I was musing over the decline of fossil fuels the other day, and what it might mean for the future. Demand for oil is out pacing the available supply. China and India are reaching for the same mobility and prosperity enjoyed by the United States, and they are growing by a fantastic amount in both population and industry.

Meanwhile, the oil infrastructure is rusting away because of insufficient investment in the next generation of rigs and technicians. To top it off, the oil companies have picked all the low hanging fruit off the tree, so to speak. All the easy-to-find oil has been located, and all the light, sweet crude (the easiest to refine) is disappearing fast.

What we have left are declining field discoveries, aging wells going into production collapse, and a steadily shrinking supply of heavy, sour crude oil that is increasingly hard to extract and refine.

In layman’s terms, this means that the era of cheap, abundant energy, which fueled an unprecedented industrial age of manufacturing and transportation, is over. From here on out, cheap oil is replaced by expensive oil, and the price of everything this industrial age of cards was built on collapses.

This does not mean the end of oil. We will never run out of oil. It means energy prices go through the roof to reflect the increase in scarcity. A price of 100 dollars a barrel of oil is about eighteen cents a cup. Think about how far a cup of gasoline will get your automobile. Now, imagine paying a group of people in today’s market eighteen cents to push your vehicle the same distance. The commodity is cheap compared to how much it can accomplish.

Nothing can replace oil. Oil is used to make fertilizers, pesticides, and plastics. It can be turned into fuels that power farm machinery, aircraft, ships, factories, power plants, and most of all, trucks. Transportation is 75% of the use of modern energy. Food production and modern manufacturing as we know it couldn’t exist without oil. Cheap energy created the modern world.

The alternative energy sources we have now won’t keep things going the same way. Solar, wind, nuclear, biofuels, coal, tar sands, and so on all have problems that oil doesn’t have. None of them are as versatile as oil. You can’t turn sunlight or wind into plastics. Biofuels don’t scale to industrial levels and take over food producing land. Tar sands are too energy intensive and waste too much water. Nuclear takes too long to build to stave off the energy crunch. Coal won’t power airplanes. Technology isn’t going to save us in time because we’ve run out the clock.

Is this doomsday? No one can predict the future, though it seems like I am by reciting the litany of doom above. It’s a comforting illusion to hope for the end of days and a release from this crummy world we call Planet Earth. I don’t buy it. The decline of oil is real, and changes are coming to the industrialized world that technology won’t be able to save. But what comes after is anyone’s guess.

I speculate that we will continue to have electricity. That’s what I keep thinking about. I’m skeptical of batteries on any scale, since I’m not sure the resources exist to replace the fleet of vehicles we have now, with the kinds we have now. But I see a renaissance in rail and canal travel. Food, power, and components will have to be generated locally because the energy to transport them great distances will be too expensive.

I wonder about the resurgence of the laboring class, and of animal transport. The transition would have to include that in some great numbers because as fuel prices go up, it might become too costly to build a road with machinery, and cheaper to use laborers. The social implications of this blow me away, because it won’t be like the “good old days”. It’ll be a different context with different attitudes.

Corporations will have to change the way they do business. They won’t be able to easily relocate to a country where they can pay cheaper wages anymore, because the cost of shipping the parts is no longer cheap. If they decide to go with cheaper steamers or sailboats, the travel time increases.

There will be conflicts as the various owners of the countries fight for the remaining, poor quality oil fields. As food production plummets, there will be starvation. There will be less travel for the average person, and less goods. I shudder to think what people in the “prosperous” countries might do, with their sense of entitlement and shock at the end of the party.

Yet electricity will still be there. The focus will be the grid, the power lines, the telephone wires, the “line” itself. The level of energy will be smaller, and less instantaneous. We’ll all have to withdraw, pull back and reexamine the old ways of crafting, building and farming on smaller scales. Communities will be interconnected by the line, but physically constrained by lack of cheap energy. This is the age of lightning, of individual development through the development of ideas and an acknowledgement that you, the person reading this, are your own means of production.

The stroke of lightning illuminates, and sets you free. In the tarot card of The Tower, lightning (from the heavens) strikes the tower of Babel and throws the king and pope into the swirling waters and thorns below, along with the top of the tower. The current order of hierarchy and power has been struck down for its hubris. Yet the figures, robbed of their hats of authority, are human again. They seem to flail, yet if you turn the card upside down, they are dancing!

We will be humbled, and brought down to earth from our lofty heights. Our lives will come under scrutiny and require contemplation. The chances are good that humanity will come out of the fall with a new sense of purpose and a greater sense of community than before. Problems will emerge, of course, as the quest continues. Conflicts will be more personal than before, and of a more immediate kind. The danger is that individuals can emerge to infect the group with psychic contagions more easily. We might find new advances in individualized repression more terrifying than anything we’ve seen yet. And countering that, cooperative groups of democratic nodes more stable and humanizing than what we could possibly imagine.

No doubt, things are going to tilt on their axis in unpredictable ways.