Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Taking Peak Oil Seriously

One of the frustrations of being a declinist blogger with a predominantly right-wing audience is that my readers will try to see everything I post as an answer to the question: “How can we stop the Left from destroying our country?”

When actually, the questions that would make more sense are along the lines of “How can we stop our country from being destroyed?” or “How can we survive the destruction of our country?”

Basically, I am unable to see the defeat of the Left as my goal, because I think that western civilization’s problem, at the core level, is spiritual rather than political.

Unfortunately, saying this puts me in the company of a lot of quietist thinkers, who insist that the old virtues of the Christian West can be restored by people who focus mainly on improving their private, spiritual lives, in the confidence that if enough people do this, the political triumphs of the Left will either go away, or won’t matter as much.

It is as if a man stops reading his Bible, attending mass regularly, and fasting during Lent. Then, after a year or two of this, he starts downing a pint and a half of gin every evening, bashing in other guys’ faces in random barfights, committing a string of cheque frauds to pay for his habit, and sleeping with prostitutes. Upon hearing about all this, his priest remarks that, since the breakdown of the man’s relationship with God came first, his problem is ultimately spiritual rather than temporal, and that if he just goes back to praying and attending mass like he should, the rest of his life will fall back into order without him having to give up his daily pint and a half of gin.

In this rather gaudy analogy, the cessation of the man’s religious observance corresponds to the disappearance, in the western body politic, of a number of virtues that are necessary to maintain a political order based on representative democracy and human rights. The daily pint and a half of gin corresponds to the western nations’ collective decision to allow a plutocratic, socially-leftist oligarchy to seize control of their governing institutions.

Spiritual renewal is not possible for a society that is content to live under the oligarchy. In other words, if the human material of a society proves to be the sort of wet, rotting wood that won’t ignite into the flames of revolution when the government decides to start promoting sex changes for middle schoolers, then no religious revivalist is going to come along and kindle the fires of spiritual renewal with that same wood!

In a sense, then, I’m even more pessimistic than Rod Dreher & Co. (In a different sense, I’m more optimistic – I don’t believe in the concept of a One True Faith or think that the religious beliefs a man holds during one lifetime will determine his fate for eternity. Thus, in my view, the rising generation of Americans, having been raised with little or no religion, will generally have miserable lives, but they’re at no risk of losing their souls.)

But I digress. As American civilization continues to collapse, there will still, I think, be chances for a few brave individuals, who are willing to oppose the system by accepting burdens that almost everyone else won’t accept, to escape. Hence the final variant on the question with which I opened this post: “How can we survive the destruction of our country?”

There will be no large-scale turnaround – at least, not until a century or two of hardship clears away the rotting carcass of what our secular-hedonist civilization has become, and stimulates the growth of a new, tougher version of American culture.

And that's where Peak Oil comes in.

American conservatives usually have a pretty easy time grasping the idea that the political defeats their movement is constantly complaining about – government support for the sexual revolution, the rise of the welfare state, the transfer of most political power in the US out of democratic institutions and into technocratic ones, etc. – are manifestations of deeper spiritual problems in our society.

What is harder to grasp is the idea that these aren’t the only manifestations of these deep spiritual problems. Indeed, there are other manifestations which have not become partisan political issues at all, and yet others on which the Left, rather than the Right, holds the better position – though as usual it does little or nothing to enact its ideals in the real world.

For example, I believe that the same arrogant attitude toward nature is behind the idea that boys’ and girls’ bodies are interchangeable, and the idea that nothing bad will happen if we keep on treating the Earth as if it contained an infinite supply of oil.

Now, I know that when a lot of people hear about Peak Oil, they think of the activists who spent the 1990s and early 2000s talking about how the exhaustion of the world’s petroleum supply was going to cause a rapid collapse of global civilization at some specific date in the near future, the year 2005 being the top candidate.

