Letter from America – The Party’s Over

letter-from-america-the-party-is-overHow do you explain Jan Lundberg? He isn’t at all what one would expect from his family background. What do you say about a man who has torn up his driveway and planted a vegetable garden in its place? Perhaps he is just odd, or maybe it is because he lives in Arcata, California, a small town in the far northern part of the state. Arcata is in redwood country – cool, damp and foggy. Life among the redwood trees takes some strange turns for some people. It has happened before.

In 1855, about 12 miles down the road from where Mr. Lundberg lives now, U.S. Army Captain Sam Grant was busily destroying his Army career. He was stationed at an obscure Army post, far from home, lonely and thoroughly miserable. He spent most of his days wandering around the post in an alcoholic haze. Captain Grant’s dereliction of duty was so clear that his commanding officer strongly ‘encouraged’ him to resign his commission and leave the Army. He did, and returned, defeated and humiliated, to his family roots in the Midwest. For the next five years, former Captain Grant failed at just about every profession and occupation available to him.

In 1861 the American Civil War erupted while Sam Grant was working as a clerk in his father-in-law’s leather goods store.The Federal government was desperate for any sort of military experience in its drive to suppress the Southern Confederacy and Sam Grant managed to talk his way back into the military life.Two years later, in 1863, after a series of small victories and then the destruction of an entire Confederate army at Vicksburg, Mississippi, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was appointed commander of all Federal armies by President Lincoln. As far as General Grant’s ‘difficulty’ with certain beverages was concerned, Mr. Lincoln’s answer was: ‘I can’t spare this man. He fights.’

…world oil output will peak around 2015, and after that will enter a long decline…

For the next 20 months, General Grant – Unconditional Surrender Grant to the Northern states, and Butcher Grant to the Confederates – directed a series of ferocious campaigns against the failing Confederacy. By the summer of 1865, the Confederacy had been wrecked, the war had sputtered to a close, President Lincoln had been murdered, and former Captain Grant found himself hailed in the victorious Northern states as the Saviour of the Union. In November 1868, Sam Grant was elected President of the United States. Life takes some strange turns in the redwood country.

Jan Lundberg’s life, though not nearly as important or as dramatic as General Grant’s, has taken some strange turns as well. For many years his family has published The Lundberg Letter, which still advertises itself as ‘The Bible of the Oil Industry’. Mr. Lundberg’s roots in the oil business are wide and deep, and yet he has turned away from all that.These days he operates the Sustainable Energy Institute from his headquarters in Arcata, and publishes articles like ‘The Fall of Petroleum Civilization’ and ‘Peak Oil: A Turning Point For Humankind’. His website [www.culturechange.org] is stacked with articles like these, both about oil and related subjects. Jan Lundberg does not like a lot about modern life. He does not like cars. He does not like roads. He considers our dependence on oil, especially foreign oil, as a gigantic dead-end. He has been singing this song for about 15 years now, and lately many other voices from the oil industry have joined the choir.The general consensus among the oil experts is that all of the world’s oil supplies, with the exception of the fields of the Middle East, have reached and passed their peak. American oil production peaked in 1970, and has been declining ever since.The best estimates these days are that world oil production will peak sometime around the year 2015, and after that will enter a long and irreversible decline.The title of Richard Heinberg’s book on the subject tells the story – The Party’s Over.What happens then?

A to B readers would probably think in terms of the effects on transportation.That may be the least of our problems. One expert has calculated that if petroleum were to disappear tomorrow, world food production would drop by two-thirds. Every area of modern life will surely be affected, and we cannot even begin to see the total picture.The USA is well positioned to make the transition away from the Age of Oil, but it will be vastly expensive and difficult.We have huge reserves of coal in America, but then coal is dirty and rather inefficient. Nuclear energy is available – and lethal.The American Southwest has good potential for solar energy production, and the American Midwest has enormous potential for wind power.The Age of Oil came into existence over several decades, and will fade out the same way, if current projections can be trusted.

The governments of the world are of course well aware of these projections, but have chosen not to publicise them, so far. Such estimates in the past have proven too pessimistic, and no government is interested in stirring up needless panic.What looks different this time is that the pessimism is coming from the oil industry itself, not from the usual collection of eco-buffs. It appears that we of the 21st century will once again learn the truth of the ancient Chinese curse.We are going to be living in interesting times.

Sam Grant and Jan Lundberg – two lives separated by 12 miles and 150 years.Yet they are tied together by more than redwood trees.The American Age of Oil began around 1870 with the operations of an obscure Ohio businessman. His name was John D. Rockefeller, and in those years he began to put together the American colossus of oil, the Standard Oil Corporation. It happened during the White House years of President Grant, and with his enthusiastic encouragement. Now, in our time, clear notice comes from Jan Lundberg and others that the Age of Oil is about to peak.

For the young, this transition will probably be the great event of their lives. How will we cope? We will surely be brave. As one of John Steinbeck’s characters said in The Grapes of Wrath, ‘It’s easy to be brave when you have no other choice’.