Monday, December 24, 2007

Holiday break

I'm taking a short break from posting and expect to post again on Sunday, January 6. Until then, enjoy the holidays!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The third rail of world politics

Subway stations post stern warnings about getting near the tracks not only because one might get run over, but also because those tracks often include an exposed, electrified third rail that powers the subway trains. That fact has given birth to a common metaphor in the United States where it is often said that the U. S. Social Security system is the third rail of American politics; touch it and you die. Politically, that is.

But there is another broader issue that seems to have become the third rail of world politics: overpopulation. This week in an astounding piece in USA Today, the newspaper told us that U. S. fertility rates had returned to the replacement value of 2.1 (that is, 2.1 births per woman on average) after being below replacement since 1971. This was deemed good because "[a] high fertility rate is important to industrialized nations. When birthrates are low, there are fewer people to fill jobs and support the elderly." Ergo, the low fertility rates of Italy, Germany, Japan, Russia, and South Korea (all mentioned in the article) must be bad. These countries were said to be "struggling with low birthrates and aging populations." In fact, some of these low fertility countries are now providing government incentives for larger families.

Within the narrow measures of economic competitiveness and public pension support for the elderly the labels of good and bad might be applicable. But what about the environmental degradation and resource depletion that are resulting from overpopulation in these very same countries? Not a single word!

Is there any explanation for this glaring omission? Probably, there are many. But one explanation is sticking in my mind. The explanation comes courtesy of Albert Barlett, the retired University of Colorado physics professor who has spent his retirement warning the world about the dangers of exponential growth. Barlett reminds us in a recently published essay included in an anthology entitled The Future of Sustainability that carrying capacity can be imported from other countries. That means that the damage resulting from overpopulation in the countries mentioned in the article is not always visible within those countries. Only Russia, for example, is self-sufficient in energy. And, Russia, Japan and South Korea must import considerable amounts of food. Much of the raw material for the factories in all the countries mentioned is imported from other countries, mostly so-called developing countries, from their mines, their fields, their fisheries and their forests.

So it is no wonder that the reporters at USA Today didn't notice the deleterious effects of overpopulation on these so-called industrialized nations. As those countries import carrying capacity, they also export environmental degradation and resource depletion. Everything looks fine to most people in the importing nations. For example, while Japanese consumers are helping to strip the world of its remaining forests, the country preserves its own forests and enjoys a forest cover of around 67 percent.

The damage does, however, show up on the evening news as a conflict in some distant, dusty country where forests are being leveled and rivers are being drained. The conflict is usually put down to some ethnic or religious rivalry. Often a quick recap of the last few centuries of history in such places is provided for the sole purpose of proving that "these people have never gotten along."

Even if some politicians, policymakers and reporters in wealthy countries can see beyond the daily mirage of plenty to the overpopulation problem, they do not want to touch it. Those who advocate for measures to reduce population often find themselves accused of one or more of the following motivations: 1) a desire to kill the old and the infirm, 2) a desire to force people to have abortions, 3) a desire to prevent poor countries from achieving political and military power, 4) a genocidal mania aimed at reducing the population of certain minorities, and 5) a pathological attachment to animals and nature coupled with a desire to preserve the world for nonhumans. I can tell you from personal experience that it doesn't really matter how many times you say the word "voluntary" in front of the words "family planning," you will still be under suspicion.

Of course, those wishing to avoid all taint of unsavory or paranoid accusations will simply call you "anti-growth." This automatically makes you an enemy of the poor who will have no hope of bettering themselves under your plan for population reduction. If you answer this charge by suggesting that perhaps we should redistribute the world's wealth more equitably while simultaneously reducing population, they will call you a "socialist" if they're trying to be polite or a "communist" if they're not.

One thing you can be sure of. No defensible ecological argument will be made to refute you.

It is not obvious to me how to change the discourse on population. I usually avoid it in my initial discussions with people about our ecological predicament. If someone asks about population during a question and answer session, I respond as well as I can. Sometimes a well-informed questioner surmises that I simply must understand the connection between overpopulation and our environmental and resource problems. Such a questioner will phrase his or her query this way: "How come you didn't talk about overpopulation? That's at the root of all our problems."

Well, now I can refer those questioners to this piece.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Charlie Hall's balloon graph

My latest column for Scitizen entitled "Charlie Hall's Balloon Graph" has now been posted. Here is the teaser:

Energy researcher Charlie Hall's balloon graph challenges the notion that alternative energy sources will provide a smooth transition to a post-fossil fuel society. Scale and energy return remain huge obstacles. Read more...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Welcome to Fantasy Air

Airlines and the government agencies that oversee them are projecting stunning growth for air travel and air freight over the next couple of decades. That seems to fit with the story of the amazing rise of the Asian economies, particularly China and India. And, it is consistent with the clear-sailing-ahead outlook of several prominent energy forecasters. The U. S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is actually predicting a 1 percent annual drop in the price of aviation fuel between now and 2020.

Welcome to Fantasy Air! According to the aviation powers that be there is nary a cloud in the sky for aviation growth.

Enter Roger Bezdek. Bezdek flew to Houston recently to tell an attentive, peak oil aware audience that the future of the airlines which had brought most of them there is much bleaker than airline passengers, employees, executives or even professional forecasters realize. Speaking at the 2007 World Oil Conference organized by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas--USA, the energy consultant and co-author of the Hirsch Report prophesied neither the total demise of the airline industry nor the sparkling exponential growth so prominent in official forecasts. Instead, airlines are set to enter an era of relentless decline.

Bezdek's forecast is, of course, premised on the idea that world peak oil production will occur soon. His actual projections are based on the assumption (but not the prediction) that oil will peak in 2008. What Bezdek finds by "reverse engineering" the official forecast is that the main factor that will drive air transport is the trend in GDP, not fuel costs as so many people have assumed. His study showed that even with today's high fuel costs, airlines are growing and prospering with one of their main problems now being undercapacity.

But since airline growth is linked to growth in the general economy and since peak oil is expected to cause a general decline in GDP, air transport will follow that general decline. Bezdek provides two scenarios, one based on a 1 percent annual decline in GDP through 2026 (labeled "Optimistic Peak Oil Forecast") and a second based on a 2 percent decline (labeled "Pessimistic Peak Oil Forecast"). He concludes: "[I]n both scenarios, passenger traffic declines faster than GDP, passenger revenues decline faster than traffic, and air cargo declines faster than passenger traffic or revenues."

He projects that:

  • Hundreds of billions of dollars of investment will be "stranded."
  • Some airlines will disappear or may have to be rescued by governments.
  • Airport and aviation infrastructure projects will be cancelled.
  • Bonds for airports, airport industrial parks, infrastructure projects, etc. will likely default, cascading throughout the financial sector.
  • Problems will cascade well beyond the aviation sector.

It is this last point which is most important. The aviation industry may turn out to be a microcosm of the broader economy. This has disturbing implications for many infrastructure projects now currently underway or planned for the next several years. Because peak oil is not widely recognized by government infrastructure planners, new highways, new airports and new infrastructure for sprawl continue to be built. And, there are plans for further rapid expansion well into the fourth decade of this century. The underlying assumption, of course, is that liquid fuels will be cheap and plentiful for decades to come.

As for airlines, Bezdek says, their problems may end up being even worse than his forecast suggests. As liquid fuels become less available and more expensive, critical sectors of the economy such as agriculture, health care and emergency services will likely be given special priority for what fuel is available. He asks a question that answers itself: "What is more important: Food or cheap air fares to Las Vegas and Vail?"

That question and many more like it are ones which Bezdek expects us to face in the not too distant future.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The pathos of Derrick Jensen

Author Derrick Jensen is as rare a person as you will ever meet. He is so keenly attuned to the natural world that he feels every knife cut civilization inflicts on it. With every word he speaks he seems to be saying, "If you could feel the Earth's pain as I do, you would spend every moment of your existence trying to stop it."

Before he came to town last week, I had read only some scattered essays by Jensen and had never before seen him speak. At first I tried to take notes. But then I gave up and simply let the wave of pathos emanating from this man wash over me. He was at turns erudite, crude, poetic, caustic, and misty-eyed--as gifted a performer as I have ever seen. But what was his performance about?

He spoke at length about patriarchy, conquest, empire, slavery, wage slavery, cruelty to women, cruelty to minorities, cruelty to indigenous people. He plumbed the depths of the modern psyche, our attachment to machines and their effect on our brains. He talked about the effect of language on perception. Is that a forest full of trees--an oak here, a walnut there, with a black squirrel scurrying around the trunk and a sparrow alighting on a limb--or is it simply lumber waiting to be cut? Sometimes the forest is euphemistically referred to as a "natural resource" by environmentalist and forestry company executive alike.

