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Oil in America: A Deal With the Devil


America was the land of the free and home of the brave. Now it's the land of the Range Rover and home of the Hummer. In a few years it could be the land of the forlorn and home of the broken down.

"The American way of life -- which is now virtually synonymous with suburbia -- can run only on reliable supplies of dependably cheap oil and gas. Even mild to moderate deviations in either price or supply will crush our economy and make the logistics of daily life impossible."
-- Jim Kunstler -- The Long Emergency

America was a Garden of Eden with nothing but flowers, trees, and vegetation. We bit into the forbidden fruit of oil more than a century ago. It has been a deal with the devil. Oil brought immense wealth, rapid industrialization, 2.7 million miles of paved roads, and enormous power to America. But, now the SUV is running on empty.

In the not-too-distant future the downside of the deal with the devil will reveal itself. America was the land of the free and home of the brave. Now it's the land of the Range Rover and home of the Hummer. In a few years it could be the land of the forlorn and home of the broken down.
Our entire society has been built upon a foundation of cheap oil. The discovery of oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859 turbocharged the Industrial Revolution in the US. The development of our sprawling suburban culture was dependent upon cheap oil, without which we could not survive a week. Commerce in the US depends upon long haul truckers. Food is transported thousands of miles to grocery stores. Cheap Walmart (WMT) fare is transported thousands of miles across the seas from China. Americans believe cheap oil is our God-given right. We are the chosen people. Kevin Phillips, in his brilliant book American Theocracy describes our love affair with cheap oil:

Americans constitute the world's most intensive motoring culture. For reasons of history and past abundance, no other national population has clumped so complacently around so fuelish a lifestyle. For many citizens the century of oil has brought surfeit: gas-guzzling mobile fortresses, family excursions on twenty thousand-thousand-gallons-per-hour jet aircraft, and lavishly lit McMansions in glittering, mall packed exurbs along outer beltways. Against a backdrop of declining national oil and gas output, Americans consume 25% of world energy while holding just 5% of its energy resources. As the new century began, Americans enjoyed a lifestyle roughly twice as energy intensive as those in Europe and Japan, some ten times the global average. Of the world's 520 million automobiles, unsurprisingly, more than 200 million were driven in the United States, and the US car population was increasing at five times the rate of the human population. How long that could continue was not clear.

John and Jane Q Citizen mostly ignore these trends and details, and know nothing of geologist Hubbert's bell-shaped charts of peak oil. Senior oil executives sometimes discuss them in industry conferences, but elected officials -- many with decades of energy platitudes under their belts -- typically shrink from opening what would be a Pandora's Box of political consequences. Oil was there for our grandfathers, they insist, and it will be there for our grandchildren; it is part of the American way.

Ignoring the facts and pretending that we can count on cheap oil for eternity is delusional. It is also the American way.

There are consequences to every action. There are also consequences to inaction, and over the next decade Americans will experience the dire consequences of inaction. The implications of peak cheap oil have been apparent for decades. The Department of Energy was created in 1977. The Department of Energy's overarching mission was to advance the national, economic, and energy security of the United States. In 1970, the US imported only 24% of its oil. There were 108 million motor vehicles in the US, or 0.53 vehicles per person. Today, the US imports 70% of its oil and there are 260 million vehicles, or 0.84 vehicles per person. Jim Kunstler describes our bleak future in The Long Emergency:

American people are sleepwalking into a future of hardship and turbulence. The Long Emergency will change everything. Globalism will wither. Life will become profoundly and intensely local. The consumer economy will be a strange memory. Suburbia -- considered a birthright and a reality by millions of Americans -- will become untenable. We will struggle to feed ourselves. We may exhaust and bankrupt ourselves in the effort to prop up the unsustainable. And finally, the United States may not hold together as a nation. We are entering an uncharted territory of history.

Many Americans believe that oil is abundant and limitless. Their leaders have lied to them. They will be completely blindsided by the coming age of hardship.

Factories and Shopping Malls

The modern age has lasted a mere 150 years and has been completely dependent upon cheap, plentiful oil. This is a mere blink in the history of mankind. American exceptionalism refers to the opinion that the United States is qualitatively different from other nations. Its exceptionalism claimed to stem from its emergence from a revolution, becoming "the first new nation," and developing "a unique American ideology, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire." This feeling of superiority stems from the belief that God has chosen our country to be a shining symbol for the rest of the world. It is the ultimate in hubris to think that we are the chosen ones. An enormous amount of credit for the American Century (1900-2000) must be given to pure and simple luck.

Everything characteristic about the condition we call modern life has been a direct result of our access to abundant supplies of cheap fossil fuels. Fossil fuels have permitted us to fly, to go where we want to go rapidly, and move things easily from place to place. Fossil fuels rescued us from the despotic darkness of the night. They have made the pharaonic scale of building commonplace everywhere. They have allowed a fractionally tiny percentage of our swollen populations to produce massive amounts of food. All of the marvels and miracles of the 20th century were enabled by our access to abundant supplies of cheap fossil fuels. The age of fossil fuels is about to end. There is no replacement for them at hand. These facts are poorly understood by the global population preoccupied with the thrum of daily life, but tragically, too, by the educated classes in the United States, who continue to be by far the greatest squanderers of fossil fuels.
-- Jim Kunstler, The Long Emergency

Every accomplishment, invention, and discovery of the 20th century was due to cheap accessible fossil fuels. The American industrial age was powered by cheap plentiful oil. One hundred and ten years after the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, an American walked on the moon. An empire was born and grew to the greatest in history through the utilization of oil and oil byproducts. It is no coincidence that US GDP has been dependent upon the growth in fossil fuel consumption over the last 150 years.

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