Peak Oil News: Peak Oil And The Systemic Collapse Of Modern Civilization

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Peak Oil And The Systemic Collapse Of Modern Civilization

By Peter Goodchild

Systemic collapse has ten principal parts, each with a somewhat causal relationship to the next. Fuel, metals, and electricity are a tightly-knit group, since no industrial civilization can have one without the others. As those three disappear, food and fresh water become scarce. Matters of infrastructure then follow: transportation and communication. Social structure fails: government, finance, and education. After these ten, there is psychic breakdown: madness and chaos.

If we look at a chart of human population over the millennia, we see what is virtually a horizontal line. Then around 1800 or 1900 the line begins to curve upward, so that for the last few decades it has been basically a vertical line. In other words, there are billions of human beings, and every few years that number doubles. That isn’t merely a mathematical curiosity. It’s a great misfortune. Half the people in the world go to bed hungry, and the other half have to fight tooth and nail to make sure they get a meal. Those facts cannot be learned from watching TV, perhaps not even from browsing the Internet, but anyone who is not too lazy to read books can confirm all the above statements.

The number of humans on the Earth is roughly the same as the number of mice, or the number of rats, as far as can be determined. It is not natural for a large mammal such as Homo sapiens to be so numerous. We outnumber wolves, for example, by about a million to one.

No one can really learn much by watching TV. The mainstream news media are tightly controlled by a very small number of very powerful corporations. They do not censor a great deal, although they distort considerably, but one thing they do not allow is any story that casts aspersions on the first principle of capitalism: that “economic growth” must never be curtailed, although it is only growth in the sense of “profits.” “More, bigger, faster” makes profits. And yet the fundamental truth is that the planet Earth is dying from two problems, each the converse of the other: resource-consumption and overpopulation.

To narrow our focus very slightly, we might consider the concept of “civilization.” Looking only at the western hemisphere, how many civilizations do we see? Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Greece, Rome? They do not break down easily into distinct units. And then there is an even more amorphous something called “modern civilization.” Instead of being restricted to one segment of a continent, it seems to have spread all over the world. It might almost be called “Anglo-American civilization,” but even that name is both anachronistic and too restrictive.

“Modern civilization” is unique, then, in the sense that it is global rather than local. It is also unique in the sense that its means of production is not the labor of humans or draft animals, but a malodorous substance known as petroleum --- oil. This substance was rarely used until the late nineteenth century, when it was realized that a steam engine could be modified to run on petroleum. These new engines were soon everywhere. Petroleum is a great mixture of hydrocarbons, and some of the variants could be used or modified to produce other substances such as plastic. In almost no time, we had created a world that was literally “driven” by oil. The planet Earth seemed infinitely large now, and we not only stopped worrying about overpopulation, but we felt that there would be no limits to industrialization, capitalism, “free enterprise,” and all the rest of the ideology that was remarkably lacking in “ideo-.” We just never got around to thinking that all of this was dependent on that dirty substance known as oil.

But even if we didn’t like to talk about it, this black muck seemed practically unlimited, as if the entire planet was just a liquid-filled balloon. By the end of the twentieth century, we were pumping 30 billion barrels out of the ground every year.

We were becoming more addicted. Like any previous civilization, ours required metals such as iron and copper. We dug miles into the ground to get those metals. All of this digging required powerful machinery. What was it run on? Oil. We have dug those metals out of the ground so much that they are becoming scarce, at least in their more-workable forms, and without that machinery we would have no metals at all.

We have also needed electricity, which acts as the nervous system of any machinery. The electrical grids, with their enormous towers, are by far the largest devices ever built by humans. But electricity is not a source of energy, it is merely a means of carrying energy. Electricity can be based on any form of energy, from dammed-up rivers to nuclear fuel, but most of it comes from hydrocarbons such as oil or coal.

Around 1950, a number of engineers realized that there were several ways of putting the history of oil use on a graph: the amount of oil produced, the amount that was discovered each year, the number of giant oilfields discovered, and so on. But no matter which data were selected, the result was the same: oil would start to run out soon after the beginning of the twenty-first century. Although this was learned around 1950, not many people talked about it, and even fewer people were listening. One of the oddities of corporate behavior is that shareholders start to panic when a company announces that production will decline: declining production does not necessarily mean declining profits, but the average shareholder cannot deal with such mathematics. So the oil companies said nothing. While the chronology of Egyptian civilization could be measured in millennia, that of our own must be measured in centuries or decades. We have burned up our resources with a profligacy that no TV program will reveal.

With oil, metals, and electricity gone, the rest is sure to follow: food, fresh water, transportation, communication, government, finance, education. And after that there is another layer, more psychological or sociological, that I call “the four Cs.” The first three are crime, cults, and craziness --- the breakdown of traditional law, the tendency toward anti-intellectualism, the inability to distinguish mental health from mental illness. There is also a more general one that is simple chaos, which results in the pervasive sense that “nothing works any more.”

The road from culture to chaos, from oilfields to etiquette, is no less real for being ineffable. Everywhere I see graduate students who cannot add or spell, I meet thirty-year-old adults who have the social skills one would expect of ten-year-olds. The “will of the people” has been replaced in this generation by no will at all, sheer nihilism. Slumped in front of a TV set, these creatures are asking nothing, and they are being told nothing. Such an account of Homo televisionus, however, is not meant as a value judgment, far less as old-fashioned lamentation. It is merely a reflection on the psychic or spiritual aspects of that systemic collapse.

Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. He is temporarily living in the Sultanate of Oman. He can be reached at


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