The fear of inconvenience

Monday February 25, 2013

At the beginning of "Fresh," that inspiring film about the virtues of local food, a farmer relates how a Pakistani college roommate once said to him: "Americans fear only one thing. Inconvenience."

Invariably, there is a reaction from the audience that I’ve interpreted as a delicate nerve being struck: a moment of recognition. We sense the truth of this observation. As lifetime members of the fossil fuel civilization, convenience speaks to all of us.

Oil and convenience -- the one is the pre-condition of the other. Our industrial, highly scientific and technological, petroleum-based civilization is defined by its relative freedom from physical labor to satisfy our basic needs -- food, housing, transportation, energy, and so on. This, of course, is in contrast to our ancestors, as well as many people in the world today. Petroleum feeds us, houses us, transports us, warms and cools us, and provides us with the energy that makes the "stuff" of our consumerist economy. Think of all the ways we get around, for example, from one place to another or the origin of our supermarket diet, or the latest gadget in our hand. And how none of this would be possible if it weren’t for the energy we take for granted.

A Canadian study calculated that one barrel of crude contains 1700 kilowatts of energy. With weekends and holidays off and a sensible eight-hour day, it would require the equivalent of one person 8.6 years on a bicycle (or treadmill) to produce the energy now stored in that one barrel. Given that the average Canadian consumes 24.7 barrels of oil a year, every citizen employs about 204 virtual slaves. That’s much greater power than any Roman or Egyptian household ever commanded. Or five times more than average 19th century U.S. plantation owners.

Another study found that one 42-gallon barrel of oil equates to 25,000 hours of human labor (12.5 years all year long). The average American uses 60-plus barrels of oil equivalent (oil, gas and coal) per year, which suggests a fossil fuel "slave" subsidy of around 60-450 human years per person.

Work and energy go hand in hand; the more energy we can realize the more work we can produce. Given its singular density, as well as being cheap and accessible, "sweet crude" has provided us with an energy source beyond our wildest dreams, one that allows today’s middle class to live like the kings and queens of another time.

Yet, if we’re to survive as a species, we have to radically reduce our use of fossil fuels. We’ll have to increasingly free ourselves from our "slave" labor, and transition to a way of life which, by today’s standards, will be much less convenient. Successful adaptation to a post petroleum world involves major changes, and nothing is more inconvenient in life than change, itself. But when it involves moving from the convenience we have taken for granted all our lives, it is even more challenging.

It’s not that we must immediately and totally change from our current way of life to what we imagine a post petroleum society will look like. That’s unrealistic. Rather, it’s a matter of moving in this direction by increasingly accepting the reality and implications of climate change as a basic part of our daily lives. We think about it; we talk about it with family and friends; we begin doing things, by ourselves, and with neighbors that help us adapt to this new reality. In this way, climate change increasingly informs and reframes our everyday lives -- from working for a living, paying the bills, heating the house, to driving to the mall, buying a new car, and flying somewhere for a vacation. We begin to re-think, and re-do our lives in ways we can live with.

As the most advanced petroleum civilization, we are also most vulnerable to its demise. Accepting climate change as a fact of life is a crucial first step both to our survival, and to living successfully with the world as it’s more becoming. By seeing climate change as the new normal, and not as something we can deal with later, we begin to act in ways that are commensurate with what needs to be done, right now.

This won’t prevent climate change and its violent, even catastrophic, disruptions in our lives from occurring: it’s way too late for that! Nor will what we do now be sufficient for everything that we and our children and grandchildren will need to do in the years ahead. We don’t know the future; we can only make informed choices about the present by being real about the present. Living more in sync with climate change, however, and honoring the importance it has in our lives, allows us to better roll with the changes that are endemic to a post petroleum world. We’ll be doing, in short, what we’ll increasingly have no choice about doing if we are to sustain a reasonable human existence on this planet.

With the end of convenience, life slows down. Less petroleum fueling our existence means less speed with which to tear through our lives in pursuit of the material comforts and endless distractions that the life of convenience offers. This, in turn, makes possible for us to be more focused and purposeful, less scattered and mindless; we are able to both identify, and give ourselves wholeheartedly to that which is truly important in our lives, a quality that is second to none for making a successful transition to the post petroleum world.

While convenience may well be the death of us, "inconvenience" is not the end of the world.

Tim Stevenson is a community organizer with Post Oil Solutions and can be reached at 802.869.2141 and


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