The Peak Oil story was never about running out of oil. It was about the collapse of complex systems in a world economy faced by the prospect of no further oil-fueled growth. It was something of a shock to many that the first complex system to fail would be banking, but the process is obvious: no more growth means no more ability to pay interest on credit… end of story, as Tony Soprano used to say.
There was a popular theory among Peak Oilers the last decade that the world would enter a “bumpy plateau” period when the global economy would get beaten down by peak oil, would then revive as “demand destruction” drove down oil prices, and would be beaten down again as oil prices shot up in response — with serial repetitions of the cycle, each beat-down taking economies lower — the only imaginable outcome being some sort of quiet homeostasis. This scenario did not play out as expected. It was predicated on a mistaken assumption that all systems would retain some kind of operational resilience while ratcheting down. Anyway, the banking system was mortally wounded in the first go-round and the behemoth is dying hard.
The last desperate act of the banking system in the face of Peak Oil’s no-more-growth equation was to engineer species of tradable securities that could produce wealth out of thin air rather than productive activity. This was the alphabet soup of algorithm-derived frauds with vague and confounding names such as credit default swaps (CDSs), collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), structured investment vehicles (SIVs), and, of course, the basic filler, mortgage backed securities. The banking system is now choking to death on these delicacies.
The trouble is that the EMT squad brought in to rescue the banking system — that is, governments — can’t remove these obstructions from the patient’s craw. They don’t want to drown in a mighty upchuck of the alphabet soup.
The collapse of complex systems is actually predicated on the idea that the systems would mutually reinforce each other’s failures. This is now plain to see as the collapse of banking (that is, of both lending and debt service), has led to the collapse of commerce and manufacturing. The next systems to go will probably be farming, transportation, and the oil markets themselves (which constitute the system for allocating and distributing world energy resources). As these things seize up, the final system to go will be governance, at least at the highest levels.
If we’re really lucky, human affairs will eventually reorganize at a lower scale of activity, governance, civility, and economy. Every week, the failure to recognize the nature of our predicament thrusts us further into the uncharted territory of hardship. The task of government right now is not to prop up doomed systems at their current scales of failure, but to prepare the public to rebuild our systems at smaller scales.
The net effect of the failures in banking is that a lot of people have less money than they expected they would have a year ago. This is bad enough, given our habits and practices of modern life. But what happens when farming collapses? The prospect for that is closer than most of us might realize. The way we produce our food has been organized at a scale that has ruinous consequences, not least its addiction to capital. Now that banking is in collapse, capital will be extremely scarce. Nobody in the cities reads farm news, or listens to farm reports on the radio. Guess what, though: we are entering the planting season. It will be interesting to learn how many farmers “out there” in the Cheez Doodle belt are not able to secure loans for this year’s crop.
My guess is that the disorder in agriculture will be pretty severe this year, especially since some of the world’s most productive places — California, northern China, Argentina, the Australian grain belt — are caught in extremes of drought on top of capital shortages. If the US government is going to try to make remedial policy for anything, it better start with agriculture, to promote local, smaller-scaled farming using methods that are much less dependent on oil byproducts and capital injections.
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