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Posts Tagged ‘peak oil’

Do you recall the last time you saw a gas station attendant?

I don’t mean the person behind the counter who’ll ring up the candy bar and soda you buy after you pump the gas. I mean a person who comes out when you pull up, puts the desired amount of gas into your tank and, while the pump is running, checks your oil and washes your windshield. Gas stations used to be called “service stations” for a good reason.

They still exist in New Jersey, which has a law banning self-service gas stations. But pretty much anywhere else in America, the attendant is as extinct a species as the elevator operator. An entire class of employment has vanished, supplanted by technology (card readers and automatic shutoffs for pumps) and a deliberate downscaling of service.

A similar phenomenon is happening now in supermarkets and other stores (Home Depot for one): self-service checkout. Instead of having a cashier scan and bag your items, you do it yourself. Instead of several cashiers, the store needs one person to monitor the self-check lines and fix the occasional malfunction. The store cuts its labor costs, and the customer is made to believe that it’s a convenience.

But these are just two more mainfestations of the ongoing replacement of human labor with machines. At a time when unemployment is perilously close to 10 percent, businesses are looking for ways to employ fewer and fewer people.

The supplantation of people by machines is a theme that John Michael Greer, Richard Heinberg and other social critics have expounded on at some length. In particular, once-plentiful agricultural jobs have mostly vanished, as now one corporate-paid farmer with a tractor can do the work that a dozen or two men would have done a century ago.

As the wheel of time turns, we have more people needing work and less work that we need humans for. It has been said that service jobs are the one category that can’t be outsourced or replaced by automation. In at least some cases, the automation is proving that maxim to be wrong.

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The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered
is a rare kind of book — the kind that can make you feel a brilliant light shining into dark corners as you read it. John Michael Greer brings a keen insight to economics and explains in accessible language just why it is that we’re in the economic condition we are today.

Departing from standard economics theory, Greer divides the overall economy into three: The Primary Economy is the wealth of nature — oil, arable land, water and so on; the Secondary Economy is the world of goods and services, the products we make and buy; and the Tertiary Economy is the economy of finance — debt instruments, stocks, bonds and other “wealth” that exists on paper and in computer records.

He builds his thesis on two previous books, The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age
and The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World
. But where those were about the declining availability of fossil fuels and the world that he predicts will emerge as cheap, abundant energy evolves into scarcity, this one starts there and moves in new directions.

Greer makes a convincing case that much of our current trouble stems from confusing money with wealth. Money, he writes, is the yardstick we use to measure wealth, not the wealth itself. But much of our economic activity is focused on money, leading to an ever-increasing debt burden and political policies that just dig the hole deeper by increasing the supply of money even though the actual value we’re producing doesn’t support it.

The other signifant problem we face is the failure to factor in the Primary Economy. Conventional economic theories disregard the contributions of nature to our economic well-being, assuming that whatever resources we need, we’ll have. If that isn’t a safe assumption — and Greer argues convincingly that it is not — then any conclusions based on that assumption are also in peril.

All in all, the book paints a picture that could be grim but is also empowering. There are ways to survive and even thrive in the future that Greer believes is coming, if you’re armed with information and willing to adjust your expectations. This book is an excellent starting point for the journey.

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With the recent change of seasons comes a change of mind and a change of life.

Michael and Lynda, the two of us who write this blog (when it gets written at all) have been having some interesting discussions lately. You see, we’re a couple and while we’ve been living some distance apart for the past few years, we’ll be blending households this summer. And as we enter this new phase of our shared life, our vision of that future is crystallizing.

The short version is that we’re going to be trying to live more energy-efficiently and to rely less on other people and transportation infrastructure to meet our basic needs.

Some of this has been in the air for a while. Lynda creates art with cross-stitch and is a good cook with a good eye (and palate) for fresh ingredients. Michael likes eating the results of the cooking and is interested in learning how to grow vegetables. These are ambitions we’ve had for a while, though we’ve been holding off on starting the gardening project until the move was closer at hand, simply because the time needed hasn’t been available. When we’re together, one person can handle household needs and we won’t need lengthy periods of time with one person visiting the other, both of which will free up some time for digging and planting and pruning and picking.

But lately another factor has come to our attention. We’ve been reading and talking about the availability and cost of energy now and into future years. I’ve just read The Long Descent by John Michael Greer, and have his The EcoTechnic Future on audio. (His blog, The Archdruid Report, is already linked in our blogroll.)

His thesis, in summary, is that the two extreme views of energy — continued abundance or imminent apocalypse — are both wrong. Instead, we’re facing a gradual decline in energy availability and rise in energy costs, which will change just about everything about the way we live. The changes have already started — remember the new word “staycation” that came into vogue in 2008 when gas was over $4 a gallon? — and will unfold over the next several decades.

Greer is hardly the only person to make this argument, although he is one of the most accessible and engaging. There are many others, though, and we’re sold on the case. The question is what to do about it. Last year, I added insulation to the attic in an effort to cut my heating oil use. I’ve also started composting in preparation for trying to grow vegetables. And we have some other plans to put into place over the next couple of years. The overall goal: Use less energy and depend less on energy for basic needs.

So while we’ll still write about other topics in this blog — hopefully with more frequency than we have been — a new major focus is going to be on our efforts to make the life changes that we hope will prepare use to thrive as the world changes around us.

We don’t see this as changing the spiritual roots of the blog, by the way; how we live on the Earth is a profoundly spiritual concern.

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