Do you understand how exploited and damaged you really are? As long as you think about how you might get a bigger piece of the pie, you are trapped. As long as you think social justice is about getting a bigger piece of the pie for others who are deprived, you are trapped. All of your normal, civilization-derived concepts are likely traps. Can you see your way through them? Let Derrick Jensen help you.

And, he does. But not directly. As an audience member you are simply following him around as he destroys one notion after another about what constitutes justice, what constitutes truth and what constitutes peace. Jensen is an environmentalist so he must be for peace, right? No, not really, not if you take into account the tremendous violence that modern societies inflict on nature, even while they are at nominal peace with one another. You'll never overcome that violence by working for peace. You must resist the foundations of civilization, sometimes with violence.

How about justice? Surely, we must share the fruits of civilization more widely with the poor. No, those fruits aren't worth sharing because they are poisonous. OK, but surely we would be better off by choosing to keep some of the machines brought to us by modern civilization while discarding others that are known to be bad? Those machines are the product of a civilization built on violence and oppression. The violence and oppression are built right into the machines. How will you filter that out?

Jensen's own childhood seems to have been the point of departure for his analysis. An abusive home life seems to have led him not to the provinces of psychology, but to those of sociology. He does not ask what type of monster his father was. He asks what kind of society produces fathers who are monsters. His answer has led him to the conclusion that fathers can't be fixed until civilization is fixed.

He ostensibly came to talk about his latest book, Endgame. Can industrial civilization survive? Answer: No. Is there anything we can do to make a gradual transition from industrial civilization to a peaceful, sustainable world? Answer: There is, but we won't do it.

Are you saying that industrial civilization is so harmful to humans and nonhumans alike that we ought to hasten its inevitable demise? Answer: It is and we should. Won't a lot of people die if we bring down industrial civilization today? Yes, but a lot more will die if it continues to expand before meeting its inevitable demise; and, the damage won't be inflicted just on human beings, but on all the creatures of the biosphere, injuring and wiping out vast numbers of them even while changing the climate and basic habitability of the planet.

Aren't you, Derrick Jensen, inflicting damage yourself on the biosphere by doing what you do, traveling, publishing books, using electronic communications? Answer: It is inevitable. No one can escape this contradiction. But that doesn't mean we have to accept it and do nothing. Aren't you really just using the tools of the master to try to dismantle the master's house? Answer: Yes, and I'll borrow my neighbor's tools and your tools and steal some tools from Wal-Mart if I have to.

I wondered whether Derrick Jensen believes that there was a pre-agricultural golden age of hunter-gatherers who were neither exploitive of one another nor damaging to the environment. I'm not quite sure based on this one encounter. But I think he would like to find out if such an arrangement would at least be healthier for the humans and other beings on planet Earth.

There is one thing I am sure Jensen believes: Nature is not the remorseless, amoral force that modern civilization assumes it to be. And, despite all our colossal abuse of it, the actors of nature continue to try to do their appointed work of keeping it running. "Nature is waiting to welcome us back," he assures us. But, do we really want to go back?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

What should members of the peak oil movement call themselves?

Language is important. Language is the primary way in which humans coordinate their vast enterprises and their daily tasks. And yet, despite this importance the peak oil movement has been fumbling around trying to figure out what to call its members. One thing is certain though. If we don't label ourselves, someone will do it for us. So, I propose to examine some of the terms that are currently in use and suggest a label. I'm certainly open to other suggestions. But, in this piece I hope to do some preliminary pruning.

Some who criticize the peak oil movement have already created labels such as "peakist" and "doomer" to fit their agendas. The first label is awkward (perhaps intentionally so), and the second is clearly derogatory. Let's take these terms in order:

Peakist. If you label an opponent something no one can understand, it creates confusion and difficulty. "Peakist" is an invented word which in isolation doesn't really mean anything in any context. Can we really expect someone unfamiliar with peak oil to grasp the significance of "peakist" in a passing mention on television or radio? In addition, the word sounds like "pique" which means a feeling of irritation or resentment over having one's pride injured, not a particularly positive association. "Peakist" appears to have originated with a Cambridge Energy Research Associates report entitled Why the Peak Oil Theory Falls Down: Myths, Legends, and the Future of Oil Resources. That's hardly a friendly source. Why would members of the peak oil movement adopt a label given to them by the world's foremost oil cornucopians in a sneering paper that attempts to debunk their views?

Doomer. This label is self-explanatory. No doubt there are some people in the peak oil movement who wear this label proudly. Their pessimistic turn of mind or their honest best guess tells them that the future of humankind is very grim indeed. But no one should believe that this label imparts much credibility to those who wear it by choice or who are labeled as such by others.

Now, let's look at three other terms often used by members of the movement in an attempt to define themselves:

Peak oil advocate. This is a very strange formulation. Peak oil is not a program for which one can advocate. And, almost no one in the peak oil movement is saying we ought to do things which make peak oil arrive earlier. We are not advocating for a peak. The word "advocate," because of its literal meaning, can make the term "peak oil advocate" start to seem synonymous with doomer, only worse. The so-called advocate will mistakenly be seen by some to be advocating for the doom which the doomers merely claim is inevitable.

Peak oiler. This label has an informal, friendly ring to it. But as an habitual designation, it hardly seems much better than "peak oil advocate." For the casual listener, the term "peak oiler" is opaque. It sounds vaguely like someone associated with a now defunct professional football team. And, when we describe a person as oily, we don't mean it as a compliment. "Peak oiler" fails because it isn't really informative and because the word "oiler" has confusing and even unfavorable associations in the minds of many.

Peak oil believer. This label appears to get closer to the mark. But, it may come as a shock to many in the peak oil movement that much of what they believe is actually conventional wisdom. Nearly every credible scientist or energy analyst agrees that at some point world oil production will peak and then decline. The disagreement is over the timing and the severity of the consequences. The label "peak oil believer" in this context becomes misleading. First, those in the peak oil movement believe specifically that peak oil is not very far away, usually saying it will come no later than 2020. The term "peak oil believer," however, doesn't communicate this nuance. Second, the word "believer" makes the peak oil issue sound as if it were a matter of faith and one with cultish overtones to boot. There is no reason to classify peak oil with matters of faith. We have enough geological evidence and historical experience to conclude that there will be a peak in world oil production at some point. The burden ought to be on the cornucopians to explain their faith in continued abundance in the face of the current evidence. Of course, some of the harshest critics of the peak oil movement also accept that there will be a peak--just not very soon. And, these critics might reasonably be called "peak oil believers" as well. Therefore, on all counts, this label doesn't really work.

So, what then shall we call ourselves as members of the peak oil movement? In some quarters I've been hearing the term "peak oil activist." Perhaps it's not a perfect term; many associate the term "activist" primarily with leftist political causes. But this term has advantages. It implies that there is something we can do about the problem of peak oil. It implies that there is something that needs to be done today about it. It implies that the person who takes on the label is engaged in doing what needs to be done. And, it implies that there is a movement behind this person, just as there is behind nearly every environmental or political activist.

"Peak oil activist" avoids the disadvantages of the other labels and has many positive connotations. For now, I'm voting for this one unless someone can show me something better.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Peak banana

Back when economist Alfred Kahn worked for the Carter administration he suggested that the high inflation of that period could end in a recession or even a depression. The administration moved immediately to distance itself from Kahn's words and admonished him for his bluntness. He promised he would not use the words in public again. Instead, Kahn, known for his cheeky sense of humor, began telling audiences that because he had been prohibited from using the words "recession" or "depression," he would substitute the word "banana" in their place. When a banana company complained, he started using "kumquat" figuring that the kumquat lobby was too small to complain.

Of late we have been getting a similar (but less amusing) displacement of words from officials in the oil industry regarding the idea of peak oil. Very few are willing even to utter the words "peak oil," and when they do, they insist that the world is not near peak as construed by a misguided peak oil movement. Instead, they substitute words such as "plateau." A Chevron vice president has used that word to describe our oil future. And, it is fitting that he used the word at a Cambridge Energy Research Associates-sponsored confab since CERA was the first to coin the phrase. CERA, however, believes a plateau--which they further qualify as an "undulating plateau"--won't occur until the 2030s and then will go on for 20 to 30 years. Any constraints before then, they say, will be due to "above-ground factors."

On the other hand, Chevron's CEO, Dave O'Reilly, says, "The era of easy oil is over." Given O'Reilly's view perhaps we can assume that the Chevron vice president cited above believes that the plateau will be starting a lot sooner than 2030. And as for O'Reilly, he does use the word "peak", but makes clear he doesn't consider nearby peaking some kind of doomsday scenario.

