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The age of scarcity industrialism

It’s been suggested several times, on this blog and elsewhere, that the process of coming to terms with the reality of peak oil has more than a little in common with the process of dealing with the imminence of death. The five stages of getting ready to die outlined by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in a series of bestselling books back in the 1970s – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – show up tolerably often in today’s peak oil controversies. There’s good reason for the parallel, because the end of the age of cheap abundant energy marks the terminus of many of today’s most cherished assumptions and ways of looking at the world, and it also means that a great many people alive today will die sooner than they otherwise would.

More than twenty years have gone by since I tended the dying in nursing homes, in one of a flurry of low-paying jobs I held after leaving college. Getting to know the guy with the scythe while the people around you are heading through life’s exit turnstile teaches lessons that don’t fade easily, though, and from that perspective I’m not at all sure the parallels have been taken far enough. In particular, it’s interesting to note that the same five stages – or at least the first three of them – also characterize our collective response so far to the predicament of industrial society.

When the diagnosis arrived at the beginning of the 1970s, for example, the immediate response was the one Kübler-Ross could have predicted: denial. By the end of that decade that response became an overwhelming political force. “It’s morning in America,” Ronald Reagan claimed, as his workmen tore down the solar hot water heaters Jimmy Carter installed on the White House roof: in some ways the definitive political act of the Eighties. Political gimmickry and reckless overpumping of North Slope and North Sea oil fields forced the price of oil down to the lowest levels in history, and made it possible for the industrial world to wallow in one last orgy of mass consumption, the final blowoff of the Age of Exuberance.

The next stage on Kübler-Ross’s list, anger, arrived on schedule as the Eighties gave way to the Nineties. By the decade’s end that stage, too, became a political force that put its poster boy in office, with a little help from hanging chads and the Supreme Court. The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq filled the same role in the new phase that the junking of the White House’s solar panels filled in the old, a definitive sign that the new attitude held center stage in our national soap opera. It will be interesting to see whether the winning candidate in the 2008 election pursues a weak version of Bush II’s policies, as Nixon did Johnson’s and Bush I did Reagan’s, and crashes and burns on schedule around 2012; history doesn’t repeat itself, as the saying goes, but sometimes the rhymes are exquisitely precise.

One way or another, though, the stage of anger is fading out. Even oil company executives are starting to mention peak oil and global warming, and politicians are starting to tone down their rhetoric and climb aboard various bandwagons – ethanol, biodiesel, or what have you. This marks the arrival of bargaining. This stage has certain advantages; where denial refuses to deal with death, and anger looks for someone to blame for it, bargaining looks for things that can be done to make the Reaper change his mind. I’ve argued before that we’re well past the window of opportunity in which the decline and fall of industrial society might have been prevented. Still, that doesn’t foreclose the chance to cushion the decline and get things of value through the approaching mess, and these should be at the top of the industrial world’s agenda right now.

The first transition we face on the curve of the Long Descent, as I’ve suggested in the last several posts, will take us from a form of industrial society focused on abundance to another that centers on scarcity. It’s a form without precedents outside of a few wartime examples, and the transition to it is likely to see a great many false starts and futile attempts to impose the thinking of the past on the realities of the future. Still, it’s not an impossible transition, and will likely be easier than some of the others we’ll face along the way.

The nature of the challenge is straightforward enough. The economic framework of the modern industrial world is geared to expansion: of goods and services, technology, energy use, resource extraction, and population, among other things. That won’t continue as the limits to growth begin to bite in the next few years, and many things – starting with the economic framework of the industrial world – will have to change accordingly.

We’re now close to two years past the peak of world oil production, and serious declines are likely to arrive in the next few years. How serious is a matter for guesswork today, but balancing failing production from existing fields against new production from fields under development and unconventional sources such as tar sands and biodiesel, something on the order of a 4% to 5% decline per year seems likely for the first decade or so. That will be a body blow to existing economic and social arrangements. Still, production increases of 4% to 5% a year didn’t bring Utopia, and production declines on the same scale won’t bring Armageddon, either.

