Thursday, June 23, 2005

Peak Oil Mind: Juggling Two Realities

I nowadays feel as if I'm a passenger on the Titanic who knows about the fatal iceberg dead ahead, but who is too polite to bring up the dreadful subject at dinner. The usual questions arise each time a new venue for disseminating the word about peak oil presents itself: Who will believe it? Will I be considered a kook? If I get beyond the disbelief, what will I offer as solutions--for people will surely want ready-made solutions? How can I steer a course between creating hopelessness and soft-pedaling the problem in a way that fails to arouse concern? Worst of all, will I be considered a killjoy who has ruined a perfectly good evening out with friends?

Over the weekend I attended a surprise 50th anniversary party for relatives. The final leg of the drive there was deep into a rural landscape which is quickly being transformed into subdivision after subdivision. I couldn't help thinking about whether 10 or 20 years from now the grand new brick, mansion-like homes would be abandoned because they are only accessible by automobile--a mode of transport without a future in the post-peak-oil age. All I could see was the tremendous amount energy needed to maintain this sprawled out way of life--the gasoline for the cars (usually two or three of them in each driveway), the air-conditioning and heat for the capacious homes, the electricity for pumping the water and running the automatic sprinklers, the energy needed for the endless gadgets inside each house, and the fuel for the mail trucks, the service vehicles, and especially, for the heavy machinery that is needed to clear and maintain the roads leading up to these subdivisions. I said nothing at all about this at the party. It would have ruined the mood, and it's just one man's view anyway.

A couple days later I felt quite comfortable in my downtown neighborhood as I met with neighbors to discuss possible zoning restrictions for our historic district. Perhaps this city life is not sustainable in the very long run, but it seems more likely to survive the coming oil crunch. To defend my neighborhood and improve it does not pull me into two halves.

There are times when I feel myself floating above the absurdities of our oil drenched civilization--the Hummers, the pounding car stereos, the endless traffic, the hypercaffeinated, 24-hour, ad-filled world that seems to say that this consumer paradise can only get bigger and better. I am secretly comforted by my not-so-certain belief that it will all be swept away. The day-to-day blather of politicians and pundits bothers me almost not at all; it seems largely irrelevant. I judge the public's unease to be genuine. If only they knew what they really ought to be uneasy about.

Then, out comes a forecast from the world's foremost oil forecasting firm assuring us we have nothing to worry about. The marketplace will take care of oil supplies and bring us substitutes just when we need them like an attentive waiter in an expensive restaurant.

Am I crazy? Am I missing something? Everyone around me seems to be living in a different reality. I'm the one who's out of step with the world's smartest oil experts. But, wait a minute! Should we really play at this prediction game as if it were only a contest about who's right?

No, I say. There is too much at stake. There are many things we can and should do that are good ideas no matter what our energy future holds. The two realities I've been juggling meld into one again, and I return to my work.

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)


Big Gav said...

"Am I crazy? Am I missing something? Everyone around me seems to be living in a different reality."

I often have the same feeling. Its natural I think. As I've got no liking at all for outer-sprawl suburbia I'm not sure if I'm just projecting my personal taste into the larger picture, but its hard to see that suburbia as we know it will prosper. I don't imagine that it will disappear - but the residents will get poorer and more isolated.

I think the lucky ones will be the developments that have big yards - at least they can try the permaculture route if things go seriously downhill. The closely packed, McMansion style developments are harder to imagine as anything other than the future equivalent of the run down inner cities of the 1980s.

As for discussing peak oil in polite company, its pretty difficult unless someone else brings the subject up.

I find it's easiest with money-oriented people, as they can at least relate what they see on the markets to the theory. Your average person really has no frame of reference that fits this idea at all and will gladly believe you are a kook rather than face the idea that life as they know it is likely to change.

Bill said...

I completely sympathize with your frustration, living in a parallel universe from all those around you. There is one bit of reality we must all face, however, and that is that no matter when the Hubbert Peak arrives it will arrive. Even the optimists are now conceding that it will happen within a generation. So any changes towards a sustainable existance are towards a real future that most of us will have to face in our lifetimes. We have been living in a fantasy world enabled by huge quantities of easily extractable high energy fuel. We are not going to be able to do that for much longer.
Eventually that reality will sink in to the masses and the shift will begin in earnest. Hopefully, that shift will come in time to avoid great losses.

Liz Logan said...

I really notice it when I shift from reading up on PO on the net to watching some TV. Its like there are two different parallel "realities" and its really stressful trying to live in both of them. Write more about how you are able to reconcile them!

Graham said...

I know how you all feel about this. I too have trouble bringing the subject up without causing people some degree of depression. By now, after following peak oil since the late 90s (I'm only 22 now), most of my friends have heard about my thoughts on the subject and otherwise would have no idea what peak oil is or what it means for us. Although my friends and family don't like to hear about it, I will continue to let them know what's going on and now I'm no longer a 'killjoy' when it comes to peak oil. I'm beginning to think about it productively and ask questions such as, "What can we do about this?". I feel comfort in the fact that I've helped prepare (mentally, if nothing else) people close to me for the possible, and even probable, energy shortages in the near future. Hopefully we will endure a bit better because of it too.

Sometimes people don't like hearing the truth if it means unwanted change, but people still need to know. How else will change come about?

Anonymous said...

I am now very much reminded of Neville Chamberlain, who met with Hitler in 1938 and returned to Britain, proclaiming 'peace in our time'. 18 months later the bombs were falling on London. Or there are the Jews of Europe who refused to look at the writing on the wall or decided that things could never get too bad. The majority who didn't flee in time were herded into death camps. The same with Pompeii -those who acted quickly survived.