Others speak of "limits" on production as detailed in a recent front-page article in The Wall Street Journal. The limits include lack of access to Middle Eastern oil fields (where much of the additional oil lies), lack of available manpower, and lack of oil service infrastructure such as rigs and pipelines. Another limit is that state-controlled oil companies lack incentives to develop additional production capacity since at current prices these companies are already producing all the revenue their government owners desire. All this adds up to a "ceiling" on production, but not peak oil as the authors of the article are at pains to point out. They say this even though some of their sources point to major constraints in newly discovered oil reservoirs and the expectation that these constraints will grow.

Beyond O'Reilly, only a few other oil company officials aren't afraid to say the word "peak." Thierry Desmarest, chairman and CEO of the French oil giant Total, has stated flatly, “If demand continues to grow at this pace, global production will peak sooner, not later, for geological reasons.” He pegs the peak at between 2020 and 2025. He has called for steps to curb demand to move the peak back and allow more time for a transition to a post-oil economy. A former Shell chairman believes oil could peak within 20 years. One understands why the majority of oil executives shy away from the term since it implies that oil companies as a group are now decaying assets without much of a future.

Limits, plateaus, the end of easy oil, above-ground factors, or constraints on exploration, infrastructure and personnel--call it what you like, but it all adds up to the same thing, namely, a peaking of daily world oil production. As everyone truly familiar with peak oil understands, it is the maximum rate of production which will determine the peak, not the total available resource in the ground. Whether the peak occurs for a variety of reasons--which now seems likely--or whether it occurs due solely to geologic constraints, peak still produces the same problem: There is not enough oil to go around at prices that people can afford. This is, of course, due to falling daily production.

One could argue that responses to any peak would depend on the precise nature of that peak. For instance, if people believe a peak is due to infrastructure constraints, more money could surely be spent on oil infrastructure to increase our daily production capacity. But what company will spend this money if it doesn't believe future oil volumes will justify it? One could also argue for forcibly opening oil fields in the Middle East to rapid development. I have often wondered whether those who say that above-ground factors are limiting our daily production tacitly advocate a military response to peak. If so--apart from any moral or philosophical objections--would such a response actually help? The current experiment in Iraq suggests it won't.

Perhaps the public would be better served if all those who are now under orders to use euphemisms when referring to peak oil were to follow Alfred Kahn's lead and use the word "banana" in their place. At least people would then know that the various terms really all amount to the same thing. They all really mean peak oil--oh, excuse me, I mean banana, or rather to be absolutely clear, peak banana.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Clarke's wager

My latest column on Scitizen entitled Clarke's Wager is now posted. Here is the teaser:

Some 350 years ago, mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that it is better to wager for the existence of God than against it since the benefits of believing in God are so great. The argument became known as Pascal's Wager. Today, author Duncan Clarke asks us to make a kind of inverted Pascal's Wager in favor of continued abundance in world oil supplies. Is it a good bet?... Read more

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Peak fun (and the inevitable hangover)

Peak oil. Peak gas. Peak food. Peak energy. Peak climate. And now, peak everything!

While the Internet is abuzz with the latest pessimistic forecast about our resource future, the public by and large is busily enjoying the peak. Isn't that what one would expect at the peak? SUVs continue to leave the showrooms, airlines are jammed with vacationing passengers, the cruise lines are still cruising, and the theme parks are still amusing people with their themes. It's no wonder that Americans and many others in the wealthy countries of the world have little time to notice all the bad news.

The truth is that the world has now lost touch with its pre-petroleum memory. The vast majority of people alive now only know the continual ascent of fossil fuel power. Today's fun seekers have experienced only increasing abundance (except in a few places such as sub-Saharan Africa). This state of affairs flummoxed one attendee at a recent peak oil conference.

"Why don't people get it?" he wondered.

"They're too busy enjoying the peak," I responded.

"We're at peak fun," another conference goer added.

"But, the facts are all there on the Internet," the first conference goer insisted.

In order to comprehend the idea that we are at peak fun, however, one must have the background to see that we are also at or near a number of other peaks, I explained. Otherwise, what people are experiencing seems merely the extension of a trend that they have come to rely on. And besides, when you are at the peak of the biggest party ever thrown in history, the fossil-fuel party, who worries about the hangover?

So, the task for peak oil activists is two-fold. First, educate the public. This is no small task given the complexity of all the peak issues confronting us. Second, get the public to care now rather than later when severe consequences start rolling in.

Peak oil activists are inevitably cast (rather unfairly I think) as a bunch of killjoys. The activists are not really trying to take pleasure away from life; rather, they would really like to redirect us to different forms of pleasure that will be appropriate within the constraints of an energy-starved world. Unfortunately, the message that often emerges focuses on the expected terrible hangover from our fossil-fuel splurge. And, any attentive listener to the peak oil story during this final fossil-fuel party would quickly (and correctly) conclude that it's too late to avoid that hangover completely. Do we activists offer a cure? Alas, no. We only offer ways of coping with the inevitable pain.

Some activists are certainly working on what they believe will be a better, more just, more leisurely world where happiness will not be derived from excessive consumption. That sounds all well and good. But perhaps it does not sound quite as good as the party which is going on now with its metaphorical punch bowls filled to the brim and its party dip and other food crowding the tables.

We might be tempted to try to conjure up the image of a better party in the future where our quality of life has improved in some ways; but it is hard to compare something that has yet to arrive with something that already exists.

So, if lecturing a world full of fossil-fuel drunks about the dangers of their addiction won't work, and if telling them a better world awaits if they would only kick the habit won't work either, then what will work to get the attention of the partygoers at the last great fossil-fuel bash? I'm afraid that like the Titanic, we'll have to hit an iceberg before the danger even gets noticed by the vast majority. And even then, it will still be necessary to explain to them what is happening and to guide them to take full advantage of the few available "lifeboats" such as conservation, efficiency, and a less vehicle-dependent and less energy-dependent life.* (We won't, however, have to convince them about the wisdom of alternative fuels though these will likely be in short supply.)

This doesn't seem like the kind of result most peak oil activists have in mind. They would rather see us make major preparations in advance. Perhaps we will get lucky. Perhaps there will be some breakthrough in the public mind before it is absolutely too late to engage in preparations. But I think we activists must all be ready to accept assignments on the emergency rescue team. Given the lateness of the hour, it may be the only role left to us.

*It is worth noting that the passengers and crew of the Titanic did not at first perceive the danger of the situation and delayed lowering the first lifeboat for an hour. Also, the number of lifeboats was only half of what was needed to accommodate all the passengers. Even so, far less than half were saved because the evacuation was so badly managed that many lifeboats cast off without being filled. These were the tragic results of thinking that the ship was unsinkable.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

None dare say it was for oil

It must have seemed puzzling to many when the Bush administration put a full court press on former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan recently after the release of his memoir. In it Greenspan wrote that the administration had gone to war in Iraq over oil. That's hardly a blockbuster. The search for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) had ended in failure. The connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda had long since been debunked. And, any hope of establishing a stable democracy in Iraq had already been dashed by the wildly incompetent execution of the war.

WMD, the al Qaeda connection and the introduction of democracy in Iraq had all been at various times justifications for the war. One would think that under such circumstances a competent public relations adviser would have counseled the administration to just let Alan Greenspan's assertion pass. After all, the former central banker would soon be completing his book tour, and then he would fade from the news. Why respond, when doing so would only fan the flames?

But the counterattack came quickly on the Sunday morning talk shows and in the White House press room. Under bombardment from the administration Greenspan quickly "elaborated" on his views in order to deflect the return fire.

All of this could be seen as a relatively minor dustup over what is now broadly believed by the American public to be at least one of the major reasons for going to war. But, the assertion that the military mission in Iraq is primarily a raiding party for oil is more than just an embarrassment to the administration. Naturally, the collapse of the other justifications for the war led to a more widespread acceptance of this assertion. But, even more important, this assertion has implications which, if discussed and properly understood, would thunder through the public mind.

Admitting that the invasion of Iraq was about oil opens the door to a very troubling conversation. If the invasion was about oil, then it must mean that the supply of imported oil was somehow threatened. The supply could be threatened, of course, for two reasons: 1) Someone was threatening it, in this case Saddam Hussein, or 2) something was threatening it, possibly depletion. Delving further into both reasons demonstrates that both are plausible explanations. Of course, Saddam had already tried more than a decade earlier to seize the oil fields of Kuwait. If we examine the oil depletion argument, we find that depletion was starting to take its toll on world oil supplies. Today, we have confirmation of the administration's prescience on this point. So-called total liquids--which include even ethanol--remain down more than a million barrels a day from the high reached in July 2006. Therefore, it is of more than passing interest to Americans whether Middle Eastern governments, which control more than 60 percent of the world's remaining oil supply, are willing to pump it out more rapidly to keep the world economy afloat. If those governments won't do so voluntarily, perhaps the U. S. military can provide them with the proper incentive. (For a discussion of this interpretation, see my earlier piece from March 2005, Global Resource Wars: The Rosetta Stone.)

