Journalist Brian Kaller just published a beautiful new post at his blog, Restoring Mayberry: “The post-apocalypse movies we’d like to see” (May 17, 2010).
For the past couple of years, Kaller, who lives in rural Ireland, has been writing about peak oil, economic collapse, etc., from the viewpoint that the collapse of our industrial-technological civilization is leading us not toward a Mad Max-style apocalyptic wasteland but toward a much slower-paced and more local, community-based, soul-fulfilling way of life. “The world peak oil and climate scientists predict is ‘doomsday’ only in the sense that it is a little more normal than we have come to expect,” he wrote in 2008, in the blog’s inaugural post (the blog itself being derived from his newspaper columns). “In only a few generations we have come to expect that we will be many times richer than our parents, that our houses will be larger, our travel cheaper, our technology unimagined even a few years ago. We have lived our lives in a boom and think it normal. We hop in our cars and travel at 100 kilometers an hour, make the house a sauna all winter, cross an ocean in a day, call a friend on the other side of the planet. We become enraged if we experience even the slightest delay in any of these things.”
In that same post he pointed out that our world might indeed collapse — but that this would simply mean the bursting of an inflated bubble and a “return to something more normal — negotiating with neighbours, taking care of animals, extended families — less like Star Trek and more like the town of Mayberry on the Andy Griffith Show. And is that the end of the world?”
Now he’s urging the movie and TV industries to give us some films and shows to help us envision such a future, as a counterbalance to the likes of Mad Max, The Book of Eli, The Road, and the Terminator movies. He says,
What we need is a way to reach a lot of people at once, not just to present the crisis and let them walk away scoffing or scarred, but to show the future as it could be. We need a realistic yet hopeful vision of the world, one that would be vivid and memorable in a way that no essay could, that could reach a hundred million people in a way blogs never will. Luckily, we have something like that: they are called movies.
….In the years to come the boom of the last several decades will likely end, and more people go back to manual labour or giving their child a wooden toy for Christmas. It will be genuinely difficult — for me too, probably — and I don’t want to dismiss the genuine pain of families who have been evicted or who can’t afford chemotherapy. Nonetheless, the way most people will live will likely be the way your grandparents lived, the way most of the Third World lives today. It might be a reduction of our fortune by 10 percent, or 50 percent, or 90 percent — depending on your time and place — but it’s not the same as Armageddon, and we shouldn’t confuse the two.
….So I challenge any filmmakers out there — Hollywood insiders, students, amateurs — to create films like this, images of post-crash life that are both positive and realistic.
I can’t tell you how much this resonates with me, and also, I suspect, with you, since all of us who engage in activities like, oh, say, reading and writing blogs, necessarily share a roughly similar cultural background and set of experiences. Personally, I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, and was, like Kaller, entranced with the “world of the future” books that I read as a grade schooler. I mean those books, many of them hailing from the 1950s and 60s, that said — and also showed, via copious illustrations — that we would all be living in a techno utopia within 30 or 40 years, complete with flying cars, robot servants, a technologically perfected food supply, beautiful cities with sparkling buildings reaching to the clouds, and so on. When I first visited Disney’s EPCOT Center with my family shortly after its grand opening in 1982 — and the name, remember, is an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow — its fictional embodiment of a guiding vision like the one described above positively mesmerized me. And yes, I was a huge fan of the original Star Trek, which I devoured throughout my youth in reruns. As an adult, I had this same hopeful longing pinged yet again by Ray Bradbury via his story “The Toynbee Convector,” which portrays a perfect future techno world — bright, clean, beautiful, peaceful, prosperous — whose creation was catalyzed by a man who told the proverbial “noble lie” in order to inspire a global civilization that was facing a crushing set of apocalyptic environmental and other circumstances to get off its collective duff and fix things.
Alas, nowadays it looks like none of these visions is likely to come to pass. But, to repeat, that doesn’t necessarily entail epic wars over gasoline being waged against intelligent cybernetic machines by katana-wielding cannibals in a vast and barren wasteland. Remember what the ever-reliable Rod Dreher, editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News, said in a 2007 post that I quoted somewhere or other at this blog?
Post-peak-oil conditions would reverse globalization, forcing a return to intensely local agriculture and local manufacturing. The stores and services that communities need in order to carry on everyday life would emerge in neighborhoods, as in the pre-automobile era. Cities would empty out, with rural areas and small towns in agriculturally rich areas reviving. Culturally, all Americans would have to undergo a Great Relearning of skills and social habits that our ancestors developed to survive in community.
— Rod Dreher, “Reaching our peak oil supply,” The Dallas Morning News, Nov. 25, 2007
Let’s not forget that he followed this paragraph by relaying a comment from Jeffrey Brown, a peak-oil aware geologist from Richardson, Texas, who said, “My hopeful view is that we’ll be living like we did at the turn of the 20th century, but with computers.”
Whether the “with computers” part will come to pass remains to be seen, but everything does appear to be lining up in favor of producing a post-petroleum, and therefore a post-how-we-live-now, world of the near future. You and I will see and experience the transition within our own lifetimes, if we live what’s now considered a normal span. And although I’m as much a fan of the dark apocalyptic visions of, e.g., Mad Max and The Road as the next person — or actually I’m probably a bigger fan than average, since I positively exult in apocalyptic and dystopian fictions — I certainly wouldn’t want to see those visions become concrete realities.
So, in short, here’s hoping. As in, hoping not for Star Trek, since it’s a pipe dream, and definitely not for Mad Max, since it’s a nightmare, but for Mayberry.
(Postscript: In an oddly synchronicitous intersection of authorial purposes, immediately after writing this post with its link to and quote from Rod Dreher, I discovered that just yesterday Dreher posted a piece at Beliefnet titled “Truth, history and the Toynbee Convector,” which is about — you guessed it — Bradbury’s story. Weird. Bradbury must be weighing on the collective brain. You’ll forgive me for speculating that we’re experiencing a flash of collective clairvoyance, and that our shared Bradburyan fixation must mean the fabled new film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 has received a fresh injection of life. He said hopefully.)
Recently I said (in “Peak oil: Time to shut up as the conversation goes global“) that I don’t plan on talking about peak oil anymore despite my several years of doing so, because in the past year, and especially the past few months, the cultural conversation about it has become so mainstream and prominent that I’m just content to watch and listen instead of arrogating to myself the rather absurd role — and it’s a role that a lot of other Joe Blows like me have claimed as well — of a third-rate Hebrew prophet crying out in the wilderness.
Then I received a forwarded email from a friend today. Maybe you’ve seen it, too; it’s about the oil-producing potential of the Bakken Formation in southern Canada and the northern U.S. Specifically, it’s one of those oft-forwarded emails that use classic propaganda techniques — card stacking, oversimplification, scapegoating, and a few others — to push an ideologically slanted and partisan message. More specifically, it argues that the whole idea of an energy crisis because of oil supply problems is a lie, because the Bakken Formation contains more oil than all the rest of the world’s oil fields, and it’s just those damned environmentalists and liberals who are keeping us from accessing it. Et cetera and so on, ad nauseam.
You can read the text of the email yourself on the Web, since it has received wide circulation and some responses, both debunkings and enthusiastic hoorahs, from various quarters.
Before I Googled it and found those debunkings, the email had already elicited a flood of words from me in response. On the chance that you, too, may have read the missive in question, here are those words:
Be advised that this email is a prime example of the factually inaccurate and partisan-slanted propaganda that’s typical of these types of communications. Yes, there is indeed a lot of oil in the Bakken Formation, just as the email claims — BUT this oil exists in shale form. That means it’s locked in sand, gravel, and rock. The extracting of it is so galactically difficult and costly that the best estimates about how much can actually be extracted and used from the formation have ranged anywhere from 50 percent to 1 percent. The refining of it is also hugely difficult and costly compared to the refining of the light, sweet crude that just comes naturally to the surface during the early period of the developmental of a traditional oil field.
