Saturday, February 18, 2006

the next generation

This past Friday afternoon I started a discussion by asking a class of students at South Stanly High School, “What does the term peak oil mean?” A young man in the front row raised his hand and then responded, “It means the midpoint of oil production.” I congratulated him. He already has a better understanding of the energy issues facing us than most of the general public in this country. Seldom am I able to ask that question and get an appropriate answer. The reason for his awareness of the issue is due in large part to the efforts of his teacher to study relevant, current events and the willingness of young minds like his to think openly about them.

Several weeks ago Patty Crump wrote to tell me of her class and their recent discovery of the issues surrounding energy depletion. The students watched Real Oil Crisis and researched topics related to peak oil and energy scarcity. She borrowed a copy of The End of Suburbia and they watched it in class. I offered to come and speak to the class and Mrs. Crump extended an invitation. There are many who criticize the most recent generation for spending too much time sitting in front of the television; ipod in one hand and Gameboy in the other. I have done it in the past and I don’t shrink from my disapproval of the over emphasis on time-wasting technology in the lives of our adolescences. I think a youthful afternoon spent in the woods is more informative, more relevant and more enjoyable than a week’s worth of TV but I digress. There are advantages to being young. What we often forget as we age is just how malleable young people are. They have spent less time in life and are therefore less likely to be stuck in a specific way of thinking. They also have more to lose if the American dream takes a turn for the worst. You can sense that as they ask questions about the future of our way of life. While some older Americans shrug and then dismiss the idea that the near future might not resemble the recent past, these students were willing to listen and consider peak oil and its implications. I found this to be refreshing and hopeful.

I prepared an overview of the topic of peak oil including a PowerPoint presentation. This was for me as much as for the students. What a wonderful exercise to create a comprehensive description of peak oil, its history and its possible implications on our culture. I've read or listened to many such descriptions authored by others but to make one myself was enriching. We covered Dr. M. King Hubbert and his curve, the state of production in various countries (the class already knew the U.S. peaked in the early 70’s), the dependency of various aspects of our way of life on cheap abundant energy, and much more. As the secession wound down they had questions some prepared and some spontaneous. Several asked about alternatives and I could hear the hope that there might be a way to just switch over from oil to another cheap abundant energy source. Their inquiries were reasoned though on a level that I think escapes most older Americans when it comes to their resources. One student didn’t just ask about hydrogen as a substitute he combined nuclear energy in the question. Instead of just assuming hydrogen would solve the problem and going back to sleep he asked about using nuclear power to produce hydrogen to run our transportation system. Personally I think scale will probably prevent a nuclear/hydrogen solution from allowing us to continue to live so many miles from where we work, teach, and shop but that gets away from the point. The point is that his question reflected not only an acceptance of the idea that there is a coming energy problem; it also combined several alternatives into the beginnings of an actual strategy for a way to mitigate the effects. Call me cynical but I was surprised (and pleased) to see coherent and applicable thought on the issue of Peak Oil from citizens that are too young to vote. There were questions that were not about alternatives, further proof that these young minds might be starting to settle around the idea that energy in the future might be less available. They wanted to know more about what life might be like as they graduate from high school and possibly complete college in a few years. They wanted to know what sectors of our civilization might be affected first. They wanted to know about where to invest themselves so that they might be in the best position possible to survive and thrive in an era of limited resources. I was ready to share what I think but not willing to give specifics about what will happen. That is of course because it is impossible to know exactly what the future holds so we spent time talking about trends. For example 71% of the oil used in this country goes towards transportation. It stands to reason then that traditional means of moving people or items great distances will become really expensive and happen less often. That does not mean there won’t be any truck drivers but I’d bet on a reduced demand for that occupation. On the other hand if shipping by truck contracts what other means of transportation might become relevant? Might we see resurgence in railroads and might that be a better choice of career? This is the sort of unconventional thinking I tried to promote in these students as they ponder their future; a future that is by definition undefinable but certain to see a reduction in cheap, abundant energy. It is my sincere hope that these young students and others will not accept the assumptions of older generations but question the rationality of the current patterns of our behavior.

I enjoyed the experience of sharing information with young people about what I believe will be the most influential issue of our time. I was happy to see pertinent topics being discussed by young adults even before they graduate high school. I am deeply concerned about how the United States of America and the rest of the world will respond to a global peak in oil production and the subsequent decline in available energy. This past Friday afternoon it pleased me to see that at least some of the leaders of tomorrow are already awake and aware of the issue.


Anonymous said...

You deserve a great deal of credit - and praise - for taking the time to speak with young students about the advent of Peak Oil. It sounds as though they really appreciated the time you spent with them. Hopefully the next generation can find some sort of way out of the huge mess that's been left for them to clean up.


Anonymous said...

Sadly these young folks will learn the hard the time the now 10th grade finish college around say 2012 we will have seen peak oil in the mirror and I feel dramatic change will take place from 2008-2012...I'm thinking on the lines of Great Depresion2 1929 starting in this timeframe. I think mass contraction. Sadly these kids are totally unprepared for what lies ahead in the area of skills and real life. Nintendo and MTV will not place bread on the table. Life is tragic and no one has ever been promised and easy road map in life. Reality will be the teacher of the now teen age youth. The outcome for this age bracket will be anger followed by lots of violence.
I talked to a class of 11th graders 2 years ago about Peak Oil. I was ignored, laughed at, had a spit wad hit me in the left arm, it was like a clown one was interested and I just cut the lecture short...First and last time I make a fool of myself and try to spead the word to teh MTV youth..This is not the youth I grew up with even when I graduated 15 years ago..These kids wont is a joke and they have no attention span...I'll leave it to reality to teach these youth....And Peak Oil will be that reality

crz53 said...

As a high school teacher who deals with teenagers everyday, I can empathize with your frustration. There are times during the day when I'm convinced that even without an impending energy crisis, we'd be doomed. Most of these kids seem incapable or unwilling to pay attention to anything that doesn't involve their personal entertainment for the next 5 minutes. But then there are those students who give me hope. They are the ones who often surprise you, who you never would have guessed are capable of putting together a coherent sentence, let alone an intelligent opinion about current events. The first group of students is why I make a point to make current events, including Peak Oil, a constant topic of discussion in my classroom. They're going to be in for a rude awakening. The second group of students are the ones who will be the leaders of tommorrow, not the kids who have been brainwashed into thinking that they can get rich in the stock market. We're certainly in for a wild ride, and I'm trying to prepare as many kids as I can. They may think I'm nuts now (and many of them do), but if they can look back on something I told them as they face changes in the future, I'll have done my job.
- Mike Lorenz
ps. Sorry for the shameless self-promotion, but I've recently started a blog about related issues and would love to get some feed back. Check out The Blank Page at Thanks