The Coming Politics of Peak Oil?

In my opinion, the issue of peak oil precludes many, if not all, other issues. Why?

Because, in a petroleum-starved depression-laden economy, people will look to government for assistance, and be willing to give up freedoms and rights for security and food much like people did with the New Deal.

However, with the scenarios floating around, the poor and even middle class of our country will not have ANY wherewithal to care about giving up liberties and rights as much as they will be worrying about jobs, food, and energy. That means people will be willing to tolerate larger government, more redistribution of income, and concomitantly higher taxes. But to what end?

One of the things that most concerns me when I think this through is a drastic change to democracy as we know it.

For most of the readers of this blog, a transition to larger government going to the left, where a relatively benevolent and empowered government is consolidated and grown to assure equality of redistributed resources and outcomes, or socialism, is not a scary prospect. I have seen many calls from us "greenies" for government to solve these problems anyway (in fact, many of us believe that the only real way to govern the commons is for a central authority to step in and make sure no one takes more than they need...but, remember that, either way, larger government does take away freedoms...).

I think of what is coming as a move from the bottom of a circle (the "circle of democracy" I call it in my classes), where government is small and democracy great, to a move up the outside of the circle, either to the left or the right. What I described above is a transition of larger government to the left. At it's logical end is pure communism (which meets up with and looks a lot like pure fascism,'s a circle, and at the top of the circle, governments rule the day either way).

However, there's also another way that we can move up the outside of the circle away from small government, and that's to the right, towards fascism. A fascist government is organized primarily to maintain order, usually organized around some principle (such as the "Reich," etc.). (NB: I think we can agree that this has been how the US has been moving since 9-11 (though I do not mean to insinuate that we are at full-blown fascism yet) toward a government set up to maintain order. Say "Department of Homeland Security" three times.)

In many of the scenarios I have seen discussed in peak oil blogistan, the dystopias are so bad that order will need to be maintained somehow. (Add in the threat of terrorism to this, one nuclear explosion ends our Constitution folks...martial law, etc., etc.) That means a government organized around the principle of order could also be the result of what's coming.

Sound paranoid? It's not meant to. It's a logical conclusion of a world with limited petroleum and a screwed up economy looking to government to enforce redistribution of resources.

We're not there yet, and we don't have to get there. But this is what we're moving towards if we don't get the government off its ass and dedicate resources to solving the problem by coordinating the many alternatives and scaling them into the economy for something other than a profit motive.

There's an interesting piece today at the Energy Bulletin by Roland Watson that summarizes the Peak Oil conference in Scotland. Most notably, Watson discusses his run in with a politician from a hard right party in Britain at this conference of lefties.

Here's some money quotes:

"Peak Oil is a paradigm shift. People will be forced to look at their lifestyles and the way they conduct their day to day living. Indeed, as many predict, this shift may well be from that of somewhere above abundance to that of somewhere above subsistence. I personally do not think that is such a bad thing if it weans us off materialism but still provides us with a living where legitimate needs are still adequately met.

However, it is the transition to this more simple lifestyle that worries me. It is how human nature reacts to his fellow man when resources become scarcer and the blame game begins. The BNP are no doubt familiar with Adolf Hitler. Indeed, many in their ranks idolise him and regard the Holocaust as a lie. What the BNP are aware of is that economic paradigm shifts lead to political paradigm shifts. Thanks to the short-sightedness of the Versailles Treaty after the First World War, Germany was put under such duress for reparations that hyperinflation and economic collapse ensued and drove desperate people to desperate measures. They had a choice between the two extremes of socialism - the Communists or the Nazis (National Socialists). Hitler won and rose to power as the paradigm shift of hyperinflation had its devastating way."

Read this and think folks. The US leans to the right as of right now, not the left...which way do you want to go?

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Well, I want the third path. Maybe if you look out farther, you can see that governing a territory of any size takes tremendous resources (USA, USSR, Rome, etc.) that simply will not be available in the energy department. Will people stand for the "gubmint boys" to drive cars while they walk or ride bicycles? I think not - they put on their pants one-leg-at-a-time too.

