Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Peak Oil and the Mind

The big buzz, when one's attention is not distracted by a dead Pope or Michael Jackson is Peak Oil. (Wolcott has another link to a Rolling Stone article here, which is far more apocalyptic.)

The circumstances of the Long Emergency will require us to downscale and re-scale virtually everything we do and how we do it, from the kind of communities we physically inhabit to the way we grow our food to the way we work and trade the products of our work. Our lives will become profoundly and intensely local. Daily life will be far less about mobility and much more about staying where you are. Anything organized on the large scale, whether it is government or a corporate business enterprise such as Wal-Mart, will wither as the cheap energy props that support bigness fall away. The turbulence of the Long Emergency will produce a lot of economic losers, and many of these will be members of an angry and aggrieved former middle class.

Food production is going to be an enormous problem in the Long Emergency. As industrial agriculture fails due to a scarcity of oil- and gas-based inputs, we will certainly have to grow more of our food closer to where we live, and do it on a smaller scale. The American economy of the mid-twenty-first century may actually center on agriculture, not information, not high tech, not "services" like real estate sales or hawking cheeseburgers to tourists. Farming. This is no doubt a startling, radical idea, and it raises extremely difficult questions about the reallocation of land and the nature of work. The relentless subdividing of land in the late twentieth century has destroyed the contiguity and integrity of the rural landscape in most places. The process of readjustment is apt to be disorderly and improvisational. Food production will necessarily be much more labor-intensive than it has been for decades. We can anticipate the re-formation of a native-born American farm-laboring class. It will be composed largely of the aforementioned economic losers who had to relinquish their grip on the American dream. These masses of disentitled people may enter into quasi-feudal social relations with those who own land in exchange for food and physical security. But their sense of grievance will remain fresh, and if mistreated they may simply seize that land.

The way that commerce is currently organized in America will not survive far into the Long Emergency. Wal-Mart's "warehouse on wheels" won't be such a bargain in a non-cheap-oil economy. The national chain stores' 12,000-mile manufacturing supply lines could easily be interrupted by military contests over oil and by internal conflict in the nations that have been supplying us with ultra-cheap manufactured goods, because they, too, will be struggling with similar issues of energy famine and all the disorders that go with it.

As these things occur, America will have to make other arrangements for the manufacture, distribution and sale of ordinary goods. They will probably be made on a "cottage industry" basis rather than the factory system we once had, since the scale of available energy will be much lower -- and we are not going to replay the twentieth century.

This will happen slowly, but this is an excellent opportunity to practice non-attachment, as this "long emergency" gradually develops and transforms American culture.

We are very attached to petroleum in America; as Kevin Phillips has noted this has been a big driver of our foreign policy and our hegemony strategy.

In 1996, Tricycle had a very good issue which featured an article on "The Money Mind," which was an exploration into how our use of money reflected our desire or repugnance.

We can substitute "oil" or "energy" for money and do a similar exercise:

To what extent do we need oil/energy?

Does our use of oil/energy help us and others?

How does our use of oil/energy affect other beings?

If we did not have as much oil/energy what would we do? What kind of life would we have? Could we make sure that we would be OK, (albeit perhaps seriously disrupted from our present lives) if oil/energy suddenly got very expensive?

How can we use Peak Oil as an opportunity to build community rather than struggle to try to get more of a share of a dwindling supply?

What emotions do we feel if we consider the thought that we might not be able to heat our homes, drive our automobiles, etc?

We most likely, will have to make serious changes in our lives. There is no panacea- our economy- and our personal lives, and those of our children will be affected by peak oil. Biomass may or may not get there in time. Shale oil might still be 4 or 5 times more expensive to get than the current price of oil. Nuclear? Solar?

This is not to mean we are to live only for a coming crisis, but, to reiterate, it is an opportunity to imagine how to live with less, so all might not have trauma.

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