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Over A Barrel: Peak Oil per Capita

By Peter Goodchild

18 July, 2010

Most people have enough trouble dealing with the reality of peak oil. It’s like being married to someone who says, “I’m not an alcoholic, I just sometimes drink too much.” But perhaps to soften the blow, or maybe just to simplify the numbers, what is generally left out is the fact that it’s not really peak oil that matters, anyway, but peak oil per capita, the date of which was 1979. In that year there were 5.5 barrels of oil available for each person on Earth; by 2009 it had gone down to 4.3. [2]

In terms of daily life, however, it is that per-capita figure that is most critical. Because everything in modern civilization is tied to oil, everything in our world has deteriorated since 1979. It’s possible to use various numerical data to prove that the standard of living has gone down since that year, and to tie that to increased costs that in turn originate in the decrease of oil per capita, but it’s also just something we feel in our bones. If we look back over any ten-year period during the last four decades, we can see and feel the difference.

In those previous decades, life was easier. Everything was cheaper. Gasoline was cheaper, houses were cheaper, cars were cheaper, clothes were cheaper, food was cheaper. Jobs were better-paying, jobs were easier to find. It was easier to switch jobs. At work, a fair amount of the day was spent hanging around the water cooler. Bosses were less vicious, co-workers were less Machiavellian. Working hours were shorter, vacations were nicer, the companies were more generous. [7]

Pensions were more generous, in both the public and the private sector. Retirement was less a matter of staring into financial ruin. Government programs were more generous; if you had a good idea, the government would give you funding.

Education was cheaper. If you wanted a bachelor’s degree, or a postgraduate degree, the government would pay for a lot of it. There might be a small loan to pay back at the end of it all. Most people didn’t even bother with exploring the full possibilities of education. If you had a bachelor’s degree in anything, you were treated well, and you could easily get a management-level job doing something or other.

Vacations were cheaper. If you were twenty years old, you did the grand tour of Europe. Or South America. Or wherever. As a university student, you went on spring breaks, and you had fun. Florida and Hawaii were real.

Cities were less crowded. Roads were less crowded. You could see a stop sign in the distance and think normally before having to decide about turning left or right. Houses and apartments were real homes, and sometimes your neighbors were actually your friends.

Governments were real. If wars were fought, they weren’t nice, but at least they weren’t as plainly larcenous as they are now. [4] Politicians were actually a little cautious about lying to the public, because they knew they could end up losing their jobs. Although everyone knew there was an element of charlatanism in all politics, it was still necessary for a politician to pretend to adhere to traditional moral values, whereas nowadays the look on a politician’s face just means, “Are you calling me a liar?” [1, 6]

All of that has been going on for forty years. The U.S., for all its wealth, is a prime example. Except for the top five percent of families, [8] nearly all Americans are dealing with severe financial troubles. Their debts are far out of proportion to their earnings. Their personal budgets have become so bizarre that they sometimes simply close their eyes to the problem.

As money disappears, they become self-destructive. Their lack of control over the loss of money makes them superstitious, like soldiers in foxholes. Instead of paying attention to money, they think it’s better to throw it away as fast as possible. It’s easier to go crazy; at least they then have an illness to which they can attach a label. And yet they deny it all. They hang onto the edge of the cliff, their fingernails scraping down the surface of the rock. Things will get better, they say. The economy will turn around. We just have to wait.

Perhaps not all of the above can be ascribed directly to peak oil per-capita, of course, but most of it can indirectly. The grimness of modern laissez-faire capitalism can be seen in income disparity and the centripetal flow of money toward those who live in gated communities. [5] If semi-slavery in a tropical clime is more cost-effective than allowing people in developed countries to keep their jobs, then that is also a management issue, not a geological phenomenon. [3] But we have to keep in mind the distinction between proximate and ultimate causes. It was the oil economy that made possible both globalization and the privileged life of the five-percenters.

Globalization. Wealth condensation. Petroleum decline. Who really knows where one begins and another ends? Certainly “globalization” is on its way out as a buzz word, along with “the green revolution” and “the space age.” Wealth condensation will fade in its time, as “living rough” ceases to mean “manipulating corporate takeovers” and begins to mean “finding food and shelter.”

In 1759 Voltaire published Candide, in the last chapter of which Dr. Pangloss reiterates his dubious claim that all is for the best in the best of possible worlds. “‘Excellently observed,’ answered Candide; ‘but let us cultivate our garden.’”

As we hang on to the edge of the cliff, it’s a waste of time to say things will get better. It’s also a waste of time to say we should just wait. The truth is almost the opposite. The real solution is to get out of it all. The world ten thousand years ago had no “economy.” The world doesn’t need an “economy.” We need to get out of the economy, not wait for it to improve. Candide had the right idea.


1. Bagdikian, Ben H. The New Media Monopoly. 6th ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.

2. BP Global Statistical Review of World Energy. Annual. http://www.bp.com/statisticalreview

3. Greider, William. One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.

4. Klare, Michael T. Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2002.

5. Martin, Hans-Peter, and Harald Schumann. The Global Trap: Civilization & the Assault on Democracy & Prosperity. Trans. Patrick Camiller. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

6. McChesney, Robert. The Problem of the Media: US Communication Politics in the Twenty-first Century. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004.

7. Schor, Juliet B. The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

8. US Census Bureau. Historical Income Tables -- Families. US Government Printing Office. Annual. http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/histinc/f03ar.html

Peter Goodchild is the author of “Survival Skills of the North American Indians,” published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is odonatus {at} live.com.