The Coming Petro Collapse
The living feed on the dead, and burn the remains.
By Grant Causwell
By the '80s no one who had any idea what they were talking about seriously thought the world was imperiled by strategic arms, as it was clear that the worst case would involve limited tactical exchanges against massed targets in Germany and, just possibly, with Brigadier Generals Ripper and Ripperkov at the helm, against military targets on the great unpopulated plains of both country's interiors—a nightmare, but nothing like an apocalypse.
None of this kept the adults from using the idea of death by radiation poisoning as a way of keeping us kids from growing up to be Republicans. (Democrats, my mother assured me, weren't madmen who wanted me to die a horrible death, unlike President Reagan.) Nor did it keep the adults from doing ridiculous things like building fallout shelters in their backyards or stockpiling Spam. Baptists aren't the only ones who feel the lure of that bright and ever-nearer day when the world will end and society, with all its inequities, will be swept away in a cleansing fire.
These days, there aren't many threats to the actual survival of mankind. Even people who are as concerned as they should be about nuclear terrorism or potential pandemics like avian flu don't think everyone in the world is going to die if a suitcase bomb goes off in the Holland Tunnel or if the HN51 virus mutates and becomes communicable. We must work with what God and history have given us.
The last month has seen some people here in New York working very hard. Last week was the Winning the Oil Endgame conference, where the technocrats met the plutocrats at NYU to imagine a fine new world where slightly less gluttonous SUVs and vague technologies take care of any problems that might arise from our 700 billion barrel a year gas habit.
More in the sprit of the age was the Petrocollapse New York conference held at the Unitarian Universalist Church on E. 35th Street earlier this month. The unifying idea of the conference seemed to be that an imminent shortage of energy is about to reduce the world to a bleak, barren landscape where the living feed upon the dead and burn the remains for warmth.
"I believe petrocollapse can cure the Earth of this civilization," former energy analyst Jan Lundberg told the assembled, adding that, "although there will be insufficient food and therefore massive upheaval culminating in die-off, there will be plentiful land and housing...A lifestyle of separateness or non-community behavior, so rife in today's dominant, mainstream culture, would be seen as threatening the common good and a throwback."
Lundberg—whose Web site Culturechange.org features nifty headlines like "Petrocollapse: Can you live without indoor running water?" and "System failure requires visionary opposition movement"—was a star speaker at the conference, which was attended largely by the sort of persons you might see at Union Square holding up hand-lettered signs purporting to prove that Dick Cheney personally orchestrated the terror attacks of September 11.
Michael Ruppert, another star speaker, makes money writing books purporting to prove the same. There was a time when Ruppert, a stumpy former cop who looks a bit like the badly sanded end of a coffee table stuffed in a suit, made his money claiming to have inside knowledge of how the CIA was selling drugs in the poor parts of American cities. Now, he's tied together 9/11, the Iraq war and the idea of peak oil (to simplify, it's the point when the amount of oil that's been extracted from the earth becomes equal to the amount left in reserve; some scientists think it's decades off, while others think we're there now) into a vast, and vastly vague, brew of paranoia and imminent chaos, which he peddles in a book, speeches and on his Web site Fromthewilderness.com.
"They will allow and facilitate population reduction through famine and disease," Ruppert told the crowd at the conference. (Do I need to explain who "they" are?) Because, according to Ruppert, we are now experiencing peak oil, "Today we are, especially in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, within mere weeks of an economic collapse that may well surpass the one that began with the stock market crash of 1929, and from which there will be no recovery."
There's not much to distinguish such doomsaying from that of the UFO cultists, believers in astral projection, Communists and magnetism enthusiasts Lundberg and Ruppert so resemble. Like their fellow flim-flammers, the prophets of petrocollapse rely on dark assertion, appeals to authority (Ruppert's Web site prominently touts an endorsement from comedian Dick Gregory and a write-up he once received from People) and faith in a future, tantalizingly near at hand, where the true believers will be vindicated—in this case by mass starvation and the complete collapse of the global economy rather than by a study in the New England Journal of Medicine touting the benefits of magnetic bracelets. But really it's all the same thing. Like similar movements, the petrocollapse one has its superstars, obscure doctrinal splits (the proprietor of Survivingpeakoil.com, for instance, posts a notice that he is "no longer associated with Michael C. Ruppert or From the Wilderness publications" right at the top of his site's home page) and articles of faith. The curious and interesting thing about the movement is that its articles of faith are valid and undisputed.
