Saturday, September 17, 2011

Oil Dusk: A review.

John Cape and Laura Buckner’s Oil Dusk: A Peak Oil Story is an enjoyable and interesting apocalypse-in-progress novel set in today’s world.  I state the fact that I enjoyed it up front, as a counter weight to the detailed assessment of their scenario might lead one to think otherwise.  It has a small website here.

John Cape is a West Point and Stanford MBA graduate who works as a professional engineer (PE) in the oil industry. Laura Buckner has an undergraduate degree in Sociology and a graduate degree in Poly Sci/International Relations. She is ex-Air Force.

I am going to get the general scenario discussion out of the way first. Skip down about a dozen paragraphs if you are only interested in plot line items.

The author uses a more subtle version of the peak oil theory which includes a U.S. currency collapse. They point out that a collapse in our currency can mean that gasoline goes to $50.00+ an hour in the United States while other countries are paying about the same price as usual. The general theory would be that our reliance on debt spending has made us uniquely vulnerable to oil shocks and the coming adjustment in prices.

Of course nothing is that simple. There is a reason our currency has not tanked already. The rest of the world is scared to death of a U.S. that has a cheap currency. The last time we had a relatively affordable currency (in the 1990s after the Japanese real estate bubble burst, and before the Chinese showed up on the scene in a big way) the supposedly dying U.S. manufacturing had a major resurgence. Even today U.S. manufacturing does reasonably well. The problem with manufacturing employment, for both the Chinese and us, is that production efficiency is killing the manufacturing jobs. China, even during the boom, was losing jobs in manufacturing.

A collapse in the U.S. currency would mean that we could export our products dirt cheap. Instead of selling a cotton shirt at $6 wholesale overseas, we could sell it at $120 wholesale and still be competitive. Since U.S. manufacturing is already very efficient in production terms, the primary drive would be to move facilities to areas where there would be less reliance on oil using transportation. The U.S. railroad freight system (versus it’s ridiculous passenger system) is reasonably profitable and successful. It is much more fuel efficient than cars, and there is always the possibility of switching back to coal. The modern highway hub locations would die out and be replaced by freight train hubs.

So within the scenario noted, the author is a bit overly pessimistic about some of our economic prospects. Which is balanced by (IMO) he understates the danger of a complete collapse.

The authors' assessment, in some ways similar to Kunstler's, has our country seeming to go back to a more rural existence: circa 1890 maybe. It is definitely a bug-out-bag type of book. But the authors seems to be using different models of collapse: long the lines of Argentina's economic collapse in 2000. An economic collapse which by some people's reckoning return to a third world economic status.

The problem with that model as it relates to the book is that Argentineans did not rush to the countryside after their collapse. The countryside was dangerous, Argentineans have no more ability to become instant farmers than we do, and it was too dangerous. When transportation became expensive (railroads suspended service) medium to small sized towns became ghost towns overnight. People fled to the cities because they were in relative terms safer, and had far better possibilities for a job or a handout. Huge sprawling squatter settlements sprung up. And Argentina is not an accident, as terrifying as the some of the Mexican cities have become, it is the rural settlements that are depopulating. In the threat of direct violence, there is some safety in numbers.

It is very unclear to me how the author thinks that sprawling rural Arkansas is going to be inherently safer than the highways they are traveling to get there. The author has some realistic home invasion scenarios in the suburbs, but does not seem to realize that they can easily be pulled off in a rural setting as well. What is particularly problematic, is that gold, silver, gems, etc. have maintained their value and can be converted into food. Thus unlike a more complete collapse scenario, the raider-types can keep a relatively large group of a dozen or so going much more easily. So long as there are small items worth stealing, that the rest of the world will buy, they can keep going. The book does not pay nearly enough attention to the dangers of a rural area. When our early settlers were threatened by the ambush tactics of the native Americans in the east, they had to go to a fortified stronghold system: “forting up” as it was often referred to.

This brings up one final point. The author has a collapse in big agriculture. Ignoring the fact that U.S. food production (and indirectly water) is one item that many of the oil producing nations would need, and that a source of export would be one item that could pay for at least some fuel, it is unclear how the author thinks the rest of the world is going to keep going, with 7 billion people, if U.S. food production collapses. It is likely to tip over some dominoes in ugly fashion.

You may feel that I am being over critical of the collapse scenario. I did not complain nearly as much about meteors smacking into the moon. Well the main character of the book is an economist, and gives two (similar) speeches in the book, and a number of mini-explanations along the way. Of course a real-economist would be whipping out his various algorithms showing how everything is actually just fine, while simultaneously disagreeing with the algorithms of the other economic group-think camps. If I was going to try and get at an understanding of a society in collapse modern economics would not be the discipline I would turn to first.

I think the problem is that the book is trying to have a mid- to fast- collapse, and then have it stop on dime at the “we-are-peasants-in-a-third-world-country.” But if you can have an agricultural society like the Homeric Greeks (1200BC) loose 75%+ of their population, and they were already living in, what would be by today’s standards, a third world economy (Palaces, Priests, Soldiers, and Peasants) it obviously does not just stop there. The authors seem to be getting there in the first portion of the story, but once the family leaves that setting it somehow stabilizes itself and gets under control: even though the family is barely surviving and they are much better off than most would be.

Enough background discussion, on to the story narrative.

