National Commentary

Politics In The Great Transition

Someday there will be thousands of scholarly books on how political systems coped or failed during the transition from fossil fuel-sustained civilizations to that which is to come. For now, however, there are practically none as only a relative handful of the 6.7 billion on earth today have even a glimmer that the great transition is underway.

Indeed, it will be many years before we begin to appreciate the dimensions of how the various forms of government, (parliamentary democracies, theocracies, military dictatorships, “Communism” etc.) that have evolved around the world will cope with the great multi-decadal transition to civilizations that can function with little or no fossil fuel. Some already are predicting anarchy as industries, businesses, and monetary system crumble without their accustomed sources of energy; some talk of the great wars that will be fought over dwindling energy resources; and some foresee a return to pastoral towns akin to life in the 18th and 19th centuries – albeit after much social turmoil.

Here in America, which reached the zenith of the oil age (with an annual consumption of 1000 gallons per capita a few years back) we are already starting to feel the early shockwaves of the great transition – and it is not pretty.  The next 5-10 years will likely be divided into two distinct periods, and maybe more. In the first period few will have any understanding of what is happening to them. A good guess would be that 95+ percent of the people living to earth today do not understand that the oil age has started drawing to a close and that massive change stemming there from are already underway. So far the major manifestations of this transition is that the price of oil has moved up from $10 to $20 a barrel at the beginning of the decade to $70 to $80 today, and of course the “Great Recession” which was triggered by an excess of borrowing but with significantly higher oil prices not helping the situation. That the oil price spike of 2008 was almost universally believed to be caused by speculators, greedy oil companies, or OPEC and not supply/demand getting out of balance is evidence of the misinformation which abounds.

The second phase of our great transition will come a few years later when it has become obvious to all that the world’s oil supply has started to decline. When this day comes, the political debates should shift to a search for solutions to the reality of surviving without fossil fuels. Concerns about “burdensome” taxes, social issues, creating good jobs, and setting the country to growing again will melt in the face of concerns about national survival and social stability.

No one and no political party can put oil, coal and other minerals back into the ground.

For now however, we are mired in a period when politicians debate and run for office seemingly without an appreciation of serious underlying issues such as resource depletion, overpopulation, and global warming. For now the political debate is shaped in terms of the short vs. long run benefits for the voters – with the short-run beating concerns for future generations hands down. Any action that is perceived to hurt the pocket books of one’s current constituents such as increasing the cost of energy or raising taxes is considered a non-starter.

Some 30 years ago the major political parties in the US stopped worrying about federal deficits when it became apparent that the voters neither knew or cared much about the subject, and certainly were not interested in punishing politicians at the polls for excessive federal spending. As real wages stopped growing in the 1970s, Americans switched to massive borrowing to satisfy their endless quest for steadily improving lifestyles. Three years ago however, it became time to pay the piper, when the US financial system nearly collapsed from speculation and excessive credit extension. The Bush and the Obama administration both believed that the possibility of a collapse of the major financial institutions was intolerable and spent trillions on various prop-up schemes and bailouts. Whether this was necessary or did little by temporarily stem the problem will have to wait the judgment of history.

The election of 2008 removed the Republicans from the White House and much of the Congress replacing them with Democrats who in the main followed the Bush administration’s policies on bailing out the financial institutions. The Democrats, however, also spent hundreds of billions in an effort to restore economic growth, save failing automobile companies, and attempting to “stabilize” the housing market.

Today’s American voter clearly is demanding instant results from whomever it puts into office. While we may or may not ever know if the trillions allocated to financial and other bailouts really did save us permanently or temporarily from a global financial collapse, it is becoming clear that that the $800 billion spent on stimulus does not seem to be enough to revive economic growth solve the growing unemployment problem. Election campaigns are now based on challengers not being the incumbents – and little else of substance.

We currently seem about to embark on another round of throwing the rascals out. If as seems likely the economy continues to slide, we could be seeing a pattern developing in which the voters throw out one party and then the other in a vain search for somebody who can return the American dream of ever expanding prosperity.

This of course is not possible. No one and no political party can put oil, coal, and other minerals back in the ground. Not the Democrats, or Republicans, or Greens, or Tea Partiers, or Communists, or Social Democrats, or Fascists, or Monarchists can quickly stop the glaciers and ice caps from melting, the seas from rising, and droughts and floods from reducing the food supply.

For the foreseeable future, America seems destined for political gridlock while politicians argue issues that were appropriate for a bygone era. The only solution to this is likely to be a great shock that gets everyone’s attention. As debilitating consequences from global warming are likely decades away, a permanent oil price spike seems like the way we will get everyone’s attention. Such a shock may be one, three, or five years away, but it will come and with it radical changes in the political landscape.


Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.