The email is also insanely slanted in its accusation that the only reason we’re not all dancing in the streets at our salvation from the energy crisis is because of those damned evil environmentalists who are threatening civilization by stopping us from tapping this messiah of an oil field. In fact, Bakken is being worked right now, and with a vengeance. Development of it has absolutely exploded over the past few years, and will only intensify. Ask anybody like, oh, say, my brother-in-law, who buys and sells heavy construction and agriculture equipment for a living, and who has, like many people in his business, seen some pieces of equipment become simply unavailable to medium and small buyers over the past few years, because these pieces are all being bought up and shipped north to work the Bakken oil fields.
Peak oil theory isn’t about the idea that “the oil is running out.” It’s about the end of cheap and easy to get oil. The crisis is found in the fact that our entire urban-industrial-technological civilization has been built upon, and can only continue to run upon, a foundation of cheap, plentiful, and ever-increasing oil. What’s going to happen is that this whole arrangement will start contracting and, maybe, imploding in interesting ways because of oil problems — not the problem of running out, which will never happen, but the problem of our cheap and plentiful supply shifting to a situation of ever-increasing cost and scarcity. Nobody in history has ever seen what’s going to happen over the next 20, 50, and 100 years, because the human race only started living on oil roughly a century ago (or actually a bit more recently than that; more like 1920 or 1930), so we’ve only ever known what life was like on the rising side of the oil supply curve, not on the falling side as we get into global depletion.
The fact that the Bakken Formation is being ferociously developed right now is actually evidence in favor of the peak oil scenario and its concerns, because we would never turn seriously toward working such a difficult deposit if the usual and traditional sources weren’t all drying up and/or being called seriously into question by geopolitical difficulties.
Now — to get to the most important part — if a shmoe like me can learn all of this over a span of years simply by reading, studying, paying attention, and thinking, then it should be easy, at least in theory, for everybody to recognize that email upon sight for what it is: low-level, politically/economically motivated disinformation. So why has it received such traction among, for example, conservative American bloggers?
The answer, of course, is found in the rise of politicization and decline of taste and critical thinking skills that has characterized American mass culture over the past few decades. Partisan ranting with all of its intellectual shallowness and sophistry is pervasively and relentlessly passed off as reasoned discourse, while more and more of us develop sound bite-sized worldviews because of our sound bite-sized minds, which have been inculcated by several decades of steady reductionism in the tone and content of political speeches and other mass communications. Sure, there are high points, veritable mountain peaks, in our current culture — I’m noticing more and more of those lately, which is as much due to an attitudinal shift in me as to anything else — but the gravitational pull of the lowest common denominator in mass communication culture is still inexorable on the large scale.
This means it’s going to be perpetually necessary for the foreseeable future for all of us to keep our eyes, ears, nose, and brains peeled for the sight, sound, smell, and substance of the bullshit that will continue to pollute our cultural atmosphere as we blunder through Very Difficult Times.
Okay, I officially don’t have to talk to anybody ever again about peak oil. Today U.K. energy minister Lord Hunt made the whole thing an official topic of front-table discussion:
Lord Hunt calls UK industrialists together to discuss government response to any early onset of decline in global oil production
The Observer, March 21, 2010
This is being done, of course, in response to last month’s peak oil publicity uproar occasioned by a report from a research group helmed by Richard Branson, which said yes, peak oil is effectively right ahead of us, and we have to start preparing to mitigate the effects of declining global oil production now. It’s also in response to the warning from a whistleblower in the staid International Energy Agency who said late last year that, yes, the peak oil iceberg is dead ahead.
This Observer story will be followed in the foreseeable future by similar ones from around the world, including right here in the U.S. The conversation is now front and center. See you later; I’ll be talking about other things while continuing to listen and brace as best I can for the PO transformation that I’ve been studying and preparing for (both physically and psychologically) for some years now.
I started reading Mike Ruppert about five years ago. As is true for many other people, the man played a major part in my personal introduction to peak oil theory and its global implications — “global” both literally and metaphorically, not only in terms of PO’s worldwide and cross-national scope and impact but in terms of its all-encompassing significance for the likely future of the human race. True, I never bought his 2004 book Crossing the Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age Is Oil, nor did I pay for a subscription to his newsletter From the Wilderness. But then, I didn’t have to, because he provided an avalanche of information and analysis at his From the Wilderness Website. (Sorry about that, Mr. Ruppert. I’ll always opt for good, free resources when I can find them.)
This being the case, and in light of the fact that, naturally, Ruppert and his theories have always inhabited a fringe position relative to the mainstream media, I and the rest of the peak oil-aware community are fairly astonished to see the new documentary film Collapse, which consists mostly of Ruppert sitting in a bunker-like basement and explicating his dire prognosis for the near and far future of industrial civilization, receiving major — as in, really major — mainstream media attention.
New York Times reviewer Jeanette Catsoulis says the film “is not just sobering; it’s a full-on assault,” and then elaborates: “Lucidly and with weary conviction, he cites evidence for a declining global oil supply (like costly offshore drilling in Saudi Arabia) and demolishes hopes pinned on substitutes like ethanol (‘a complete joke’) and clean coal (‘no such thing’). His well-rehearsed rhetoric is shockingly persuasive, and since the majority of his premises are verifiable, any weakness in his argument lies in inferences so terrifying that reasonable listeners may find themselves taking his advice and stocking up on organic seeds” (“Single Focus: An Outsider with Doomsday Vision,” Nov. 6).
A Wall Street Journal interview with Ruppert — the mere existence of which is a marvel — provides the spectacle of America’s most revered financial newspaper giving space to statements like, “Money is useless without energy and money has no respect for power or ideology. We have to reconnect with the requirements that we’re living on a planet that’s falling apart. And we have to maintain some relationship that’s separate from the illusory power of money. Clearly, the power in this country is not in Washington, it’s in New York, with the Fed and with Wall Street. . . . Until you change the way money works, you change nothing. The current economic paradigm calls for infinite growth, from fractional reserve banking to compact interest. So Wall Street needs to somehow help us find an economy that works without requiring more and more consumption” (“Sounding an Alarm on Oil,” Nov. 4).
Owen Gleiberman in his November 6 review of Collapse for Entertainment Weekly — the touchstone print publication for all-things-mainstream pop culture — asserts that “You’d be hard-pressed to find a movie that channels the anxieties of our time with the power and terror of the documentary.” He also counsels that “you’d better believe that you’re sitting up and listening when he starts to talk about ‘peak oil,'” and concludes that “You may want to dispute Ruppert, but more than that you’ll want to hear him, because what he says — right or wrong, prophecy or paranoia — takes up residence in your mind.”
NPR offers a cautious assessment: “Ruppert states things that are clearly true, makes claims that are fairly plausible and delivers predictions that no viewer without a time machine can adequately evaluate.” It also follows the lead of the documentary’s director, Chris Smith (of American Movie fame), in criticizing Ruppert for his de facto discounting of any possible grounds for optimism, and for “see[ing] everything through the prism of failed policies and near-obsolete technologies” (“Michael Ruppert, Explaining the Coming Collapse,” Nov. 5). But the headline is in the subtext: Mike Ruppert is being talked about and taken seriously on freaking NPR.