This was based on the telegenic, but false, idea that Peak Oil means a precipitous drop in the supply of oil, even though, in the original theory, it means what its name implies – a “peak,” or a time of maximum output, at the height of a bell-shaped curve, after which production will slowly decline, though equal amounts of oil will be produced on both the near and far sides of the curve.

The fixation on the year 2005 is more forgivable, because that fixation stemmed from the fact that M. King Hubbert, the geologist who invented Peak Oil theory in the 1950s, predicted this date for maximum global petroleum production.

Now, Hubbert’s key realization was that the oil production curve for a productive area of any size – a single well, an oil field, a province, or a country – tends to follow a bell-shaped curve, with the highest productivity in the middle. Early in the curve, new oil is being discovered faster than it’s being extracted; later on, discovery rates fall below extraction rates, but extraction keeps rising; after the peak, rates of discovery are near zero, and extraction rates fall in turn.

Because he was the first geologist to come up with good ways to estimate future production in an oil province, including production from as-yet-undiscovered reserves – rather than including only known reserves and getting a wildly wrong answer, like many oilmen had done before him – Hubbert became famous. His successful prediction that oil output in the continental US would peak around 1970 gave him a lot of credibility, especially during the “energy crisis” of the 1970s, when America was floundering through the transition from mostly-domestic oil sources to an import-based oil supply.

Naturally, a lot of people were concerned when the year 2005 approached, since that was the year for which Hubbert had predicted global Peak Oil. When it didn’t happen, a lot of conservatives insisted that Peak Oil had been debunked.

Think, for a moment, about the logic behind those feelings. If some guy in the 1950s, working with a much more limited understanding of petroleum geology than we have today – especially when it comes to hydrofracking, tight oil, tar sands, and the like – underestimates how much oil is in the Earth, does that mean that Peak Oil isn’t a problem? Or does it just mean that nature has given us more rope with which to hang ourselves?

And hanging ourselves we are. The United States consumes 22 barrels of oil per person per year. Most of the industrialized world uses around half that: Germany and Japan use 11, Britain and France 9, and Russia 8.

The fact that America requires so much more oil than these other nations to maintain what is, in most ways, an identical standard of living, is a reflection of the extreme neglect into which American infrastructure has fallen. We have almost no high-speed rail, doing nearly all our long-distance travel by automobile and airplane, and much of our built environment, especially in the suburbs, has been designed for a car culture only, and is virtually unwalkable.

The glut of oil and gasoline that makes our country liveable in these circumstances is going to go away over the next few decades. You don’t actually need a detailed forecast of when Peak Oil will come in order to predict this – you really only need to know that America’s present status as a huge net petroleum importer is only sustainable as long as the dollar-dominated international economy holds up.

When the rest of the world dedollarizes – and I would be very surprized if that hasn’t happened by 2040 – we Americans will lose our cheap oil imports, along with all the other cheap imports with which our ruling class has replaced our once-great manufacturing sector. Thereafter, we will all become much poorer. And we will be stranded in a built environment designed mainly for cars, even as most of us can no longer afford one.

In the end, the United States will have transformed into a third-world country, resembling Russia in the 1990s or present-day Mexico. This is, admittedly, a difficult concept for most Americans to wrap their heads around, since a “bad” future, when it shows up in our collective imagination at all, generally looks like total apocalypse (as in I Am Legend) or high-tech totalitarianism (as in Bladerunner).

Well, I am predicting a different kind of future. My favorite Peak Oil blogger, John Michael Greer, calls it “the Long Descent” because, as he sees it, the descent into third-world conditions (and eventually, when resource limits bite even harder, into a fully-deindustrialized, agrarian society) will be gradual – just like the depletion of the petroleum that makes our extravagant lifestyles possible in the first place.

From the point of view of someone who believes in the myth of progress – that is, someone who thinks that newer technologies are bound, as if by a law of nature, to be better than older ones – such a future sounds absurd. After all, there are so many other energy sources that we can use after fossil fuels are gone – biofuels, solar power, wind, hydroelectricity, nuclear, and so forth.

