I was comparing Jared Diamond's case study to the issue of peak oil, but recently I've perused a copy of Toynbee's Study of History, and realized that somewhere along the way, Diamond probably had a copy of the book, too.
Okay, enough foreplay. Let's get to the nookie. :)
We insist on outmoded modes of existence, a cargo cult (another diamond from Diamond) that worships consumer totems such as big cars, hot clothes, the latest gadgets and as big a house in as fashionable a school district as we can afford. The retort is a fossilized one: "So, what's the matter with nice things?" Nothing, so long as they are in fact worthy goals that add value, as oppose to enfeud you to other people's cash flow in a condition of debtor-servitude. The counter: "What's good about making yourself poor?"
Expensive energy leads to high transportation costs leading to a diminution of transcontinental, never mind global trade networks. Given that people have been trading luxuries across extreme distances for going on 10,000 years, using far more expensive (read: slower and more dangerous) modes of traffic, I do not anticipate a termination of commerce...but self-sufficiency (a polite way to say autarky or import-substituting development) will enjoy a renaissance.
With reduced commerce will come reduced association, and more alienation and conflict between groups. This will not be exclusive to interstate and international relations, but a pattern of alienation that will percolate throughout all strata of society...and between them. Got class struggle troubles? Ethnic unrest? Sectarian strife? You ain't seen nothin' yet.
Something often missed by the ecological karma crowd: The developed economies, the ones most dependent on important energy, will also be the very societies best situated to develop alternatives. Middle economies will be stuck belting it out over oil and coal and natural gas -- or doing without. Lower-tier economies will continue as before: Shut out of the global energy economy, they will convert as much timber and offal and dung into charcoal and desert wasteland as they possibly can, until the only thing left to eat and drink and burn for fuel is one another. Middle and upper-tier economies that either cannot or will not either (a) restructure their fossil fuel situation or (b) develop alternatives will join the lower tier in its race to the other, more terminal kind of oblivion.
And this is the tragedy -- there is so much energy on Earth it's just plain pitiful that lack of same may precipitate both an economic and ecological collapse (see: desert-making, biomass-destroying hordes above). And why a problem: The ignorant kind of oblivion: People either incapable of seeing or refusing to acknowledge that there sure is a lot of sun and wind on this planet, and perhaps somebody ought to consider building a panel or windmill farm or two, to take advantage of that several thousand Terawatts of energy we get for free every day.
Why refuse the obvious? Cultural bias. The dominant mode in the dominant (Americentric) global culture is a contempt for all things...hippy. What could a bunch of pot-smoking, peace-outing, God-hating, free-loving counterculture freaks teach real Amurricans about a complex civilization and how to save it? Why, just about everything you need, thanks for asking. But that's just it. The people who need to know are not only not asking -- They're doing their utmost to eliminate from the discussion the very people who have something constructive to say.
As for the simple things: Suggesting that one cut back on consumption is received as if someone floated the idea that we trade American daughters for Saudi petroleum upon their reaching puberty. No, strike that: The idea of conservation is treated worse, on account human traffic (slavery) in and around the Middle East actually occurs. Why the hostility to saving? Because spending creates growth and the current global culture has, a, er, growth fetish. Very manly...or insecure. No, both.
So what's going to happen if we refuse to cut back on energy, or accept the advice to come up with alternative energy production? Why, we'll import even more oil and coal, of course! And since we need to keep growing, we'll drive SUVs and buy McMansions and even when we see this is patently bad medicine, we'll keep popping the high-consumption pills, regardless. Anything and everything to keep the music playing. And once imports start drying up, we'll convert coal, then oil shale, then all our plastics to oil.
To keep spending on new big-ticket consumer items going, we'll skimp on maintenance of, well, everything else. Use of energy for food, schools, hospitals, even heating will be taxed, rationed or just plain banned. Anything to keep the cars running, and America's economy growing on the backs of home industry!
At this point, someone might remark that there sure are a lot of cold, sick, shivvering people in America these days...but the have-energy people will be calling the shots. To second-guess them is to become one of the have-no-energy multitude. This is not an Emperor's New Clothes moment; people who criticize will be given new clothes and kicked to the curb. And it's cold out in the cold.
As mentioned above, the coal, the oil shale, the plastics will be scavenged for conversion to fuel. Forgot to add one: vegetable oil. Oh, you didn't think people were going to get to eat, did you? Anything to provide energy for the benefit of the energy-haves, handed over to them for a few crumbs and some cargo cult totems to the homegrown coolies...that's most of us.
Juxtapose this sad, sordid decline against the parallel trend -- post-contemporary societies, with advanced technology, abundant alternative energy, with a focus on energy as the unit of value as opposed to a fiat currency. Societies that remain communicative, and save, and create ideas and energy and values, rather than eat into the obsolescent culture's seedcorn to preserve the practices but not the ideals of the older culture.
New energy, new economics, new societies are on the move. They will be the threat that breaks the back of the cargo culture. And they will be fought off with a ferocity that what currently transpires in the Middle East will not even hold a candle to -- for the very basis of the declining civilization will be condemned and sentenced to capital punishment by the existence, then success of the new paradigm.
As a result, wars will occur, small tiffs, then threats and occasions for full-scale conflict -- missile exchanges are a real possibility. And yet again, the new civilization will be vastly more capable than the old to absorb such terrific punishment and prevail. For this reason, such threats, even making good on same, will be done in a desultory fashion, as we have seen when the last superpower, the USSR, checked out for keeps.
"So Whaddya Saying?"
There is no reason that the United States, as a government and as a society, cannot remarry itself to reality, rather than remain divorced from it. However, not all Americans will do anything of the sort; what we see in the ongoing (cough, choke, yack) debate on global warming is that some people will rather die, and send others to die, rather than acknowledge error, accept a new paradigm, or tolerate others doing so.
Regardless, sooner or later all Americans will have to face the consequences of deferring -- thirty years so far -- the moment when it simply will not be affordable for the average U.S. resident (maybe we'll still be citizens) to travel by car to shop, to afford the goods that are available, to visit friends and family, or (since the electricity comes from the same source) communicate often via phone or internet. So sorry. Snail mail will be expensive, too.
And if you think the job drain is bad now, just you wait and see what happens when investors must choose between developed economies with working public transportation infrastructure (and therefore, less exposure to the pinch of expensive energy) and a post-developed America which cannot even afford to maintain its once-glorious interstate highway system.
This is not hyperbole. There will be no magic bullet that cures the petroleum economy, not so long as so many remain addicted to it, both for their comfort and their self-identity, and an entrenched elite requires that nothing change, in order to continue their profit and their power...except that which must change to continue said profit and power a little while longer.