But, wait a minute? I thought we had ethanol, biodiesel and pretty soon hydrogen to power our cars. If the Iraq war is really about dwindling oil supplies, then that would call into question whether proposed oil substitutes will work as advertised. (Remember when hydrogen cars were just around the corner?) If these substitutes are going to work so splendidly, then why would we need to fight a war for oil at all?

Many inconvenient questions come tumbling out of the assertion that the Iraq War is about oil. This is the reason I believe that the Bush administration spends so much effort refuting such assertions. The simple fact is that if the Iraq War is really about oil (and I believe that it is), then this means that the current official story, namely, that a smooth, seamless transition to a post-oil economy is underway, is something that even the administration itself does not believe.

I am fairly certain that if the public understood this, it would be a lot more panicked about our energy future than it is.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Let's play "Peak Oil Shock Me"

An increasingly popular parlor game among peak oil activists is to see who can serve up the most shocking morsel of peak oil news at any one sitting. There are now plenty of morsels to choose from on an almost daily basis. Here are some recent samples:

Persistent new highs in the oil price of late only add to the end-times quality of the game.

Of course, there is a desire among the participants to be validated in their belief that peak oil is a major concern that needs our attention now. Otherwise, what would be the purpose of all that effort and worry concerning peak oil awareness and preparation? There is also the desire to discover THE revelation that will finally shock the rest of the seemingly zombified planet into realizing the seriousness of our predicament. And, there is always hope that even if today's news was not enough, another round of "Peak Oil Shock Me" tomorrow will finally yield the Holy Grail of peak oil awareness, namely, a piece of peak oil news so horrifying that it simply cannot be ignored by the population at large.

Played for the purposes of education, entertainment, solace, or even a kind of morbid comic relief, the game itself is harmless. But when played in an earnest quest to find that Holy Grail of peak oil awareness, it courts a two-fold danger. First, we peak oil activists have a way of putting off even our friends with the latest bad news. It's not that bad news should be ignored. But if the purpose of the peak oil movement is to spread awareness and ultimately spur action, then telling uninformed people news which radically challenges their worldview may cause them simply to tune us out. In this regard, the worse the news is, the less likely people are to want to hear what we have to say or to believe it if they do listen. Second, the preoccupation with that "breakthrough" piece of news misses the point. Peak oil is a complex phenomenon with ramifications that are difficult to see. The way news is nowadays conveyed, one can hardly expect people to understand that complexity without considerable background--background which is almost never offered up in either the print or electronic media. By focusing on finding a "breakthrough" piece of news, we take energy away from the more difficult but necessary task of public education.

Certainly, many peak oil activists wonder if anything will cause the public to wake up. The vast majority of those activists--by my admittedly small and informal poll--appears to believe that an extreme crisis will have to arrive before the public finally "gets it." Accordingly, many of those I talk with have become deeply pessimistic about the prospects for making any substantial society-wide preparations before peak oil arrives. Indeed, many believe peak has already arrived and that therefore it is too late to prepare. All we can do now is cope.

But we cannot assume that even an extreme crisis will be interpreted within the context of peak. In fact, we can already see that the usual bogeymen are being trotted out: price-gouging oil companies, speculators, Arab oil producers who hate us, and government policy that blocks new drilling. There is also the belief among the public--who are heavily influenced by the priesthood of professional economists--that the high oil prices of today will resolve themselves the same way they have in the past, i.e., by going a lot lower.

Undermining what I call the official story is going to take persistent and intelligent effort on the part of the peak oil movement. And, this effort will require constant vigilance as new conspiratorial explanations and cornucopian stratagems (such as the hedge that above ground risks are more important than below ground risks) are deployed to defend the current paradigm.

In the meantime, I'm all in favor of a few rounds of "Peak Oil Shock Me," especially when it's used as an icebreaker among peak oil activists. But don't mistake this game for genuine preparation in dealing with the as yet uninformed public. That task requires an entirely different approach.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Is Willits a post-peak oil paradise?

This is the fourth of four parts in a series on Willits, California, one of the first communities in the United States to respond to peak oil.

In Willits, California it's hardly worth it to tune in to the weather report from May through October because the report is nearly always the same: "It's going to be another great day in northern California!" The mellow California sun ascends into a clear, azure sky over the low mountain ridges that surround the Little Lake Valley. Cool, dry nights turn into warm, dry days. The air is some of the cleanest in the United States.

The people of Willits are a mix of offbeat urban refugees and stalwart long-time residents who share at least one thing in common: They are uniformly friendly. They also share in a remarkable small-town culture that includes a free-standing environmental center; on-going music, art and lecture events; bookstores; several caf├ęs; a few commendable restaurants including one fine dining establishment; and a restless inquisitiveness and knack for experiment in lifestyles and ideas. Willits is now home to a well-organized relocalization movement that seeks to prepare the city for the challenges of climate change and a lower energy future. All of this comes packaged in a town of 5,000 people.

Is it paradise? By some standards it might be considered one by many Americans who live in harsher climates, traffic-snarled suburbs or dying rural areas. But more particularly, is it a post-peak oil paradise?

Willits has become a focal point for the peak oil movement because it is now on the leading edge of relocalization efforts. Its activists are determined, organized and increasingly well-funded. They have nurtured a fledgling movement that now seems self-sustaining. Some readers who are thinking about where they should live in the coming energy decline may be looking at Willits (and perhaps other places that are taking peak oil preparations seriously). What should they consider?

First, they should consider the ecological facts. In the case of Willits, the Little Lake Valley probably already has all the people it could support using the available arable land and water. As Willits moves toward greater self-sufficiency, part of that self-sufficiency will be based on keeping population low as it is now.

Second, while Willits can currently count on more than enough rainfall, it lacks adequate storage since that rainfall comes mainly in the winter and spring. Right now there is a moratorium on new construction because of inadequate water supplies, effectively a ban on new development. Also, climate change makes the reliability of future water supplies a question mark as it does in many parts of the world.

Third, housing values in Willits, as in all of California, are exceedingly high. Most people moving there from outside the state are going to be trading a larger house for a smaller one that costs much more.

Fourth, while much of Willits is walkable, anything one might need to acquire outside of Willits requires at least 30 minutes or more one way in a car.

Fifth, work in Willits is not easy to come by. Several of the people I talked to work two and three jobs just to make a minimal income.

Sixth, Willits is in an active earthquake zone. An earthquake as bad as the one which struck San Francisco in 1906 could occur at any time. It could cut off the area from the outside world by severing the main north-south highway, Highway 101. And, it could bring down electrical lines leaving the area without power for up to two weeks, officials with whom I talked estimated.

Seventh, when people think of Mendocino County where Willits is located, they usually think of wineries, redwoods and the Pacific coast. But, what they really should be thinking of is marijuana which is believed to be the county's biggest business bringing in an estimated $10.6 billion annually, many times the revenue of the winery and timber industries combined.

The sad truth is that Mendocino's economy is addicted to pot, and while few who live there have objections to the use of marijuana, the growing and distribution of it have become the dominant economic fact. Perhaps it will one day be fully legalized; California already allows the growing of medical marijuana. But until then the struggle between local and federal law enforcement officials will continue; local law enforcement is mildly schizophrenic about marijuana because the federal government does not recognize California's medical marijuana statute. In addition, occasional incursions by Mexican crime organizations who commandeer remote national forest lands inside the county in order to grow marijuana add a sinister and sometimes violent aspect to the business.

I could go on; but my point is that wherever you choose to live in the coming decades, you will find drawbacks. No place will be ideal for facing the twin crises of energy depletion and climate change. And, it won't be easy to predict what will happen in any one locale because the effects of climate change are so uncertain.

Perhaps the best advice is to determine first if you live in a place that is clearly hopeless in the face of these twin challenges--Phoenix comes to mind. If you live in such a place, you should probably leave as soon as you are able. But if you live in a place with reasonable prospects, say, the upper Midwest, New England, the Pacific Northwest or someplace suitable elsewhere in the world, possibly the best course would be to begin preparing your community for the shocks ahead. You probably won't be able to create a post-peak oil paradise. But paradise isn't what we'll be aiming for in the years ahead. Creating places that are sustainable and reasonably peaceful will pose all the challenges we need.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

New column posted on Scitizen

My latest column for Scitizen entitled Should Scientists Embrace Economic Growth? has now been posted. For some information on this column and the Paris-based science news website on which it appears, read my previous post on Scitizen and my new column there.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Willits meets the S-curve

This the third of four parts in a series on Willits, California, one of the first communities in the United States to respond to peak oil.

