Letters at 3AM

Things to Come: Part 2

Letters at 3AM
Illustration by Jason Stout

Long after we've stopped expecting anything intelligent from Congress, a conservative from Maryland has turned the tables on us all. On March 14, and again on April 20, Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett gave two extraordinary speeches in the House (available on his Web site or from the Congressional Record). Bartlett tried to make his colleagues understand that the United States must change drastically to accommodate the coming scarcity of oil. His speech received scant coverage and prompted no action. Nevertheless, Congressman Bartlett represents a healthy sign: People of all political persuasions are beginning to face reality.

Bartlett summed up the problem and suggested the solution. "Oil companies have admitted that their estimates of the reserves were exaggerated." Demand for oil is outpacing supply and refining capacity. This will cripple our economy's ability to grow. "We have a debt that we cannot service. It will be essentially impossible to service that debt if our economy does not continue to grow." Government itself, then, will be severely hampered. "At $100 or $200 a barrel" other oil sources, like Canadian sand tar, may become economically viable, but that will take an enormous investment (and, a point he did not make, a great deal of time to get up and running, so scarcity in the short term will occur anyway). "We're also running out of topsoil, without which we need oil-derived fertilizer to grow food." "The green revolution" (advances in agribusiness that enable us to feed so large a population) has been "very largely the result of our intensive use of oil." A "transition to sustainability" is a matter of survival, but it "will not happen [by] applying market forces alone." (Yes, this is a Republican speaking.) Bartlett pointed out that "the hydroelectric and nuclear power industries did not arise spontaneously from market forces alone. They were the product of a purposeful partnership of public and private entities focused on the public good. This is what we have to do relative to alternatives." He proposed "a Manhattan-type project focusing on renewables." "The real challenge now is to use conservation and efficiency to reduce our demand for oil so that we have enough oil left to make the investments on alternatives and renewables [that] can take the place of oil."

Of course, Congressman Bartlett wasn't heeded last spring. It's surprising he was even given the time to make such a presentation. But next year, or the next, many will be making the same speech, in diners and flea markets as well as city councils and Congress.

"We live in a plastic world," Bartlett noted, "and all that plastic is made from oil." Look about you and notice everything made of plastic. All that's about to change. It will be evident very soon that we cannot afford to wrap our garbage and leftovers in oil. We cannot afford to package dental floss and hotdog buns and every damn thing in oil. We cannot afford an entertainment industry based on oil, with its plastic goods and packaging. We may find a way to continue affording computers made of oil, but we certainly can't put up with razors and pens and Lord-knows-what made of oil. We can no longer afford a disposable society. Idealists have been saying this for years. Realists will chime in soon. What was idealism in an era of deceptive plenty will be realism in a continuing emergency of scarcity.

The petrochemical industry, which Rep. Bartlett would dearly like to save, is doomed. When oil reaches $100 and $200 a barrel, and it will, most plastic products will rise beyond the means of most consumers. Who'll spend $25 for a box of garbage bags, or a pack of razors, when it costs $150 to pump your car? The market for many plastics will dry up.

The most crucial uses of oil and natural gas are agriculture, heating, and essential transport. As Bartlett pointed out, "We are just on the verge of not being able to feed the world. Tonight about one-fifth of the world will go to bed hungry." Whether by market forces or government edict, as the price of oil rises its prime use must be agriculture – while oil-free modes of agriculture are developed on a fast track. Americans aren't much concerned with famine in Africa, but food shortages here will get prompt attention. People across the political spectrum will be screaming for government regulation – and for smart rationing. The far right needs to eat just like anybody.

Eating habits will change. As the conservative Mr. Bartlett noted, "The time will come when you will not be able to eat the pig that ate the corn, because there is at least 10 times as much energy in the corn that the pig ate as you are going to get out of the pig by eating him. We actually do a lot [toward conservation] by living lower on the food chain." The same goes for cattle. When beef is $20 and $30 a pound – and it will be – hamburger joints will be a thing of the past; arable land and ethanol-capable grains will be far too dear to waste on cows. Sugar will be too valuable to waste on sweets. Brazil, the world's largest sugar exporter, is already using an unexpectedly large portion of its crop to produce ethanol, pushing American sugar prices to new highs (The New York Times, Sept. 28, p.C6); we'll see the day when sugar is rationed as a precious energy commodity and a bottle of Coke will be rare and expensive. With all these changes we'll be eating less and healthier. Not much meat, hardly any sugar, lots of grains and beans, plus vegetables, fruit, and fish. A Mediterranean-Mexican-Asian diet, enforced by circumstance. Not a bad thing at all, in the long run.

Oil scarcity will prove that the power of global corporations has been exaggerated both by capitalists and anti-capitalists. Not that corporations don't wield great power, but their power is, at its base, fragile. They must play so many ends against so many middles at once that even a slight drop in profits throws them into confusion, and many are not flexible enough to sustain a deep, long-term drop. Their viability depends upon cheap transport. It doesn't matter how cheaply you produce in Asia if it's expensive to get your product to an Iowa mall. Outfits like Wal-Mart face a dim future. Wal-Mart posted lower-than-expected profits in August because people were driving less. Wal-Mart is made of plastic. Walk its aisles and all you see is plastic. When the price of plastic goes through the roof, in tandem with the price of transport (80% of Wal-Mart's goods are made in China), goodbye Wal-Mart. Many major corporations will find themselves in similar straits.

The good news is that it will become not only viable but essential to manufacture locally. It will be cheaper to move raw materials by rail to be manufactured into products locally than it will be to transport finished products halfway across the world by ship and truck. Jobs will come back, though they won't be the jobs that left. Labor prices won't reach anything like their old levels, but there will be many new jobs – however, not as many as needed to replace all the jobs lost to pricey oil.

But other jobs will be created unpredictably by the new situation, for manufacturing will become not only local but personal. As Jim Kunstler writes, "The salvage of existing material is going to be a huge business. The commercial highway strips and the Big Box pods of today may be the mines of tomorrow. ... A lot of the retail of the future will consist of recycled, second-hand goods, some of it expertly refurbished. To some extent America will become Yard Sale Nation. ... There will be a lot of work for people in many levels and layers of activity: the scroungers, the fixers, the wholesalers, the brokers, the sellers." The handy neighbor who fashions this-and-that into that-and-this – an object you can use – will become a prime supplier. So will people who can sew. Not to mention local moonshiners (for rationed grain and costly shipping will, alas, deprive me of my Irish whiskey). There will be a large black market – or rather gray, since it will be everywhere and involve every possible item from batteries to bullets. The disposable society will become the scavenging society, the inventive society.

Life will be a lot less predictable and a lot more for real. The greatest art will be the art of survival. Your credit rating won't matter (you won't have one), but your word will matter a great deal. It always does in an informal economy. Careers, as we know them, will be a thing of the past, but so will boredom; most people will be in the same boat, swapping services and skills and not knowing what tomorrow may bring. Ours will be a leaky boat, in need of constant attention. It'll be intense, interesting, and often dangerous – and that's when people feel most alive. Folks will look back at how we live now and wonder at the triviality that, as a society, we allowed ourselves to settle for. If we survive, there will be many great stories to tell your grandchildren. end story

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economy, oil, Roscoe Bartlett, Jim Kunstler, petrochemical industry, sustainability

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