A very large percentage of the energy used in a modern industrial society, after all, is wasted. During an age of cheap abundant energy, it’s profitable to use energy in ways that have no real economic value at all, because the profit to be made selling the energy outweighs the short-term costs of wasting it. Tourism, the world’s largest industry just now, is a classic example. Shut down the tourist industry – as every country in the world did during the Second World War – and redirect the resources now wasted on tourism to other uses, and industrial societies could weather a steep drop in energy supplies without impacting necessary goods and services. The same is true of many other dimensions of today’s economy of waste.

In America, in particular, the sheer scale of energy waste makes phenomenal gains in efficiency fairly easy. The average American uses twice as much energy as the average Briton, and three times as much as the average European, to support a standard of living that by some measures is not even as high as theirs. Decades of shortsighted planning and inept economic policy will have to be undone in a hurry, as Americans discover that suburban living is no longer viable in a post-commuter age, but the problems involved aren’t insuperable; for that matter, the rehabilitation of inner city neighborhoods and the rebuilding of mass transit systems could provide much-needed jobs to replace those lost when industries that exist solely to waste energy evaporate in the face of the new economics of scarcity.

As this suggests, the fading out of the economy of waste promises to stand most of the economic slogans of the last two decades on their heads. When transportation accounts for most of the cost of many commercial products, that fact will write R.I.P. on the headstone of the global economy, because goods made overseas will be priced out of markets dominated by local production and regional trading networks. We’ve already begun to see the cutting edge of the new resource nationalism, as energy reserves and strategic raw materials become the mainsprings of political and military power, and governments start treating them accordingly. Expect this to expand dramatically in the decades to come, as dependence on foreign resources becomes a noose around a nation’s neck and economic independence – even at a sharply lowered standard of living – the key to survival.

More generally, the pendulum of power could well swing away from the multinational corporations that have exercised so much influence in recent years, toward those national governments willing to use military force to maintain territorial integrity and control over resources. When most resource transfers across borders are negotiated between governments according to a calculus of political advantage, rather than being purchased on the open market by the highest bidder, those whose power comes solely from money will find themselves with a great deal less clout than they have today. Those governments that master the new calculus of power soonest, in turn, will dominate the age of scarcity industrialism.

However it unfolds, the age of scarcity industrialism will no more be a permanent state of affairs than the age of abundance industrialism that precedes it. While it lasts, access to fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources will be the key to international power and national survival, but by that very token fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources will continue to slide down the curves of depletion. As resource production in one nation after another drops below levels that will support any kind of industrial system, industrial economies will unravel and give way to other forms of economy – in the terms I’ve used in several recent posts, other seral stages in the process of succession that leads to the ecotechnic societies of the future.

What remains unknown is which of the current industrial societies will manage the transition to scarcity industrialism, and which will falter and crack under the strain. The United States could go either way. It’s rare for a society that claws its way to the top of the heap under one set of economic conditions to hold onto that status when conditions change, and our society’s fervent commitment to the economics of waste has opened up fissures of weakness throughout its economic, social, and political structure; the implosion of America’s current empire is thus a foregone conclusion. If the next generation of American politicians are unusually lucky and smart, we might be able to coast down the curve of declining empire as Britain has. If not, we could face any of the usual fates of empire, ranging from stagnation and contraction to nightmare scenarios of political-military collapse and partition by hostile powers.

This is one reason why it would be useful for Americans on all points of the political spectrum to get over their habit of demonizing their opponents and wallowing in self-righteous anger as soon as possible, and start looking for constructive options instead. The time of bargaining, when preparations for the difficult future ahead of us can be made most readily, will not last forever. American culture always tends to extremes; the denial that blinded the Seventies and Eighties, and the anger that burst into incandescence in the Nineties and the present decade, were both of lavish dimensions. The phase of bargaining may well equal them; so, most likely, will the depression – economic, social, and spiritual – that comes when the efforts to bargain with the Reaper turn out to be too little and too late. We can only hope that when acceptance comes, it will be on the same grand scale.

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