Peak Moment: The Social Effects of Peak Oil (transcript)

MediaPeak Moment: The Social Effects of Peak Oil (video)

transcribed by April Scott

Person #1: I think, as we look into the future. And, we start thinking about alternative energies. And, how we deal with our use of the land and the resources. The oil, and so forth. We really need to start thinking in terms of systems that close circles, rather than open new circles of waste and consumption.

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Male announcer: This is "Peak Moment" ("Peak Moment" theme plays) We are living at a peak of human innovation, information, wealth, and health. ("Peak Moment" theme plays) But, we're also at a peak of population and consumption. With rising temperatures and declining resources; fueled by cheap oil and gas. ("Peak Moment" theme plays) Peak Moment television, bringing you examples of positive responses to energy decline and climate change, through local community action. ("Peak Moment" theme plays)

Janaia Donaldson, host: Hi, welcome to "Peak Moment". I'm Janaia Donaldson. My guest today is Rowan Wolf, from Portland. Who is a sociologist and Professor, over at Portland Community College.

Rowan Wolf: Thank you, for joining me.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Yeah. You were connecting the dots.

Rowan Wolf: Right.

Janaia Donaldson, host: In here. So, how did that lead to your thinking about how people were going to get involved. And, I'll just effect it. Leave it broad, like that. Because, you're thinking like a sociologist here.

Rowan Wolf: Well, you had - there was an issue of global conflicts. But, also, we started seeing a slow, kind of steady increase in the cost of oil. Not dramatic, at first. But then, really over the last five years; it's skyrocketed. And so, that oil is just tied to almost everything that we do. Particularly, in this country. And, so you start watching things like the cost of food. Start to go up. Both because of transporting issues. And, also because of we can't really produce food, without oil.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Ah, yes, right.

Rowan Wolf: We use it without hydro-carbons. We use natural gas and fertilizers. All of our equipment is run on oil, etcetera. And so, as the cost of that goes up, the cost of food goes up with it. There's a - it was interesting in watching what was happening in the United States, as there was a peaking. It looked like a series of peaks that was happening. But, we weren't really seeing the same kind of increases that you might expect, in terms of cost of goods. Or, cost of food. And, so there was a brief period of time, where companies and transporters were kind of absorbing some of the extra cost.

Janaia Donaldson, host: I see. So, we weren't seeing it directly. In our price of food, say. Or, shoes, or whatever it was

Rowan Wolf: Right.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Uh, huh

Rowan Wolf: But, when Hurricane Katrina hit, and it took out about 30 percent of the oil into the United States - domestic oil into the United States. As well as a lot of our imported oil comes through there, You know, essentially you saw the producers of businesses, and everybody going - well, we can't absorb a doubling in price. And so, since then, we've seen kind of a consistent, steady increase in the cost of goods. The cost of food. As well as the cost of gasoline, that goes in the tank.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Sure, sure. That's part of what you'd expect. Because, resources are more scarce, right? And of course, Katrina helped knock it out. I think about - the question came up this summer; would more people stay home, rather than take to travelling. And, vacationing. And it seems to me, that's one way. Yes, it seems that many people are staying closer to home and not travelling so far. Because, they culd feel their belt tightening. They need not to spend as much time directly on gas. I'm not sure how much people are thinking about the indirect raising of prices.

Rowan Wolf: Well, I think that kind of the most immediate effect across the board that people notice, is the increasing cost of fuel. But, the hints were very clear, over this last year. That people who had less economic resources to start with, were in the working poor. Or, even the middle class, for that matter. Were having to switch so much of their monthly budget into the cost transportation, in order to get to work. That you saw huge increase and demand at food banks. So, that they were essentially taking from their food budget, to put gas in their cars. Not for luxury driving or vacation driving. But, just to be able to transport themselves back and forth

Janaia Donaldson, host: To work?

