Born In The Eye Of The Storm
John Schettler – June 2007
I was sitting in the air conditioned sunroom in front of a 46” TV the other day, sipping a gin and tonic and taking in a bit of evening news about the start of the hurricane season. Just off the sunroom, a rack of boneless chicken breasts were marinating as they awaited the grill. Home made potato salad, baked beans and corn on the cob would round out the menu that evening, all foods that made me think of summer days at home when the family would gather for a barbecue. And I thought to myself, what a good life I have had, a simple life by most American standards, but one that would be the envy of thousands of previous generations. While the wealthy and privileged of days yore might boast about their palatial estates, artwork, fancy furniture, and house servants, not one of them could go out and settle into their very own personal automobile, (a vehicle capable of doing the work of over 100 horses), and zip about at the heretofore ungodly speed of 70mph if they had a mind.
The emperors, kings, industrial tycoons of old could not hop on an airline and find themselves delivered to virtually any place on earth in a few hours time. As little as a hundred years ago, they could not pick up a telephone and speak directly to another person 3000 miles away or more. Nor could they watch events unfolding on the globe on a massive telescreen like I was. As little as 20 years ago they could not have Googled up virtually any bit of wit or wisdom humanity was capable of in the Internet. All these things I took for granted, cars, telephones, TVs, computers, the world wide web, would have amazed and delighted generations past. And I could have most of these things at a discount price, or simply obtain them at my whim by producing a plastic card given to me by a bank with a dire urge to offer credit and collect interest.
Yes, it has been a good life, an easy life, with all the food you can eat. I have lived in a kind of protective shell it seems, a world made secure by the tumultuous effort of “the greatest generation,” who suffered through WWI, the Great Depression and the chaos and destruction of WWII, all before I came along. To think of all those horrific events of the early 20th century as the leading edge of great storm, I had the good fortune to be born just as the furious winds of WWII and Korea abated, and a sunlit calm settled over the world. Yes, there were still the last squalls of the Viet Nam War, on the horizon, but that aside, I was born in the eye of the storm, and the whole of my comfortable life has been lived within its deceptively pacific span.
It has been a life of cheap energy, easy access to credit and capital, unheard of freedom of expression and personal movement, an explosion of technology and exponential access to information, a bountiful harvest of food, and a never ending cascade of consumer products, each aimed at making my little world a tad more convenient and comfortable. No matter what might ail you in this country, there is a product or a pill to offer immediate relief.
There is more in the news than a casual warning about the start of this new storm season. Lately, the weatherman in my head has been predicting a new line of storm clouds on the far horizon. The idyllic calm that has sheltered my life has lately felt the upwelling breeze and rolling waves of discontent. The Gulf War, 9/11, Iraq are but the leading edge of what is yet to come. And I realize that the stability and calm of my life may soon be challenged by the ire and dark fury of that trailing end of the hurricane making its way through our season of history. As the energy that has fueled our society reaches a peak production level and starts to fall off, all of the things that made my life so easy and comfortable are starting to cost more and more. I have seen the price of gasoline run from under fifty cents a gallon to nearly four dollars. The rising winds on that looming, dark horizon to the east promise me it will go higher yet.
In the last few years a host of authors have penned books, each warning of the coming storm. Their titles strike the heart of the crisis now unfolding, Crude Awakening, The Party’s Over, Blood and Oil, The Coming Economic Collapse, The End Of Oil: On the Edge of A Perilous New World, Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Oil Shock and the World Economy… The common theme underlying all our recent foreign policy has been to position the American military in the heart of the last remaining large reserves of oil and natural gas on this earth. Oil, that miraculous mover of SUVs, Diesel trucks and Airbus liners, is getting very hard to find now. The really big discoveries peaked in the 1970s, and each year we consume far more than we find. So the fuel that our very comfortable life has been running on is now getting more and more expensive to produce.
Jeremy Leggett wrote of the problem, generally captured in the phrase “Peak Oil,” in a long article published in the Independent last January:
“We have allowed oil to become vital to virtually everything we do. Ninety per cent of all our transportation, whether by land, air or sea, is fueled by oil. Ninety-five per cent of all goods in shops involve the use of oil. Ninety-five per cent of all our food products require oil use. Just to farm a single cow and deliver it to market requires six barrels of oil, enough to drive a car from New York to Los Angeles. The world consumes more than 80 million barrels of oil a day, 29 billion barrels a year, at the time of writing. This figure is rising fast, as it has done for decades. The almost universal expectation is that it will keep doing so for years to come. The US government assumes that global demand will grow to around 120 million barrels a day, 43 billion barrels a year, by 2025. Few question the feasibility of this requirement, or the oil industry's ability to meet it.
