We are so woefully ill-prepared….

“[S]ix in ten surveyed by Pew believe that the economic situation will be better soon and that the recession is only temporary. This alone vividly illustrates how poorly the true state of the global economic situation is understood and the size of the shock that most of us are in for.
“Nearly everyone will admit that continuing oil shortages and that high (above $100 a barrel) oil prices would be devastating to the prospects for economic recovery and that persisting very high (say above $200 a barrel) oil prices would send the U.S. and many other economies into a deep, long-lasting depression. The problem is that few are willing to consider seriously the accumulating evidence that increasing oil prices and eventually oil shortages within the next few years are as inevitable as the sunrise. Most of us have no thoughts about the issue other than the current price of a gallon of gas. Among those who appreciate that the world’s petroleum resources are finite, few understand the proximity of the crisis.” [1]

Michael Lind, whose recent article on transportation I criticized in a prior post, has written a new piece arguing for public investment in our nation’s infrastructure (highways, water and sewer systems, power/electric grid, etc.). His is only one of many recent articles (including several of my own, beginning with this one) on the importance of infrastructure spending and revitalization. (See this also.) As I usually do with Mr. Lind’s opinions—recent post aside—I agree with his premise, but with caveats:

“If neither foreign private demand nor foreign public demand can compensate for the loss of American private domestic demand, then the only possible source of increased demand for American goods and services that remains is public domestic demand. American government at all levels may need to provide much of the missing demand for American businesses and labor, for the decade or longer that is needed for private sector deleveraging in the aftermath of America’s asset bubble.
“To avoid competing with private enterprise, the government should produce public goods that increase overall productivity and that the private sector has no incentive to provide, in good times or bad, such as infrastructure and social services like policing, health care, education and care for the young and old. In addition to mobilizing idle resources and labor directly, both infrastructure and public service spending could help business in general by boosting the purchasing power of Americans who are now unemployed.”

There are enough studies showing the many benefits of infrastructure spending, so regardless of what type of infrastructure expenditures are eventually made, they will serve to create jobs, enhance demand, and provide a boost to our economy.

The mindless objections to government spending in this day and age, while serving short term political interests (and even that is dubious) can only harm us long term. We cannot continue to do what we’ve always done … we’ll just get more of what we’ve gotten so far. That won’t cut it anymore. What has gotten us here won’t work in the years to come in the face of declining fossil fuel availability, and there is almost nothing on the books to suggest that we have any plans in place to deal with the disruptions declining oil supplies will create. That’s a big problem all by itself.

Another problem that has been expressed is that in the aftermath of this Great Recession, and with the onset of Peak Oil, we may very well never enjoy again the type of growth we’ve come to expect. As Kurt Cobb noted nearly five years ago:

“The hardest sell to any audience is that there is a chance for us to chart a course to sustainability, but that it will take a lot of work at every level: individual, household, municipal, state, federal and even international. And, by the way, when we get there all of us will have considerably less material wealth than we do today.” [2]

Our sense of entitlement is about to be shaken in ways we cannot even begin to imagine. Subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in how we live our daily lives and how our economy functions will become apparent, mostly (at least initially) to our dismay. Things are going to change, and not usually for the better—at least not right away (and I’m trying hard to be as optimistic as I can). Ducking responsibility, hoping otherwise, or just avoiding the issue entirely are not our best options.

A related issue that deserves serious consideration as well is that with the decline in oil production and decreasing availability looming, we’re going to need different strategies and a different vision for what “growth” will mean. That is going to require a different infrastructure. Relying on the fossil fuel-derived one won’t serve us when we have to depend on and use something other than fossil fuels to power and support our economy and industry.

Any infrastructure spending going forward must be targeted more carefully and clearly to help us move to industry and growth beyond and without fossil fuels. Repairing or even just maintaining what we have may turn out to be a monumentally foolish way of time, effort, and money. I quite frankly do not know if we are capable of creating and implementing plans on a large enough scale to do all that needs to be done because the infrastructure we now have in place, however poorly it may be functioning right now (see my February 24 post linked above), is not going to be the one that serves our needs in the largely fossil fuel-free world we’re going to find ourselves in a few short years down the road.

The sheer scope of what we will have to undertake in the face of declining oil supplies is—if we really try to wrap our minds around it—as close to incomprehensible as we can get. As I noted in a prior post on infrastructure (here):  “We have designed our lifestyles, our economic and industrial development, and our communities around cheap, easily-produced oil. Our everyday world is premised on that continuing supply (together with natural gas) to produce and transport food, to fuel our transportation, build and heat or cool our buildings, purify our water, treat our waste, and build, well, just about everything we use.”