It is entirely plausible and possibly better that large countries held together strictly by cheap energy may be carved up into geographically smaller and more resource oriented regions. When things get scarce, how much corruption and lining of personal pockets will a people stand? Poverty (we are talking about making people poorer than today, no matter how one codifies it) is not something Americans have ever enjoyed, and having the "gubmint boys" become the "haves" and the rest of us become the "havenots" (while still sending them our tax money) might engender just a little bit of envy....hmmm?

Americans accept massive corruption in government because we are so well off that we can afford it. When this changes, it will only take a moderately good leader to unite people. If they stop paying taxes, what happens to the "gubmint"?

I wonder what the number of people in federal-state-county-municipal government, armed forces, all the contractors supporting them and illegal aliens is compared to those of us that pay taxes? How many of us are working to pay their salaries?

Efficiency will be required EVERYWHERE - meaning the "gubmint" will also have to swallow the paradigm shift. And our government and their associated bureaucrats are the absolute definition of inefficiency...

I've thought about this a whole lot lately, especially with respect to the fundamentalist religious revival that is likely in the event of a crash here in the U.S.

Churches are going to be some of the best-positioned organizations when it comes to feeding and sheltering people. A radical fundamentalist sect could very easily spread like wildfire here in the U.S. (there are two articles in this month's Harper's focusing on the current crop of Dominionists who believe God has called them to Christianize our nation and our laws, including Taliban-style enforcement of behavior and belief). This, for me, is the true nightmare scenario. Desperate people will easily be seduced by a church offering them basic necessities in exchange for allegiance.

On a day when the oil companies are reporting record profits I'm not too worried about the government taking getting all the money. We're probably going to get "Blade Runner" but with no flying cars.

Incidentally, my other nightmare scenario, which could literally happen tomorrow, is an Islamic fundamentalist coup in Saudi Arabia, backed by China. We'd be instantly fucked.

Blade Runner? Without cheap gas - no cities. I was thinking more along the lines of Mad Max......

WW III ???

Nah, we get to keep the cities. We just have to use rickshas.

ROFL...and dreaming of my new BMW Model RXsha....

ah, but corporatism and capitalism works quite well with fascism. not so well with socialism...

*lol* on the RXsha. imagine the aerodynamic engineering...

Careful there, Goose..... You are making my "BugOut" finger twitch....

JD: I have often thought what you propose is what Shrubbery et al are thinking too...and that's why troops are there to preempt such a move, or at least make it harder.

J: *lol* I hear you, man. But the truth is as long as the corporations are willing to help out with the order that a fascist government is throwing down, they're going to be welcome...especially the MNCs that can help maintain order around the world...

There's a fantasy on the part of the back-to-the-land greenies that the end of cheap oil means the end of cities. They might want to think about the fact that ancient Rome was over 1 million in size, and steam & horses powered London of the 19th century, well over 2 million.

Also, I've seen many statements that the large, dense buildings in urban cores are too energy intensive to support. Not so, at least in temperate climates. Surface area to volume ratios are very favourable, as are transportation costs. You could just about run them with solar-pan sheathing.

The only reason dense urban centres might not work is if over 50% of the labour force is required in rural areas. No scenario would bring that about other than a total loss of technical knowledge. It's the surburbs and x-urbs that aren't going to be workable in their current form.

Re new social organization, due to the more zero-sum nature of a post-peak economy in terms of physical resources of all kinds, real GDP growth would be difficult. So, the rich will spend their political effort working to increase their share of income, rather than promote GDP growth. This is already happening.

With low to negative GDP growth, you can also expect a lack of places to put capital to earn investment income. So, real estate bidding-up, and most citizens becoming renters and employees rather than home-owners and small business owners. A "sharecroppers" society.

I would note that both the former economic trends have been in the works for about five years. However, I'd expect a collapse of the housing price bubble, perhaps even *limited to* the burbs and semi-rural properties, if the price of fuel triples from current.

City viability in Canada and the Northern U.S. should be high, I think. In the south and west though I'd worry about water. As energy costs go up I think that's going to be a problem.

It will truly be the Triumph of the Old Cities. Prior to internal combustion (1900), NYC was 3.5MM, Chi 1.7MM and Phila 1.3MM. (In NYC, that was BEFORE the subway, although there were the Els.) Cities are amazingly energy efficient if they can work without A/C, as these all did back then.

NYU had a "window" exhib a few years back about NYC's recycling at that time being the largest (% wise) of any program, ever. (Yeah, mostly horse droppings, but enormous nevertheless.)

