Post Peak Oil: Downsizing Life

In decrying the treatment of indigenous people by Western colonizers, John Bodley (2008) draws a distinction between indigenous society, which he writes has existed for 500,000 years in stable, sustainable societies with low population density, and commercial society, which has existed for about 6,000 years, is unsustainable, perpetuates itself only through high population growth and by encroaching surrounding territory (now nearly the entire land surface of the planet) which is often already occupied by indigenous peoples, who must be assimilated, displaced, or destroyed in the name of progress. He thus raises a conundrum that is not his focus but which is nonetheless crucial: Given that we have only these two models of society, and given that our population, now approximately 7 billion people, is too high to disperse to indigenous-level density, how can we create a third model—a high-density, high population, yet sustainable society?

Bill McKibben’s (2007) answer is intense localization. He argues that we have passed the peak of oil production, that oil will become more expensive over the long term as production decreases, that long-distance transportation of goods will become infeasible, and that food and other goods should be produced locally. And, he argues, not only will this paradigm shift be necessary, but it is desirable.

A difficulty is in premises. If McKibben’s (2007) premises were indisputable, the advantages of community-centric production, that rather than isolating humans, compel them to get to know each other, would be overwhelming. But I am unpersuaded that smaller society, in itself, will be better society; something more will be needed.

For instance, McKibben claims that in earlier, more community-centered eras, poor people lived better lives, that they enjoyed greater support within their families, while now, poor people are not just poor, but isolated as well. But well before the Industrial Revolution, social class was of sufficient concern to James Madison (2003) in the Federalist Papers, that he argued for the then-proposed Constitution on grounds that it would protect the minority (property) rights not of any disadvantaged or stigmatized group, but rather of wealthy white male property owners. And Howard Zinn’s (2003) history is replete with often violent class conflict. The poor may indeed have lived better lives, that is, they may have been less isolated and experienced greater community support, but they were far from content.

Furthermore, the great anarchist Peter Kropotkin (1997, 2006), reviewing European medieval history, described relative democracy and collectivism in the villages, that the people in them were able to hold off the tyranny of feudal lords and royalty, except that they failed to extend their mutual aid and defense to peasants from the surrounding countryside. This, he argued, left a population that nobility could exploit to man armies to attack and to ultimately subdue the towns. This is a history I have, at best, only seen hinted at elsewhere, but anywhere there are boundaries, be they between villages and the country, between towns, or even between neighborhoods, there may be discrepancies of condition across those borders, and resentments that accumulate to produce the same tensions that undermined Kropotkin’s villages. What will happen when adjacent communities all growing their own crops experience poor conditions—as may become more common with climate change—or a blight and one has a little bit more than the others? What if, by talent or by luck, one community is consistently more successful than the others?

This might be a reason not to challenge systems of exchange, to allow “free markets” to sort out inequities, except that they do precisely the opposite, that they instead privilege whomever is most able to decline a deal. By successively enhancing the bargaining power of a decreasing number of individuals, this inevitably magnifies discrepancy rather than diminishing it. Boundaries thus appear not only in territory but by social class. Madison (2003) accepted factions based on socioeconomic status as inevitable; his argument for creating a system that would empower the wealthy, whom he believed would be less subject to conflicts of interest, is significant particularly in light of Joseph Stiglitz’s (2007) acknowledgment that globalization has undermined democracy, that the distribution of its benefits has been grossly unfair, and that poor people especially feel marginalized, insecure, powerless, and enslaved. Madison argued for a republic, precisely because he did not trust democracy, in large part because he feared popular power. That, in many respects, we now have the kind of power distribution that Madison advocated in the Constitution, just on a global rather than the relatively small scale of the United States late in the 18th Century, suggests that the condition of poverty today may be an outcome not only of economic, but also of political processes. Further, that labeling people as “undeserving poor” serves elite purposes (Gans, 2005) suggests that poverty and the label of undeservingness function as negative (stabilizing) feedbacks that sustain the status quo.

