The amount of oil produced world-wide has not increased significantly since 2005. Sure we’ve found major new reserves, but they’re harder to access and more expensive to produce. The cheap oil of that drove the hyper-progress of the 20th century is gone. Get ready. It’s gonna get bumpy.
We are entering an era in which we are effectively going through a economic phase change. In physics, when we move through a phase change, physical characteristics of the material begin to go “critical” and fluctuate wildly the closer we get to the transition. According to economists, the same thing is happening with oil prices. And it’s not going to stop for a long while.
John Timmer, writing on Nobel Intent points out what follows:
“That has some pretty significant consequences. Of the 11 recessions the US has experienced since World War II, 10 have been preceded by a sudden change in oil prices. The US isn’t alone, either. Italy’s entire trade deficit, which has contributed to its financial troubles, can be accounted for by the rise in imported oil. The world, it seems, has allowed its economies to become entirely dependent upon fossil fuels. “If oil production can’t grow, the implication is that the economy can’t grow either,” the authors write. “This is such a frightening prospect that many have simply avoided considering it.”
And it’s not just oil that poses problems. US coal production peaked in 2002, and the global peak has been predicted to hit as soon as 2025. The last time global coal reserves were evaluated, in 2005, the total was cut by more than half compared to previous estimates. Fracking has boosted the production of natural gas dramatically, but even here the authors find some reasons for concern. Recent reports suggest that shale gas reserves have been overestimated, and many fields that have been in production for a while have experienced large declines in production.
The commentary concludes that we simply can’t rely on any fossil fuel to provide a stable and economic source of energy for more than a couple of decades. And, given the economic shocks that result from rapid changes in energy prices, that’s a serious problem. “Economists and politicians continually debate policies that will lead to a return to economic growth,” the authors note. “But because they have failed to recognize that the high price of energy is a central problem, they haven’t identified the necessary solution: weaning society off fossil fuel.””
So what for churches? Big floor-space buildings are going to become increasingly expensive to heat and cool. So are homes. Apparently the era of large homes is over – and for the first time in years, the average floor space of new construction is decreasing.
Episcopal church buildings, built for the most part in the early part of the 20th century (or the latter part of the 19th) are pretty well adapted to an era of high energy prices. They’re small. They have high ceilings and small windows. Sometimes they have thick rock walls. They tend to be in areas where significant numbers of people can get to church without too much transportation expense.
But that’s also a bit of curse. The small size means that average attendance might necessarily be less than 200 people a Sunday – because that’s the most you can seat at one time. But that would put a congregation squarely into a class of congregations (transitional and maybe pastoral size) where the present economics are wrecking havoc with sustainable business models of congregation life. Such congregations can barely afford full-time seminary trained clergy. But with the move to the 1979 prayer book, and Eucharist being the “primary act of Christian worship on a Sunday” the need for regular clergy has increased. It’s those congregations that are feeling the squeeze right now.
But they’re also the most likely to flourish in the new high-energy cost economy. The question is how to move to a new way of providing for the needs of the congregation? I suspect that it’s going to require multiple actions to discover. We’ll need to actively conserve energy costs. Health insurance costs are going to have to be contained somehow. Congregational staffing is going to have to be rethought. Perhaps we’ll move to an à la carte clergy model in some places. I expect congregations will share resources more intentionally both in the diocese and with local ecumenical groups. Stewardship is going to look different too I think. People are not going to know from year to year how much gas and oil are going to cost, and until people can move closer to work that’s going to deeply effect family finances. Maybe endowments will help?
Got any other ideas? ‘Cause the time for ideas is now. We’ve arrived.