Starting work on a paper that I'm delivering at the Western Political Science Association. Under the category of "delicious irony," it's being held in Las Vegas. As we pass the peak of world oil production, it will become evident that Las Vegas is a city without a future.
Peak Oil and Political Theory:
The End of Modernity?
Patrick J. Deneen
I. The Other Side of the Mountain
In 1956, Shell geologist M. King Hubbert presented a paper before the American Petroleum Institute entitled “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels.” In retrospect, it may turn out to be the most important paper for political theorists written in the twentieth century, though few if any political theorists have heard of it, much less read it. In that paper – written at the height of America’s post-war power and influence – M. King Hubbert effectively predicted the end of modernity. Fifty years later, that moment has arrived.
Hubbert’s analysis was simple but breathtaking in its implications: based upon the known oil reserves existing below ground in the continental United States – most of which at the time had been discovered, even if they were not yet under production – Hubbert predicted that an inevitable peak of production would follow roughly thirty years after the peak of oil reserve discovery. Based on known reserves, Hubbert predicted that oil production in the continental United States would peak at 200 million barrels. Projecting then-current production rates forward, he pegged the year of peak oil production in the United States to occur in 1971. Appearing in the form of a bell-curve, “Hubbert’s Curve” showed that oil production would follow a predictable pattern: it would gradually rise as production and consumption increased, it would peak when half of the petroleum had been brought above ground, and it would decline in a similarly gradual fashion as the wells released less oil with each passing year. In 1971, America produced the most oil it would ever produce, and since that time has come to rely, each passing year, on energy imports from other, often politically unstable or tyrannical parts of the world. Hubbert’s prediction was correct.
In recent years, many analysts have taken the basic insight of Hubbert’s analysis and applied it to worldwide oil production. Most reputable geologists and oil analysts now recognize the validity of Hubbert’s conclusion (though that was not so at the time of the paper’s initial delivery, when people believed the supply of oil beneath the ground to be near-infinite), and have concluded that world oil production will follow the same curve, gradually sloping upward to the moment of worldwide peak oil production, then falling ineluctably downward, indicating the unstoppable decline of oil production for the rest of humanity’s future. Based upon known worldwide oil reserves (which is a tricky proposition, since some countries, and in particular the most oil-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia, do not disclose their known reserves), most geologists and analysts predict that the world is now reaching the point of peak production. Most agree that it will occur during most of our lifetimes. The most optimistic believe that the peak will not arrive until approximately 2030. Most analysts, however, put the date much closer to the present, and in some cases contend we have already passed peak. One acolyte and student of Hubbert – Princeton University geologist Kenneth Deffeyes – has concluded that worldwide peak production occurred on Thanksgiving Day, 2005.
While there continue to be debates over when peak oil will occur, most reputable geologists, scientists and analysts recognize that it will occur. In recent months and years, increasing numbers of once-skeptical or silent authorities have come to acknowledge its impending arrival. The imminent arrival of peak oil has been acknowledged by a respected oil investor and analyst who participated in Vice President Cheney’s Energy Task Force of 2001, Matthew Simmons; conservative Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, R-MD, has spoken of the “coming Tsunami” of peak oil on the floor of the United States Congress; former President Clinton has insisted that he only learned of peak oil after his Presidency, and has been speaking out in alarm on the subject; and even the OPEC oil producing nations, in a recent report, have indicated that peak oil is an imminent occurrence. Furthermore, some familiarity with “peak oil” has crept into the public awareness. A recent story in Harper’s magazine, itself a lengthy commentary on a bestselling book about peak oil entitled The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler, brought the issue to the public awareness of many readers outside a small circle. Stories have appeared in the Wall Street Journal and on the Bloomberg website, among other places. A recent issue of Nature magazine featured an article entitled “Energy: That’s Oil, Folks,” which described the corps of respected geologists and energy analysts who endorse the peak oil theory. The first “hit” on a Google search for “oil” brings up the website “Life After the Oil Crash” (http://lifeaftertheoilcrash.net), which begins with the ominous words, “Dear Reader: Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon.” Peak Oil, once seen as the apocalyptic fancy of a small clique of Malthusian pessimists, has gone mainstream.
