Part I Introduction and Overview
This is one of the more difficult articles/reviews I have worked on. I have been well aware of Peak Oil for a while, but never did I gather so much information in one sitting that simply spelled out doom and gloom.
I live alternately surrounded by the incredible amazing flexibility and beauty of nature contrasted with the ever-present artifacts and contrived superficialities of humanity crafted on the basis of ample and cheap fossil fuels (as well as its benefits of agricultural wealth and medical advancements). Since the 1960s environmentalists have been sending out warnings about the future of our environment if we do not care for it. They have been mostly ignored until now, when global warming concerns have proved a direct threat to individual lives as well as possible future lifestyles. At the same time, the industrial era based on cheap fossil fuels that created the climate change is rapidly drawing to a close in what form humanity survives that closure is open to debate, but debate is not what is needed.
What is needed is action, not the action of the Washington consensus and the free marketers who have chosen to act through their global war on terror as a pretext to harvest and protect the last remaining years of oil production thereby maintaining their position under the mantra that the American way of life is not negotiable. What is needed is action that moves us towards new energy sources as quickly as possible, away from oil, towards an economy based on renewable energy and choke on this all you industrialists and corporatists an economy that does not grow. This world is finite.
The end of cheap oil is happening now. The economy is already suffering for it, and unlike the Great Depression, recovery will not be a simple matter of putting people back to work. The Great Resource War is already underway, mainly in the Middle East, but also in smaller skirmishes scattered areas around the world, disguised to many as the Global War on Terror (or drugs as in the case of Colombia).
Depressing? Yes. Optimism? There is some room for it, but only if we recognize that the paradigm shift is already underway and that action to a more positive, minimalist lifestyle needs to start, before nature demands it of us in a more dramatic fashion.
Civilizations (as compared to empires which may arise within the same civilization as witnessed in western Europe in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries) have risen and fallen throughout the course of human history, overwhelmed by invaders, environmental change or destruction, loss of resources, simple political incompetence or a combination of these. In 2003, Jared Diamonds book Collapse was published, a book discussing these elements and how they affected many different civilizations from the seafaring peoples of the South Pacific to the Anasazi of the American Southwest. The tone of the book is a stern academic warning of what may come to pass if we do not learn the lessons of the collapse of those other civilizations, but there was no real element of fear or a wake up call that the collapse of our civilization was imminent.
At that time, the U.S. economy was superficially booming, having recovered quickly from the dot.com bubble, and although there were warnings about the housing bubble, mostly in the alternate media, and although there was an understanding that the U.S. economy depended on debt and credit for its consumptive foundation, there were no indications of any significant downturn. The housing market was still a few years away from the beginning of its mortgage-based decline and the dollar had not yet lost value of significant mention against other currencies, in particular the euro.
As Diamond was writing, Afghanistan had been conquered and Iraq had not yet been invaded and occupied, and the consequent entanglements in the greater Middle East had not had further destructive effects on the U.S. economy and its debt. As for the weather, it was generally understand if not yet politically accepted that global warming was a reality; the Arctic ice sheet was still almost - in one large piece across the Arctic Ocean. As for oil, the concept of peak oil was certainly understood, but other than talk of controlling strategic sources (the Middle East, Africa) little consideration had been presented in the media about its timing and meaning, it was a topic out of context and without future consideration.
Only a few years later, Diamonds book would almost seem prescient except that events have turned much more quickly and much more negatively than he might have presupposed. The U.S. economy is in recession, and with its significant debt at every level, an economy based on credit based consumer consumption and military control of empire will not likely recover any time soon. Iraq is now an occupied territory, with a puppet government not fully to American desires but that is irrelevant with the major military bases that are being constructed there to help guard the expanding frontier of Middle East resource control vis a vis India, China, and Russia. Permanent Arctic ice has now receded to sixty per cent or less of its original area with some forecasts predicting that permanent ice will be gone by the year 2013. While that opens up new frontiers for oil resources admittedly unproven reserves that will be expensive and hard to extract its testament to global warming is profound. Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans, devastating the city and surrounding countryside and exposing the weakness of American society in its response to this major catastrophe, weaknesses caused by politics, militarism, economic favoritism, and racism.
