We are all playing a game of musical chairs with the world’s oil supply. Every time the price of oil goes up five dollars or so, one chair gets moved away and someone, or some entire country, is politely escorted out of the oil game. Just kidding about the politely part.
Since my country, the United States of America, actually consists of two societal decks not quite randomly shuffled together, we actually have our own first world and third world coexisting in parallel universes. There is a dividing line above which you are affluent and below which you are poor. We used to designate a section as ‘middle class’, which sandwiched in nicely between first class and the cattle cars in the rear, but that distinction is going away. We just can’t afford it anymore. Sorry.
Each time an oil shock, a hurricane, a tornado, an energy adjustment on our electric bill, an increase in college tuition, health insurance or an inflation wedgie hikes up our pants more tightly against our nether regions, someone slips below that line. Someone who was struggling to survive now struggles but does not survive. Someone who was struggling to get by now struggles to survive and the rest of us tighten our belts. When the dust settles, those of us still standing reasonably well sigh in relief and exclaim, “Well, xx dollar a barrel oil isn’t that bad, is it? After all, the economy is still making that buzzing and sparking noise that means its working, right?”
I discovered Peak Oil in the summer of 2003. I had just installed a new efficient oil fired HVAC system in my house the year before. Boy did I back the wrong horse. I did ask Mr. Oil Man about exotic things like heat pumps and wood furnaces, over concern for some possible future energy problems that might occur some time down the line eventually by and by. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “With a Bush in the white house, we’ll always have plenty of oil.” The wisdom of that false association is in serious doubt today.
So, what can an average baby boomer like myself expect of the near future? Being a reasonable and rational human being, I like to know what my options are so I can plan for them adequately. Peak Oil, I am informed, actually occurred over a year ago and we are starting to more than wobble on the edge of that path of civilization cut into the cliffside of resource availability. The path narrows and fewer and fewer of us will be able to walk abreast along it for much longer. The view is great, by the way.
Having read all of the literature, insulated my house and replaced all of the windows with energy efficient ones, including that spray foam stuff you can squirt between the shims and the window frames, I am wondering what to expect next? Should I install photovoltaic cells on my rooftop? Should I begin amassing stockpiles of condoms and vodka? Salt might be a reasonable thing to have plenty of in the post peakalyptic world. I hear you can trade a tablespoon of salt for some meat or sexual favor. Well, maybe not, but it sounds good on paper. Will we enter the horrifying world of Mad Max? More likely it will be the desperate world of an Astonished Max as things get worse and that imaginary event horizon between impoverished and affluent creeps inexorably in our direction. Prepare to be politely escorted across that line. Just kidding about the politely part.
To adequately plan, or even to futilely plan for that matter, one must know what to expect. In other words, what is the worst case scenario, the best case scenario and what can one reasonably plan for? Well, the worst case scenario is too horrifying to consider. And here it is: That line between starvation and affluence rockets directly to the ninety ninth percentile and most of us are politely escorted out of the game. Just kidding-well, you get the idea.
The elites of our society, as is true of all elites everywhere and at all times, hold onto their positions. Paris Hilton will not wear a gunny sack, at least not involuntarily, and Brittany Spears will not want for clean underwear, should she want it at all, that is. If we do engage in oil wars, they will only have the effect of destroying large segments of the population but not providing any more oil for any more people. There will be a scramble to keep some framework of economic structure going at whatever cost. Even with dwindling supplies and a wealthy class that is only out for themselves, you still need some functioning peasant class to provide the goods and services for the noble born. Futuristic robots will not tend the fields and pour the wine for the idle rich. The poor you always have with you. And for good reason. Someone has to do the work.
The Amish and some Amazonian tribes people living comfortably away from missionaries and iPods won’t notice a thing. Except for the odd weather, that is, and the fact that it seems to be a lot quieter for some reason. Few people will be interred in Halliburton brand concentration camps, except as spontaneous communities of homeless people. The Federal government will be lucky to keep the lights on, let alone exercise any kind of jurisdiction over any kind of Orwellian state. Think ‘the Balkanization of North America’ meets Gilligan’s Island. The rest of us (if you are reading this, you are probably one of ‘us’) will be better occupied building shelters out of highway billboards and cutting up telephone poles for firewood, while looking longingly forward to our evening meal of rat tartare.
The good news is that this only applies to the survivors.
Well, that was pleasant. How about the best case scenario? In the best case, things will only gradually get worse. The so called ‘soft landing’ scenario, though the difference between a recession and a depression depends entirely upon which side of that imaginary line you have been escorted to, politely or otherwise.
