Rob Parsons


Traveling to Bali, stepping into an uncertain future

by Rob Parsons

Why we're at the peak

March 06, 2008

Life in the fast lane/sure to lose your mind/Life in the fast lane/Everything, all the time.
-Don Henley

One of the guilty pleasures of living in the era of cheap oil is international travel via modern jet airplanes. Thousands of airline flights connect people from one continent to another, while collectively gulping more fuel than every SUV combined.

Few have demanded greater fuel efficiency standards for commercial airliners, which are deemed a modern necessity. And so we continue to fly the friendly skies, though may soon change given that petroleum now tops $100 a barrel.

As I island-hopped my way from Maui to Honolulu, then to Guam and Bali, I found plenty of time for reading.

My reading material was the newest book by Richard Heinberg: Peak Everything-Waking Up to the Century of Declines. Heinberg has previously penned three books on "Peak Oil," that much-debated moment when the world will reach (or has reached) its maximum possible rate of oil extraction.

Peak Everything takes this thinking to the next level, and considers peak production of coal, natural gas, uranium and precious metals extraction, logging, grain production, fresh water availability, arable land and wild fish harvests. Compounding the looming consequences of depleting these resources are ever-rising population and the increasing emissions that continue to alter the Earth's climate.

Many of us are unwilling to delve into a scholarly document of this sort, portending a great unraveling of life as we know it. We seem more content in naive denial, unwilling to read the handwriting on the wall despite irrefutable evidence that we all live in a precarious house of cards (the image on the book's cover) constructed by our species, homo sapiens.

One of my travel partners on the Bali adventure is Sophia, a tow-headed version of the Energizer Bunny, complete with pink Crocs, size zero. Like most toddlers finding their social and language skills, Sophia loves to play peek-a-boo. Again and again, she goes from inquisitive attention to glee as a willing adult covers and uncovers their face.

But many of the same willing adults are less inclined to do everything necessary in their lives to minimize their carbon footprint and sound the alarm to others, so children like Sophia can grow up in a world that isn't predestined to a monumental collapse of our existing life-support systems.

* * *

In Peak Everything, Heinberg describes the vicious circle that is the 21st century over-consumption: population growth requires more energy, leading to more fossil fuel extraction, which produces more available energy, leading to increased extraction of other resources and production of food and other goods, which provides for more population growth-seemingly ad infinitum. But such "self-reinforcing feedback loops," when observed in other microcosms in nature, usually lead to species-wide population crashes and die-offs.

None of this is easy to contemplate, nor is the information easily discussed in casual conversation. Yet, all that's needed for the worst-case scenario of system collapse to materialize is for world leaders to continue with existing policies or take too long in implementing corrective measures.

Living on an island like Maui, Oahu, Guam or Bali should allow residents to appreciate the fragility of the energy, food and economic structures on which we rely. Take Guam, where prosperity teeters between Japanese tourism and the U.S. Military.

Guam stands out from the hundreds of other islands in the South Pacific because it's a U.S. Territory and thus a strategic hub for transportation and military preparedness. It appears, to a first time visitor, to thrive with military housing construction, a touristy hodge-podge of hotels along pristine Turow Bay and a working populace numbed to their interdependence by imported goods of all kinds.

But visiting Bali in Indonesia is more like stepping into a dream. Warm, humid air lulls the visitor into a trance-like state of relaxation. Bali is a unique and apparently harmonious blending of many disparate elements.

Religion and culture permeate people's daily lives, as do creativity and beauty. Simple offerings are made each day with small woven baskets, flower petals, rice or crackers and incense placed in front of temples, homes, businesses and shrines.

In lush Ubud, tourist bungalows border rice paddies and homes and businesses are hand-crafted works of art, not pre-fabricated tract homes or town houses. Indigenous materials are used, including bamboo for framing, local hardwoods, thatching for roofs and locally hewn stones and handmade tiles. Local artisans are world-renowned for their textiles, batiks, stone and woodworks.

Yet Bali is also greatly dependent on tourist dollars. After the 2002 disco bombing, record numbers of people lost their jobs or became unable to pay bank loans on their businesses when the tourists stopped visiting. Now recovered from that recession, the economy is on the upswing, as are the numbers of cars and scooters on the narrow roads, the amount of air pollution and the demands on resources from a growing visitor and resident population.

To a longtime resident of Maui, it all sounds very familiar.

* * *

How do we avoid the seemingly inevitable future collapse of society that was set in motion by the industrial revolution's requirement for cheap, abundant fossil fuels? Can't technology save us?

Heinberg relates this tendency to bargain for an acceptable replacement: "Always the solution is technology: solar or wind, or maybe a bit of hydrogen for green-tinged idealists; nuclear, tar sands, methane hydrates, and coal-to liquids for hard-headed, pro-growth economists and engineers; Tesla's free-energy magnetic generators for the gullible fringe-dwellers."

But technological "solutions" are likely to be little more than a band-aid, when stopping the bleeding will require a tourniquet. Every day we use 85 million barrels of oil-as well as millions of tons of coal and billions of cubic feet of natural gas-to run our energy network. The only way forward that doesn't end in catastrophe for mankind and thousands of other species is to scale back both the numbers of humans and our per-capita consumption rates.

Like the Greeks, Romans and Babylonians, we created unprecedented abundance while ignoring the long-term consequences of our actions. Homo sapiens has proven to be the most harmful of all species, fouling not only his own nest, but the entire planet. The promissory note is now coming due.

Heinberg insists that his overall message is not be one of doom. Rather, it's that of inevitable change, and the need for redefining our choices on a scale of speed and proportion unlike anything previously known in human history.

"Our central survival task for the decades ahead, as individuals and as a species, must be to make a transition away from the use of fossil fuels," Heinberg wrote. "[A]nd to do this as peacefully, equitably, and intelligently as possible."

Three months ago, the United Nations Meeting on Global Climate Change convened here on Bali, discussing follow-ups to the Kyoto Protocol on reducing worldwide emissions of greenhouse gasses. The outcome was more foot-dragging by the U.S., the world's second highest emissions producer, after China.

While a global two-to-five percent per year reduction of fossil fuel consumption is a worthy goal, we need much more. Equally earnest efforts must be made by the world's nations to address water scarcity, overpopulation, over-fishing, chemical pollution and war. We must recognize that our future survival as a species depends on whether we will share dwindling resources instead of fight over them.

As a first-time visitor to Bali, I'm struck by the sincerity and kindness of the Balinese people, so quick to smile and willing to go to great lengths to serve. In the context of all the finite resources, they are welcome reminders of the true infinite resources of the world-love, kindness, and compassion.

These qualities are the tools we may use to reconstruct the future of the planet. Because the longer we wait to modify our behavior and choose our future path, the more likely it is that the forces of nature set in motion by our excessive consumption for the past 150 years will make our choices for us.