Saturday, December 28, 2013

Peak Oil: Collapse or Inequality?

If you have done any reading or research on Peak Oil, you will have run across quite a number of people who claim that the ultimate effect of Peak Oil will be the collapse of modern industrial society. The implicit assumption here is that lack of resources will reduce everyone’s standard of living across the board until we have returned to pre-industrial lifestyles, with the resultant conflict, die-off, and wholesale industrial infrastructure collapse.
The implicit assumption in this scenario is that our economy is egalitarian at all levels. One moment’s reflection shows that this is not the case; as through all of history, might makes right, and the spoils go to the victor who then turns around and writes history.
I am not entirely certain that Peak Oil will play out that far anyway. I think our standard of living will be reduced but there will be an economic intersection between a falling standard of living and an increasing freedom from fossil fuels brought about by technology and conservation. Those who believe technology will save us are partly right and those who believe we are in for hard times and collapse are partly right.
However to the extent that the Peak Oil phenomenon results in a reduced standard of living, it will do so in an extremely regressive way that will only exacerbate the inequalities of our present economic system. The upper few percent will maintain and even increase their standard of living while all of the declines will occur for the bottom 95-99 percent.
Even if the doomsayers are totally correct and we are in for a complete collapse, the top one percent will still maintain their standard of living. The rest of us will be living in slums and eating meager portions that are ours only by virtue of being, for all practical purposes, slaves to this elite upper crust. Yes, slave labor—a relatively cheap source of energy that was widely exploited throughout the world up until the Industrial Revolution… This one percent will have their cars, houses, plenty of food, and every modern convenience in communities inaccessible to everyone else.
I am reminded of a passage in the Bible, a striking image of inequality:

“When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there before me was a black horse, and its rider held a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard something that sounded like a voice coming from the middle of the four living creatures. The voice said, ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, and do not damage the olive oil and wine!’”
-Revelation 6:5-7 (NCV)

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