National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: America in Transition

Every now and then it is useful to step back and review the range of issues facing us here in America as we enter what is likely to be decades of unremitting change. If our only problem were imminent depletion of oil supplies, then mitigation of that problem might be possible, but peak oil is only one of a dozen difficulties that seem to be coming to a head in the near future.

Unlike peak oil many of these are openly discussed in the press and the halls of Congress on a daily basis. In the public’s perception right now, America’s number one problem is the economy which will soon be entering its fourth year of stagnation. There is little to no growth, jobs continue slip away, and nearly half the US population has been affected in one way or another. Despite periodic proclamations of “recovery” there is no real end in sight and even the optimistic observers are speaking in terms of the coming economic turnaround happening years from now rather than months.

The course of global warming is the major unknown that if carried to an extreme could threaten the survival of many life forms on earth. So far there have been few serious effects from rising temperatures on the U.S. proper – warm summers, scattered floods and droughts, and the occasional damaging hurricane. Interestingly the most noticeable phenomenon to come from global warming has been the creation of a great political football.

As slowing carbon emissions is going to very expensive, a line has been drawn between those who are worried about what is going to happen to the grandchildren and those who are interested in the prospects for the job market going into the next election. So far the fear of higher energy costs has stymied real progress on emissions so the glaciers and ice caps keep melting and melting. In today’s America a dire consequence that is decades away receives little attention.

America has simply had it too good for the last 150 years.

The list of America’s ills goes on — too many people for the jobs available; over fertilization; over fishing; manufacturing has moved to Asia; an aging population; and the infrastructure is wearing out.

If one had to pick out the top problem right now, it might just be the political gridlock in Washington and many key state capitols. America has simply had it too good for the last 150 years. With the exception of the 1930’s the vast majority of Americans have known nothing but good to excellent times. Unlike most of Europe and much of Asia that was devastated by World War II, most of our fellow countrymen have not known the hardships of living in debris piles with nothing to eat.

Voters to not want to hear of anything less than prosperity and endless economic growth. With information on public affairs reduced to sound bites, most Americans no longer have the knowledge or the appetite to think about and vote on problems for which there is no quick or obvious solution. There is a great political vacuum that is filling with demagoguery. Elections are no longer discussions of viable policy options, but are mostly demonization of opponents and cries for a return to a romanticized past.

Few seem to appreciate that today’s problems are not the kind that can be solved by a change in incumbency. As we have seen in the past year, even a trillion dollars of stimulus spending cannot overcome 40 years of excess lending. No politician can put oil back in in the ground where it can be cheaply and conveniently exploited. With every passing year it seems increasingly unlikely that the world will come to agreement on restricting carbon emissions.

When all the current problems are put together, you add in higher energy costs and tighter supplies, the outlook for America in the next ten or even five years is not good. Somewhere along the way there will be some sort of great political or economic shock. While it seems likely that this shock will be another oil price spike, there are other possibilities such as war, a terrorist attack, an assassination, social unrest, or perhaps some form of financial collapse. Until that day comes, it seems likely that America will bump along amidst political gridlock, living off capital acquired in the past with little hope of preparing in any meaningful way for oil depletion.


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