Brian Weller arrived in Willits, California 12 years ago. A transplant from England, he brought with him corporate training experience which has come in handy in his work with Willits Economic Localization (WELL). The project is an attempt to implement one of the key strategies for meeting the challenges of world peak oil production, relocalization.

The critical question, Weller says, is, "How do we enroll whole communities to take charge of their civic life in such a way as to prepare the groundwork for a more balanced life?" The answer is more nuanced than most activist groups realize.

Weller explained that it has been a hard lesson for many involved in the WELL project that rational explanations of such threats as peak oil and climate change can only get one so far. People in any group or community adopt ideas at different paces based on their orientation toward change. Using terminology from the famous compendium of diffusion studies, Diffusion of Innovations, he explained the various layers which can be found in any community.

The earliest adherents to any kind of innovation including a social one are appropriately called "innovators." They rush headlong into anything new trying to discover what threats or opportunities it offers. The next adherents, the so-called "early adopters," take the alarm out of the innovation and figure out how to turn it into an opportunity. The adopters in the great middle are ones who have to see things to believe them. This middle group (which is often broken up into "early majority" and "late majority") will join in once the early adopters show that an innovation can work. The very latest adopters, often called "laggards," are suspicious of change. The key for these people is simplicity. The innovation must be easy to understand and use. The pattern of adoption of a successful innovation when plotted cumulatively on a graph very often looks like an S-shaped curve. It rises slowly at first, then reaches a sharp takeoff point as the early and late majorities adopt the innovation, and finally levels off as the innovation reaches saturation among the population.

Though it might be tempting to think of the late adopters, especially the laggards, in negative terms, Weller warns against this. Each group has something to offer in cementing the innovation into society. Once the laggards, who are society's traditionalists, decide that a change is okay, they will go about institutionalizing it in ways that will make it stick. If those in the peak oil and relocalization movements understand this, they can actually engage the late adopters in their communities with a more positive attitude that recognizes their critical role in institutionalizing change.

Weller points out that traditionalists actually share many values friendly to relocalization including self-reliance. These traditionalists are also very concerned about security. By framing relocalization in terms of food and energy security, the traditionalists can over time be persuaded.

One of the ways WELL enlists these traditionalists is through a program called Elder Talk. The elders of the Willits community share their knowledge about subjects such as how food was grown, preserved, stored and prepared in the past and what kind of transportation people used before the widespread introduction of the automobile. The talks are videotaped to make them available to a wider audience.

In a way, Weller explains, Willits is an exceptionally good place for relocalization to take root. It has one the highest concentrations of patent holders in the United States. Naturally, these people fall into the innovator category. In addition, Willits was a destination during the "back to the land" movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and thus attracted a large number of people looking for new, more self-sufficient lifestyles. "We have a lot of people already off the grid," he remarked.

But even Willits has those who don't take readily to change. For them certainty is very important. Will relocalization actually work? Does it really have advantages over the globalized economy we now live in? Is the change consistent with values I already hold?

If such questions can be answered patiently and convincingly in the affirmative--not only with words, but also with deeds--the S-curve of adoption can reach the takeoff point which almost always assures swift and widespread acceptance. Relocalization advocates wake up each morning hoping that that day will come sooner rather than later.

Monday, October 15, 2007

See you at the ASPO and Community Solutions conferences

I will be attending the Houston World Oil Conference this week (October 17-20) and then the U. S. Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions (October 26-28) the following week. I always like to meet readers. If you are attending either conference, please look for me. During this time I will post the last two installments of my four-part series on Willits. (See first two parts below.)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

What's the definition of local?

This is the second of four parts in a series on Willits, California, one the first communities in the United States to respond to peak oil.

Peak oil activists in Willits, California have convinced city officials, the chamber of commerce, and even the Rotary Club that focusing on locally owned and operated businesses is an important step in preparing for the onset of world peak oil production. At first this seemed simple. The community would be encouraged to patronize businesses owned and operated by people who live in and around Willits or, more specifically, the Willits zip code.

But what exactly is a local business? The local paper, The Willits News, has been highly supportive of the peak oil activists, often providing front-page coverage of their events and publishing letters to the editor and guest editorials on their activities and concerns. But the newspaper is owned by a large media chain that also owns 56 other newspapers across the country. So where exactly does the newspaper fit?

Hardware stores are usually locally owned, but often affiliated with national organizations. Ace Hardware Corp. and Do It Best Corp. are both cooperatives owned by their retailer members. Are these local retailers truly local? If so, what about other chain stores? While some chain stores are owned by large corporations, many others are franchises, often owned and run by people in the community. A franchise such as Subway or McDonald's would fall into this category.

Then, of course, there is the issue of sourcing one's products locally. True localization would mean getting whatever one is selling from producers nearby. Clearly, Willits would grind to a halt if it had to source all of its needs locally. But some restaurants, a local health food store and a supermarket have all made strides by sourcing some of their food locally. Craft items are sometimes also available nearby. But the vast majority of items sold in Willits are not made in or around Willits and won't be anytime soon.

The manager of the supermarket mentioned above began to stock local produce at the urging of area activists. His store, however, is part of a small chain which owns about 70 stores in California and Oregon. Should this supermarket be awarded "local" status?

It is a symptom of our globalized world that the term "local business" should become so confused. Organizers of what has come to be known as the "Local First" campaign in Willits certainly didn't want to exclude anyone who supports the idea of sourcing goods and services locally. But allowing everyone into the program who wanted in would have defeated the whole purpose of the campaign.

In the end the organizers decided that a hardware store owner who is a long-time resident and contributor to the community should be included as a local business and thus eligible for the "I Shop Local" stickers, associated window decal and other promotional materials. While they were very pleased with the efforts of the supermarket, it clearly wasn't a locally owned business. The local newspaper was a big supporter too, but also clearly not locally owned. So a new designation was created called "Community Business Partner." Any business that declared it was in support of local sourcing of goods and services could be part of the "Local First" program under this designation. But such businesses wouldn't be eligible for the stickers or window decals of the "Local First" campaign.

Franchises could become community business partners, too, if they wished. But the message from the city increasingly is, "No more, please." According to Willits' city planner, the city is working on an ordinance which essentially would prohibit big box stores through retail size restrictions. The ordinance would also prohibit most new franchises by requiring that a new business be at least 50 percent owned by someone in Willits and not have more than perhaps four other substantially similar locations. (The exact details are still being worked out.) Both types of restrictions have been upheld in California courts.

The irony of this is that a significant portion of the city government's revenue comes from sales taxes generated by franchises and service station chains located in Willits. Since the city is on the major north-south route in northern California, Highway 101, a constant stream of cars, trucks and RVs passes through each day. Many of them stop to refuel, of course. And, the drivers and occupants also refuel by eating fast food from the many chains that dot the highway on the city's southern end.

But the people of Willits are trying to think ahead. Someday, perhaps sooner rather than later, the heavy traffic which now clogs the highway bisecting their town may dwindle to a trickle as rising fuel prices make long-distance trucking and automobile travel less and less practical. At that point the residents of Willits believe that they will need to rely much more on what they can produce and sell locally and much less on what will remain of the global economy.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Willits and the problem of slow knowledge

This is the first of four parts in a series on Willits, California, one of the first communities in the United States to respond to peak oil.

All eyes in the peak oil movement are on Willits, a small town of about 5,000 in northern California's Mendocino County. Willits became an experiment station of sorts for peak oil preparedness when Ph.D. botanist Jason Bradford left the University of California-Davis in 2004, moved his family to Willits, and began preparations for an imminent, irreversible decline in world oil production.

As Bradford relates, he started by showing the film, The End of Suburbia, to his new fellow residents. The documentary traces the history of suburban development in North America and suggests that the collapse of the suburban way of life is inevitable during the coming permanent oil shortage. The local newspaper covered the events, often with front-page stories, documenting the standing room only crowds. Bradford said he had great hopes that the growing enthusiasm for peak oil preparedness generated by the events would lead to quick, decisive action by the community and its officials.

He and others formed a group called Willits Economic Localization (WELL) to pursue relocalization, a key strategy for adapting to a lower energy world. The strategy calls for sourcing as many of life's necessities as possible locally. This reduces the enormous energy costs of transporting goods and helps to provide the security that goes with self-sufficiency, especially in food.

