Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Last Cars

An interviewer recently asked me whether I am a futurist. After all, in my book, I make many predictions about the shape of the future – a practice that is taboo among social scientists. What, the interviewer asked, would be my response to criticism from social scientists? I answered that my response would be to request that they put the book down and back away slowly. It was not written for them.

I am more of a “presentist” myself, and a reluctant one at that: I see the world around me, observe its general direction, and then make predictions about its destination, which, I hope, it will take a long time in reaching. In this I am often frustrated, and developments that I would wish to take the better part of a decade materialize in a mere year or two.

Still, the idea of futurism sounds lovely. I have enjoyed reading futurist writers, Olaf Stapledon especially. And so I see no harm in trying to channel Stapledon. In sincere imitation of his great work “The Last and First Men,” I present here “The Last Cars.” (As for the “First Cars,” should you find the subject interesting, I encourage you to visit your local public library.)

In the middle of the year 2008 C.E. information technology finally reached a point of development known as the Singularity. Beyond that point, the combined intelligence of networked computers made further technological developments fast and effortless. The Singularity had little or no impact on cars, which, being rather bulky and slow to replace, continued to move at or near the speed limit, which was usually much, much lower than the speed of light. Nor was the Singularity able to achieve much when it came to increasing oil production, in order to alleviate the gasoline and diesel shortages that were beginning to put the economy in a state of shock.

However, the Singularity did manage prove its worth organizationally, by enabling the swift and universal introduction of so-called “driving plans.” Fuel could no longer be purchased directly, but only by entering into a contract with one of the two remaining oil companies: ExxonMobilShellBP and RosNeftGazProm. A driving plan entitled a driver to obtain a certain number of gallons per month from a set of approved gas stations. Unused gallons became “roll-over gallons,” which could be used during one of the subsequent months, and which eventually expired. A driving contract could be cancelled simply by going to the nearst hospital and donating a kidney – a brilliant arrangement that made cancellations quite rare.

The introduction of driving plans likewise did nothing to improve the situation with regard to the availability of transportation, which by the autumn of 2008 was bordering on the disasterous. To remedy the situation using a quick, Singularity-powered techno-fix, American auto companies teamed up to quickly design and mass-produce much smaller cars. In this, they recruited the help of the Shriners – America’s secret weapon when it comes to small car design. After a kick-off prayer breakfast, the executives and the Shriners poured out into the parking lot, where they torched three effigies of America’s previous failed attempts at small car design: a Ford Pinto, an AMC Gremlin, and a Chevy Vega.

Again, thanks to the Singularity, the Shriner design team was able to produce a new product in less then a fortnight, and by Christmas America had a new car it could love: a NASCAR micro-racer. The enthusiasm of the early adopters was somewhat tempered by the realization that the new car could only turn left. This resulted from the design team’s use of a certain Rapid Development methodology which forbade impementing features that were not considered strictly necessary. In spite of such minor annoyances, millions of NASCAR micro-racers were manufactured in Japan, Chrina, India, and other countries where America did its manufacturing, and the Federal Reserve obliged by printing enough money for all Americans to be able to afford to import and purchase these cars. However, this strategy had the unfortunate side-effect of destroying what little value remained in the US Dollar, effectively cutting the country off from two-thirds of its oil supply.

Very little is known about the period that followed; apparently, the Singularity crashed when the power grid collapsed, and by the time it came back the one engineer who knew how to cold-boot it could not be found, and the page of instructions he taped to the side of the server rack could not be deciphered. And so nothing further is known about cars as we are used to thinking of them. But some information survives about some alternative meanings that the word "car" subsequently acquired.

For instance, the term "car" came to be applied to wheeled contraptions with straps used by obese Americans to paddle about, to position themselves in front of television screens, to watch videos of bunnies that baked and ate cupcakes. They made it easier for their Iraqi handlers to feed them, hose them down, and to push them into the liposuction pens when it came time to harvest the biodiesel.

Later on, the term "car" came to be applied to an ingenious confection, which emitted the "new car taste" when you bit down on it, and produced exquisite "Vroom-vroom!" sensations when rolled about on the tongue.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Interview on Radio Ecoshock

Yesterday, Alex Smith interviewed me for Radio Ecoshock. The interview can be downloaded here, and will eventually go out over actual airwaves on quite a number of local stations. We talked about things that the government could potentially do to make collapse survivable (but probably won't), why collapse is almost inevitable (not enough energy; downscaling means bankruptcy), what happens when foreign creditors and investors demand their pound of flesh, and how we can try to live our lives and do what we want anyway.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Traffic! Weather! Sports! Collapse!

This blog has been quiescent for a couple of weeks (although the comments still keep flowing in on the older posts) because I have been busy promoting RC by giving radio interviews, while simultaneously finishing work on the boat that is our home and getting it ready for re-launch. As of yesterday, the boat is in the water, and the interviews seem to be settling down to a pattern, and so here I am, once again, bringing you an update.

It is only fair to warn you that over the next few weeks, you may be driving to work in the morning, listening to the radio, and hear something like this:

"Next we have Dmitry Orlov, the author of Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects." Dmitry is a "leading Peak Oil theorist; [it actually says that on the back cover: yikes!] Dmitry, what does that mean, Peak Oil theorist?"