Rowan Wolf: To work

Janaia Donaldson, host: Or, school, or whatever

Rowan Wolf: Exactly. And then, you had the real acutally since last winter - actual gas prices rose tremendously higher than oil prices did. And, of course, funds had been cut for emergency heat programs across the country

Janaia Donaldson, host: That's correct

Rowan Wolf: And, so there was a report is out of New York. I can't remember - I believe, New York State. About people in their business suits with their briefcases, showing up at the Energy Assistance Programs. Because, their heating bills had essentially more than doubled, than in the year before. They just didn't have the money to heat their homes. And, so you had solid, middle class - you know, workforce; competing with low income workforce, for heating resources.

Janaia Donaldson, host: For the same emergency supply

Rowan Wolf: The same emergency resources

Janaia Donaldson, host: Heating?

Rowan Wolf: Yes.

Janaia Donaldson, host: So, the squeeze is on.

Rowan Wolf: It is very much on. And, it will continue to be on.

Janaia Donaldson, host: I - you know, your concern is for those marginalized people. People that have less resilience. People who need to draw more from the community. Because, they don't have private resources to do that. Tell us more. Tell me more.

Rowan Wolf: Well, we have kind of a scenario, where we have encouraged an economy that marginalizes a lot of people. And, as we've switched from the 1960's and '70's and '80's manufacturing economy into a service economy; increasing numbers of people, are at the lower end of that service economy. So, we've got a lot of people who are working. But, they're not getting enough to actually keep up with inflation. And so, we've got a very at risk population that's employed. And, we have an even larger - another part of the population, that's a little less large; that is only marginally employed. Or, cyclically employed. Or, even permanently unemployed. And so, as cost increase, that's going to affect them first and most directly. Because, they have the fewest economic resources, they way things are structured; in order to respond. But, it also, as other people's belts above them tighten. Then, support for providing services and emergency programs. And, so forth. That are targeted at the poor, come under increasing heat.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Sure.

Rowan Wolf: Because, it's like - well, gosh, I'm working fulltime. And, I'm struggling to feed myself. Why should you be taking my money? To feed or house. Or, whatever these people who are not doing their share? And, so, the at risk population is really growing. At the same time, the kind of class divides become more accentuated. And, we see this alot in a different way. But, with the same underlying issues. With a lot of the argument around the immigration issue.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Sure. I was gonna bring that out. Why bring in more of those folks, who are gonna want more of the services that we are - there's a whole mode of scarcity here

Rowan Wolf: Yes.

Janaia Donaldson, host: And, there are tightening of resources. I mean, that's part of our reality. At least there is in the physical world, with oil and gas.

Rowan Wolf: Yeah, and well - the immigration debate, in terms of immigrants kind of sucking dry the resources - I believe are largely a misperception. Because, if the American public were actually paying people decent wages; then the cost of what we're doing to get food, to get clothes, to buy all those things. To go to McDonald's, etcetera. Would be much, much higher. But, it's a hidden benefit of having the immigrants here. Because, they're not taking jobs per se, away from Americans. They're contributing, in terms of their exploited wages. To the low cost of goods and services.

Janaia Donaldson, host: So, we're paying them so little, basically - that, that's allowing us to buy our McDonald's hamburgers for less, right? Or, anything else. So, you're saying here, that they're contributing to our economy. It would be - things would be more expensive if our lower class, if you will - the non-immigrants, were being paid a living wage, a decent wage

Rowan Wolf: Right.

Janaia Donaldson, host: So, in a sense, things are stacking up for the folks on the lower economic - I mean, how do I say that? That class is growing, in many ways?

Rowan Wolf: Yes, it really is. It is growing.

Janaia Donaldson, host: And, the divide is growing?

Rowan Wolf: In a lot of ways. And, so, to kind of bring it back to the peak oil situation. That as those costs go up, it's not being reflected in people's wages. Whether those are the wages of the middle class, the working class. The working poor. Or, immigrants, who are working in kind of exploited conditions, a lot of the time. Their wage - all of those wages are staying static, pretty much. Or, even degrading. And, while cost continues to increase.

Janaia Donaldson: So, they're having to pay more to take the bus. Or, drive or whatever it is to do their work

Rowan Wolf: Right.

