Sunday, September 04, 2005

A Chilling Vision of Things to Come?
One common reaction to hard-to-comprehend events like the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina is to say, "It really makes you think." The elemental struggle of people to survive can, and should, make one feel pretty silly about getting worked up over a car that cuts you off, or a stain on a favorite shirt, or your favorite baseball team losing a game. But there's another sense in which an event like this one, with its different set of consequences and revelations about our world, should probably raise: how vulnerable are the core material truths of our life that we almost never stop to consider.

Today I woke up in downtown Philadelphia, at my dad's home. He drove Annie and me out to the northern suburbs, where we met my mom and uncle for breakfast, and then went to his office, probably spending some 45 minutes behind the wheel. After we ate, my mother drove us up to Trenton, from where we caught a train into Manhattan and then a subway home to Brooklyn. We took a nap in our air-conditioned bedroom. I went to the gym, also air-conditioned, where I enjoyed my iPod while exercising on the elliptical machine and stationary bike. Then I bought some frozen and refrigerated goods at the market, went home and watched TV, turned on lights, went online, microwaved some red sauce, etc.

This banal list is offered not to make some point about my life, but rather to indicate how much we take the easy and inexpensive availability of fuel and energy for granted. Gasoline still feels affordable enough for my parents to drive out of their way getting my wife and me around the Philadelphia area. Energy costs are so low that I'm able to enjoy a lifestyle that depends quite substantially upon audio/visual entertainment or interface. Food is available at any temperature we want, almost instantaneously.

It's all so fucking easy. And we've come to take the means of that ease as an immutable fact of existence, like gravity. There's a moral conclusion to be drawn here, having to do with the complacency and unthinking entitlement many believe characterize the United States vis-a-vis the developing world. But there's also a practical conclusion: that if the cheap and easy energy goes away, we are truly screwed.

James Kunstler is a writer and keeper of the Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle. I'd seen this referenced in passing many times on one left-leaning site or another, and if I clicked through I don't remember it (and, after reading the below, I think I would have made a mental note). He stated the following in a speech earlier this year. The whole thing is a fascinating read; what I've excerpted here only sets up Kunstler's musings on a range of subjects from the coming ruination of Wal-Mart and other mega-retail chains to how our patterns of housing development, public education and "sense of place" will change as a result of what he calls "The Long Emergency": transformation to a world without cheap oil.

The world - and of course the US - now faces an epochal predicament: the global oil production peak and the arc of depletion that follows. We are unprepared for this crisis of industrial civilization. We are sleepwalking into the future.

The global peak oil production event will change everything about how we live. It will challenge all of our assumptions. It will compel us to do things differently - whether we like it or not.
[S]ome of the most knowledgeable geologists in the world believe we have reached the global oil production peak. Unlike the US oil industry, the foreign producers do not give out their production data so transparently We may never actually see any reliable figures. The global production peak may only show up in the strange behavior of the markets.

The global peak is liable to manifest as a "bumpy plateau." Prices will wobble. Markets will wobble - as the oil markets have been doing the past year. International friction will increase, especially around the places where the oil is - and two-thirds of the world's remaining oil is in the states around the Persian Gulf where, every week, a half dozen US soldiers and many more Iraqis are getting blown up, beheaded, or shot.

The "bumpy plateau" is where all kind of market signals and political signals are telling you that "something is happening, Mr. Jones, but you don't know what it is." We'll only know in the rear-view mirror.
The meaning of the oil peak and its enormous implications are generally misunderstood even by those who have heard about it - and this includes the mainstream corporate media and the Americans who make plans or policy. [For an example of major media coverage of the peak oil question,see this New York Times Sunday Magazine article from August. While the reporting seems fine, it gives little sense of just how fundamental the changes will be when the peak oil moment comes.--DJF]

The world does not have to run out of oil or natural gas for severe instabilities, network breakdowns, and systems failures to occur. All that is necessary is for world production capacity to reach its absolute limit - a point at which no increased production is possible and the long arc of depletion commences, with oil production then falling by a few percentages steadily every year thereafter. That's the global oil peak: the end of absolute increased production and beginning of absolute declining production.

And, of course, as global oil production begins to steadily decline, year after year, the world population is only going to keep growing - at least for a while - and demand for oil will remain very robust. The demand line of the graph will pass the production line, and in doing so will set in motion all kinds of problems in the systems we rely on for daily life.

