Peak Oil News: We're All Bozos On The Bus

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

We're All Bozos On The Bus

Fortunately or not, this is a strategy of desperation that won't and can't work. The folks in charge may have plenty of brain power at their disposal, but all the geniuses in the world, lined up end to end, can't reach a solution in which the global control system survives in any recognizable form.

Why? The basis of all existence is energy: all living systems on planet Earth rely on energy derived ultimately from the Sun, and so do human social systems; the more complex the system, the more energy per capita is required for its maintenance. We are coming to the end of a century or so of burgeoning energy availability derived from fossil fuels. Within the next few years global petroleum production will peak and energy availability will begin to decline dramatically. The only alternative sources in sight (photovoltaics, wind, etc.) provide less energy at lower levels of concentration.

Previous complex societies have met analogous energy crises, and in every case the result has been the reversion of the society to a lower level of complexity - in common parlance, collapse. As archaeologist Joseph Tainter points out in The Collapse of Complex Societies, collapse is an economizing strategy (usually not deliberate) necessitated by serious and prolonged energy deficits.

But how do we know that the system's managers haven't foreseen petroleum depletion and somehow planned for it? After all, they're smart and they have a lot to lose if the ship goes down. They wouldn't make a blunder that big, would they?

Of course not - not if they were rational and had any choice in the matter. However, they are not and do not. So far as industrial society is concerned, fossil-fuel dependency constitutes a long-term trend. The trend began decades before anyone thought seriously about petroleum depletion and its ultimate consequences. By the time analysts had determined when the oil would begin to run out (they did this in the late '50s and early '60s), dependency was systemic and profound; and the production peak was far enough away that those in charge could only simply hope that somehow an alternative would appear. They've been hoping ever since.

We must remember that, no matter how well-funded an intelligence organization may be, and no matter how many satellites and computers it deploys, it is still fallible. Consider the CIA and its spectacular record of ineptness over the past few decades - its inability to foresee the revolution in Iran, its miscalculations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even information that has been gathered and processed by computers must still be evaluated and passed along the chain of command by human beings, and humans are never entirely rational.

Every organization tends to discourage unwanted information. If you happen to be an underling charged with carrying news to managers, you know that you are more likely to be rewarded if the news is good. For industrial society, petroleum depletion is the ultimate bad news. Nobody wants to hear it, so nobody wants to deliver it.

Suppose you're a senior executive at Boeing. Someone in the long-range planning department mentions in a report that petroleum production will peak around the year 2005, after which jet fuel will quickly become prohibitively expensive. You make an inquiry to your engineering staff, who tell you that there is no alternative to kerosene for fueling jets. The implication: by 2020, perhaps much sooner, it may no longer be possible to operate a commercial airline anywhere in the world. The responsible thing to do would be to pass this information along to clients - airlines and governments that are intending to spend billions of dollars to purchase new jets with a projected operating lifetime of thirty years. If you tell the clients, you will lose your job, the mortgage bills on your million-dollar house won't get paid, and your son or daughter might even have to drop out of college. Stockholders will sue the company for billions and everyone you've worked with will hate you. On the other hand, you could bury the report and continue with business as usual, take home the million-dollar bonus, and retire rich and happy. Tough choice.

Most CEOs and senior strategic managers are close to retirement. And it is a truism of management that, as one ascends the ranks, the time span between when a key strategic decision is made and when one becomes accountable for its consequences lengthens. It is one's successors who will have to deal with whatever mess results, and they in turn will be similarly motivated to pass the buck to their successors.

We must also remember that, while industrial capitalism is in many respects an integrated system, it is not controlled by a single unified power center, but rather by a feudal oligarchy of corporate, governmental, military, and intelligence establishments. Within and among these establishments there is often fierce competition. Managers spend much more of their time looking for short-term advantages over their competitors than they do considering the long-range picture of where society as a whole is headed.

There are, of course, some managers who do understand the long-range picture; but the most they can do, given all the constraints just mentioned, is to create a corporate "sustainability" initiative that is mostly public-relations hype, and to make desperate plans for worst-case scenarios (Build more prisons! Expand the military!). None of these measures can change the basic fact that industry runs on oil, and oil is going away.

Now, assuming that the folks in charge really don't know what they're doing, does this spell catastrophe for everyone? Not necessarily. There is probably no way to avoid economic turmoil and wrenching social dislocations over the next few decades. However, an argument can be made that the collapse of the current predatory, exploitive system will be a good thing in the long run, in that it could open the way for other possibilities. As Tainter notes, collapse means simply a reversion to a less-complex level of social organization. Despite the likelihood of short-term chaos, that could be a chance for humanity to internalize and implement a new environmental ethic. The way could be opened for the survival of currently embattled indigenous cultures, and people in industrialized countries would be forced to return to local self-reliance and community solidarity. Organic agriculture would be the only kind of agriculture possible. Look to Cuba for some hint of how we might get along quite well in a post-petroleum, post-globalization world. That's the third alternative.

There's no point wasting many words on the fourth. If everyone is on the raft and the raft goes down, only strong swimmers will even have a chance. It's not difficult to spin out scenarios in which there would simply be no survivors.


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