Janaia Donaldson: But, they're not so - keeping up?

Rowan Wolf: And, eat, and housing. And, that sort of thing. I mean - alot of the working class and those who are economically below the working class, are in rental type situations. They have very little control over what their rent is, in most parts of the country. The owners of those properties see those costs go up. In terms of heating. In terms of how much it's costing them to live. In terms of investment. So, they raise rental costs. And, at the same time, it makes the situation worse for those populations. Because, they don't have control over their housing. So, the kinds of suggestions that come forward, like add insulation. Put in solar paneling. Plant a garden in your backyard. All of those things, are things that - not only can they not do, but, because they're not the owners of their programs; most of those programs, won't even allow them to improve the insulation in their homes. Because, the property owner doesn't qualify.

Janaia Donaldson: Oh, so there's a real catch-22 here

Rowan Wolf: Exactly.

Janaia Donaldson: Because, the property owner is too high an income level to get -

Rowan Wolf: To qualify for insulation.

Janaia Donaldson: For some financial aid

Rowan Wolf: Programs.

Janaia Donaldson: Oh, man.

Rowan Wolf: For example. And so, they can't do anything to actually reduce the amount of energy that they're consuming. Because, it's out of their control. And, the programs are structured in such a way, that they couldn't do it anyway. So, the kinds of suggestions that are put forward, frequently in terms of well how do we cut back on our energy use. Which is essentially a dollar question, for a lot of people. How can I save money on energy anywhere, in order to be able to afford the energy that I have to use. Is largely aimed at a relatively prosperous, home owning population. That maybe has some extra economic resources that they can switch to. A diesel car and bio-diesel. A hybrid vehicle. Or, they could put a passive hot water solar system on their roof. Or, those types of things. Or, they have a yard to plant a garden in. And so, those kinds of things, while they're important; largely leave out huge portions of the population, where those suggestions are effectively meaningless.

Janaia Donaldson: Because, they can't implement.

Rowan Wolf: Right, right.

Janaia Donaldson: So, what do you envision - where is this leading? What might we see coming, as the prices increase - as the instability increases? Or, we have shortages? What can people do?

Rowan Wolf: Well, I mean - I think that unless we kind of confront it head on. And, one of the things that Portland is doing with the Portland Peak Oil Task Force is really - the Task Force, anyhow is starting to explore these issues. Because, there are things that governments can do to facilitate people's ability to respond to the situation. So, for example, looking at community gardening. Encouraging different types of transportation routes. Looking at making jobs closer to where people live. Or, people closer to where their jobs are. Those types of situations. But, if we kind of deny this. And, it's - oh, well, this will get, or this isn't even happening. Or, it's going to get better, or whatever. Or, if we drill in ANWAR, that that's going to take care of all of our problems

Janaia Donaldson, host: Yes.

Rowan Wolf: As long as we think there is this magic bullet out there, we're not going to address kind of the underlying issues that are going to stand in our way. In terms of people really not just be able to survive this situation. But, to reshape our communities. 'Cause, there's going to be tremendous resistance to that.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Well, we've gotten used to a way of life, that - at least the American promise is that if you work hard, you'll prosper. And, things will get better. I mean, that's the dream. Right?

Rowan Wolf: Yes.

Janaia Donaldson, host: The American Dream. And, part of what I'm guessing, is what you're saying here is; that peak oil is going to say, well that can't continue. Or, the planet may say, you can't continue. Because, that's using more and more resources.

Rowan Wolf: And, I mean - oil and hydro-carbons are not the only resources that are becoming scarce. And, the American dream is on a short run. And, it always has been because, it just consumes too much resources. And, both for people inside the United States. But, also in terms of looking at it - but, on a global level. That if the United States wants those resources to continue the American dream. And, this is actually what it seems like. Governmentally, we're structuring for; is to control those resources. It means that the people where we're getting those resources do not get them. And so, the idea that everyone's boat is going to float. And, we're going to have this glorious utopia of increasing quality of life around the planet; with the U.S. as the model for what that quality of life is, is impossible. It is quite simply impossible.

