Like many homes along the northeast coast of the United States, ours was without power for several days in the aftermath of a hurricane that blew through in August. The first hours were an adventure, the next an annoyance, and then came concern. (The fridge is getting warm. Home Depot’s out of batteries! Gas stations need electricity for their pumps?) Around the 18-hour mark, thought strayed to what would happen if this was the new normal.
Plenty of dystopic novels and movies have traveled this road, so I’ll spare you the drama (which there would be) or jeremiads about our wasteful culture (which it is). What becomes apparent as you listen to the 2 a.m. silence – the strange absence of streetlights humming, compressors kicking in, TV laughter leaking from nearby windows – is not so much that we would be worse off in an energy-constrained world but that we would be making different choices about where we live, how we travel, what we acquire, even how we learn what’s going on.
We couldn’t all move closer to the supermarket, so small grocery stores would move closer to us. Recreational shopping would fade. Without TV or the Internet, our social networks would be based on visiting, shopping, chatting, and getting to know real people in real places. That sounds kind of good. But we’d also see a dip in variety, freedom, and privacy.
Most of us are exquisitely price sensitive when it comes to energy. My dad was a frugal man, as were millions like him who grew up in the Great Depression. He would drive well out of his way in the family Packard to fill up at a Ritter’s gas station in the early 1960s. Gas was cheap then, especially at independent stations in central Texas. But if he had to pay more than 20 cents a gallon, he’d look elsewhere. I’m the same when gas approaches $4 a gallon.
We modify our behavior every time energy prices rise or fall. When we feel energy-poor, we turn down the heat, consider more-efficient cars, think about walking to the store. When prices fall, we buy Hummers, crank up the air conditioner, pop over to a megamall half a state away.
For the moment, the economic slowdown, combined with alternative fuels, improved efficiency, and new energy sources from techniques like hydraulic fracturing, appears to have ensured that hydrocarbons are still relatively plentiful. But there still are many reasons why we would want to move beyond the age of oil. Two of the most important are national security and the possibly dire effect carbon emissions are having on the climate. Also, economic growth in China, India, Brazil, and other emerging middle-class nations means that competition for – and sometimes conflict over – energy will only get more intense.
We probably won’t find a silver-bullet energy resource in the next few years. But, as Daniel Yergin notes in his new book, "The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World," we’ll manage as we always have by harnessing our one great resource: human creativity. “[T]he energy solutions for the twenty-first century will be found in the minds of people around the world,” he writes. “And that resource base is growing.”
Energy prices will continue to rise and fall. Life will be easy when energy is cheap, less so when it is expensive. There will also be storms – whether the atmospheric type or the supply-disruption type. These will plunge us into darkness at times. We’ll rough it for a night or two, sigh with gratitude when the lights come back on, and continue to look for new ways to be smarter about energy.