Friday, August 14, 2009

Visions of the future: Mad Max, peak oil and carnage

Whether or not you believe in peak oil, you probably have at least one picture in your mind of what a world running out of oil might look like. If you've seen the 1981 movie Mad Max 2: the Road Warrior, the vivid images are probably still easy to recall: small pockets of near-sanity ruled with an iron fist and besieged by brutal, marauding gangs, with unbalanced loners scavenging the desert around, and everyone fighting over the few remaining drops of precious oil

I don't know when it was that I realized that car culture was unsustainable, but in discussions of it my mind has come back again and again to those images. I alluded to them briefly in a recent post, and I've seen them mentioned in many discussions of sustainability and peak oil.

Interestingly, there aren't too many other ideas about what a post-oil world could look like (that don't posit some more powerful energy source). Can you think of any - that aren't obviously based on or inspired by The Road Warrior? Once the movie came along, it seems to have satisfied that need.

Tonight I got to wondering: where did this movie come from, and who, and why? I knew it was made in the interior of Australia, and that made sense because it's in desert areas like that that I've felt most strongly the fragility of human settlement.

I checked out the Wikipedia entry for Mad Max 2 and the other movies in the series, and discovered an essay by co-screenwriter James McCausland connecting it to the oil shocks of the 1970s, and specifically to the concept of peak oil. McCausland reports that he and George Miller "wrote the script based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late."

I don't remember exactly when I first saw The Road Warrior; I know it was on video, at someone else's house, and I was in my teens. I've always been uncomfortable with violence in movies, but if the movie has enough value I can get past that, and I did with this one. However, a few years later the Cinema Village showed the first Mad Max, and I actually walked out in the middle, when Max and his family are at the beach. But I didn't leave; I just hung out in the lobby and came back in for the final scene. Maybe the setting just wasn't far enough removed from present-day reality for me to stick it out through the violence.

The violence; I think that's one of the things that struck people about these movies. It made sense when the Wikipedia author mentioned that Miller had been an emergency room doctor before he wrote Mad Max, and that he incorporated a lot of what he saw and heard into the movie. Anyone who works in an emergency room sees a lot of carnage, and I think that comes through in the movies.

What doesn't quite seem realistic to me is the brutality. Now I know there's a lot of real brutality out in the world, and that it can emerge in many places, especially when society fails to function properly. But what just didn't add up for me in Mad Max was the pervasiveness of it. It's been a long time since I saw it, but if my memory is correct, many of the characters just seemed like brutality machines, who came into the movie brutal with no external explanation. I just think it's hard to keep so many people so brutal for so long. Yeah, people are nasty and ugly and vicious, but even the nastiest can be kind and tender and vulnerable sometimes.

Maybe Miller has seen a side of humanity that I haven't, and maybe he knows better than me. And certainly resource conflicts can get very brutal, as Jared Diamond explains, in places like Rwanda. But I still have hope that humanity can't get quite as bad as Mad Max suggests.

Regardless, if you read Collapse, you'll understand that the more prepared we are, the better chance we have of coasting to a soft landing and not descending into chaos, whether Rwanda-style or Mad Max-style. So if you think there's something to this peak oil stuff, time to get moving.


nathan_h said...

Interesting. I wonder if violence provoked by the end of oil could result in as many deaths as the peak of the traffic death toll, which I hope we have already seen in the US? But this question can hardly be posed to a society that is only concerned with intent. A single Madmax-style murder is many times more horrifying, and opposed with force and funding, than ten fatal traffic 'accidents'. We can't seem to get to the point of understanding probability; to say that, if you drive carelessly frequently enough, you are choosing to kill someone at some time.

That final scene of Madmax deepens the strangeness, as it's what would otherwise be called a traffic accident in our culture. At that climax of the horror, people are killed in the same way the boy was killed by a taxi in Harlem this week. The only difference is that intent was established in the film; that's a pretty thin thread to separate cinematic horror from accepted, everyday reality.

BruceMcF said...

I recall a science fiction story of economic collapse in the US, where the residents of a walled suburb are surrounded by brutal and vicious thugs constantly trying to break down their defenses ... followed by a scene of horror when the defenses are breached.

But that is not the end of the story, but rather the beginning, since when the protagonists escape the carnage, and are left homeless themselves, they found out that society outside the walls is not, in fact, represented by the those who had gathered around their suburb trying to break in ... having gotten away with some valuable, they were able to barter for the equipment that a homeless family on the road needed to survive.

That is, of course, a significant difference between the one-time Great American Middle Class and a wealthy third world family living behind walls and gates with armed guards to protect the family ... when there are so many more aspiring to the lifestyle than society is structured to accommodate, the affluence attracts those prepared to break social rules to get some for themselves ... and there's no predicting how pathological a group of these people will end up. Add a healthy number of people traumatized in some War or Civil War, as in the US Wild West or the Democratic Republic of Congo today, and its not surprising if groups form that are made up of very sick puppies indeed.

Alon Levy said...

The problem with the Collapse view of society is that industrial countries are perfectly capable of finding alternative resources, or using existing resources more efficiently. Resource conflicts and population pressure are a feature of pre-industrial societies - Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong have good writeups about how before 1800, British incomes were inversely correlated with population, corresponding to a Malthusian view of society, but since 1800, incomes have just gone up.

