A person named Jim Manzi over at NRO's The Corner is quite irritated by Peak Oil "hysteria," reminding us - rightly - that oil production's "peak" has been predicted at various times in the past, and yet didn't to come to pass in accordance with those flawed prognosticators. His advice - don't worry, be happy.
It amazes me that anyone could be so obtuse about the nature of the situation, once one has really given it any thought. Manzi, and others like him, doesn't deny that we are facing a future of energy constraints - he simply says we don't know when this will take place, so there's nothing we can nor should do about it. However, implicitly he and others like him recognizes that it WILL happen, so the "don't worry, drive happy" stance is tantamount to child neglect. It's saying, let the future worry about our irresponsibility. It's hard to think of a civilization that has been based on such an infantile premise.
A respondent (and reader of this humble "blawg"!) to Manzi's post at "The American Scene" really says it better - and certainly more succinctly - than I'm able:
"...It seems kind of beside the point whether Peak Oil is upon us now or twenty years in the future. There is a fundamental logic there that shouldn’t be shrugged off. It is simply a fact that we have designed huge chunks of our country around the premise that gasoline will be abundant and cheap. (I’m from Indiana, and let me tell you, if you don’t have a car in Indiana you ain’t going anywhere!) When that abundant and cheap era ends, we will have to find a new way of living our lives. I’m sorry, but twenty years does not sound like enough time to begin rearranging those places in our country that most need the rearranging. Especially when there is zero political will to do anything right now. I tend to share Deneen’s belief that we will have to get to Peak Oil, and beyond, before any meaningful changes are made precisely because we will be forced to. The problem is, those changes will have to be made during a different era, one of expensive and unreliable energy. Deneen’s basic premise seems pretty sound, that we are enjoying a relative life of ease while our children’s lives (or their children) are going to be infinitely more difficult."
This is the actual implication of today's column by Paul Krugman, who of late has really jumped on the peak oil bandwagon (and is one of the few places in the MSM where the issue even gets a mention). In a column entitled "Stranded in Suburbia," Krugman discusses some of the implications of peak oil and energy constraint, particularly the need to own smaller cars and drive less (he has yet to catch on to its implications on "globalization," its impact on the trucking industry, and its agricultural implications, etc. He seems oblivious to the implications of a no-growth economy for the financial markets. But you can only do so much in a short column, and he's coming along). He points to Europe as an example of a living arrangement that uses far less oil than the U.S., and nevertheless does well economically. He suggests that America will come - by necessity - to resemble the German model. This is something I suggested not too long ago, and for which I took some significant heat. Americans don't like being told that the Europeans are doing some things better - especially not "conservative" Americans.
Based on the lower patterns of energy consumption in Europe, Krugman opines "I have seen the future, and it works." But, Krugman should read the likes of Manzi: it is the mainstream view, and certainly that of the "economists," that nothing needs to be done until we receive the proper price signals. As Manzi's commentator points out, we will wait until energy is constrained to begin changing our behavior. However, if Europe is to be our future exemplary living arrangement (one that closely resembles the vision of "the urban transect" advanced by New Urbanists and some Catholic natural law thinkers such as Philip Bess), we should note 1. Europe has kept prices "artificially" high for years - since the gas shocks of the 1970s - through higher taxation, which it uses to fund an excellent public transportation system, among other things; and more importantly, 2., Europe never changed its basic living patterns as a result (along with smart zoning regulations that permit mixed use areas as well as limit building outside town and city limits).
Manzi suggests that we can wait until the last possible moment - when peak oil is upon us, which we will not know until we can compile several years of data about worldwide oil production - and then begin to make adjustments. However, if we KNOW it will be upon us at some point - and many reputable geologists believe it will be soon, soon, but regardless, it will come - then shouldn't we use whatever energy bounty we have now to prepare for that eventuality? We will need to begin a rather significant project of infill of existing living arrangements, particularly the suburbs, to achieve the necessary population density to justify public transportation. We will need to build high speed trains between the more far-flung cities of the U.S., in anticipation of the demise of the airline industry (if Manzi doesn't think they are done for, then he hasn't been reading the papers.) We will need to encourage more local forms of economic activity, particularly agriculture. Not only will it be more expensive to drive, but even maintaining our current huge investments in the automobile infrastructure will prove increasingly untenable. For instance, the cost of paving our millions of miles of petroleum-based asphalt roads will prove unaffordable.
In short, we will need to invest huge sums to prepare for a way of life that will be significantly different than the way we live now. And people like Manzi are saying, "we don't know WHEN it will happen, so don't sweat it." What we will find is that once we begin to sweat, we won't have the means - the energy and the attendant funds - to change very much. In the meantime, we WILL use the existing surplus and still cheap energy to continue the great American wasteland - the build-out to nowhere, an economy premised upon an infinite future of cheap transportation, an agricultural system based on energy inputs that far exceed calorie outputs, and the destruction of arable farmland for endless tracts of McMansion temples to the modern ego. The petroleum reservoirs of the earth were not formed for any one of us, not even those with the most money. However, we act as if it is ours alone to use and exploit without thought or reflection on the implications for future generations. The future will suffer as a result of our profligacy and unwillingness to act responsibly.
I'll say it again - it amazes me that we have come to a pass in this nation's history when someone like Manzi would be called a "conservative." To be oblivious of the implications of our current actions in the name of an ever better future is the hallmark of progressive liberalism.