As grateful as I am for the mostly helpful flow of news and commentary in the Peak Oil blogosphere, I must admit to a growing sense of irritation at its pervasive upper middle class point of view. (Full disclosure: I am a chronic starving artist, a gypsy whose only chance of hanging out at the country club is to work in the kitchen and collect wages that afford me the honor of continuing to starve.)
For instance, who else but already well off people would be interested in articles that identify the best stock market investments to profit from Peak Oil? How about ones that prod me to buy gold at $600 an ounce or more, frequently telling me I am “stupid” if I don’t and that my grandchildren will hate me for my lack of foresight? What about salvation in hybrid cars starting at $25,000? Ten thousand dollars worth of solar panels for the aging rental I already can’t afford?
I particularly like the writers who look ahead and predict that the economy will adjust to Peak Oil with a substantial increase in telecommuting. Can they possibly be serious? Please explain to me how the trash man is going to telecommute ten bags of garbage off your curb each week. So far as I know, there is no modem that will allow your waitress to move your dinner from the restaurant kitchen to your table without ever leaving home.
These same writers will chronicle the abuses and follies of the “elite,” without realizing that, seen from the bottom, they seem to speak only for the classes that are still far removed from life in the trenches. These are a kind of low-cal “lite” version of the elite who are worried about how to protect their money, when all around them are people already struggling to pay the rent, or put food on the table, or pay for a trip to the dentist. For millions of people all across the country, a slow-motion economic collapse has already begun. They are working frantically just to stand still (if they are lucky). They are sinking deeper into debt every month, not so they can go to Disney World, but so they can put gas in the car to get to their (maybe) marginal jobs, or keep the electricity turned on.
These poor Americans go on living this terribly stressful existence because they are constantly fed – and astoundingly continue to believe – the great American myth of Cinderella mobility, in which all one needs to leap frog through the tax brackets is hard work and good moral fiber. Statistically speaking this is a lie, and probably always has been. Very, very few people escape the income class into which they were born. But in light of Peak Oil and the steady contraction of economic potential this portends, the lie has become a rank absurdity.
If you really want to understand the danger that Peak Oil represents, don’t think about your investment portfolio. Think about what happens when these millions of flat broke, disenfranchised, exhausted fellow citizens finally catch on that the dream has become a lie has become an absurdity. Don’t ask yourself if we still have time to develop alternative energy technologies that poor people probably won’t be able to afford. Ask yourself whether we have time to diffuse the warhead of economic injustice and vulnerability that is ticking away all the time all around us. I don’t care how much gold you have in safe deposit boxes, when that baby blows you will only be as secure as the people around you. Period. Think post-Katrina New Orleans on a national scale. Do we have time to begin to reverse the most stunning failure of capitalism, which was to replace cooperation and collective well-being with competition and individual profit? The answer depends on whether we are able to meet these radical times with radical new thinking.
The fact is, Peak Oil and the other converging crises here at the end of era of Hydrocarbon Man, put our entire way of life at risk, including the continued existence of money itself. It is hard to imagine a more fragile and vulnerable system than the towering, teetering, tinker-toy economy we have built. There is only one thing about our present life that we know for sure will still be around down the road: people. Whether they are hungry, frightened, angry, desperate, and dangerous could depend in large part on decisions we make today.
So, if you have a lot of money and are wondering what to do with it so it survives the coming global shit-storm, I say put it into people. Use it to build a floor under the poorest of us. Here are a few of my people-centered investment tips:
- Find a lower middle class neighborhood and buy up all the vacant lots. Install whatever infrastructure is required and provide whatever tools are necessary to turn them into viable urban community gardens. Put them under a conservation easement, and then give them in perpetuity to the people who live there.
- Endow a foundation that buys up mortgages on low income housing and then restructures the payments without the obscene and rapacious interest normally paid over the life of the loan.
- Fund as many Habitat for Humanity projects as you possibly can. Get out there and swing a hammer, as well.
- Support universal health care for all you’re worth. Endow free clinics. Pay off the student loans of like-minded physicians and free them to practice for free or next to it among the poor.
- If you buy yourself a hybrid car, buy two and give one away.
- If you are a professional, or a business owner, give away a percentage of your goods or services every month. Remember, it is not charity. It is an investment in your own, more secure, future.
For people already living without any sort of safety net – and there are millions of us in this country alone – even the best case projections of what happens as we live through the end of the era of Hydrocarbon Man are a full-blown holocaust. We need to think about those people, speak for them, and, yes, help them where we can. Do it, not because you have suddenly become a bleeding heart liberal, but because when faced with the kind of full spectrum social change that await us, collective security is the only security there is.