It’s probably difficult or impossible for somebody who hasn’t been following the peak oil story for the past several years to understand the depth of the “Holy crap” feeling that many of us are experiencing right now. A large part of that feeling comes simply from the fact that, as I’ve mentioned here before, lots of things appear to be playing out according to the long-forecasted “plan,” including, most prominently, the expected development in which oil-and-energy issues have moved to the forefront of public discourse. Of course that has nothing, or at least not much, to do with the question of whether peak oil is actually “real” — a word that raises the need to distinguish between peak oil, the geological phenomenon, and peak oil, the theory that ties oil’s fortunes to the very survival of growth-based economies and industrial-technological civilization. In our ever-intensifying age of 24/7 digital linkage and global conversation, it’s impossible to ferret out how much of what we’re collectively thinking and feeling comes from reality itself, as in, the reality outside the media web, and how much is simply a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
What’s incontrovertible is that we’re right now living through the giddiest age of apocalyptic cultural ferment that any of us have ever experienced. I think it’s safe to say that it tops the ones that accompanied the turn of the 20th century, and the advent of World Wars I and II, and the Depression era, and the social and cultural upheavals and meltdowns of the sixties and seventies, and the turn of the 21st century. It even tops 9/11, although in fact it incorporates the 9/11 feeling of an imminent breakdown in everything. Maybe the only thing that equals it is the nuclear terror of the Cold War era. Because now, as then, the fear isn’t just of a national or international breakdown or some such thing (although obviously that one is currently in play, too) but of a show-stopping calamity that would write “The End” on the last page of the book that is the human race, or at least on the book that is civilization as we have known for at least a century or two (since the full implementation of the Adam Smithian economic growth model and the rise of technocratic industrialism). The ecological term “die-off” has gained currency. The word “collapse” is on everybody’s minds and lips.
Over the past two or three or four years, this arch-awareness of a possible impending doom has dominated the collective attention of an increasing segment of the population at large. Now it has thrust its way into the prominent collective conversation that’s mediated by our official cultural gatekeepers, as seen in the MSM coverage of Ruppert’s/Smith’s movie. In an age where our ability to loop our collective obsessions back at ourselves with obsessive frequency and thoroughness has been perfected — via television, talk radio, blogs, Websites, iPhones, etc. — we’re able to, in effect, skywrite the idea of collapse across the expanse of our very awareness. How this will play out is anybody’s guess, but it should be, to say the least, interesting to watch, let alone to experience.
Guy McPherson, professor of conservation biology at the University of Arizona, pulls no punches in his May 21 essay, “Humanity at a crossroads.” In fact, he begins with his punchline itself:
The evidence is gaining increasing clarity: We’ve reached a crossroads unlike any other in human history. One path leads to despair for Homo industrialis. The other leads to extinction, for Homo sapiens and the millions of species we are taking with us into the abyss. I’ll take door number one.
Then he goes on to elaborate this view with references to peak oil, climate change, human overpopulation of the planet, and more.
Long-time Teeming Brain readers may recall that I’ve mentioned McPherson previously:
- Interesting times: food costs, foreclosures, and cultural freefall — Sept. 6, 2007
- The end of the future as we knew it — April 14, 2008
- Slow bleed or spurting wound? — April 21, 2008
Now he continues to demand a hearing with his passionate and, as it turns out, literate and philosophical (in addition to scientific) diagnosis of our apocalyptic situation here at the dawn of the end of the industrial age.
In this latest essay, which was first posted to his blog at the University of Arizona website and then reprinted elsewhere (including Energy Bulletin and Carolyn Baker‘s website), he augments his thoughts about peak oil etc. with an examination of the meaning of the word “humanity” as both a character quality and a noun that refers to the human race, and also as a word that begs the question of what we mean by “human.” In this endeavor he directly invokes Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement that humans are inherently and tragically flawed, and makes reference to Descartes, Plato, Lao Tzu, and John Stuart Mill. He also references C.P. Snow’s idea of the “two cultures” of the natural sciences and the humanities.
And he indicts the modern Western education system:
Shouldn’t we be trying to integrate knowledge, instead of compartmentalizing it? In an effort to serve the culture of death that is industrial society, we have taken the worst possible approach: We developed our entire educational system around the twin pillars of compartmentalization and ignorance. Throw in a huge, ongoing, forceful dose of opposition to integration and synthesis, and we’re left with a tsunami of incompetence. We probably stood no chance of overcoming the all-too-human incompetence described by Nietzsche, but we purposely designed an educational system to reinforce the incompetence on a massive scale. Is it any wonder we’re a nation of overfed clowns?
I recount all of this simply to note that I was amazed at the number of times he directly pinged specific tropes and themes that have been central to my own concerns here at this blog from the moment of its launch in 2006.
Last year I pointed to a YouTube video that showed McPherson being interviewed on a nightly public affairs program on Arizona PBS station KAET, where he talked about the eventual, complete, and inevitable breakdown of America and the rest of the world within our own lifetimes — industrially, politically, economically, and socially. If you didn’t watch it then, I urge you to watch it now. McPherson is impressive — it’s obvious in the video that he suitably impressed his interviewer — and his words command attention.
I don’t plan these hiatuses, but they do happen anyway. Welcome back to The Teeming Brain after a two-month pause during which I felt no internal compulsion to post, and during which time I was extremely busy with other stuff anyway. I hope 2008 ended and 2009 began on a good note for everybody reading this.
To kick things back into some semblance of motion, I could talk about the editing and revising work I’ve been performing on my forthcoming book, or the professional blogging work I’ve been doing, or the other paid Web writing I’ve recently done, or my experience of teaching four college classes during the fall semester, or any number of other things.
But instead I’ll start with a revealing and recent reference to peak oil by a high-up figure in Toyota’s American wing. (You do remember that peak oil is a major preoccupation here, don’t you?)
It seems everybody is now getting in stride with the idea that peak oil is simply and undeniably a reality. This includes France’s formerly denial-oriented International Energy Agency, which made waves recently by reversing its former stance (see, for example, “IEA Radically Changes Assumptions on Peak Oil,” December 15, 2008). The Montreal Gazette ran a major cover story just yesterday titled “The Age of Oil Is Ending.” And so on. Of course, the question of whether the reality of an all-time peak in world oil production will lead to the epochal upheavals and breakdowns predicted by most peak oil theorists is still much in debate. If you’ve read The Teeming Brain for any length of time, you know my own amateur expectations. Economic upheavals have long been predicted as the opening act of the peak oil drama (and hey, I’ve been pretty accurate in knowing who to listen to for the past couple of years about the reality of impending financial-economic troubles, haven’t I?). But the question of whether we will indeed see such a peak seems to be more and more settled.
And so I’m here to offer just one tiny example of this consensus. It’s from a Bloomberg story dated yesterday (1/10/09) that reports on Toyota’s plan “to sell a tiny, battery-powered car in the U.S. by 2012 that can be recharged at electrical outlets.” What, pray tell, might be Toyota’s motivation for this? It’s stated in the opening paragraphs:
“Last summer’s $4-a-gallon gasoline was no anomaly, it was a brief glimpse of our future,” Irv Miller, U.S. group vice president of environmental and public affairs for the Toyota City, Japan-based company, said in the statement today.
“We must address the inevitability of peak oil by developing vehicles powered by alternatives to liquid-oil fuel, as well as new concepts, like the iQ, that are lighter in weight and smaller in size,” he said. “This kind of vehicle, electrified or not, is where our industry must focus its creativity.”
So there you have it. “The inevitability of peak oil” is now being openly referred to by a Toyota spokesperson. Many other examples of this are rampant. I suggest — both to you and to myself — that we begin to prepare for this Big Event both physically and psychologically, if we haven’t already done so. And I suggest — both to you and to myself — that we resolve right now, if we haven’t already done so, to become aware of the pernicious and fallacious tendency to blindly assume that the sprawling, car-based, energy-intensive, technocratic, economically globalized way of life that we have built in recent years and decades is the desirable and normal state of things that we should direct our efforts and resources toward saving.
See you soon (honestly!).
GENERAL COMMENT FROM CARDIN:
There’s a new world a-comin’
Various life obligations have kept me from composing a detailed comment for this week’s installment of Headlines from the Meltdown, so I’ll let others do the talking for me, including Carolyn Baker, Richard Heinberg, and Eckhart Tolle (see below).
