In a recent article (found here (PDF) and at Science Direct), I have investigated how different societies have responded to sharp and rapid cutbacks in their energy supplies. These responses may give us some insight into what might happen as our energy supplies shrink in the future.
In the examples I looked at, I found the following results:
North Korea, 1990s: Response was totalitarian retrenchment
Cuba, 1990s: Response was mobilization of local resilience
Japan, 1940s: Response was predatory militarism
My case studies lead me to formulate the following three hypotheses, which I state upfront here to facilitate discussion. However, please note that they are actually developed from the cases.
Hypothesis 1: The shorter and the less a country or society has practiced humanism, pluralism and liberal democracy, the more likely its elites will be willing and able to impose a policy of totalitarian retrenchment on their population (as in the case of North Korea).
Hypothesis 2: The shorter and the less a country or society has been exposed to individualism, industrialism and mass consumerism, the more likely there will be a adaptive regression to community-based values and a subsistence lifestyle (as in the case of Cuba).
Hypothesis 3: The greater a country’s military potential and the stronger 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 predatory militarism (as in the case of Japan).
In addition to my three cases, I also looked at the South of the United States after the Civil War, where the abolition of slavery led to sharp economic decline and a full century was needed for recovery. This case seems to suggest a fourth hypothesis in addition to the three hypotheses stated above.
Hypothesis 4: In the event of peak oil, we should not expect either immediate collapse or a smooth transition. People do not give up their lifestyle easily. We should expect painful adaptation processes that may last for a century or more (as in the case of the US South).
Based on this, I show how different parts of the world would be likely to react to a peak oil scenario. After discussing what happened in each of my four case studies, in the final section I extract lessons for the first two decades after peak oil (assuming an annual decline of oil supply in the order of 2-5 %).
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