Saturday, January 06, 2007

I have seen the enemy, and it is us.

You NEED to read this article in its entirety, but most of you probably won't, because it is rather long. It is in this month's issue of Orion Magazine and it's by author James H. Kunstler and the topic is all of the things your city/state/federal government are NOT doing but should be to deal with the upcoming radical economic shift that will inevitably occur in the wake of peak oil.

Just in case you don't read it, I offer the following blurbs for your consideration.

"...And a harsh reality indeed awaits us as the full scope of the permanent energy crisis unfolds. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, world oil production peaked in December 2005 at just over 85 million barrels a day. Since then, it has trended absolutely flat at around 84 million. Yet world oil consumption rose consistently from 77 million barrels a day in 2001 to above 85 million so far this year. A clear picture emerges: demand now exceeds world supply. Or, put another way, oil production has not increased despite the ardent wish that it would by all involved, and despite the overwhelming incentive of prices having nearly quadrupled since 2001..."

"...There is no question that we are in trouble with oil. The natural gas situation is comparably ominous, with some differences in the technical details—and by the way, I am referring here to methane gas (CH4), the stuff that fuels kitchen stoves and home furnaces, not cars and trucks. Natural gas doesn't deplete slowly like oil, following a predictable bell-curve pattern; it simply stops coming out of the ground when a particular gas well is played out..."

"...Still, the widespread wish persists that some combination of alternative fuels will rescue us from this oil and gas predicament and allow us to continue enjoying by some other means what Vice-President Cheney has called the "non-negotiable" American way of life. The truth is that no combination of alternative fuels or systems for using them will allow us to continue running America, or even a substantial fraction of it, the way we have been. We are not going to run Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World, Monsanto, and the Interstate Highway System on any combination of solar or wind energy, hydrogen, ethanol, tar sands, oil shale, methane hydrates, nuclear power, thermal depolymerization, "zero-point" energy, or anything else you can name. We will desperately use many of these things in many ways, but we are likely to be disappointed in what they can actually do for us..."

"...The widespread wish to just uncouple from oil and gas and plug all our complex systems into other energy sources is an interesting and troubling enough phenomenon in its own right to merit some discussion. Perhaps the leading delusion is the notion that energy and technology are one and the same thing, interchangeable. The popular idea, expressed incessantly in the news media, is that if you run out of energy, you just go out and find some "new technology" to keep things running. We'll learn that this doesn't comport with reality. For example, commercial airplanes are either going to run on cheap liquid hydrocarbon fuels or we're not going to have commercial aviation as we have known it. No other energy source is concentrated enough by weight, affordable enough by volume, and abundant enough in supply to do the necessary work to overcome gravity in a loaded airplane, repeated thousands of times each day by airlines around the world. No other way of delivering that energy source besides refined liquid hydrocarbons will allow that commercial system to operate at the scale we are accustomed to. The only reason this system exists is that until now such fuels have been cheap and abundant. We are not going to replace the existing worldwide fleet of airplanes either, and besides, there is no other type of airplane we have yet devised that can work differently..."

"...If you really want to understand the U.S. public's penchant for wishful thinking, consider this: We invested most of our late twentieth-century wealth in a living arrangement with no future. American suburbia represents the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. The far-flung housing subdivisions, commercial highway strips, big-box stores, and all the other furnishings and accessories of extreme car dependence will function poorly, if at all, in an oil-scarce future. Period. This dilemma now entails a powerful psychology of previous investment, which is prompting us to defend our misinvestments desperately, or, at least, preventing us from letting go of our assumptions about their future value. Compounding the disaster is the unfortunate fact that the manic construction of ever more futureless suburbs (a.k.a. the "housing bubble") has insidiously replaced manufacturing as the basis of our economy..."

"...The most arrant case of collective cluelessness now on view is our failure to even begin a public discussion about fixing the U.S. passenger railroad system, which has become so decrepit that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of it. It's the one thing we could do right away that would have a substantial impact on our oil use. The infrastructure is still out there, rusting in the rain, waiting to be fixed. The restoration of it would employ hundreds of thousands of Americans at all levels of meaningful work. The fact that we are hardly even talking about it—at any point along the political spectrum, left, right, or center—shows how fundamentally un-serious we are..."

"...We'll have to reorganize retail trade by rebuilding networks of local economic interdependence. The rise of national chain retail business was an emergent, self-organizing response to the conditions of the late twentieth century. Those conditions are now coming to an end, and the Wal-Mart way of doing business will come to an end with them: the twelve-thousand-mile merchandise supply line to Asian factories; the "warehouse on wheels" made up of thousands of tractor-trailer trucks circulating endlessly between the container-ship ports and the big-box store loading docks. The damage to local economies that the "superstores" leave behind is massive. Not only have they destroyed multilayered local networks for making and selling things, they destroyed the middle classes that ran them, and in so doing they destroyed the cultural and economic fabric of the communities themselves. This is a lot to overcome..."

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The article goes on to describe changes that will take place in our food supply line, waterways, education and medical systems. The short of it is: they can't survive the way they are. We can't continue to live as if things can be brought to us from halfway around the world, that kids can be bussed for hours every day to school, that we will be able to hop in our SUV's and drive to whatever we want or need. Family farms are going to have to return - big time. Problems are going to have to be solved locally with what you have available, not by big business, state, or federal government.

But that's not all. The article mentions something in passing that needs to be considered in more detail: people who are in areas without food and household necessities nearby are at first going to be very, very unhappy with any of their neighbors who seem to have more than they - and the police, who themselves will be short on fuel, will not be able to protect anyone from angry rioters. Think about that for a minute or two. No police. No protection, class. No security.

So here we are, blindly killing ourselves with stupidity. Read the entire article, and you will see that there are things that can be done, but the government is not doing them. There are changes we can make, but we are not making them. There are solutions to these problems - but we have to give up our false ideas that have become the basis of American civilization: cheap readily available fossil fuels and pursuit of the "cheap" instead of the self-sufficient "nearby."

Honestly, class, I don't think anyone's really willing to do it. In other words, we're screwed.

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