Petroleum winter: collapse of the global empire?

Peak oil is a cloud hanging over everything we do. Pretending it isn’t going to happen will not prevent this inevitable shock to our way of life. [22 October 2010 | Peter Needham]

Whether oil production is a peak or a plateau doesn’t matter. Oil production will inevitably decline, and that descent will be as volatile as climate change. Together they ring the death knell for modern civilisation.

The key point for the consumer mentality is that petroleum has become essential to production, distribution and even domestic use. The whole system is extremely vulnerable to disruption. There is no substitute for petroleum in the quantities, qualities and distribution methods required.

Therefore the decline in production and availability, regardless of price, will put great strains on the whole infrastructure. Rationing will have to be introduced, which means that governments will have to take control of distribution, end use and pricing.

The decline of petroleum production will start a rapid wind-down of economic activity leading to job losses, reduced incomes and constrained expenditure, which will mean further job losses and business closures. Financial institutions will sustain heavy losses, leading to a credit crunch and a collapse in economic activity, even assuming oil prices are regulated by government and not left to market forces.

Just as with global warming there are interacting positive feedback loops.

All this assumes that oil-exporting countries will still make oil available rather than reserving more of it for domestic consumption as a result of local politics, that the oil-producing nations will be politically table, and that major powers will not intervene militarily, as in Iraq, to protect their perceived “strategic interests”.

Global capitalism is so complex, with long and varied supply chains through international trade and finance, that it is almost impossible for any one country to quarantine itself and become more self-reliant. The system is totally dependent on overseas trade principally fuelled by petroleum. With severe restrictions on oil the trading system will start to collapse, leading to a catastrophic chain-reaction through service and management structures.

The probability of this is virtually guaranteed through the deliberate ignorance of decision-makers, their denial of the vulnerability of the system, their refusal to acknowledge the warning signs, and their unwillingness to face up to the need to make radical changes immediately. The problem for the ordinary plebs is that the authorities do not have the mindset nor the structural adaptability to cope with the equivalent of a war.

What is required is a total change of values, directions, priorities and processes. The system that created the problem won’t solve it. The blindness of authorities is the result of their unquestioning belief (yes, an act of faith) in an ideological framework that is based on false assumptions about human nature, society and our common inheritance.

This ideology allows no alternatives. There can be no co-existence anyway between contradictory world-views, as Aborigines and other First Nation peoples have discovered to their loss — and ours.

There is very little time to re-skill workers, re-organise society, re-settle people and re-allocate resources, with a re-structured financial system. It won’t be done by the present crop of politicians who are committed to “saving” the system. This intransigence makes a collapse all the more inevitable, and collapses are hastened by the fact that there is no return path. Civilisation has been burning its bridges behind it for generations. We no longer have the knowledge, the skills, the technology or the social structure to return to a pre-petroleum lifestyle. The post-petroleum lifestyle therefore will be chaotic.

The petroleum-dependent lifestyle has always been unsustainable because of its being based on finite energy supplies (fossil fuels) that have been obtained by unjust trade, monopolised by a minority of the world’s population — and wasted. It is also unsustainable because of the belief that economic growth is essential, that it can be continued indefinitely, that debt is the best driver for growth, and that treating money as a commodity — in contradiction to its original purpose as a medium of exchange — is the basis for accumulating a narrowly-defined and unfairly distributed “wealth”.

This ideology is not only bad economics, bad resource management, bad social policy and bad international relations, but a psychosis, a disturbance of the mind that produces an anti-social, anti-human, anti-life pathology, where the love of money and profit dominates decision-making. This is encapsulated in “The Economy”, to which all else is sacrificed.

This idolatry of a man-made system based on immediate self-interest of individuals and corporations, regardless of the social and ecological consequences (or even the effects on the promoters themselves), shows no regard for social justice or democratic decision-making. Of its nature it is unstable and unsustainable. Therefore it should come as no surprise — at least to the perceptive — that this system has reached its use-by date and the final act is about to be played out, where civilisation, based on consumerism, will b e revealed as just another illusion, but a dangerous one.

In the natural world there are limits to growth. A child grows to adulthood, then to maturity, then to decline and death. Capitalism has sought to ignore the limitations and the inevitability of natural and historical cycles. The over-developed minority is facing a bleak future of privation just as the neglected majority have always experienced.

Oil could have been used for the betterment of the whole world instead of fuelling military expenditure and wars, private privileges (cars), de-socialised agriculture (broad-acre monoculture) and a global trade designed to destroy local self-reliance.

Now we are faced with a systemic collapse unparalleled in human history that will paralyse people with shock before they freak out, run amok or sink into silent despair.

However, there is still some time. There are things that can be done now to soften the blow, but it can’t be avoided. This requires public intervention on a grand scale, with a focus on co-operation, community sharing of resources and skills, a commitment to the common good and community-building networks. A nose-dive into the ground may be turned into a rough belly-landing, but the plane is till going to come down — and there will be casualties.

