Paul Krugman writes in his op-ed in today's New York Times that it's starting to look "peak-y" to him - peak oil, peak agriculture, peak everything. Considering the options to explain the recent spike in commodity prices - including another all-time high for a price of oil today - he is forced to conclude that many signs point to a permanent state of material constraint. He concludes his essay with the not-very-cheering reflection that we may not face "Mad Max" anarchy (though some countries, I would submit, already are), but that "rich countries will face steady pressure on their economies from rising resource prices, making it harder to raise their standard of living. And some poor countries will find themselves living dangerously close to the edge — or over it. Don’t look now, but the good times may have just stopped rolling."
Cranky theories about the end of the oil age and their apocalyptic outcomes seem to have migrated from the oddball conspiracy theorist internet websites to the pages of the likes of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist - and the list can and will go on. Evidence continues to mount all around us that "the good times may have stopped rolling," meaning, in particular, that the great build out and expansion everywhere may be teetering on a literal peak, about to start sliding down the other side as we are forced to begin moving closer to things of value, and closer to each other in order to acquire those things.
A recent report on NPR disclosed that airline carriers - now being forced to merge simply to stay in business - will be "limiting flights to rural airports," while those routes that continue to be flown are costing more for passengers. As reported in yesterday's Chicago Tribune, these rising costs are due most fundamentally to rising fuel prices. "American Airlines' annual expenses are increasing at a rate of about $1 million per hour because of out-of-control fuel costs, estimates analyst Kevin Crissey of UBS. The 12 largest U.S. airlines will have to raise revenues by $15 billion this year as flying demand is slowing, just to keep pace with the cost of oil at $110 per barrel, according to market research firm AirlineForecasts LLC. And there's no assurance that oil prices will stop rising." Another NPR report acknowledges that consumers may be in a bind: even as costs for flying rise, so too the cost of driving becomes increasingly prohibitive and there is no well-developed rail system to pick up the slack.
From the myopic perspective of most "consumers," this seems just one further inconvenience, yet another annoying and seemingly inexplicable cost of the price of being a modern human being. But, viewed in light of Krugman's acknowledgement of "Peak Growth," the market is indicating that there is "less" travel even as demand remains steady and even growing. Higher prices are the signal of a dearth of the capacity to move easily. In effect, we will be having to spend more of our time in place - to grow accustomed to less movement. This is because the world is not getting smaller - as all the assumptions of globalization would instruct us - but is, in fact, getting bigger.
Every day, in one way or another, the leaders of my educational institution - like that of many others - tell us that we are driven by the imperative to prepare our students for a world of globalized commerce, a world in which they will need the skills of a vagabond or an itinerant vandal. In the throes of a dogma, they are unable to see the evidence before their eyes that suggests that their belief in historical inevitability may be at least slightly out of touch.
If so, we are preparing our students for a future that has no future. In light of these pieces of "evidence seen" which militate against our curious and touching faith in a globalized future, it is worth revisiting an uncharacteristic graduation speech that was delivered about a year ago at this time. In his address at Bellarmine University, Wendell Berry asked the graduates whether they were prepared for a very different future than the one so many of our elites believe to be awaiting us. No doubt, he suggests, they have been sold a certain bill of goods (and ones at a very high price): "You will be told that you and your community are now ruled by a global corporate empire, to which all the earth is a 'third world,' against which you have no power of resistance or self-determination, and within which you have no vocational choice except a technical and servile job which will give you a small share of the plunder. You will be told also – ignoring our permanent dependence on food, clothing, and shelter – that you live in a “knowledge-based economy,” which in fact is deeply prejudiced against all knowledge that does not produce the quickest possible return on investment....
Then he asks, what about a real education for real times? "What more than you have so far learned will you need to know in order to live at home? (I don’t mean “home” as a house for sale.) If you decide, or if you are required by circumstances, to live all your life in one place, what will you need to know about it and about yourself? At present our economy and society are founded on the assumption that energy will always be unlimited and cheap; but what will you have to learn to live in a world in which energy is limited and expensive? What will you have to know – and know how to do – when your community can no longer be supplied by cheap transportation? ...
"Even to ask such questions, let alone answer them, you will have to refuse certain assumptions that ... the predestinarians of the global economy wish you to take for granted."
Our elite institutions continue - in the words of Jeremy Beer - to stripmine our brightest students away from their homes to prepare them for lives as itinerant meritocrats, giving them skills that will allow them to do anything but to be prepared to live in one place and contribute to a particular community. Yet, there is growing evidence that this may be the future for which we should be preparing them, not the one that we imagine. The inability of our "leaders" to acknowledge these facts, much less to begin reconsidering our perilous course, is yet further evidence of the abject failure of education in our time. Education is doing the opposite of what it should be doing - preparing the young for a future of responsibility and gratitude in which we take in what those before us have given us as inheritance and in which we prepare to leave behind so generous a legacy.
How much longer will it be before our young look at us - seeing the plundered world we bequeath to them and the debts we leave behind - and ask us, "what in the hell do you think you were doing?"