But after three years, Willits, while still a clear leader in peak oil preparedness, has not achieved nearly the progress envisioned by Bradford and other organizers. While their sense of urgency still remains, they have begun to realize that municipal governments move at what seems like a glacial pace and that public awareness is not the same as public understanding.

Willits is dealing with what environmental educator David Orr might call the problem of slow knowledge. In our culture we are used to the rapid dissemination of the latest technological breakthrough or device. And, we are accustomed to a mass media that turbocharges the transfer of information. But there is a difference between the kind of knowledge which fosters change in our technological society and the kind that the shows humans their actual relationship to the natural world and the limits it imposes.

Teaching people how to use a chainsaw can take only a few minutes. That's fast knowledge. Teaching people the importance of trees in creating and protecting the soil, encouraging biodiversity, preventing runoff, storing carbon and influencing climate is a task that requires time, concentration and reflection. It assumes a body of knowledge about the natural world that most people simply don't have and therefore must acquire. And, it assumes an eye trained to look for subtleties in the natural landscape. Moreover, such learning does not yield the immediate and visible economic benefits of the chainsaw.

Even more challenging is teaching people to value the natural world right where they live. American culture, in particular, separates nature and civilization so completely that nature always seems far away. It is something one travels to get to. And, though most Americans appreciate the beauty of pristine wilderness, few care to plumb the secrets of their own yard or a nearby stream. So, the challenge is two-fold: 1) To lay the groundwork for understanding natural processes and 2) to make the case that understanding the local environment and how it can sustain us is going to become far more important in the future.

But there is another aspect to slow knowledge, and that is the social one. Just as knowledge of the local environment and its subtle interrelationships are difficult to gain and impart, so too is the social understanding about local relationships among people. Who are the influential people in my town? How can they be brought into the sustainability process? How can we rebuild the local commercial relationships between shop owner, farmer, and artisan that provide the living infrastructure for local economies?

We are accustomed to ordering from catalogs and the Internet or visiting chain stores for our needs. But we will be obliged to rediscover much of the knowledge we need to operate things locally. And, that too is slow knowledge since it involves building skills and trust.

Despite the arduous process of imparting slow knowledge, the activists in Willits have actually made considerable progress.

  • Jason Bradford spearheaded the formation of a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm on the grounds of a local elementary with the encouragement of the school district and with volunteer and financial help from the community.
  • The City of Willits, the local chamber of commerce and many nonprofit groups including the local Rotary Club have signed a joint statement with WELL explicitly acknowledging fossil fuel depletion and climate change as threats to the community and embracing relocalization as a key strategy for addressing these problems.
  • The chamber has a "Local First" program complete with bookmarks, bumper stickers, and tote bags that encourages residents to shop in locally owned and operated businesses. A community festival organized by "Local First" was a huge success.
  • The city has an aggressive program for providing grants to homeowners for energy efficiency improvements and solar energy installation.
  • The County of Mendocino created an energy task force to advise it on energy policy for an update of its general plan. The written report explicitly cited fossil fuel depletion and climate change as major issues in county planning.
  • The elected sheriff of Mendocino County has 1) initiated additional emergency planning measures in part due to the work of Willits' activists, 2) implemented measures to reduce driving and thus fuel consumption for his officers including video conferencing, steps that are especially meaningful in a county the size of Delaware, and 3) purchased a hybrid replacement for his current official vehicle to promote the idea that hybrids are viable for law enforcement.

There are other projects and activities which I did not include here. But even this abbreviated list is impressive given that the community began from a standing start in late 2004.

If the community of Willits has shown anything, it is that the problem of slow knowledge can be overcome with persistence, intelligence and good-heartedness. Even as the challenges of energy depletion and climate change bear down upon us, the knowledge we need to address these problems can be garnered and propagated by small groups of committed activists working in local communities. The only question is whether such groups will spread quickly enough around the globe to begin the needed work of creating sustainable communities before the worst is upon us.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The nonheroes of peak oil

We laud heroes who save us from dangers that are immediate and concrete. President Franklin Roosevelt lifted the spirits of an America weary from economic depression and later led that nation through a victorious war against the forces of fascism. We celebrate the brave police officers and firefighters of the New York Police Department who risked all to save the unfortunate victims of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. We also have lesser recognized heroes for the environment who helped to clean up our air and our water.

But, the most obscure of heroes are those who prevent bad things from happening. Perhaps the least known, but most notable hero in this regard is Norman Borlaug who is often called the father of the green revolution. Whatever one thinks of Borlaug's type of agriculture (chemical- and petroleum-intensive and biotechnology friendly), arguably his work helped to avert mass starvation among the rapidly growing populations of Asia and Latin America. As a result, Borlaug was the recipient of many awards including the Nobel Peace Prize. But, since there are apparently no newsworthy photos or videos of people not starving because of Borlaug's work, he is little known to the general public.

Let us now imagine the fate of a courageous, peak oil aware president of the United States who sets about making drastic changes in federal policy to help the nation prepare. This president decides to use all his (or her) power to persuade the U. S. Congress that peak oil is a reality, that it could come soon and that serious action must be taken. (I do not for a moment believe this is a realistic scenario; rather it is just a thought experiment to make a point.)

Luckily, this president has commanding majorities in both the House and the Senate and is able to push through his program. It includes an immediate rise of $1 a gallon in gasoline taxes, increasing to $3 after five years. The money raised is used to begin an ambitious plan to expand the national passenger rail network and run it primarily on electricity. Vast outlays are also made for expanding public transportation in cities. The operation of this transportation is heavily subsidized to encourage its use. Additional taxes are levied on other energy sources such as coal and natural gas to reduce all energy usage and encourage conservation. Tax incentives are given for the purchase of gas-electric hybrid vehicles and electric-only vehicles. Gas mileage standards are raised by 50 percent over five years. The plan calls for a vast increase in electrical generating capacity using wind and solar to keep up with the new demands that will be made on the electrical grid.

These are the broad outlines of the president's plan, and he does many other things as well related to efficiency and alternative energy development. By the time the president has finished passing his plan, he is wildly unpopular. The members of his party are swept from office in the next midterm election. The mandate of the new majority is to repeal the president's peak oil measures. But the president retains enough support in Congress to sustain vetoes, and he vetoes every attempt to change his plan.

After three years of difficult adjustment, the price of gasoline, even with the new taxes, is only somewhat higher than it had been when the president took office. New rail passenger service is becoming a favorite among the public, especially the high-speed corridors that were the focus of the initial efforts. Wind and solar electric capacity are now rising at such a steep rate that orders for new power plants using fossil fuels have leveled off. In general, energy remains quite a bit more expensive than it was because of taxes and the general rise in energy prices, but business, government and households have become far more efficient. Perhaps most important, world oil demand has declined and continues to decline. Along with it underlying crude prices have also declined. The president's opponents, of course, seize on this price decline as evidence that there was never any problem with oil in the first place.

The turnabout in U. S. energy policy encourages many other nations not already doing so to adopt high energy taxes and stringent efficiency standards. The vast increase in orders for wind and solar electric generation brings the price down considerably making it more affordable for countries both rich and poor.

As the presidential campaign begins at the end of his third year, the president appears not to have much chance of winning re-election. Members of his own party are running against him in the primary. Even though they plan to keep the "good" parts of the president's energy policy, they all pledge to repeal the gas taxes. Candidates from the other party want to keep some of the plan too, but repeal most of the tax increases.

The president doesn't even make it through his own party's primary, and the other party ultimately takes Congress and the presidency. Despite this new Congress and president, much of the former president's policy stays in place. By now there is a huge and powerful lobby for the wind and solar industry that successfully fights off any attempt to scale back incentives for wind and solar electric generation. The production of vehicles of all types, trucks, busses, and cars, using hybrid and electric technology is now the norm so nothing is done to repeal gas mileage standards. The Congress repeals some, but not all of the tax increase on gasoline because the government is now dependent on the revenue to keep the quickly expanding rail and public transportation network moving.

The former president, however, is a pariah in his own party and in his own country (except in train stations). He spends most of his time at a vacation home in Costa Rica. It is there that he dies two years later--from grief more than anything for having been so thoroughly reviled by the country he once served and saved from the worst effects of peak oil.