But if I were to write up a comment this week, it would surely focus on the fact that the past seven days’ worth of financial and economic news have been positively mind-blowing in the way they’ve highlighted the unprecedented nature of our unfolding economic catastrophe. On any given day, at any given hour, during the week of March 30 through April 5, you could visit a financial news site like Yahoo! Finance, Bloomberg, or any other, and be greeted with the schizophrenic-seeming spectacle of an unmitigated avalanche of dire economic news — job losses, epic write-downs, rampant inflation, failed companies, record foreclosures, surging bankruptcies, etc. — accompanied by stable or slightly rising financial markets.
What? Huh? What the hell’s going on here?
Exactly. It may well be that the markets’ unseemly performance was caused by widespread calls for a bottom. “It’s over! We’re saved! Everybody in!” So crowed many a pundit and financial news show host. But they proclaimed this in the face of an economic and financial monster show whose fundamental factors have done nothing but worsen. Indeed, they can’t do anything but get worse. This show is far from over.
Moving on to the people whose words I’m borrowing, first is Carolyn Baker, whose general worldview is a bit more radical than mine (visit her site, www.carolynbaker.net, to see this in action) but who still expressed my own thoughts and feelings quite well in a special note last week:
No more “evidence” of collapse is needed; it’s happening here and now with dizzying speed. I no longer feel a need to “convince” anyone; I’m simply sitting back and watching the inevitable unfold, and as I report the daily news, I can scarcely keep up with the events that have turned prophets into historians.
For years I have been talking about the Terminal Triangle-the convergence of Peak Oil, climate change, and global economic meltdown. In this moment, we are witnessing not only the accelerating severity of the triangle, but related crises such as Peak Water, species extinction, population overshoot exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity, and the madness of reliance on biofuels to alleviate energy depletion. Never in the history of this planet has such a juxtaposition of crises presented itself to its inhabitants. What we are witnessing is nothing less than Peak Earth.
Next, from peak oil-journalist extraordinaire Richard Heinberg comes a statement from late last year, from the October 2007 edition of his regular “MuseLetter,” that explains the current economic scenario in a more potently compact and direct fashion than I’ve seen anybody else deliver. As you read this extended excerpt, note the way Heinberg hits upon multiple points — the increase in oil prices, the plummeting dollar, etc. — that have only grown even more pointed, more dire, more obviously a source or aspect of serious trouble, in the six months since he wrote.
It’s getting pretty damn obvious that the world is sliding head-first into the abyss at an accelerating rate, with most Americans as oblivious as ever. The latest indication of impending doom is a festering credit crunch brought on by the inevitable puncturing of a bubble puffed up over the past few years through the issuance of thousands of patently idiotic subprime, adjustable-rate, and interest-only mortgage loans.
The deeper story is that this is just the last of a series of bubbles that the US Federal Reserve has inflated in order to sustain for as long as was humanly possible a fundamentally unsound national financial condition.
As I explained in Chapter 2 of The Party’s Over, the US got rich exploiting its own resources and labor. Its most valuable resource — oil — went into decline forty years ago; since then, we Americans have tried to stay rich by exploiting other nations’ labor and resources, using leveraged trade rules, dollar hegemony, and military threats. All this time, we congratulated ourselves: we were living in a post-industrial information economy; they were doing the dreary, obsolete work of actually making things. They sweated and saved; it was up to us to spend and borrow. We served an indispensable function in the global economy as the consumer of last resort, as the engine of new debt creation (more debt equals more money in circulation — i.e., more GDP growth), and as the global cop keeping order in an unruly world (while also sneaking donuts and taking bribes). The Chinese burned their coal and poisoned their workers and environment to make our stuff, enabling us to enjoy a cleaner environment by keeping our coal in the ground, while they loaned us the money to buy cheap Chinese stuff with. Such a deal!
Life in bubble world was grand while it lasted. First there was the Third World debt bubble of the ’80s; then came the tech bubbles of the ’90s; and finally the real estate bubble of the ’00s. Along the way, Wall Street hoped for a little extra hot air from the privatization of Social Security, but even Americans weren’t stupid enough to sign onto that particular leveraged buyout. All during this time, suburbanites got used to having more gadgets and bigger cars and houses, even if they couldn’t actually afford them.
But now we’re at the end of the line. At last the rest of the world is coming to realize that it doesn’t really need Americans: the Chinese can consume, too, after all. And the Asians can’t really justify loaning us more money; we’re not going to pay it back — or if we do, it will be in devalued dollars. But those loans can also be looked at as investments: other nations have in effect bought US assets, which means that the wealth created from those assets will flow to the new overseas owners, not to Americans. What’s left to buy — other than a lot of soon-to-be-foreclosed real estate? And how much wealth will those assets produce once the bubble deflates?
It’s also clear now that there are alternatives to the dollar, including the euro, the yen, and the yuan. Not that the dollar won’t be missed; when it tanks, there will be as many financial casualties in Mumbai as Manhattan. But currency traders are clearly heading for the exits, and the last one out gets the booby prize — a bag of wooden nickels.
Yes, the rest of the world still must fear America’s awesome weapons of mass destruction: this mighty nation can certainly create an unholy mess when it means to, as it is demonstrating in Mesopotamia. But that doesn’t mean that other nations actually have to obey it any more. The US can bomb to smithereens any country it chooses, but it can’t always count on forcing that country to hand over its resources at gunpoint.
The dollar is hitting record lows. Gold and silver are hot commodities — always a bad sign for the reigning paper currency. There are rumors of possible bank failures (following a run on one British bank). If the Federal Reserve tries to solve the liquidity crisis by lowering interest rates, that just worsens inflation and exacerbates the dollar’s problems. If the Fed raises rates to prop up the dollar, that forces the banks and hedge funds to confront their mountains of worthless paper and leads ultimately to defaults, bank runs, and bank failures. Clearly the Fed fears the latter scenario more than the former, so by lowering interest rates this month it effectively pulled the plug on the dollar. The Saudis are now preparing to de-link their economy from the US currency, while China is quietly selling off dollar-denominated assets. One way or another, Americans are going to soon see a rapid decline in their real standard of living.
Of course, another big event this month was oil’s nose-bleed ascent to record-high prices, over $82US per barrel. Part of the price hike resulted from the dollar’s weakness, but – -as Goldman Sachs has pointed out — the main reason was simply that demand is up while supply is down. The May 2005 peak for the rate of production of regular crude and the July 2006 peak for all liquids are still holding. It may be that the technical maximum global rate of flow for liquid fuels is still a couple of years away, but in effect the peak is here now.
….But surely the single most important event of the month was the revelation that arctic sea ice is melting faster than even the most dire forecasts had predicted. This is significant because it shows the power of reinforcing feedback loops: as sunlight-reflecting ice melts, it leaves dark water in its place – which absorbs more heat, causing more ice to melt, and so on. This year’s minimum extent of ice was about one million square miles (as of September 16); the previous record low was 1.5 million in 2005. The rate of melting this year was 10 times the recent annual average. This month the Northwest Passage was ice-free for the first time in untold millennia. At this rate, the north polar region could be ice-free in summer by 2015.
Altogether, it was an extraordinary 30 days. Yet so far there’s been no instantaneous economic implosion, and there’s not much blood in the streets (except perhaps in Myanmar), and so the mainstream media can safely focus on the truly vital issues like O.J. Simpson’s current legal scrapes and Britney Spears’s performance at the MTV awards.
Many writers who discuss the sort of stuff that interests me (“reality” I think it’s called) wrap the unutterable sadness of it all in a crisp cellophane of cynicism. I’m guilty of that, too, from time to time — certainly in this little monthly summary. How else to make it somehow bearable?