The basic argument is mere common sense. Oil and natural gas are finite resources without which we can currently do almost nothing. The food you eat is grown with petrochemical fertilizers, harvested by men wearing petrochemical-based clothes using petrochemical-based tools riding gas-fueled machines, packaged in plastics and shipped on the back of heavy, diesel-fueled trucks to your local store, where you buy it, then take it to a likely gas-heated home, where you cook it on a gas-heated stove. At some point—and there are serious geologists who think we've reached it—the global demand for oil and gas will grow larger than the supply of it, and everything from the farmer's fertilizer and wristwatch to the trucker's diesel to the gas in your stove will become prohibitively expensive. Apply the same effect across every industry you can imagine, and the scale of the potential crisis becomes clear.
The problem is not that we're running out of oil and gas, or close to doing so. Instead, it's that when we reach the point where demand exceeds supply, the global economy may stop working. Take Wal-Mart, for instance, as a frequently cited potential casualty of peak oil. It is the biggest employer in the United States, Canada and Mexico; it controls nearly 10% of the entire retail industry in America; and its business model is entirely based on the idea of just-in-time shipping from its massive central warehouses to its stores, which eliminates dead stock and allows the company to make money even when selling below cost. At what point would an interruption in gas supplies destroy the company? At what point would high gas prices do so?
Or, take another example—heat. Last winter I was living in Chicago in a 1900-square foot loft with 13' ceilings and a gas furnace. The wife and I, accustomed to smaller New York apartments where the landlord footed the heating bill, were startled to receive a $250 heating bill for December—nearly a quarter of our monthly rent. In the aftermath of the recent hurricanes, analysts are now projecting that home heating oil will be 30% more expensive this year than it was last year, and gas 50% more expensive. That doesn't mean a lot to New Yorkers in cramped apartments, but to heavily leveraged suburbanites living in cheap, spacious new construction, it can be the difference between being tight and being insolvent. And it ought to mean a lot to New Yorkers—as James Kunstler, by far the most lucid and engaging of the big stars on the peak oil circuit (this isn't meant to damn with faint praise) likes to observe, something far less than an energy apocalypse could make it so expensive to heat Manhattan skyscrapers that they'd have to be abandoned.
Fortunately for any attendees who were hoping to hear from non-charlatans, Kunstler spoke at the Petrocollapse conference. The speech is posted at his Web site, Kuntsler.com, and is worth reading in its entirety, but a passage near the end lays out the stakes:
"At the bottom of the Peak Oil issue is the fear that we're not going to make it.
"The Long Emergency looming before us is going to produce a lot of losers. Economic losers. People who will lose jobs, vocations, incomes, possessions, assets—and never get them back. Social losers. People who will lose position, power, advantage. And just plain losers, people who will lose their health and their lives."
The peak oil movement is, right now, no matter how many write-ups it receives in the New York Times Magazine, a movement of people who have already lost, just as all survivalists' movements are. (I suspect Jan Lundberg would have done well for himself giving speeches about the need for fallout shelters 50 years ago.) Those who have the least worry most about losing it. In this case, it's those least tethered to the hectic crash and race of motorized life, those who not only despise it, but tremble with anticipation of the glorious day when the ones tethered to it and secure in their place are similarly lost, who drive the movement. They're the ones who buy books like "When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance & Planetary Survival" or "Strategic Relocation: North American Guide to Safe Places" (hint: you want "a climate which can sustain life in an energy crisis but won't attract marauders"), and pay Michael Ruppert $50 a year to read his lurid fantasies about crack-dealing spooks and economic collapses that are always, from what I can tell, just a few weeks off.
Peak oil isn't just a scary story, though. Sober forecasts have it arriving by the end of the decade, and even the lightest effects of demand suddenly exceeding supply would include ruinous inflation, the sort that could wipe out pensions and leave millions unable to pay their mortgages, and gas prices that would leave millions unable to make their daily commute. Utterly commonsense policies like shifting the shipping burden from highways to rail lines, imposing high fuel efficiency standards on SUVs, levying a stiff national gas tax and seeking to make every city's public transit system as comprehensive as those in New York and Chicago are just fantasies right now.
Most worrisome of all—and this is, again, an idea Kunstler frequently returns to—is the general attitude that American science will somehow arrive at a magical solution, mainly because there never has been any large-scale need our science hasn't met. This sounds like the logic that led to the botched occupation of Iraq—America had never failed at anything similar, and so would never do so. The effects of the coming energy crisis may in the end prove more like those of an exchange of nuclear artillery shells in north Germany than like an exchange of direct hits on New York and Moscow. It's not a comforting thought.