For many, the first response to learning of “peak oil” is to conclude that the future will be one of alternative energy, of hybrid cars and solar panels. Some welcome the prospect of increasing oil prices – following, as it must, the classic curve of decreasing supply and increasing demand – as the trigger that will make alternative energy a feasible and attractive option. Free-market “techno-optimists” envision a continued future of remarkable human innovation and ingenuity, with necessity once again engendering invention. Coming with the now near-universal recognition of the existence of global warming, the prospect of a reduction in the use of fossil fuels comes as a somewhat welcome, if admittedly initially jarring, prospect.
With characteristic American optimism, many look forward to a future of continuing and ever-increasing prosperity, ingenuity and wealth. People speak of the benefits of globalization, of the spread of free markets and democracy across the world, of “democratization” and the increase of human knowledge and potential. If the “end of history” – Kojeve’s “universal and homogenous State” – has been put on hold while the forces of Western civilization battle an anti-liberal jihad, the “end of history” remains an implicit goal of thinkers across the political spectrum.
However, 1971 may be instructive, since it was humankind’s first encounter with “peak oil,” albeit in limited form, occurring only – but significantly – in the United States. Until 1971, the United States had been the world’s great provider of oil, and had in large part built its national wealth upon the employment and sale of this remarkable resource. Almost all the forms of American wealth – whether via the railroads, export of its crops, through the automobile industry, the rise of the airline industry – are directly or indirectly traceable to America’s bountiful supply of oil. In the early years of the 1970s, the United States went from being a net oil exporter to an oil importer.
The result of an OPEC oil embargo of 1973 was significant economic dislocation. A global recession occurred within a year of the embargo. In the United States, a severe recession ensued. By 1974, shares on the United States stock market had lost upwards of 97 billion dollars in value. Unemployment spiked and inflation rose to unprecedented levels. Indeed, according to classic economic theory, declining economic output should result in the lowering of inflation, just as rising economic output will lead to a rise of inflation. The Federal Reserve sets interest rates in an effort to achieve a balance between economic growth and the low growth of inflation. What the oil shocks of 1973, and the subsequent oil shock of the early 1980s following the Iranian revolution, proved is that certain situations can lead to an economic outcome in which the economy shrinks and inflation soars – “stagflation” as it came to be known. While the reasons for this were undoubtedly complex, very simply put, this is the expected result of peak oil: overall economic activity will contract as there is less net energy in the world; and, since the modern industrial economic base rests fundamentally upon the energy provided by oil, as that commodity becomes more scarce its price will rise, thereby leading to overall price inflation in spite of decreasing economic growth. As a response to the rise in inflation, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates to the mid-teens throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Money itself, like most goods, became more expensive: the nation was, as a whole, poorer. While many take credit for the eventual returned health of the American economy in the 1980s – including Ronald Reagan – the simplest explanation may be that good relations with OPEC nations were restored, cheap oil flowed back to world markets, and the economic system was again allowed to balance growth and inflation as economics textbooks predict is the case.
During the years of the 1970s, civic morale was low, institutions were strained and there was widespread pessimism regarding the future. Americans confronted shortages and want, and as a result, fights and skirmishes at gas lines were often the result of frayed nerves and frustration. On July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter delivered a speech that came to be known as the “malaise speech.” In the course of that speech, Carter addressed the pessimistic mood of the nation:
"I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy….
The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation….
"The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.
"As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning."
This speech – later maligned by Ronald Reagan and "conservatives" as fundamentally un-American in its pessimism – nevertheless articulated the widespread sense of crisis and stress that the country was experiencing. This experience – the result of America’s encounter with peak oil – was at once artificial yet predictive of likely future events. It was artificial, since at that point there were sufficient quantities of oil in the ground in other parts of the world to make up America’s shortfall, and in effect, to put a stop to the downward spiral of economic contraction and widespread sense of pessimism about the future, including toward the basic institutions of American political life. It was predictive because, in the situation of worldwide peak oil, it gave intimations of the actual experience of decreasing supply without end.
