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The peak oil crisis: polity on trial

The coming storm will bring one of the most severe tests of the cohesiveness of governments and peoples that the world has known for a long time.

Over the last century, the industrial societies have built extremely complex and specialized civilizations. A simple example is that here in America only two percent of us now live on farms where they presumably are capable of readily producing their own food. Only 0.3 percent of Americans now claim to be farmers. The remaining 99+ percent of us are dependent on oil-based food processing, storage, and transport for our daily sustenance.

The fate of most of the world’s peoples is going to depend on how well we, as societies – here and around the world,- get our collective acts together over the coming decades and organize to survive the transition to a post-oil world.

Currently the body politic in America is paralyzed by a rough political balance between those clinging to 20th or perhaps even 19th century concerns and those who, however vaguely, understand that things must change. So far the U.S. Congress has done little to prepare for the massive changes to our economy and lifestyles that are now only a few short years away.

Some government money has been spent researching for improved sources of renewable energy, but the centerpiece of recent energy bills – ethanol and higher mpg cars - are either absurd or too little too late. The current effort to reduce a billion or two in tax breaks during a era of $100 billion oil company profits likely will founder at the hands of lobbyists or a Presidential veto. Very few among the members of Congress and those that send them there as yet have a clue as to what is about to befall us – but this too will change.

Candidates in the current race for President are circumspect on real energy issues for obvious reasons – no one ever got elected by being a bearer of bad news. In Iowa the candidates praised ethanol with nary a nod towards what it is doing to food prices. In Ohio, they have bashed NAFTA to the point where Canada’s trade minister started hinting about what could happen to the 2.5 million barrels of oil they are obliged to send us each day. No one, as yet, seems to be talking of the only possible short term solution: massive conservation.

Up on Capitol Hill, rapidly increasing gasoline prices are starting to register with a few members of Congress, but the situation is so poorly understood that the proposals are meaningless. One poor misguided fellow wants to stop the miniscule additions to the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserves. Others want to release heating oil from the reserve stockpiles. Many still believe that lifting drilling restrictions, lowering gas taxes, or giving bigger tax breaks will have some appreciable affect on the current situation.

It is still eight months before the November elections. Already the voters are telling the pollsters that the economy and particularly high gas prices are their top concern. Iraq, al Qaeda, abortion, immigrants and healthcare may still be out there as issues, but if you don’t have a job or can no longer afford the lifestyle you are accustomed to on the job that you have, there is going to be a political upheaval.

Will it happen this fall? Tough to say. Even though bad economic news is coming in deluges these days, the fundamental oil supply situation still seems to have a couple of years to go before obvious, irreversible declines set in. The unraveling of the financial system seems of more immediate concern.

What is a virtual certainty, however, is that the next U.S. President and governments at all levels and in all countries are going to face problems last seen during the 1930’s or perhaps worse. No matter how much of an anathema it may be to many, it seems clear that government intervention, regulation and controls are going to have to grow. In an era when 99 percent of us have not the slightest idea how to grow food, nor have any place to do so, it will take organization and cooperation similar to what went on during World War II to avoid a societal calamity.

Some November within the next few years, the economic/oil situation will have become so bad that a real debate over real solutions will begin. Demagoguery – “cut taxes,” “subsidize the oil companies,” “invade somebody,” will be recognized for what it is and will no longer help get people into office.

Some may fear for the country for at times of great crisis political institutions are endangered. While in America we voted for FDR and his New Deal to grapple with the great depression, in Germany they had Hitler, in Italy Mussolini, in Russia Stalin, and Japan wound up with the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Getting through the trauma of oil depletion is going be a real test of political institutions.

Parliamentary democracies come with mechanisms to make sharp turns as soon as pressures reach a breaking point. A vote of “no confidence” dumps the Prime Minister and a few weeks later the voters work their wills. In the American form of government, policies are hard-wired to two and four year election cycles. The next American President may come into office with a mandate for change and with a Congress that will follow his leadership. The Congress, however, may be overwhelmingly of a different party or gridlocked with narrow majorities, in which case it may take another two or four years for the situation to right itself.

We are entering the most interesting time of our lives.

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