Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why doomer porn is good for you

Spend an afternoon reading peak oil doomer sites on the Internet and you may alternate between the desire to reach for a kitchen knife and end it all and the inclination to dismiss the information on the sites as complete bunk. Hence the often voiced criticism of this approach to the peak oil issue: It creates a mental paralysis in some readers who conclude that nothing can be done and causes many others to reject peak oil as the invention of unbalanced survivalists living on the fringe of society.

There is certainly something to this criticism even if the caricature of the doomers is overblown. Most of the doomers I know live in city neighborhoods, hold regular jobs and involve themselves in their communities like so many of us. In this piece I'm going to take the contrarian side and suggest that so-called "doomer porn," that is, extreme Mad Max-style scenarios concerning the human destiny, serves important purposes.

If peak oil preparation is about anything, it is about scenario planning. Since no one knows the future, we can only imagine possible outcomes. Planning for a single possible outcome is not planning at all. Experience tells us that almost nothing ever goes according to plan. This is even more true when our plan is based on the trajectory of all of human civilization. So the wise course is to imagine many scenarios that seem to be within the realm of possibility and maybe a few that don't. In doing so we can evaluate the consequences of those possible outcomes and judge whether their severity warrants some preparation.

Let me explain. If I believe my actions could at worst result in a hangnail for me, I might dismiss this concern as something not worth worrying about. But if I risk losing an arm, I'm going to be far more attentive. I may decide that what I'm about to do isn't worth the risk or that I need to take special precautions if I choose to proceed.

The key element in scenario planning in my view is not the probability of a particular scenario--something which is impossible to calculate and can only be guessed at. The key element is the severity of the consequences of any one scenario. If the consequences are favorable or at least the harm is negligible, then we need to make few preparations. But if we judge that a possible scenario could result in catastrophic consequences--say, a complete loss of our livelihood or death for ourselves or our family members--and even if the probability seems small, it is well worth taking some precautions. And, in fact, most people already do take precautious for unlikely but high-impact events such as house fires. They buy fire extinguishers, plan escape routes and purchase homeowners insurance.

The next question is whether those precautions we might take to shield ourselves from extreme consequences might be useful in less extreme circumstances. Quite often this is the case. With our doomer colleagues we find that they advise such things as forming alliances with neighbors and friends; growing food, fiber and possibly fuel; learning food preservation techniques; becoming less car-dependent; and generating energy on premises with a wind generator, solar panels and possibly wood. All of these steps can be useful and even rewarding no matter what happens.

Another thing that becomes apparent as one peruses the peak oil preparation sites is that there is no clear line between a doomer and a sensible person thinking about preparations for a post-peak oil world. And there are, of course, plenty of sites about organic gardening and farming, local production of food and biofuels, solar and wind power, and myriad other sustainability related topics that make no mention of peak oil or an impending civilization-wide collapse.

What so-called doomers do is provide an imagination for the worst. If we are to consider the entire range of possible outcomes in a post-peak oil world, then we must consider the worst that could happen. That doesn't mean we need to assign a very high probability to such a scenario. But, in fact, one aspect of the most extreme peak oil scenarios is playing out right before our eyes: worldwide economic collapse. Whether one can attribute the collapse to the highest oil prices ever recorded last year or whether it is primarily a financial phenomenon, one thing that cannot be denied is that it is extremely severe. So already the doomers' vision is coming in handy though the most worrisome aspects of their various predictions--for example, a breakdown of the public health and food systems leading to plagues and widespread starvation--may be a long ways into the future or never materialize.

A friend of mine suggested to me that one simply cannot prepare for the swift and total collapse of civilization; one can only improvise in such circumstances. But it is still possible to prepare for something short of that, and in this quest the doomers remind us of just how far we might have to go to meet the challenges of a post-peak oil world.

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Let the doomers have their say. They have plenty of good ideas. They think we should prepare for the worst, an attitude any boy scout would recognize. Perhaps the doomers might fare better in the eyes of the public if they also added more often that we should hope and work for the best possible outcome.

Having said all this, I recognize that those who hear the peak oil message from me for the very first time and listen to the possible implications may regard me as a doomer. And perhaps I am for I believe that the turbocharged, energy-intensive, consumer-oriented lifestyle of contemporary society is doomed. Whether we can replace it with something better and sustainable is the basis for a vigorous debate to which doomer porn has added a necessary and useful counterweight to the techno-optimism of the age.

9 comments:

Jeffrey Benner said...

What peak oil theory has done for me is to highlight the urgency of our swift conversion away from petroleum-based energy generation. But that isn't a new idea. I've known oil has a limited span of usefulness my entire life.

What is annoying about peak oil is their occasional tendency to dismiss every other form of energy as inadequate to replace oil - even though the energy output of the sun alone is many orders of magnitude beyond what the human race could ever conceivably use.

SoapBoxTech said...

As one who leans towards the doomer side, I don't feel that I dismiss other forms of energy so much as:

1) I question our capability to harness enough of them quickly enough.

2) I question our ability to accept that trying to seriously develop these alternate forms of energy will mean conserving and re-directing what cheap fossil fuels remain.

I do also worry that our tendency is to sacrifice that which sustains us, in order to achieve power over others, remains too strong. However I think this pertains to more crises facing us than just peak oil/resources.

Having said all that, I may be a doomer but I am not a quitter. I'll continue to work toward, and urge others toward, what I consider to be better options. Options such as encouraging true partnerships between land/capital owners and those who provide labor and/or services. Such as looking to work with nature rather than so often trying merely to dominate it.