If authorities do not take the initiative now, they will become irrelevant just as in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe. Their collapse was so fast that alternative governments were not ready, and it fell back on local communities and “underground” groups to show leadership in their areas.

In the 1967 bushfire crisis in Southern Tasmania parliament was in recess, many politicians including the Premier were out of the state on holidays, communication and transport links were cut. A state of emergency was declared and the police commissioner was put in charge, but people had to cope the best they could without leadership or resources. Hobart would have been overwhelmed except for the sea breeze.

There are numerous examples through the world where people had been warned, had not prepared, and suffered the consequences. The present situation is no different. Complacency rules. The system will fail not just through bad planning but because it is inherently rotten, and like a tree in a forest it won’t gracefully sink into the undergrowth but will come down with a crash.

So what can be done? The first step is to wake up. Sleepwalking through the collapse of civilisation is not an option. Unplug the television, the video games and the other technological fantasies, get out of the car and walk, breathe the fresh air and give yourself time and space to think. Follow a train of thought. What would happen if….

If the tanker didn’t come in for a month at what time would the government decide rationing was needed? How would the authorities set priorities? How much fuel would people be allowed? How would this affect your journey to work, to the shop, to the school? How would it affect your job? How long would you have a job? If you lost your job how would you cope? What skills and resources do you have? What social networks can you draw on? How would you reduce your cost of living? How would your diet change? How would the local supermarkets be affected? Would some foods be unavailable? What if you couldn’t continue to pay you mortgage or private rental?

For one person this would be bad enough. For a whole society to go into default threatens the system itself. If transport and trade go down, so will the financial system. At what stage, if at all, would the government step in to regain sovereignty over the national currency, and production and distribution of food?

It will be no good arguing over whether massive public intervention was communistic, socialistic or any other label when it’s a matter of survival. The danger is that authorities will be paralysed with shock and bereft of imagination. Bureaucracies are not designed to cope with major crises nor to show initiative. People will be forced to take action themselves, but individuals can work at cross-purposes. Therefore there needs to be more co-operation and co-ordination — grassroots democracy.

Many people already have a network of social contacts, but these should be activated and broadened now. Risk management involves recognising hazards and taking pre-emptive action. When the crunch comes it will be too late. Preparation starts with pre… (before).

We are fast running out of time, and the present crop of politicians and councillors does not inspire confidence with their lack of comprehension and competence, with no concept of “emergency”.

The people of Tasmania are already seeing the effects of globalisation with older and smaller facilities being shut down by multi-nationals. Global trade depends almost entirely on petroleum. Places like Tasmania are going to be even worse off as petroleum production rapidly diminishes. However, every crisis is an opportunity to do things differently. We need to move rapidly towards local diversity and local marketing, which among other things will involve a massive relocation of people into the rural areas.

At what point will the Governor be forced to step in, declare a state of emergency, and stand down without pay the witless politicians? At what stage of crisis, chaos or catastrophe will this happen? Will the police force support the discredited old order or help to build a new one? What are schools doing now to prepare youth for the new order? What values (if any) are they promoting?

At the moment there is hope that enough people might wake up to reality. Next year may be too late. We do not have decades to prepare. Maybe not even years, only months before the slide starts.

Pessimism can be a basis for action. Optimism is wishful thinking that sees no need for action.

* Peter Needham is a social observer who lives in Hobart, Tasmania.

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2 Responses to Petroleum winter: collapse of the global empire?

  1. Chris Harries says:

    Excellent post, Peter,

    It has become fashionable in climate commentaries to eschew dark, foreboding predictions on the grounds that most people respond well to positive news, not negative news. Bad news makes people go into denial or feel there is no hope. Or so it is said.

    Problem is, to pretend all will be fine… we’ll all have green jobs, drive around in carbon-neutral cars and live happily ever after with a few adjustments… is basically a lie. And it is not motivating. The bald fact is that the news on our immediate future is bad, albeit ameliorated by some good things that we can look forward to, like much more liveable cities… if we pull through at all.

    I liken this situation on telling the truth to that of the medical practitioner confronted by a chronically ill patient. Should the practitioner say to the patient “It’s okay, you’re going to be fine, but it would be a good idea to cut back on your smoking and drinking and fast foods”? Or should the practitioner say to the patient: “If you don’t change your dietary habits very quickly you’ll be dead within weeks” (this being the truth of the situation)? “And if you do pull through you won’t even know yourself!”

    From all my readings of the global energy situation, shock treatment is absolutely vital, accompanied with a dose of what to do. There’s no point in us lying so as not to frighten the horses, the horses need to be frightened.

    People do need to have constructive things to do in an emergency and that is what the Transition movement is trying to do. Maybe too little, too late, but it is instilling a level of mental preparedness at least.

  2. Helen Lagos says:

    Well said Peter, and Chris too, and thank you. We see far too little of this realism in Tasmania it seems to me. Certainly not from our politicians. I wonder if you have seen Dmitry Orlov’s recent post on our likely future,
    which does rather point out the limitations of movements like Transition, with Dmitry’s lovely sense of humour. Could be termed ‘gallows humour’ under the circumstances.

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