Old Way, New Way

The hardest part of living through a time of wrenching change is that nobody particularly bothers to inform you that the times have changed and that nothing will be the same again. Certainly not the talking heads on TV, who are often the last to know. You have to figure it out for yourself, if you can. But I am here to help.

It all has to do with energy. Not with technology—that’s incidental; not with military superiority—that’s fleeting and largely imaginary; certainly not with any sort of political or cultural self-righteousness—that’s delusional. There is no substitute for energy. If you run low, you can’t switch to running your industrial economy on fiddlesticks. It just shuts down. What’s worse, energy sources are not even particularly substitutable for each other. If you run low on gas, you can’t just switch to coal or to dried dung, even if you are up to your neck in it. Modern industry runs on oil, natural gas and coal, in that order, and they can be substituted for each other in very limited ways.

Furthermore, energy has to be very cheap. Oil has to be about the cheapest liquid you can buy—cheaper than milk; cheaper even than bottled water. If energy isn’t cheap enough, then all the energy-hungry industry that runs on it becomes unprofitable and shuts down. That’s the stage at which we are now in much of the world. So, what happened?

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