With each increase, each chair removed from the game, people will have less to spend and, therefore, they will spend less. The airline industry becomes, as it was originally, a plaything for the rich. People in rural communities are forced together. There is a resurgence in local activities like dances and socials at the local grange hall. People carpool with their neighbors, after being properly introduced, of course. Church attendance increases along with Sunday picnics, quilting, canning, gardening, local sports and live theatre. Boy and girl scouts and 4-H clubs become more than quaint childhood distractions. These things happen gradually until, suddenly, they are cool again. As we know, the invention is ninety nine percent PR. Forget about that perspiration stuff. It’s all about appearances. Once we are forced to live together, it will become fashionable again. Kind of like lava lamps. Who would have thought that they would be in style again? Well, a coup in the driveway, chicken coop, that is, may be the new way to keep up with the Joneses.
Local diploma mills, like the southern New England state university where I work, may remember that they were originally agricultural land grant institutions long before they had cooperative ventures with the likes of United Technologies, Pfizer and the Department of Defense. They might start offering weekend classes on gardening, raising chickens and rabbits, tanning and making your own real for real jam from berries you picked yourself from these things called bushes.
The bad news is that this only applies to the survivors.
My fear is that something in between will happen. Things will continue to get more expensive and worldwide tensions will rise as they have since the time of John the Evangelist. It will happen fast enough to be noticeable but not fast enough to prompt people to do anything reasonable like take any kind of action or make preparations. That line will keep creeping up until there is a snap. People like to use the words ‘tipping point’ today, as if our society is playing see-saw with the elements of nature. This is going to be more like the tipping point that happens when a speeding car encounters a rock wall. Guess who tips?
The people in my country, I am afraid to say, have somehow gotten the impression that we deserve the finest things in life, no matter from where, or from whom, we get them. The last president to tell the American people to stop acting like spoiled brats and to take some responsibility for our lives was replaced by an actor. Point taken. All subsequent politicians from then on understood that the American people wish for entertainment, not reality.
When the snap finally comes the audience will not like how the film ends. In this case, it would not be wise to be a member of a community where you are ‘making do’ while the surrounding tribes are starving, scrambling for scapegoats and looking for some excuse to do what they’ve been doing all along, anyway, just not so obviously. That is, take for themselves at the expense of others. Mad Max is just hungry and self insufficient, after all. And he may have a gun.
There is an old saying. Those who will not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. This is usually uttered by someone who has some pet lesson of his own that he wants to lend credibility to, accompanied by knowing looks and ominous music. Well, I am no exception. Only I like to cut to the chase. I feel that, if history teaches lessons, then what is the greatest lesson? Of all of history’s textbook cases that we have been offered from Herodotus to Doris Kerns Goodwin, what is the one that I should not leave the classroom without learning?
The greatest lesson of history is that people don’t learn lessons from history. Interestingly, the people who learn this lesson are the most successful, provided they can pack up their wagons and escape just before the tar pot and feather pillow comes out, that is. Politicians, snake oil salesman, shale oil salesman, hydrogen salesman, Oh, a whole host of charlatans selling something will grapple with each other to get our attention first, thus squandering our resources and taking our lunch money until it is far past the time when we could have actually done anything to prepare at all. A historian, it seems, is born every minute. Then, when the fresh scent of boiling tar perfumes the air, they will be gone and some other unfortunate, probably someone who used to regularly post on Peak Oil websites, will be blamed for the misfortune. And anyway, we have all this tar. It would be a pity to waste it.
History’s great lesson, then, is that we are all being had. Those of us that aren’t having, that is. As Sweeney Todd sings in the Sondheim musical of the same name, “The history of the world, my sweet--Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat!” I think I’ll go back to uttering platitudes and pretending that history has something inspiring to teach me.
So how can we effectively plan? Maybe the best we can do is to brace ourselves for the shock and hope for the best. Pay off our debts. Watch our backs. If we do have it better than others, keep a low profile. Think both more highly and more suspiciously of our fellow man. Make peace with our neighbors. Darken the doors of our local town hall, grange or church. Have an ample supply of clean undergarments, in case Brittany stops by. And keep that salt shaker full.
Of course, while we are waiting, the natural tendency for human beings to joke about their situation will kick in. It is only a matter of time, really, before some crude individual introduces black humor into the Peak Oil debate. After all, people have been making light of bad situations for as long as there have been stand up comics and tragedies to either laugh or cry over. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already. So I’ll start.
How many post oil dwellers (PODs) does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to put the pitch pine torch into the empty socket and one to strike flint to tinder.
OK. That was in poor taste. How could I say something like that in the face of such a dire future? Here’s another one. Why did the POD cross the 27 lane super highway? He was out for a leisurely walk. All right. I’ll stop. I promise.
At least, don’t get me started on knock-knock jokes.