First Days Of Petro Collapse
"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
. . 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"
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.
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.
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!"
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
have been warned about the threat to electricity by the events of August
14, 2003. Jason Leopold describes the aftermath of the great blackout:
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"
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
Goodchild is the author of "Survival Skills of the North
American Indians," published by Chicago Review Press. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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