Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The End Times?

As I was taking up the subject of peak oil, Dr. Black weighed in with his disconcertingly blasé take on the whole thing. The lapsed economist writes:

I, too, generally get a bit puzzled about Kunstlerish views about the future of America in a world of rising oil prices. Certainly rising oil/gas prices, over time, might impact peoples' behavior in terms of what kind of car they use and how much they use it. Over a longer time horizon high prices might impact to some degree our land use and transit policies, and the relative desirability of certain locations. Obviously high oil/gas prices would cause economic pain for lower income people with a heavy reliance on automobile usage, and potentially tip the economy into a nontrivial recession.

But when I think through how various levels might impact behavior, and I've done informal polling on this blog about it before, it's just hard to see how any realistic scenario leads to the kind of of economic and social Armageddon that some authors predict. Even if there was a major price discontinuity, with gas shooting up to $10/gallon tomorrow, I just don't see the country going through a sudden wrenching overhaul. People would be pissed. Stuff would be more expensive. But I really don't see it in revolutionary terms.

Wow. Talk about people unclear on the concept. I was truly baffled by this, coming from someone who generally can distinguish between a hole in the ground and an essential orifice. Does he really think that the only consequence of higher oil prices is that it costs us more to drive to grandma's house? What is more, he doesn't seem to get that we aren't talking about a one-time spike in gasoline prices: we're talking about gasoline, and home heating oil, and diesel fuel (which includes tractor fuel), and jet fuel, and chemical and plastics and fertilizer feedstocks, growing more scarce and more and more expensive, year after year after year, forever.

A great difficulty for this essential discussion is that for reasons not entirely clear to me, though I have some hypotheses, the people who have been most assertive and prominent in calling attention to the reality of peak oil have also had oddly cultish tendencies. Many of them seem to revel in eschatology, actually looking forward to a prophesied destruction of Civilizationasweknowit and a kind of post-apocalyptic Jeffersonian agrarian utopia. James Howard Kunstler is their Nostradamus. Others -- with considerable overlap -- are prone to dubious conspiracy theories. I believe that political leaders have conspired to some extent to conceal the facts from the people, but the Peak Oil "movement" (and yes, they call themselves exactly that) also contains a high percentage of people who are convinced beyond doubt that the Cheney Administration orchestrated the 9/11 attack as the first step in their long-nurtured plan to seize the Middle East oil fields. While Michael Ruppert has at last retired to bedlam, his influence lives on. My personal view is that the long-nurtured plan is for real, but what happened on Sept. 11 2001 is that members of a violent cult that originated Saudi Arabia hijacked some airplanes and flew them into buildings because they believed they were defending the Islamic homelands. But what's the difference? I try not to get hung up about that.

Like global climate change, the toxicity of tobacco, and the age of the universe, the question of the finitude of the petroleum resource has also fallen into a left/right divide. The people who believe this particular truth are liberals who hate America; the people with moral values who know that the biggest threat facing the Godly is Islamofascism and the Vampire Lesbians of Sodom know that peak oil is just commie propaganda. (Now, it seems, we also have the sensible liberals like Atrios who say, "Oil, Schmoil." What that's all about, I cannot say.)

So, what do I think the consequences will be? I meant to tell you today, but I never got around to it. Patience.

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