Saturday, May 4, 2013

Peak OIl or No, The Answer is Back to the Future

I have been a firm believer in the peak oil theory.  A recent article in the Atlantic, however, “What If We Never Run Out of Oil?” provided updated facts and changed my perspective.  If one believes in peak oil, then one believes in an oncoming economic disaster since the world’s economy is based on oil.  But the proponents of peak oil provide no answer to that scenario.  If one believes that there is no end to obtainable oil reserves, and we keep on living as we have been, perhaps even more so, then the disaster comes from climate change which will also reek economic disaster.  

In addressing these issues, people either seem focused on how to keep living as we have been, or they throw up their hands in despair.  Even climate change proponents don’t argue for a radical change in lifestyle but base their proposals on the smarter use of fossils fuels together with alternative energy sources because of the economic implications of doing otherwise.  No one is really moving us closer to an answer to the riddle.

This is one of those moments that screams for thinking outside the box.  Whether peak oil  is or comes to be, or whether we have an endless supply of it, the bottom line is the same ... we must find a way to wean the world off of oil so that we avoid economic and social disaster, whether it comes from the lack of oil or climate change.

The answer I propose is in one sense surprisingly simple.  We go back to the future.  We for the most part go back to a system and structure that is not dependent on oil or other fossil fuels.  We don’t have to make up a new world, we just have to look back at the world we came from to see how it would work.  

That at least is the basic rule, though in some areas of life the use of fossil fuels will continue to be necessary.  Why?  Because our population has grown so much and is more concentrated in cities.  Because, for example, the cold-water flats of the past are no longer acceptable in a modern-day scenario and heating with wood is not a viable option.

There are various ways to look at the implications of what I am proposing.

Replacing oil as an energy source.  As the industrial revolution advanced, one of the main changes was the replacement of human labor by machines.  And that has increased exponentially in the digital and robotic age of manufacturing.  Modern methods of manufacturing and farming are highly energy intensive.  We will have to go back to a form of operation that is more labor intensive.  That will have the double advantage of not only freeing us from oil, but once again finding appropriate employment for masses of workers in industry and farming, thus ending the unemployment problem.  To the extent that an energy source is needed, it will have to come from cleaner sources.

This will without question make products more expensive, which will mean a drop in the standard of living for many, but that will be offset by the increased standard of living of all the millions of people who now once again have gainful employment.  We have been living too long with the illusion of cheap goods fostered by the exploitation of the poor in far away lands and the availability of cheap transport made possible by cheap oil.

Where goods are manufactured.  In a back to the future world, the modern global economy will cease to be.  Instead, the economy will be as it was before ... primarily national, and in many cases regional or local.  While again this means an increase in the cost of many items, and a corresponding lowering of the standard of living many are used to, it will mean the repatriation of millions of jobs which will, together with the increased employment of human labor noted above, result in far less income equality than has existed in recent times as well as an increased standard of living for many.  Plus whole towns and cities will be reborn.

The products we use.  Almost everything we use today is derived at least partially from oil.  That will end.  Instead, we will go back to natural products ... whether it’s glass bottles, or cotton shirts, or wood siding for homes, and of course all food products.  Again, this will mean an increase in cost but it will have the benefit of reviving rural economies, both nationally and world-wide, that have been devastated by the modern industrial economy. 

There is at least one area, though, where limited use of oil will be required, and that is in the production of modern pharmaceuticals.  Unless a way can be found to produce them without the organic compounds that come from oil, that will remain a necessary ingredient.

Transportation.  While we won’t have to go back to the horse and buggy, major changes will be necessary.  First, all cars will have to be electric, and the electric generating plants that produce the electricity to charge them must be operated on natural gas, hydro-electric, nuclear, or alternative energy, otherwise there is no energy saving.  All public transportation must be electric or alternate energy, and there must be more public transport.  The nation’s regional train system needs to be revitalized with efficient, modern high-speed trains.  Air travel would be limited to national (i.e. not regional) and international travel.

While all of this will involve a massive restructuring, given the entrepreneurial prowess of American business, there is no question in my mind that all of this can be accomplished.  If we start planning now rather than waiting for disaster to strike, our economy and people will prosper as perhaps never before and with greater equality.  

But American business and politics has operated for so long on a short-term planning basis.  The question is whether our corporate and political leaders can face the facts and engage in the type of long-range planning that this massive restructuring of our system and lives will require.