Steamboat Springs Renewable energy expert Randy Udall used the saga of human flight during a talk Wednesday night as a metaphor for the challenges and opportunities presented by finite petroleum resources.
Udall suggested to an audience of about 100 in Steamboat Springs that if Orville and Wilbur Wright could solve the complexities of designing a flying machine 107 years ago, today’s society should be able to apply that same Yankee ingenuity to finding sustainable energy alternatives for our oil-based economy.
“They were bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio — neither went to college,” Udall said. “But they became fascinated with this idea of human flight. In the space of three or four years, they unlocked the secret of dynamic stability” in their early designs for aircraft wings.
American society needs to apply that same resolve and gift for science today, Udall implied, to stave off climate change and reduce dependence on the flow of petroleum that is due to go into decline before mid-century.
Udall co-founded the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA and spoke at an event hosted by Transition Steamboat and the Colorado Environmental Coalition.
Peak oil is a term that represents the tipping point when petroleum production is maxed out and begins an irreversible decline. With the United States having reached the peak of domestic production in about 1970, and the world’s top oil-producing nations consuming more and more of their domestic product with less to export, there are serious implications for the United States, Udall said. Add to that the aggressiveness with which China is roaming the world to tie up oil in Venezuela and coal mines in Australia, and the plot thickens, he said.
“The whole future of the American experience is tied to energy in one way or another,” Udall said. “Energy is indispensable to our sense of well-being and to civilized life.”
However, Udall said, since America emerged from World War II with its industrial capacity intact while the rest of the developed world rebuilt its bombed-out cities, we have enjoyed energy consumption that is unprecedented in the history of the world.
“Our experience of the last half-century gave us very misleading indications of what will happen in the next half-century,” Udall said. “We grew up in it, so we think it’s entirely normal, but this was a once-in-a-planet experience.”
The reality is that half of the fossil fuels consumed in all of human history have been consumed since 1980, Udall said, and that rate of consumption won’t be sustainable indefinitely once peak oil is reached. Instead, he said, we must find ways to sustain our increasingly complex society.
Charles Lindbergh became the world’s first celebrity when he flew nonstop across the Atlantic — a feat perceived as godlike in the U.S. and Europe, Udall said. Then Amelia Earhart became our first goddess when she set off to fly around the world. And now, Udall implied, our challenge is to make similar leaps.
“I see this photograph of the space shuttle (accelerating into space) as the perfect visual metaphor for our society,” Udall said. “There are 300 million of us who’ve been just rocketing along the last 40 years, each one of us consuming our body weight in petroleum each week. We’ve got to take this beautiful and wonderful civilization we’ve built and reshape it for the next half-century.”