For an example of how this works in practice, consider this decade's oil shock. In five years, oil prices went up by a factor of three. Americans just responded by driving less, slowing down their move to the suburbs, and supporting renewed mass transit efforts. No resource wars were needed - in fact the war on Iraq was a cause of the oil price spikes rather than an effect. As in 1973, the oil shock hurt many oil-importing developing countries, but barely scraped developed ones.

BruceMcF said...

"For an example of how this works in practice, consider this decade's oil shock. In five years, oil prices went up by a factor of three. Americans just responded by driving less, slowing down their move to the suburbs, and supporting renewed mass transit efforts."

... and accelerating a decline into the deepest and longest recession since the end of World War II.

Oil prices were only $140/barrel, and gas was consuming roughly 5% of median household spending.

As far as the decision to invade Iraq having nothing to do with the fact that they were sitting on the last large untapped supplies of inexpensive oil, perhaps it was instead a fit of personal pique by George W Bush or an effort to go on over George HW Bush ... but that only pushes the cause back to the first Iraq-US war, which was clearly an effort to grab oil fields.

Alon Levy said...

... and accelerating a decline into the deepest and longest recession since the end of World War II.

The high oil prices didn't accelerate said decline. The presence of a housing bubble in the US and speculation in Eastern Europe did.

And this recession may not be deeper or longer than the early-80s recession in terms of GDP contraction or unemployment.

that only pushes the cause back to the first Iraq-US war, which was clearly an effort to grab oil fields.

Yes, in 1991 - hardly a symptom of rising oil prices. And even then oil wasn't the only cause. The US became a lot more proactive in world affairs in the years following the end of the Cold War.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for your comments, all! Alon, I'm actually a big fan of both Krugman and Malthus. After reading Krugman's two posts (one, two) about Malthus, I have to say that I don't think they prove your point. Let me quote Skeptonomist's comment #15 on Krugman's second post:

"the escape from Malthusian economics is probably due to the exploitation of fossil fuels. Without this energy the world population would be much smaller, and it will probably contract in the future if a substitute for fossil fuels is not found."

Finally, the housing bubble was caused by cheap oil, which enabled the unsustainable "drive 'till you qualify" practices. Here in New York, where people mainly built up, the foreclosures are almost all in the sprawliest parts of eastern Queens, and the ones in the rest of the city are mostly due to the continuing recession.

Alon Levy said...

The housing bubble wasn't precisely caused by cheap oil. It didn't happen until the 2000s even though US oil prices were mostly low; during the 2000s, it happened not only in the cheap-oil US, but also in the UK, where gas is heavily taxed. If you ask Krugman, he'll blame the bubble on deregulation and Greenspan's hubris.

And the industrial revolution involved cheap coal, yes, but it involved so much more than that - after all, today's resource-based economies, like Saudi Arabia's, are Malthusian, with population growth leading to lower per capita incomes.

In fact, in the late 19th century, people predicted the end of cheap coal and started developing solar power and electric traction. As late as the 1910s there were mass produced electric cars. The technology was abandoned due to cheap oil, but as oil gets more expensive, it's being revived. Even at current technology, the lifestyle changes necessary for living in the suburbs at $20/gallon gas are minimal. One would need to commute to work by motorcycle or energy-efficient car, and save the Prius for long family trips. Already Canada is as suburban as the US despite having gas cost about $5/gal due to taxes.

Jonathan said...

Alon as usual has a good point. High-cost gas won't rule out suburban living. I suspect, however, that just like we have half-price rides for the elderly on NY transit, there will be some kind of hugely expensive (to taxpayers) rebate on fuel purchases to keep the old folks on fixed incomes rolling. The haves get more, and the havenots get to move to Brooklyn after college and ride bicycles.

Alon Levy said...

No, Brooklyn will become the new favored quarter, gentrifying from west to east. The poor will get Cambria Heights or Laurelton.

Cap'n Transit said...

The bubble was definitely exacerbated by Greenspan, the repeal of the Glass-Steagal act, and the "ownership society." And it affected Britain as well because cheap gas is not exactly the same as cheap oil, and because Britain's economy is tied to ours.

But the underlying cause was oil: the unsustainable nature of the suburbs turned the housing marked into a pyramid scheme. Gasoline at $4 a gallon exposed the lie behind the huge housing prices, popping the bubble.

A big part of the problem is that climate change (emissions) causes its own problems and makes many of the potential responses to peak oil unworkable. See this chart for more details.

Alon Levy said...

But Britain's economy is even more tied to the wider EU economy. And conversely, Canada, the majority of whose trade is with the US, and which is filled with US-style sprawl, had no similar housing bubble. Its banks were too regulated and its economic policy too tight for such a thing to happen.

Jeff said...

I don't know how y'all feel about James Howard Kunstler but his book World Made By Hand immediately came to mind when I read this post. I haven't read this particular book by him, but on his website he calls it "a novel of America's post-oil future"....

Sounds like it might be an interesting view of what a post-oil society man look like to me!

Cap'n Transit said...

Well, here's a bit of what I think about Kunstler. I just don't understand, given what he's written, how he doesn't know the schedule of the two daily trains that serve his town. At some point I'll probably read one of his books. Anyone else here read it? Is it worth reading apart from the future vision?

Jarrett at said...

I remember very clearly, from seeing the film over 20 years ago, that the brutality in MM2 seemed realistic as an expression of what occurs when a band of thugs is your only community.

You should follow up on this by commenting on Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, if you haven't already, and preferably before the film comes out!

donbodin said...
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