The Peak Oil Crisis: Priorities
By Tom Whipple
In the next few years, most of us are going to have to make many important decisions that will profoundly affect the rest of our lives. How soon these decisions come will depend on one's individual circumstances.
If you are one of the millions who have lost their jobs or homes in the last year then you already know that something is happening. Returning to the way we have lived for the last 100 years simply is not in the cards. The world is entering a great paradigm shift and our place in it will be markedly different 10 or 20 years from now. The most alarming thing to remember is that 95 percent of us have not discovered that major changes are underway and are waiting for economic recovery and new jobs to open up.
A professor out in California just published a paper concluding that the current economic downturn was caused as much by the $147 oil we saw last summer as it was by the bursting of the housing and credit bubbles. It doesn't much matter if he is right or not. What is important, however, is that hardly a day goes by without another major oil production project being delayed or cancelled due to low prices. The death spiral for the oil age has begun.
The U.S. is currently losing about 600,000 jobs a month. If we did the bookkeeping a bit more honestly, to account for the discouraged or those forced into part-time work, the real total is probably closer to 1 million a month. This hemorrhage may slow for a time when our trillion dollar stimulus catches hold, but there is nothing out there to suggest that spending borrowed or printed money for a year or two is going to turn anything around. The trends all suggest that unemployment is going to continue rising and that social unrest is not very far away.
Someday, many years or decades from now, all this is going to stabilize. Just what the world will look like is impossible to forecast. Will there still be 6.7 billion of us around or will the world's population have declined from deteriorating climate conditions and a lack of food. The only thing for sure is that there is going to be a lot less fossil fuel around to do the heavy work for us.
The last 100 years, particularly the last 50, have been a magic time. The exploitation of fossil fuels has given mankind an era of incredible riches and, for many, unprecedented freedoms to pursue whatever they choose. Now that time is over and humanity is going to have to reprioritize to the basics of life -- food, warmth, shelter, health care, sanitation, and security.
If the oil age had come and gone in a few decades mankind would not have had the opportunity to reorganize our lifestyles so dramatically from the way we lived in the 19th century, but it is too late now. Recent estimates say that nearly half of the world's population now lives in urban areas where they are dependent on others for food. In America, only three percent of us are left on farms to feed the other 97 percent. This is going to be a real problem for if there is anything we really need to do every day, it is to eat.
With shrinking amounts of increasingly expensive fossil fuels, the American way of agriculture is going to be severely tested. Throw in some climate change and our food producers are going to have trouble keeping up with the demand. Many are worried about depleted soils, and the vast amounts of energy required to grow, store, process, and transfer food raised thousands of miles from the consumer. Then there is the growing problem of paying for food when one does not have a job. For the last 100 years the cost of food was a decreasing part of the average American's budget. That is starting to reverse and it will not be long before the discretionary spending that many have enjoyed in recent decades dwindles as more of our incomes go for the essentials of life.
Much food in America currently is being paid for by unsecured credit cards in the hands of people who will never be able to pay. The banks have already reduced the number of open cards from a high of 483 million last July to 400 million. This number will continue to shrink as delinquencies soar and the banks realize they will never be paid back. As with food, the same sort of problems are arising with health care, and housing. Sanitation and public safety, being largely a responsibility of government rather than individuals is, safe for the minute, but governments are facing growing problems. If, as seems likely, government takes on increasing burdens of feeding and housing people, some new form of social contract is going to have to be worked out.
We are already hearing the opening sounds of what may be the greatest political debate of the 21st Century - how do we get out of this mess. On one side are those who continue to believe that free markets, tax cuts, and offshore drilling, will return things to normal. The other side recognizes the magnitude of the challenge we face, but so far have not publically connected the dots.
This great debate will continue in the Congress, state houses, and local board rooms for a long while as the balance teeters between maxims of the 20th century and realities of the 21st. The break will come with social unrest. It has been a long time since mobs took to American streets in protest. Although common in other parts of the world, one has to look back to the 1960's to find serious social unrest in the US.
This time riots will be for food and jobs rather than for civil rights and against the draft. The unrest will change everything. Governments will realize that changing times require changing institutions and new priorities. The mix between capitalism and government involvement in the economy is going to change for there no way that our current institutions and economic arrangements are going to get us through the next 40 years.