Change You Won’t Believe
The peak oil story has not been nullified by the scramble to unload every asset for cash — including whomping gobs of oil contracts — during this desperate season of bank liquidation. The main implication of the peak oil story is that we won’t be able to generate the kind of economic growth that defined our way of life for decades because the primary energy resources needed for it will be contracting.
Just as global oil production peaked, our economy evolved into a morbid hypertrophy, and the chief manifestation of it was the suburban sprawl-building fiesta that has now climaxed in the real estate bust. By the early 21st century, when so much American manufacturing had been swapped out to Asia, there was no business left except sprawl-building — a manifold tragedy which wrecked the banks that financed it, and left the ordinary people mortgaged to it with ruinous liabilities.
That economy is now in its death throes. The “normality” it represents to so many Americans is gone and can’t be brought back, no matter how wistfully we watch it recede. Even so, it was obviously not good for the country. The terrain of North America has been left scarred by unlovable objects and baleful futureless vistas that, from now on, will shed whatever pecuniary value they once had. It represents the physical counterpart to the financial mess that has been left to the young generations to clean up — and the job will take a very long time.
We have to, so to speak, get to place mentally where we can face the kinds of change that are now necessary and unavoidable. We’re not there yet. It’s not clear whether the elected new national leadership knows just how severe the required changes will really be. Surely the public would be shocked to grasp what’s in store. Probably the worst thing we can do now would be to mount a campaign to stay where we are, lost in raptures of happy motoring and blue-light-special shopping.
The economy we’re evolving into will be un-global, necessarily local and regional, and austere. It won’t support even our current population. This being the case, the political fallout is also liable to be severe. For one thing, we’ll have to put aside our sentimental fantasies about immigration. This is almost impossible to imagine, since that narrative is especially potent among the Democratic Party members who are coming in to run things. A tough immigration policy is exactly the kind of difficult change we have to face. This is no longer the 19th century. The narrative has to change.
The new narrative has to be about a managed contraction — and by “managed” I mean a way that does not produce civil violence, starvation, and public health disasters. One of the telltale signs to look for will be whether the Obama administration bandies around the word “growth.” If you hear them use it, it will indicate that they don’t understand the kind of change we face.
It is hugely ironic that the US automobile industry is collapsing at this very moment, and the ongoing debate about whether to “rescue” it or not is an obvious kabuki theater exercise because this industry is hopeless. It is headed into bankruptcy with one hundred percent certainty. The only thing in question is whether the news of its death will spoil the Christmas of those who draw a paycheck from it, or those whose hopes for an easy retirement are vested in it. But American political-economy being very Santa Claus oriented for recent generations, the gesture will be made. A single leaky little lifeboat will be lowered and the chiefs of the Big Three will be invited to go for a brief little row, and then they will sink, glug, glug, glug, while the rusty old Titanic of the car industry slides diagonally into the deep behind them, against a sickening greenish-orange sunset backdrop of the morbid economy.
A key concept of the economy to come is that size matters — everything organized at the giant scale will suffer dysfunction and failure. Giant companies, giant governments, giant institutions will all get into trouble. This, unfortunately, doesn’t bode so well for the Obama team and it is salient reason why they must not mount a campaign to keep things the way they are and support enterprises that have to be let go, including many of the government’s own operations. The best thing Mr. Obama can do is act as a wise counselor companion-in-chief to a people who now have to leave a lot behind in order to move forward into a plausible future. He seems well-suited to this task in sensibility and intelligence. The task will surely include a degree of pretense that he is holding some familiar things together and propping up some touchstones of the comfortable life. But the truth is we are all going to the same unfamiliar new territory.
The economy we’re moving into will have to be one of real work, producing real things of value, at a scale consistent with energy resource reality. I’m convinced that farming will come much closer to the center of economic life, as the death of petro-agribusiness makes food production a matter of life and death in America — as opposed to the disaster of metabolic entertainment it is now. Reorganizing the landscape itself for this finer-scaled new type of farming is a task fraught with political peril (land ownership questions being historically one of the main reasons that societies fall into revolution). The public is completely unprepared for this kind of change. We still think that “the path to success” is based on getting a college degree certifying people for a lifetime of sitting in an office cubicle. This is so far from the approaching reality that it will be eventually viewed as a sick joke — like those old 1912 lithographs of mega-cities with Zeppelins plying the air between Everest-size skyscrapers.
The crucial element in the transformation underway will be emotion. The American experience for a few generations has produced an adult population with very childish instincts, increasingly worse each decade. For instance, the desperate power fantasies among the younger tattooed lumpenproles — those with next-to-zero real economic power — suggest a certain unappetizing playing-out of resource competition when the supply of Cheez Doodles and Pepsi starts to dwindle. But even the heretofore gainfully employed middle classes are pretty lost in fantasies at least of comfort an convenience. For years now, I have wondered how their sense of grievance and resentment will be expressed when the supermarket shelves run bare and the cardboard signs get taped over the local gas pump and the cable TV gets cut off for non-payment. You wonder, to put it bluntly, how far gone we really are.
My new novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available at all booksellers.