RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Oil Is So Last Century

So the era of Big Oil is over; the BP gusher proves it. The shale that’s been touted as the next big thing is just too dangerous and polluting, often placed inconveniently over farmland that we need for the next generations. Natural gas? There’s nothing natural about it, and it pollutes groundwater wherever it’s drilled. We have about a year to get out of the petroleum habit and our hilarious lifestyle.

So, what do we do?

First of all, and immediately, we ration energy: oil, electricity, everything. That means no more little lights on the easy-on coffee pot or lighted phone dials and clocks on the microwaves. All those little leaks need to be sealed.

Everyone needs to learn how to ride a bicycle — again. And it won’t hurt to learn how to cook, what herbs to use to heal colds and constipation and how to build a water filter.

And bring back the military troops. Those guys joy-riding across the sky in their jets and running across the desert with pizzas from War Central — that never made sense in the first place, and it really doesn’t make it now. We’ll need to explain to our enemies that we need the guys back home because we have much bigger problems than fighting terror.

Our enemies have the same problems — global warming, unpredictable weather, crop failure, overpopulation and water pollution — and they’re more equipped to deal with them.

That’s the only good thing about being an exploited country — you learned less quickly to depend on modern gadgets, and your native knowledge is more accessible than in this country. But unless we want to see the entire planet descend into chaos due to hunger and thirst, we need to learn strategies that will help us live more like our enemies do, even as we help them rebuild the homes they had before we got there.

And, speaking of lifestyle, we need to stop whispering about the explosion of human population and begin the dialogue with our own kids that goes, “It’s OK if you don’t have kids, honey. I’d rather have you working to save the planet and help the folks that are already here.”

For everyone, the answers will be more about connections and cooperation than about money and competition. People who don’t understand relationships will be marginalized as resources like food and water get more and more scarce and expensive.

Obviously, the cities are over. Because we need to conserve electricity, we’ll have no elevators. Those who can, need to move themselves, their Chinese antiques and original Picassos to the suburbs and the high rises would be sealed up like the pyramids for future archaeologists with climbing gear. Those who can’t move will be living on the lower floors, and raising goats in the vacant lots.

To accommodate the refugees from the cities and their stuff, all McMansions will be converted to apartment housing. Plenty of room in the houses for three or four or five families, but if there’s not enough space, there’s plenty of elbow room in a two-car garage.

With the oil that’s left, and the natural gas and whatever else there is, we need to build solar collectors and wind generators. These should be placed on homes and businesses that serve the most people.

Forget the import-export system, at least until someone can rebuild the clipper ships. Local creations will be valued again, and I’m not just talking about food from the ecosystem. Homemade things like quilts, clay pots from local clay, blankets from homegrown wool will be normal again.

Oranges and bananas will be Christmas treats again. Coffee and tea? Forget it! Take a nap!

Imported stuff will become expensive, so get ready. Those throwaway electrical gizmos, like iPhones, keyboards, TV sets will be hard to replace. Solar chargers and rechargeable batteries will be valuable enough to hide from the kids. People will learn how to fix things, and we’ll get things fixed instead of throwing them away.

Out here in rural America, it’s the end of high-chemical farming. No more 40-foot wide planters and fertilizer tanks so lumbering and huge that the bicycles can’t get past on the blacktop roads. High-chemical farming requires at least three passes over each field, but that’s if everything goes right. If there’s a late frost, hail or some other catastrophe, the machinery can be called out five or six times to plant, apply chemicals two or three times and harvest.

The irony of the big ag system is that we don’t need it. Animals that are now in feedlots can be moved around pasture in a system called rotational grazing. And, even if the meat is more expensive, we’ll be healthier when we cut back.

Now that oil is over, the old ag will come back. We’ll be seeing smaller fields and we’ll see college and high school kids pulling weeds in the garden again. And, in the few grain fields that are left, we’ll see folks picking the corn and wheat, moving after a slow wagon pulled by a couple of good old mules.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2010

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