The problem is that all of those other technologies are already in use and, sans government subsidies, none of them are economically competitive with fossil fuels. Conclusion: once the fossil fuels are gone, and only alternative energy sources are left, energy will become much more expensive, and we’ll all have to use less of it.

Full-spectrum conservatives – people who revere their national past, who look for the unintended consequences of every policy, and who are suspicious of attempts to radically remake society – have no good reason to shy away from these conclusions. If the evidence indicates that the boons of the petroleum age will turn out to be ephemeral, and that America actually took a wrong turn by putting a car in every garage, then we should be willing to return to the sort of slower-paced society in which every generation of Americans lived from the Plymouth Fathers to Teddy Roosevelt.

Now, before I wrap up this article, I should probably answer the question of what I think about Peak Oil’s sister issue, global warming. My belief is that it’s real, but it will probably be slower and less apocalyptic than alarmists like Greta Thunberg would have us believe. It will not wipe out the human race.

Even a worst-case scenario – the melting of all the Antarctic ice and a 216-foot sea level rise – will take centuries to play out, and will simply restore the Earth to the warmer climate equilibrium which has existed, off and on, for two-thirds of the last 100 million years. The Earth’s climate has changed many times before mankind came along, and nothing that we can do is going to be any more dramatic than what nature does on her own every few million years.

Now comes another big question: what should an individual American do about this? Well, one option is to vote for the Democrats, because they’re the party that runs for office on promises to address the Peak Oil/Climate issue.

This is a bad option. Democrats have shown, time and again, that while they are happy to put American coal, oil, and gas producers out of business through litigation and regulatory harassment, they will do nothing to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Given the power, they will replace domestically-produced fossil fuels with foreign imports, and that is all. CO2 emissions stay the same, the jobs go to Arab or Russian oilmen instead of to Americans, and the Dems call it a win.

This is the usual modus operandi of the Left. Wealthy liberals virtue-signal with policies that claim to advance some fashionable leftist cause – environmentalism or antiracism or whatever – but it always turns out that the burdens of the policies fall entirely on the working class. It is the same when it is blue-state mayors tolerating race riots in poor neighbourhoods but not rich ones, as when it is members of the Sierra Club, with carbon footprints the size of a whole Appalachian village, jetting around the country to sue coal miners out of their jobs.

So the political option is dead in the water. Which leaves the declinist option: admit that the body politic is a rotting carcass, animated by neither your own principles nor anybody else’s, give up on voting your way out of the problem, and be the change you want to see in the world.

Reduce your own consumption of fossil fuels. Travel by bicycle, bus, and train when you can. Learn to grow your own food, and to get by with fewer frivolous consumer goods. Live in a small, well-insulated house. And so forth.

This won’t change the overall direction of the country. But if you do it, then you, personally, will not be a part of the problem anymore. Also, you’ll learn useful survival skills, and when the whole country is dragged, slowly but surely, into the deindustrial future, you’ll be ready.


  1. Lots of good, if uncomfortable, sense here.
    And a very important maxim for life is: always hear the bad news first.

    The thing is, no one knows the future. When I was Wes's age, sixty years ago, if someone had written a science-fiction novel predicting a stock market in Moscow, homosexual policemen in San Francisco, biological males competing with women in athletic contests, a world Ilamist upsurge that would seize control of states and fly airplanes into our skyscrapers ... such a novel would have been rejected, with loud scornful laughter, by every publisher then extant. Even predicting the World Wide Web or its equivalent -- a basically purely technical development and one that was just a linear projection of what was happening at the time -- was beyond the capacities of the writers of that day, and they were very clever people.

    So why should we think we can do any better? We can't. No one knows the future. It's hard enough to 'predict' technical/scientific developments, and as for social developments ... where, as George Soros long ago noted, awareness on the part of the subjects of predictions -- what he calls 'recursivity' -- has to be part of the eqauation ... it's impossible.