The novel starts with the first rumblings of a problem when October 2015. Set in Omaha, Nebraska, Alex MacCasland is going to pick up his wife at the train station. She is at the train station because the airline she was on went bankrupt, and none of the other carriers would honor the ticket. After a long line at the gas station, he finds that fuel is priced at $17/gallon. He does some quick math, and realizes that his family fuel budget just went up to $3,000/month at the current rate of consumption.

His wife is an executive at manufacturing company, and they are moving their facilities to be closer to the source of oil, and more importantly the purchasing power it brings. With increased fuel prices they are finding that there workers cannot make it in to work.

Leslie, the wife, brings up an interesting point about the book. All the adult characters have deep flaws and need to be dealt with carefully. The ex-executive wife, is smart, pretty, and 7-months pregnant at the start of the novel. As events take a downward trend she is extremely put off by the lifestyle change, and becomes real touch and go on the will-to-live meter. She can be annoying a times. In fact almost all the characters are annoying at one time: the kid with his basketball court being one of the more amusing examples. The authors seem to have read up on 18th-19th century life, and realized that as life digresses back toward that point, people tend to crowd in on each other, and there is very little privacy at all. So the irritable and annoying nature of the people, normally hidden in solitude, becomes a major factor. It is strikingly similar to Susan Beth Pfeffer’s, Life As We Knew It except that it is from an adult perspective (versus YA) and the kids (thankfully) are generally better behaved.

The book is one of the rare books in the genre that actually highlights the advantages of advanced preparation. The Lord Bison would complain that it is all Yuppie-class preparations which would be both deficient in basic necessities, while simultaneously being too expensive (by far) for most Americans to afford. Alex’s father, who died a few years before the start of the novel, had started work on a safe compound in Arkansas for the family. It is their vague recollections of the lessons he tried to teach them, and this remote compound that will make the difference in their survival.

The slow slide into suburban chaos is probably the tensest portion of the book, with the greatest overtones of violence. The family is confronted directly with violence on three occasions and manages to just barely avoid calamity. At one point the effective use of non-deadly force (a taser) is very well illustrated. At the early stages of a collapse, dead bodies can bring up an awful lot of questions from the police remnants.

Eventually it gets to be too hot in Dodge City Omaha, and they leave for the Grandfather’s cabin hideaway in Arkansas; the ‘Ark’ as they call it. They hang on way too long, leaving in March 2116 (remember it started October of 2015), and given the description of the setting, are more fortunate than they deserve to be in their escape. As a situational matter, the trip to Arkansas makes sense, but Arkansas has a population density twice that of Nebraska, so without being an expert on either state, the choice seems odd.

One story described by another traveler later in the book, talks about how the police were stopping lone travelers and “arresting” them so that they could be worked in forced labor situations. This practice is very similar to what was done in the Southern United States to perpetuate slavery into the early portion of the 20th century. The chain gains, not a whole lot better started dying out in the 1940s, although Alabama recently tried to bring them back. They sound like they are a great law-and-order tool, but in reality (as noted in the novel) they are almost the perfect device for corrupt officials. However, I think the authors are little off on their targets and the process. In the South they tended to arrest blacks and poor whites who were known to be unemployed. When they were sent into the mines the overall death rate could get up to 20%, but that was relatively rare. They wanted cheap labor, and their was little sympathy from society for the lower end of the social class. As it also makes for an effective mean of control through terror. Oddly enough, I think the authors are being too optimistic when they think that only untraceable people will be incarcerated.

In any case, the post bug-out continuation of the book is the extended families attempts to start a small holding farm in Arkansas. The violence level drops considerably at this point. It is interesting to see how hard they have to work just to get by. To some degree there is an admitted lack of knowledge. There neighbors try to help as best they can, but they are trying to adopt fossil fuel techniques to a no fuel world. As an example, it is my understanding that back east when they were turning the heavy forest into fields (17th - 18th century), they used fire to burn out the middle portions of the tree rather then the back breaking task of cutting, and planted around the stumps left in place. Techniques that they learned from the natives.

it is at this point, even with the difficulties, the book starts to become a bit of a cozy. Even if they are all annoyed with each other in the tight quarters, the extended family uses its various strengths to get to a point where they are at least likely to be self sustaining. There are enough "events" to keep it from being a complete snooze, but you don't get the sense that they are fated to go the way of the Donner Party or as cannibal stew. The very end has a bolt out of the blue ending that is likely to annoy a few readers.

So what would be my overall assessment? For grittiness (1 to 7 with 7 being highest), I would give it a 6. They are shot, they are worried about food, and all of the problems noted are concerns of today not a possible sci-fi far future. The families problems are insulated to some degree by the fact that it is shading into the wealthy side (two professional incomes) when the collapse starts, but they don’t get a free ride, and many in their economic situation would be in a lot more trouble. If the book did not lose its cohesion toward the end and start falling into some overplayed maudlin moments, I might have rated it a 7.

For readability, I will give it a 6. It was a fairly smooth read. The big demerits are the over-preachy lecture portions of the novel, and the previously noted maudlin moments, in addition to being maudlin, are overly long. Why do these people thing we want to go through every blow-by-blow description of their Christmas celebration. The country is starving yet people seem to come up with a present for the little ones, and everyone is ever so grateful. Whatever, maybe it is just me.

The net is that you have a slightly timid apocalypse-in-progress novel that is a fairly easy read and does go over a lot of subject matter relevant to the peak oil scenario. I have certainly quibbled a bit with their scenario, but only because it is so heavily highlighted in the book. Their scenario plays out in a more plausible fashion than a number of other ones put out there by apocalyptic authors.
John Cape with his daughter (or possibly his child bride)

Laura Buckner

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