Joanna Weiss: Brian Black Envisions Alternative Lifestyle to Cult of Oil

Historians in the News

[Joanna Weiss is a columnist for the Boston Globe.]

...Even as a thought experiment, refuted by some scientists and futurists and optimists, “peak oil’’ is an opportunity to think past the relative placebo of renewable grocery bags and remember that our oil dependence wasn’t preordained. Early plastics were made from coal resin, says Brian Black, professor of history and environmental studies at Penn State Altoona. Petroleum just made them more malleable and cost-effective. Early car production was electric; Henry Ford even fiddled with an electric version of the Model T. But during World War I, we got hooked on the internal combustion engine, which fueled the suburbs and the road trip and the frequent flier and the culture of expansion we’re accustomed to now....

[Black] imagines a slow weaning process that begins with reducing our dependence on foreign oil; he supported the president’s call for more offshore drilling before the BP disaster struck. He calls for policies such as cap and trade that put a price on oil’s long-term implications. And because transportation takes up the bulk of oil consumption, he believes that if we all convert quickly to fuel-efficient vehicles, we’ll still have enough petroleum available for the little things we rely on, the pharmacutical ingredients, diapers, and toothpaste tubes.

There have been moments when we’ve entertained these sorts of ideas. The Exxon Valdez spill, 21 years ago, reminded us how much oil can hurt the environment. The gas price spike, two summers ago, made us pity anybody with an SUV. Neither of them stuck. Will pictures of birds and anger at Tony Hayward do the trick now? Or will we wait until — sooner or much, much later — the wells really do run dry?

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