The Future Is Now: Peak oil arrives, the world begins to shake

The theory of peak oil has been around for several decades now. I first discovered it myself a little over four years ago and found my view of modern technological/industrial civilization and our collective future deeply impacted by it.

Two things have proven particularly fascinating to me in this regard over the past couple of years:

1) That national and global events have begun to mirror in an almost programmatic manner the trajectory described in what might be called the “peak oil playbook.”

2) That the MSM (mainstream media) in America have been catching on to this in subtle and not so subtle ways, and have been featuring more and more information and comments that explicitly express the peak oil worldview — and yet they’re doing this without much fanfare and without using the actual term “peak oil,” which leads to a distinct failure on their part to “connect the dots.” (See James Howard Kunstler’s recent blog post “The Dis-information Society” for his thoughts about current MSM failures to report adequately on “the nexus of the global energy emergency and the turmoil in global finance.”)

The “peak oil playbook” I refer to is simply the collective opinion of peak oil theorists about the likely shape of a global future ravaged by energy scarcity. Scarcity, that is, as measured against the style, scope, level, and tempo of a life that has come to seem normal to us citizens of the First World over the course of several decades of unprecedented energy input, but that is actually wildly extravagant according to all previous human experience. What has come to seem normal to us is an entire civilization that’s built around and upon:

  • travel by automobiles and aircraft
  • homes and businesses powered by electricity
  • cheap access to rapidly developing digital communications technology
  • gargantuan amounts of food, clothing, and building supplies that are grown, manufactured, and delivered cheaply across supply lines stretching thousands of miles
  • easy access to highly developed pharmaceutical drugs and other complex medical technologies

and many other such innovations and transformations. This way of life, to repeat, has come to seem normal. Normal. Everyday, humdrum, “the way things are.” And this has happened over the course of a mere 60 to 70 years. It’s staggering, mind-blowing, dazzling, incomprehensible, insane.

The food part of it, the industrial agriculture part, is only about six decades old. The mass manufacture and cheap long-range delivery of other goods at the rate and scope we have become accustomed to is only about four or five decades old, dating as it does back to the birth of the interstate highway system in the 1950s and Wal-Mart and its attendant super-consumerist philosophy/ideology/worldview in the 1960s. Consumer digital technology is only about three decades old and has only really come into its own in the past 10 or 15 years. The pharmaceutical revolution is likewise only about a decade old. And yet to most Americans and inhabitants of other First World countries, it all seems — to coin an oxymoron — deliriously normal, as if things have always been this way.

Peak oil theorists underscore the fact that all of this new “normality” has only been made possible by massive inputs of energy from fossil fuel sources — specifically, oil and natural gas. Every step of this unfolding adventure has been subsidized by abundant, and therefore cheap, oil (of which much of our natural gas is a by-product). According to the theory, as goes the quantity, availability, and price of the oil, so goes the state and fate of this industrial-technological civilization that we have come to (mis)regard as the permanent status quo.

According to peak oil theory, the world will collectively reach a point of maximum oil production, a peak on the bell curve of production that all individual oil fields have always historically followed. After this, as the saying goes, “the party’s over,” because we have based everything, but everything, on the almost wholly unconscious assumption that the direction we’ve been heading — up, up, and still further upward toward ever higher and more extensive levels of technological wizardry and comfort — is simply the way things are (and have always been and will be) and is therefore the direction we’ll always go. We have collectively chosen to ignore the fact that this trajectory has only been made possible courtesy of cheap energy in the form of cheap oil. Remove the cheapness and therefore the easy, widespread availability of the energy source that underwrites all of this, and the whole house of cards comes crashing down.

Peak oil theorists disagree about the specifics of what such a crash would (will) look like, but all agree that it will involve hardship and probable chaos in every area of life — political, technological, social, economic, military, religious, and more — on both national and international scales.

And this is what has been striking me lately. Standard peak oil predictions involve the outbreak of resource wars. They involve political turmoil and national polarization. They involve economic crashes, national or global depressions, breakdowns in political and social infrastructures, cultural dislocations, electrical failures, rising fuel prices, resources shortages, widening gaps between rich and poor, and much more.

Hello? Have you been paying attention to the news lately, and not only to alternative (non MSM) sources but to what’s playing on the likes of CNN, NBC, and Fox, and what’s printed in The New York Times, and what’s heard on NPR? Is somebody running the world according to James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency or maybe Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, or does it just look that way? How can a person avoid such a suspicion when oil prices continue to reach new all-time highs as U.S. gasoline stocks continue to plummet (“Oil hits record on big inventory drop“)? Or when MSM major player runs a story titled “Power prices set to surge” that features the energy head of a major multinational consulting and construction firm declaring flatly, “We’ve been used to really cheap energy to drive our society. But the days of the energy bargain in this world are over”? Or when oil prices take on a life of their own by becoming disconnected from other economic trends and indices, reaching new heights right when problems with the employment market and stock market are vivid and real? Or when Russia uses its vast energy reserves to play power politics, reviving Cold War-era tensions (the groundwork for which has already been laid by American über-hubris in international affairs) by developing the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in history, the funding for which has been supplied by booming oil prices? Or when insurgents and terrorists naturally gravitate toward oil pipelines and refineries — for example, in Nigeria and Mexico — because they know how thin the energy situation is stretched and hope they can therefore inflict maximum damage with minimal concentrated effort by exploiting this Achilles heel? Or when all of South Africa — like a canary in a coal mine — is plagued by fuel shortages and electrical blackouts, and is told to brace for more? And when in the midst of it all, carries a lead story in its business section titled “The mystery behind surging oil prices” that highlights the apparent mystery or contradiction of a slowing U.S. economy and adequate (although rapidly and surprisingly dropping) gasoline supplies being accompanied by surges to record high gasoline prices. In the face of the various factors that would seem to produce a distinctly different effect, says CNN, “the rise of oil prices to eight times what they were in the late 1990s remains something of a mystery.”

