“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” - Often attributed to Plato but likely from Ian McLaren (pseudonym of Reverend John Watson)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Y2K was an epic disaster after all

You all remember the approach to Y2K don't you? There were books, magazine articles, web sites, etc. devoted to the inevitability of system wide disaster to be caused by the Y2K bug and to the consequences thereof. Then disaster struck - Y2K came and went and nothing of any consequence happened. Now, there are many explanations. Chief among them is that hundreds of billions of dollars and millions of person-hours were spent and that that expenditure, which for some reason was invisible to the average person, saved us. Therein lies the true disaster.

The Y2K non-event has persuaded many people that predictions of imminent threats to our entire society and way of life are merely the yammerings of wolf-crying doom sayers. In some cases, that may be true. Unfortunately, when it comes to our ability to fuel our society on petroleum products, it is false. This threat is real, and dire consequences are, in fact, unavoidable. The problem is that warnings fall on deaf ears, in part because the average person thinks "yeah yeah, I've heard it all before. They said the same thing about Y2K." One would like to think that a brief application of common sense would cause people to realize that exponentially increasing consumption of a finite resource is a dead-end street, but that brief application is missing.

I live in a so-called "McMansion" (a 2500 square foot four bedroom house) in Anaheim Hills, and as extensively noted in this blog, I drive a 60 mile round trip to work in a segment (inspection and materials testing) of an industry (construction) that will surely go away in the tsunami of economic dislocation caused by the unavailability of imported fossil fuels to "feed the beast." Further, much of my net worth is tied up in the equity in my house and my equity in the company for which I work and in which I am a partner. My vulnerability is huge, I'm a perfect example of what won't work.

The simultaneous trends of exponentially increasing consumption and the peaking of production of fossil fuels would be bad enough. However, quoting the infomercials, "but wait, there's more!" As explained here, as exporting countries' fuel resources begin to suffer the effects of depletion while their citizens demand the things we assume we will always have here (cars, air conditioning, etc.), those countries will divert exports to internal consumption. So even if production doesn't slide as quickly as some predict, oil available for export to the U.S. will decline steeply in the very near future. To call the consequences dire is to understate them dramatically.

Thus, my playing with a Land Rover LR3 to see if I can coax 20 m.p.g. out of it is truly a hobby and almost irrelevant to the fossil fuel situation we face. As far off as James Howard Kunstler was in his Y2K predictions and as bombastic as he is in his prose, I'm afraid that this time he's right. So the true disaster of Y2K was that it blinded many of us to the real doomsday scenario we now face, and prevents us from taking any meaningful steps to mitigate the inevitable tragedy ahead.

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