Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller

By Jeff Rubin

The short answer to the question posed by the title of this new book by former CIBC economist Jeff Rubin is that oil scarcity inevitably leads to higher transportation costs, curtailing global trade and travel. As we all learn to live local the world is going to seem smaller.

The argument is based largely on the so-called “peak oil” theory, which in its most basic form just says that since oil is a non-renewable resource sooner or later we are going to start running out. This drives the price of oil up – though it can still drop, temporarily, in a recession – and since the global economy runs on oil we are all going to feel the pinch.

Of course some of us are going to feel it more than others. The impact of global climate change is going to be felt, indeed is already being felt, more severely in the southern hemisphere and the nations of the developing world. The economic impact of peak oil on the global economy will follow the same course. “When the developed world starts to tighten its belt, the economies of the developing world gets strangled,” Rubin writes. “As our world becomes smaller, their world becomes poorer.” It seems the grass is always going to be greener on our side of the fence.

Though that is no reason for complacency. We won’t all be able to watch the end of the world on our big-screen plasma TVs. Peak oil will lead on to peak food and peak GDP. In a finite, increasingly toxic world, economic growth is going to have to be redefined. Nevertheless, Rubin is not without hope.

There have been many books in recent years dealing with what Thomas Homer-Dixon refers to in Carbon Shift (just one of them) as the “twin crises” of peak oil and climate change. Forecasting life on the other side of global warming and Hubbert’s peak is now a genre in itself. Rubin is gentler than most. While believing there is a problem, a big one, he still thinks that something like our present civilization and mass-production economy can be maintained, albeit without so many SUVs and Starbucks. In fact he even sees an upside as North America re-industrializes and long-lost manufacturing jobs come back to our more environmentally-friendly shores.

Rosiest of all is Rubin’s analysis of what is going to happen to suburban living. The suburbs, we are told, “will slowly (or quickly) empty out, perhaps shrinking back to the villages they had gobbled up, which will once again be surrounded by farmland.” No longer will we inhabit “smog-choked cities,” but rather enjoy life in “walkable neighborhoods and small towns” that share a “viable relationship to the farms that feed them.” We will learn to live locally – grow our own food, cook our own meals, even learn how to darn socks instead of just throwing them out when they get holes in them.

This is a pastoral dream. People are not going to return – even, I believe, at the threat of extinction – to a way of life that, once you remove the rose-coloured glasses, was much, much harder than the way they live now. That is, even if we could build enough small villages surrounded by farmland to house all of our suburban refugees. If the twin crises are real, three things will be needed to respond to them, each of which is a total non-starter politically: real sacrifice, meaning accepting at least some diminishment, and probably quite a lot, in our quality of life; a spirit of radical egalitarianism, meaning we all sacrifice equally; and a global consensus on action, since both the problem of oil scarcity and climate change have global ramifications.

Since none of these things is going to happen, we will likely just have to live with a world that, if no smaller, will be a lot hotter and dirtier. Either that or hope that the prophecies of doom have it all wrong.

Review first published June 13, 2009.