for our future . . .







Economy and Jobs in a Post-Peak Oil World

By Sri Subramanian

HopeDance, December 2004

We’ve all run into this situation. We start describing passionately our vision for a sustainable future, and our listeners’ eyes glaze over. Maybe they suppress yawns or pointedly start glancing at their watches.

And, were you to get all riled up talking about the unconscionable leveling of Falluja, or the 100,000 estimated civilian casualties of the war on Iraq, you just might get the same reaction. But start talking about how you heard that a universal draft is the only way out of Iraq, and then people start perking up. You’ll see animation, interest and maybe even denial, but never indifference.

The surest way to guarantee change is to move the frame of an issue from choice to necessity, from way out there to the personal, from a way of life to the only possible way of life. Some issues come already framed as such. And Peak Oil — the point in time after which oil production permanently declines — is one such issue.

If you believe that Peak Oil is around the corner, it is all but impossible not to be interested in sustainability or not to start thinking about how much energy goes into supporting your family’s needs.

Even if you believe that a miracle energy alternative will be discovered, would you not invest a little time in preparing for a "what if" situation, a Plan B?

One of the questions I’ve been struggling with is, what kind of a future job should I be preparing for? I work in the global software market. I am currently working on a project to help cell phone service providers assist customers with cool, so-called "killer-apps." Want to take a picture of your 3-year-old girl swaying to the sounds of a musician in one of Santa Barbara’s Farmers’ markets, and then e-mail it to your mom, all with your cell phone? Sure, we can do that.

Will I have such a job when energy is needed simply for survival? Will as much energy be available for transportation when a burgeoning global population, weaned on petrochemical-based food production, is starving? Will people travel as much? If they don’t travel, will cell phones become niche items? Will a global economy be even possible in such a future?

Like Peak Oil advocates, I believe that the coming crisis will reverse globalization. I believe that advances in the current economy in the industrial global north are based far less on technological innovation, and far more on increased consumption of fossil fuels and the abuse of a global labor pool which is forced away from subsistence farming towards industrialized work.

The perfect symbol for this globalization is the worker in some remote Chinese province, working for 20 cents per hour in shifts as long sometimes as 24 hours, making Christmas toys for our country’s children. They work. We buy, then throw it away. They work more, we buy more. Every day the global economy uses up more energy than it did the day before, and correspondingly produces more waste, a path on a certain collision with the reality of limited fossil fuel.

If we cannot depend on the global economy, we have to create a local one. It cannot be an economy based on unsustainable practices, simply because we have learned that that will not work (although our national leaders may forget that and repeat those mistakes). Another way to think about it is that it has to be a local living economy. Mature ecosystems in nature live in harmony with the environment, and we had better learn how to do that.

If we look in this context, there are many sectors of our life that will be affected. The organization I am part of, For the Future [click here to see an interview with For the Future], has initiated a Sustainable Small Cities Initiative and, as part of that effort, has compiled a list of affected sectors [click here for more details]. Sectors like food, shelter and health jump out immediately, of course, but what about clothing? Or education?

There may be a perfect job for me in one of these sectors, and it would be great if I could simply transfer my skills, but that may not be possible. After all, how many software engineers does a local living economy need? Wouldn’t we need more people involved in the growing of food?

As I struggle with these questions, it is tempting to fall into old ways of thinking. Our material culture has lulled us into believing that, as individuals, we’re totally self-sufficient. What I don’t have, I can buy. And I can do this without even talking to a soul. Stepping back, I am always struck by the magnitude of the infrastructure we’ve put into place simply so we can be independent. If I have a phone, the web and the shipping industry, I can live like a hermit in my home while things I need get trucked in, and things I waste get trucked out.

Then I fall back on my Indian roots to get perspective. I remember how things were when I was growing up. If you needed to get something done, you needed to know the right people. Swapping favors and bartering were the norm. We had our favorite tailor, shoe-repair man and restaurants; in effect, a community of local businesses I could always depend on and where I would always be greeted as so-and-so’s son or grandson.

So, not only will we need to find work that’s sustainable, we also, very importantly, need to build a community that will support us. After all, Macy’s or Sears may not be around for us to buy ourselves a new pair of trousers if the old pair is ripped. Instead of tossing the old ones, we may have to find a local tailor to repair them. We could also have fun with informal barter. I repair your computer — and perhaps throw in a pot of homemade curried squash soup — if you can fix my dental fillings.

For the Future, with the help of the community, plans to look at each of the affected sectors in detail to identify what is needed to sustain ourselves. Out of this analysis, we hope to compile skills and business opportunities that would be sorely needed.

We also intend to get the help of organizations already involved with building local living economies. Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) is one such organization which has created 14 such communities around the nation. To make this possible, I invite any of you who are small business owners from the community to get in touch with me.

On an individual level, I still hope and pray that we will come together at an international level and prepare for this crisis in a just and egalitarian manner. Whatever I can do on that front I will and, I am sure, so will you. Problems like global climate change — which could become exacerbated if energy crises make governments ignore environmental safeguards — can only be addressed at the global level. However, while we continue to do that, let’s also do what we can to create a model of sustainability locally: our future may just depend on it.

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