Fossil-Fuel Free Future. Impossible? Think again…

Haven’t written in quite a while and this is going to be a long post. So brace yourselves. ūüôā

Change they say is the only constant. But some people will not accept a proposal for change until they can see a ‘pilot study’ or a prototype of sorts. It is very educational to observe how different countries are reacting to the ‘peak oil’ crises. Peak oil as the term implies is the point in time when the rate of production reaches it’s maximum and then enters terminal decline.¬†Some people don’t believe in the concept of peak oil, they say it has been predicted hundreds of times but the predictions were always wrong. That may be right. But even the best astrologers whose main job is to make predictions find it hard to get them right consistently. So it¬†is beyond me to understand¬†why scientists are expected to be astrologers . Nonetheless,¬†WikiLeaks may have just confirmed that Peak Oil is Imminent. Saudi Aramco’s Oil Reserves may have been exaggerated by ¬†as much as 300 bn barrels.¬†Saudi Arabia is the world’s leading exporter and wikipedia says it is a swing producer. ¬†Think that is a misnomer. The country can never ‘produce’ oil. The Earth does. Companies, countries merely EXTRACT these resources. So they should perhaps be called ‘swing extractors’. But I digress.

Peak oil is not the same as oil depletion. But there is no questioning the fact that at some point in time, the economy will finally reflect the high price of oil that we already see in environmental and social terms. Just as it has done for millions of years, the earth may continue to produce petroleum but for all practical intents and purposes, such a resource will not be commonly available to us. Bearing this in mind, we can look at responses in a new light.

As Saudi’s reserves continue to fall, the US searches for newer sources such as¬†the Federal¬†Outer Continental Shelf, the 1002 area of the¬†Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the¬†National Petroleum Reserve‚ÄďAlaska, and the¬†Bakken Formation.

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Many of these chosen sites are classic cases of ¬†‘Is man is more important than any other animal?’ kind of debates. Alaska, for instance is prime polar bear territory. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the group that sued to protect polar bears says that there is considerable evidence of a decline in polar bears in Canada and Alaska ‚ÄĒ with some of the animals starving, turning to cannibalism and drowning ‚ÄĒ and that most scientists believe the drop-off is directly related to the loss of sea ice. This site says “The noise associated with building oil platforms and high levels of human traffic would affect the animals and their environment, possibly driving away the members of this endangered species that reside there.” One would think that is common sense, but…

Image: Polar bears in Alaska

Image courtesy MSNBC

Finding new territories for ‘production’ of crude oil is not the only contentious concept. The concept of ¬†unconventional sources is even more so. Tar sands/ Bituminous sands and oil shale top the list of ¬†such ‘alternate’ energy sources. ‘Tar sands’ is actually an incorrect term since tar is man-made while bitumen is made by nature over time.

tar sands before after national geographic march 2009

Before and after?: a forest in northern Alberta staked out by tar sands prospectors and the Suncor Millennium tar sands site, Alberta in the March 2009 issue of National Geographic (Photo: Peter Essick) - Via Tree Hugger

There are some excellent videos on this topic. But for a quick primer, watch this

If you’re interested in learning more about this dirty, dirty source, explore these sources:

  • Brilliant Piece by National Geographic. ¬†Love how it says “It’s a struggle to balance the needs of today and tomorrow when you look at the environment we’re going to live in,” he says. In northern Alberta the question of how to strike that balance has been left to the free market, and its answer has been to forget about tomorrow. Tomorrow is not its job.”
  • Watch the animation of ¬†H2Oil here. I was amazed that the oil industry refers to the earth as ‘overburdened’ as if they are saviours who will lessen the burden of the earth by stripping it of ancient forests and scarring the land with toxins that can be seen from space!¬†Such arrogance!
  • Watch this video by¬†Greenpeace¬†to understand how the Alberta Tar Sands is contributing to Climate Change.
  • For those of you who have the stomach for it, check WWF and the Co-operative Bank’s super comprehensive report titled “Unconventional Oil – Scraping the bottom of the barrel?” WWF challenged Shell’s greenwash where it advertised tar sands as ‘sustainable’ and WWF won.
  • Perhaps one of the most compelling ways of describing this mess is how the UN Water Advisor did. She likened Canadian Tar Sands to Tolkein’s Mordor (doesn’t the word sound remarkably like murder? The man was a genius!) where steam rises from the grounds and no birds fly above. Now how I wish the trees of the boreal forests would walk to their mordor and destroy their Isengard. But that’s fiction and this is reality where you and I are in-charge and no Ents are coming to save us. We can at best take inspiration from Frodo’s question to Aragorn and imagine the Earth is asking us this intense question that begs an answer, ” Can you protect me from yourself?”
  • Here’s information on something that is about to happen¬†3 days from now,¬†on Apr 6th, 2011. Not so much a prediction as being connected to the right media sources. On April 6th¬†, Alberta’s largest daily newspaper, Edmonton Journal, will carry this message from the¬†Norwegian Grandparents‚Äô Climate Action to the citizens of Canada: Read it here.

But the point of this post is not to go on and on about how terrible all development is. It is to inspire you and me to look for the right alternatives, in a sense to set the right goals. Before we get to that part though, I’d like you to watch Anthony Robbins talk about Goal Setting.