This, unfortunately, is a likely trajectory for any politician who grasps the nettle of peak oil and pursues it to its logical end even if that politician succeeds. (The fate of the last president to grapple seriously with energy issues, Jimmy Carter, is not lost on the current crop of American politicians.) The abstract and hypothetical nature of world peak oil production prevents it from having heroes in the usual sense of the word. Its heroes might be likened to a bureaucrat whose regulation saves thousands of babies from injuries that might otherwise occur. There is no celebrity for such a person, of course, since he or she cannot be photographed, for example, snatching a helpless baby from a crib and carrying it from a burning house to safety. In fact, when the regulation the bureaucrat proposes goes into effect, he will be roundly criticized by anti-regulatory groups as just another nanny for the nanny state. Of course, there is rarely any acknowledgement later that such a person was responsible for a fair number of healthy babies who grow up unharmed.

Certainly some who work to prevent future harms ultimately get credit. Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader come to mind. But in their cases the harm was already in evidence. For Carson it was the decline of songbirds and for Nader it was the horrific damage inflicted on people by automobile accidents. The invisibility of peak oil, however, makes it difficult to grasp. And, the harm resulting from it will not be in evidence until it arrives. Peak oil, unlike car accidents and the spraying of pesticides, is a one-time event.

So the heroes of peak oil awareness and preparedness are faced with describing the hypothetical harm from an abstract event in the future over which there is considerable disagreement as to the timing and ultimate effects. It is hard for them to illustrate that harm, and even more difficult to make the case for heroic action. And, yet heroic personalities are often critical to the advance of a movement.

It is a sad commentary that those who are now laboring so hard to prepare us for a world with declining oil may succeed only when the rest of us fail. Their heroic work may only be recognized as such after we have begun our slide down the other side of Hubbert's Curve, when it would have been so much better had we recognized them long ago and simply followed.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Peak oil conspiracies

We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.
                 --Richard Hofstadter

Ancient peoples often imagined that any calamity natural or otherwise was the work of displeased gods. Today, we are more enlightened. When we suffer misfortunes such as rising energy prices, some of us immediately imagine small secretive groups in high places engaged in elaborate conspiracies.

In fact, it is a good thing to take a skeptical view of those in power. And, one does not have to invent motives of greed or a desire for domination in such people, but only read the headlines. However, it is a particular turn of mind that endows a tiny cabal with fantastical powers to control every major facet of world society. Historian Richard Hofstadter described this mind in his famous essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. It is a style, he admits, which is found elsewhere and which stretches back far in time. It is not limited to those with disturbed minds, but rather expresses itself broadly, especially in societies under stress. And, it is not confined to those who lack intelligence for many very bright people succumb to it. It continually finds new venues for manifesting itself. And so, with oil prices rising in recent years and now reaching all-time highs, one of those new venues is peak oil. (It's worth noting that few were puzzling over such grand oil-related conspiracies when oil hit $10 a barrel in 1999.)

Peak oil conspiracies as outlined on the Internet range from the collaboration of greedy oil companies seeking to maximize their profits to a grand conspiracy of the secret illuminati to impoverish the common people and possibly solve the overpopulation problem by starving much of the world of food and fuel. It is not my purpose here to refute such theories point by point, but rather to show how they fit into the historical pattern outlined by Hofstadter.

One of the characteristics of the modern-day paranoid style is that it believes society has been seized from average folk who must now mount a campaign to take it back "to prevent the final destructive act of subversion" as Hofstadter puts it. (Hofstadter was thinking of the contemporary right of 1964 when the essay appeared, but believed the formula could be applied to any such group.) To quote from The Myth of Peak Oil already cited above:

Publicly available CFR [presumably the Council on Foreign Relations] and Club of Rome strategy manuals from 30 years ago say that a global government needs to control the world population through neo-feudalism by creating artificial scarcity. Now that the social architects have de-industrialized the United States, they are going to blame our economic disintegration on lack of energy supplies.

So we are counseled that unnamed "social architects" have first deindustrialized the United States and now intend to starve the excess population using peak oil as a cover. (It is a puzzle why "global government" would feel it necessary to starve people if the world is awash in resources since this would crash the very economy that gives them and their supporters wealth and power; it's also a puzzle why they would wait 30 years to start doing it if it were really that necessary to their plan--but I promised not to try to parse the logic of such screeds, didn't I?)

Here is a more mild version from Peak Oil is Snake Oil!:

The oil and gas market as currently construed and managed is a manipulated and propagandized marketplace that has enriched the oil companies beyond the wildest dreams of Croesus while the rest of the nation absorbs the ancillary costs and is left to deal with their impact on our society.

I do not here intend to defend the world's oil companies. They are guilty of many misdeeds, and there is credible evidence that they have on occasion tried to use their market power to manipulate prices, especially in the refining market. The point I want to make is that the paranoid style in this case seems to have reverted to an older style described by Hofstadter in which vague, shadowy villains lurk in the background. Here all oil companies are lumped together leaving out the important distinctions between the gargantuan government-owned enterprises that are mostly part of OPEC and therefore explicitly seek to manipulate prices, the publicly traded international oil companies, and the small independents. The authors of The Myth of Peak Oil also refer to "the elite" (who seem to be associated with the CFR or the Club of Rome) as well as "the oil industry," but never go further than this in detailing who is included in the peak oil conspiracy business.

A third characteristic made clear from the examples above is that the danger does not come from without so much as within. It is the product not of an attack, but of a betrayal. The villains are not invading our country; they are already in place.

A fourth element of the supposed conspiracy is that many agents for the conspirators are hard at work. In this case these agents are planting stories about peak oil to keep the public supine while their money or even their lives are taken. The agents include nonprofit organizations such as the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas and other peak oil groups; the International Monetary Fund; vague "establishment-run fake left activist groups;" and even Rolling Stone Magazine for an article it published by James Howard Kunstler adapted from his book, The Long Emergency.

A fifth element is what Hofstadter refers to as the renegade. These are people who have once been part of the conspiracy in some way but have now seen the light. A recent example is a piece entitled Confessions of an "ex" Peak Oil Believer. The author explains his turnabout as follows:

Peak Oil is not our problem. Politics is. Big Oil wants to sustain high oil prices. Dick Cheney and friends are all too willing to assist.

Such revelations give supposed "inside" confirmation of the conspiracy to a skeptical world. And, the conversions themselves provide examples of a path to redemption, an essential feature of conspiracy narratives.

The sixth element is the paranoid style's obsessive concern for evidence. Hofstadter describes it as follows:

One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed. Of course, there are highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow paranoids, as there are likely to be in any political tendency. But respectable paranoid literature not only starts from certain moral commitments that can indeed be justified but also carefully and all but obsessively accumulates "evidence." The difference between this "evidence" and that commonly employed by others is that it seems less a means of entering into normal political controversy than a means of warding off the profane intrusion of the secular political world. The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it.

Perhaps not all who engage in this style do so without expecting to change many minds. But these advocates do often marshal considerable selective evidence which on its face can sound quite convincing. What could be more convincing that peak oil is a fraud than the notion that the Earth is filled with endless amounts of oil deep down (so-called abiotic oil), that Russian scientists have proved this, and that this is the reason Russian President Vladimir Putin didn't want Russian oil companies to fall into Western hands. The West would have acquired technology and know-how that, if kept secret, will make Russia the world's pre-eminent oil power for a century to come.

I will add a seventh element of my own. The peak oil conspiracy theorists can only think in terms of the social world, not the natural world. In this regard they are cornucopians. Therefore, agency must come from the social world. Someone is responsible for what is happening, not something. It is simply not possible that the world is really nearing a peak in oil production. Someone is only making it appear so.

Hofstadter goes on to tell us:

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization.

Perhaps some in the peak oil movement believe we are faced with something similarly apocalyptic. But this apocalypticism is derived not from fears about a giant conspiracy, but rather from the evidence of geological constraints.

I have yet to see a plan of action spelled out by the peak oil conspiracy theorists. Hofstadter sheds some light on why. Those caught up in the paranoid style tend to live outside the give and take of the political process. They regard themselves as having been excluded from it and therefore powerless. I would add that from their position outside the political struggle they conjure up a politics that is merely a forum for conspiracy at the top and delusion among the masses. Since the process itself cannot be trusted, there is no real way to bring one's grievances into the political arena and seek some kind of resolution.

This, however, may be a saving grace. For all the irritation that the peak oil conspiracy theorists may cause those in the peak oil movement, I do not believe the vast majority of these conspiracy theorists will ever leave behind their passivity and actually do something. But unfortunately, they add to the dead weight of inertia that keeps many others from taking the peak oil threat seriously.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

My new column on Scitizen

I was recently asked to do a monthly column for the Paris-based science news site, Scitizen, for the Future Energies section. Scitizen is a general science site written by scientists and science writers and aimed at the lay public. My first column, "The Trouble with Predictions," has now been posted. Readers of this blog will notice that I touch on themes already discussed here. And, they will notice that the tone is a bit more formal and the writing more compressed since I am limited on length. But Scitizen provides me with an opportunity to introduce my way of thinking about energy and sustainability to a different audience. Take a look and see what you think.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Is peak oil a guy thing?