And finally, even though I’ve quoted this here in the past, it seems entirely appropriate to re-quote some words from Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth, especially since Oprah has now exploded that book into stratospheric mainstream popularity via her decision not only to endorse the book but to make it the subject of a groundbreaking series of interactive classes delivered all over planet earth via streaming video, complete with Eckhart’s personal participation. I started reading Eckhart’s work nine years ago, and I never thought I’d see the day when I would hear him being talked about in general social conversation like I’ve heard everywhere recently, e.g., at my job, at Wal-Mart, at restaurants. Let’s hope the millions of people who are now being introduced to his teaching pay special attention to this part of his latest book, since it describes what’s going on now and what will continue to intensify in coming months and years:
The ego is destined to dissolve, and all its ossified structures, whether they be religious or other institutions, corporations, or governments, will disintegrate from within, no matter how deeply entrenched they appear to be. The most rigid structures, the most impervious to change, will collapse first. This has already happened in the case of Soviet Communism. How deeply entrenched, how solid and monolithic it appeared, and yet within a few years, it disintegrated from within. No one foresaw this. All were taken by surprise. There are many more such surprises in store for us.
…..A significant portion of the earth’s population will soon recognize, if they haven’t already done so, that humanity is now faced with a stark choice: Evolve or die. A still relatively small but rapidly growing percentage of humanity is already experiencing within themselves the breakup of the old egoic mind patterns and the emergence of a new dimension in consciousness.
….If the structures of the human mind remain unchanged, we will always end up re-creating fundamentally the same world, the same evils, the same dysfunction….Collective human consciousness and life on our planet are intrinsically connected. “A new heaven” is the emergence of a transformed state of human consciousness, and “a new earth” is its reflection in the physical realm. Since human life and human consciousness are intrinsically one with the life of the planet, as the old consciousness dissolves, there are bound to be synchronistic geographic and climatic natural upheavals in many parts of the planet, some of which we are already witnessing now.
* * * * *
Time, March 27
It becomes clearer by the day that this is not your grandmother’s — or even Barack Obama’s grandmother’s — economic downturn. This time we start with a huge government deficit and record private debt, all run up when times were good and we should have been storing up acorns. This is one that begins with people losing their homes, which is usually the last act of the drama. This is one that is bringing back stagflation–that poisonous combination of economic slowdown and eroding currency we cured at a terrible cost back in 1981. When that red phone rings in the middle of the night, it probably won’t be the National Security Adviser saying Osama bin Laden has struck again. It will be the Treasury Secretary reporting that markets have opened in the Far East and the dollar has become worthless.
….We all know about the economist who predicted nine of the past five recessions. But you don’t want to miss this one. It’s going to be a whopper.
* * * * *
Minyanville, April 2
I’d use the phrase “The Big One” to refer to what people will call this period in the future. This is where it all changed.
After years of credit inflation caused by excessively easy credit produced by central banks, around mid-2007 the major world economies, led by the U.S., finally began experiencing trouble in carrying all that debt. Debt levels in the U.S. reached six times their usual amount relative to economic production. As the credit began to deflate, liquidity driving asset prices quickly dried up. We’re now seeing those same central banks desperately attempting to reflate credit, only to see that borrowers are no longer in shape to borrow and lenders are no longer in shape to lend.
In fact, we’ve reached the point where banks and dealers in the financial system are forced to suck at the teat of the central bank credit machine in order to survive. Banks literally have no capital to support their declining asset values: the harder they suck at the teat, thus devaluing the dollar more and more, the more the collateral value declines. But even the teat isn’t enough. Dealers and banks are having to raise longer term capital at egregious rates, thus diluting future earnings even more, and this despite record low treasury rates.
….Yesterday some very large European dealers wrote off vast sums of debt. There will be more to come. But the market took it as the last write-down, just as it has in the past, and a vicious short covering rally ensued with the help of government hands behind the scenes. Desperation is everywhere. But don’t confuse a short covering rally in a bear market with a bottom in a bull market correction: the news will continue to get worse and the manufactured rallies will be fewer and fewer as deflation takes hold.
In all my years I have not seen anything like this.
….This story’s not about three 400-point rallies in the Dow over the last month or so. This is a much bigger story: one that will unfold over the next few years. Traders will get chewed up in market volatility, we will be fed new saving regulations by government bureaucrats, and the media will mis-inform us all along the way.
….The best advice I can give is the same. Stay out of debt, try to save money (even though the government is making it nearly impossible to do so) and keep risk low.
* * * * *
Andrew Leonard, Salon.com, April 2
A record number of Americans receiving food stamps. Gas prices at an all-time high, and staples such as milk, eggs and bread costing a prettier penny every week. The average number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits reached its highest level in two years last week, while just this week, construction spending fell for the fifth straight month and manufacturing activity shrank to its lowest level in five years. Real estate values are even plummeting in the Hamptons, and hedge funds started off 2008 with their worst quarter ever.
Most economists are no longer debating whether there will be a recession in 2008. Now, they’re arguing over when the recession started — was it last November, or December? — and how bad it’s likely to get. While they bicker, however, a far more terrifying economic specter from the distant past has sent a chill through the infosphere.
“We have not seen a nationwide decline in housing like this since the Great Depression,” said the CEO of Wells Fargo late last year. “It is now clear that the U.S. and global financial markets are experiencing their worst financial crisis since the Great Depression,” wrote economist Nouriel Roubini last week.
….The U.S. economy is not even technically in recession yet, either by the standard definition of two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth, or as “officially” declared by the National Bureau of Economic Research. If we define a “depression” as a decline in GDP of 10 percent, then the U.S. is nowhere close.
But we could get there. In fact, it would be all too easy. All we have to do is ignore what the markets and other economic indicators are telling us right now and continue down the disastrous path we’ve been merrily skipping along for the last 25 or so years.
* * * * *
The Independent, April 1
[Cardin comments: This article may well be jumping the gun, but the very fact that a publication like The Independent would run such a story — and it was their cover story for the week — gives Americans who may be suffering from a serious case of national/cultural myopia a valuable perspective on how a great many people in the rest of the world are talking and thinking about the good old U. S. of A. One of my in-laws encountered this a few months ago when he took a business trip to Japan and found himself surrounded by concerned and sympathetic businessmen from various Asian countries, who, upon learning he was an American, immediately began to express concern and sympathy along the lines of, “Oooh, you’re American? How are you doing? How’s your business? How’s your family? Are you having problems? We hope you’re not in too much trouble! Good luck to you!”]
We knew things were bad on Wall Street, but on Main Street it may be worse. Startling official statistics show that as a new economic recession stalks the United States, a record number of Americans will shortly be depending on food stamps just to feed themselves and their families.
Dismal projections by the Congressional Budget Office in Washington suggest that in the fiscal year starting in October, 28 million people in the US will be using government food stamps to buy essential groceries, the highest level since the food assistance programme was introduced in the 1960s.
The increase -– from 26.5 million in 2007 -– is due partly to recent efforts to increase public awareness of the programme and also a switch from paper coupons to electronic debit cards. But above all it is the pressures being exerted on ordinary Americans by an economy that is suddenly beset by troubles. Housing foreclosures, accelerating jobs losses and fast-rising prices all add to the squeeze.
Emblematic of the downturn until now has been the parades of houses seized in foreclosure all across the country, and myriad families separated from their homes. But now the crisis is starting to hit the country in its gut. Getting food on the table is a challenge many Americans are finding harder to meet. As a barometer of the country’s economic health, food stamp usage may not be perfect, but can certainly tell a story.
* * * * *
Bloomberg, April 2
The International Monetary Fund cut its forecast for global growth this year and said there’s a 25 percent chance of a world recession, citing the worst financial crisis in the U.S. since the Great Depression.
….”The financial shock that originated in the U.S. subprime mortgage market in August 2007 has spread quickly, and in unanticipated ways, to inflict extensive damage on markets and institutions at the core of the financial system,” the statement said. “The global expansion is losing momentum in the face of what has become the largest financial crisis in the United States since the Great Depression.”
