I get a steady stream of e-mails criticizing this blog for being excessively pessimistic in general, and in particular for not offering constructive ideas, solutions and remedies. So perhaps these horse lattitudes of summer are a good time to review the things we can do to prepare for a very different way of life in the post cheap oil world.
The salient features of that world will be turbulence, economic systems failure, and falling standards of living. The greatest imperatives for Americans will be the reconstruction of local communities and economic networks of interdependency and the re-establishment of local agriculture.
As the century advances, life will get increasingly local as the giant scale of enterprise falters in everything from the manufacture and retail of goods to food production to government. Many of my friends worry about the rise of a "Big Brother" type of despotic national government. I believe that the federal government will become increasingly impotent and irrelevant. Many of our state governments are already near insolvency and management paralysis. Local politics and local government will be everything. There will be a wide variation in the quality of it from region to region.
A lot of jobs and vocational niches are going to vanish. If you are a young person, check all your career assumptions at the door. Start thinking about things you can do that will be really useful in the decades ahead. There will be far fewer positions in marketing, public relations, and TV game show hosting. There will be many more jobs in small-scale farming and gardening, in repairing things of all kinds, in the non-bureaucratic aspects of health care, local transport, local energy production (especially small hydro), and basic education. Large scale complex systems like the canned entertainment industry will decline and communities will have to furnish their own music and theater.
I’ve proposed before that the US economy decades from now will revolve around agriculture. This idea is almost always greeted by derisive laughter. But the current system of mega-farms run on massive oil and natural gas "inputs" is extremely fragile. It will be one of the first systems to fall apart in world of higher-priced and less reliably available energy, and when it goes down people are really going to suffer. The process of re-organizing farming on a small, local basis obviously implies enormous difficulty. Much of our prime farmland, especially adjacent to towns and cities, has been paved over. Those of you out there who think that the free market automatically fixes problems like this might put your free market minds to the task of figuring out how to accomplish the epochal task of reallocating land.
In world of greater resource scarcity, the salvage of existing material is going to be a huge business. The commercial highway strips and the Big Box pods of today may be the mines of tomorrow. The human race is resilient and resourceful and one of the tasks that we are really good at is sorting useful objects. A lot of the retail of the future will consist of recycled second-hand goods, some of it expertly refurbished. To some extent, America will become Yard Sale Nation. We will look back at the 20th century as the Age of Manufacture. There will be a lot of work for people in many levels and layers of this activity: the scroungers, the fixers, the wholesalers, the brokers, the sellers.
Life in the decades ahead will not be about going places so much as staying where you are. How and where Americans live will undergo an enormous transformation. The suburbs will surely not survive the end of cheap oil and natural gas, but the big cities are going to be in trouble too. I doubt, for instance, that skyscrapers will be usable twenty-five years from now. Indeed anything over seven stories is liable to be a problem. Unless we undertake a massive program of building nuclear generating plants, the electric grid is going to be very unreliable. The action is going to return to America’s small cities and towns. We are probably going to have to junk all our current zoning and building codes in order to get the towns back in working condition. The increment of development will be the single building lot. All the complex modular construction systems that we’ve contrived in recent decades will probably not be available anymore and we will be back to building in masonry and wood, using traditional techniques. Construction will be much more labor intensive and that labor will be a lot cheaper than it is now.
Huge central schools that rely on yellow fleets of school buses will be obsolete. Education will have to be re-scaled, re-housed in smaller and more local buildings, and compressed into fewer years. To some degree, education will be a much more elite activity. I believe that American social life will become much more rigidly hierarchical. Whether that is a good or bad thing is surely debatable, but I think it will happen, especially with so much of the population reduced to what amounts to agricultural peasantry.
The biggest question about these massive changes is how much disorder will attend them, both in the US, politically, and around the world, as nations jockey to contest resources. For a while, there may be plenty of jobs in the military. But eventually that enterprise, if you can call it that, will exhaust itself. We already know what happens to a modern army of Hummers and Black Hawk helicopters when the fuel depots run short.
The downscaling of America is our agenda for survivial in the 21st century. It implies a lot of difficult adjustments and even hardship, but if you want to fill your heart and mind with hopefulness, think along these lines. Think about living locally in a just community, being useful to your fellow citizens, and being a good neighbor.