Photograph by Steven Higgs

Bloomington must prepare for the inevitable energy shortages that will occur as a result of peak oil. City Councilman Dave Rollo says the community must focus on the basics, like energy (renewable), food and water.

Dave Rollo didn't deliver a lot of good news during a recent conversation about the potential impacts of "peak oil" on the Bloomington community.

The evidence is abundant that the world is at or near the point at which petroleum supplies start to decline, the Bloomington city councilman said, bolstering his arguments with charts on his laptop showing trends in Mexico, Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing regions.

And oil isn't the only resource that is becoming increasingly scarce. Rollo just returned from a peak oil conference at which Richard Heinberg, author of a new book called Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, spoke.

"It's not just peak oil," Rollo said. "It's peak water, peak metals, peak food, peak grain, peak soil."

As predicted in the 1972 book The Limits of Growth, the world is entering an era of ecological and economic overshoot. And Bloomington, like every community in the world, cannot avoid the hit.

"We are going to be entering energy shortages soon," Rollo said, "and that's going to have a real impact."

***

During a two-hour conversation at Nick's English Hut on Kirkwood, Rollo did manage to drop one morsel of good news.

"We're ahead of most communities because we have recognized the problem," he said of Bloomington. A few cities - San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Ithaca, N.Y., for example - are even taking defensive action. But that's really about it on the plus side.

"I don't think the urgency is there," he said.

And the response must be urgent if citizens are to effectively confront what author James Howard Kunstler calls the “long emergency” of a continually declining base of their primary energy source, Rollo said.

"There's just nothing that prepares us for that," he said. "But we have to look. We have to do it, because this is the future."

***

To look locally, to help instill a sense of urgency in community leaders and citizens, Rollo said the City Council will create a Peak Oil Task Force to pose never-before-asked questions, like how dependent on petroleum is Bloomington and is the community prepared to deal with liquid fuel shortages?

The council will pass legislation creating the task force in the coming weeks, make appointments in December and start meeting in January, with a goal of issuing a report in June, he said.

"The report is going to describe our vulnerabilities, where we're exposed and what we need to do to build resiliency into the system," he said.

***

When he attended a peak oil conference in 2006, Rollo said, he asked leading thinkers on the subject, like professors Kenneth S. Deffeyes from Princeton University and Robert Costanza from the University of Vermont, what Bloomington should do.

"It was pretty shocking to hear them say, 'Establish your own currency,'" he said.

But the truth is that the situation is so dire that action as radical as delinking local economic exchanges from the federal system may be required, Rollo said. And there are models to follow.

In Ithaca, for example, more than 900 participants publicly accept a local currency called Ithaca HOURS for goods and services, according to the Ithaca HOURS Web site. "Additionally, some local employers and employees have agreed to pay or receive partial wages in Ithaca HOURS, further continuing our goal of keeping money local," the site says.

A similar program in Bloomington failed to take hold a few years ago, Rollo said, but it may be time to revisit. It would, however, take participation from some major community players, like city government, local banks and major employers.

"Boy, that's pretty hard for people to swallow," he said. "But I think we should explore that again."

***

The implications of peak oil on the contemporary concept of economic growth are beyond comprehension for most Americans, Rollo said. But it's time to rethink.

"We have to recognize that there are limits," he said. "And we have to adjust ourselves to live within those limits."

Many are and will continue to be in denial, he said. And while it may be heretical to say, denying that there are limits to growth is an unreasonable response.

"Anybody who's wedded to the growth model is going to be profoundly disturbed by this," he said. "But the longer we persist in thinking that growth will continue, the worse off we will be. ... We need to tame our appetites, and we need to think not just about efficiency in our systems of coping, but sufficiency. What do we need as a community?"

Those who are committed to growth, Rollo said, should focus on growing the local economy in ways that will decrease dependence on the global economy, by focusing on the fundamentals.

"Food has got to be a priority," he said. "We have to think about food, water, basic resources."

***

Two basic community services that require attention are energy and transportation, Rollo said.

American utility executives, like those at Duke Energy who are planning a coal gasification plant in Southern Indiana, acknowledge climate change is a problem, he said. But they think that because "per unit of energy we're producing less carbon dioxide," the problem is being addressed.

"Yes we're going to use coal, I think we will," Rollo said. "But the preferred form of energy production should be wind and solar and renewables at this point."

"I think we need to explore buying green power," he continued. "I think this will be a very important subject in the next few years. What can the local community do to encourage our energy supplier Duke to supply us with green energy?

"We want it. We demand it. I think people here will pay a premium for it. Not everybody can, but I think many will."

Of particular concern are citizens who will be priced out of energy, like those whose homes are not well insulated, who must drive a long distances to their jobs and who must work one or two jobs just to make ends meet.

"These people are incredibly vulnerable right now," Rollo said. "These are the people who are going to be choosing, 'Do I eat or pay my electric bill?' And that's a prescription for disaster, in a societal sense, when we have people making choices like that."

Plans for new highways, like Interstate 69, are antithetical to rational public planning, Rollo said. He cited a two-mile light-rail line around Kenosha, Wis., as the future.

"We need to get a rail system going again," he said.

Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.