"Peak Oil is the theory that accurately predicted the all-time peak of oil production in the US in 1970, as well as what will probably turn out to be the all-time peak in global conventional oil production in 2005. But let me start by mentioning another theory: the theory of gravitational attraction. A physics professor I had in college once suggested that if we freshmen had any doubts about this theory, we could test it by jumping off a table while keeping our knees perfectly straight, and observe what happens to our spines. I would like to propose a similar test with regard to Peak Oil, but it's even easier: just keep driving your car the way you are used to doing for a few more years, and observe what happens to your bank account."

"But people have come on this show to tell me that we have plenty of reserves right in this country that we can't tap because of some very extreme positions of certain environmentalists. Isn't this just a political problem? Can't we solve it if only we wanted to?"

"If all the environmentalists suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth, there would be a tragic loss of colorful calendars full of pictures of cute and majestic animals... Supposing we could proceed full speed ahead with the exploration of ANWR in Alaska, the continental shelf, and various other hopeful places within the continental US, then it would take up to 20 years for these new provinces to go on-stream, and then they would add up to no more than a few percent of our current consumption level. In the meantime, depletion in existing provinces would continue to run its course, adding up to a lot more than that. Also, by then, we will have lost access to most of our oil imports, because oil exporting countries are depleting their resources as well, and will need all of the remaining oil for themselves."

"You compare the US to the Soviet Union, but didn't the Soviet Union fail because of its backward Communist system? We have the free market, we can innovate and solve our problems in ways that they just couldn't even imagine!"

"The central planning system in the Soviet Union was quite inflexible and inefficient, and caused hoarding and black market trading. It directly allocated resources to things like central heating for entire neighborhoods, public transportation and government services. Market psychology had nothing to do with it: these were all physical flows of energy. Our system is certainly better during normal times, but when key resources become scarce, it suddenly becomes much worse: people are priced out of the markets for the things they need to survive, hoarding and profiteering become the norm, municipalities are driven into bankruptcy while oil companies make record profits and find nothing better to do with them than buy back their own stock, and so forth."

"But still, can't we innovate our way out of this? I was shopping for a new car yesterday, and there are all kinds of new hybrids and electric cars appearing on the market... when there is a crisis, the free market system responds, and gives us products that solve the problem!"

"The idea that the problem of too many cars and too much car dependence can be solved by making more cars is preposterous. What makes the problem insolvable is that Americans have been conditioned to treat access to private automobile as a birthright, and taking away their cars is about as advisable as trying to take away their guns. The most commonsense thing to do would be to ban the manufacture, import, and sale of new vehicles, except for some specific fleet vehicles used for public services, as was done during World War II. But this problem will work itself out to some extent: it takes a lot of energy to make a car, and new cars are still affordable only because the new oil prices haven't percolated through the entire economy yet."

"Some people are concerned about the falling dollar and what the Federal Reserve is doing. What do you make of their policies?"

"They are making a strenuous effort to make insolvent financial institutions look solvent by lending them bushels of newly printed dollars. The effect is ever more US dollars chasing after same or smaller quantities of key commodities, such as oil and food, causing huge run-ups in prices. This is what the start of hyperinflation looks like. Eventually, this will ruin our ability to continue borrowing and financing our huge trade and budget deficits. It will also cut off our access to key imports, such as two-thirds of the oil we use, because nobody will want to continue stockpiling our worthless dollars. If that happens, the US economy will go into a state of severe shock.

"The economists have suddenly been thrust into a world they can't understand. They are used to thinking of energy in terms of money, and in terms of driving economic growth. They can't possibly be expected to turn around and learn to think of money in terms of energy, and of driving a gradual powering-down of the economy in ways that will provide the population with the essentials and avoid needless suffering. What it means to the rest of us is that we should stop looking to the economists for answers. There would be too much retraining involved to make them into competent practitioners of this new discipline."

"If you were sent to Washington to fix this, what would you do?"

"Please don't send me to Washington: it's not the place to go to get anything useful accomplished. Centralized, political efforts are about as likely to succeed as Gorbachev's Perestroika. There, there was the one Communist party, which killed all private initiative and entrepreneurship. Here, we have the two Capitalist parties, which kill all public initiatives that impinge on the prerogatives of private capital or the free market. This makes just about any good proposal politically impossible. The best thing to do about national politicians is to completely ignore them and wait until they go away. This approach worked really well with the Communists in Russia."

"If this is really the case, then what can you possibly hope to accomplish?"

"I am trying to help people prepare psychologically. An economic collapse is the worst possible time to have a nervous breakdown, but that's what typically happens. If people have a chance to think about it ahead of time, they will be better prepared for it. On top of that, they will lose access to a lot of comforts and conveniences they are used to, and if they are serious, they could try living without them ahead of time, just to make sure they have the stamina and the skills to survive. But the tragic thing is, to prepare for collapse, you have to start living as if it already happened, and very few people are willing to do that. They will wait until it is too late, and then expect somebody to come to their rescue.

"Boy, you must be a real hit at cocktail parties! It's all doom and gloom, isn't it?"

"Yes, there is that aspect to it, but my message is really quite hopeful. What I want people to walk away with is the realization that it is possible to live a rich, happy, fulfilling life even in the midst of collapse. All it takes is some preparation and a different attitude. It is hard to get started, and shift from looking at the big picture to leaving it behind and making your own arrangements, but once you take a few steps in that direction, life actually gets easier, because with each step, you gain some peace of mind.