In a new article, an Oxford researcher has examined what will happen when peak oil hits. According to Jörg Friedrichs, the outlook is not good. In his article Friedrichs doesn’t attempt to answer the question when peak oil will happen (or if it already has). Instead he imagines that it has happened and the world has to deal with it.
His conclusions: the world will have a “slow and painful” adjustment to peak oil lasting a century or more with the inevitable collapse of industrial society and the disintegration of free trade. How cheerful.
In his research, Friedrichs used three historical examples to guide his thought process of how the world’s different governments will deal with being energy constrained: North Korea, Cuba and Japan.
North Korea and Totalitarian Retrenchment
In the 1990’s North Korea entered a period of time that is akin to what the world might face when confronted with peak oil. As the Soviets stopped delivering subsidized oil to its comrades, North Korea was faced with a severe oil shortage. To deal with the catastrophe, the North Korean government “basically screwed its own population,” said Friedrichs in an interview with Miller McCune. “Elite privileges were preserved, while hundreds of thousands of ordinary people starved.” Friedrichs has labeled this type of governmental response to an oil shortage as “totalitarian retrenchment.”
Cuba and Mobilization of Local Resilience
Due to the same pullback that North Korea faced from the Soviets, Cuba also entered a period of severe oil shortages in the 1990’s. But, instead of enacting more totalitarian control tactics, Cuba — with its history of grassroots communist organization and reliance on friends and family — fell back into what Friedrichs calls “mobilization of local resilience.” In other words, people being a community. “People helped each other at the neighbourhood level, and the wastelands of Havana and other cities were utilized for urban gardening,” said Friedrichs. “As a result, Cuba did not experience mass starvation despite considerable hardship in the 1990s.”
Japan and Predatory Militarism
For decades before WWII Japan had sought to expand its influence in China and secure energy resources — long considered its major growth restraint, having virtually none of its own. At the time World War II broke out, Japan was almost completely dependent on oil imports from California to fuel its growth. Given that Japan had its sights on a pre-emptory invasion of Pearl Harbor, they decided to invade the East Indies to secure their oil supply. This kind of response to an oil shortage Friedrichs calls “predatory militarism” — that is, using military might to steal resources from other areas.
How will the Various Governments of the World React to Peak Oil?
According to Friedrichs, all countries of the world that are wholly dependent on an oil economy will react to peak oil in one of the above 3 methods. “Countries prone to military solutions may follow a Japanese-style strategy of predatory militarism,” he said. “Countries with a strong authoritarian tradition may follow a North Korean path of totalitarian retrenchment. Countries with a strong community ethos may embark on a Cuban-style mobilization of local resilience, relying on their people to mitigate the effects of peak oil.”
Friedrichs thinks the U.S. will resort to predatory militarism because that is our one biggest strength. He says that liberal democracies (the U.S. being one, regardless of what the conservatives are currently spouting) will have a hard time keeping democracy viable and maintaining open free markets. If he were to guess which countries would be the most stable during the collapse, Friedrichs concludes that “Countries with a recoverable authoritarian tradition are likely to work better than liberal democracies.”
The U.S. would have a hard time resorting to Cuban style local resilience because of the Western lifestyle. “When social glue and traditional lifestyles have eroded, they are not easily recovered,” he said, comparing the Cuban and U.S. societies. “After several generations of individualism and affluence, Westerners will have a hard time accepting that they need to rely on communities and must revert to a sustainable lifestyle. After 65 years of mass consumerism, Japanese society is likely to face similar problems.”
Can’t Technology Save Us?
Not likely. Using the example of how the deep south — known as Dixieland — recovered after the Civil War, Friedrichs concludes:
“Dixieland is a cautionary tale for those who believe that social and technological innovation will take care of all problems. After Southern elites lost slavery as the backbone of their way of life [during the U.S. Civil War], it took them at least a century to adjust to the new reality.”
“Why did they not simply embrace industrial capitalism and liberal democracy? Well, I guess it is not so easy to give up one’s lifestyle. Now, imagine that people were to face an energetic downgrade, rather than the upgrade available to Dixieland after the Civil War. While the “challenge” for Dixieland was lifting its socioeconomic fabric to industrial capitalism and liberal democracy, after peak oil the opposite would be the case. Do you really think people would have an easier time adjusting to peak oil? The world would sorely miss cheap and abundant energy, and liberal democracy would become more and more difficult to sustain. The example of Dixieland shows that it takes a lot of time for the ”new consciousness” to emerge that is necessary for radical social change.”
What a cheery note to head into the weekend with.