Saturday, May 14, 2005

Living in the style to which we've become accustomed

Our modern lifestyle as exemplified by the United States is very dependant on one thing: Cheap energy.

Cheap energy means an abundance of energy, compared to what our ancestors had. It wasn't so long ago that our ancestors rode horses. I don't think it was a matter of technology so much as it was energy. Without the cheap oil to drive our vehicles they wouldn't be of much use. But it's more than our cars, it's the food, the clothing, the ease of jetsetting around the world, it's having well lit homes at night, and more.

It all will probably be soon coming to an end. The cause? The oil peak, that the world oil production has reached a peak (or soon will do so) and shortly will be unable to meet the rising oil demand. That will change the equation of our society that's dependant on cheap oil.

The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first CenturyAfter the oil is gone Say goodbye to your suburban house, yoke up that horse, and stand by to repel pirates! Author James Howard Kunstler talks about the dire world of his new book, "The Long Emergency." (By Katharine Mieszkowski, May 14, 2005, SALON.COM)

Judging from the interview, his book is a very dark prediction:

In Kunstler's world, a teenager will be better off learning how to yoke up a horse-drawn buggy than how to change the oil in a car. Woodshop will be more important than computer literacy. Among Kunstler's predictions: The South will devolve into agricultural feudalism and the Pacific Northwest will be beset by a plague of pirates from Asia. Forget about sleek hydrogen-powered cars coming to the rescue. For that matter, quit tilting your hopes toward wind power.

Why is this? The core is a prediction known as Hubbert's Oil Peak. Hubbert was an oil company geologist who put together a model of the oil available in the world, predicted the rising demand for oil, and the possible production capacities over time. The model predicts a peak in the production capacity at some point, and in a way the exact point in time isn't so important as is the model and the fact that oil production will peak sometime.

The lifestyle to which we've become accustomed is dependant on oil. Without the cheap oil there's so many things we won't be able to do. But what will actually happen is a decline in oil production, not a stop in oil production. But at the same time the demand for oil has been rising continuously for over 100 years, meaning that the demand and supply will go wildly out of whack.

If you remember your high school economics -- high demand, and low supply, leads to high prices.

The Road WarriorIn the case of something so fundamental as oil, I'm afraid it will lead to a lot more. Specifically, the scenario described in the Mad Max movies, of a society where the oil has run out, society has fallen apart, and oil-addicted hoodlums are fighting it out on the highways.

Kunstler's prediction is apparently close to the Mad Max scenario.

He describes two major mental disturbances in the mind of America:

One is the Jiminy Cricket syndrome -- the idea that when you wish upon a star your dreams come true. ... There's another mental disturbance that Americans are suffering from. It's the idea that it's possible to get something for nothing -- unearned riches, free energy, perpetual motion -- and it's exemplified by Las Vegas.

He's sure got a point. Just witness the onslaught of Hummers on our highways. Do they understand and grasp the power going on in those vehicles? Are we so accustomed to stopping by the gas station for a fillup, that we're numb to what we are actually doing?

We have evolved a cheese-doodle agriculture system run by large corporations like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, which grow immense amounts of corn by using fossil fuels to produce immense amounts of corn-based junk food. The prospects are poor that we will continue living this way.

And he goes on to describe the economics of Wal-Mart, Costco, and the other big-box retailers. They have razor thin margins, and an extensive transportation system to deliver mass quantities of goods from centralized warehousing. The transportation system is very dependant on fuel cost, and rising fuel costs will kill these companies.

What will be the first signs of the long emergency?

We're already seeing them. The two clearest signs are serious geopolitical friction and the volatility in the oil markets. A third one, which hasn't quite gotten traction, will be disruptions in the financial markets. But that could happen at any moment.

The huge suburban metroplexes like New York and Chicago are not going to function very well. They're products of the oil age. They are oversupplied with skyscrapers and mega-structures that have poor prospects in a society with scarce energy. We will see a painful contraction in these places.

It's a very good and interesting interview, and it's tempting to just quote the whole thing. However, I can't, so let's just close this off with a summary of the rest of what he says.

Basically he's claiming the U.S. economy has outsourced so much of the real economic engine, beginning with all the factory jobs lost to foreign countries, and now with the tech industry outsourcing, that what's left of the American Economy is the buildout of suburbia, and the largely service-oriented jobs found there.

But suburbia is soon to be unviable. Suburbia survives because of the cheap energy allowing us to live far from our jobs and drive the 30+ miles each way to get to them. For our ancestors a 30+ mile trip took all day, and then some, but for us today it's a half hour on the highway and costs a couple dollars for the gasoline.

But if we can't get gasoline, or if gasoline cost $10 per gallon, we'd think twice about the 30+ mile commute wouldn't we? At 15 miles/gallon for the typical SUV, a 60+ mile daily trip would cost 4 gallons of fuel, or $40. Ooofda!

Agriculture will have to become localized again, and the distinction between City and Rural will have to become strong again.

But over the last 50 years all the localized commerce got tossed out the window ground under the wheels of big rigs riding a sea of cheap oil.

Les us all pray, shall we?