Our 'Cheap Oil Fiesta' Is Over

It's the end of the world as we know it, and for a little while, at least, it sounds lovely.

Imagine a world where the air is cleaner because fewer people are driving cars. Where you can hop on a train to visit your friends in the West River Valley or spend a day in Boston, arriving refreshed instead of wiped out from highway driving. Where chemical-drenched agribusiness is dead, and food is grown locally. Where big box stores are gone, and the shops on Main Street sell the things you need. Where small schoolhouses again dot the hills of tight little communities.

This vision harks back to a simpler time, perhaps one directed by Robert Capra and starring Jimmy Stewart. But it may not turn out to have a happy ending.

James Kunstler came through our town over the weekend, giving a talk at Marlboro College on Saturday and sharing his semi-apocalyptic view of a post-cheap oil future. He's talking about the time when "our cheap energy fiesta" is over, and his vision has a certain relevant ring in a week when gas prices creep up over the $4 a gallon mark and truckers in Spain tie up all the roads to protest paying over $10 a gallon for diesel.

Already, many of us are driving more fuel efficient cars, converting to fry oil, trying to piggyback errands in town and, in general, driving less to save gas. And many more of us are worrying how we're going to heat our homes next winter.

Kunstler, an enemy of sprawl, has been writing about energy issues for the past five years. He's not coming at this topic from a right, left, conservative, liberal, progressive, Democrat or Republican perspective. In his opinion, we've all screwed up.

For the last 200 years, as Americans have enjoyed an upward path of progress on every level, we have taken "bigger, faster, more" as not only our motto but our birthright.

In the past, a better technology always came along to save our butts. Kerosene replaced whale oil. Electric lamps replaced kerosene. People complained about manure-clogged streets at the turn of the last century, and then along came Henry Ford and his automobile.

Kunstler's warning is that this upward swing will not continue indefinitely. He quotes Dick Cheney's famous line, "The American way of life is nonnegotiable."

"Then reality will negotiate for you," Kunstler said. "You don't even have to be in the room."

The reality is a world of depleted oil reserves and intense global competition for what remains. The current manipulation of the commodity markets and the devaluation of the dollar isn't helping, either.

There are great impediments to America reacting intelligently to this new, scaled-down paradigm of life, Kunstler believes.
The first is our addiction to wishful thinking -- affirmation and the fact that our national anthem may as well be "When You Wish Upon a Star."

Another impediment, according to Kunstler, is "our favorite religion: the worship of unearned riches." We can't count on winning a million dollars in Vegas any time soon. In fact, soon what happens in Vegas will really have to stay in Vegas -- we won't be able to get there. We won't be able to drive to work every day.

No new technology will come along to save us, Kunstler said. "You don't say to the airline, 'Uh, fill her up with technology. And you're not going to create new planes that run on something else."

Neither will "alternative energies" be enough to fuel our hydrocarbon-drunk world. We will have to drastically change the way we live.
Kunstler says Americans "are semi-delusional about this." We think, "Oh, they'll come up with something."

In the meantime, his pessimistic predictions are already coming true. General Motors -- didn't "What's good for General Motors is good for the nation" turn out to be a big whopper? -- is about to abandon the Hummer. Airlines are going under. George Bush wants to drill in Alaska, even though the best predictions indicate we can only get enough oil out of there to fuel our economy for a month.

"How are we going to keep the cars running?" Kunstler said. "We're not. Let's talk about other things."

But wait. While a return to 1950s-style Americana has its charms, without cheap oil, the trucking industry dies. The airline industry dies. The automobile industry dies. Service stations, mechanics... masses of people will lose their jobs. Masses more will lose their toys.

Think of those political ramifications. Millions out of work. Millions cold and hungry. Millions angry. Thanks to the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights, millions armed.

Kunstler doesn't see America devolving into a Mad Max world of violence and chaos, but I think the question of what might happen is very much up in the air.

If only the wealthy can afford oil, what exactly do you think will happen when their expensive, chauffeur-driven, well-guarded cars are mobbed by angry crowds of formerly middle-class people who have lost their jobs?

Or, we could, in our panic, turn to some kind of dictator who will promise to keep our old way of life running, even though he can't. Aren't false promises the easy currency of most politicians these days? There are no cheap or easy solutions in our future. But the first thing to think about, Kunstler said, is rebuilding the public transportation system. We should demand that rebuilding the railroads become a serious issue in the current presidential election.

That's a good place to start. Another may be to get a gun.

A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at joycemarcel@yahoo.com.

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