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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The View from Hubbert's Peak

Scouting the Future of Paddlesport

By Farwell Forrest

September 14, 2004

We had a cool, rainy summer in the Adirondacks. That was good news for both ducks and mosquitos. And it was good news, too, for paddlers — at least for paddlers who didn't mind getting wet and wearing head nets. But it was very bad news indeed for the folks who wanted to lie in the sun and work on their tans, or amble along the streets of mountain resort towns with ice-cream cones in their hands and no particular destination in mind.

Perhaps that explains the many long faces that Tamia and I have been seeing as we travel around. Or perhaps not. Since early in spring, we've been taking our own advice and exploring our neighborhood: scouting new ways to the water on two wheels, venturing down roads we never even noticed when we drove past at 55 miles an hour. There've been a few unpleasant surprises, of course. Dyspeptic Rottweilers tied to rotting sheds with short lengths of frayed twine. Would-be hermits whose concept of private property embraces the public highway that goes by their house, and who are prepared to enforce their idiosyncratic interpretation at gun-point. Drivers of school-bus-sized RVs, who prefer the shoulder to the roadway, even when speeding downhill. The broken beer bottles that have taken the place of crumpled cans as the emblem of disaffected youth. And the metastasizing colonies of vacation homes crowding the shores of once peaceful ponds and flows, where the call of the wild is now the petulant whine of the jet-ski, and the cry of the loon is heard no more.

All in all, though, we've had a great time, even if we do have to clean and oil our bikes' chains after almost every trip. We've found enough new waterways (new to us, anyway) to keep us busy for years to come, many of them within a two-hour bike ride of our home. Which brings me back to those long faces we've been seeing. They're most noticeable at the gas pumps in front of the ubiquitous crossroad Ser-Sta-Gros — the inconvenience stores near and dear to all of us. We pedal by, and sure enough, we'll see the very same King of the Road (or Viking or Winnebago or…) whose driver forced us off the pavement a mile or so back. Now it's berthed alongside the pump island, and the driver has abandoned his captain's chair, leaving his mate in charge of the bridge while he — curiously, it's almost always a he — stands forlornly alongside his landlocked vessel, watching the total on the gas pump's digital display. Tamia, who's usually ten yards or so ahead of me and whose temperament is far more equitable than my own, gives him a cheery all-things-are-forgiven wave. But he doesn't respond. In fact, his eyes never leave the flashing display.

I think we all know why. Cheap gas fuels America's good times, and many Americans are now starting to wonder if the party's about to end. It's not a happy thing to contemplate. In fact, a lot of good people, including all of the major players in the never-ending road show of American politics, don't even want to acknowledge the possibility, at least in public. Optimism is the watchword of the day. It's understandable. As a cynical Frenchman once observed, we all have the strength to cope with other people's bad luck. But when misfortune strikes close to home, it's a lot harder to bear. So the prevalence of politic optimists is easy to explain. Who wants to be the guy who breaks the bad news to folks who don't want to hear it? Much better to stick to the party line that the party never ends. There's too much doom and gloom around, these optimists say. What's the point in asking for trouble? Relax. Enjoy. Let the good times roll.

But what if a troublemaker insists on asking what happens when the good times stop rolling, as common sense suggests they must, sooner or later? The politic optimists have another ready answer. Then, and only then, they reply, do we need to start thinking about the unthinkable. In the meantime, let's party!

That's the popular, politic view. It isn't my view, however. I'd rather see what's coming toward me than sit with my eyes closed, waiting for the first blow to fall, even if I can't see any more than dim outlines in the fog. Which brings me back to Hubbert's peak. It's not a mountain in the Adirondacks — or anywhere else, for that matter. It's the name given to a mathematical point: the place at which an oil-production curve tops out and starts to decline. Unfortunately, this is more than a nerdish abstraction. The global economy rides that selfsame production curve. The bad news? We've almost reached the high point on our ride. Once there, we've no place to go but down.

Does this mean we're about to run out of oil? No. There's enough in the ground to meet the world's present needs for perhaps 40 years to come. But that's only part of the story. Demand isn't constant. Tomorrow's "present needs" will be greater than today's. And today's needs are met entirely from current production. It doesn't matter how much oil there is in the ground. What matters is how much can be pumped and shipped today. Happily, demand and production have kept step, more or less, since the oil glut of the 1920s and '30s. There've been a few short-lived panics, to be sure, but nothing's stopped the party for long. Now that's about to change.