Janaia Donaldson, host: And, I think that people that - like yourself have been saying that for some time, are starting to have to point to alot of facts that saying - see, I mean, the fisheries in the ocean are running out. And, fresh water in many places. And, timber, and lots of other resources are being exhausted.

Rowan Wolf: Yes.

Janaia Donaldson, host: And, seriously in decline.

Rowan Wolf: Yeah. Tin, uranium, gold, silver. You name it - water, is probably even more of a critical situation than oil. But, is not as sexy as oil.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Well, yes. That's right. And, yet Dick Cheney said, or, Bush Sr. is saying; the American way of life is non-negotiable.

Rowan Wolf: Exactly.

Janaia Donaldson, host: I mean, that's a stake in the ground, that says we're not going to look at consuming less.

Rowan Wolf: Right.

Janaia Donaldson, host: But, there's a whole lot of people that are having to start consuming less. Because, there's no other choice for them.

Rowan Wolf: Well, I think it's important to realize that kind of the economic model aside - kind of oil aside; is based on a belief that if you aren't growing, you're dying.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Yes.

Rowan Wolf: So, if you're not consuming more, then you're failing. And, economically you're failing. Which is part of the reason why after September 11th of 2001, Bush's suggestion to the population, in terms of what they could do; is go shop. That we've kind of - and, as crass as that sounds. And, I know that I was stunned as well; is the certain reality that we are a society. Where, if people reduce their consumption; that there is real economic issues that follow from that reduced consumption. And so, we've kind of had that framework. We've built ourselves a lifestyle upon that framework. And, it's not supportable in a closed environment. We are in a closed environment.

Janaia Donaldson, host: This planet is a closed environment.

Rowan Wolf: Yes.

Janaia Donaldson, host: What - you mentioned that you are part of the Portland peak Oil Task Force, taking a look at what your region, your city is and larger. What kind of questions you should be raising and looking at? In terms of how to respond? Or, being more resillient, with shortages or price hikes? And, so on. And, I bet your involved with the social side of that?

Rowan Wolf: Yes.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Yeah. What kinds of questions and so on - and perspectives are you starting to bat around in your discussions?

Rowan Wolf: Well, the task force is really kind of starting to move at this point. So, there's not a whole lot that's crystal clear. And, certainly the major question is, since this is a city task force under a governmental heading; that ultimately the recommendations that we come up with, need to largely fall within the parameters of what a city government has the authority to do.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Okay.

Rowan Wolf: And, we're still feeling out what that means. So, we're looking at - the task force is broken up into different subcommittees. And, we're kind of looking at two different things, at this point. One is; what are the resources, support systems, structuring of local social institutions already in place.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Okay.

Rowan Wolf: And, what does a changing scenario do in that situation? What increases and demands? What decreases? What does shifting population? We have a rapidly growing population in the Portland area. How does this affect our urban planning, for example? Where does the city conflict with state government, in terms of how much we can control about what gets developed where. So, the questions that are coming up is; how do we - what kinds of things can we do to ease some of the impacts. Prepare people for different impacts. Restructure some of the things that are happening within the city. To perhaps to facilitate not having radical disruptions to occur.

Janaia Donaldson, host: How?

Rowan Wolf: And, I think that problematically is, while we are likely to see crisis. That we're more likely to see a situation where the price of energy, in general, continues to go up. And so, therefore, eats more of individuals income, as well as city income.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Sure, sure.

Rowan Wolf: With in kind of fluctuations. We're in peaks. And, it's like - oh, my gosh, what do we do? And, then it will subside a little bit. And so, it's kind of - one way to look at it, is like a deteriorating situation, in terms of people's income in relationship and government's income in relationship to the situation. And, so how do you restructure? Personally, and I know that a couple of people on the task force, kind of share this perspective with me. But, we haven't had a full scale discussion. Is that it's pretty clear that people need to relocalize. I mean, we need to start doing more at a local level. In terms of production of food. And, in terms of production of goods. That, for two purposes; one, that you don't have the heavy transportation costs.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Sure.

