I’ve been reading up on the issue of peak oil for a while now, and have begun to think about what life might be like in a post-peak oil world. Peak oil, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the concept that eventually – timelines range from yesterday to 30-40 years from now –we will hit the wall in terms of oil production. Either there simply will be no more oil or it will be so impossibly expensive, dangerous or technically difficult to get it out of the ground that supplies will dwindle. There seems to be a loose consensus in many circles that peak oil is coming; the disagreement is exactly when. I personally am betting on something well to the left of the mid-point of that “yesterday to 30 years” range, meaning on the order of about 10 years, maybe less. There is another school of thought that oil demand will drop precipitously because of severe economic problems and the dollar will be terribly devalued. In other words, while peak oil may still get here eventually, nobody will be able to afford $12/$15 a gallon gas (because we import so much of our supply, a devalued dollar means we pay more for the same amount). Call it the peak dollar equation. Either way, it translates to less fuel to run our fuel-dependent lifestyle.
Many people have developed scenarios for what is likely to happen as a result of peak oil/peak dollar. They range from the apocalyptic Mad Max sort to the fairy-tale “our technology will save the day and life will go on as it is right now, only better.” I consider both extremes unlikely. But here are some of the things I think are more likely to happen.
Although not directly related to the oil issue, climate change will continue and get worse. The primary connections are the need for power to pump water out of the ground or power to fixed breached levees, clean up flooded towns, and so forth. Water will become ever more important, whether the issue is too much when you don’t need it or too little when you do need it. Places that already get by on very little water will get so dry that only desert nomads will be able to live there. Places that depend on pumped groundwater – read many of our grain-producing states – will deplete their underground aquifers to the point that water rationing becomes necessary. Places that are normally humid will suffer more floods. The concept of the Hundred Year Storm will need to be revised downward, to the Twenty or even Ten Year Storm.
There will be less. Less travel, because gas and diesel will either be in short supply or too expensive. And by that I don’t mean vacation travel, I mean going-to-work-on-a-daily-basis travel. There will be less variety at the grocery store, because it will be too expensive or there will be too little fuel to grow oranges in Florida and ship them all over the US. Ditto the multiplicity of choices at Wal-Mart or Target. There will be fewer imports and exports, for the same reason. There will be fewer products made of plastic, because petroleum resources will be focused on transportation, electricity and heating. For that matter, there will be fewer petroleum products in general – fertilizer, some medicines, denture adhesives (who would have thought?), insecticides, perfumes, electric blankets. The list is nearly endless, as there are over 6000 daily-use items made from petroleum or its byproducts.
There will be shortages. Americans may need to get used to the idea of standing in long lines, as Soviet citizens still do, for basics such as meat or bread. Modern medical care will become more difficult, as some medications become less available – that’s already happening – and because so much of our care relies on one-time-use-only things made of or packaged in plastic.
There will be civil unrest, especially in the cities, where people are dependent on oil-burning power plants for electricity and heat, as well as oil-burning vehicles to bring in food, and where most have no means to grow their own food. There will probably be some nomadism – people looking for work or a place to live, people getting out of cities because of civil unrest, and unfortunately, people looking to exploit or dominate other people by moving in and taking over. As we get deeper into the oil shortages, though, I consider nomadism less likely unless the nomads are willing to travel on foot and have the skills to live off the land.
There will be more attempts to use other energy sources: coal, hydropower, wind, solar and nuclear. Some of those things may work well locally; I live in an area that has a major dam and hydropower production capability, as well as wind turbines about 20 miles away. Sadly, there will probably be more nuclear disasters. There will be inflation, deflation and extreme surges in the stock market, if not another 1929 crash. There will be wars over resources. I don’t think land prices will come down much in the long term, unless there are major epidemics and we lose a big chunk of our population. My rationale for this is that as water becomes scarce, much land will be abandoned because there is no water and no one wants it; that will increase demand for the land that does have water.
Communication will get dicey. When you don’t have reliable electricity or it’s too darn expensive to use it for our plethora of electronic toys, cell phones may disappear, radio and TV may be limited or non-existent. Unless the US mail service is willing to go back to the Pony Express model, mail delivery will be slow and probably haphazard. Wells Fargo delivery wagons may enjoy a resurgence, however:-).
Government may start to break down. Our current system relies on technology, quick communications and the ability to sway the populace using electronic media. It also relies on travel, especially air travel. People will start breaking laws to survive, which means the bureaucracy won’t be able to keep up (that may be a good thing). I suspect many of our citizens will be less willing to be herded, cajoled or threatened into doing things according to the centralized, Washington-knows-best bureaucratic credo – I already see many signs of that happening (that may also be a good thing). Government will become more local, which could have both pluses and minuses.
But there will probably be some good things, too, and I’ll talk about those in another post.