Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Freedom From Choice…is What You’re Gonna Get

One incredibly wasteful aspect of our mindless consumer economy beloved by shoppers is the dizzying variety of choice to be had for most products. Corporations spend billions of dollars on advertising to convince the slack jawed masses that there really is any discernible difference between, say, this brand of deodorant or that. Whereas using one will result in you having to beat the hot chicks off with a stick, the other will leave you with the ripe aroma of a compost heap. It is such a stock feature of our culture that few people even consciously notice it anymore.

This phenomenon is most prominently on display at the supermarket, where we almost seem to mock the food insecurity of people in much of the third world with the endless bounty that’s on display. All of this is only made possible, of course, because of cheap oil. From mechanized agriculture and fertilizers that produce massive amounts food cheaply, to the trucks that allow it to be shipped thousands of miles quickly, to the cars that bring the shoppers, modern supermarkets are totally reliant upon inexpensive petroleum.

So logic would dictate that an early sign of our consumerist model beginning to slowly erode as oil, gasoline and diesel prices move ever higher would be a reduction in choice. Personally, I have already witnessed this with two items I used to purchase regularly that recently have disappeared from the shelves of my local grocery store.

The first was Chex Muti-Bran cereal. It had always been a bit higher priced than other Chex cereals, probably because it contains a combination of wheat, rice and corn, all of which have recently skyrocketed in price. My local supermarket initially stopped carrying the brand a couple of years ago, but a rival chain nearby still had it. Earlier this year, it returned to my local supermarket, but in a much smaller box to conceal the fact that it had risen significantly in price. This trick has been used with numerous products in recent years in a pathetic attempt to hide retail inflation from consumers.

Anyway, Multi-Bran Chex has once again disappeared from shelves at my grocery store and is now no longer available at the rival chain either. I scoured Google to find out whether it has been discontinued, but there wasn’t any information posted. Interestingly, I discovered I could still order the cereal from Amazon for nearly double the high price my supermarket used to charge. Who knew that you could shop for groceries on Amazon?

Another item that recently disappeared from the shelves is bottles of Minute Maid’s mixed berry juice, which I liked to buy despite it being relatively expensive because it contains no added sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Once again, I found that it is still available online at a higher cost than the supermarket used to charge. As with Multi-Bran Chex, I figure rising production costs must be a factor in its reduced availability, as the drink contains a combination of apple, grape, raspberry and blackberry juices.

One frequent doomsday scenario that those who are aware of peak oil like to discuss is the chaos that will break out when one day the supermarket shelves are suddenly empty. This, of course, assumes a sudden fast crash that almost instantaneously breaks the very complex supply lines that service our modern grocery stores. But what if, as seems likely, the fast crash doesn’t happen anytime soon? It stands to reason that what will probably happen instead is a slow disappearance of weaker or more-expensive-to-produce individual brands.

I can envision going grocery shopping five years from now and having a vastly reduced set of options as to which brand I want to buy for each item I select. Some things might start disappearing altogether as it becomes too expensive to ship them long distances. I love bananas, for example, but am anticipating the day when the cost of sending them from the tropics to more northerly latitudes will become prohibitive.

This is the essence of what peak oil writers mean when they claim that because of resource depletion and expensive energy, society is about to become less complex and, in the words of Jeff Rubin, “why your world is about to get a whole lot smaller.” If like me you are constantly on the lookout for real world signs of how peak oil is already affecting the economy, you should keep your eyes open at the supermarket and wherever else you shop. There you are likely to see a much better indicator of what is coming than manipulated government economic statistics or the giant Wall Street stock market casino.

Bonus: You had to know this was coming.


  1. The paradox of plenty creates quite a disconnect for those who are aware of the impending crash. I avoid the grocery store. Planning and shopping for a gourmet feast used to be a source of great pleasure but it has become excruciating. Knowing that there is no longer any such thing as sustainable fish stocks or agriculture makes the cornucopia unbearable.

    And it's not just, or even mostly, peak oil that is making prices high. Prices are high because yield and quality are down...way down...and that's from ozone. Annual crops are damaged, and especially anything that comes from trees - nuts and fruits - is becoming scarce. This is going to accelerate with blinding swiftness.

    Here is what a professor from Imperial College who edited the book published in 2002, "Air Pollution and Plant Life", wrote to me:

    "...I agree with everything that you say but there is no doubt that ozone is spectacularly neglected as a threat to plants. This is particularly so in the developing world where our research over many years has led us to believe that it is a serious threat to food security but almost entirely unrecognized..."

    Of course, as more current satellite research is demonstrating, the background levels globally are inexorably rising, in particular due to Asian precursors (much of which is from manufacturing and transporting exports) are traveling across the Pacific, so the most prime productive agricultural land in the US is being affected now.


  2. It would be nice if we could have the discussion today about what's negotiable and unnecessary; the endless selection of deodorants, detergents, sugary cereals, soda pop and electronics... if we voluntarily as a 'consumer' culture decided en masse that perhaps all this stuff was needless waste and eliminated it not only from the waste stream but the production stream, the oil and resources would last just a little bit longer.

    More thought should also be given to the end result of a product; if it's 'labor saving' does it also not need electricity? Well, where's that gonna come from? Nuclear reactors or solar panels or hydro that needs dams which will affect the fisheries (not to mention the wild fish population which have their own rights).

    It's all interconnected and we've paid very little attention to the ultimate outcome of a consumer society - that things get consumed in the same way that a conflagration consumes the fuel, leaving only charred ash as a result.

    The Zeitgeist Movement is calling for, first of all things, an end to the advertising and financial Monopoly-game industries. It's an interesting suggestion; what would happen to our induced demand for new, improved and different, if the advertising was not there to promote it?

  3. Yes I too have noticed empty shelves and fewer products. Our local Target is especially unreliable-- no packaged socks, cosmetic aisle emptied, reduced product selection. But I consider it challenging.

    When living overseas we got used to the appearance/disappearance of various products. You learned that if you liked something and managed to find it, buy all of it before it was gone again.

    I remember making a Christmas dinner overseas for friends. I spent three days searching high and low for fresh broccoli. I finally found some--I won! I marched home bathed in the warm victory of tracking broccoli down in a place where there was no broccoli.

    Americans are so tedious. They expect that anything will be readily available any time they want it. They have never experienced the exhilaration of ferreting out some desired item where it couldn't be found. Triumph in small things is a deliciousness we fail to appreciate here.