The fact is that because oil production cannot be increased, economic growth is now over. Donald Trump’s promise to bring back coal production, increase all fossil fuel extraction and rebuild manufacturing are simply not going to happen, not because of Trump but because policy is no longer in charge. From now on, geology and physics call the shots.
Here in the USA, we held an election recently that left most surprised, many dismayed, and many others eager to explain what happened, why it happened and what we do now. Lots of deep thinking and heavy breathing have gone into those analyses and I don’t mean to compete here with students of history and politics. I would, however, like to offer what I think may be an important part of the context for recent events, a context that is defined and enforced by geology and physics. I suggest that the election of 2016 can be called the Peak Oil Election, although the issue certainly never came up in public.
Back in November 2000, The Daily Star published a guest commentary in which I wrote about peak oil, the moment when global production of oil reaches its maximum and starts its inevitable decline. I had hoped to rouse people to think about the grave consequences that would ensue when oil, the key resource that fuels and supports our civilization, is no longer widely and cheaply available. Clearly that didn’t work very well, as most people still don’t have any idea what peak oil means, much less that its consequences are unfolding around us right now. No doubt our media, always complicit in a corporate agenda (oil companies are big advertisers), have not done much to inform the public but, more alarming than the blithe disregard of the population at large, is the apparently total cluelessness of both the two major presidential candidates and most of their advisers and entourages as well as the Congress. The Army Corps of Engineers issued a report back in September 2005 called Energy Trends and Implications for U.S. Army Installations that sounded the alarm about peak oil coming soon but that didn’t get much attention, either.
The economy is widely acknowledged to be the critical factor in most elections. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, like most politicians everywhere, talked and continue to talk about “economic growth.” Voters can forgive scandals, bigotry, nastiness, stupidity and just about everything else but, when they see their standard of living falling, their jobs vanishing, their children with no future (and sometimes with nothing to eat), they blame politicians, rightly or wrongly. Politicians usually pretend to have solutions that almost always involve some path or other to “growth.”
Although none of us alive today can remember a time when economic growth was not part of our expectation for the future, such growth has only been conceived of for about the last 200 years. Until fossil fuels became the energy that powered the Industrial Revolution, economies grew by making war on their neighbors and taking their wealth. That was the stuff of history: empires rose on the principal of capturing territory and exacting tribute and eventually collapsed under the weight of their military costs and the expense of hauling all the loot back home.
Europeans had nearly exhausted the resources of their corner of the Eurasian landmass when Columbus came upon what was called the New World. Of course, it was just as old as every other place and, contrary to the persistent mythology, was not empty but chock full of animals, plants and, yes, many millions of human beings living in complex cultures. For the next three centuries, first the Spanish and Portuguese and, soon after, the Dutch, French and English crossed the Atlantic to subdue, conquer, and kill off the inhabitants in order, in traditional imperial fashion, to steal their stuff. Europe became rich again. That was how growth was done before about 1800 and the beginning of the fossil fuel age.
From the beginning of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was powered by coal, which was dirty but had much higher energy content than wood and charcoal, the main fuels that humans had used until then. In 1859, a hustler who called himself “Colonel” Edwin Drake drilled the first commercially viable oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania and the petroleum age began. Oil is an incomparable fuel: at the beginning it was easily extracted, easily transported and, best of all, a single gallon of oil contains as much energy as a fit man working hard for three months or about 700 men working for an hour. One gallon. That huge amount of energy suddenly available is what gave rise to what we now call “economic growth.” More production and consumption requires more energy inputs and oil made it possible. But on a finite planet, nothing can go on forever and, by the 1960s, oil companies were finding less new oil each year than we were burning. Thus, about 40 years later, peak oil. Coal and gas will continue to be available for a while, but both will start to decline within a decade or two. Both already have serious financial problems, and neither one can do what oil does.
Let me return to why I called this the Peak Oil Election. Neither candidate spoke about it. Perhaps they don’t know about it. Or if they do, don’t want to believe it. Or maybe no politician can get elected by promising that the economy will continue to contract and energy supplies become ever scarcer. It was the Peak Oil Election because peak oil defeated both of them. Without increasing energy consumption, there can be no economic growth and, without increasing supplies, there can be no increase in energy consumption. The so-called renewables are hopelessly dependent upon fossil fuels for manufacture, installation and maintenance and are much less energy-intensive than fossil fuels.
The fact is that because oil production cannot be increased, economic growth is now over. Donald Trump’s promise to bring back coal production, increase all fossil fuel extraction and rebuild manufacturing are simply not going to happen, not because of Trump but because policy is no longer in charge. From now on, geology and physics call the shots. The remaining oil is too expensive to get to and extract. Oil companies can’t make a profit at a price that customers in a contracting economy can afford to pay. The growth game is finished as will be soon the multitude of financial frauds that, starting with the peak of United States oil production in 1970, have come to comprise much of our economy.
We need a new sort of politics and economy: local, cooperative, community-based, low-energy, conservationist, non-polluting, an economy that sustainably supports biological needs and health, rather than pursuing riches. I don’t think any politicians are going to do that for us; we need to do it for ourselves.
In Genesis 3:19, God instructs Adam that his punishment for disobedience will be “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” Apparently, humans didn’t like that very much, as all of history reveals them trying to get around that decree by any means possible: forcing others to do the work (slavery), getting rich and hiring others to do the work (wage slavery), or by burning oil (energy slavery). The time is here again for community cooperation, for low-tech solutions like the power of oxen, horses and mules, for relatively inexpensive simple technologies that can be made locally, like hoes, scythes, and pitchforks, and for the sweat of our faces. This isn’t a matter of virtue but of necessity; a simpler life is coming whether or not we choose to embrace it.
Eugene Marner lives in Franklin.