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No War For Oil?

Forget about it in sprawl-dominant culture

July 1, 2003 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

AP Wire
  What oil gluttons get, whether they are Republican realtor jingoists or Democratic leftist peacenik commuters, is war

Walking down the street of my traditional small town the other day I saw a bumper sticker that said it all: “War is not the answer.” I emphasize, a bumper sticker.  On a car.

But you see, war is the answer if you insist on a car-dependent, oil-addicted mode of living. Nobody in my crowd of middle-aged, ex-hippie, environmentally enlightened, putative political progressives has opted out of the American drive-in utopia. In fact, all spring they were driving down to the peace marches outside the post office. Now the Law of Perverse Outcomes is biting them on the butt.

That law states that people don't get what they expect but they get what they deserve. And what oil gluttons will get, whether they are Republican realtor jingoists or Democratic leftist peacenik commuters, is war.

Oil Surplus Vanishing
The world is leaving the cheap oil epoch behind and that will change absolutely everything. The key to understanding what is about to happen is this: We don’t have to run out of oil to suffer tremendous disruptions in our sprawl-dominated living arrangements. All that’s necessary is to cross the tipping point of global peak production and enter the downward arc of depletion.  The best estimates are that this will happen between now and the year 2010. The weight of opinion is lately pointing to the early end of the scale.

The global oil peak will actually be more like a “bumpy plateau,” a period of a few years when worldwide oil production, while remaining robust, fails to keep with rising world demand.  But on that bumpy plateau, economies will wobble and we will begin to see a process that might be called globalism in reverse.

Economic relations we have taken for granted — like Wal-Marts filled with merchandise made 12,000 miles away — will fall by the wayside like overspecialized dinosaurs whose favorite food has died off in a climate change. In a few years we will look back on suburbia and all its accessories for what it actually was: The greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. 

War For Oil
Meanwhile, our Iraq adventure will be only the first of many international contests over the world’s remaining oil reserves. Many people — again of all political stripes —  believe that the United States may find itself in a military occupation of Arabia in the near future, especially if the Saud tribe, which has owned the place and a huge percentage of the world’s remaining oil reserves for half a century, loses its grip on power.
Guess what?  We might be able to send an army in there, but there is no way that we can protect the oil infrastructure of that country from an endless supply of angry Jihadistas armed with rocket-propelled grenades, shoulder-launched missiles, semtech plastic explosives, and other easy-to-get small arms available to anyone with a few thousand dollars (or the equivalent in rapidly inflating 2003 dollars).

Sooner or later, you understand, we will have to compete with China for the world’s remaining oil goodies.  When that happens, Wal-Mart may find itself short of the stuff they stock their shelves with.  And we will find ourselves with a cored-out industrial sector, unable to supply ourselves anything from frying pans to underpants.

Alternatives Not Ready
By the way, there is not going to be a smooth transition to a hydrogen economy.  Hydrogen is the policy wonks’ fantasy du jour for saving America’s drive-in utopia. It presents monumental problems that show little promise of being solved, at least not for decades, and quite possibly never. Hydrogen requires more net energy to make than the energy it produces and is extremely difficult to store and transport.  None of these problems is any closer to being solved than the problems of breeder reactors, which were promised to us 30 years ago as a sure bet to produce cheap electricity.

Nor will we be able to run what we are currently running in America on any combination of other alternative fuels or technologies, including wind power, solar power, tar sands, corn-based ethanol, or the much talked about fuel cell.

A Different Way
The scary truth is that we are going to have to drastically downscale all the normal everyday activities of daily life in America. We will have to reduce the presence of cars in our lives.  We’re going to have to live closer to the centers of things, namely in towns and villages.  We’re going to have to grow much more of our food closer to home and produce more of our own household goods locally.  We’re going to have to reconstruct the local networks of economic interdependence that were systematically destroyed by the Wal-Marts. We’re going to have to make schools smaller.

We are not prepared for any of this. And because we’re not prepared, we are liable to live through a long period of political, social, and economic turmoil as events sort things out for us. (Then the question will be: Can we continue the project of civilization in the context of a democratic republic?)

In the meantime, flaunting anti-war bumper stickers may make us feel morally superior to some of our other fellow citizens. But the mentality behind it is no more intelligent than the rationalizations of the sprawl-meisters and the Humvee buyers.

James Howard Kunstler, who lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., is the author of  The Geography of Nowhere, Home From Nowhere, and other books. He is working on a new book about the coming end of the cheap fossil fuel era. Reach him at Kunstler@aol.com.

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