Over a barrel

Texas oil refinery

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons


Our hidden dependence on oil

By Mary Beth Thakar

Most people don’t understand how dependent our society is on oil. Abundant, inexpensive oil has enabled us to create the luxurious, but unsustainable, lifestyle that most middle class Americans currently enjoy. Sure, we all know how expensive it is to fill up the tank these days, but it turns out that gasoline for our cars only accounts for 44 percent of the oil used in the United States.

Where’s that other 56 percent going?

Consider that oil supplies the raw materials for making medicine, plastics, disinfectants, and a vast array of common products. And though it sounds improbable, almost all foods are, in a sense, made out of petroleum, since derivatives of oil, in the form of pesticides and fertilizers, are used to grow our food. Additionally the food industry relies on oil for processing food. And then there’s the fact that most food travels, on average, 1500 miles before it reaches our table. 

Fossil fuels even fueled the growth of humanity. Coal helped double the world population between 1850 and 1950, to 2.5 billion people. Because it was a cheaper and more transportable product, oil began to replace coal, becoming the energy of choice during the past half-century. The parallel between energy use and population growth is so evident that one could say that that the population was “fed” by fossil fuels rather than food, and thus we now have a mind-numbing 6.7 billion inhabitants living on our planet.  

Everyone complains about the price of gas these days, but price is determined by the most basic law of the marketplace, supply and demand. Oil suppliers can charge more because demand keeps increasing as supply wanes. In 2003 oil sold for just under $25 per barrel. By 2005 it had more than doubled, to $60. It now hovers around $80 per barrel. The volatile political climate is certainly a factor, as is the greed of oil companies and oil-producing nations, but the simple equations of the marketplace are unarguable and unchangeable. Oil prices will continue to rise.

Inexpensive oil created the world we live in and the lifestyle we enjoy.  Without cheap oil, things would have been—and will be—vastly different.

Less oil, of course, can bring a number of positive changes. There will be fewer plastics, meaning less garbage, and less exposure to chemicals. Less gasoline consumption will result in less global warming. The reduced use of pesticides and fertilizers will lead to more organic foods. And because the manufacture of weaponry requires oil, the war machine might even grind to a halt – although people have never lacked for inventive ways to kill each other, even without oil. 

But can the world manage with less oil? Alarmists and some “peak oil” experts suggest that our depleted soil cannot sustain life without fertilizers and pesticides. They predict high inflation, economic destabilization, and more wars over resources. Some even suggest, without irony, that climate change cannot be mitigated without fossil fuels.

It’s not a pretty picture. But there are some ways you can take matters into your own hands and reduce your personal oil consumption:

  • Bike, bus, or share transportation.
  • Buy local or organic foods.
  • Start a garden.
  • Avoid over-packaged products, avoid plastics as much as possible and recycle those you do use.
  • Buy non-synthetic clothing.
  • Buy or make natural cleaning products and personal care products.
  • Buy products made from recycled materials.

One appealing way to make the transition to a less oil dependent world is the idea of “relocalization,” a process by which a community works together to break its reliance on conventional energy providers. Instead, such communities rely on local production of goods and services. The desirable effects of relocalization are increased local commerce, local governance, and local culture, all of which add up to livable, sustainable communities. To learn more about this effort, see www.relocalize.net.

Ultimately, living the lifestyle of an energy conservative means being informed, acting responsibly, and supporting, in every way possible, the re-invigoration of research into sustainable, alternative energy sources.

Mary Beth Thakar is a member of The Energy Forum of Western Pennsylvania, which predicts that, like it or not, lifestyle changes will be forced upon us by energy scarcity.


Published November 2007