The not so flat earth
One of my first blog posts was Oil, Half Way To Empty. When I wrote that post over six years ago there was very little Peak Oil discussion in the media or the blogosphere. In that post I quoted James Howard Kunstler:
“The whole Archer Daniels Midland model of turning oil into corn into Taco Bell—that whole complex, that system, is really going to be over,” says Kuntsler. “We’re going to be forced to grow more of our food locally and return to a kind of agriculture that really hasn’t been practiced here in a long time. A lot of the land that has only had value as suburban development in the past 30 or 40 years is going to have to be reassigned.”
Likewise, Kunstler foresees “the demise of Wal-Mart style, big box, national chains.” Companies whose profit margins depend on “merchandise made by factories 12,000 miles away” simply won’t function in a world of $100-plus barrels of oil. “We’re going to have to seriously reorganize our whole system of retail trade and economy.”
Six years later ex banker Jeff Rubin is sounding a lot like Kunstler. He starts out by explaining that our current recession was not caused by the mortgage crisis but a spike in oil prices.
Every major recession in the post-war period has oil’s fingerprints all over it. The 1973 first oil shock led to what was then the deepest post-war recession, at the time. The second OPEC oil shock led to no less than two recessions: 1979 and 1982. And then when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and left half of its oil fields on fire, and oil spiked to the then unheard-of price of $40 barrel, lo and behold, the industrialized world again fell into recession.
Gee, I wonder what happened to oil prices before this recession. It seems to me that oil prices went from about $30 barrel, at the beginning of 2004, to almost $150 barrel by 2008. Even in real terms, that is, inflation-adjusted, that price increase was over double the price increase of either the first or the second OPEC oil shock. If they had led to devastating recessions, why would not the biggest oil shock of them all, be the obvious culprit for what has been the deepest recession to date?
The problem is not so much Peak Oil but Peak Cheap Oil. Oil will simply become too expensive to fuel the global economy before it becomes too scarce. One of the first casualties will be the globalized economy and Rubin explains we have already seen the beginning of the end of globalization and economies will have to adapt to the new reality.
So how do we adapt? How do we grow in an economy of triple digit oil prices? We change the nature of our economy. In a world of triple-digit oil prices, distance costs money. The global economy, where we produce one thing at one end of the world, to be sold at the other end of the world, doesn’t make any economic sense, because in too many cases, what will be penny-wise, will soon become pound-foolish. The wage “arb”, what we save on wages, we will more than squander on bunker fuel.
Take the steel industry, for example. Just before the recent recession, some very curious things were happening in the US market. When oil prices got to be over $100 barrel, all of the sudden, Chinese steel exports to the US fell at double-digit rates. And all of the sudden, US steel production was up. And all of the sudden, US Steel Corp., which was one of the biggest dogs in the market, all of the sudden its share price doubled.
What was going on? I’ll tell you what was going on. For the first time in 20 years, it was cheaper to make steel in the United States than to import it from China. Why? Consider what China has to do to send you steel. First, it has to ship iron ore from Brazil, across the Pacific Ocean, turn it into steel, which is itself a very energy-intensive process, then ship it back, across the Pacific Ocean, to you. At $20 barrel, that works. At $100 barrel, that doesn’t work. It added on $60 to $70 dollars, to the cost of a ton of hot-rolled steel. How much labor time do you think there is in making steel these days? One and a half to two hours. The transit costs all of a sudden exceeded the labor costs. Who would dream that triple digit oil prices would breathe new life into our hollowed-out Rust Belt? But in a world where distance costs money, that is exactly what is going to happen.
And what about all that food we now import from China?
Last year, China exported $6 billion of food to America, everything from apples to frozen chicken wings, bringing a whole new meaning to having your Chinese food delivered. Steel doesn’t have to be refrigerated. Hopefully, frozen chicken wings do. What do you think powers that refrigeration unit? Bunker fuel! The same thing that is powering the boat. The world of triple digit oil prices–it won’t matter that farm labor is cheaper in China than in the United States, because the cost of bringing those frozen chicken wings to us will be too expensive.
And here Rubin really sounds like Kunstler six years ago:
it’s not like we are going to stop using steel in America, and it is certainly not like we are going to stop eating. What we are going to have to do is make our own steel. What we are going to have to do is grow more of our own food. Unfortunately, much of our agricultural land has been paved over with suburban sprawl. Just as triple digit oil prices will breathe new life into our hollowed out Rust Belt, triple digit oil prices will turn those far-flung suburbs and exurbs back into the farmland they were, thirty to forty years ago. The very same economic forces that gutted our manufacturing sector, that paved over our farm land, when oil was cheap and abundant, and transport costs were incidental, those same economic forces will do the opposite in a world of triple digit oil prices. And that is not determined by government, and that is not determined by ideological preference, and that is not determined by our willingness or unwillingness to reduce our carbon trail. That is just Economics 100.
Unfortunately those in power – both Democrats and Republicans – didn’t learn much in Economics 100 and don’t see the writing on the wall. They are still listening to the huge multinational corporations who are on the verge of extinction as economies become increasingly local out of necessity.