Already adapting to the post-oil future

In the novel “World Made By Hand”:, authour “James Howard Kunstler”: (interviewed “here”: by Stephen Colbert) argues that American daily life will change drastically when the oil runs out. He sees no future for the city infrastructure that has grown up around the popularization of cars (ie. suburbs), and is pessimistic about the industrial economic infrastructure that depends so much on transcontinental shipping.

When oil becomes too scarce, America collapses into 18th century-esque plantations, and a dystopian culture one reviewer describes as:

bq. [an] uneasy Darwinian jostling, local warlordism and gangsterish Machiavellian counterpunching among various ugly power cells, with a bunch of religion leavening the stink, er … the stew.

I submit that an alternative infrastructure is already being put into place that will take over more and more from the hydrocarbon-based economic infrastructure. This burgeoning infrastructure is already helping to relieve the burden on the industrial infrastructure as well as maintain the cultural infrastructure. More and more the networks tying the national economy together are based on communications technology, particularly wireless communications. I have talked previously about WiMax and Africa. Once these technologies become widespread in industrial nations as well (hopefully before the post-oil collapse of civilization), they will be leveraged to maintain communications networks accessible even to the lowliest plantation owner. This network has an economic impact that we can already see.

For example, more and more economic consumption takes place in bits and bytes. Between the iTunes Store and Amazon’s Kindle (which I _would_ own if I were in the US), my personal carbon imprint has been drastically cut, whereas my consumption (and thereby contribution to the economy) has actually increased due to the convenience of the devices. The megastores and malls of suburbia are no sanctuary to the digital consumer.

Note that I don’t think that ICT will solve the problem of oil demand and scarcity. Obviously food, clothing and other physical objects will have to be shipped or made (in “resilient” communities?) for consumption in alternative ways, possibly as described in the book. My argument is that more digital consumption will help soften the “shock” of Kunstler’s future scenario. Rather than isolated plantation fiefdoms scattered randomly about the countryside, imagine a post-modern collection of tightly networked communities, openly sharing information to survive and coordinate a loose, “international” economy.

*DISCLAIMER:* I have not read the book myself, so forgive me if something like this appears in Kunstler’s writing. If anyone has read the book we would like to hear from you in the comments.

About Younghusband

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942) was a British explorer, army officer, military-political officer, and foreign correspondent born in India who led expeditions into Manchuria, Kashgar, and Tibet. He three times tried and failed to scale Mt. Everest and journeyed from China to India, crossing the Gobi desert and the Mustagh Pass (alt. c.19,000 ft/5,791 m) of the Karakoram mountain range in modern day Pakistan. Convinced of Russian designs on British interests in India, Younghusband proactively engaged in the nineteenth century spying and conflict over Central Asia between the British and the Russians known as the Great Game. "Younghusband" is a Canadian who has spent a number of years bouncing back and forth between his home country and Japan. Fluent in Japanese and English with experience in numerous other languages from Spanish to Georgian, Younghusband has travelled throughout Asia. He graduated with an MA from the War Studies Department at the Royal Military College of Canada, where he focussed on the Japanese oil industry and energy security issues. He has recently returned to Canada from Japan, and is working in the technology sector.
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5 Responses to Already adapting to the post-oil future

  1. von Kaufman-Turkestansky says:

    A very important topic – and in a sense we can see some of the potential future effects of the transiation from a fossil-fuel based civilization to another form of civilizaton even now.

    I think that cities will see the effects of many kinds of adjustmets: economic adjustments as the cost of locomotion changes (and the policy decisions that follow from this change – such as building a transport infrastructure that will move people and goods more efficiently); also demographic changes in places like North America (will the Baby Boom life-cycle changes translate into a bubble boom in real estate?) and much of the developing world (where a country like Yemen will pack a much stronger demographic punch as its populations rises past 50 million souls by 2050 – I have been playing with the UN Population Prospects online tool at – check it out if you haven’t already!)

    The following article in The Atlantic should be of great interest:

  2. Kotare says:

    I haven’t read the novel, but Kunstler’s The Long Emergency covers the same ground. It’s a provocative read. One of the key ideas in the book that stuck with me, aside from the ‘car-suburbs are doomed’ thesis, was Kunstler’s call for the regeneration of the US railroad system, on an electrified basis.

  3. Pingback: Kunstler: World Made by Hand « Plausible Fremtider

  4. jim says:

    Dystopian visions are good booksellers, but unlikely realities. Sharp discontinuities in a nation and economy the size and scope of the United States are rare. Changes happen at the margins.

    If you look at the most dramatically changing communities in America … it’s actually new suburban growth. The booming burbs of Charlotte and Raleigh, Phoenix and Vegas. These are places with space and welcoming local goverments.

    New highways get built, new subdivisions go up, new offices move to town. The work follows the workforce now.

    Northern Virginia is a good example. People want single family suburban living. Fairfax (close in DC suburb) boomed in population until it hit a certain density level. Then new migrants pushed to the south (Prince William) and west (Loudoun) for cheaper housing. But now their commute is growing worse and worse.

    The response of companies is to move their office buildings south and west, chasing their workforce. This chase might lag the workforce movement by a decade, but it happens. Density the goes up and people push farther south and west and the cycle starts all over again.

    Most Americans don’t like urban density levels. When a county or region hits a certain point — new domestic migrants stop coming, and young people start moving out. Not to mention that the current inhabitants start enacting density limiting laws and refuse to build new roads.

    America is just really, really big. If one county or MSA becomes undesirable or uninviting … there’s always two or three others who are anxious to grow.

    I think Americans response to the “commute tax” indicates suburban living is a very stable feature of the American lifestyle. If spending hours a day in traffic doesn’t dissuade people from the suburbs, I doubt a few more dollars a day in gas prices will.

  5. ElamBend says:

    I have to agree with Jim. We’d adapt somehow, even if it meant lots of new coal-fired plants and all electric cars. I am enjoying the attention that alternative energy production and non-oil dependent tech is receiving. However, we have been down this road before and should the coming drop in oil prices go too far, then these things will whither until the next energy crisis.