Whenever I am at gatherings involving peak oil, I am always struck by the imbalance between men and women. Three reasons for this come to mind:

  • The peak oil movement draws many of its members from the oil industry which is dominated by men.
  • Peak oil is a highly technical subject which attracts minds from the hard sciences, engineering, mathematics, and the high technology world, all of which continue to be dominated by males.
  • These first two reasons result in many peak oil groups seeming like clubs for men.

While these explanations are undeniably true, there may also be another factor at work. One leader in a peak oil group with whom I spoke recently said that his group found itself split largely along gender lines on one very important issue: How confrontational should the peak oil movement be?

For the men the answer was as confrontational as necessary. By this they meant speaking directly and forcefully at public meetings and gatherings about the need for an urgent response to an approaching peak. It meant dispelling notions that 1) the fixes would be easy and 2) once these fixes were complete, we would be able to return to business as usual. These men feel that their families and community are in grave danger, and it is their responsibility to warn others and to take the steps necessary to protect those families and the community. How could one disagree with that?

But, for the women this approach seemed unnecessarily harsh. Shouldn't the group be emphasizing the positive results of necessary changes? Shouldn't it try to be inclusive and friendly rather than critical or confrontational? In other words, shouldn't the group be trying to put an optimistic face on a necessary transition to make it attractive to as many people as possible in the community?

Strangely, the rift was almost entirely about tactics rather than goals. That rift is exemplified, in part, by two prominent annual peak oil gatherings: The ASPO-USA World Oil Conference and the U. S. Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions, both coming up in October. (Full disclosure: I am a member of both of the organizations behind these conferences.) Last year the ASPO-USA conference was dominated by men, both in the audience and onstage. But what is the mission of ASPO? It is to study and raise awareness of peak oil among policymakers and the public. In essence, it is the truth-telling or prophetic mission outlined by the men in the group I mentioned above. For some reason, many more men are attracted to this mission than women, at least in the peak oil movement.

At the Community Solutions conference last year the ratio of men to women was much more balanced. But as Pat Murphy, executive director of Community Service, Inc. which sponsors the event, explained during that conference, the organization was no longer trying to explain what peak oil is; it had moved on to the question of what concrete actions need to be taken. And so, the Community Solutions conference focused on concrete actions much more so than the ASPO conference. By contrast, ASPO sees itself as a forum for the discussion of peak oil rather than an advocate for specific responses.

So does this mean that men are talkers and women are doers? First, these examples tell us that there is probably a difference in the way most men and most women approach the peak oil issue. But women still show up at the ASPO conference, even onstage, and men show up at the Community Solutions conference in large numbers--still larger than women by my estimation. So, the differences in approach cannot be attributed entirely to gender. Second, talking is a form of doing. A successful post-peak oil transition means large numbers of people will have to be mobilized. That implies a fair amount of talking. But, it is hard to imagine the peak oil message breaking through the everyday cultural hubbub without some stridency. After all, that message is not about an optional lifestyle that one might choose to adopt. It is about necessity. Beyond this, if peak oil is imminent (and by that I mean within the next decade), it would seem almost irresponsible not to insist on the urgency of such a transition.

So, my answer to the question which is the title of this piece is no. By no means is peak oil a guy thing. Nor can it be. Yes, initially the movement appears to have attracted more men than women. But no serious person involved in the movement believes that it can or should stay that way. As the crisis deepens, those focused on spreading the word (whether in a "confrontational" manner or not) and those focused on inclusiveness and the implementation of responses will find that they need each other as much as the world needs to hear and see what both groups have to offer.

Sunday, September 09, 2007


Not too long ago I was marooned for an entire day at Chicago O'Hare airport. While there, I got the impression that the standard uniform for airline passengers is now a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. Surprisingly, this uniform is worn not only by children, but also by mothers and fathers with families headed for vacations, most college students, many middle-aged businessmen, and even some senior citizens. Whatever one thinks of the aesthetics of such apparel--and on many people the aesthetics are none too pleasing--I wondered if this attire could be used as an index of how modern, jet-faring people in America think about preparedness. (This has implications for how we Americans think about long-term threats such as climate change and resource depletion. But, I'll come back to that later.)

How hard is it to imagine running through O'Hare airport to make connections? And, yet I saw some people who had to remove their flip-flops in order to do so. Had it not occurred to them that flip-flops might not be the best choice for footwear given the exigencies of air travel? Perhaps they'd never had to run in an airport. Perhaps they'd never stubbed their toes. But, surely they should have known that they would be obliged to take their flip-flops off during the security check. They would then have to tramp through the metal detector area where thousands of other bare feet from around the world (including those from tropical zones where, I imagined, exotic fungal diseases thrive) had tramped before. Now, I agree that socks may be a less than the optimum public health measure while walking through such an area, but I told myself that at least they provide a barrier between my feet and those of thousands of others.

And, where did these T-shirt-clad denizens of the air put the myriad pieces of paper one collects while making such a trip: boarding passes, itinerary, baggage claim ticket, parking ticket and so on? They had no pockets in their shirts. I admit they could have crammed these things into the pockets of their shorts; but then this only applies to those wearing shorts with pockets rather than the athletic ones which were so often on display. And, where exactly were their wallets? Some, inadvisably, had put their wallets in the back pockets of their shorts making themselves easy targets for even an amateur pickpocket. For others their wallets were nowhere in evidence. Perhaps these unseen wallets were in carry-on bags or daypacks, that is, for those who actually had them.

And, did it occur to these travelers that they might have to go outdoors at some point? That sometimes it rains as it was doing that very day? Did they bring a windbreaker or a compact umbrella, just in case? I suppose some might have, but I didn't see any evidence of this either.

Few of the T-shirt crowd, however, failed to produce a cellphone upon which they were constantly nattering. It was the only thing one might call preparedness, and on this day cancelled flights and rebookings were the topics of many conversations. But I have found that under other circumstances, calls are usually filled with a very boring play-by-play of each caller's trip or simply idle chatter intended to draw down unused monthly minutes before they expire.

For these travelers--and they were a large portion (maybe half?) of the airline passengers I encountered--it appeared that sunny day follows on sunny day, that a day at the airport is more or less the equivalent of a day at the beach. Of course, these passengers were trying to be comfortable while traveling. I understand that. But, it seemed that comfort was their only thought. Contingency planning did not appear to be on the menu.

I admit that the shops and restaurants lining the concourses of our major airports provide much of what even the most absent-minded traveler might need, so long as he or she has ready cash. Why plan when someone else will provide what you need, where you need it, the moment you finally realize you need it? This just-in-time mentality has infected nearly every part of American life, and it has made us poor contingency planners, unable to imagine a world in which our every need isn't met right here, right now without any foresight on our part.

For all my carping, I got my comeuppance when the electricity went out at my home a couple evenings after my transit through O'Hare. Because I live in a city, these rare outages, when they do occur, usually last for only two or three hours at most. But the sudden, horrific storm which caused this outage left me and much of the city without electricity for 24 hours. I found a flashlight and candles. But, I did not have the correct size of batteries for my radio. With the phones out as well, I could get no information whatsoever. I was unprepared.

The next morning I went by car out beyond the city into the suburbs where the electricity still flowed. Many eager city residents like myself were lining up for food, drink and ice at the remaining open grocery stores. The lines weren't really that long considering what had happened. Yet, tempers flared when checkout clerks failed to move the lines along as quickly as some of the antsy shoppers desired. And, it was here in the store that I realized that I had made certain mental preparations. When the lights went out and didn't come back on within the expected time, I told myself that someday I might actually have to live with intermittent power. While standing in line at the store, I told myself that someday I might live under circumstances where long lines are the rule rather than the exception. Someday I might feel lucky to have anything resembling refrigeration. Someday a store such as this one might be considered a luxury shop filled with items far too expensive for most people. And, thinking back to my day at O'Hare, I imagined that someday, perhaps in my lifetime, O'Hare might become an empty shell rather than a swarming hive of activity.

How many Americans have thought about even one of these possibilities? As long as every necessity is being offered up to the vast majority cheaply and conveniently, how many will have the heart to tackle such long-term problems as climate change and resource depletion? How many will even understand that these problems threaten the very civilization that conveniently delivers cheap goods of every kind to them?

Part of the preparation for the challenges we face is to exercise the imagination, both to imagine what we might have to do without, and how we might (happily, if possible) do without it or improvise another way to obtain what we need. But how do we spark that imagination before the onset of catastrophe? That is a critical question for all those concerned about building a sustainable society.