Ah, the great fuel shock of 2011: It seems like oil times

Col. Chin of the U.N. Relief Mission asked me to write about America and the great oil shock. He finds this period of history fascinating. He’s only 27 and on loan from the Chinese army, so it’s not as if he lived through it.

As an old man, I have another advantage: I’m one of the few Americans who still can write. What we used to call literacy faded surprisingly quickly with personal computers, spell check and all the electronic gadgets we used to take for granted. Too bad we can’t afford them anymore – and if we could, power is on for only a couple of hours a day.

Those are minor problems now in what’s left of the United States. President Clinton is coping with the 11th year of the New Great Depression. She wields martial law, but I remember when Chelsea was a teenage girl in the White House back in the 1990s. How did we get here?

Anybody who was paying attention in the early 2000s knew the world was reaching oil peak. This one-time gift of geology would be half consumed, and what remained was located in hostile places and would be much more expensive to reach. We started to feel it when oil was $70 a barrel. That sounds cheap now, but we were used to $10 a barrel.

That was when Bush and Cheney were in the White House, and many people thought these former oil executives were the perfect leaders for the time. It didn’t work out that way. A big energy bill did little to promote conservation, improve auto fuel efficiency or research into alternatives.

Don’t get me wrong. Oilmen were worried. Companies like Chevron and BP took peak oil seriously. This was one reason they didn’t invest in new refineries. They knew they were in a mature industry. But they thought technology and market forces would give time to adapt.

Instead, America kept spreading subdivisions into the country. People were driving more than ever – most didn’t have a choice. Not only was there no willingness to reform the wastefulness of suburbia, but the government did little to fund modern, convenient mass transit.

I know this will especially baffle Col. Chin. As the oil situation came clear, China and several other countries embarked on crash courses to develop new energy sources and force more efficiently designed cities. That, and victory in the second and third Oil Wars, made China the only superpower. Still, the new fuels can’t produce energy as cheaply as oil.

In America, political cronies got most of the money for energy research. Not surprisingly, little came to market. In any event, Wall Street was more interested in breaking up companies and cutting jobs for short-term financial plays. When the first major oil shock hit in 2011, most Americans weren’t thinking rationally anyway. They won subsidized cheap gasoline, at the expense of alt-fuels research. Sprawl actually increased for a few years.

The breakup of the old United States was probably inevitable after the foreign debt crisis of 2012. That, and the cost of adapting to climate change.

California seceded on the eve of the Second Oil War; Chinese nuclear saber-rattling was enough for that. And after Hurricane Katrina, states like California knew they could neither count on the federal government nor fear it. The old Southwest is barely habitable now, or so I’ve heard.

We were sleepwalking. We couldn’t imagine such a shift in the world. Now we face a terrible, costly process of recovery. It didn’t have to be. I think back to 2005, when there was still time to start making changes. I vividly remember what President Bush said: Drive less.