29 October 2008

Life After Peak Oil: Response

Tonight I attended a lecture entitled "Life After Peak Oil", given by James Howard Kunstler, an author and social critic who predicts that life as we know it will be radically different when we run out of oil. Going into how much oil has impacted the way we live could fill books -- and has, in all likelihood. Because society in the United States is structured on the availability of easy energy, society will have to be restructured when that energy is no longer available.

Kunstler began the lecture by discussing what "peak oil" meant. "Peak oil" is that moment when the world is producing and refining as much oil as it possibly can -- with production declining from there. Kunstler maintains that just as society was changed as oil production rose -- industrialization, urbanization, post-industrialization, suburbanization, etc -- it will change again as oil production declines and we exhaust our resources. He said that no one energy source and no collection of energy sources -- natural gas, coal, biofuel, nuclear energy, etc -- were going to allow us to maintain "normalcy". "I'll go so far as to predict that in 37 years, the airline industry will no longer exist as we know it." was one quotation.

We are facing a crisis, he says, a long emergency, one that will require hard work and determination if we are to come through it all right in the end. He stated that while most people acknowledged the need for change, what they wanted was minor changes that did not require much of an effort on their part -- changes that did not disturb the feeling of normalcy. He gave two obstacles to being able to change: wishful thinking and the religion of 'free money' -- the idea of getting something for nothing.

His predictions for what will happen are interesting. Intriguing in some ways, horrifying in others. Suburbia -- masses of people living in great fields of subdivisions, connected to their job only by the freeway system, engaged in long commutes, living in a society of sprawl with no real "centers" to create the idea of community -- will die. Kunstler believes that any new suburban developments we see in the near future will be nothing more than the twitching of a corpse.

Kunstler predicts that life will become more local as the automobile's presence in our daily lives fades. Since the vast tracts of farmland that provide our food have to be serviced by oil-using tractors to be of use, and since that food has to be transported from the farmlands to everyone else, the way we grow our food will change. He predicts that more people will become engaged in farming and that draft animals will be used again. The big box stores -- the strip malls, the Wal-Marts -- will die, and local businesses will revive, making the city centers important again. School systems built to taken in students across the county will break down, leading to smaller local schools and homeschooling in some cases. Kunstler said that in the future it's possible that most people won't be able to go beyond an eighth-grade education. He talked about "New Urbanism", a movement that intends to create urban societies built to "human" scale -- not automobile scale. He also predicts that the former middle class will respond with panic and rage at the decline of their livelihoods. In general, the more large-scale organizations will decay, while smaller-scale outfits and cities will be able to cope.

I cannot deny that as I sat there listening, I was both disturbed and perversely attracted to some of what he was saying. I do think people would be happier living in more local communities built to be good places to live in -- but such a society would have massive drawbacks, and I'll return to that in a moment. What he was saying held an almost religious signification, one impossible to ignore. The old order -- built on the empty promise of free energy, built around a lie, destroyed by factual corruption, giving way to a new order -- a restoration of what had once been, what was supposed to be. It's a secular doomsday scenario. While religious scenarios see society destroyed by the corruption of sin, followed by the restoration of proper living and morality, this scenario sees society undermined by a dependence on "free energy" and a return to "simpler" living, to 'sustainability'. And part of me is attracted to the idea of people producing what they need, being able to enjoy their lives more because they're no longer distracted by long commutes and cubicles and all of that.

This return to simpler times, though, is as a friend described it after the lecture -- "nostalgic bullshit". If we run out of oil -- something that is hard to imagine, but something that's a real possibility -- life as we know it will undergo a change, unless we do find some radical new way to maintain normalcy within certain bounds. If our societies undergo collapse, people aren't going to make out all right. They're going to starve, and many of those who remain will lead dismal lives. Exploitation is ubiquitious. The analogy I am tempted to draw (as a student of history) is that of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The Empire did not perish simply as a result of a great battle against the Germans: it decayed over a period of time internally, through economic rot. When it passed away into oblivion, the cities that depended on the Empire for their livelihood -- cities created around Roman garrisons, for instance -- vanished. The only ones that remained were those that had existed before, or were able to be independent of the empire. An empire faded, replaced by hundreds upon hundreds of petty kingdoms -- leaving a new society in place, one profoundly influenced by the old society but one still quite different in its wake. It took centuries for civilization to recover.

Could it be possible that we are living at the beginning of our own society's decay? Will all of our dreams for the future -- global unity, the exploration of space, the dreams of science fiction -- be replaced by a reality reminiscent of pre-oil industrialism? It almost seems like fantasy, and indeed Kunstler has even written a book called A World Made By Hand depicting what life will be like in a world after peak oil. According to the reviews I've read, it is not romantic in nature -- it depicts the rise of petty warlords and crime. Are we really facing another 'dark age'? I like to take social and urban geography classes, and once during a lecture on the Neomalthusians (those who predict food shortages presaging a collapse of our society) and the Technocrats (those who believe technology will continue to create ways of coping), I depicted the two sides as angry men preaching at one another. The Neomalthusian screams "GLOOM! DESTRUCTION!" and the Technocrat yells "SUPER TECHNOLOGY!"

Is Kunstler just preaching gloom as a way of promoting his romantic own vision of the future? I think it's possible that he's just preaching gloom, but if his book is as gritty as the reviews say, then I don't think he's very romantic about what life will be like -- even if some aspects of it are attractive. I don't know what to say about his predictions, but if they are true it will mean drastic change. My own political ideals (public education, universal healthcare, fair treatment of workers, etc) are rather dependent on a large-scale government -- one that would not survive a collaspe like this. My own ideas would have to be rethought if these predictions prove true. Then again, it may be possible that the decline of oil will be slow enough that we do find ways of maintaing normalcy within a given range -- for better or for worse.

Here's a 20-minute lecture by Kunstler on YouTube. It's on "The Tragedy of Suburbia".


HumanistPR said...

If you enjoyed Kunstler's talk, check out his weekly podcast (The KunstlerCast) at http://kunstlercast.com

P.S. I see you are a humanist. JHK appeared on the Humanist Network News podcast, too.

smellincoffee said...

Thanks for the link. :) I listen to HNN almost every month, but I must have missed that particular episode.