They should, because the oil industry won't come close to producing 120 million barrels a day; nor is there any prospect of the shortfall being taken up by gas. In other words, the most basic of the foundations of our assumptions of future economic well being is rotten. Our society is in a state of collective denial that has no precedent in history, in terms of its scale and implications.”
Not exactly the sort of thing one wants to hear on the TV news as he sips his gin and tonic while the chicken breasts are marinating by the barbecue, eh? And this is why we seldom ever hear anything along the lines of what Mr. Leggett, or others like him, have to say about the back end of this storm bearing down on us. We are so accustomed to this easy life that we simply cannot imagine it ever ending. We cannot really internalize a world where we could not afford to drive or fly anywhere we choose. But the cost of transportation is only one area of our lives that is fueled by oil. Look at the range of other products that rely heavily on petroleum, a brief list I found on the Internet:
Oil Based Products
Typical Household Items: Ballpoint pens, battery cases, bin bags, candles, carpets, curtains, detergents, drinking cups, dyes, enamel, linoleum, paint, brushes and rollers, pillows, refrigerants, refrigerator linings, roofing, safety glass, shower curtains, telephones, toilet seats, water pipes. Personal Products: Cold cream, hair color, lipstick, shampoo, shaving cream, combs, dentures, denture adhesive, deodorant, glasses, sunglasses, contact lenses, hand lotion, insect repellent, shoes, shoe polish, tights, toothbrushes, toothpaste, vitamin capsules. Medical products: Anesthetics, antihistamines, antiseptics, artificial limbs, aspirin, bandages, cortisone, hearing aids, heart valves. Leisure goods: cameras, fishing rods, footballs, golf balls, skis, stereos, tennis rackets, tents. Agriculture: Fertilizers, insecticides, preservatives. Which means food costs, determined by production and distribution costs, will continue to climb. Other: Antifreeze, boats, lifejackets, glue, solvents, motorcycle helmets, parachutes, tires.
Now think about every one of those items doubling in cost within a relatively short time frame. The price of comfort is going up, and soon. The eye of the storm is giving way now to the looming squalls of war, social turmoil, economic distress. We don’t feel them here yet, because the banks went on a lending spree for the last six years to keep the economy afloat with cheap home equity money and easy credit. Now that is over, and reality is setting in with the housing crunch, rising foreclosures, tightening lending standards. The first quarter of 2007 showed a tangible down-tic in economic activity, with unemployment starting to creep up ever so slowly as companies begin to tighten their belts. Without access to quick loans any longer, consumers are starting to tighten their belts as well, with April sales the worst in years, and May sluggish as well. It isn’t just the soaring price of gasoline, but the escalating cost of all the things on that list above, food in particular.
America suffers from a kind of myopia where its future is concerned. Like folks in the southeast, they get vague snippets of news now and again that a hurricane is brewing off the coast, but never think it applies to them. Their town hasn’t suffered a hit for over 50 years, so while the warning flags go up and some people take heed to board up their waterfront property and lay in a stock of supplies, most just continue their daily affairs, completely oblivious of the impending danger. A time will come, however, when the certainty of the storm path will become too obvious to ignore. Then some will tune in the news and watch the weather reports of the dark swirling clouds bearing down on our coast, again, never thinking their town, their home, their life will ever be affected. Eventually the “news” will finally sink in: that the party is over, the winds are rising, the skyline darkening and the water is getting high. Then we will get a Katrina like series of events, the panic buying, the forced movement of populations away from threatened areas, the frozen tangle of traffic. The rich will motor away to private estates or vacation homes out of harm’s way, the poor will huddle in inner city stadiums hoping for a bus ride to safety that may never come. Eventually it will be uniformed men, the newly federalized “National Guard,” FEMA security, or perhaps hired mercenaries from Blackwater when things start to get bad. The looting we saw in New Orleans is just a taste of what is to come in cities all across this nation when the “news” finally hits home.