Last year, a number of people noted that recently there had been a significant drop in vehicle miles traveled across the country. At a minimum, this shows that transportation engineers are wrong to base their recommendations on simplistic linear models. Connecting this with similar drops in vehicle sales and sales of sprawly houses, some felt that there was evidence that Americans are "falling out of love with the automobile."
The Archdruid has the answer. I've tweeted about him before, and … crickets. If you're reluctant to click through and read him, let me just remind you that you're reading a blog by a guy with a name that sounds like a superhero crossed with a sugar cereal mascot. Go read the Archdruid, he's good.
So John Michael Greer, the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America and an occasional guest on the KunstlerCast (December 2011, July 2014, December 2014), predicted that we'd see something like this. Basically, when a society has built more capital (infrastructure, buildings, mines, etc.) than it can maintain, it begins to defer the maintenance of that capital. When it can't defer maintenance any longer, there is a crisis. This crisis is compounded if the maintenance is dependent on non-renewable resources.
The critical thing to note is that we don't fall all the way down. When someone claims that a situation is unsustainable, one popular response is to deny it and predict business as usual, and another is to predict a complete and sudden collapse, all the way back to nothing. The Archdruid predicts something in between, something a lot like what we've been seeing.
Greer observes that a collapse has the effect of tipping "some fraction of the stuff that would otherwise have to be maintained into the nearest available dumpster." That relieves the society of the responsibility for maintaining it, providing an opportunity to recover some balance and stability. It can seem like the fall is over, and many people will then pick themselves up and resume business as usual. But business as usual will just lead to more capital that the society is unable to maintain, and eventually to another collapse. And so on.
When the resources used to build and maintain the capital are not renewable, it makes things worse, because the periods of stability and regrowth are shorter and the collapses are bigger. The result is what the Archdruid calls a "stair step down": with each crash, the standard of living gets lower and lower.
Our energy and economic crises fit the pattern that Greer describes. In 2008 we abandoned large tracts of McMansions, malls and Mitsubishis for apartments, streets and transit, and that helped us to recover a bit (in combination with unsustainable emergency strategies like fracking and quantitative easing). If we were smart we'd use that time and energy to build more sustainable trains and apartment buildings. But we're not that smart, so a lot of us have gone back to building mega-bridges and sprawl. That means that the next step down is not far off, and it will probably be painful.