After Peak Oil, Are We Heading Toward Social Collapse?

Friday, 16 April 2010 11:53 By Emily Spence, t r u t h o u t | News Analysis | name.

After Peak Oil, Are We Heading Toward Social Collapse?
(Image: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Idiolector, halflifehalflived, irisb477)

Recently, Glen Sweetnam, director of the International, Economic and Greenhouse Gas division of the Energy Information Administration at the Department of Energy (DOE), announced that worldwide oil availability had reached a "plateau." However, his statement was not made known through a major US mainstream media outlet. Instead, it was covered in France's Le Monde.

One could assume that the US assessment of the oil decline was exposed through this particular publication perhaps due to some arrangement that Barack Obama made with Nicolas Sarkozy. (Maybe it is an indirect way to alert the French while keeping most Americans still in the dark on the topic, so that the latter bunch can ignorantly carry onward as usual. After all, no unsettling prognosis should disturb their slow return into shopoholic ways that keep the economy, particularly China's, on which the US federal government depends for loans, going strong.)

All considered, there was not, as far as I know, even a ten-second blurb about Sweetnam's message issued via newscasts in New England where I live. At the time of his declaration, their reports primarily covered ad nauseam the recent flood again ... and again.

In a similar vein, no reporter discussing the deluge dared to raise the point that worsening extreme weather is on the way with climate change consequences in the mix, along with oil's relationship to these outcomes. Moreover, imagine the effect on the Dow or NASDAQ if Sweetnam's estimation and a discussion of connected economic ramifications got splashed all across the USA.

What exactly are the implications? In "Life After Growth," Richard Heinberg, senior fellow in residence at Post Carbon Institute, stated, "In effect, we have to create a desirable 'new normal' that fits the constraints imposed by depleting natural resources. Maintaining the 'old normal' is not an option; if we do not find new goals for ourselves and plan our transition from a growth-based economy to a healthy equilibrium economy, we will by default create a much less desirable 'new normal' whose emergence we are already beginning to see in the forms of persistent high unemployment, a widening gap between rich and poor, and ever more frequent and worsening financial and environmental crises - all of which translate to profound distress for individuals, families, and communities."

In other words, we collectively have to stop our delusions about perpetual economic growth and find another way to live from this point forward. We need to stop pretending that all is well because our myopic view of life shows no oil or other major shortfalls in the very near future. If we do not face up to the truth, the repercussions are clear.

Instead of an "ignorance is bliss" outlook, it's markedly better to have long-range vision and see the coming monster so that meaningful preparations can be made. Scrutiny of the landscape behind and ahead, followed by timely adaptation, is required. A suitable response is preferable to someone or some group blindly sticking to the same old patterns that could have worked well in the past, but are no longer functionally viable. (Shortsighted government leaders trying to wring the last drops of oil out of the Earth to continue globalized commercial goals certainly provide a clear case in point.)

Certainly, reality does not conform to fanciful hopes and dreams regardless of the degree that they are compelling due to familiarity or any other reasons. A willful adherence to past choices and whimsies just won't help under the circumstances. As John Adams suggested, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

At the same time, our current standard of living clearly is provided by our ability to burn through unimaginable amounts of fossil fuels, including an estimated 30 billion barrels of oil a year, whilst roughly 40 percent of global energy consumption stems from petroleum. Conversely, people without access to such rich energy sources, whether in developed or developing nations, rightfully equate prosperity and access to material goods with fossil fuel use.

After all, no "green" substitute can even come close to the energy density obtained by their derivatives. As such, Robert Bryce, managing editor of Energy Tribune and author of the newly released "Power Hungry: The Myths of 'Green' Energy," and the "Real Fuels of the Future," pointed out in "Let's Get Real About Renewable Energy" at online WSJ: "We can double the output of solar and wind, and double it again. We'll still depend on hydrocarbons."

In his view, the reason is that we can never, in a reasonable amount of time, reach the colossal scale needed to supply sufficient energy by alternative means. Likewise, "[renewables] cannot provide the baseload power, i.e., the amount of electricity required to meet minimum demand, that Americans want."

