Lesson of the Day

By David L. Brown

According to an article in the New York Times online edition today, some experts predict gasoline will hit four dollars a gallon by this Spring. The comments were based on the fact that crude oil closed today at $100.08 a barrel, an all-time closing high that firmly puts the world price of oil above the one hundred dollar mark. According to The Times:

On Tuesday, diesel prices rose to a record $3.60 a gallon, compared with $2.62 a gallon last year.

For a decade, rising oil prices had failed to dent global economic growth. In the United States, consumers absorbed the higher costs thanks to easy credit and rising prosperity, while in developing countries, government subsidies helped ease the pain. The rise in energy prices was a result of growing demand around the world.

The price of oil has quadrupled in six years, and Tuesday’s close was not far below the inflation-adjusted all-time high set in April 1980, after the Iranian revolution. That record, $39.50 a barrel, equals $103.76 in today’s money.

We have been talking about oil here at Star Phoenix Base for a long time. I was introduced to the subject in-depth about 15 years ago by my fellow author Val Germann, and no doubt he will have something to say about this latest news. What he introduced me to back in the early 1990s was the Hubbert Curve, a classic bell curve which predicted that oil supplies would eventually peak and then decline. In fact, according to the Hubbert Curve, they were seen to peak … right … about … now! As indeed they are doing.

The Times decries the fact that the rising oil prices come at a bad time for the economy, as if this were just some unfortunate coincidence. In fact, that is rather like putting dessert before the main course. The steadily rising price of petroleum, which is at many times its historic price relative to other commodities, lies at the root of the problem. Our economy is wide open to dire difficulties precisely because it is so completely reliant upon an ever increasing flood of petroleum — a flood that is turning into a faltering flow.

Well, the economy probably deserves what it gets, because for many of us who were paying attention, and based on Dr. M. King Hubbert’s work more than a half century ago, the situation in which we find ourselves should be no surprise. We have had decades to prepare for this and we have royally squandered the opportunity, particularly here in the U.S. where we as a nation have steadfastly continued to build gas guzzling cars and energy inefficient houses and to use oil and its many products as if there were no tomorrow. Now, there well may be “no tomorrow,” at least for the world as we know it.

There is a simple everyday word to describe what we, collectively, have engaged in concerning our energy future. Come on, class, let’s spell it all together: S-T-U-P-I-D-I-T-Y. Right, stupidity. That shall be our text for today.

Of course, things are never that simple and as always we must factor in greed, ignorance, and even fundamentalist ravings about the riches of the Earth as a gift to humankind from some all-wise deity, ours to use as we wish before going to our heavenly reward. But in the end, stupidity is as good a word as any to describe the situation.

Now, most of we “ordinary folks” can tell ourselves, “Gee, who woulda thunk it?” Well, anyone who has a grasp of simple common sense should have realized that oil was not likely to be available in endless supply forever. In fact, when the oil production peak was reached in the United States in the 1970s, just as Hubbert had predicted, that should have sent a clear message to even the most dimwitted among us. But did it? No, it did not, because we in our slothful and unimaginative ways wanted to continue to live our lives just as we had become accustomed — and anyway, there were all those nice friendly and somewhat naive Arabs with just oodles of oil, literal oceans of the stuff, just waiting for us to pump it out of their sandy lands at a price so cheap that it might as well be free.

When the British lost the Revolutionary War and Cornwallis surrendered his sword at Yorktown, the Redcoat band played a piece of music titled “The World Turned Upside Down.” I don’t know if bands these days still have that piece in their repertory, but they should because that is exactly what is happening now. The United States, a couple of centuries further on from their defeat of King George’s army and navy, finds itself a fading power and all because of the love of oil and all the things it makes possible. Our world is in the process of turning upside down.

One of our present candidates for the presidency has based his message on the word “change” (although he has yet to tell us exactly what he means by that, whether it will be good change or bad change, whether it will even be necessary, a smart thing to do, or just change for its own sake). Well, I can safely predict that we are going to see change all right, a lot of change, change that is sweeping over us like that tsunami or Hurricane Katrina. And no national political “leader” will have any say about it, for this is change that is coming no matter what we do, whether we like it or not. And, it is not likely to be “good” change, not at all.

Four dollar gas? Yes, four dollar gas. It may not come this spring, but it will be coming. And it will be followed by five dollar gas, six dollar gas, and perhaps even ten, fifteen or twenty dollar gas in the sweet bye and bye. And that, class, will bring change upon us like ravening wolves on a flock of innocent and defenseless lambs.

Already the desire of our nation to keep on trucking is leading to a global food disaster as farm crops are being turned into ethanol, a poor substitute for the real thing. Third World countries are lurching toward famine like helpless dinosaurs. In so-called emerging economies such as China and India, the current plan is to replicate on a grand scale the Western economies of the last century — an impossible dream since the ascendant West rode on a tidal wave of cheap and abundant oil and other natural resources that are no longer either cheap or abundant. Those plans are doomed to bitter disappointment.

So there is enough stupidity to go around, not just here in the U.S. but also in the minds of Chinese and Indian people who imagine they will soon have a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. Hmm, and where have we heard that slogan before? Oh, yes, the presidential campaign of Herbert Hoover, right before something called The Great Depression.

Well, folks, the Great Depression was just a blip on the radarscope compared to what is coming now. This is the time when the ever-rising trajectory of human population, wealth, and ambition pauses at the top of its parabolic path and ever so slowly begins the downward rush back to Earth. What lies ahead is the Endless Depression, and will be seen from the distant future as the modern day equivalent of the Cretaceous-Tertiary Boundary, that geologic turning point that marked the end of the Dinosaurs (which in the present situation would be us) and the beginning of an era of vast and far reaching change.

President Bush and others have given lip service to the need to cut our economic dependence upon petroleum — he called it an “addiction to oil,” which is a pretty accurate assessment. But so far we have seen lots of hot air and little action. There are no twelve step programs in evidence to help us shake the oily monkey off of our backs.

There are two ways in which inevitable change can come to a world addicted to oil. First, of course, is through wise and farsighted action to anticipate and prevent economic disaster. We had our opportunity to take that path, and we chose not to. Hubbert’s warning went unheeded.

The second course is through the good services of Mother Nature, who has her mysterious ways. That is almost certainly the way change is going to come to the world now as we careen down the back side of the Hubbert Curve without a parachute.

It was no fault of the dinosaurs that they did not foresee the approach of a huge asteroid that would doom their kind. After all, they had tiny brains and no concept of physics, chemistry, economics or astronomy. But we humans could have done better, we really could have. The coming oil peak has been right there in plain sight for nearly three generations, and in effect we as a species have done no more to prepare and stave off coming disaster than the long-extinct dinosaurs that lived their pitiful existences right up to the very day that disaster struck and changed the world forever.

So does brain size really matter? Perhaps not, because stupidity apparently comes in one-size-fits-all.

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