End of Cheap Oil
Are all these signs of the coming collapse of western civilization as we know it? According to several newer books, the answer is yes. The reason for that answer in all the books is that human energy consumption of all kinds is now entering a phase in which demand is increasing while resources are decreasing, and like the climate now postulated to have a tipping point into a new climate paradigm, energy resources are reaching a tipping point (a cliff designation on some graphs) of forcing huge changes on our society in as little as ten years, the fore runners of which are already visible. At the base of all this climate and weather changes, political antagonisms, corporate sponsored consumptive lifestyle, military engagements, species loss, environmental degradation is the era of cheap energy through cheap oil. That era has ended.
The main idea expressed in all the more critical works is of the wonders of cheap oil (and its influence on the coal based industrial revolution that it superceded) and how it lubricated an economic and technological expansion that allowed for huge population increases, a consumer oriented lifestyle, a presumption that the cheap easily mobile life would be the norm forever, and ignored the environmental and societal consequences of all these activities. That applies most stringently to western civilization, North America and Europe in particular, but with India and China now rising in imitation of that lifestyle, it becomes a truly global problem of maintaining or developing an expected lifestyle based on a declining resource. All considered, oil has not been cheap as it has extracted its price on the environment, has been sustained by the military, and has effectively been subsidized by government and corporations in order to keep the profits and wealth rolling in as the orgy of consumption continues.
II Klare vs Kunstler
Short-term, soft landing
Michael Klares latest work, Rising Powers Shrinking Planet is the softest of the various books, using academic-political-corporate lenses to examine the situation. As such, it is a well written but dry interpretation of recent current events with a focus on the geopolitical manipulations that are ongoing or need to be considered in order to avoid the great crash. It is not a strident or scary work, readily acceptable to academia and the political corporate world, and sees a solution that in my thinking does not match the problem. It does not touch on the life of the consumer or on the changes that will be forced upon the economy and personal lifestyles by expensive oil and the changing climate. The solution for Klare is pretty much the status quo: the United States remains dominant militarily and politically, and the economy will continue its consumer based ways and continue to grow. It has much too much of a Disneyesque happy ending to be realistic.
That solution arises from Klares examination and postulation of how the United States does and should interact particularly with China, but also with India and Russia. Klare does recognize that natural resources of all kinds, but in particular oil, are limited, but his only strongly worded warning is quite modest:
To sum up, if global energy behavior continues along its current trajectory, the risk of crisis, economic trauma, and conflict on a staggering scale will increase. Averting catastrophe requires efforts to demilitarize energy procurement policies and radically speed the development of climate-friendly alternatives.
That sounds quite serious, but he does not develop the ideas much further than that, and in a sense is somewhat contradictory of himself.
Along with the possibility of a new Cold War, or even a new hot one (bigger or expanding if Iraq/Afghanistan/Pakistan/Iran are considered in the equation), Klare foresees a global expansion of the power of the state. to the detriment of democracy; severe economic trauma; and the acceleration of global climate change with its attendant disasters. Democracy is already being severely limited in many areas, including the changes to power by the neocon Bush executive that is unlikely to change under the next government, and the revival of Russian power under Alexander Putin. Global climate disasters are underway and severe economic trauma appears to also be underway (it has certainly been underway for the majority of the world as the wealth of western society is strongly based on the extraction of resources from other areas).
Klares main fear is the destruction of globalization, and the decrease in American supremacy. He talks of swinging the balance of power back in their [energy-poor states e.g. the U.S.] favor. Globalization in his terms means the survival of the corporation in its current form as a means of extracting wealth. That extraction, in the Thomas Friedamn School of Economics thought, is protected by the hidden fist of the military.
He is afraid the adoption of statist measures will occur at the expense of both corporate and societal autonomy. To many, that would be the good news: corporate autonomy is what has brought us to this state in the first place and corporations and their superstructures (the WTO, World Bank, OECD, IMF) are far from democratic; and societal autonomy could be considered a euphemism to allow the continued willful ignoring of humanities responsibilities to other humans through social services (medical care, worker protection, retirement benefits, women's rights, education) and to the environment in which they live.
Most catastrophically to his argument (while speaking about catastrophes) is his final answer that incredibly continues to argue for growth. Michael, if you have not noticed yet for all your academic arguments and intelligence, we live on a finite world with finite resources and far too many people wanting to use them. Klare sees the process of collaboration with China as spurring long-term economic growth. He had better get started on that immediately as China is currently allowing the U.S. a soft economic landing as it learns how to deal with all the American debt it owns. He continues with the idea of a new industrial paradigm that somehow will consume fewer resources while stimulating economic growth. Changing industry is one thing, but that new paradigm seems to ignore the actual economic pattern of the U.S., that of debt laden consumption. It will not be possible to keep the Chinese and American economies humming as you wish.
