The World After Peak Oil If No Satisfactory Energy Substitute is Found

It is difficult to predict what sort of world we will face if a peak in oil production is caused not by the eventual phasing out of oil but by an exhaustion of supply. This is even more true if technological optimists’ prediction of the creation of a substitute for oil as our main industrial energy resource proves false.  Friedrichs (2010) offers several possible scenarios for this post oil world based on three different historical cases. Countries may resort to military predation as Japan did before and during World War 2, undergo totalitarian retrenchment similar to what occurred in North Korea during the 1990s, or they may rely on improvisation and community in order to adapt to the lack of key resources in a manner similar to Cubans after the fall of the Soviet Union. He goes on to explain that the response would vary depending on historical and political factors in a given country. Friedrichs also offers the example of the failure of the post Civil War South to adapt in a timely fashion to the loss of a key economic resource—slaves—as justification for his views that the world would likely have a very difficult time replacing oil with a new resource after a production peak. —Steven Erickson
Friedrichs, J., 2010. Global energy crunch: how different parts of the world would react to a peak oil scenario. Energy Policy 38, 4562–4569.

          Friedrichs used three historical case studies of countries facing acute oil shortages to extrapolate what the world could look like if oil production reaches a peak and no reasonable substitute is found.  From these studies he derives four hypotheses: “The greater a country’s military potential and the perception that force will be more effective than the free market to protect access to vital resources, the more likely there will be a strategy of military predation,” the less democratic and pluralist a country, the more likely those in power will institute totalitarian retrenchment, the less individualistic a country, the more likely there will be an “adaptive regression to community based values” and finally that peak oil will create winners and loses, that power will shift from oil importers to the exporters, as well as from private oil companies to public ones. Finally, using the post-war American South as a basis, Friedrichs posits that the transition from oil will not be smooth, and that the adaptation may take more than a century.
          The first of Friedrichs’ hypothesis is reached following his analysis of Imperial Japan’s behavior before and during the War in the Pacific. After concluding that Germany’s defeat in World War 1 was due largely to its inability to secure a large enough resource base the leaders of Japan decided that in order to ensure Japanese success they would have to directly control the resources they would need. In the face of trade embargoes on oil, Japan invaded Manchuria, South East Asia, and many Pacific islands. Using this as his basis, Friedrichs surmises that countries with the ability to project their power, particularly the United States and to a lesser extent China, will resort to military predation in order to secure oil after the markets are no longer deemed a convenient or reliable way to meet energy needs.
          Friedrichs’ second hypothesis, that countries with a weak democratic tradition and histories rife with dictatorship will experience a retrenchment of totalitarianism, comes from the events in North Korea following the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union dissolved North Korea no longer received oil in return for political corruption. This led to a complete collapse of the countries economy, including its highly industrialized agricultural sector, leading to widespread famine that killed between 3–5% of the population. At the same time, the elite ruling class continued to enjoy the privileges that they had grown accustomed to while oil was still prevalent. Friedrichs believes that countries in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and Africa with their totalitarian pasts will be particularly susceptible to this retrenchment.
          In contrast, Cuba scraped by reasonably well after oil shipments from the USSR ceased in the early nineties. This experience is the basis of Friedrichs’ third hypothesis, that countries with a strong sense of community and are not accustomed to the consumption levels of the industrialized West will be able to subsist through wide-scale socioeconomic adaptation. Due to Cuba’s tight knit neighborhoods and knowledge of traditional agriculture Cubans were able to live at a subsistence level through Urban agriculture that ranged from gardens on the roof to chickens in apartments. Though living without cheap oil certainly made daily life unpleasant, Cuba did not experience any of the widespread famine suffered by average North Koreans. Friedrichs writes that countries that still rely largely on subsistence agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin American countries with societies still based around the family and community as opposed to the individual will be the ones most able to make these adaptations.
          Finally, Friedrichs warns that optimism in regards to oil being superseded by new fuels may be unwarranted. He points out that the American South took nearly a century to achieve a quality of life similar to that of the North after its economy lost its key resource, namely slaves. Even though a guide to what should be done existed in the northern states, the South still failed to make adaptations necessary to life post-slavery because of their attachment to the old ways of doing things. Friedrichs concludes that losing oil in the 21st century will have a similar effect on our economy as the emancipation of the slaves had on the American South, and that we have no convenient models to lead us away from the scenarios presented in Friedrichs paper.

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