Lately, I’m noticing all of this and dozens, scores, hundreds more indications that the shape of what will be is beginning to unfold right now. The question has long been, “When will we hit global peak oil production?” The answer has always been, “We’ll only know it in retrospect,” just as we could only know in retrospect that the United States reached its own national point of peak oil production in 1970 (followed by a peak in natural gas production in 1971), right on schedule as M. King Hubbert had been widely scorned for predicting in the 1950s. One view that’s currently gaining credence is that global production data now show, contrary to the widespread prediction that the global oil peak is still probably 10 or 20 years away, that we passed the peak definitively last year, in July 2006. I’m not a geologist, economist, or any other person with credentials that give my opinions any weight, but the idea that we passed the global peak about 14 months ago certainly fits well with the odd and ominous feeling that arises from observing and living through current world events.

As for what happens next — I’m personally banking on the predictions of such people as John Michael Greer, maintainer of the (brilliant) blog The Archdruid Report, who envisions a long descent into a deindustrial future, and also Ran Prieur, author of “The Slow Crash” (written in 2005). His words ring so true and resonate so powerfully that I’ll quote him at length. Prieur says he regards doomsdayish predictions of a rapid civilizational crash as more distracting than illuminating, and finds it more fruitful to focus instead “on the scenario that includes only events we’re reasonably sure about: the end of cheap energy, the decline of industrial agriculture, currency collapse, economic ‘depression,’ wars, famines, disease epidemics, infrastructure failures, and extreme unpredictable weather.

“If that’s all we get, the crash will be slower and more complex than the kind of people who predict crashes like to predict. It won’t be like falling off a cliff, more like rolling down a rocky hill. There won’t be any clear before, during, or after. Most people living during the decline and fall of Rome didn’t even know it. We’re told to draw a line at the sack of Rome by the Visigoths, but to Romans at the time it was just one event — the Visigoths came, they milled around, they left, and life went on. After the 1929 stock market crash, respectable voices said it was a temporary adjustment, that the economy was still strong. Only years later, when we knew they were wrong, could we draw a line at 1929.

“I suggest we’re already in the fall of civilization. In 2004 the price of oil doubled, bankruptcies and foreclosures accelerated, global food stockpiles fell to record lows despite high harvests, an apocalyptic religious cult hacked an election to tighten their control of the world’s most powerful country, and we had record numbers of hurricanes and tornadoes — and a big tsunami to top it off. If every year from here to 2020 is half as eventful, we’ll be living in railroad cars, eating grass, and still waiting for the big crash we’ve been led to expect from watching movies designed to push our emotional buttons and be over in two hours.”

Finally, I’m continuing to find lots of biblical prophetic analogies coming to mind lately, as evidenced in my post from last month, “U.S. subprime losses have detonated a global financial markets disaster.” I quoted Jesus in that one, from the end of the Sermon on the Mount, where he talks about the folly of the man who built his house on a foundation of shifting sand. Currently another, similar passage is coming to mind, this one penned by the unknown author of the Book of Hebrews:

“When God spoke from Mount Sinai his voice shook the earth, but now he makes another promise: ‘Once again I will shake not only the earth but the heavens also.’ This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain. Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe. For our God is a devouring fire” (Hebrews 12: 26-29).

I have the strong suspicion that we’re all about to be “shaken” quite vigorously and violently, both literally, in terms of great cultural and natural upheavals, and also psychologically and spiritually. It may not be a definitive, once-and-for-all apocalypse — the belief in which I’m not inclined to share anyway — but it will surely be a transformative experience that will expose how and where we have collectively and individually invested ourselves in things that do not and cannot last.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on September 12, 2007, in Economy, Society & Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Much of our Southwest sits on a sea of oil. A sea.

    Carter’s Energy Independence Program, which would
    have, at the very least, set us in a sane direction, was dismissed thirty years ago by the Republican Political Machine – the most destructive force in America.

    So now we have gazillions of Americans and Iraquis dead, 27,000 wounded Americans, hundreds of thousands of wounded Iraquis and 1.5 million Iraqui refugees in Syria where adult refugees are not allowed to work.

    The Vietnam War was actually about oil – but this was kept secret, too.

    Two weeks after the Bush election (1st), oil prices
    began their steep ascent.

    Ah what those Rovian Christians have wrought.

  2. Peak oil may be near, but it is not clear that we have passed that point if you look at the following calculator:

  3. A minor question to Linda Malloy: I’m sorry, but I am uncertain as to what you mean by Rovian Christians.

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