Klare then sees the world not quite as fraught with change as other authors do. His is an examination of current events and what might transpire within the next five to ten years in geopolitical terms, but not to the average citizen. It maintains the status quo of American supremacy, corporate control, a growing still consuming economy, backed by the militaries still powerful but perhaps more discreet hidden fist. In a sense, Klare is concerned about his survival and his class survival more than that of the common citizen or the environment. His arguments become self-contradictory when what is needed is a truly larger paradigm change, either by our choice (not likely) or by the course of events caused by increasingly more expensive and difficult to obtain oil (more than likely).
The Long Emergency
The other books that provided my summer holiday entertainment (as in reading the script of a horror movie) are much more strident, much more hard-hitting, much more pessimistic than Klares Pollyannish work. Their central theme, reiterated frequently, emphasizes how serious this change could be if positive action is not started now. Cheap fuel is over and we had better become used to a more minimalist agrarian style of existence without the luxuries of today' consumptive super-fest.
The hardest and most direct of the works is James Kunstlers The Long Emergency. His statements on the seriousness of our future are very direct:
The long emergency is going to be a tremendous trauma for the human race and a lot is at stake and the prospects are rather dark. The Long Emergency will be well under way and the United States itself may be in a state of political turmoil.
It ought to be pretty obvious that the social systems, subsystems, and institutions necessary to run advanced societies would be weakened, perhaps beyond repair, by the multiple calamities of the Long Emergency.
The moment that the world recognizes the passing of the oil production peak as a reality, globalism will be dead both in theory and practice. [if Kunstler means Washington consensus globalism, then, hey, there is some good news among all this]
In the Long Emergency, all large-scale enterprises will have trouble operating in virtually every sphere of activity.
The cause of all this is of course the loss of cheap oil, the energy source that has fuelled everything that we take for granted today as being the normal course of life, life as it should be, life as it will always be at least in its opulent, every increasing wealth, superficial lifestyle sense. Much is being said of alternate sources of energy, but Kunstler develops two main ideas that limit their ability to replace the era of cheap oil. First is that to build the infrastructures for all or any of these alternates will take more time than we have until the effects of expensive/limited/no oil are already considerable. Concurrent with that idea is that the methods available to make all those alternates happen manufacturing, transport, maintenance are all based on the declining oil economy.
That dependence on the oil economy is an overall feature of any alternate energy sources. The infrastructure required to build the windmills, the batteries, the coal plant, the water generator, the solar panels are all currently dependent on oil based manufacturing processes, from the acquisition of raw materials through to the delivery of the final product. Essentially our whole lifestyle is dependent on oil, Everything characteristic about the condition we call modern life has been a direct result of our access to abundant supplies of cheap fossil fuels. The age of fossil fuels is about to end. There is no replacement for them at hand.
The problems with large-scale alternate energies are well presented by Kunstler. It is not that they will not be available, but that they will be difficult to construct and operate, and even if fully successful, will not replace the mass transportation and mass agricultural production that cheap oil has built. As an example of his arguments, the idea of a hydrogen based fuel economy is filled with problems. First, the procedure for using hydrogen as a basis for synthesizing fuel would take more energy than the resulting compound would produce.
Pure hydrogen continues other problems. Because hydrogen is a low-density fuel it requires much greater storage capacity to contain the same level of energy as oil. In order to make that space smaller it would have to be stored under ultrahigh pressure, which could self ignite if leakage occurred (the heat of decompression see your own air conditioner for the reality of this idea). Other problems are that it will leak due to its extremely low atomic weight. If it did not leak, it is also extremely corrosive. It likes to combine with other elements and compounds. In addition the infrastructure required to make, transport, and store hydrogen does not exist and would have to replace the current systems used for gasoline. If it is a viable alternative, the development of that infrastructure should already have started as it is dependent on the oil economy in order to do so.
The future viewed by Kunstler is not pretty. Lifestyles will be of a more rural, small town, agrarian existence. Cities will fall into disrepair, suburbs will be vacated, and industrial farming, dependent on massive oil and gas inputs at gigantic scales of operation, can no longer be carried economically. Economic growth will not even be a consideration. Life spans will become shorter. A grim picture without recourse.
Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications. please visit www.jim.secretcove.ca/index.Publications.html
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