Paradigm Shift

On the occasions when major media outlets choose to address the subject of oil depletion, they invariably pull their punches. No matter how well they cover the issues of oil extraction and the effect it may have on the economy and life in general, they never seem to address the real solution: powering down. If they offer solutions of any sort at all, it’s the usual techno-fix hopes of hydrogen, ethanol, biomass, etc. Well, one publication has finally broken that barrier, sort of. The Nation, a left-leaning political magazine has publsihed articles about oil depletion in the past, but they recently have published two columns in their online edtions that are addressing the need to totally rethink the American way of life.

Columnist Nicholas Von Hoffman has two columns, “Life in a Post-Carbon World” and “Cuba’s Path-Breaking Energy Policies,” that look at the real solutions to peak oil without flinching from the real solution. In his column on Cuba, he notes the routes taken by both North Korea and Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union, which was supplying both with a market for their good as well as a steady flow of cheap oil. The two countries chose different paths, with contrasting results. North Korea’s attempt to keep adhering to the old way of doing things has led to the collapse of that state for all intents and purposes. Cuba, on the other hand, chose to drastically reorganize the nations food production and energy usage, resulting in a standard of living that is, while low by US standards, able to keep the population fed and the state alive. Von Hoffman points out that the USA will be at a similar crossraods soon enough, and the choice we make at that point in time will make or break the country’s prospects for survival into the 21st century.

His other column, “Life in a Post-Carbon World,” covers a wide variety of subjects such as food production, overpopulation, economic woes, and the ability of companies such as BP to continue to thrive right up until the point that they shut down due to lack of produceable oil. This quote sums it up for me quite well:

If we are to survive, much less prosper, in a time when oil will vie in price with Cristal, we must not only think outside the box; we must get rid of the box. We must do something Americans have never imagined: Give up on economic growth. We must abandon the long-held idea that we can grow our way out of every problem, that growth is the path to achieve every national goal.

He’s absolutely right about that. Everything about our country is geared around the growth paradigm. Without increasing housing prices, we’d be fools to take on a mortgage. Without increasing stock prices, we’d be fools to invest in the stock market. Without increasing numbers of people (aka consumers), companies couldn’t sell more product and grow their profits.

We will be forced to adapt to a world that cannot grow it’s energy supply, and that will send shock waves throughout the world. There’s no place we can run to to avoid it. Some places may be better adapted to handle the transition than others, but we really don’t know, so moving to another locale is a real crap shoot.

I read an article about housing the other day, that stated that each person needs only around 100 square feet of house to live in; anything more than that is a luxury whether we realize that or not. That would mean a house of around 400 quare feet for my family, maybe 800 square feet if we were really feeling decadent. Consider how much stuff you own right now, and how you’d squeeze it into a much-reduced footprint like that. You start to gain an appreciation for just how much crap we have compared to our ancestors. I can imagine the boxes of books, clothes, unnecessary kitchen items, furniture, games, tools and other stuff I’d have to get rid of. The time may be coming where I’ll have to do more than just think about that, so I’m trying hard to make smarter choices about things I choose to purchase, regardless of the category.

Von Hoffman is the first columnist outside of the peak oil intelligentsia I’ve seen that has addressed this issue. Kudos to him for doing so, and hopefully he and others will expand on this idea in the months ahead.

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