Waiting for the Great Pumpkin (2012)

With the coming of the new year, predictions of what’s in store during the next twelve months are showing up here and there in the peak oil blogosphere: a feature of the season, really, as reliable as the icicles that hang from the roof’s edge outside the window of my study. Like the icicles, they’re enticing to look at; like the icicles, equally, a great many of them are guaranteed to drop to the ground and shatter at some point in the months to come.

That’s all the more remarkable in that, by and large, the peak oil community has been pretty much spot on when it comes to the general shape of the future. Five or ten years ago, it bears remembering, nobody else was predicting the sustained oil prices on the far side of $100 a barrel and the global economic gridlock that have become fixtures of the contemporary scene; the peak oil scene had that one nailed. A healthy skepticism toward whatever the current speculative bubble happens to be—tech stocks back in the days when the peak oil blogosphere was first getting under way, real estate in the runup to the 2008 crash, shale gas and shale oil now—has also been a common feature in the peak oil scene throughout its history, even when almost everyone else was cheering along the bubble du jour as the wave of the future.

Why, then, all the annual predictions that misfire—and in particular, why the same annual predictions that have misfired for years in a row? Why, for example, the relentless annual round of claims that the coming year will finally see a sudden and total economic collapse? That one’s been made time and again, often by the same bloggers, and the fact that each year goes by without anything of the kind happening somehow never manages to affect the next year’s confident insistence that this time around the wolves really, truly are about to eat all the sheep. It would be funny, really, except that pointing out the long string of failed predictions has become a standard rhetorical trick in the arsenal of those—either madmen or economists, to use Kenneth Boulding’s useful taxonomy—who want to insist on the possibility of limitless growth on a finite planet.

Now of course it’s only fair to point out that there are at least as many predictions on the other side of the picture that are still being recycled this year after an equivalent track record of failures. Hope springs eternal—or rather, as I suggested in last week’s post, the facile optimism of the privileged that masquerades as hope in too much of contemporary culture springs infernal—in the minds of the many bloggers who expect some shiny new technological gimmick to overturn the laws of thermodynamics and give us a glossy new future straight out of The Jetsons. The technological savior du jour, to be sure, changes even faster than the bubble du jour; we’ve seen ethanol, big wind turbines, and now shale gas touted as game-changing developments; neither ethanol nor wind turbines changed much of anything, of course, but when shale gas lands in the same category—as it will—there will be another candidate for the role

For that matter, those who insist that petroleum can’t run out because we want it so badly have had just as dubious a record, if not more so. I’ve reminded my readers several times already about Daniel Yergin’s 2004 prediction that new petroleum discoveries would keep the price of crude oil at a plateau of $38 a barrel, and he’s far from the only pundit who’s made claims that absurd and still had the media fawning at his feet. More generally, have you noticed that every couple of years, we get to hear some new claim that a vast new oil discovery somewhere is about to solve the world’s energy troubles? They’re as regular as clockwork or, these days, as speculative bubbles; the actual results, once the hype gives way to the business end of a drilling bit, range from modest to none at all; still, none of that slows down the missionaries of the religion of limitless petroleum.

It’s all uncomfortably reminiscent of the Peanuts character Linus, with his enduring faith that this year, despite all previous disconfirmations, the Great Pumpkin really will show up with candy for all on Halloween. Still, as I look back over the last dozen years or so, I notice a feature common to the predictions I’m discussing that Linus’ lonely vigil in the pumpkin patch doesn’t share. Is it just me, or do my readers also catch the note of increasing desperation in a good many of the latest round of familiar predictions?

On the cornucopian side of the picture, certainly, that note is hard to miss. One measure of this is the extent to which the most remarkable evasions of fact have been finding their way into the media of late when the subject of US energy production comes up. The example I’m thinking of just now is the claim, recycled by any number of supposedly serious pundits in the last few months, that the United States has become a net exporter of petroleum. As it happens this is—well, let’s be polite and call it an inaccuracy; a less courteous though arguably more accurate phrase would be "bald-faced lie." The US last year imported around two-thirds of the crude oil it used, just as it did the year before, and exported very little crude oil. Follow the footnotes, though, and they lead in interesting directions.

What has happened over the last few years, in fact, is that the US has become a net exporter of refined petroleum products. For many years before then, along with the vast floods of crude oil shipped in from abroad to feed domestic refineries, the United States imported a modest amount of petroleum products that had been refined overseas, and shipped a smaller amount of its own refineries’ products to other countries. As the current depression has tightened its grip on the country, though, consumption of gasoline and other petroleum products has dropped by more than ten per cent, and US refineries have found it profitable to sell more of their products overseas as the domestic market contracted. The total shift is not that large, and since what’s driving it is the ongoing contraction of the US economy, it might be better treated as a warning sign than a reason for fatuous misstatements.

Still, beyond the misinformation and disinformation, fatuous and otherwise, there’s a common thread running through all the various predictions I’m discussing here, and it’s a thread worth tracing. All of them—the claims that a crash is imminent, or that a technological breakthrough is imminent, or that an abundant new source of fossil fuels is imminent, or what have you—are at bottom claims that the troubled situation in which the industrial world currently finds itself can’t continue in anything like its present form. I’d like to offer instead the counterintuitive suggestion that it can, and most likely will.

