John Michael Greer writes persuasively about the end of the era of cheap energy: Peak Oil.
That is, the availability of massive amounts of energy, readily available, have dominated human culture and society since the discovery of charcoal and coal, and later oil. Today we revel in nylon, and polyester, in commutes to jobs, regional “local” medical facilities, stores, and manufacturers that operate “just in time” rather than stockpile – conserve transportation costs – materials and supplies. We think nothing of an airplane flight to “save time”, or utilize toys and clothes and personal vehicles made hundreds or thousands of miles, or continents and oceans, away. We chucked Grandpa’s push-type reel mower for a motor-driven lawn mower – without considering whether the pushing – and results – are actually easier. Riding mowers, bigger engines, these trade the use of cheap energy – often transported to us from thousands of miles away – for “time”.
So – what happens when the trucks bringing sheep from Wyoming to the local grocery store, or cattle or hogs from slaughterhouses in the Midwest – cannot get fuel? What happens when the tractor dealers serving the great farms and heavy farm equipment in use today – cannot make enough money to keep service technicians employed, or to replenish repair and maintenance parts? What happens when the cost to make and transport fertilizer to grow the expected crops today, make the cost to plant greater than the best possible harvest?
What happens when the farmer cannot afford the cost of sending the crop to buyers?
Food security – the risk that changes in oil availability could mean not enough food is available – is one concern about economic instability, and especially Peak Oil.
Today, and for decades in the past, houses have been built on the assumption of central heating and air conditioning. What happens, in one prediction, when by 2012, the average American family cannot pay their utility bills? In Iowa I lived in farm houses that were built when single-room, oil stoves were the expected heating unit, and central furnace was added after the building was built. The rooms all had higher ceilings than modern houses. The windows were taller, and substantial storm windows replaced screens each fall, to be swapped back each summer. One or two rooms were heated, and frost in the bedroom wasn’t that exceptional. Lots of blankets helped. Anyone notice that kids today have more asthma, than kids in the past?
So, I just spent a week working around the Cheyenne, OK area. West of the little town of Cheyenne, on state road 47 at US Highway 283, is the Black Kettle Grasslands, and the Battle of the Washita Overlook.
Then Lt. Col. George Custer – this was 1868, before his grandstanding at the battle of the Little Bighorn – let the 7th US Cavalry, about 500 troopers, in attacking a band of Cheyenne under chief Black Kettle while sleeping in their winter camp. The day before the leaders of the village had returned from asking for peace and freedom from Army attacks. The Indian Territory command couldn’t grant them anything – it seems General Sheridan up in Kansas faced roaming bands of warriors – and intended to track them down when they returned to their home camps. Which Custer did. Sheridan’s orders were to kill or hang warriors, his unstated but well understood orders were to kill women and children as well, to take no prisoners. All ponies, supplies, etc. were to be destroyed. That is, something of a “scorched earth” approach. Anyway. So, Custer attacks, and likely 16 warriors, and 40 women and children are killed. One intrepid officer, Major Joel Elliot, likely without orders, pursued a band of warriors with 20 men. About a mile from camp they “met resistance” and were all killed.
Most of this story is engraved on the markers at the battleground overlook tourist site, on the OK highway 45a loop just west of Cheyenne, OK. There is more on Wikipedia.
A couple of thoughts came to me, reading the markers at the site. One is – when Custer had the (largely civilians) at a 500 soldiers to maybe a couple hundred (sleeping) warriors, chiefs, and families – he kicked butt. The Army usually does, ask around in Iraq and other places. But when 20 troops and an intrepid leader got separated, and ran into Indian warriors – they got their clock cleaned, hard.
That is, there isn’t an obvious superiority between the Cheyenne people in their winter lodges, and the Army troops. Any superiority has to do with weapons and numbers; the people are reasonably equivalent.
One obvious difference, to me, is that Custer enjoyed an energy superiority. It is cheap energy that mass produces Army weapons, uniforms, and gear. It is cheap energy that envisions and supplies forts and troops far in advance of the farms and merchants that made up America at the time.
The Amish today live apart from much of American society, by choice. Most live without cable or electricity running to their home; they live pretty well. They eschew much of modern medicine, and government intervention. Many use kerosene, some gasoline and diesel engines. They use coal, and charcoal, and burn wood, I imagine. But their daily use is much less than mainstream America.
That Cheyenne tribe, living through the winters in their lodges and villages, with their families about them and their rich cultural heritage, they managed without much cheap energy, at least in today’s terms. Where food is available, animals and even slaves or other forced labor are sources of cheap energy, not much seen in the affluent Western world based in cheap energy and especially cheap oil.
Today JMG paints a picture of the future in pessimistic terms. He claims that the end of this era of cheap energy means starvation for some, displacement and hardship for many. If we as a people can no longer afford to commute via private vehicle to work – then how long before the protection of fire and police efforts are limited to a short distance around their sites/offices? The national economy component of national security will, necessarily, crumble, since it is built on the free flow of cash as cheap energy flows about the industrial, commercial, and private sectors. Which means that more emphasis than ever will be needed to provide adequate military security. The risk of foreign invasion as well as internal interference to destabilize states and the nation will increase. We will need to divert much oil and other energy to military needs.
Some few, as always, will be able to take advantage of the situation and those around them. For the rest – I imagine that family and community ties will enrich some folks, the traditions of playing music instruments, and telling stories and songs as a means of preserving histories will enrich other lives.
Much of the Western World is based on an assumption of insatiable personal ambition for money and symbols of affluence. Perhaps we can choose to trade this (oligarchy imposed) sham with a more meaningful view of life and family, and community.