Apologies for the long delay in posting. Life has been busy, and I’ve been having a lot of trouble trying to organize a long post I was planning to write about. I was planning “The Road to What’s Next”, an examination of different methodologies being presented to either bring about the powerdown to a low-energy society (either voluntarily or otherwise), and ways to try and raise consciousness about the issues and help illuminate a way forward by which we can start the transition. While formulating this post, several things happened:
First, there have been a few excellent series of posts by John Michael Greer and Zachary Nowak have covered the same material I was examining, and I felt I couldn’t add a whole lot that their articles didn’t already cover.
Second, as Matt Savinar ably pointed out on his LATOC forum, most of the people who issue strident calls for action probably can’t mobilize their immediate family to take preventative action for energy descent. Seeing that, I’m guilty as charged, and as such, have no business offering up a plan for anything.
With these things in mind, I took a step back and have been thinking a lot about our current situation and how it will affect the coming decades. The crux of the problem is that we live in a finite system with limited resources, and these resources are not shared equally. The USA in particular consumes way more than it’s fair share of these resources as our monthly import/export numbers show. The rest of the world sends their food, wares, and energy our way in order to feed Leviathan, and in return, we give them IOU’s (dollars) that are based on nothing. This is only possible due to our military-industrial complex, through which we are able to more or less dominate world financial transactions and have a say in regional politics far away from our shores, thanks to mostly to our massive nuclear arsenal, along with our leading role in high technology (both military and otherwise).
Western corporate interests have long been increasing their reach globally, and recent innovations in communication and transportation, combined with very cheap energy costs had fuelled the movement colloquially known as “globalization.” The stated premise is that by moving manufacturing and service jobs to other areas of the world where labor is cheaper, the ‘balanced playing field’ will allow the rest of the world to grow their standard of living to something close to the “American Dream” that we Americans currently enjoy as our birthright. This is an outright lie. There aren’t enough natural resources of any kind to have billions more people living a high-energy lifestyle. One of the goals of globalization is to balance the playing field, but it will happen due to American standards of living falling, not the other way around.
As energy prices continue to rise over time, less and less people will be able to afford the trappings of modern industrial life. It appears that $60 is the new floor for the oil market, and that already will make our most prized resource unaffordable for billions of people around the planet. As the price of oil reaches $80 and then $100 per barrel, more and more people will join the ranks of the “have-nots”, including more people here in America. We haven’t reached that point yet, and until we do, I think there is little that can be done to organize people to prepare for what’s coming. We don’t like to hear bad news, and the reality of our situation will continue to get worse and worse over time, so most people will do their best to ignore things and “live for today” as long as possible. There are some small areas where organization can and is taking place, but they are all very limited in their size and scope. Making a serious change in our policy requires a national effort, which I don’t see happening until things have already degraded to the point that few people can deny there’s trouble.
Peak oil is often compared to a religious cult by naysayers. In some ways I think the analogy is correct. We hold a view of the future that is much different than that of mainstream society and the powers that be. Like the biblical prophets of yore, we see trouble and decry it to little avail, and the day of judgment continues to draw nearer. And, in the same vein, I think that a large-scale energy-transition movement will only appeal to those people who have already been affected by it and are suddenly poor, hungry and desperate, much in the same way that Christianity started as a movement among the poor and dispossessed of ancient Israel, persecuted and ridiculed by the wealthy and powerful.
One of the ways we early adopters of the ‘movement’ can best serve our neighbors by learning as many “survival” skills as possible. Many of the essential skills needed to simply live a century or two ago are now relegated to the sideline as curious “hobbies” taken up more of the pure pleasure of creating something with our own bare hands. A local group of peak oilers could do a lot worse than having different members deciding to pick up different ‘hobbies’ like beer brewing, soapmaking, food canning, sewing, leatherwork, gardening, etc. As the cost of imported goods becomes more and more expensive, there will be a continue to be strong demand for the essentials that will need a more localized network of manufacturers to supply it. We will always need clothes, food, shelter, shoes, and other goods regardless of how expensive electricity and petroleum becomes. This is the heart of the relocalization movement that is starting as an offshoot of peak oil and sustainability efforts. While hobbies such as the ones I listed above could form the start of a new business for someone, these knowledgeable people can also become the teachers/craftspeople of a new generation, passing on such knowledge and broadening the base of people who can actively contribute to society. In future generations, we will not have the luxury of paying people to not work and contribute to society (I’m talking about both welfare and retirement), and the low-energy society will have many more opportunities for people from all classes of society to both make a living and contribute to the greater good.
For the time being, I think trying to organize middle- and upper-class Americans will mostly be an exercise in futility. Activists will be compared to the nutty campus preachers that inhabit most college campuses, and will get an even frostier reception. It’s one thing to tell people the end is near and they’re going to burn for eternity due to their wicked ways. It’s another to tell them that soon they won’t be able to watch 30 hours of TV every week, drive wherever they want, and live in oversized houses packed to the rafters with crap they don’t really need. I’ve been reading the book “God’s Politics” by Jim Wallis recently, (a very interesting book even for non-religious people), and he makes an interesting point about the biblical prophets. Most of the Old Testament prophets rail against the wealthy and powerful for how they treat the poor ( a subject I personally never hear about at my local suburban church, by the way). Biblical archaeologists have made an interesting correlation based around this. Excavations of cities from biblical times show that in different levels of building, some generations have house foundations that are all more or less the same sized, indicating people who were all living with more or less the same class of society, whereas other levels show wide disparities with some very large houses surrounded by many more smaller ones, indicating large gaps between the wealthy and the masses. Archaeologists have shown that the latter building patterns line up chronologically with the times when the prophets were writing their diatribes, whereas they are silent during periods where everyone lives more or less the same lifestyle.
To transplant that analogy on the global scale, the USA lives in the largest house on the block, surrounded by a few smaller houses and a lot of shanties. The difference is one of scale. Americans are so far removed from the living situation elsewhere on the world that the only time we experience it is usually either via a 30-second TV commercial begging for money for starving children overseas, or possibly at a church service. In both cases, we are told that if we donate a pittance towards helping these people their lives will benefit greatly, and we can continue living our waste-filled lifestyles without guilt. The day is coming where we’ll have more trouble feeding our own children, and that’s when those of us who know about the problem now can step up to the plate and start making a real difference. Everything that happens until then will only affect small numbers of people who were probably friendly to the idea of energy constraints already. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make an effort to let more people know, but we should be realistic about our goals and plan our energy and time commitments accordingly.