The "garden" cites, especially those that are uninhabitable without A/C, will be truly screwed: LA, DC, any in the SW, etc. (Yes, I know that LA had the world's largest trolley system, but that was long ago and the tracks are long gone.)

And the 'burbs (ex and sub) will either return to the "small town center with train station" model or else.

Yesterday, I re-read parts of Bill McKibben's The Age of Missing Information and an end to excessive materialism is certainly seductive. A new equilibrium with lower energy usage is certainly achievable, but the danger of course is what happens during the transition. That is dependent on how radical the transition is, which in turn depends on the steepness of the right side of the peak oil curve.

But the other variable is society's reaction to crisis and scarcity. Are Americans just lucky (or perhaps blessed) to have had such magnaminous leaders during our three great crises: Gen. Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. In a sense, dictatorial measures were employed by all three--think of Lincoln's suspension of habeus corpus or the National Recovery Administration--but all three were entirely benevolent. Is there some inherent wisdom among Americans that drives them to choose the right leader when a real crisis emerges? (Is that wisdom merely a distaste for extremism?) Or do we have such a small sample of crises in our history that past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results?

That said, these ruminations of cautious optimism, I remain worried that it can all devolve into chaos and ruin and mass die-offs. We need the Left (whence will come the leader on the side of benevolence) to make this an issue. The slogan of "All Pull Together!" rather than "Every Man for Himself!".

I think Spain will be a good example of what happens to a country where already exist independence movements. Here is Catalonia and the Basque Country. We even have our own terrorist organization (ETA) that fights for the independence of the Basque Country (and also define themselves as revolutionary communists). Fortunately, it seems that we could see the end of Basque terrorism with the new socialist government of Rodríguez Zapatero, who understand that a peaceful solution must include some “face saving” measures for the terrorist and their social setting.

Back to energy issues, my only concern is how realistic would be for nations that want to take advantage of a crash scenario to became independent? Would they be able to “buy” what they need from the exterior as we do now? For instance, Spain is extremely dependent for our energy. We import almost 99% of our oil and natural gas (the later with increases in demand of 35% in the last ten years), and we even buy electricity from French nuclear plants... I live in Barcelona, in Catalonia, we have two nuclear plants, and five power plants (ranging from coil to fuel and natural gas powered), but, what will happen with that in the event of independence? After all, half our imports of natural gas come from Argelia, THROUGH the Spanish peninsula, we import also almost all of our coal. Maybe this dependence will stop independence claims in the face of the reality of energy?

I have always wondered if the politicians know about this. One thing is to try to avoid problems in your term and another thing is to ignore the issue completely. Recently, I got the confirmation that they know, and that is what makes it more frustrating. I spoke to the editor of a weekly magazine, who I hope is going to let me write for them about oil and energy. I got lucky, because he surprised me, knowing a bit about this thing about “demand outstripping supply”. He told me that he went to a lunch with a former president of the Spanish government, Felipe González. In the traditional extended time for coffee, cigars and liquors, González told them about 2012 being the date where oil production will not be able to cope with demand. He can speak now more freely, but that is a sure sign that at least they know it can happen.

Why they don’t acknowledge the problem?

Easy, because, apart from cheap energy, our economies run on confidence and the prospect of “ungrowth” is simply unacceptable.

So it’s finding the solution or crashing, because we are unprepared for the worst of the two outcomes. It seems to me a very brave bet.

Are we collectively mad for allowing this to happen?

Good post profgoose - you and my colleague at Peak Energy America have both beaten me to the punch on this one (although I think I'm going to end up with the gloomiest post of all if I ever finish it).

More on UnGROWTH

I think peaknik may have inadvertently hit on the root cause here, or at least one leg of the stool.

How can every country on the planet maintain a constantly growing economy in the face of resource depletion?

Maybe the myth of the "ever expanding economy" is the root cause of disbelief? It is at least a major contributor to what ails our world economic model...

J in Houston - Thats exactly the point many peak oil commentators (and others) make about our current economic system - the system is based on constant growth - both as a means of social stability (if everyone keeps getting richer then social tensions are kept in check) and embedded into the finance and currency systems - compound interest and fiat currency require constant growth to work - deflation is the worst demon of all from an economists point of view.