What that would mean in practice can best be judged by thinking back a year or two, to the early days of 2011. The year that had just ended was a troubled time, with political turmoil, economic crises, a larger than usual number of natural disasters, and a pervasive (and in many cases quite accurate) sense on the part of many people that life was getting tougher and the solutions being offered by politicians weren’t solving much of anything. Once we got past the annual flurry of predictions about game-changing events of one kind or another, what actually happened? The game didn’t change at all. Instead, each of the difficulties I’ve just noted got a little worse. There was more political turmoil; the economic crises became somewhat more frequent and more severe; the number of natural disasters went up again—there were, as I recall, 32 weather-related disasters causing more than US$1 billion each in damages, which is a new record—and across the industrial world, people’s faith in their government’s capacity to do much of anything declined further.

That’s what happened in 2011. I’d like to suggest that when we take a backwards look in the early days of 2013, we will most likely see that that’s what happened in 2012, too: a slow worsening across a wide range of trends, punctuated by localized crises and regional disasters. I’d like to predict, in fact, that when we take that backward look, the US dollar and the Euro will both still exist and be accepted as legal tender, though the Eurozone may have shed a couple of countries who probably shouldn’t have joined it in the first place; that stock markets around the world will have had another volatile year, but will still be trading. Here in the US, whoever is unlucky enough to win the 2012 presidential election will be in the middle of an ordinary transition to a new term of office; the new Congress will be gearing up for another two years of partisan gridlock; gas stations will still have gas for sale and grocery stores will be stocked with groceries; and most Americans will be making the annual transition between coping with their New Year’s hangovers and failing to live up to their New Year’s resolutions, just as though it was any other year.

That is to say, nothing much will have changed, if by the word "change" you mean exclusively the kind of dramatic break with the existing pattern of things that so many people are predicting just now. From any other perspective, plenty will have changed. Official US statistics will no doubt insist that the unemployment rate has gone down—do you ever get the feeling that when the Soviet Union collapsed, the people who used to churn out all those preposterous propaganda claims for their government got hired by ours? I do—but the number of people out of work in the United States will likely set another all-time record; the number of people in severe economic trouble will have gone up another good-sized notch, and public health clinics will probably be seeing the first wave of malnutrition-caused illness in children. If you happen to have spent the year in one of the areas unfortunate enough to get hit by the hard edge of the increasingly unstable weather, you may have had to spend a week or two in an emergency shelter while the flood waters receded or the wreckage got hauled away, and you might even notice that less and less gets rebuilt every year.

Unless that happens, though, or unless you happen to pay close attention to the things that don’t usually make the evening news, you may well look back in the first days of 2013 and think that business as usual is still ongoing. You’d be right, too, so long as you recognize that there’s been a stealthy change in what business as usual now means. Until the peak of world conventional petroleum production arrived in 2005, by and large, business as usual meant the continuation of economic growth. Since then, by and large, it has meant the continuation of economic decline.

And the repeated predictions that the situation can’t go on? I’ve come to think that what motivates such predictions, and gives them their present popularity, is the growing sense of apprehension that it can go on—that the troubles currently pressing in on the industrial world could just keep on getting worse, day after day, year after year, for decades to come, following the same gradual curve that the industrial world followed in the days of its growth, but in reverse: descending into impoverishment and relocalization along some broad equivalent of the same bumpy course that brought the ascent to prosperity and global integration back in the day.

When you think about it—and in the back of their minds, I suspect, most people have thought about it—that’s really a terrifying prospect. What makes it most unnerving is that it’s not simply a matter of, say, having your standard of living ratchet down by five per cent every year, though there will be a fair amount of that. It’s far more a matter of never knowing when your number’s going to come up and land you out of work, out of money and out on the street, next to the others who landed there before you. How much of the popular sport of blaming the poor for their poverty, I wonder, and how much of the current pseudoconservative fad of insisting that the poor aren’t actually poor, comes from people who are desperately trying to convince themselves that their jobs are irreplaceable, their retirement funds secure, and the sudden dizzying fall into the ranks of the impoverished can’t possibly happen to them?

If the downward arc of business as usual in an age of decline is what we’re facing, though, that sort of tortured logic is a pretty fair guarantee of final failure. The only way out of the trap, as I’ve argued here rather more than once, is to accept a steep cut in your standard of living before it becomes necessary, as a deliberate choice, and to use the resources freed up by that choice to get rid of any debts you have, get settled in a location that has a fair chance of keeping a viable degree of community life going, and get the tools and learn the skills that you will need to manage a decent life in an age of spiraling decline. To those who cling to the idea that they can maintain their present lifestyles, admittedly, it’s hard to think of any advice less welcome, but the universe is in no way obligated to give us the future we want—even if what we want is a sudden blow that will spare us the harder experience of the Long Descent.

End of the World of the Week #3

When it comes to comedy, timing is supposed to be everything. The same could be said about apocalyptic prophecy, except that nobody seems to be able to get it right. The example I have in mind just now is Sulpicius Severus, who was a close friend of St. Martin of Tours. In his biography of the saint, written not long after Martin’s death, Sulpicius mentioned that seven years previously the holy bishop had told him privately that the Antichrist had already been born, and would begin his unstoppable rise to world power as soon as he reached adulthood. "Ponder," wrote Sulpicius, "how close these coming fearful events are!"

You might think that a saint of Martin’s caliber—he was a major figure in the church of his time, and has been credited with an impressive roster of miracles both while he was alive and since his death—must have had a sufficiently clear hotline to the Almighty to get such an important detail right. Still, that’s not the way it turned out. St. Martin died around 400 CE, and Sulpicius’ biography seems to have been written not long thereafter. The Antichrist would have been able to buy his first beer, in other words, around 414 CE at the latest; some 1600 years later, the faithful are still waiting for him to man up and put in an appearance.

—story from Apocalypse Not