….”The IMF’s forecast is now below the world economy’s longer-term trend so there is certainly some significance in what it is now seeing,” said Andy Cates, a global economist at UBS in London. “The world economy is slowing quite considerably and will be very different from what we’ve become accustomed to.”
* * * * *
Financial Week (Reuters story), April 4
However long or deep the credit crisis turns out to be, it will change the business of investment banking profoundly, probably for good. Unsurprisingly, it won’t just be bankers who suffer. The mortgage meltdown has led to a collective loss of faith in structured finance, credit ratings and the banking industry itself.
The upshot for banking: job losses, capital losses, balance sheets that need to be rebuilt, lower profit margins and an industry in search of a business model.
The upshot for the rest of us: besides the bill for what will be an ongoing bailout, expect more expensive and scarcer credit, perhaps even when the crisis is through, and possibly lower structural economic growth.
“We haven’t seen anything as bad as this in the 30-year period we looked at,” said James Davis at consultants Oliver Wyman, who recently conducted a review of investment banking with Nick Studer at Wyman and Huw van Steenis at Morgan Stanley. “You’d probably have to go back to the 1930s to get something quite as bad.”
….A lot of the pain implied in all this will be borne by bankers and bank shareholders. But not all. A banking system with more capital and better provision for rainy days, leaving investors to do more work in analyzing credit, and probably requiring better collateral and less aggressive assumptions, should add up to fewer loans made at a higher cost.
That would mean lower economic growth than would otherwise be the case, even once the current storm has passed.
* * * * *
The Washington Post, April 4
A spike in the price of rice and other food staples is triggering consumer panic, including food riots in Yemen and Morocco, and hoarding in Hong Kong.
Governments around the world have taken radical measures in recent weeks to control their countries’ supplies of rice. Egypt last week said it would ban all rice exports for six months. Cambodia has stopped all private-sector exports of rice, and India andVietnam also have imposed restrictions.
The price of grains — corn, wheat, and rice — has been rising since 2005 under pressure from farmers who would rather plant crops for biofuels than for food, the lack of technological breakthroughs in crop yields, and drought and disease. The sharpest increase has been this year, with the price of Thai rice, a world benchmark, nearly doubling since January, to $760 per metric ton. Some analysts expect that price to reach $1,000 in the next three months.
* * * * *
Canada.com, April 1
Gasoline-powered cars are driving humanity to the end of the oil age, leaving electric vehicles as the best weapon against global warming. This is the major conclusion in a dramatic international report written by a former Exxon insider and released Tuesday to Canwest News Service.
“Sometime during the year 2008, humanity will probably pass the point at which it collectively consumes 1,000 barrels of crude oil every second of every day. More than half of it — and the share continues to rise — is dedicated to the movement of goods, services and people,” said the analysis by physical chemist Dr. Gary Kendall, titled “Plugged in: The End of the Oil Age.” “Despite the pivotal role which oil is playing during the early years of the 21st century we are, without a doubt, entering the twilight of the Oil Age.”
….”It should be self-evident that the scale of the task is enormous, but the resulting benefits will be even greater, and that is surely the very definition of transformational change,” said Kendall in the 200-page report.
“We can choose to face up to this change, even embrace it, and stride purposefully towards an energy system which is clean, secure, and equitable. Or we might attempt to ignore it, eventually be overwhelmed by it, and suffer catastrophic consequences as a result of our collective lethargy.”
….[W]e’re now entering a kind of global emergency with respect to energy.”
* * * * *
The New York Times, April 4
Americans are more dissatisfied with the country’s direction than at any time since the New York Times/CBS News poll began asking about the subject in the early 1990s, according to the latest poll.
In the poll, 81 percent of respondents said they believed “things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track,” up from 69 percent a year ago and 35 percent in early 2002.
Although the public mood has been darkening since the early days of the war in Iraq, it has taken a new turn for the worse in the last few months, as the economy has seemed to slip into recession. There is now nearly a national consensus that the country faces significant problems.
….The dissatisfaction is especially striking because public opinion usually hits its low point only in the months and years after an economic downturn, not at the beginning of one. Today, however, Americans report being deeply worried about the country even though many say their own personal finances are still in fairly good shape.
Lately there’s been a slew of articles, columns, and essays beating the peak oil drum. It’s easy to understand why, with the price of oil reaching new record highs every day and economic stormclouds gathering like divine judgment over America’s head. Nor are these issues unrelated; as James Howard Kunstler said a couple of weeks ago at his blog, Clusterfuck Nation, “the fiasco in finance is happening in lock-step with Peak Oil (and very likely because of it at a fundamental level).”
Below are some choice recent items about these issues from a variety of venues. I urge you to share my ongoing and steadily mounting amazement at the way fundamental questions about the nature and future of our contemporary technological way of life have moved decisively to centerstage. We’re really starting to have this national (and international) conversation. We can only hope that the American, British, and other publics — that is, we the people — aren’t too benumbed and zombified by the various breads and circuses of our respective media carnival cultures to profit from the airing and sharing of these thoughts. How central are the ideas expressed in, for example, The New York Times, to America’s real culture at large anymore? I just don’t know.
So in addition to the question of whether we’re in a “too little, too late” situation when it comes to practical efforts to avert the “hard landing” of widespread economic, political, and social collapse in the face of oil-and-energy-related problems, I think it’s equally important to ask whether we’re too late to avoid additional massive troubles caused by the decades-long devolution of public discourse and intellectual levels that occurred in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Try to imagine the sad, shuffling animated corpses of Dawn of the Dead or 28 Days Later (the latter of whom, granted, can run pretty fast) coming up with a solution to their apocalyptic predicament.
Maybe in an enegy-starved future we’ll all just end up like the Dawn zombies, wandering through shopping malls in a perpetual stupor while the world falls apart outside. Er, wait a minute . . . that’s not the future!
* * * * *
Timothy Egan, The New York Times, March 5
From the steps of the Supreme Court to the White House press room, from global trading exchanges to the snowy reaches of Alaska — over the last week, you could hear the creak of history as it began to pivot in a half-dozen locales.
The Age of Oil is at an end. Maybe not this year. Maybe not for five years. But signs of the coming collapse are evident.
Start at the White House. There, a week ago, President Bush touted tax breaks for oil companies that have just posted the largest profits in the history of American business. Yet he was dumbstruck when asked about the prospect of $4-a-gallon gasoline, a price that will force many families to choose between food and basic travel.
….And then on Wednesday of this week, oil reached its all-time, inflation-adjusted high on the global market: $104 a barrel. Remember that number. Because when oil was half that price, three years ago, Bush said the market alone was sufficient incentive for Big Oil to make added investments. But now that the price is over the $100 mark, Bush wants to continue giving breaks to oil companies rather than shift those incentives to alternative fuels, as many in Congress would do.
….Next scene: the Supreme Court. In the pre-dawn cold last Wednesday a group of fishermen, merchants and natives from the Alaska village of Cordova waited to get a seat for the day’s proceedings. There, the high court was hearing Exxon’s appeal of $2.5 billion in punitive damages the company was ordered to pay for the nation’s worst oil spill.
….The common thread in all of this is oil. The Age of Oil brought us John D. Rockefeller’s monopoly, and corruption that reached into the White House. It may end with an industry too bloated by profit and too arrogant to pay the costs of its mistakes — and a president who is deaf to the sound an energy empire makes before it crumbles.
* * * * *
Richard Heinberg, The Ecologist, March 4
[T]he problem is not merely technological; it is cultural in the deepest sense. Starting a couple of centuries ago, our species embarked on a path of unprecedented growth, founded on a temporary subsidy of cheap hydrocarbon energy. Climate change is a side effect of fossil fuel consumption, and has emerged as the most critical symptom of our growth binge. But unless we address the core of the problem, other symptoms will soon overwhelm us even if we manage technically to resolve the dilemma of carbon emissions.
