Austerity and debt reduction will get us nowhere, in this view. In particular: it won't change the fact that we have too many manufacturing workers and too few information workers. Stiglitz argues forcefully that this gap is likely to remain open until our governments make a long-term commitment to do what they did in the 1940s -- that is, fund the kind of aggressive education, research, and infrastructure investments that will finally get us fully transitioned to the new phase. The current economic crisis is doomed to last exactly as long as we delay put off building that necessary to the new information economy. When we come out the other side, there will still be farmers and manufacturers — but even they will be leveraging the power of the Internet to create new wealth. Everybody will.
Another one is Thomas Homer-Dixon, a Canadian economist who wrote The Upside of Down. Homer-Dixon marshals evidence that all great empires rise and fall by controlling the dominant energy supply of their age. The Romans used roads and aqueducts to harness solar energy (in the form of food) from around the Mediterranean basin, and used that surplus to fund the most complex society of its time. The Dutch empire rose on its superior ability to master wind technologies — the windmill and the ship — to extend its land holdings, run early manufacturing industries, and extend its trading reach around the globe. The British empire rose on coal-powered steam engines, which gave it more productive industries, railroads, electrical generators, and faster ships. The US eclipsed the Brits due to its vast wealth in oil — a far more concentrated and fungible fuel — and inventions from cars and planes to plastics and fertilizers that allowed it to make the most of its advantages. And the Chinese are now making huge investments in renewable energy and safer, more efficient second-generation nuclear power, which they can use to fuel their ascent to global primacy.
The bottom line in Homer-Dixon’s theory is this: Everything that Americans understand as “wealth” under the current paradigm comes from oil. It’s the foundation of our entire economy, and the ground our superpower status stands on. Our cities are built on the assumption of cheap, plentiful oil. Our consuming patterns are made possible by a fleet of oil-burning trucks, ships, and planes that bring us goods made in oil-driven factories. Our warmaking machine, which is largely tasked with protecting our oil interests around the world, is the single largest consumer of energy on the planet. Even our food is created with vast oil-based inputs of fertilizer and pesticides; and we enjoy a year-round variety of foods (bananas! chocolate! coffee!) that is unprecedented in human history because oil makes cheap transport and refrigeration possible.
And the pain and fear caused when we're forced to face this fundamental fact explains quite a bit about why ideas like climate change and peak oil are so viscerally terrifying to so many Americans. (In many right-wing circles, denial about the American oil addiction is now a core piece of their political identity. It’s considered anti-American to even suggest that getting off oil is necessary or possible.) We are so deeply invested in oil, in so many ways, that it’s almost impossible for us to envision a world beyond it. We stand to lose so much that it’s hard to fathom it all.
And this, says Homer-Dixon, is why no empire has ever survived an energy-related phase shift with its full power intact: the reigning hegemons are always too deeply invested in the current system to recognize the change, let alone respond to it in time. And so they are always superceded by some upstart that’s motivated to put more resources and risk into aggressively developing the next source. The decline of oil as the energy reality of the world has deep implications for every aspect of American life in the coming century. It’s a phase shift at the deepest level.