Without a new infrastructure in place, one designed to operate and serve as the foundation of … well, pretty much everything, and one designed also to operate on some alternative energies we are not even close to implementing on anything even remotely approaching the scale needed, efforts to transition away from fossil fuels are only prolonging the inevitable, and likely making things much, much worse. The loud “thud” we’ll all be hearing is going to be our comfy and cozy ways of life. Most of us have no clue….

We’ve spent decades and countless sums creating an infrastructure to support and enable our growth and successes primarily because we’ve had access to inexpensive and plentiful oil, and that’s not going to be an option for us before too long. Needed change will only be measured in years of planning and effort.

We won’t be waking up one Monday morning and realize that we’ve run out of oil. That is not the issue. The issue is that we’re not going to have enough to do all that we are accustomed to and all that we need to do in our daily lives. Something is going to have to give, and so far, we have no idea what that might be or how to even think about dealing with the challenges.

There are no quick fixes, and certainly no easy fixes. We’re going to have less oil available to help us effect the needed changes, so we’re hamstrung to begin with (unless we make most of it available for infrastructure and very little for everything else, which is not likely to go over well with … everyone). We only have a relatively narrow window of time to adapt to begin with.

As I previously noted: “There are countless opportunities awaiting us, and countless problems looming if we don’t start thinking about how to deal with less oil.”

Peak Oil is not measured in weeks or even months, but infrastructure re-creation is likewise not so measured. We are talking years, and we are going to have to try and do all of this with much less fossil fuel available. Despite our expected inclination to want to try and do all of this all at once, we are also going to have to consider the impact on climate and the environment as we transition to whatever new forms of infrastructure will be needed.

And echoing one of the key themes I’ve been emphasizing throughout, Sharon Astyk, in a terrific post, observed:

“The simple fact is that we are taking precisely the wrong course as we de-emphasize self sacrifice – and everything we do to reinforce the idea that people will have essentially the same lifestyle that they have reinforces their inevitable sense of betrayal when that proves not to be the case. We are, in fact, seeing that sense of betrayal in working class and lower income families joining tea parties to express their sense that they have lost a basic access to a decent way of life.
“What could work – with great difficulty – is for us to enlist our fellows in a great project of courage and self-sacrifice – engage those people who feel least a part of this society. People climb mountains, run marathons, march off to be killed at war, and engage in all sorts of grand, painful and difficult challenges because doing so expresses their sense of honor, their courage, their patriotism, their love for others. As long as we fear to call upon one another to sacrifice, as long as we sell the narrative that an essentially similar life is possible, as long as we deny the costs, we will give up the greatest tool we have – the passionate energy of those who are doing what must be done for a better future. There is no certainty that such a course would be successful, of course, but it could hardly be less successful than our current strategies.” [3]

In that same post, Ms. Astyk also raised one other point that I expect many will not appreciate hearing, but is one we’re all going to have to accept:

“All solutions must work on a world scale. China and India will not accept a lower standard of living than we have, and will not reduce their coal burning and car usage if we demand that we all keep our cars and run our a/c any time we get warm. Neither will Russia. No narrative that includes the underlying idea that we’re going to keep using more energy than most other people can possible address climate change – period.”

We are at the dawn of an era of incredible opportunity if we choose and act wisely, and as a community, but we must first accept the realization that we are facing some serious challenges in the near future. We’re responsible for what we’ve created, just as we are responsible for resolving the problems our successes (and excesses) have brought us. We may indeed never again enjoy the levels of growth, prosperity, and successes that have defined our past. But this is not to say that we can’t craft new measures of success and prosperity going forward.

“The great transition of the 21st century will entail enormous adjustments on the part of every individual, family, and community, and if we are to make those adjustments successfully, we will need to plan rationally. Implications and strategies will have to be explored in nearly every area of human interest—agriculture, transportation, global ware and peace, public health, resource management, and on and on.” [4]

The choice is ours.


[1] http://www.energybulletin.net/node/53441: The peak oil crisis: A mid-year review; Published Jul 14 2010 by Falls Church News-Press, Jul 14 2010 by Tom Whipple

[2] http://resourceinsights.blogspot.com/2006/11/attitude-adjustment-facing-our.html: Attitude adjustment: Facing our ecological predicament; November 12, 2006

[3] http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2010/07/our_tails_get_in_the_way_the_p.php: Our tails get in the way: The problems and principles of energy descent – 07/13/2010 – Casaubon’s Book

[4] Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines by Richard Heinberg (pp. 22-23) – New Society Publishers