So are all countries caught up in this mad race? One country comes to mind as a shining beacon of hope. Sweden.

Prime Minister G√∂ran Persson announced a national goal of making Sweden fossil-fuel free by 2020. More Information here and here. Now that is what I’d call a Goal! Imagine thousands and thousands of people putting their minds together to achieve this seemingly impossible goal. They may or may not get there by 2020. Some sites give us varying dates such as 2030 and 2050. They even point out quite correctly that to be truly fossil fuel free¬†means there will no longer be any gas stations that sell fossil fuel based fuels, plastic bags, or fossil-fuel grown food.¬†But the point is, they’re moving in the right direction and will be far ahead of other countries when peak oil does hit, if it hasn’t already.

All of this didn’t start overnight though. The book Eco Barons by Edward Humes gives some illuminating details about many more people and places. Check my previous post to know more about the book. Coming back to Sweden, it all started in 1990 when a renowned Swedish Cancer Researcher, Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert, joined by fifty other scientists, developed a four-step program explaining how a country could be transformed to embrace sustainability in every sector – business,government, industry and the daily lives of ordinary citizens. Dr. Robert called this plan “The Natural Step”. An NGO by the same name carries forward this mission today. In Sweden’s case, the king embraced the idea and it was launched nationwide as the goals the nation should aspire to achieve, through rigorous emissions controls on cars and through the use of alternate energy. The results have been spectacular. Sweden has become the most sustainable nation on the planet. It has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 9 percent below 1990 levels, an achievement that far exceeds the mandates of the Kyoto treaty whereas the rest of the world has continued to increase emissions. The book says that so far, Sweden has achieved a 70% reduction in the use of oil for home heating and has held industrial consumption at 1994 levels. While the major challenge remains transportation, almost one-third of Sweden’s energy comes from renewable sources. From my research, it is clearly not just the pet project of a few elites. It is the result of many ordinary people and many¬†municipalities¬†setting goals for themselves towards this end, vying to outdo one another in becoming the most sustainable city first. Watch this video about one such¬†municipality. Warning – certain sections of the video are a bit distasteful if you are vegetarian/vegan. Another very interesting video available here.

So clearly, it is possible as long as there is a will to accomplish the goal. Sweden makes for a FANTASTIC pilot study. But the time has now come for the mission to go beyond one country. I’d like to end with two quotes from Eco-Barons:

Consider this: all the ants on the planet, taken together, have a biomass greater than that of humans. Ants have been incredibly industrious for millions of years. Yet their productiveness nourishes plants, animals, and the soil. Human industry has been in full swing for little over a century, yet it has brought about a decline in almost every ecosystem on the planet. Nature doesn’t have a design problem. People do.

– William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the way we make things

I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.

-Thomas Alva Edison, 1931, shortly before his death, to Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone



  1. jessie · April 4, 2011

    Two extreme things took place in our building on saturday night. It was a night of suspense, anticipation, despair and hope, not only to the people of my building (we are nine families) but to the billions in India.Not a soul on some of the roads. Everybody glued to the t.v. like their life depended on it. It was a no bar night. You know when i say no bar it means to cast, creed,colour, age, status in society, or place for that matter. The whole nation was one from Kanyakumari to Kashmir.IT WAS CRICKET NIGHT. In our building everyone was glued to the t.v. in their own home comforts. Indians won the match, made us breathe with ease and exsultation, the whole country erupted with noise of fireworks and peoples screams of joy. When i said Oh God the pollution, my husband said “you have to excuse this one day” . So I excused and we went out to see the jubiliation of the people. Right on cue something happened to the electric pole which supplied power to our building and our whole building was in darkness, when all the other buildings had normal light. We din’t mind because the match was over and we had won. Also we knew that nothing could be done about it till the next day so we went to sleep i.e. we tried to sleep. But unfortunately it is summer and without power there is no fan and without fans there is no sleep. So all of us (the nine families) ended up on the terrace and then this marvellous thing called human bonding happened. Many of the families din’t even know, who was staying where and what they were doing. Each one is so busy with their life there is no time to look at your neighbour. But that night, they came to know that, one of the families was leaving india that night, to settle in the U.S. So all the good wishes poured out and that family was very happy. They also came to know that 3 children of different families were appearing for different exams and again everybody wished them good luck. They came to know that two of the families had bought their own flats and were leaving us shortly. Suddenly i saw what was happening. One days’ or rather one nights’ power failure had made these families come to know each other. They shared their life, their hopes, their desires, their triumps and failures with each other. So i was thanking the star that snapped our power line when suddenly i realised that thank God it din’t happen before the match got over. We would not have been one with the nation if it had happened before the time. So that made me think. What is important? The new age which gives you the news at your finger tips about what is happening across the globe or the old age (live for one night without power and you will know that it is old age) which gives you time to know your neighbour? Oh God! it issssss such a tough choice.

  2. Anusha Jayaraman-Ganguly · April 4, 2011

    hey, nicely written blog piece. Alternate fuel is the call of the hour. As a biologist, one my wish is to work on some aspect of this problem – may be using algae or some such. will look fwd to many more informative and inspiractive blogs like this ūüôā

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