So when ecomnomists and energy commentators say 'No problem, keep buying the SUVs' we know there are plenty of precedents for delusion.

Unfortuanately, there are plenty of precendennts for societies ignoring the warning signs and not taking action till a full blown crisis has emerged, by which time it is too late. Complacency seems to be the norm. Peak Oil, Climate Change -it's all the same. Ignore it till it's too late, then panic.


New Zealand

Anonymous said...

In the great USA, it seems anything negative is disregarded. If you are critical of the administration, that is unpatriotic. If you are critical of the economy, you are just "bearish". My God, using critical thinking skills at all in someways is now a lost art form. And if you question something like the continued availability of Oil, and Natural Gas, well, for most you might as well be questioning the future of Air itself.

I have had it, and have decided to adjust my life now. Moped instead of Car, and homemade Alcohol blended fuel instead of commerical fuel. Depending upon where you live, and how far you travel each day, dropping out of the petrolium based economy is not impossible. However, giving up a car, could be a little like giving up smoking.

Anonymous said...

A lot of people probably saw me as delusional and paranoid for a while. Easier to do that than question their own lifestyle and security.

Remember the scene in Invasion of the Body Snatchers when the remaining few are walking through the streets, knowing everyone else around them has been snatched? That's how I feel sometimes, when in big cities.


Anonymous said...

These are all great comments. It's good to hear/see that other people are dealing with this issue of "I don't wanna hear it" from the culture around them. There's something very positive about pausing and saying
"moped instead of car" (which stands for whatever equivalent choices represent one's own shift into action instead of waiting for the culture to act). When I'm in town, at a mall, or buying groceries, I look around with the understanding that in 10 years none of this will be happening, and this apparently-permanent way of life feels and even looks like an ephemeral dream.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, in a culture of denial, the absurd becomes the norm and the rational gets labelled as absurd. Thus, cyclists or pedestrians are expected to get out of the way of cars, rather than teh other way round. I have been riding a motor scooter (150cc 4 stroke) for three years and use it for most short journeys; most people think I am mad. Riding a bicyle is actually too dangerous and bad for the health becuase of the high level pollution from vehicles -and this is supposed to be clean green New Zealand!

What is really scary is the control that the media has over the majority of people's lives: thus the media promotes outrageous consumption as normal and the majority of people believe. Indeed, many people expect outrageous consumption as some kind of God-given right. It would seem that this situation will prevail until the system crashes -maybe next year if we are lucky.


New Zealand

Steve said...

The thing that bothers me the most is that the odds are very high that my young son's generation will be the first to plainly see that mankind has wrecked the planet, and that there's probably not a damned thing anyone can do about it except for therapeutic reasons - to feel better.

It's not just oil. Oil's just another symptom. It's fresh water. It's 90 percent of large fish already gone from the oceans. It's loss of biodiversity. It's dead zones in the ocean from fertilizer runoff. It's the population trends and what they imply in terms of global energy demand.

It seems hopeless, and I think that's not an entirely irrational outlook. My only real source of hope is that I might be wrong.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I've been wishing I was wrong for several years and have been attempting to wake up those around me to what is happening, but the majority of people simply do not want to know: infact one acquaintance actually told me she
d rather face the future in a state of ignorance. So each year that passes I find that teh projections I made in the past are being fulfilled and I am more and more right. The the present adult generation will definitely be the last to have a normal Earth to live on and those who wish their offspring to survive need to eb taking steps to ensure it, becasue the system certainly will not provide. In fact, if you are prepared to accept reality, normal has already gone. The Earth's temperature is already half a degree above what it 'should be' and climates are changing rapidly as a result -a self-reinforcing situation unfortunately.
Since the politicians and media have determined that there will be altertion to present politices, indeed ther will be no informed debate, it follows that there must be a meltdown unless there is a fairly immediate war that brings the globalised consumer society to a halt. Eihter way it looks very nasty ahead, but to deny that essential truth is to delude oneself.


peaknik said...

Great post! I can relate. I posted a similar entry awhile back here. I was just feeling so alienated from the rest of the world and their blindness or apathy of resource depletion! I often feel like a nut when I bring it up in conversation.

Last night, I had the opportunity to get in some facts about oil depletion to a young nurse I work with. The subject was brought up about how it was a crime the gas prices were so high. Well...that opened me up to start talking. There was dead silence while everyone was listening to me and all my facts! They seemed shocked to think that oil could become more scarce and the facts about why and how there aren't enough refineries to meet demand right now and how long it will take to build them in the meantime. It was a BIG silence....and a "gulp". I think I caught them for a flinting moment. Maybe it will sink in. I'm just planting seeds.....

slave_to_reason said...

I'm afraid "anybody over 30" will be free game to postgen-yers who will be rightfully pissed at the mess we have made and eat us for breakfast. I'd rather say "you'll think $10.00 a gallon for gas is cheap soon enough" and have it on the record that I at least tried. Maybe the intergenerational warfare will be less tense as a result of my effort. I don't know how people can talk about the weather and local sports teams when the steaming turd on the political table that is peak oil is undeniably real. Why wouldn't you consider 100 generations from now if you respect and care for life??

Nick B said...

I just found your blog and am amazed with what you've posted here. What you wrote is scary, because it seems like you've read my mind and put into words what I've been feeling the past two years. I too have tried talking to a few select friends about Peak Oil, and the responses have ranged from dismissal to apathy. Other than my girlfriend, who is the only one to take me seriously, no one seems to care. It's good to know that there are at least a few others out there who know what it's like to feel this way. Thank you!