Here's why. We pump oil faster — a whole lot faster — than nature makes it. For all practical purposes, then, the world's oil reserves are limited to the stock on hand. What we have now is what we've got to play with. Period. For years we've kept up with growing demand for oil by pumping more, and we've been able to pump more because we've discovered "new" fields. But by now oil geologists have explored most of the world, and there just isn't that much new oil left to discover. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) doesn't count, by the way. It's small beer. There is one significant exception: the South China Sea, where unresolved territorial claims make it all but impossible to assign drilling rights and allocate profits. Oil companies aren't charities, after all. "What's in it for us?" is the first question they ask before they send in the geologists. If there's no way of locking up their profits, they won't gamble their money on exploration. Even if the South China Sea were opened for drilling tomorrow, however, there'd still be no guarantees. It's only a blank spot on the map. There may be nothing much there.

So we already have a pretty good idea how much oil is in the ground, give or take a few percent. And guess what? We've already pumped nearly half of all there was. That's also half of all that there will ever be, at least on any timeline that makes sense to humans. (The oil we burn today was created by geological processes that began hundreds of millions of years ago.) The rest is mathematics. Discovery and production figures to date are a matter of record, and people like Kenneth S. Deffeyes, roustabout, exploration geologist, and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, have been busy with their calculators, following the lead of pioneering geophysicist M. King Hubbert. Their conclusion? Sometime very soon — When? Next week, or maybe next year or the year after that, but not much later under any circumstances — we're going to start sliding down the global production curve. That's an inclusive "we," by the way. All nations are in the same boat on this one. World demand for oil will go on rising, at least at first. A lot of oil will have to be pumped to fuel the new cars of China, to say nothing of our own Kings of the Road, Vikings, and Winnebagos. But inevitably, inexorably, the available supply of the precious stuff will begin to fall. And each year after that, the gap between supply and demand will widen. You don't need to be Alan Greenspan to see what happens next. It's called "price rationing," and it's very efficient, at least in the ways that economists measure efficiency. It's not very pretty, though. Remember the used-car salesman's old pitch? "Money talks and nobody walks." Well, price rationing turns this pitch on its head. Money will still talk, and that's why a lot of folks who've gotten used to riding are soon going to be walking, or waiting in line for a bus that may never arrive.

What does all this have to do with canoeing and kayaking? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Look at your boat. What do you see? Plastic, or a metal that requires huge inputs of energy to refine and smelt. Oil, in short. Look at your gear: tent, tarp, packs. What are they made of? Nylon. Polyester. Polypropylene. Vinyl. Oil. Open your cook kit and take out your stove. What fuels it? Propane? Or butane? Or white gas? Oil, or something near enough as makes no difference. Now think back to your last whitewater outing. How did you get to the river? By car, almost certainly. And how did you get back to the put-in at the end of the day? Car shuttle, right? And what about your last Big Trip? Sea kayaking in Vietnam, maybe. Or running the Thelon. Or beach cruising in the Caribbean. Wherever you went, you probably didn't get there on foot. Oil took you there and brought you back home again.

Chemists say that oil and water don't mix, but any paddler knows otherwise. We may not have to put gas in our boats' tanks to make them go, but oil still keeps our sport afloat.

You see where we're all headed, I'm sure. Whether we like it or not, paddlesport is going to change. Soon. Some of the changes will mean going back to the future — a future where boats of wood and canvas and even paper (yes, canoes can be made from paper) are once again commonplace. A future where bicycles replace cars as shuttle vehicles on some trips. A future where downstream runs will be purchased with sweat rather than a gasoline company's credit card. A future where state-of-the-art clothing may again be made from wool and linen and cotton. A future, in short, not too different from the just-forgotten past.

A grim prospect? Possibly. If it is, though, it won't be grim because paddlesport has changed. A great many other things will also have to change, and change very quickly, and a lot of what we now take for granted will be gone forever, never to return. It's likely to be a pretty unsettling time. Strange as it may seem, however, and even though I'm not running for any office, I remain guardedly optimistic. I've just finished re-reading Robert Louis Stevenson's Inland Voyage, a story of a canoeing holiday in Belgium and France in the 1870s. (Americans who pick up the book for the first time will be surprised to discover that Stevenson's "canoe" was what we'd call a kayak. The explanation? He was a Brit. It's just another example of how two nations can be divided by a common language.) Whatever label you put on Stevenson's boat, though, his voyage was quite an adventure, and he and his companion enjoyed it to the fullest. Yet it was also a real no-octane trip.

What Stevenson could do, I figure I can do — make that we can do — too. Of course, there's no denying that it's going to be a hell of a run from the top of Hubbert's peak right down to the bottom, paddling all the way. The trip of a lifetime, in fact. Let's hope we've left ourselves enough slack to scout the drops.

Want to know more about the oil shortage in our future? Then read Kenneth S. Deffeyes' immensely entertaining Hubbert's Peak, or David Goodstein's shorter but duller Out of Gas. Or better yet, read both.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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