Last week the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation ran part one of a two-part series on how Cuba survived without oil after the fall of the Soviet Union. (Not technically true — there was oil, just far too little of it.) The next part runs this Sunday and has to do with the redefinition of Cuban medicine in the post-oil world. It’s all very fascinating, and it’s produced by one of our national treasures, David Suzuki.
But it’s had me thinking once more about the likely responses to peak oil. Put simply, Cuba went through a transition far more wrenching than even the worst peak oil scenarios predict. After oil production peaks, we are going to see a decline, not a sudden disappearance of oil. Cuba went through an experience that, put simply, should have destroyed the country. At least, that’s what you’d think if you read about Die-Off or Olduvai theory.
Nevertheless, Cuba is still a functioning society, with one of the higher standards of living in the Caribbean and a still-functioning government.
For the people who wish to believe that the government will be powerless when peak oil arrives, there’s probably no better messenger than someone like George Bush. Hell, the boob can’t even manage to save one of America’s industrial arteries from a hurricane, much less manage an economic transition away from oil, with all the complexity that entails. Cuba, meanwhile, stands as a counter-example of how competent even the most poorly-run states can be when their survival is threatened.
That’s why I’ve believed for some time now that, rather than see a weakened state after the decline of oil production sets in, we are actually far more likely to see a much more powerful state.
The example of the mid-1970s is instructive: Both Nixon and Carter imposed price controls, rationing, and generally used economic policies that had been left for wartime to try and deal with inflation and oil prices. If peak oil gets really bad, well, FDR halted car manufacturing for the duration of WWII, sending the price of used cars through the roof.
I should say that I’m generally optimistic about our chances of averting disaster after peak oil. That said, if the screws really start turning, expect a more empowered state, not a weaker one. At the end of the day, the cops will always be at the front of the line for gasoline.
People who are fearing/hoping for anarchy in the post-peak age are going to be happy/disappointed. But for the rest of us, we need to think of what policies will be sufficient for getting through what will — politics aside — be a difficult transition, and what policies would be too authoritarian (a debate that, to my knowledge, Cuba didn’t have).
In a sense, it’s the same argument that has been largely ignored in the War on Terror: to what extent is the government allowed to “protect” us?
Once again, if you wanted to be depressed, the example of the Bush administration would be sufficient.