Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Long Emergency and the Short Imagination

Atrios got me thinking about this when he linked to Matthew Yglesias, who also is puzzled by the concerns of people like Kunstler. But frankly, it takes little imagination to realize Yglesias talks like someone who thinks food comes from a grocery store, not a farm fertilized and harvested and basically maintained, by petro chemicals. I have never read Kunstler's book, nor have I read the article Yglesias links to, but the whole thing made me dig this up:

The oil age began in 1859 and peaked in 1970. The oil endowment allowed us to use the stored energy of millions of years of sunlight. Unfortunately the fossil-fuel honeymoon is almost over.

It has been estimated that without coal, oil, or natural gas, it would take several planets just like Earth to support the current number of humans living.

World oil discovery peaked in the 1960's. Since 1999, the discovery of large oil and gas fields has collapsed: sixteen in 200, eight in 2001, three in 2002, and none in 2003.

There are half a billion cars and trucks currently in use around the world.

We will not be rescued by the wished-for hydrogen economy. Our daily enjoyment of oil and gas has given us the energy equivalent of three hundred slaves per person in the industrialized nations. No combination of alternative energies will permit us to continue living the way we do, or even close to it.

All the major systems that depend on oil, including manufacturing, trade, transportation, agriculture, and the financial markets that serve them, will begin to destabilize. The boundaries between politics, economics, and collective paranoia will dissolve.
As I said then: is even half of this right? Yglesias points to "hybrid cars" as our salvation. Except, as Kunstler points out, we have no energy source that will replace the energy we get, pound for pound or ounce for ounce, from petroleum. We may be able to run cars on electricity, but backhoes? Cement mixers? The huge dump trucks that haul the dirt and concrete away? You got a battery big enough to power the construction equipment it takes to build and maintain the US freeway system? An electric motor and battery powerful enough to drive a loaded 18 wheeler across the country, or drive a ship from China to Los Angeles?

Or really, really long extension cords? And you're going to replace the petroleum products in asphalt with...what, exactly? Or for the plastics in your computer? Most of products in our world, as the chemical industry is telling us in ads lately, is due to chemistry. Well, there's a reason they call it the "petro-chemical" industry, and it's not because Exxon owns large shares in DuPont.

Will this occassion a revolution? Atrios doubts it. But not all revolutions involve destruction of the social order and reigns of terror. I think Michael Klare is more right than wrong: the age of petroleum is over. What replaces it, is anyone's guess; and everyone's concern.

Are Kunstler or Klare right about everything? No; but then, Al Gore didn't have to be right about everything, either. Once you start examining how much of our modern life is based on petroleum, you can easily start asking: how much of our modern life can we maintain without petroleum?

And the answer is: not much at all. If that's not a revolution, I don't know what is.

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