One huge implication of the oil peak is that industrial societies will never again enjoy the 2 to 7 percent annual economic growth that has been considered healthy for over 100 years. This amounts to the industrialized nations of the world finding themselves in a permanent depression.

Long before the oil actually depletes we will endure world-shaking political disturbances and economic disruptions. We will see globalism-in-reverse. Globalism was never an 'ism,' by the way. It was not a belief system. It was a manifestation of the 20-year-final-blowout of cheap oil. Like all economic distortions, it produced economic perversions. It allowed gigantic, predatory organisms like WalMart to spawn and reproduce at the expense of more cellular fine-grained economic communities.
[W]e [can't] replace the current car fleet with electric cars or natural gas cars. We're just going to use cars a lot less. Fewer trips. Cars will be a diminished presence in our lives.

Not to mention the political problem that kicks in when car ownership and driving becomes incrementally a more elite activity. The mass motoring society worked because it was so profoundly democratic. Practically anybody in America could participate, from the lowliest shlub mopping the floor at Pizza Hut to Bill Gates. What happens when it is no longer so democratic? And what is the tipping point at which it becomes a matter of political resentment: 12 percent? 23 percent? 38 percent?
No combination of alternative fuel systems currently known will allow us to run what we are running, the way we're running it, or even a substantial fraction of it.

The future is therefore telling us very loudly that we will have to change the way we live in this country. The implications are clear: we will have to downscale and re-scale virtually everything we do.
The implication of this is enormous. Successful human ecologies in the near future will have to be supported by intensively farmed agricultural hinterlands. Places that can't do this will fail. Say goodbye to Phoenix and Las Vegas.

I'm not optimistic about most of our big cities. They are going to have to contract severely. They achieved their current scale during the most exuberant years of the cheap oil fiesta, and they will have enormous problems remaining viable afterward.
All indications are that American life will have to be reconstituted along the lines of traditional towns, villages, and cities much reduced in their current scale. These will be the most successful places once we are gripped by the profound challenge of a permanent reduced energy supply.
We are entering a period of economic hardship and declining incomes. The increment of new development will be very small, probably the individual building lot.

The suburbs as are going to tank spectacularly. We are going to see an unprecedented loss of equity value and, of course, basic usefulness. We are going to see an amazing distress sale of properties, with few buyers. We're going to see a fight over the table scraps of the 20th century. We'll be lucky if the immense failure of suburbia doesn't result in an extreme political orgy of grievance and scapegoating.

The action in the years ahead will be in renovating existing towns and villages, and connecting them with regions of productive agriculture. Where the big cities are concerned, there is simply no historical precedent for the downscaling they will require. The possibilities for social and political distress ought to be obvious, though. The process is liable to be painful and disorderly.
Some regions of the country will do better than others. The sunbelt will suffer in exact proportion to the degree that it prospered artificially during the cheap oil blowout of the late 20th century. I predict that the Southwest will become substantially depopulated, since they will be short of water as well as gasoline and natural gas. I'm not optimistic about the Southeast either, for different reasons. I think it will be subject to substantial levels of violence as the grievances of the formerly middle class boil over and combine with the delusions of Pentecostal Christian extremism.

All regions of the nation will be affected by the vicissitudes of this Long Emergency, but I think New England and the Upper Midwest have somewhat better prospects. I regard them as less likely to fall into lawlessness, anarchy, or despotism, and more likely to salvage the bits and pieces of our best social traditions and keep them in operation at some level.

There is a fair chance that the nation will disaggregate into autonomous regions before the 21st century is over, as a practical matter if not officially. Life will be very local.

These challenges are immense. We will have to rebuild local networks of economic and social relations that we allowed to be systematically dismantled over the past fifty years. In the process, our communities may be able to reconstitute themselves.

The economy of the mid 21st century may center on agriculture. Not information. Not the digital manipulation of pictures, not services like selling cheeseburgers and entertaining tourists. Farming. Food production. The transition to this will be traumatic, given the destructive land-use practices of our time, and the staggering loss of knowledge. We will be lucky if we can feed ourselves.

I'm sure counter-arguments can be made for many of Kunstler's predictions. And there are whole other realms of surmise--how the end of cheap energy will interact with the telecommunications revolution, or popular culture, or evolving gender roles. But through his assertions, he's asking important questions. Unfortunately, the Katrina disaster illustrates, yet again, our indisposition as a people to plan ahead effectively. Sleepwalking into the future, indeed.

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