National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: Civil Unrest

Before grappling with 2009, it might be useful to remind ourselves that there is a dark side to what lies ahead.

There was a little flurry in the news last week when it was discovered that the Army War College had released a report talking about preparing for civil unrest in the U.S. When you read the report, it turns out to be yet another warning about generals preparing for the last war. It devotes only three pages to the idea that the Army might soon find itself so embroiled in helping local authorities cope with civil unrest that international commitments, such as the war on terrorism, could become secondary concerns.

Since the close of the Civil War, America has enjoyed nearly 150 years of domestic tranquility. There were, of course the Indian wars, some labor disputes and a handful of urban riots in recent decades, but these were isolated and did not last for long. Even during the great depression of the 1930’s America’s social fabric stayed largely intact. Signs that these idyllic decades may be coming to close are starting to arise. In the last few weeks the deteriorating economic situation has seen serious disturbances in Greece and Thailand. We are beginning to read of disturbances in Russia and China.

Most realists foresee that 2009 will be a bad year with stock markets declining, unemployment rising, real estate values falling, government bailouts continuing, deflation morphing into inflation, the dollar falling, and oil prices rising. Thus far the economic downturn has not had a serious social impact. However, food banks are running short, shoplifting and other property crimes are on the rise, child neglect is increasing as is infant mortality. However, considering the pace at which people have been thrown out of work during the last year most seem to be getting by – so far.

Of all the world’s nations, America is probably the worst prepared to deal with deep, prolonged economic hardships, for more of us have disconnected from 19th century, rural, somewhat self-sufficient, lifestyles than in most other countries. In the 1930’s many found that they could still return to the family farm, where food, shelter, and meaningful work was available. In 2010 that option exists for very few; we have become dependent on a complex infrastructure fueled by oil for our food, water, clothing and warmth. Start reducing the flow of oil and increasing numbers of us are going to become increasingly desperate.

There are too many turns in the twisting paths that the current economic and oil depletion crises could take to speculate on the details of what is likely to happen. However, there are many potential “failed states” around that we are likely to have concrete examples, shortly, of what happens in the 21st century when civil order breaks down.

It is clear that we are already seeing the opening ripples of what might turn out to be the major social problem of the century – caring for large numbers of destitute people. Most of the social nets in America such as unemployment insurance, charities or shelters have strict time or limited resources. Already charity and religious contributions are starting to drop.

As the situation worsens, it is going to be much cheaper for governments at all levels to provide essential food, shelter and other services, rather than wait for desperate people to start stealing and become ensnared in the criminal justice system. One of the key benchmarks of the next few years is how quickly governments will redeploy resources away from 20th Century priorities such as space travel, expensive weapons systems, and highways towards simply getting people through the decades of transition from current lifestyles. The change will not be an easy one.

Before we get to mobs in the streets, we are likely to go through a time of increasing petty crime and the ensuing pressures on the criminal justice system. Somebody is going to have to think through the appropriate response to major increases in shoplifting and burglaries by people who are trying to feed children after having exhausted all other avenues of assistance.

It is likely that who is kept in prison and for what is going to have to be rethought. State and local revenues are already dropping rapidly and the day is not far away when choices between funding school systems and maintaining vast prison systems will need to be addressed. Alternative forms of deterring criminal behavior and forms of punishment will need to be devised. Indeed the economic situation could deteriorate so rapidly that some of these changes may need to be made in months rather than years.

It is likely that part of the of the solution to getting hundreds of millions through decades of shortages will involve increasing infringement on what many now consider their civil liberties. Better forms of personal identification will be necessary. It is likely that rationing of many things we take for granted such as fuel, food, medical services and travel and even places of residence may become necessary. Other societies have found such measures necessary in times of crisis.

America has not faced a serious domestic crisis for 150 years. We have never faced a situation where 300 million of us bound up in a complex and interdependent society has had to make major involuntary changes in our lifestyles.