By Norman Pagett / The Rag Blog / July 26, 2013
While numerous explanations and opinions are being bandied around concerning the demise of Detroit, few are prepared to accept the brutal truth that it represents the reality that faces the rest of us. Detroit is not a local difficulty that can be remedied with local measures. Detroit represents the future of the industrialized world.
To define the reasons for Detroit’s collapse, we must come to terms with what built it.
Detroit is, or was, built on the need for universal transportation and the endless consumption of “stuff.”
That’s the “why.” We must not confuse “why” with “how.”
The “how” was oil.
Ford and others created vast assembly plants; the faster cars were built, the more the city prospered. Growth was supposed to go on forever. An endless stream of shiny things seemed to represent endless prosperity.
The business of buying and selling cars gave everyone the means to buy and sell everything else and suddenly everyone was convinced that passing money hand to hand made us all rich. Cities represented the illusion of wealth. They still do.
Detroit was a city that seemed to deliver endless prosperity to all who were drawn into its shiny metropolis. Sure, some made more than others — a lot more — but most did well by making things.
The whole illusion of Detroit and the rest of the global industrial economy was created and sustained by a century’s worth of cheap and seemingly limitless oil. What has happened to that once great city is just a foretaste of what is to come, the city-structure is no different to a car, washing machine or aircraft. It represents a block of embodied energy that can only function if it is driven forward. If its energy input stops, then just like any other manufactured object, it will cease to be.
The disintegrating structure of Detroit is our lesson that the second law of thermodynamics cannot be altered by political dogma or the wishful thinking of economists.
For 200 years we have been finding and using ever greater energy sources, able to use a surplus as collateral for next year’s debts. We gave that energy a monetary value; the more we found and burned, the more “wealth” we had. Our prosperity was linked to burning it faster, so we devised means of doing just that.
Producing ‘stuff’ in an endless stream became the focus of our prosperity, and we came to believe that we could ignore the unpleasant excesses of heat, light, hunger, cold, and gravity forever. Cheap oil gave us 99% of our food and fooled us into overbreeding; now we have a billion starving while we frantically try to convert their food into more cheap oil.
We were told it was a money-economy, while the truth of it was an energy-economy. Without energy, money is worth nothing. If you can’t quite grasp that, take a look at the magnificent Detroit houses now collapsing:as their energy input has stopped. Any “value” they once had has vanished.
But aren’t we always finding new sources of oil? Detroit may have run out of gas, but the rest of the world hasn’t. True enough, but at our present rate of consumption a billion barrels of oil is enough to drive the engine of our world for just 12 days. At its present rate of expansion in 15 years China will need to consume all the world’s oil output or it follows Detroit into oblivion.
As a final twist of the knife into humanity, 15 years from now Saudi Arabia will need to start importing oil to survive.
Happy motoring everyone.
This article was published at The End of More and was cross-posted to The Rag Blog.
[Norman Pagett is a UK-based professional technical writer and communicator, working in the engineering, building, transport, environmental, health, and food industries. With Josephine Smit, he edits and writes The End of More.]
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