At the same time, access to fossil fuels will increasingly be a major driver of small and large conflicts around the world with the biggest contenders - most notably the USA, China and Russia - using ever more forceful means to gain advantage over rivals. As such, the current Middle East and African wars are diminutive in scale compared to the contention that lies ahead.

In addition, the pending oil shortfall will cause products, services and food that rely on oil to skyrocket in cost. Moreover, petroleum derivatives serve as the foundation for fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, transportation of goods to markets, the majority of the grocery packaging operations (i.e., the manufacture of containers in addition to the bottling and canning processes, etc.) and, of course, operational farm machinery.

All considered, imagine just farms alone being run without sufficient oil. Would they be capable to supply enough food for close to seven billion people without it? How will they provide for the nine billion to ten billion expected to be on the Earth in approximately 40 years?

Henry Kissinger stated, "Who controls the food supply controls the people; who controls the energy can control whole continents; who controls money can control the world." However, he perhaps neglected to consider that our food and practically all industry and finance are deeply tied to energy and that, in turn, is tied to fossil fuels.

According to a Greenpeace USA report released last month, "'Nearly 71 percent of US electricity comes from fossil fuels, including 53 percent from coal. Of the remainder, 21 percent is generated from nuclear power, 15 percent from natural gas, 7 percent from hydro, and less than 2 percent from other renewable sources.' As a result of this energy mix, the US emits more than 2,500 million metric tons of C02 (MMtC02) every year."

In addition, coal and gases that can be converted into power supplies are not endlessly abundant. So, in light of our energy dilemma, what can be expected in times ahead?

According to Thomas Wheeler in "It's the End of the World as We Know It," "The consensus is the suburbs will surely not survive the end of cheap oil and natural gas. In other words, the massive downscaling of America - voluntary or involuntary - will be the trend of the future. We are in for some profound changes in the 21st century. The imminent collapse of industrial civilization means we'll have to organize human communities in a much different fashion from the completely unsustainable, highly-centralized, earth-destroying, globalized system we have now. There will need to be a move to much smaller, human-scale, localized and decentralized systems that can sustain themselves within their own landbase. Industrial civilization and suburban living relies on cheap sources of energy to continue to grow and expand. That era is coming to an end. One of the most important tasks right now is to prepare for a very different way of life."

Nonetheless, Obama and his cohorts have recklessly decided to try to extend our period of dependence on oil for "business as usual" instead of using a significant portion of it, along with a lavish amount of federal funds, to establish a firm foundation for alternative energy provision and the massive, societal changes that are on the way. In other words, they are still trapped in an all-out effort to support globalized industry (including its offshored job market and gargantuan transportation network) instead of their preparing the public for post-peak oil lifestyles, in which human welfare and regionalized community development are emphasized.

Assuredly, facilitation of such a constructive switch would help America across the board. The reason is that the redirection of wealth away from horrific resource wars, macro-scale business and pernicious corporate bailouts toward the creation of robust decentralized economic bases would yield many benefits. The action could generate jobs, serve to protect the raw materials and the natural environments on which communities rely and curb fossil fuel use since many products would be created and used locally. It could, also, lead individuals and groups into gaining the necessary skills and understandings to create assorted merchandise, foster developments of co-ops and other innovative organizations like Simple Gifts Farm, as well as strengthen the US economy at the grassroots level.

Moreover, their backing of transnational corporate agendas is plainly ruinous for environmental well-being and multitudinous societies across the globe. It, also, ensures that the most affluent class continues to make staggering financial gains at the expense of others. As such, many people face increasing deteriorating circumstances while, in tandem, their surrounding natural world falls apart due to resource plunder and environmental disasters.

As Bruce Sterling indicated, "No civilization can survive the physical destruction of its resource base." Indeed, closed resource and energy systems have built-in limits to growth regardless of whether there are increases in population, resource consumption or energy demands.

The results of exceeding the constraints are undeniably clear. They include armed invasions and resource grabs from populations least capable to defend their assets and lands from aggressors, dwindling supplies of critical commodities as thresholds are reached and, ultimately, diminished economic gains, anyway.