Thanks for yet another engaging post Kurt.

Savagist said...

people have said "hope for the best, prepare for the worst" for a while. maybe not in the peak oil scene though where wing nuts creep in with property obsession and ideas of pseudo-tribalism based on generic, dated, or assumed anthropological data. you can hit the sites and see references to books on the species being 'biologically' warlike, etc, etc... total barnes and nobles garbage. ideologists always put the cart before the horse and make brutal mistakes in analysis because of it. same thing goes for Peak Oil in many respects on developing ideas for post-collapse.

most of all, the scenarios and dialog is always insanely ethnocentric and a sweepingly generalized across locale. impact and adaptation will be far different in different regions - which is stating the obvious.

people already living on or near the margins of civilization already have massive head starts on lifeways that were highly autonomous and self-sufficient. something the peak oil basement wing nuts hoping to hoard food could learn from

Clifford J. Wirth, Ph.D. said...

This is what is happening.

Global crude oil production peaked in 2008.

Oil production will now begin to decline terminally.

Within a year or two, oil prices will skyrocket as supply falls below demand. OPEC cuts could exacerbate the gap between supply and demand and drive prices even higher.

Independent studies indicate that global crude oil production will now decline from 74 million barrels per day to 60 million barrels per day by 2015. During the same time, demand will increase. Oil supplies will be even tighter for the U.S. As oil producing nations consume more and more oil domestically they will export less and less. Because demand is high in China, India, the Middle East, and other oil producing nations, once global oil production begins to decline, demand will always be higher than supply. And since the U.S. represents one fourth of global oil demand, whatever oil we conserve will be consumed elsewhere. Thus, conservation in the U.S. will not slow oil depletion rates significantly.

Alternatives will not even begin to fill the gap. There is no plan nor capital for a so-called electric economy. And most alternatives yield electric power, but we need liquid fuels for tractors/combines, 18 wheel trucks, trains, ships, and mining equipment. The independent scientists of the Energy Watch Group conclude in a 2007 report titled: “Peak Oil Could Trigger Meltdown of Society:”

"By 2020, and even more by 2030, global oil supply will be dramatically lower. This will create a supply gap which can hardly be closed by growing contributions from other fossil, nuclear or alternative energy sources in this time frame."

With increasing costs for gasoline and diesel, along with declining taxes and declining gasoline tax revenues, states and local governments will eventually have to cut staff and curtail highway maintenance. Eventually, gasoline stations will close, and state and local highway workers won’t be able to get to work. We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel and gasoline powered trucks for bridge maintenance, culvert cleaning to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, and roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, large transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables from great distances. With the highways out, there will be no food coming from far away, and without the power grid virtually nothing modern works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, water supply, waste water treatment, and automated building systems.

Documented here:
http://www.peakoilassociates.com/POAnalysis.html
http://survivingpeakoil.blogspot.com/

Jan Steinman said...

Hey, congratulations, Kurt — you've been hit by the Clifford Wirth Bot!

Send him a bunch of money and he'll tell you about his secret place, and maybe even give you the keys to the clubhouse.

But seriously, I don't really see what good comes of "doomer porn." It's a distraction. We need to focus on what can be, not on what we don't want. The Law of Attraction says you can only reap what you sow.

Or, as David Holmgren, co-founder of Permaculture, wrote, "it is about what we want to do and can do, rather than what we oppose and want others to change."

It seems to me that doomers focus on the bad stuff everyone else is doing, rather than the good stuff they could be doing.

Run to the light, not away from the dark!

Clifford J. Wirth, Ph.D. said...

Dear Jan Steinman,

Most Peak Oil preparation/planning blogs, including mine, offer information about preparing for Peak Oil impacts and "focus on what can be" done. These blogs are listed on my blog: http://survivingpeakoil.blogspot.com/

What we can not do is invent energy (First Law of Thermodynamics) nor use solar energy to run the economy (there is no technology, plan, capital, or time). After 80 years of trying hard, we still are in search of a decent storage battery. No time left.

There is no advertising on my blog and I do not sell anything. I have given free advice to hundreds of people. Like most professionals, I charge for major commitments of time, such as giving professional presentations or developing a plan. Anyone is welcome to know where I live and come see what me an my neighbors do to prepare for Peak Oil impacts here in rural Mexico. As I mentioned to you previously, 6 people have been here, and I charged none of them anything. Contact information is on my blog.

Jeffrey Benner said...

@Jan: what a great comment!

Zachary Nowak said...

Thank you, thank you for this essay. It's annoying when a large part of the Peak Oil community refuses to think about the other scenarios, i.e. the ones in which everyone doesn't make the transition smoothly. I feel a little less paranoid now.

Great essay!

mattbg said...

I agree. There's never anything wrong with alternatives, and they are like a shock to the system compared to the regular daily news. That's a good thing, and you can't ignore it. They are an extreme extrapolation of things that are really going on in front of us.

In fact, when you have the daily news on one extreme and the doomers at the other extreme -- and as long as you take them both in and don't focus on one or the other -- you'll be more likely to have a balanced view, I think.

Far worse than the doomers are things that the spirituality industrial complex put out -- "The Secret", Oprah, etc -- which tell you that everything will be OK as long as you project positive energy to the world around you. There are so many people that buy into that crap these days. It's worse than organized religion, because at least the latter required some personal sacrifice.