Rowan Wolf: But, also, because local economies circulate the money within the local economy. Rather than it immediately being extracted.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Right.

Rowan Wolf: And, my guess is that that's going to be an issue that becomes somewhat of a concern. Because, Portland is increasingly, kind of hooked into this globalized, international market. And so, increasingly at a time when it's about to explode in our faces, we're more and more connected and dependent upon -

Janaia Donaldson, host: Yes, yes.

Rowan Wolf: That outside of Portland. Outside of the United States connection. For trade and investment. And, that sort of thing. And so, my guess is that that's going to cause some conflicts. What we need to do is strengthen our local economies that may be seen as diverting from this other growing piece of the Portland economy.

Janaia Donaldson, host: I imagine there is going to be a major conversation on the table. Because, you're looking at refunding manufacturing capability, for things you need locally. Local farming. At least in the regions around you. And, local transport. That's - that turns everything on it's head.

Rowan Wolf: Yes.

Janaia Donaldson, host: From where we are right now.

Rowan Wolf: And, it does in terms of a lot of the legislative things that have gone through. Such as allowing - changing land use of regulations. And, surrounding areas, that are largely rural, at this point. And, allowing people to sell those to developers. And, develop housing projects on farmland. It's like - wait a minute, wait a minute

Janaia Donaldson, host: Yeah, yeah

Rowan Wolf: You know, we really need that farmland within that community, because it's accessible. And so, there are things that are kind of moving us - and, this is true nationally, as well as globally. That are moving us further along an unsupportable path.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Right.

Rowan Wolf: And, undermining our ability to actually start to prepare for what it is, that we're already in the midst of. And, we're way far behind for preparing for that.

Janaia Donaldson, host: That's - all the indicators are, we need far more time to be able to mitigate some of these effects. And so, we'll do what we can, from where we are.

Rowan Wolf: And, in my classes this comes up a lot. It's like, when is peak oil going to hit? Is peak oil real? And, my general response is; that you just don't turn an economy - turn a society on a dime. And, say okay; we're going to do this now. Because, we have not only a momentum, but a whole infrastructure that's based on a certain way of doing things. And, everything that we can do to kind of reserve the energy resources that are there now, gives us a little bit of more time to prepare.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Right.

Rowan Wolf: But, if we conserve what's happening and what has happened. And, we see this in terms of automobile production. Is as people conserve - it's oh gosh, look, now we can do more.

Janaia Donaldson, host: That's right, that's right.

Rowan Wolf: And so, because it's like people conserve, prices moderate somewhat. And, they build an SUV.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Right.

Rowan Wolf: It's like, well, if we can conserve, we can actually do more. We can use more. And, we really need to stop thinking in terms of that kind of growth and look into kinds of processes that close cycles. And, an example of this -

Janaia Donaldson, host: We have about thirty seconds.

Rowan Wolf: Oh, no. (both laugh) An example of this, real quickly, is bio-diesel.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Yes.

Rowan Wolf: And so, they want to use corn and soybeans, in order to produce bio-diesel. How much of our farmland do we want in crops?

Janaia Donaldson, host: Yes.

Rowan Wolf: I mean, in bio-diesel. And, then what do we eat?

Janaia Donaldson, host: Purchase food.

Rowan Wolf: Exactly.

Janaia Donaldson, host: So, there's going to be some serious trade offs in this?

Rowan Wolf: Yes.

Janaia Donaldson, host: Thank you. This is just the start of a Peak Moment conversation. Thanks for joining me.

Rowan Wolf: Thank you.

Janaia Donaldson, host: You're watching Peak Moment, community responses for a changing energy future. I'm Janaia Donaldson. Join us, next time. ("Peak Moment" theme plays)

Male Announcer: Peak Moment television, presented by Independent Media. Produced by Janaia Donaldson. Directed by Robyn Mallgren. ("Peak Moment" theme plays)

MediaPeak Moment: The Social Effects of Peak Oil (video)