The peak oil crisis: the time of the demagogues
The transition from 200 years of cheap and plentiful fossil fuels to an era without will go through many phases as it gradually dawns on the body politic what is happening.
A few weeks ago Virginia's U.S. Senator Mark Warner noted that the global warming debate was not so much a scientific one as it was religious. On one side were the apostles of science and on the other was the "American way of life."
When Election Day came, it was no contest - the American way of life won hands down and numerous veteran politicians were sent packing. In state after state, "cap and trade" was widely perceived as the implacable enemy of all Americans hold dear - prosperity and economic growth.
Now it shouldn't take long for one to figure out that the good times we have enjoyed for the last 200 years or so were based on cheap energy.
If one takes some and eventfully much of the energy out of the equation, then the coming decades are simply not going to be prosperous in the conventional sense. The bottom line is that most of us will be making do with much less stuff and certainly a lot less fossil fuel powered mobility in coming years.
The trouble, of course, is that most of us don't want to hear this and many will embrace any prophet that will say drastic changes are not in store and that we can return to the life as we have always known it. Reality of course is that, unless you are among the handful that are still hunting and gathering up a remote Amazon tributary, you are going to be hurting soon. For many this has already happened.
In America, and many other places for that matter, in the last 100 or so years we managed to move much of our rapidly increasing population into cities and suburbs and find some means for them to earn a living there. This transition was underwritten by prodigious amounts of cheap fossil energy that supported people in increasing abstract occupations such as law, finance, analysis or government.
History is replete with large numbers of people willing to follow prophets to disaster.
Without the cheap fossil fuels, there will simply not be enough energy to maintain the jobs and lifestyles for many, many millions of us.
Nearly half of all Americans report that they are already hurting in some fashion from what they believe is a recession, but in reality is the beginning of the transition from one age to another less prosperous one. Give the large numbers already hurting financially, there is little wonder that so many are willing to follow voices saying they can make life better.
A simple example is the American attitude toward global warming.
A few years ago most of us were willing to accept the abstruse science that concluded that not only was global warming caused by man-made emissions, but mankind had also started along the path to wiping itself out.
The general acceptance of the idea that we had better do something to control emissions was widespread until there arose the demagogues preaching that the science was false, global warming was a natural phenomenon, the consequences of temperature rises were far in the future, and that efforts to control emissions could cost you your job or the hopes of ever getting one.
Given arguments like that, concerns for the as yet unborn great -grandchildren quickly melted and a majority of Americans now believe that controlling emissions is not a priority when compared to creating jobs.
History, unfortunately, is replete with large numbers of people willing to follow prophets to disaster. The last millennium or two has abounded in holy wars that resulted in the death of millions and the demise of many civilizations.
In our lifetime the German people followed a prophet of prosperity that resulted in the destruction of much of the civilized world. Closer to home we only have to go back 150 years to a time when hundreds of thousands died fighting for a belief that their economic well-being depended on the indefinite continuation of slavery.
At present America is abounding with demagogues professing an answer to the current economic difficulties and a restoration of the jobs and prosperity that is the American birth right.
Restoring "prosperity" in the conventional sense of acquiring more and fancier things and ever increasing real incomes will, of course, be impossible as liquid fuels become more and more expensive. As this fact of life in the 21st century is not yet widely recognized, the demagogy will continue for a while and many will be elected to public office on platforms that are simply impossible to fulfill.
The heart of the problem is that there are no simple and painless solutions to transferring mankind from an abundance of cheap energy to scarcity. So long as the false prophets of prosperity are in the political ascendency, rational efforts to prepare life in the decades ahead will be impossible.
Although the path ahead is far from clear, serious and possibly expensive efforts to make substantial reductions in energy consumption before we are forced to do so by a combination of cost and scarcity would seem an unlikely course.
As long as enough people are willing to believe that free enterprise and market forces will bring us through the coming transition through substitution of other forms of energy nothing is likely to happen until unprecedented economic pain sets in. Then perhaps we as a nation will stop trying to return to the good old days and will focus on real solutions to the pain we are all about to suffer.
Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.