All the same, any government employee who advocates for a cutback in energy use or globalized trade would be committing political suicide. He would, also, face a hostile public, including industrialists and farm owners, along with his being shunned by lobbyists and re-election campaign contributors alike.

Simultaneously, it is apparent that "revolving door" politics among corporate executives, politicians and bureaucrats with whom global-scale moguls sometimes collude do, in fact, exist and even lead, in some instances, to regulatory capture. The overall outcome from such a pattern is unchecked corporate exploitation, deceit and power mongering, during which time nations' general populations become progressively destitute. Meanwhile, the über-class, without meaningful regulatory brakes on free market enterprise, obtains ever greater control over worldwide resources and the financial wherewithal to seize even more control over time.

Likewise, the overall arrangement leads to multinational business owners seeking ever-cheaper labor wherever it exists and even if it involves young children or unsafe practices, ever new consumers and an endless supply of raw materials from developing regions with lax (if any) conservation regulations. They, also, abandon countries in which coveted materials, when not already commandeered, are protected by stiff environmental laws. Concurrently, jobs continue to drain from nations if their standard minimum wages are not the absolute lowest to be found or there are no new stores of resources to tap.

In relation, Jan Lundberg indicated, in "The People of the Brook Versus Supermarket Splendor," "Social relations are defined today by tolerance of tyranny: of harmful industrial profit schemes, unfair ownership of huge property holdings, and astronomical financial wealth. As soon as the post-peak oil house of cards topples, 'new' social structures will be (re)established. There's a growing number of people already welcoming the end of false wealth's tyranny and of civilized arrogance."

Clearly, our choices in terms of the future that we want to create will in time be largely determined by limitations in oil and other resources. It stands to follow that we can either have a last-man-standing orientation in which only the most affluent and powerful people have lavish supplies of expensive energy and material goods or we can foster deglobalization, which leads into equitable sharing of resources, job creation, strengthening of community ties, assurance that local resource bases are not exceeded and creation of a social foundation that does not increasingly divide the world between the rich and the poor members of society.

The second option, also, protects against the sort of widespread financial collapse that occurs in the buoy model. In such an arrangement, a descending buoy, when additional buoys are hooked by a line to a sinking one, drags the others to some degree downward based on proximity wherein the ones having the closest connections are pulled down the most. Alternately put, guess what happens next when one's own economy, assets, social well-being and so forth are precariously linked to declining partners. Is it a structurally safe arrangement?

All considered, it is easy to notice that some individuals and countries faring relatively well throughout the ongoing recession are ones whose economic foundations have been largely isolated from worldwide influences. Moreover, the nations mostly immune to the downturn tend to be oriented toward serving the needs of their own populations, have been largely regionalized in focus and generally have smaller, comparatively simple, manageable economies, as the US and other countries, in my opinion, should aim to duplicate as much as possible.

In the end, "Our country's leaders have three main choices: Taking over someone else's oil fields until they are depleted; carrying on until the lights go out and Americans are freezing in the dark; or changing our life style by energy conservation while heavily investing in alternative energy sources at higher costs," according to Charles T. Maxwell. I would add to his perspective that our leaders and the rest of us must, in fairly short order, start creating self-reliant, ecologically healthy communities, ones that are durable and flexible so as to reasonably withstand difficult outside forces, such as lack of sufficient oil or, in the least, the crippling, post-peak oil prices that will come to pass. Only if we successfully do so can we avoid the most dire consequences from the severe deficits to come.

With the current peak-oil interval, we have a grace period when oil is still fairly inexpensive and abundant. At the same time, we cannot expect our government leaders to help society transition off of heavy oil dependence on account of their being controlled by "big business" interests. Therefore, it is up to average citizens to create the reforms that lead into localized economic and social development. If the enterprise is not actively taken in a timely fashion, the resultant chaos, as pointed out by Dmitry Orlov in "The Five Stages of Collapse," will be unavoidable. 

Emily Spence

 Emily Spence is an author living in Massachusetts. She has spent many years involved in human rights, environmental and social services efforts.

Last modified on Friday, 16 April 2010 14:43