McKibben (2007) lays blame for the gap between rich and poor and the isolation of contemporary society on an ideology of growth, which Stiglitz (2007) also criticizes for having come to outweigh considerations of quality of life and of sustainability, and upon what McKibben labels hyper-individualism, which he traces to the Protestant Reformation but which has possibly culminated with the exploitation of fossil fuels. It all appears as progressive liberation, as farmers were freed from the land and as labor-saving devices reduced drudgery, but increased mobility also dissolved the old stability of social relations in favor of narrow economic relations assumed to be as if divinely guided, through Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” While economic decisions are imagined to be the product of supposed self-interest and supposed rationality, they are more likely to be the result of a tangled web of human motivations too complicated for economists to comprehend. And the ideology of growth now appears as efficiency, requiring people to work longer hours, and as a “geographically mobile society . . . moving people from where they are less productive to where they are more so” (p. 101), an ideology that now seems quite untenable with six million long-term unemployed (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 2011) in a job market that even President Barack Obama admits discriminates against the unemployed (U.S. White House, Office of the Press Secretary, September 8, 2011) in the latest of a series of increasingly severe financial crises attributable to deregulation (Wray, November 4, 2010).

McKibben (2007) is attempting to walk a line between what he calls individualism, as the product of the Protestant Reformation, and hyper-individualism as a product of the Industrial Revolution. It is a difficult line to walk, and there is no universal agreement as to the impact of industrialization on the ideology of individualism. Charles Reich (1970) traced what he labeled as “Consciousness I,” idealizing a heroic individual frontiersman (gender bias mine, and intentional), as it was carried forward into the Industrial Revolution with “monstrous consequences: robber barons, business piracy, ruinous competition, unreliable products and false advertising, grotesque inequality, and the chaos of excessive individualism and lack of coordination and planning, leading to a gangster world” (p. 63) . For Reich, “Consciousness II” began around the time of the New Deal with the manifest failure of “Consciousness I,” which “sacrificed for individual good; now it seemed necessary to sacrifice for a common good” (p. 64). And Reich would see much of today’s viciousness, in proposals to privatize Social Security and other public programs for instance, that McKibben attributes to hyper-individualism, in the context of a conflict between “Consciousness I” holders and advocates of the New Deal. In words that resonate today, Reich writes,

Every step the New Deal took encountered the massive, bitter opposition of Consciousness I people. They found their world changing beyond recognition, and instead of blaming the primary forces behind that change, they blamed the efforts at solving problems. They totally lacked the sophistication necessary to see that a measure such as the Wagner Act might be redressing an existing oppression rather than creating oppression. The businessmen who were the most vocal in their opposition had a pathological hatred of the New Deal, a hatred so intense and personal as to defy analysis. Why this hatred, when the New Deal, in retrospect, seems to have saved the capitalist system? Perhaps because the New Deal intruded irrevocably upon their make-believe, problem-free world in which the pursuit of business gain and self-interest was imagined to be automatically beneficial to all of mankind, requiring of them no additional responsibility whatever. In any event, there was a large and politically powerful number of Americans who never accepted the New Deal even when it benefited them, and used their power whenever they could to cut it back. (Reich, 1970, pp. 56-57)

But McKibben (2007) walks that line, between individualism and hyper-individualism, to avoid taking on the ideology of capitalism; he wants to accept the collapse of the Soviet Union as disproving the viability of communism, when the only structural difference between the putatively capitalist and massively hierarchical system of the West and the putatively communist and massively hierarchical system of the East was in the West’s claimed distinction between private and public sector. But C. Wright Mills (2005) called that distinction into doubt when he wrote of three hierarchies in the U.S.—economic, political, and military—that were effectively united. This, I think, is where McKibben’s idea of a paradigm shift falls short; I look for one to occur when we recognize that any system of exchange inherently privileges whomever is most able to say no and thus inherently exacerbates the gulf between rich and poor, and when we recognize that hierarchy in our attitudes toward each other and toward our environment is at the heart of the problems which, as McKibben acknowledges, threaten our species’ survival.

It is certainly possible to argue that McKibben does well to argue as he does, and that he may be more persuasive in advocating a paradigm shift that will in any event prove necessary if he limits his challenge to prevailing orthodoxy to the minimum possible. McKibben (2007) and Stiglitz (2007) agree that the wealthy have profited immensely from the status quo, that the same forces that have made the wealthy so much wealthier have also made the poor poorer. Stiglitz writes that “downward pressure on wages [in advanced industrial countries] can be resisted, but then unemployment will increase. Even the most powerful politicians cannot repeal these laws of economics” (p. 24; while Stiglitz advocates globalization, he does not offer a solution for that problem; he focuses principally on the developing world). In McKibben’s view, localized production would abandon the economies of scale that have left so many workers vulnerable. In his community-centric society, hierarchy would be to some degree ameliorated by the necessity for people to deal with each other and by increased labor-intensity. That is no minor argument and it will not meet with easy acceptance in the mass media, given the control that consolidation has yielded to massive corporations (Croteau & Hoynes, 2003) and the ideological investment journalism operations and schools have in growth-oriented capitalism (Altschull, 1995).

