Peak Oil News: The Suburban Fantasy

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Suburban Fantasy

By James Howard Kunstler

James Howard Kunstler is the author of The Long Emergency, just released in paperback by The Atlantic Monthly Press.

It’s actually kind of funny to hear Americans complain these days about the cost of gasoline and how it is affecting their lives. What did they expect after setting up an easy-motoring utopia of suburban metroplexes that make incessant driving inevitable? And how did they fail to register the basic facts of the world oil situation, which have been available to us for decades?

Those facts are as follows: oil fields follow a simple pattern of production and depletion along a bell curve. Universally, when an oil field gets close to half the amount of oil it originally possessed, production peaks and then declines. This is true for all oil fields in the aggregate, for a nation and even the world.

In the United States, oil production peaked in 1970 and has been declining ever since. We extracted about 10 million barrels a day in 1970 and just under 5 million barrels a day now. Because our consumption has only increased steadily, we’ve made up for the shortfall by importing oil from other countries.

There is now powerful evidence in the production figures worldwide that we have reached global peak oil production. The collective nations of the earth will not make up for this by importing oil from other planets.

Contrary to a faction of wishful thinkers, the earth does not have a creamy nougat center of oil. Oil fields do not replenish themselves. Also contrary to the prevailing wish, no combination of alternative fuels will allow us to keep running the interstate highway system, Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World and the other furnishings of what Dick Cheney called our “non-negotiable way of life.”

People who refuse to negotiate with the circumstances that the world throws at them automatically get assigned a new negotiating partner: reality. Reality then requires you to change your behavior, whether you like it or not. With global oil production peaking, we are now subject to rising oil prices, as markets are forced to contend with allocating a resource heading in the direction of scarcity. Oil prices are only likely to go higher—though there is apt to be a ratcheting effect as high oil prices depress economic activity and thus dampen demand for oil which will depress prices leading to increased consumption which will then kick prices back up, and so on. The prospects for more geopolitical friction over oil also self-evidently increase, as industrial nations desperately maneuver for supplies.

Mainly though, the danger lies in the resulting instability of the super-sized complex systems that we depend on daily.

Trouble with oil will spell huge problems with how we grow our food, how we conduct trade, how we move around and how we inhabit the terrain of North America. These systems are going to wobble and eventually fail unless some effort is made to reform their scale and their procedures. For example, Wal-Mart’s profit margins will disappear as higher diesel fuel prices hit its “warehouse-on-wheels.”

Now, in the face of this, you’d think that the national leadership in politics, business and science would prepare the public for substantial necessary changes in the way we do things. What we are seeing across the board, though, is merely a desperate wish to keep the cars running by any conceivable means, at all costs. That is the sole target of our focus. Our leaders don’t get it. We citizens have to make other arrangements.

We simply cannot face the fact that time has run out—that our lease is expiring—for the easy-motoring utopia. But we must. We have to live differently. We’re going to have to re-inhabit and reconstruct our civic places—especially our small towns—and we’re going to have to use the remaining rural places for growing food locally, wherever possible. Our big cities will probably contract, while they densify at their centers and along their waterfronts. Our suburbs will enter a shocking state of economic and practical failure.

We cannot imagine this scenario because we have invested so much of our collective wealth the past 50 years in the infrastructure for a way of life that simply has no future.

We’d better start paying attention to the signals that reality is sending or we will be living in a very violent, impoverished and demoralized nation. And we have to begin somewhere, which is why I suggest we start by rebuilding the national passenger railroad system. It would have a significant impact on our oil use. It would put a lot of people to work on something meaningful and beneficial to all ranks of American society. The equipment is lying out there rusting in the rain, waiting to be fixed. We don’t have to re-invent anything to do it.

The fact that we are not even talking about such solutions shows how unserious we are.


At 3:38 AM, May 28, 2006, Blogger Glenn said...

I don't think you could cram the entire ethnic Irish population from outside of Ireland back into Ireland.

Same deal with the suburbs. Sprawl made sense as a way of distributing the population to make people's lives more comfortable. It's not just people liking to drive their SUVs (although there is a highly irresponsible subgroup like that) If you take all those people and cram them back into the cities, you're talking about a Blade Runner future at best, at worst, there will definitely be a die-off because cities won't have enough resources to expand. That's not something people are going to do willingly.

At 9:44 AM, June 11, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article, Mr. Kunstler.

It's interesting to see the economic comparisons between places like Italy and France, who use (and rely upon) their rail systems for daily transportation. In addition, the size of their cars, coupled with the price of gasoline in Europe, but them light years ahead of America in their forecast for their motorized future, whether they realize it or not.

Such railway utilization will not happen in America until society refutes the NIMBY (not in my back yard) mentality. Thus, we will have to give up a piece of our lifestyle for the good of the future.



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