When the global oil supply dries up, Donna Maebori, 56, and Peter Lunsford, 49, will be ready. Or, at least they'll be well-read.
This pair of suburbanites are the founders of the Washington County Peak Oil Reading Group, a collection of citizens who, since April, have been meeting monthly at the Cedar Hills Crossing Mall. While the owners of compacts, hybrids and SUVs shop and Beaverton traffic moves steadily on nearby Sunset Highway, the Peak Oil group's 10-plus members—including a few twentysomethings but mostly middle-agers—are inside the mall's Powell's Books outpost reading in preparation for what they call "life after the oil crash," or what's commonly known as the peak oil crisis. In simplest terms, it's when the global demand for oil exceeds the rate of oil production, and the price and scarcity of oil will increase dramatically.
Maebori and Lunsford agree that books are one of the most effective ways to educate their unprepared neighbors.
Maebori, a physical therapist at Providence St. Vincent, starting reading up on oil when her daughter left for college a few years ago. Lunsford, who moved to Portland last year because he feels "it's the most sustainable city in the country," first learned about peak oil by reading When Technology Fails by Matthew Stein. The pair sat down with WW to explain what the suburbs can do to power down.
WW : Why start a peak oil group in Washington County, rather than just working with the Portland Peak Oil group?
Peter: Washington County has separate issues, and we have a different population base that has different ideas about the world. The city of Portland is traditionally very progressive and—by Washington County standards—very liberal. There's a large agricultural community [in Washington County]. Portland Peak Oil has made great strides in getting the message across to the city, but they are not interested in exerting the effort required in the individual cities of Washington and Clackamas counties.
How did you decide to add a reading group to your monthly informational meetings?
Donna: It's an excellent format for discussing the issues and bringing up the authors who have done such great research on [peak oil]...We've been discussing the problems through books like PowerDown [by Richard Heinberg], A Short History of Progres s [by Ronald Wright] and [James Howard Kunstler's] The Long Emergency . Already [we're] figuring out what we can advocate, what can we do so that some good can come out of this.
How do the books you read address specific problems in Washington County?
Peter: Both The Long Emergency and PowerDown discuss in detail the challenges to agriculture from the peak oil perspective. Most people do not make the connection at all here. Ninety-five percent of all the energy used in agriculture comes from oil. People don't realize that our pesticides and fertilizers come from natural gas and oil. When the supplies from natural gas and oil become short or very, very expensive, that's going to pose a serious challenge to the farming industry.
Do people ever just feel scared by these books and give up on the group?
Peter: This is something we've had detailed discussions about. There is a phenomenon with peak oil, where once people have assimilated the idea that peak oil is imminent, they start to go through the stages of grief, just like a loved one has died. All of a sudden there's denial, and then bargaining, anger and despair, and finally there's an acceptance. But that's never a happy acceptance. It's more pragmatic, but the depression is there.
Donna: And another thing, too, is that when you're just discussing peak oil with family and friends there is denial, or the interest level blanks out pretty quickly. It's only in these reading groups and book clubs that I have felt free to talk in some depth about this.
What can people in Washington County do to reduce their dependence on oil?
Peter: We all need to power down. Become a one-car family and make that car as fuel-efficient as possible. And plan your trips: You don't have to go to the grocery store for a loaf of bread and haul a 3,000-pound machine around with you. Wait until you need a whole basket full of groceries. Plan your errands so that they don't occur during rush hour.
Donna: Baby steps are really helpful. I found two main things. One is I bought four fluorescent light bulbs...and emotionally that was a bigger deal than the second step, which was putting up solar panels and a heat pump [for my house]. I mean, that was huge, but I remember it took a real inertia to go out and buy [the light bulbs], because it was so symbolic of "I am changing my life."
The Washington County Peak Oil Reading Group meets every fourth Tuesday at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing. The group's public information meetings are held the second Tuesday of every month at Unitarian Universalist Community Church in Hillsboro. Check out washingtoncountypeakoil.org for more info.