It’s actually kind of funny to hear Americans complain these
days about the cost of gasoline and how it is affecting their lives. What did
they expect after setting up an easy-motoring utopia of suburban metroplexes
that make incessant driving inevitable? And how did they fail to register the
basic facts of the world oil situation, which have been available to us for
Those facts are as follows: oil fields follow a simple pattern of production
and depletion along a bell curve. Universally, when an oil field gets close
to half the amount of oil it originally possessed, production peaks and then
declines. This is true for all oil fields in the aggregate, for a nation and
even the world.
In the United States, oil production peaked in 1970 and has been declining
ever since. We extracted about 10 million barrels a day in 1970 and just under
5 million barrels a day now. Because our consumption has only increased steadily,
we’ve made up for the shortfall by importing oil from other countries.
There is now powerful evidence in the production figures worldwide
that we have reached global peak oil production. The collective nations of the
earth will not make up for this by importing oil from other planets.
Contrary to a faction of wishful thinkers, the earth does not have a creamy
nougat center of oil. Oil fields do not replenish themselves. Also contrary
to the prevailing wish, no combination of alternative fuels will allow us to
keep running the interstate highway system, Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World and
the other furnishings of what Dick Cheney called our “non-negotiable way
People who refuse to negotiate with the circumstances that the world throws
at them automatically get assigned a new negotiating partner: reality. Reality
then requires you to change your behavior, whether you like it or not. With
global oil production peaking, we are now subject to rising oil prices, as markets
are forced to contend with allocating a resource heading in the direction of
scarcity. Oil prices are only likely to go higher—though there is apt
to be a ratcheting effect as high oil prices depress economic activity and thus
dampen demand for oil which will depress prices leading to increased consumption
which will then kick prices back up, and so on. The prospects for more geopolitical
friction over oil also self-evidently increase, as industrial nations desperately
maneuver for supplies.
Mainly though, the danger lies in the resulting instability of the super-sized
complex systems that we depend on daily.
Trouble with oil will spell huge problems with how we grow our food, how we
conduct trade, how we move around and how we inhabit the terrain of North America.
These systems are going to wobble and eventually fail unless some effort is
made to reform their scale and their procedures. For example, Wal-Mart’s
profit margins will disappear as higher diesel fuel prices hit its “warehouse-on-wheels.”
Now, in the face of this, you’d think that the national leadership in
politics, business and science would prepare the public for substantial necessary
changes in the way we do things. What we are seeing across the board, though,
is merely a desperate wish to keep the cars running by any conceivable means,
at all costs. That is the sole target of our focus. Our leaders don’t
get it. We citizens have to make other arrangements.
We simply cannot face the fact that time has run out—that our lease is
expiring—for the easy-motoring utopia. But we must. We have to live differently.
We’re going to have to re-inhabit and reconstruct our civic places—especially
our small towns—and we’re going to have to use the remaining rural
places for growing food locally, wherever possible. Our big cities will probably
contract, while they densify at their centers and along their waterfronts. Our
suburbs will enter a shocking state of economic and practical failure.
We cannot imagine this scenario because we have invested so much of our collective
wealth the past 50 years in the infrastructure for a way of life that simply
has no future.
We’d better start paying attention to the signals that reality is sending
or we will be living in a very violent, impoverished and demoralized nation.
And we have to begin somewhere, which is why I suggest we start by rebuilding
the national passenger railroad system. It would have a significant impact on
our oil use. It would put a lot of people to work on something meaningful and
beneficial to all ranks of American society. The equipment is lying out there
rusting in the rain, waiting to be fixed. We don’t have to re-invent anything
to do it.
The fact that we are not even talking about such solutions shows how
unserious we are.
James Howard Kunstler is the author of The Long Emergency,
just released in paperback by The Atlantic Monthly Press.