Addressing the core of the problem means letting go of growth; in fact, it means engaging in a period of controlled societal contraction characterized by a stable or declining population consuming at a per-capita level far lower than is currently taken for granted in the industrialized world.
For anyone who understands the basics of ecology—having to do with relationships between population, resources, and carrying capacity—nothing could be clearer. But for those who insist on seeing only technical problems with technical solutions, the forest remains lost from sight behind a single tree.
….[Sir David] King says that wrongheaded environmentalists are keen to take society back to the 18th century or further. Yet there are few indeed who want to ditch the humanitarian and scientific advances of the past decades. This is a straw-man argument. A fairer formulation of many environmentalists’ views is this: unless we use technology within the context of a controlled, planned, sustained period of economic contraction, we will see a chaotic, depletion-led societal collapse that could make the 18th century look like paradise by comparison.
* * * * *
Jeremy Leggett, The Guardian, March 5
[Cardin comments: Note that Leggett begins (in a portion of his article that I have not excerpted below) by linking to a news piece about oil setting a new record price at over $102 per barrel. Right now as I type these words a single day after his column was published, there’s a current headline about oil breaching the $105-per-barrel mark. Prices and events are moving quickly.]
[D]evelopments in the peak oil debate so far this year should be sounding alarm bells everywhere. In the first week, with the oil price hitting three digits for the first time and growing numbers of oil traders betting on forward contracts for $200 oil before the end of the year, the James Baker Institute urged oil industry bosses to address falling investment in exploration.
….In the second week, Total boss Christophe de Margerie warned that oil production may be nearing its peak. He now believes the world will never be able lift production from the current level of 85m barrels per day . . . . The CEO of ConocoPhillips agrees with him. The oil companies duly announced their 2007 results, and masked in statistics combining oil and gas production was the alarming fact that all, bar Total, had suffered falling oil production. This is not what we expect of an oil-addicted world on course for 115m barrels a day.
The CEO of Hess was the next oil boss to blow a whistle, telling an oil industry conference in Houston that oil companies, oil-producing countries, and consumers need to act now. “Given the long lead times of at least 5-10 years from discovery to production,” he said, “an oil crisis is coming and sooner than most people think. Unfortunately, we are behaving in ways that suggest we do not know there is a serious problem.”
Sixty per cent of the world’s oil production is from countries that have already peaked. As for the tar sands, said John Hess, “their contributions to supply are not material enough to bridge the gap in oil requirements over the next 10 years.”
….If peak oil hits, and the slumbering industry awakens from its endemic over-optimism – -in the west and in producing countries alike — what do we do if the producers start keeping their fast-dwindling resources in order to power up their own fast-expanding economies? An oil shock then risks turning into an energy famine.
* * * * *
Tom Whipple, Falls Church News-Press, March 6
The coming storm will bring one of the most severe tests of the cohesiveness of governments and peoples that the world has known for a long time.
Over the last century, the industrial societies have built extremely complex and specialized civilizations. A simple example is that here in America only two percent of us now live on farms where they presumably are capable of readily producing their own food. Only 0.3 percent of Americans now claim to be farmers. The remaining 99+ percent of us are dependent on oil-based food processing, storage, and transport for our daily sustenance.
The fate of most of the world’s peoples is going to depend on how well we, as societies -– here and around the world — get our collective acts together over the coming decades and organize to survive the transition to a post-oil world.
Currently the body politic in America is paralyzed by a rough political balance between those clinging to 20th or perhaps even 19th century concerns and those who, however vaguely, understand that things must change. So far the U.S. Congress has done little to prepare for the massive changes to our economy and lifestyles that are now only a few short years away.
….What is a virtual certainty . . . is that the next U.S. President and governments at all levels and in all countries are going to face problems last seen during the 1930’s or perhaps worse. No matter how much of an anathema it may be to many, it seems clear that government intervention, regulation and controls are going to have to grow. In an era when 99 percent of us have not the slightest idea how to grow food, nor have any place to do so, it will take organization and cooperation similar to what went on during World War II to avoid a societal calamity.
….Some may fear for the country for at times of great crisis political institutions are endangered. While in America we voted for FDR and his New Deal to grapple with the great depression, in Germany they had Hitler, in Italy Mussolini, in Russia Stalin, and Japan wound up with the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Getting through the trauma of oil depletion is going be a real test of political institutions.
….In the American form of government, policies are hard-wired to two and four year election cycles. The next American President may come into office with a mandate for change and with a Congress that will follow his leadership. The Congress, however, may be overwhelmingly of a different party or gridlocked with narrow majorities, in which case it may take another two or four years for the situation to right itself.
We are entering the most interesting time of our lives.
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 CNN.com 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, CNN.com 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.
Has it really been three weeks since my last post? A glance at the date stamp on that previous post indicates the answer is yes.
I’m now four weeks back into my teaching job, and this, in conjunction with a couple of extra-job responsibilities, is eating up nearly all of my time. Alas, the blog must take back seat for awhile. My posts will be sporadic for the foreseeable future, although I will certainly be prompt with all Holy Horrors-related news.
For now, here’s a handful of recent headlines and news items that have leapt out at me. For best effect they should be read in conjunction with some of my previous posts about contemporary cultural and economic matters, such as” U.S subprime losses have detonated a global financial markets disaster,” “The sadness of America and the need for a new consciousness,” “Potent Passages from May 2007,” “More Potent Passages from May 2007,” “Doomerism and Realism,” my various reading logs, and other relevant entries.
N.B. I could expand this list of recent news items to several dozen similar ones if I had the time and inclination. The venerable Chinese curse is presently in full force: we’re living in interesting times.
Days of cheap food are over, say suppliers as ingredient cost soars
The Guardian, September 5, 2007
Supermarket pledges to drive down the price of staple goods and help cash-strapped shoppers looked increasingly vulnerable last night after Britain’s biggest food manufacturer insisted even the largest superstore groups would have to stomach higher prices from suppliers that are struggling with steep rises in ingredient costs.
Premier Foods, the group behind Branston Pickle, Oxo, Mr Kipling and Quorn, said a “systemic change” in world ingredient markets, with “violent rises” in many commodities, had heralded a new era, bringing to a close almost 15 years of relatively stable, low inflation.
Finance director Paul Thomas predicted general food ingredient inflation could reach “somewhere as high as 4% to 5%” next year.Chief executive Robert Schofield said: “Over the past 30 years the cost of food as a proportion of disposable income has come down from 30% to less than 10%. It is going to edge back up.”
. . . . Premier said demand from India and China and incentives for farmers to grow biofuels had increased wheat and other commodity prices.
. . . . Demand from the far east and the trend toward biofuels were driving up carbohydrates around the world. “We can’t see, from where we are sitting, that these sorts of pressure are going to go away, so this is not a blip … If you’re buying pasta in Italy it has gone up 25%; if you’re buying tortillas in Mexico it’s gone up; if you’re buying bread in the UK and Europe it has gone up.” There was a knock-on impact on livestock, milk and glucose prices, he added.
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Mortgages in foreclosure at record high
Yahoo! Finance, September 6, 2007
The rate of home loans in foreclosure rose to a record high in the second quarter of 2007 as more homeowners in California, Florida and other states could not refinance their adjustable-rate mortgages, a trade group said on Thursday.
The Mortgage Bankers Association said 0.65 percent of loans entered the foreclosure process on a seasonally adjusted basis, 7 basis points higher than the previous quarter and up 22 basis points from a year earlier.
It was the third straight quarter in which the foreclosure rate rose to a record-setting level and the worst is likely still ahead, the MBA said.
“Where we might have suggested only one to three quarters to go, it is likely that has been extended to some degree and we will see delinquencies and foreclosure rise,” said Douglas Duncan, the MBA’s chief economist.
The peak of loan failures might not hit for another year or more as many borrowers face increased payments on their adjustable-rate loans, he said.
