National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: Pondering the Near Future

We are faced with three serious problems that are going to bring about radical changes in our lifestyles. In order of urgency, the problems are the great economic recession/financial crisis, the peaking of world oil and other fossil fuel production, and global warming. The opening effects of these problems are already upon us, but it will be months, years, and in the case of global warming, decades before their full impact is felt.

Our three problems are interrelated as changes in the status of one will lead to changes in the others. The global recession has already cut oil consumption, lowered gasoline prices, and put off the day when oil shortages develop. Someday soon faltering oil production will lead to much higher prices and thereby choke off an economic rebound. In the long run the depletion of fossil fuels should help the global warming situation if, as seems likely, we go over the infamous “tipping point” and the Antarctic ice cap melts. In this case, the world’s oceans are scheduled to rise by 25 feet or so, inundating important parts of the world’s land mass. It is likely to take centuries or perhaps millennia before all that water gets back into an iceberg on the Antarctic land mass where it belongs.

In thinking about the years ahead, is there anything, other than speculation, that can be said about what human life will be like in the rest of this century?
A few points seem obvious.

First, most of us are likely to become much poorer in terms of our physical possessions and our consumption of services. This is already happening at an alarming scale, with real estate values, equities, and employment plummeting worldwide; only a few living in remote areas will be left untouched. For nearly a year now governments around the world have been thrashing around in efforts to stem the decline. Opinions on the success of these efforts vary widely.

Government officials by the very nature of their positions must exude optimism and constantly tell us that changes for the better are just ahead. Others, without these responsibilities, and perhaps with a better grasp of the problems ahead, are skeptical and can foresee no immediate end to the economic troubles that could extend for decades.

What we will be doing to earn a living in the years ahead will change for many. The economic system that allowed so many of us to live better lives, or at least consume more, with much time for recreation and leisure, is clearly coming to an end for a while – perhaps a very long while. The abundance of wealth that allow so many to earn livings while sitting around offices – reading, writing, talking, designing, teaching, coordinating, meeting and leading — is going to gradually melt away. With real wealth evaporating so rapidly, there simply will be less left over to support such activities that are not directly productive on the scale we have come to know.

This transition is going to be brutal for many. With white collar, manufacturing, construction, retail and hospitality jobs slipping away, keeping millions gainfully employed is going to be a major challenge for all levels of government. Currently, extended unemployment insurance and government stimulus programs are seen as the answer. The problem will come when we realize that the stimulus, while doing some good, is not sufficient. Unemployment insurance will run out and it will become apparent that we can longer print enough money to finance annual stimulus packages.

At some point, it is likely that the “free market”, bereft of capital and customers, is not going to provide new jobs quickly enough to keep ahead of mounting social tensions. For many, friends and relatives will be the first resort after benefits and savings are used up. As distasteful as it may be to many, direct hire government job programs as were created in the 1930’s may be the only way to avoid political unrest and damaging social problems.

The millions of essential, but hard, dirty, and far less desirable jobs – farm labor, construction, food processing, cleaning services, care of the elderly – that have come to be occupied by millions of legal and illegal immigrants will be an interesting case. As more desirable jobs slip away, the willingness and ability of people to move into much lower paying and less skilled jobs in order to survive will be a key test of civilization’s resiliency.

Over the next decade or so the question of education and retraining a major portion of our workforce will come to the fore as it is highly doubtful that the job mix pattern which has grown up over the last few decades will last much longer. There obviously will be massive amounts of work to be done, at all skill levels, retooling our civilization to survive and prosper in the midst of climate change with sharply reduced liquid fuels and much less fossil fuel derived energy in general.

What appears to be lacking in the current economic debate is a coherent plan of where the U.S. and indeed the world’s civilizations need to go. Unfortunately the only stated, and politically feasible, goal at the minute seems to be a return to “economic growth,” an objective which is clearly unrealizable in the midst of the current but as yet unrecognized transition to non-fossil fuel energy.

Gradually, the realization will set in that returning to “economic growth”, with cheap credit, McMansions in the suburbs, traffic jams and large cars simply is not going to happen. Somewhere in the next 12 months to 12 years the realization will come that returning to the abundance of the oil age is not going to happen for a long while and we can settle down to serious work.

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