Post-oil = Post-scarcity?

strypey's picture

I have been a hunch that common sense is wrong. Specifically the common fear that life after the peak in availability of fossil fuels, especially oil. will be one of scarcity. Why? To understand that, we need to think about the psychology of the oil economy.

I suspect most people who live in societies dependent on oil know that oil will run out. Most of them hope it will not happen in their lifetime, or at least not until some as yet unknown new energy technology can seamlessly replace it. Whether or not they think about it consciously, they know that for the time being, maintaining their current standard of living depends on continuing to have the same share of oil-derived wealth, and lifting their standard of living depends on their ability to compete with others for a larger share.

In other words, oil-based economies don't scale well. They can only grow as much, and as fast, as the rate of extraction of oil can grow. Just as a mainframe computer system, dependent on a central server, can only increase it's processing capacity by increasing the power of the server. Contrast this with a cluster supercomputer, which increases its total processing power every time another computer is connected to the cluster. So if oil wells are the mainframe servers of our current economy, what would a 'cluster economy' look like?

A cluster economy could be based on a peer-to-peer network of self-sufficient communities, who share whatever they have in surplus across the network, according to an agreed set of trading protocols. Any time another community is added to the cluster, the overall productive capacity of the cluster is increased, rather than being a drain on the limited resource of oil. But what would be the energy source for the communities?

Simple, the sun. Communities could harvest sunlight directly, using passive solar building design to heat their homes, solar hot water systems etc. Also, using the sunlight harvesting technology of photosynthesis and the self-reproducing magic of DNA,  and food forest/ companion planting approaches, and given control over as much land space as they could farm, they could turn sunlight into food, fibre, even fuel - wood for fires, methane for cooking, ethanol and biodiesel for vehicles etc.

There's no guarantee overall material wealth would be as great in a post-oil cluster economy as it is under the oil-based mainframe economy. Mind you there was no guarantee that informational wealth would be greater on the Internet than it was under the balkanized mainframes of the past. Either way, because this economy would be based on renewable resources, there would be an incentive to create more sunlight harvesting capacity, rather than an incentive to struggle with other people over shares in existing capacity. So regardless of whether or not certain material goods are objectively scarcer overall, the collective psychology of creativity and generosity growing out of the sustainability of the resource base, and the security of access, means that everyone *feels* like they are living in abundance.

The challenge is, to re-engineer a system of economic incentives that works on a kernel of scarcity, to become one that can support the emergence of the post-scarcity economy. A couple of interesting jumping-off points:

Yochai Benkler talking about the "wealth of networks" - innovation and sophisticated production emerging from decentralised networks of autonomous individuals and groups, rather than being driven by state-corporate actors:

Adrian Johns on the history of piracy, particularly interesting is the parallel development of pirate versions of whole corporations:

Submitted by Danyl Strype of