Energy Predicaments and Prospects

Last week’s post on this blog argued that four main trends – declining energy production, economic breakdown, collapsing public health, and political turmoil – define the framework upon which our future will take shape. I promised then that the following posts would go through these in more detail. We’ll start here with the top of the list, the approaching energy crisis. This week, I’ll try to sketch out the energy future waiting in the wings; next week, I’ll outline specific responses to that future that individuals can set in motion right now.

Of all the many aspects of the predicament of industrial society, the peak of world petroleum production will likely have the most drastic impact in the short and middle term. Now it’s true, of course, that plenty of other resources are also running short worldwide, from topsoil and fresh water to dozens of minor but economically important minerals. In the latter days of a system designed and built to pursue the delusion of infinite material growth on a finite planet, shortages are inevitable, but no other globally traded commodity is as central to the world’s industrial economies as oil, or faces so imminent and irreversible a decline.

Thus the end of the age of cheap oil promises a sea change in the world’s economies and societies as significant as the beginning of the fossil fuel age some three hundred years ago. Its impact can easily be overstated, though; indeed, it has been overstated by quite a few writers on the survivalist end of the peak oil community, who insist that the inevitable result of declining petroleum production will be the rapid collapse of civilization worldwide in an uncontrollable spiral of violence, anarchy, and mass death. As a result, too many people are still convinced that the only possible response to peak oil is the old fantasy of holing up in a cabin in the hills and waiting for the rubble to stop bouncing.

This is as mistaken as it is counterproductive. It’s certainly possible to dream up worst case scenarios that might conceivably result in a sudden collapse, but these scenarios run headlong into an awkward historical fact: declines in petroleum use equal to the ones we face on the downslope of Hubbert’s peak have happened many times in recent history, without producing anything like the consequences the survivalist theory predicts. In America, World War II saw gasoline rationing and sharp reductions in the use of oil throughout the civilian economy, and the energy crises of the 1970s saw steady declines in petroleum use that went on for more than a decade. Unlike the future we face today, those periods of declining petroleum use proved to be temporary, but they show that American society can use less oil without collapsing.

Overseas, far more drastic reductions in petroleum supplies and energy use have happened a good deal more often. The results have included hard times and human suffering, but the collapse of civilization? Hardly. Two world wars, the greatest depression in modern history, and plenty of less global but no less severe crises have forced individuals and economies to make do with much less for extended periods. Except in a few exceptional and very short-term situations, social order has remained intact and economies have adapted to extreme conditions, shedding energy- and resource-intensive sectors and establishing new networks to get food and other necessities to those who need them. This, rather than the total social collapse of the survivalist fantasy, is what we face in the next few decades.

Here in America, the end of cheap oil will be made more complex by another factor: a large fraction of electricity and home heating nowadays comes from natural gas, and North American natural gas reserves are depleting fast. Over the next decade or so, as the inevitable shortages hit, natural gas will price itself out of both these markets. Some writers have claimed that this will lead to the total collapse of electric power grids nationwide, but this hardly follows. As the supply of electricity decreases, prices rises, and demand goes down as people cut their usage or are disconnected for failure to pay their bills; economists call this “demand destruction.” As shortages become more severe, grid operators and governments have plenty of options to hand, ranging from mandatory conservation programs, through rationing schemes, to cutting entire sectors out of the grid so that power can be saved for other uses. None of these will allow current rates of energy use to be maintained, but all of them will cushion the descent into a deindustrial world.

Where electrical power is concerned, in fact, the 21st century is likely to look like a film of the 20th century run in reverse. As the 1930s were the decade of rural electrification in America, when electricity finally made its way to farm families nationwide, the 2010s may turn out to be the decade of rural de-electrification, when rural America goes off the grid for good. Well before 2050, electricity will be what it was in 1900, an urban amenity generated by hydroelectric, wind, and coal-fired plants, and used mostly by the wealthy and the middle classes. By 2100 most of the coal will be gone and other fossil fuels will be a fading memory, but wind and running water will remain, and cities will likely have their own sustainably powered electrical grids providing modest amounts of light and power to the homes and businesses of the well-to-do.

Transportation is a more complex matter. A transportation network of the sort we have today requires not only fuel and vehicles, but a sprawling and energy-intensive infrastructure of highways, bridges, gas stations, tanker truck fleets, storage depots, highway police, and more, all demanding constant investment. As costs soar and resources run short, expect to see that network come gradually unraveled. Rural areas far from major routes are already seeing infrastructure collapse as roads are no longer repaired and gas stations far from the freeways go out of business. As this process speeds up, resources will concentrate on critical freeway corridors and urban regions, contracting over a period of several decades until it drops below a critical value and truck transport stops being economically viable at all.

On a more local level, the private car never did make much sense except as a way to maximize employment in the manufacturing and construction sectors of the economy. Soaring gas prices will render most of American human geography worse than useless, as people no longer can afford to shuttle among retail cores, employment centers, and suburban bedroom communities many miles from one another. The “donut geography” of American urban centers, with decaying urban cores surrounded by prosperous suburbs, has already begun to reverse in many areas as middle-class families move to gentrifying urban neighborhoods, while their former suburban homes sink into poverty. Expect this trend to accelerate over the next few decades, as today’s suburbs become slum districts like those surrounding Third World cities today, and the suburban tract housing spawned by the now-deflating housing bubble turns into raw materials for the shantytowns of the permanently poor.

Trains, which require a much simpler infrastructure and use much less energy than trucks to move cargo, will be potentially viable much longer. The immediate problem here is that America’s railroad network has been subjected to many decades of malign neglect, and unless significant resources go into maintaining and upgrading it soon, it may not be able to provide a viable transportation network nationwide. Even if the railroads get the emergency investment they need, it’s an open question whether rail travel can keep going over the long term without fossil fuels. If the railroad network unravels in the same way as the highways, the social and political consequences will be immense. Lacking cheap transcontinental transport, it’s unlikely that the present United States will be able to maintain political unity for long.

The transportation network of last resort depends on water. America’s navigable waterways have suffered as much neglect as the railroads, but can be maintained and rebuilt at a much lower level of technology, and several crucial links – above all the Erie Canal and St. Lawrence Seaway, connecting the Great Lakes and the eastern seaboard – remain intact. If the railways fail, the economically viable region of America will contract by more than half, as the inland West loses any effective way to import goods or export its own produce. Still, waterways weave together the Atlantic seaboard, the Great Lakes states, and the Mississippi valley, extending north into eastern Canada and south along the Gulf Coast to Mexico’s east coast. The harsher topography of the west coast offers far fewer options for water travel; the Columbia and Sacramento watersheds connect agricultural regions in the far west to coastal ports, but a regional waterway network is out of reach even with today’s machinery, and regional and local devolution will be hard to prevent.

The end of cheap energy thus promises to remake the human geography of North America and completely reshape the lifestyles of almost everyone living on the continent. The transition to the new deindustrial society, though, will take place over decades, not overnight, as governments, businesses, and individuals scramble to deal with shrinking supplies of fossil fuel energy. So much time has been wasted, and so little done to prepare, that a great deal of human suffering and deprivation is inevitable at this point. Still, much can still be done, and most of it can be done by individuals and families working on their own. In next week’s post, I’ll talk about some of the available options.