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Learn from the fall of Rome, U.S. warned
Financial Times, August 14, 2007
The US government is on a ‘burning platform’ of unsustainable policies and practices with fiscal deficits, chronic healthcare underfunding, immigration and overseas military commitments threatening a crisis if action is not taken soon, the country’s top government inspector has warned.
David Walker, comptroller general of the US, issued the unusually downbeat assessment of his country’s future in a report that lays out what he called “chilling long-term simulations”.
These include “dramatic” tax rises, slashed government services and the large-scale dumping by foreign governments of holdings of US debt.
Drawing parallels with the end of the Roman empire, Mr Walker warned there were “striking similarities” between America’s current situation and the factors that brought down Rome, including “declining moral values and political civility at home, an over-confident and over-extended military in foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government”.
“Sound familiar?” Mr Walker said. “In my view, it’s time to learn from history and take steps to ensure the American Republic is the first to stand the test of time.”
Mr Walker’s views carry weight because he is a non-partisan figure in charge of the Government Accountability Office, often described as the investigative arm of the US Congress.
While most of its studies are commissioned by legislators, about 10 per cent – such as the one containing his latest warnings – are initiated by the comptroller general himself.
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The end of civilization and the extinction of humanity
by Guy McPherson, professor of Natural Resources and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the Unversity of Arizona
Energy Bulletin, August 29, 2007
[In the words of the author, this piece is the “transcript of a talk I delivered 17 August 2007. It was the keynote address for a conference organized by, and for, students in the University of Arizona’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program”]
Oil supply — at the level of the field, county, state, country, or world — follows a bell-shaped curve; the top of the curve is called “Peak Oil,” or “Hubbert’s Peak.” We passed Hubbert’s Peak for world oil supply and began easing down the other side about two years ago. We’ll fall off the oil-supply cliff next year. Because this country mainlines cheap oil, it is easy to envision the complete collapse of the U.S. economy within a decade. The Great Depression will seem like the good old days when unemployment approaches 100% and inflation is running at 1000% per year.
Obviously, this is a very good thing … for the world’s cultures and species, other than our own. After all, in the name of economic growth we have ripped minerals from the Earth, often bringing down mountains in the process; we have harvested nearly all the old-growth timber on the continent, replacing thousand-year-old giants with neatly ordered plantations of tiny trees; we have hunted species to the point of extinction; we have driven livestock across every almost acre of the continent, baring hillsides and engendering massive erosion; we have plowed large landscapes, transforming fertile soil into sterile, lifeless dirt; we have burned ecosystems and, perhaps more importantly, we have extinguished naturally occurring fires; we have spewed pollution and dumped garbage, thereby dirtying our air, fouling our water, and contributing greatly to the warming of the planet; we have paved thousands of acres to facilitate our movement and, in the process, have disrupted the movements of thousands of species.
As I wrote in one of my recent books, the problem is not that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions — it’s that the road to Hell is paved. We have, to the maximum possible extent allowed by our intellect and never-ending desire, consumed the planet and therefore traded in tomorrow for today. And we keep making these choices, every day, choosing dams over salmon, oil over whales, cars over polar bears, death over life.
And when I say we keep making these choices, I do not mean you and me — we have essentially nothing to do with it — I mean the politicians and CEOs who run this country. They are killing the planet and, when they notice the screams, they turn up the volume on Fox News. Meanwhile, most Americans took the blue pill without really thinking about the consequences. In the wake of these endless insults to our only home, perhaps the biggest surprise is that so many native species have persisted, thus allowing for our continued use and enjoyment.
. . . . Many experts who write about simply one of these issues — Peak Oil — predict complete economic collapse within a decade, followed shortly thereafter by utter chaos and the subsequent death of more than 80% of the world’s population. After all, the exponential curve of human population growth matches perfectly the exponential growth of world energy supply, suggesting that the downturn of the energy curve will cause a large-scale die-off of human beings. And if you think chaos can’t descend on this country, you weren’t paying attention to New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Horrible as that event was, nearly everybody involved knew it was a temporary inconvenience; I’m concerned how people might act when they recognize Peak Oil as a long emergency.
One by one, starting in 2012, the world’s cities will experience permanent blackouts; and once we enter the Dark Age, the Stone Age won’t be too far behind. Bear in mind, I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I know the current culture — the culture of make believe, or the culture of death, depending on how deeply you care to think about it — is the worst possible route for most of the planet’s species; as a conservation biologist, I realize the faster and more complete the collapse of Empire, the greater our biological legacy. On the other hand, the paralyzing hand of fear grips me every time I think about Peak Oil; a life in the ivory tower is damned poor preparation for Stone-Age living. Fortunately, I only think about it a few thousand times each day.
. . . . Until very recently, large-scale die-offs were viewed as “normal,” in much the same way we view as “normal” our K-12 system of education, or weekly shopping trips to Safeway, or using a cellular telephone. The description and management of human populations back in the days of the Greek Cynics was oriented along population lines, with relatively little societal regard for individuals. Contrast that perspective with our laser-like focus on individuals. Let’s take a quick look at the Four Horsemen, one at a time. Famine’s as good a place to start as any, considering that my limited understanding of public health tends toward eating … or, eating less.
The years ahead will see a dramatic rise in deaths from starvation, as we become unable to transport vegetables from the Central Valley of California to the American Southwest, or any place else in the country. The inability to retrieve high-fructose corn syrup in the form of cheese doodles and soda pop from the vending machine down the hall won’t hurt us a bit, individually or collectively, but it’s symptomatic of far greater problems. At the population level, starvation is called famine. And famine looms large, right here in the richest country in the history of humanity.
We’ll also see pestilence — what we call disease, when it happens one person at a time — making a big comeback. Cheap oil allows us to sanitize our water, lethally cook harmful organisms, sterilize the surfaces on which we prepare and eat food, and manage many potentially catastrophic diseases. Contemporary American healthcare is completely dependent on ready supplies of cheap oil, for grid-based electrical power, backup generators, and thousands of pieces of equipment we all take for granted, from IVs and syringes to disposable gloves and plastic containers for tossing out contaminated needles and other sharp objects. When the trucks stop running, we won’t even be able to deliver antibiotics, unless ginormous numbers of non-apocalyptic horsemen suddenly appear. I hope society will retain some understanding of germ theory, so you are able to live at least half as long as your grandparents.
Famine and pestilence are two of the Four Horsemen; war and conquest are the other two. Already, resource wars have begun, and they are likely to ratchet up in the near future. The so-called bipartisan Iraqi study group concluded that Operation Iraqi Freedom was conducted in pursuit of black gold. In fact, just to make the acronym transparent, the invasion should have been called Operation Iraqi Liberty.
Regardless of the name of the invasion, it truly was “mission accomplished” for George W. Bush: We ensured ourselves a spot at the OPEC table, while also piratizing … er, I guess I’m supposed to call that privatizing … the oil fields of Iraq for American companies. Although the Oilman in the Oval Office correctly pointed out, in his 2006 State of the Union Address, “America is addicted to oil,” his solution is absurd. Rather than stressing conservation, as a conservative might do, his goal is to find more oil by any means necessary. ‘Cause that’s the way to deal with addiction: find more substance for the addict.
I fear Oil War III is just getting started.
And conquest? That’s just another name for war, albeit without a fight from the vanquished. We’ve done that throughout our history, as have many other nations. I’ve no doubt we’ll continue.
The Four Horsemen are lurking in the background, obscured by the never-ending, irrelevant chatter of the corporate media. Here’s my impression of Fox News: blah blah blah Britney Spears blah blah blah Threat Level Orange blah blah blah Paris Hilton blah blah blah … Fox News: the only national news source without a liberal bias. The corporate media’s weapons of mass distraction notwithstanding, soon enough the Four Horsemen will be riding tall enough for everyone to see. Population-scale rules from two millennia ago will re-assert themselves.