty or a hundred. That would buy us time to adjust our energy habits and technologies.

It makes sense to start aggressively conserving and innovating right now, rather than waiting to be motivated by dramatically higher fuel prices and shrinking supplies.

There are so many positive things we can do. You know the list: carpool, insulate, heat with wood, support renewable energy projects and buy local to support nearby farmers, foresters and manufacturers. You might say these things are just drops in the old oil bucket, but guess what, drops are all we really have to work with. And we can't afford to waste even small opportunities to prepare for the post-oil world that's sure to come.

Vern Grubinger is the director of the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
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