This sort of failure is happening now, and it will be greatly
magnified by a collapse of the economic system. All of these
failures are connected to a single problem: an economy focused on
Peak oil is hardly the only problem that this economy
has created. It is simply the first insurmountable problem.
Without peak oil, we’d have global warming, world hunger, a deadly
avian flu pandemic, the death of the oceans, biodiversity collapse, or
some other waiting disaster as the crisis du jour.
How do we get our leaders, our political system, and the general
public, to do something about peak oil? Oil production may have peaked,
but we still have huge reserves of denial out there — the latest is
Michael Lynch’s opinion piece in The New York Times saying that
the peak oil hypothesis is a waste of time.
What Would Success Look Like?
Let’s back up a moment and ask if there is a way out of this at
all. Let’s put aside such thoughts as "no viable approach to peak
oil will ever work" or "the public will never buy anything
truly effective" and just ask if, given universal understanding —
something like the Vulcan mind-meld on the entire population of our
country — we could find a solution.
It is clear that we could. We would start with something like Herman
Daly’s proposals for a steady-state economy as outlined on TheOilDrum.com
for May 5, 2008. Describing this in detail would be a book in itself,
but I would summarize, condense, and revise these points down to three
basic policy principles. People may disagree with this or that aspect of
this very high-level summary, but it illustrates the magnitude of the
1. Limit by governmental regulation the physical scale of our use
of natural resources to adjust for peak oil, global warming, soil
erosion, and similar problems. Set upper limits on consumption of fossil
fuels, limit human use of the land and sea, and limit human numbers by
nonviolent birth control.
2. Economic reforms to stop economic growth and encourage
"simple living." Greater flexibility in the work week
should be promoted, allowing greater option for leisure time or personal
work; banking reform, and a 100% reserve requirement for banks, should
restrict the right to create money solely to the government.
3. Drastically reduce gross income inequality. This means an
upper limit on incomes and a steep progressive income tax.
Without a drastic reorientation of economic policy, it's doubtful
that we would really have dealt with peak oil. But this reorientation
would essentially force the collapse of our current growth-oriented
economy. The United States has over $50 trillion in debt right now —
and most of it is not government debt, but credit cards, mortgages,
business loans, personal loans, and so forth.
How is this debt, several times greater than the U. S. GDP, going to
be repaid? There’s no way that everyone
can repay all their debt without a lot more GDP than we’re currently
seeing — without a growing economy and a lot more oil.
Slamming the brakes on the economy, which is what is environmentally
necessary, would force massive defaults and another Great Depression.
That’s the underlying reason why no one has any serious economic
proposals on the table for dealing with peak oil: anything serious would
precipitate a collapse of the growth-oriented economy.
Dealing with Failure
Our actions should not
be directed towards trying to prevent an economic collapse, but rather
towards dealing with a collapse. It doesn’t matter whether this failure is brought about
by a tough but realistic environmental policy, or through a spontaneous
collapse akin to what almost happened in the fall of 2008. Suppose we've
got a situation like the Great Depression? How could we restore
confidence and prevent people from starving to death, while also
effectively dealing with the problem of peak oil?
I would suggest two immediate measures in addition to the points
1. A guaranteed annual income which would insure that every
American would have access to food and shelter;
2. A national service (non-military) draft for everyone, 18 to
65, to insure that the government would have the means to provide
Americans with food and shelter if necessary.
I do not put these forward as necessarily the ideal, but simply as
the minimum necessary. In such a dire situation, the government would
need both to guarantee sustenance to all citizens, and to have the means
to do so. The free market would certainly be the most efficient means of
allocating economic resources, but the government needs to regulate
the economy to make sure that the size of the economy does not
destroy nature, and the distribution of resources does not lead
to a total distortion of the economy in favor of the rich.
How Do We Get There?
We need to move towards an economy of being content with less, and
staying there; an economy of simple living. We are so far from such a
realization that it is hard to know where to start.
I’ve left out a lot of necessary details in my adaptation of Daly's
plan to convey my basic point: massive changes are required to deal with
peak oil. I challenge anyone who thinks we can avoid massive change to
come up with a better plan.
To get a consensus for such drastic action, we’d need a manifest
and catastrophic failure of the current system. Everyone expects
the current recession or depression to end, and the growth economy and
"business as usual" to resume.
The easiest way to promote recognition of this catastrophic failure
is to let the current economic system fail. This is not to say we
shouldn't try to educate the public, just that such efforts would likely
be unpersuasive, and that we should prepare for the likelihood of
I applaud efforts to fund libraries, keep text-messaging drivers off
the road, and stop the endless wars in Asia. But these cannot be part of
a series of incremental changes designed to keep the current economic
system on its feet and resume "business as usual." They can
only be justified if they further decisive action at the time when
catastrophic failure can no longer be denied.
October 10, 2009
UPDATE October 29, 2009: here's a quote I got from
today's "Peak Oil Notes" (from ASPO-USA. It demonstrates
my point exactly: the awareness of peak oil would cause an
economic crash. The good news is that apparently our political
leaders aren't as clueless they seem.
"(Steven Chu, US Secretary of Energy) was my boss. He
knows all about peak oil, but he can't talk about it. If the
government announced that peak oil was threatening our economy, Wall
Street would crash. He just can't say anything about it."
-- David Fridley, scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory,
quoted in an article by Lionel Badal