Imagine a world without oil and gas

It’s stuck with me since I saw it in the Myrtle Beach airport in July. A young man wore a drawstring backpack printed with the slogan “imagine a world without oil and gas.” Under that it said, “IOGA WV”.

I first read this phrase the way I would if I had uttered it: as an aspirational call to imagine a world without oil and gas. Something like AOC’s “Message from the Future” or the Transition Handbook, whose featured blurb notes that “most of us avoid thinking about what happens when oil runs out (or becomes prohibitively expensive)” [more on this later].

When a search for “IOGA WV” revealed it to be the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, I realized the phrase was meant differently. There aren’t many hits when you Google that sentence, but they mostly come from oil & gas interests. The phrase on the backpack is meant not as a serious call but as a statement of ridicule: life is unimaginable without oil and gas.

The phrase captured my imagination, in part because I’m amused by its Janus word nature: its two meanings are opposites. But also because in the way I first read it, it’s a succinct, elegant clarion call to dream as we must. In the effort to move beyond fossil fuels and preserve a habitable planet, it’s likely that our imagination, not technology, will be the limiting factor.

The Transition Handbook and the Green New Deal vision linked above both call for imagining a world without oil and gas, though they come at it from two distinctly different angles.

The Peak Oil view

The Transition Towns movement came from concerns about Peak Oil. Put simply, that we are running out of oil. Any day now, they said, oil production would begin declining, setting off economic shocks and the beginning of the end of oil usage. The Handbook calls for communities to create Energy Descent Action Plans to prepare for a future in which fossil fuels are not available.

Peak Oilers like Richard Heinberg correctly put in context that, in the course of human history, our current widespread use of fossil fuels is a momentary blip. Humans lived for thousands of years without them. We’re now in a short orgy of abundance, where in just a few centuries we burn through resources that took millions of years to accrue. The supply is finite, and whether we run out shortly (as Peak Oilers have been incorrectly predicting for some time) or next century, either way “The Great Burning” will have been a short – albeit critically important – period of human history.

Even on a human-scale timeframe The Great Burning can be seen as a temporary phenomenon. Take the Native American concept of looking seven generations ahead. My great-great-great-great-great grandparents would have been born around 1800, and would have had little trouble imagining a world without oil and gas. And my great-great-great-great-great grandchildren, should they come to be, would be born around 2150. They won’t be using oil and gas either. At our current pace of use and growth, it will likely have “run out (or become prohibitively expensive)” – though if we let supply be the limiting factor, we will have irrevocably doomed the planet.

Why? In 2012, George Monbiot reckoned grimly with the fact that he and others had been wrong on Peak Oil – there’s enough to “fry us all”:

So this is where we are. The automatic correction – resource depletion destroying the machine that was driving it – that many environmentalists foresaw is not going to happen. The problem we face is not that there is too little oil, but that there is too much.

The “automatic correction” aspect of Peak Oil was a fantasy. The shattering of a global economy built upon fossil fuels would be devastating, but at least it would have preserved a livable planet. But predictions of Peak Oil underestimated human ingenuity. We continue to devise clever ways to extract previously-unreachable fossil fuels. Now we have access to enough oil and gas to render the planet unlivable before we run out.

The Green New Deal view

Green New Deal visionaries imagine a world without oil and gas, not because we run out, but because we choose to walk away. Continuing with our current fossil fuel usage is a false choice, poison pill. Yes, oil and gas are tremendously useful, but the science of climate change makes it clear that we can’t have both fossil fuel cornucopia and a livable planet.

The Green New Deal is the first attempt at this dreaming to achieve widespread popularity. It’s a dream of building a world without fossil fuels that’s not primarily sacrificial, that in many ways would be even better than what we have today. Kate Aronoff speculates what life might be like in 2043 after a GND Act passes in 2021.

Imagine a world (and a city)

IOGA WV might have meant it sarcastically, but they’re inadvertently dead right. With our neighbors, in our cities, in our countries, across the world, this is our task: to imagine life without oil and gas, and then to create it.

Since fossil fuels permeate every aspect of modern American life, everything must be re-imagined. The grand and the mundane, internationally and on your street.

We can contribute to international and national momentum, but local change falls entirely on us. Go through local life and consider, what might each aspect look like without oil & gas? A few such changes might be:

  • Great expanses of grass lawn, made possible by gas-burning equipment, give way to gardens, prairies, trees, and forest.
  • Two cars in each driveway are replaced by excellent public transit, electric-assist bikes, and a shared pool of electric vehicles.
  • Ann Arbor’s airport, which serves only private planes, is repurposed. This frees up 800+ acres owned by the people. How should we use that space?
  • In lieu of disposable plastic containers, restaurants and stores adopt a closed loop in which zero-waste, cradle-to-cradle containers are reused and exchanged.
  • Our economic goal becomes meeting the needs of all within the means of the planet, replacing the chase for endless economic expansion predicated on the consumption of fossil fuels.

These shifts won’t be easy, and there are thousands more to make. But they’re not primarily sacrificial, either; most would lead to improvements in our social connections and well-being.

Reckoning with what we’ve wrought as a species and the work needed to remake our civilization can evoke despair. But it’s also an exciting and humbling time to be alive: we’ve been given a great duty to perform. It’s time to imagine a new world into existence.

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