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The First Days Of Petro Collapse

By Peter Goodchild

30 November, 2007
Countercurrents.org


"We can attribute the lack of response to $100 oil to any number of factors: apathy, dumbing down, fear, insanity, addictions, and the beginning of system collapse."

— Jan Lundberg, "Oil Prices and Responding to the Strange Lack of Response"

http://www.culturechange.org/cms/index.php?option=
com_content&task=view&id=130&Itemid=1

". . . No one should be under the romantic illusion that life would be easy then. . . . Which could explain why so many people aren’t paying attention to peak-oil concerns; we have a financial and emotional investment in the status quo."

— Rod Dreher, "Reaching Our Peak Oil Supply"

http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/opinion/
points/stories/DN-dreher_25edi.ART.State.Edition1.36ccf4f.html

Rod Dreher also points out that "peak oil poses a far more critical challenge to our civilization than global warming." Yet the level of concern is quite the reverse, perhaps because the latter issue is less of a shock to the human soul than the former. A concern with global warming merely requires that we get our lowlife neighbors (whose jobs are less important than our own) to stop driving so frequently. The second requires that we say goodbye to modern industrial society.

Or we could look at it from a broader anthropological perspective. In "The Golden Bough," Sir James Frazer devotes a lengthy chapter to "the magical control of the weather" and the general belief in primitive societies that kings were regarded as responsible for the weather and hence for the well-being of the land. We ascribe the same to our own politicians, even if we choose not to decapitate them when they fail. Frazer, unfortunately, has no corresponding chapter on how to put back petroleum that has been taken out of the ground.

When the hydrocarbons are gone, the problem of global warming will also start to recede. Not that I wish to belittle the importance of the mega-drought that is now spreading over the world.

At the moment it seems likely that oil production peaked about 2006, although production per capita peaked around 1990. (Yes, the politicians had their 100-year forecasts back in the 1950s, bless their little souls, but they never said a word.) The first sign, as Jay Hanson predicted several years ago, is stagflation: a combination of high prices and high unemployment. When the price of oil goes up, so does the price of everything else. Before 1970, economists claimed that a combination of high prices and high unemployment was impossible. One economic factor was supposed to cancel out the other. But then came the Arab oil embargo, and stagflation was exactly what happened. The same is happening right now. Much of it is hidden, of course. No sane editor is going to allow a journalist to say that the economy is going belly up.

Even the manager of a small business is not going to allow such talk. The average pedestrian on a downtown street will be surrounded by false elegance and hidden poverty. A few hundred thousand dollars will be thrown into new furniture and new paint (I thought paint was made from oil? — never mind), and the owner will call it an investment. The consumer (who no longer consumes) will be thinking, "What an improvement in the downtown core! How good it is to see the economy booming again!"

What most people fail to consider is that "spending" is not necessarily the same as "investing." True investing, Benjamin-Franklin-style, means saving one’s hard-earned pennies and then putting them into a carefully chosen expansion of one’s business, and only at a reasonable ratio to one’s present debts and earnings. "Spending" in the modern sense, on the other hand, means getting a dangerous loan from a dangerous institution, throwing the money away on the latest bubble, and expecting one’s guardian angel to take care of the rest.

Perhaps it would make more sense to retrieve two long-forgotten words: "thrift" and "frugality." What used to be a virtue has been converted by Madison Avenue into a shame.

The second phase of petrocollapse will be the failure of electricity. The nice thing about lost electrical power is that it can’t be hidden behind a coat of paint.

Along with all other residents of Ontario, in 2005 I received a glossy handbook entitled "Our Energy, Our Future: It’s Time to Talk about Our Electricity Future." Probably most copies ended up in the garbage, but the publication was worth a good look. It told us that 35,000 megawatts of power supply would be needed by 2025, but that "only 12,000 megawatts of existing power supply will be operating." Although there are plans for another 10,000 megawatts or so, those plans still point to a major shortfall.

The "2006 Long-Term Reliability Assessment," a lengthy document by the North American Electric Reliability Council, is equally disquieting. Each area of North America, according to the document, will be in some danger of outage over the next few years, due to inadequate supplies of electricity. Texas may be in the greatest danger, whereas Quebec (with the advantage of hydroelectric dams) may be the safest area.

We should have been warned about the threat to electricity by the events of August 14, 2003. Jason Leopold describes the aftermath of the great blackout:

"Congress called for spending of up to $100 billion to reduce severe transmission bottlenecks and increase capacity so the transmission lines could carry additional electricity from power plants to homes and businesses. But the money that would have funded a reliable power grid was spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

— "Dark Days Ahead" www.truthout.org/docs_2006/101706J.shtml#

Most North American electricity is produced by fossil fuels, and in the U.S. that generally means coal, although natural gas is often the first choice for future supplies of fuel. Coal is terribly inefficient; only a third of its energy is transferred as it is converted to electricity. At the same time, the North American grid is a hopelessly elaborate machine — the largest machine in history — and it is perpetually operating at maximum load, chronically in need of better maintenance and expensive upgrading.

Without hydrocarbons, the darkness closes in, literally and metaphorically. Yet instead of dealing with the issue in a realistic manner, we sit around and hope that magic and superstition will solve the problems.

To judge from previous large-scale disasters, it seems likely that as the oil crisis worsens there will be various forms of aberrant behavior: denial, anger, mental paralysis. There may be an increase in crime, there may be strange religious cults or extremist political movements. The reason for such behavior is that fundamentally the peak oil problem is neither about economics nor about politics. Nor is it about alternative energy; there’s no such thing. It’s about geology. It’s about humanity’s attempt to defy geology. But it’s also about psychology: most people cannot grasp what William Catton refers to as "overshoot."

We cannot come to terms with the fact that as a species we have gone beyond the ability of the planet to accommodate us. We have bred ourselves beyond the limits. We have consumed, polluted, and expanded beyond our means, and after several thousand years of superficial technological solutions we are now running short of answers. Biologists explain such expansion in terms of "carrying capacity": lemmings and snowshoe hares — and a great many other species — have the same problem; overpopulation and over-consumption lead to die-off. But humans cannot come to terms with the concept. It goes against the grain of all our religious and philosophical beliefs.

When we were children, nobody told us that any of this would be happening. Nobody told us that the human spirit would have to face limitations. We were taught that there are no necessary boundaries to human achievement. We were taught that optimism, realism, and exuberance are just three names for the same thing. In a philosophical sense, therefore, most humans never become adults: they cannot understand limits.

There is really nothing irredeemable in all this. We live in a "consumer" society, and we are all under the wheels of the juggernaut of capitalism. But if we look beyond civilization, both spatially and temporally, we can find many cultures with an outlook based more on the seasons of the year, rather than on an ever-expanding, ever-devouring "progress."

Peter Goodchild is the author of "Survival Skills of the North American Indians," published by Chicago Review Press. He can be reached at petergoodchild@interhop.net.

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