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Peak Oil: Suburbia’s looming fire-sale

14 September 2004, Wellington

Peak Oil: Suburbia’s looming fire-sale

On the forthcoming energy crunch Jim Kunstler argues,
”Many of the beliefs and accepted dogmas of the late 20th century will fall away as a new and very different reality asserts itself.”

One of the reasons a great many people, policy makers and leaders find it impossible to face the issue of peak oil is because it challenges the very beliefs that we argue are a priori truths about industrialised western societies, without requirement for justification, our fundamental birth-rights.

These beliefs, that the society our children will inherit will somehow be richer, more open and peaceful and economically more prosperous. That technology and coming generations will solve the collective global problems we face. We truly believe in the fallacy of endless substitution. That we will discover and liberate energy sources cheaper and more productive as existing ones run out. In New Zealand many of us favour leaving such issue’s to the “market” to sort out. After all, the stone-age didn’t end because we ran out of stone.

An acute understanding of the fundamentals of energy and its intrinsic relationship with society instructs us differently however. The post-globalist, post-cheap-oil age will seriously challenge our deeply seated assumptions. We don’t have to run out of oil for life to be up-ended. We merely need to experience a supply squeeze and a reasonable price spike for all the mechanisms that support our modern life to be seriously destabilised. This situation is quickly approaching. The world is currently experiencing growth in oil use that is stretching available supply to the absolute limit. This is occurring when the global production of oil is about to move over it’s all time peak, after which it will be in permanent and increasing decline.

The public of New Zealand are about to get the shock of their lives. Currently there is no national leadership in regard to this issue. It is entirely likely that an aggrieved angry public will lash out as the instant erosion of lifestyle is paralleled by increasing fuel prices and shortages.

The resultant disorder will require an urgent downscaling of virtually all the activities in New Zealand. The suburban lifestyles many of us have invested our life’s earnings in, represent arguably the largest misallocation of resources since the Second World War. We will be forced to live closer to work, within walking or cycling distance.

As national and international supply chains are affected by disrupted oil markets the days of driving your 4WD to the Warehouse for some recreational shopping will quickly come to an end. The emergence of such massive discounters and franchisers was seen as a huge boon to mass consumerism however many of us failed to notice the losses incurred to society as the demise of localised retail systems followed. Such centralised national chains are ultimately dependant upon an infrastructure both local and international, that require heavily oil reliant distribution channels to be operationally seamless.

We will need to re-establish interdependent localised communities based on moving merchandise including food and produce shorter distances. Rail systems will have to be developed to replace defunct long-haul trucking systems.

Our agricultural systems face similar restructuring. Many of our food products are mass produced hundreds of kilometres away from cities and trucked to New World’s and Pack & Save stores country-wide. The re-emergence of market-gardens and localised agri-business will be necessary. Interdependent multi-mode distribution and transportation channels will have to be re-established if we are to feed ourselves. Farming will be performed on a much smaller scale. Access to fossil-fuel based fertilisers and pesticides will be tenuous and rather than a trendy luxury, small scale organic farming will become a necessity.

The changes we face, the end of globalisation bought about by the emerging dysfunction and peak in world oil production will not be pleasant. We will be forced to change our living arrangements in ways that we never envisioned in the golden years of the 1990s.

Suburban life has no future!

In fact many people will find that their lifelong financial investment in this car-dependent living arrangement becomes worthless almost overnight. Kunstler argues that we could well see a mad scramble to “get-out” (of suburbia). Unfortunately history reminds us that we are likely to cling to the tragic delusion that somehow “things will get back to normal”. The defence of the suburban way of life will become a bizarre yet futile exercise. It is very likely to precipitate appalling political situations. As it becomes increasingly evident that it is impossible to maintain our suburban utopia communities will likely turn to fanatical politicians preaching a “business as usual” message.

Whether we like it or not we are on the road to an extended harsh period of austerity and consequent re-adjustment. The sooner as a nation we face up to this dilemma the less the shock will be.

Powerless NZ 14 September 2004

PowerLess NZ is a growing group of scientists, energy analysts and concerned citizens whose principle objectives are to alert both Government and the general public to New Zealand’s looming energy crisis. Our aim is to support development of renewable energy resources at both a private and public level, as well as encourage a firm move away from dependence upon fossil fuels. More information about global peak oil and resource depletion can be found at http://www.oilcrash.com/

ENDS


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