It was also revealing inasmuch as it showed that political theory is not itself predictive – one might say it is largely responsive to conditions, and itself never had to respond to the crisis as a permanent condition. Famously, it is widely regarded that political theory was revived in 1971 with the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice – the very year of peak oil in America. Rawls’s work represented an effort to justify redistribution of income and possessions, and took place within the American context of ever-greater prosperity that had been the American experience since the end of World War II. The theory itself sought to demonstrate “the difference principle,” which justified that the least well off should be provided for within designated levels of difference from the most-well off. Psychologically, it was a theory designed for a growing economy: it was both a formalization, and an echo, of John Locke’s dictum that the least well-off in society could expect to benefit from a prosperous society, and an anticipation of Ronald Reagan’s adage that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Whether it was a political philosophy that held much appeal to a widening economic and political crisis is questionable.
But, more significantly, it was a political philosophy perfectly fitted for the year 1971, the year that the United States would produce as much oil as it ever would. Oil is an amazing substance, containing a remarkable amount of energy in a compact and transportable form. Its widespread use effectively allowed the flourishing of the modern industrial economy, making easy, almost laughable, what were once agonizingly difficult tasks such as transportation, agriculture, and manual labor. When Aristotle imagined the possibility of universal leisure, he fancifully described the widespread existence of automatons or robots, such as those created by Daedalus, which would relieve humans of much of the labor that absorbed their time (or the time of their slaves). He might just as well have imagined an abundant and cheap energy source that powered any number of these sorts of automatons. Oil – now in the greatest abundance that would ever occur in the most prosperous liberal democracy that had ever existed – rightly gave people the sense that thoroughgoing liberation and autonomy were possible. No longer would humans have to acknowledge their need, their partiality and their reliance upon others. In the years leading up to 1971, movements of liberation abounded – the counter-culture, sexual liberation, feminism. This sense of individual independence, it might be said, culminated with the political philosophy that rightly coincided with the moment of peak oil in the United States – a political philosophy that imagined the possibility of fundamental human-decision making taking place in a thoroughly isolated, individual and autonomous way. John Rawls was peak oil’s philosopher.
We may well find that this sort of political philosophy – indeed, the goal of autonomy itself, built upon a presumption of continued human mastery over nature – was a momentary result of circumstance, and has no real future beyond raw fancy. America’s relatively brief encounter with economic contraction and widespread sense of social crisis during the 1970s and early 1980s was only the harbinger of the world’s experience of peak oil. The era of the ever-growing industrial economy will end. There will be less overall energy, and as a result, less overall production and a contraction of civilization. With it comes the challenging question whether modernity itself will survive. Some aspects of modernity that may be regarded with nostalgia, or with bemused wonder, include globalization, feminism, and liberalism itself. Modernity flourished as a result of the one-time infusion of oil, millennia in the making; its demise may result from the exhaustion of the substance in just over one century’s time.
The collapse of modernity is a worst-case scenario certainly, and humans have not had to confront many worst-case scenarios in recent times. Many believe that we have sufficiently mastered nature not to have to face such worst-case scenarios in the future. Yet, this belief may be one of the non-material luxuries of our oil engorgement. That we have not have suffered worst-cases may be a direct consequence of our use of the one-time bounty of oil, a resource that has allowed us to escape many of the ravages experienced by past generations. As the well begins to dry, some bills may come due, and we will no longer have the resources to pay them. Modernity began with the call to control nature, and it may end with nature’s reassertion of her authority. But, before reviewing the various ways that modernity may come to an end, something should first be said about what modernity is, and how it began down the path of its own suicide.
Other Parts here:
2, 3, 4, and 5.