    What is certainly true is that those who assume a continued relatively benign social/political scene in the US ... a continuation of the post-1945 years ... are likely to be disappointed. We're already in the ante-room of the new building that is being erected by the Left as they tear down the old one.

    --- Continued in next post ---

  2. But ... it's also wrong to assume that there will be no favorable developments. In 1959 I attended a lecture (at a summer school for high school kids) where I was introduced to the term 'magneto-hydrodymanics': the speaker described the R&D going on to make a workable fusion power generator -- all we had to do was figure out how to magnetically squeeze the hydrogen plasma 'jelly' to keep it from touching the walls of the container. He admitted it was a very difficult engineering task, and would probably take ten years to solve. I attended a similar lecture in London in about 1990: this time the prediction was more realistic: we wouldn't have workng fusion power for another 25 years. You might say there is a trend here, but ... who knows?

    We might see a great leap forward in genetics, and related technologies, allowing us to choose the genome of our descendants. No more low-IQ, low-impulse-control thuglets ...your baby can look like you, but have an IQ of 150, and the temperment of Nelson Mandela.

    Maybe the improvements in solar power and the storage of electricity will carry on, until we can make a relative painless transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

    Or maybe not. Maybe things will get much worse: a Covid-25 with a long latency period and high infectiveness and ultimate death rate.

    Wes is right in his implicit criticism of much of conservatism -- which word, to repeat, describes a disposition, not an elaborated ideology.

    Among the various dispositions that many conservatives have is a 'Mr Macho' one, that laughs at things like municipal bike paths. (National Review, not the worst journal from this point of view, carried an article laughing at what it called 'The Bike Path Left'. [https://www.nationalreview.com/2005/02/rise-bike-path-left-jonah-goldberg/] (That article is well worth reading ... if you've only come of political awareness in the last five years, you will find much of it incomprehensble -- not the scorn for municipal bike baths, but the actions of the leaders of the Democratic Party then, to someone who would now be a relative moderate.)

    A rational conservative movement would aggressively embrace any new technology that promised to give the US energy independence, especially a 'clean' one -- at least to the point of subsidzing research in it. And it would also champion 'municipal socialism', where municipal government ownership is the best solution to providing a good environment: there is absolutely nothing at all un-American or pro-Communist about bike paths. (I wonder how many conservatives are familiar with the terms 'public good', 'free rider', and 'market failure'?)

    But, far more importantly, a rational conservative movement would begin a serious discussion about how the US should respond to the rise of China. Only Henry Kissinger, bless his cold realistic heart, has said anything sensible about this.

    Well, no one knows the future. Wes's final paragraphs about what you should do to prepare for the future should become the main subject of a future post. I think some of his ideas are fundamentally wrong-headed, while some are right on target. But they deserve a full-fledged discussion.

    Finally -- I just note, for the record, that there are two ways of viewing society: one sees it as the vector sum of several hundred million basically unchanging personalities, which are themselves viewed statically: usually, as being Virtuous, or not.

    The other sees it as in motion, responding to both long term secular trends, and short term historical accidents like the personalities of its leaders, with individual personal characters being both contributors to, and products of, the events in this society. And in this view, the existence of an organization, created around a basically-valid analysis of society, can play a critical role in what happens in the future.

    --- Continued (and concluded) -- in the next post ---


  3. At the moment, we desperately need such an organization, which would have the sole aim (at the moment) of helping individuals prepare for a future which sees serious breakdowns of the social order, whether caused by nature or man.

    And in particular, it would help them form functioning local groups, which would have not just the extra leverage that any group gives an individual, but which could take advantage of the diverse specializations that such a group would embrace.

    While I'm on this subject, and to conclude, let me urge everyone who thinks that relying on the local supermarket, power station, police force, and ambulance service indefinitely, come what may ... is not a good idea ... should get ahold of this two volume set: Civil Defense Manual, available at CivilDefenseManual.com -- it's written by people who know what they're talking about.

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