National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: Reality On Hold

As much of America bakes in some of the highest temperatures ever recorded and while Washington argues interminably over taxes, budget cuts and debt caps, one is struck by the unreality of it all. When the House of Representatives votes to preserve the incandescent light bulb for a while as a symbol of personal freedom, it is as if we have entered a wonderland where black is white, up is down and as a nation we have lost touch with reality.

Our media, the cornerstone of our democracy, clearly has failed to communicate something of great import to us. Perhaps it is the information overload of the electronic age. There is so much news that the big picture is lost in mountains of trivia – there are only so many minutes in day. Another possibility is that there is so much bad news out there, that nobody really wants to hear or think about it. Denial is overwhelming us.

At last count there were at least a dozen mega dangers looming on the horizon all of which have the potential to change the nature of global civilization in profound ways. Yet the body politic seems to take little or no notice and concerns itself largely with issues that will soon be swept away by change. These dangers range from the depletion of our fossil fuel and mineral resources, to shrinking food and water supplies, to rising oceans, to political upheavals.

Someday either the atmosphere will get so hot and food will run so short, or the gasoline will become so expensive, that every last sensate being will have absorbed the message that our civilizations and lifestyles are changing whether we like it or not. Not even the most demagogic politician’s claims that things can be put back the way they were will be believed. This day is clearly some years and more likely a decade or so away.

Thus we are in a period when some, perhaps much, of what we are doing will be in the long run prove to be counterproductive and lead to the widespread waste of non-renewable resources that could have been of much benefit in easing the hardships for ourselves and our progeny in the centuries ahead. Some of the problem we face is vested interests that fight to the end to preserve the current way of life. It is ironic that prominent among the opposition to the House vote to extend the life of the incandescent bulb was General Electric that had already spent heavily on producing the next generation of bulbs.

As a founding father said “We all hang together, or we all hang separately.”

The massive waste of resources that comes with continued construction of massive highways, inefficient gadgets, poorly insulated buildings, aircraft, etc. that are bound to be underutilized in the coming era of ultra-high energy costs is only one problem. The massive waste of education in training our young for jobs and professions that will not be useful in the coming age is another.
During the current period of denial, we are caught in a circle. Many are reluctant to admit that the problems we will soon be facing are so pervasive that only government can set policies and guide civilization in generally sensible directions. Most of those arguing for freedom to choose light bulbs have not grasped the idea that 90 percent of us would have trouble lasting six months should our electricity stop, our gasoline stations close, the water cease flowing, and the food stores shut. We live in a complex, interdependent civilization in which most have lost skills and the means necessary for self-sufficiency. As a founding father said “We all hang together, or we all hang separately.”

However, so long as a lot of us believe that we can reestablish economic growth, and wait for the return of the climate to “normal” our politicians will try to satisfy or at least say they will try to satisfy these aspirations. Change will only come when enough people realize that a return to life-as-we-knew-it a few years back is no longer possible or is at least unlikely. Unfortunately most of our media starts with the assumption that our current woes are only temporary and if we only wait long enough economic growth will resume has it always has in living memory and climate change will not turn out to be so bad as alarmists fears.

Changing a circle of unwarranted optimism that starts with the media, and carries on the voters, their elected representatives, and senior government officials, and then back to the media will be difficult. Realistically we can expect little to happen in the immediate future. Even weeks of 100 degree temperatures or even $4, $5 or $6 gasoline is unlikely to shift many prejudices in the short term. It is going to take a more severe shock — say food shortages or $10 plus gasoline — to shake the notion that a return to life as we knew it is still possible.

The idea that an economy can continue very long based on borrowed money, financial services, retail, and building houses will fade. America has some real assets to cope with the troubles ahead. Although we will no longer be able to enjoy the current rate of energy consumption, there is considerable room for the world to keep moving through more efficient utilization of dwindling energy resources. A simple shift in dietary habits to include less grain-wasting meat would have a major effect on the U.S. and world food supply. From transportation to recreation to housing, opportunities for massive efficiencies at very little cost abound.

Some of these efficiencies will come on their own merits; other will take some help. While alternatives to the incandescent bulb may cost much more, their much longer life and much lower power consumption will lead to much lower consumption and great benefits to society as a whole. Someday we will all understand this, but until that day there is much education to be done.




Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.


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