I’m not writing this post in an attempt to scare you. My goal is that you simply take the time to research, get informed and make your own decision. I want to share some things that I’ve learned, and hopefully, these things will inspire you to dig as well.
There are only three things to take into account when thinking about the future of America and the industrialized world. Those three things are:
Oil, of course, is simple enough. We use oil for every single part of our lives- electricity, transportation, chewing gum, food production, etc. In fact, to simply go one day without using oil in any form (burning it or as a byproduct), is nearly impossible. Our modern lives have been design to use oil in every form possible.
This is a problem because we really have no idea how much oil we have left. The closest thing we have to a global governing body is OPEC, but, unfortunately, OPEC does not have auditory powers over world reserves. Essentially we have the most important substance to our global economy, and way of life, completely unregulated and without leadership. Each OPEC country is required to report their oil reserves, which for most countries has held steady for 20 years, even with increased consumption and no substantial well discoveries. Why? Because each country can only export a percentage of their reserves each year. And, for most countries, oil exports represent a major part of their economy. There is not an incentive to tell the truth on actual reserves, rather, to keep the economy going strong each country acts in its own self interest.
To compound things, there are real signs that global oil reserves are past their “peak.” This theory, first proposed by American Geophysicist Albert Hubbert, states that oil production in any geographical area follows a similar pattern, which is predictable and consistent. While many people thought Hubbert crazy, using the same old line that “we’ll never run out,” he was indeed correct in predicting the year of peak oil for the United States (1965-1970). At the time the United States was the largest exporter of oil in the world, and the idea of running out was laughable. He also predicted the global peak sometime between 2006 and 2016. Furthermore, global oil production per capita has already peaked in 1979, meaning we have not produced as much oil per person since. Because of this, oil prices have shot up significantly, and by all account should continue to do the same (for example, at the pump prices shot up $.42 this year). There is even mounting evidence to suggest global production has already peaked.
Compounded with the rate of discovery of new oil reserves capable of supporting our global thirst for oil (84 million barrels a day in 2009), as well as the questionable viability of newer methods of extraction (fracking, shale etc), the picture is grim. While there are signs that using these methods you can indeed extract oil, the cost is inhibitive on a global level. It isn’t just extracting oil; it is extracting it at a price that will support the global economy. Both methods are not viable alternatives.
Unfortunately, neither is “green” energy. Most of these technologies are in their infancy, and are largely unproductive. Only 3% of energy comes from new energy sources such as wind or solar.
The net is that we have a global addiction to oil, and the supply is running out.
Scale is an issue because of the size of the global economy and community. We are consumers. World GDP per capita has driven wealth and comfort beyond comprehension. But at what cost? Generally the cost has been at the ones less powerful to speak for themselves. Yes, this includes the proverbial polar bear and the migrant worker. Or the factory laborer in China. Or, in all of those cases, our environment as defined by the physical world in which we live.
We can’t help but buy. Every part of our lives is centered around buying; weddings, babies, courting and on and on. But to consume, you must take, and without replenishment we find ourselves in an unsustainable situation. No doubt to survive we must consume, but we must also give back, replenish the Earth and communities.
There is also a global population issue. The global boom in population has been fueled by the production and consumption of oil, the migration of families from farms to the city and the industrial revolution. Indeed, to look at a population graph, it is easy to see how quickly the human population on Earth has grown. World population has doubled since 1960 alone.
What is the true carrying capacity of the world without the use of fossil fuels? That’s a hard question to answer, somewhere between the population in 1900 of 1.6 billion (before the advent of factory farms and the full scale use of oil), and the current population of over 7 billion.
To make matters that much worse, the byproduct of our scale of consumption and population has been ecologically destructive. We are now able to cut down more forest, destroy more topsoil and pollute more waters than ever before. And because we can, we do. Most of the topsoil in the United States is largely unusable without the use of commercial, petroleum base pesticides and fertilizers. Think about that – the scale of our population and level of consumption have caused us to destroy the very base level of life on the planet.
The scale of our population, the scale of our consumption and the scale of our destruction are a bit of a trifecta of disaster.
Diversity may be the nail in the coffin. While our interconnectedness is good for business, it is not a hedge against disaster, as we saw in the 2008 financial collapse. That collapse showed us that even the failure of large, American corporations could potentially bring down the entire global community. The scale of our society in relation to the interconnectedness of our financial and societal institutions means a failure of a small part can ripple and nearly bring down the entire system.
The United States was not designed in this way. In fact, it could be argued that the founding fathers knew the danger in a culmination of power. The Republic was envisioned to be ruled by a small central government, with the majority of power being designated to the states. Furthermore, each individual community within each state was largely independent, enjoying a degree of governance as well. In this system, a failure of a small community could not threaten the whole, since each community was largely independent and self-contained. They could produce their own food, necessities and even protect themselves. Obviously, our global economy could not be more different, and at the same time, more vulnerable.
While humans have always possessed ways of destroying themselves, for the first time in history the entirety of the global community is at risk from man-made causes. Sure, we could have always been hit with an asteroid, but when Rome fell in 476, civilizations in the Americas, Africa and Asia were largely unaffected. Even in the 1929 stock market crash, rural American communities suffered from low crop prices, but were not at risk of starvation. The farmers, though, who had taken out large loans were largely unable to pay their debts and subsequently lost their farms. Today, even with minor nations like Greece or Ireland on the precipe of default, the entirety of the global economy is at stake.
In short, as the use of oil has increased, so has the scale of both our population and consumption. And as our population and consumption has increased, our cultural and economic diversity has decreased.
And so in conclusion, all that is needed is a tiny little spark; maybe global oil prices hit $200/barrel, or a congress is in session that will not bail out our financial institutions when they fail. I have no desire to be a fatalist, I certainly don’t think it is impossible to bring us back, but it may be too late for the continuation of large economies and states.