Friday, April 14, 2006

The Peak Oil Crisis: It's Time to Start Planning

Falls Church News-Press

By Tom Whipple
April 13, 2006

Let's start with the completely obvious. We are no longer living in the 19th century. Seventy percent of Americans no longer live on farms as they did when the first oil well was drilled (it now is more like 2-3 percent). Very few have transportation pastured behind the house. Nor do many have a chicken coop, a wood lot, a vegetable garden or a place to hunt for food. Somewhere along the line, the 20th century with its abundance of oil got in the way of self-sufficiency and everything changed.

Very, very, few of us are, or could be, anywhere near self-sufficient in the 21st century. Oil has created a very specialized society in which the essentials of life —food, clothing, shelter— come to us through a complex social and economic chain involving thousands of people each performing specialized tasks.

The whole system sustaining our lives is bound together by oil. It is the cheap freely available oil that has allowed us to move ourselves and our goods around cheaply, quickly, and efficiently. Specialized highly efficient production has of course resulted, for many, in a golden age, a cornucopia. Take away the oil, or simply raise the price high enough, and the social/economic order starts to come apart rapidly. Then what?

The answer is obvious. We in America , and indeed in many other countries, will turn to government to organize a solution. Which government? All of them. Every level from village council to presidents and prime ministers will be overwhelmed by the need to take action. Needs will be enormous, compared to anything we have known in recent years.

If anybody doubts this assertion, just ponder for a minute, one or two of the many changes that took place during the oil age. On the average we got a lot older. There are currently about 40 million of us over 65 years old in the United States and nearly 20 million over 75. If anybody thinks the average octogenarian is going to jump on a bicycle and pedal 20 miles over to the Wal-Mart to pick up supper, they're wrong — it just won't happen. Most of us are going to need help to get through the transition to a post carbon world. Life threatening situations will abound.

In addition to the elderly, there are other problems such as the 2 million people currently locked up in some jail or prison. What's the warden or the state governor going to do when the guards can no longer afford to drive in for their shifts, the electricity goes out as part of a rolling blackout, and kitchen manager reports he can no longer get enough food delivered for three square meals a day? There are endless scenarios, but by now you should be getting the picture. By a wide margin, the peak oil crisis will be one of the biggest problems governments have had to face in the modern era.

As oil depletion sets in, we are going to see dozens, then hundreds, then thousands, and ultimately 300 million (population of the US ) new problems show up which clearly will be beyond the means of our current social/economic system. Just imagine the New Orleans flood engulfing the whole country at once to get some sort of feel for what things might be like.

Where to start? The answer to this one is easy. Governments at all levels must start planning, planning, planning for what clearly is to come — be it in five months or five years. What should they plan for? Here the details are difficult but the general concept is rather straightforward. Let’s look at state and local governments today for the federal response to peak oil is a whole other story.

Before a state or local government can help its citizens, it must first ensure that it can function. Then it must ensure it has sufficient authority and resources to do whatever is necessary in the decades when the effects of peak oil will be the worst. Although there will be endless debates over the government's role during the decades of transition to a post-oil world, I believe protecting life and maintaining civil order come first, followed by helping new economic arrangements emerge.

The number one planning objective for any level of government is to prepare for a sudden and long-lasting reduction in the availability of oil. There are presently numerous situations festering in the world ranging from giant-hurricane spawning temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico to numerous militant or terrorist organizations and governments that are working at shutting down substantial portions of the world's oil supply.

Thus plan #1 should focus on a government's ability to function. Can a government's employees get to where they are needed? Is there sufficient fuel for government vehicles? Is there enough money to pay for the fuel and likely increases in activity? What happens to tax revenue?

Then there is a question of authority. Can a government prioritize the distribution of limited fuel, or even food stocks? Can it institute rationing, conservation measures, impose fuel-saving speed limits, mandate car pools? Clearly a high priority should be given to preparing a package of emergency powers for governors and local councils.

Beyond the initial need to develop the organization to maintain life, civil order, and the distribution of vital goods and services, there will be a need for government in establishing extensive new systems of mass transit. If, as most expect, there will be very serious economic disorders, we start to raise issues of government as the employer or provider of last resort.

An argument can and will be made that the government should stay out of all this. Let prices rise and market forces alone will do the necessary allocations. There is no question that such policies would quickly devolve into widespread and unacceptable life-threatening situations comparable to evacuating yourself from the New Orleans flood without a car.

For now, planning is cheap. One day soon the implementation of these plans will be very costly.


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