But as it stands, McKibben’s argument is not entirely coherent. He neglects the stigmatization of the poor that derives from the Protestant Reformation’s association between material prosperity and God’s favor (Tarnas, 1991), the uses of that stigmatization in dividing the non-wealthy against each other (Gans, 2005), the fact that smaller (medieval) society was not necessarily democratic society, the historic anti-democratic tendencies of division, for example between townspeople and peasants (Kropotkin, 2006), the inherent failings not just of capitalism but of any exchange system, and the more fundamental failings of hierarchy. His call for smaller societies, therefore, can be taken as a necessary but insufficient starting point for the change that will be forced upon us quite soon enough.


Altschull, J. H. (1995). Agents of power: the media and public policy (2nd ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Bodley, J. H. (2006). Victims of progress (5th ed.). Lanham, MD: Bowman and Littlefield.

Croteau, D. & Hoynes, W. (2003). Media and Society: Industries, images, and audiences (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Gans, H. J. (2005). The uses of undeservingness. In T. M. Shapiro (Ed.), Great divides: Readings in social inequality in the United States (pp. 85-94). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kropotkin, P. (1997). The state: Its historic role. London: Freedom.

—. (2006). Mutual aid: A factor of evolution. Mineola, NY: Dover.

Madison, J. (2003). The federalist no. 10: Madison. In G. Wills (Ed.), The federalist papers (pp. 50-58). New York: Bantam.

McKibben, B. (2007). Deep economy: The wealth of communities and the durable future. New York: Henry Holt.

Mills, C. W. (2005). The structure of power in American society. In T. M. Shapiro (Ed.), Great divides: Readings in social inequality in the United States (pp. 139-145). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Reich, C. A. (1970). The greening of America. New York: Crown.

Stiglitz, J. (2007). Making globalization work. New York: W. W. Norton.

Tarnas, R. (1991). The passion of the Western mind: Understanding the ideas that have shaped our world view. New York: Harmony.

U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2011, September 2). The employment situation—August 2011. Retrieved from

U.S. White House, Office of the Press Secretary. (2011, September 8). American Jobs Act: Fact sheet and overview. Retrieved from

Wray, L. R. (2010, November 4). Right now, a complete collapse of the financial system is not out of the question. Business Insider. Retrieved from

Zinn, H. (2003). A people’s history of the United States: 1492-present. New York: HarperPerennial.

2 thoughts on “Post Peak Oil: Downsizing Life

  • April 3, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    An interesting post, a bit hard going for me since I’m not familiar with all the references, but interesting.
    I don’t actually accept peak oil as established reality or near-future reality (I used to drive my undergrad students nuts arguing the contra case in class). My reasoning is as follows, most of the earth has not been explored for oil. I’m thinking of the undersea, huge swathes of Africa, Siberia and a lot of central asia. By that metric its plausible that more oil is yet to be discovered than has been discovered to date.

    A second tangent is the question of whether the claimed effects of peak oil will occur. I don’t think so for the reason stated above, but also for a different reason. The question of resource depletion, and its claimed effects, is really a political issue not a technical or economy issue. In other words we have the means right now to solve the problem, we just won’t do it. We don’t really need smaller society or fewer people. As far as fewer people go, if you consider that the bulf of the worlds resources go to the wealthiest 20% its becomes obvious that the earth could support a lot more people at a very high standard of living, than it currently supports.

    SO the problem is one of resource distribution and utilization. The reason we can’t address it is because the rich and powerful stand to lose if we do so.
    At present our technical and economic resources allow us to have the following:
    – close to zero emissions cities
    – low cost efficient, mass transport of people and goods.
    – environment friendly food production at levels far exceeding current production
    – close to 100% recycling of all manufactured goods

    Again politics gets in the way.

  • April 3, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    On the question of smaller societies being better, I’d say it depends. I grew up in an agricultural society, working on a farm and directly observing, so called, smaller society. I’d say most in the west would hate the transition to such societies. Growing your own food is really no fun. Most people would rather find other ways to spend their lives and pay for their food. So I believe large scale agriculture is here to stay and the same goes for long distance transport of food. There are immense benefits to us from today’s agriculture. We should do it better, but we should also realize that the problem is the way its done not its scale.

    Again politics is the block. Or maybe the corporations and their owners, since they control the politics.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.