USA Today has finally put the issue of Peak Oil where it belongs: front and center ("Debate Brews: Has Oil Production Peaked?" October 17). The take-home message is not that global oil production will peak some day, but that it will peak during the lives of most Americans. Kenneth Deffeyes tells us the peak will be this year; the federal government tells us we have about 25 years. Deffeyes says the outcome will be a “hard landing” at best and an apocalypse at worst; David Yergin sees a prosperous way down. Whether it’s Mad Max or Gilligan’s Island, the future is not bright for an economy based on cheap gas.
Peak Oil, it seems, has been the 800-pound gorilla sneering in the corner of the American domestic policy arena. Or has it? For over 200 years, “doomsayers” have been warning “optimists” about limits to economic growth. The economist Thomas Malthus initiated the debate in 1800 and, in more recent decades, environmentalists have taken up the mantle. Economists these days tend to rebuke Malthus and tell us that technological developments will perpetually increase our capacity for growth. Environmentalists tell us the economists tend to be funded by corporations and that their views on economic growth are devoid of basic physics and ecology.
It’s time to acknowledge that the environmentalists are not all tree-hugging, animal-petting radicals. The 800-pound gorilla is not Peak Oil, but economic growth itself. Economic growth has developed a mystique, thanks to Wall Street and the Fed, but there is nothing mysterious about it. Economic growth is simply an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services. It means increasing population and consumption, and it means more oil. Peak Oil might be the 200-pound monkey in the closet, but it is our number one goal in the domestic policy arena – economic growth – that is littering our countryside with banana peels. We are going to slip, and Deffeyes’s
hard landing might be the best we can hope for unless we act, real soon, to tame the gorilla.
Our economy is a collection of agricultural, extractive, manufacturing, and service sectors. Agriculture is the key. Without it, we starve, and agriculture today is tractors, fertilizers, trains and trucks. Gas and natural gas, in other words. The extractive sectors include logging, mining, ranching, commercial fishing, and now even the pumping and trucking of drinking water. More gas for tractors, trucks, ships and pumps. The manufacturing sectors run from heavy to light, from steel production to computer chip production. They run on electricity generated mostly from coal, oil, and natural gas. Service sectors such as transportation do not exist without agricultural, extractive, and manufacturing sectors to serve. Of course, there are specialty sectors such as entertainment. But how do fans of NASCAR, football games, and concerts arrive at the festivities? Too often via SUVs and Hummers.
It may be too much for America to handle at once, the acknowledgement of Peak Oil and the abandoning of economic growth as a national goal. However, once Peak Oil is acknowledged, what economic goals remain in the category of sane? Economic growth seems out of the question in the long run. In the short run, perhaps we can keep the economic machinery running with more nuclear power, more coal, and more damming of rivers. We overlooked the smog and the greenhouse gases emitted by the petrol-burning tractors, trucks and factories, so we can overlook the specter of nuclear waste, the greenhouse gases and acid rains of coal, and the ecological integrity of our rivers, where endangered species now seem as common as the common species.
Of course, there are environmentally friendly, sustainable energy sources, such as solar and wind. They are coming online, but not at the rate the Fed, Wall Street, the President and Congress want our economy to grow. What does this mean? It means that, if the Fed, Wall Street, the President and Congress get their way, we will be using not only more sunlight and wind, but more nuclear power, more coal, and more rivers. We will also be producing more nuclear waste, more acid rain, and more endangered species.
There is another reason for recognizing economic growth as the 800-pound gorilla dwarfing the monkey of Peak Oil. Even if energy sources were unlimited (as some economists continue to insist), a number of thorny problems arise in concert with a growing economy. These include urban sprawl, traffic congestion, and ultimately war, which is often the result of nations competing for scarce resources (such as water in the Middle East). As Malthus noted, waiting always in the wings is famine, the result of pushing our planet’s agricultural capacity beyond the brink. Yes, Malthus was a doomsayer, but doom needs saying if doom is to be averted.
So what then, the optimist might ask, is the solution? If economic growth beyond the level of Peak Oil is the problem, then the solution must be something other than economic growth. Not all economists have been blinded to this, and those who haven’t been call for a gradual but firm transition in national policy from economic growth to a steady state economy. A steady state economy is not the end of the world. It refers simply to stabilized populations and consumption. Yes, that means zero economic growth, something Americans have not been taught to appreciate. At various times in history, neither were Americans taught to appreciate the freedom of blacks, the enfranchisement of women, or the benefits of non-smoking. Times change.
How is a steady state economy implemented? That’s the easy part, for the fiscal and monetary policy levers already exist. They just have to be pushed and pulled into the correct positions. That means tax codes, subsidies, and banking regulations must be reformed. The hard part is the acceptance of the need for a steady state economy, not the implementation.
Politicians, with campaigns invariably financed by corporations, banks, and other bastions of big money, won’t lead the American people to embrace a steady state economy as a policy goal. The movement, as with all great movements, must start with the people. In this case, starting means stopping. Stopping the buying of SUVs instead of sedans, the building of mansions when little houses are cozier, the gobbling of steaks when veggies are better for us anyway. And of course, it means that one or two children per family is a modern form of patriotism; three or more a sign of disregard for the lives of others. It’s common sense, in other words. Beyond that, it means supporting the politician bold enough to identify economic growth as a good goal gone bad.