Of markets, dogs, and demand destruction
3 August 2009
Every Sunday is Dykes-With-Dogs Day at the Addison Road markets, which would be manageable, if it wasn’t Families-With-Kids-With-Dogs Day too.
The dogs lunge at each other, sniffing and snapping, through the milling kiddies and the strollers. We’re not talking old-fashioned mutts here. We’re talking designer dogs with designer pullovers, Drizabones and even baseball caps. Inner cityites have gone as canine crazy as the English.
I guess people get a lot of simple pleasure from their dogs. Famously, possums don’t much like them (don’t get me started on how dad was killed training Bluey Crabtree’s greyhounds) but even the dogs can’t put me off the Addison Road Markets.
I was there on a recent Sunday, pursuing an investigation of a market habitué and I’d brought Joadja along to provide a bit of cover. It was one of those seedy workers’ compensation jobs about a man who claimed he was crippled by a bad back, but who managed to live a very active life when nobody important was looking. It was a bit of a hoot to snap him heaving heavy boxes and horsing around with the customers. The actual surveillance job was over in ten minutes, which suited me fine. Strolling down the tree-lined streets of the old army depot on a sunny Sunday is a great and affordable pleasure.
I bought a lovely CKT from the Malaysian food stall and Joadja got a vegetarian tofu burger and we ate them listening to a couple of kids playing Irish music after which we picked through the bric-a-brac and used clothes stalls (I got a big, warm, NZ-made parka for $5), visited the art galleries, Reverse Garbage and The Bower, picked up some produce and went home well satisfied.
Thanks to peak oil we’re going to need many more examples of inspired localism like the weekly markets. We’re now living in the phase of ‘demand destruction’. You won’t read much about this in the mainstream media, but if you look carefully, creeping signs of economic and social change brought on by high oil prices are everywhere.
When you read headlines venturing that the economy is returning to “normal”, turn to the business pages and check the price of oil. You’ll notice that every sniff of an upturn pushes it up again. A few short weeks ago, it was below $60 a barrel. Now, it’s surging up to, and beyond, $70 (especially Tapis, which is the marker price in our region). The price of crude pushes the pump price up, and that kicks the revival in the guts.
The steep rises of the months immediately preceeding the GFC struck the first blows in demand destruction. People cut down on discretionary driving. Traffic volumes dropped and public transport use soared. There are now more bikes on the roads (and more motorbikes and scooters too).
After the next price surge, more people will sell the car (copping a loss on a big investment in the process) and never buy another. More businesses reliant on cheap fuel will go to the wall. More people will pack onto public transport. In the poor countries, people just stopped buying petrol. But don’t expect much “relief” from that factor – they didn’t consume much anyway.
The best we can hope for is that demand destruction helps the world come down gently from its suicidal unsustainability, but in all likelihood, things will be uglier.
Here are the facts: Australia’s domestic oil production peaked this year and the decline will be steep. In five years time, our oil production will amount to less than 30 per cent of present day consumption.
The top five countries from which we now import oil to make up our shortfall, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia the United Arab Emirates and Papua New Guinea – are all in steep decline. We import most from Vietnam. Their production has been in decline since 2004, and it’s now dropping at 8 per cent per annum. Our next biggest suppliers are Malaysia and Indonesia where production is declining at 2 and 4 per cent, respectively. The UAE are next. They’re a secretive lot, but best estimate is that their exports have been declining since 2006. Papua New Guinea, the last of our top five, is declining at 6 per cent a year.
So what, you might say? We’ll just get our oil elsewhere. Think again. Of our top five suppliers, only the UAE is among the world’s top 5 oil exporters (the others are Saudi Arabia, Russia, Norway and Iran). All are in decline apart from Russia, which is almost flatlining. Globally, a few countries with small reserves but growing production are just managing to sustain a production plateau, and only because the GFC – itself triggered by the spiralling prices of early 2008 – is suppressing demand. With relentless certainty, all those small time suppliers will soon go into steep decline. No alternative fuels of any potential are on the horizon.
And here’s a scary thing. At a certain point, many of the countries we import from will suddenly decide to stop exporting and keep their reserves for their own use. Vietnam may be first. They used to be a major exporter of coal to China, but a couple of years ago, with an eye to their energy future, they decided to stop.
You can never step into the same river twice, but demand destruction is pushing the world back towards the less frantic pace of the 40s, 50s and 60s.
• Oil's decline was predicted. See:
Use your brain Morris, take the train: Oil’s inexorable decline must drive Sydney public transport reforms