Prices have moved to up from their traditional $10-20 a barrel range to roughly four times higher. Looking behind this number, it does not take long to learn that world oil production has been static for the last five years and that demand for oil in China, India, the oil-exporters, and a few other developing countries is moving up rapidly. Indeed, a few knowledgeable observers are beginning to say that it was the rapid increase in oil prices and the concomitant inflation and higher interest rates between 2002 and 2006 that started the ball rolling towards our current global recession. The great oil price spike to $147 a barrel in the summer of 2008 was the icing on the cake. The great financial/credit bubble that had been growing in the U.S. and Europe for several decades began to deflate.
If one cares to look still further into the situation one would learn that a consensus of knowledgeable observers is saying that total world oil production will likely start to decline within the next three or four years causing another great oil price spike and incalculable damage to the world’s economy in its present configuration. Within the next ten years, the American (and in most other countries) way of life as it developed in the last century of abundant and cheap energy will become unsustainable and far reaching changes will have to take place.
In a perfect world, such a drastic shift in our economic and societal prospects would be at the top of the political agenda. Elections would be fought over the best way to transition our economy and civilization to surviving with reduced and much more expensive energy. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world and three federal elections soon will have come and gone without a hint of public debate as to the real causes and feasible solutions to our coming affliction.
With little or no understanding of what is happening to them, and with many acting out of near desperation as their economic prospects plummet, a substantial portion of the electorate seems to have chosen the path of throwing incumbents of both political parties out of office. They seem to be hoping that some new, even unknown and unqualified, face can bring back the prosperity of the age of cheap oil. The voters, however, cannot really be blamed, for thus far no major political figure or opinion setting part of the mass media has stepped forward to explain what is happening to us and what are realistic courses of action.
Presidents, of course, have to balance many competing forces. Since the nature of our coming problem became obvious to many five or six years ago, both the Bush and the Obama administrations have concluded that it is best to muddle along and not say anything to disturb the national polity. Both administrations have laid out the prospects of a return to the good times and economic growth that we in America have known for much of our lifetimes. The calculation has been that telling it like it is – complete with the prospect of little or no economic growth for a long time and the growing impoverishment of most of the population — would be at best political suicide and at worst would crash the stock markets leading to instant misery and impoverishment for millions.
It seems almost certain now that we are actually going to drive ourselves over a great economic cliff.
When the Obama administration came into office nearly two years ago, they decided that in contrast to the Republican policies of tax cuts, a large dose of Keynesian deficit financing was all they could really do to help the economy recover. In reality, the massive dose of government spending seems to have only slowed the decline and did little to halt or reverse the steady rise in true unemployment that some unbiased observers now put in the vicinity of 22 percent.
The unwillingness of both parties to deal with the real issue — that the fossil fuel age is coming to an end and that we must rapidly restructure our economy and lifestyles — means that sensible, proposals are completely absent from the political dialogue. Instead, the campaign of 2008 has degenerated into one of demonizing opponents and/or calling for a return to the values of the 18th century. No matter which party gains control of Congress next week, the inevitable outcome is still more gridlock, more economic decline, and rising unemployment.
How is all this going to play out and how much longer will it take to set the country on some sensible transition to a world where, at least for a while, there will be much reduced availability of affordable energy? A change of heart by a President who soon will be up for reelection does not seem likely. Should he sit down in front of the cameras some night and explain the realities of depleting fossil fuels to American people, the results are likely to be bad. His opponents would immediate denounce such thoughts as un-American in a land where growth and optimism has always prevailed. The likelihood of any meaningful proposals for national action especially if they involved any new taxes or any perceived costs whatsoever to the hard-pressed voter would be dead on arrival.
It seems almost certain now that we are actually going to drive ourselves over a great economic cliff with banners of “growth,” “jobs,” “return to the good old days,” and “no taxes” streaming in the wind. It is going to be one hell of a train wreck – unlike anything the American people have ever known.
Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.