Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Libya, Part Two: (From Belmont Club)

57. Wretchard,

That source you cited should silence anybody who still thinks that Peak Oil is not a problem. In fact it is the problem.

The true nature of Peak Oil has been misunderstood by almost everybody. It has nothing to do with how much oil is left in the ground. (There will always be oil left in the ground, and it will always be available to wealthy people at a sufficient price.) It has to do with being able to get at the oil and utilize it efficiently on a civilizational scale. The real issues are geopolitical, demographic, and infrastructural, not geological.

When the supply of oil tightens for any reason (i.e revolutions in the Maghreb, or what have you), the price rises, inefficient uses are trimmed back, poorer customers are priced out of the market altogether, and civilization begins to creak. The price of all basic commodities is closely tied to the price of oil, not only because of the transportation factor, but also because oil is an important raw material in industrial processes. Whenever some persistent consumer is willing to pay a premium for that last barrel of oil, the marginal price of all barrels increases by the same amount, and eventually the economy feels the pain.

Because we cannot afford to consume oil as lavishly as we did before, we have to make less, do less, drive less, consume less; pay more, work more, sacrifice more, and suffer more. The total output of the economy shrinks. In such an environment, it is vain to talk of being rescued by alternative sources of energy. Where will the investment capital come from to bring those sources on line? Where will the technical expertise and labor come from? Any plausible scheme to improve the energy supply (whether by increased oil and gas exploration, nuclear power, coal gasification, renewables, or whatever), will take dozens of years and trillions of dollars to complete, while in the meantime the overall economy continues to dwindle. And "conservation" merely races the demon over the cliff. Conservation means that we do to ourselves the same thing that our nemesis is trying to do to us anyway. We will not have enough money to build the necessary infrastructure to reinflate our bubble economy. And even if we did, investment capital chases the highest rate of return, and the floundering energy sector will not be offering the highest rate of return. It will be a money pit, an eldering kept woman who no longer pulls her own weight.

However, since it seems we will be unable to do without the energy, we will have to make the investment anyway, and do so at a loss. Hence it will have to be a labor of love. But the free market does not think very kindly of labors of love; Adam Smith's invisible hand wants to be greased, not calloused by long hours of tedium. Since market mechanisms will not of their own provide the necessary capital, the funding will have to be enforced through the tax structure, and we will all become the slaves of energy. Without realizing it, the populations of whole regions will be converted into some sort of oleaginous latifundium for the maintenance of the few surviving industrial conglomerates.

This is the end of the West, its last desperate grasp at mere survival (its honor and dignity have long since been sold away). If this were our only problem it would be formidable enough, but remember this is all happening against the background of a much larger catastrophe. We have aging and declining populations in the US, Europe, and Japan. We have completely unsustainable pension and welfare programs about to go broke. We have a generation of young people that is less educated, less healthy, and less morally competent than their parents, and who are completely unprepared to deal with this. And we still have borders to defend against an increasingly numerous, increasingly dangerous horde of third-world malcontents. We have weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of tribal warlords who will use them just for fun if they get the chance. We have given ourselves over to greed and perversion. Our once-noble religion has been wussified by liberal progressives. We are no longer worthy of our success, and our discomfiture is beginning to tell upon us. How in the world will we survive this intact?

Call me pessimistic, but I don't think it can be done. Like an old forest giant, we have run up against the physical limits of our growth. We can no longer put forth enough leaves to gather all the sunlight we need to thrive, and far below the root system cannot drink enough water to keep the remaining leaves healthy. And while we may continue to thrust suckering branches toward the sky for years to come, the true period of organic growth, the saga, is over.

Probably the best policy for individuals now is to try to avoid contact with Empire as much as possible, neither paying nor receiving from the system, cultivating a detached indifference to matters of government. Perhaps you can hold off the external decay long enough that it does not affect the hearts and minds of your children, and your posterity will one day make landfall in a future age when organic growth is possible again. But for us here today, the tasks before us are grim and pitiless. Let us look not for happiness but for the pride of duty, and so write our names down with those who pulled the world back from the brink.

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