Sunday, September 30, 2007
The nonheroes of peak oil
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.
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
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Is peak oil a guy thing?
- 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
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.
Sunday, September 02, 2007
Can ecologists save the ecosphere?
It would seem to follow then that whenever ecologists gather, they would be screaming at the top of their lungs (or at least doing what passes for this in academic circles) about the imminent peril in which we humans find ourselves. But at a recent annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), those figurative screams could only be rated as somewhere between muffled and nonexistent. The program naturally included many technically oriented sessions. That was to be expected. But only two of the dozens of presentations appeared to sound the alarm. I attended one of them as a panelist, and that session focused on sustainability planning for municipalities. I asked my fellow panelists later, "Where is the alarm in the rest of the conference? Don't these scientists read their own research? They must know the awful predicament in which humanity has placed itself?"
These panelists explained the seeming lack of alarm this way: It's not that ecological scientists fail to understand the situation. But they are first and foremost scientists. Many see their work as a craft. They want to be regarded as the best at what they do. Why stir up a hornet's nest making policy prescriptions that are bound to be controversial even among other ecologists? Why not stick to producing the finest research possible which, after all, will help build one's reputation and thus pave the way for future research funding?
All of this seemed perfectly logical. But, still I asked, why aren't these same scientists speaking up publicly, at least in general terms, about the dangers we face? Some are, came the answer. But many others fear for their funding. Since the vast majority of funding for ecological research comes from government, most scientists shy away from policy pronouncements. Why antagonize lawmakers who appropriate the funds or government employees who disburse them? That might lead to a loss of funding, and then one's research is over. And, even when no funds are at stake, many ecologists do not want to be grouped with environmental activists or at least not with ones viewed as extremists. Such an association might consign them to fringe status (even in their own profession) and exclude them from policy debates altogether. It's an understandable reaction, and one that anyone who writes or speaks publicly about environmental issues can comprehend.
But there is a third reason, they continued. Most ecologists don't concern themselves very much with the effects of human societies on ecosystems. (Some readers may need to pause here for a moment, as I did, to absorb this wholly unexpected revelation.) The majority of ecologists regard themselves as purists who want to unlock the secrets of undisturbed ecosystems. But, what ecosystems can now truly be called undisturbed? I asked. In response my fellow panelists simply shrugged their shoulders as if to say, yes, we know, but this is how the game is played.
In fairness I should point out that the ESA is aware of the disconnect between the work of their member scientists and the public at large. The organization is making a serious attempt to increase its public education efforts. I attended a session on expanding ecological literacy in which written and oral feedback was solicited from all the participants, many of them nonscientists like myself. And, all members of the ESA have apparently already been asked to fill out surveys about public education and make suggestions.
Still, I couldn't help thinking that this effort seemed like too little, too late when the increasing tempo of climate change and resource depletion seems to be bringing us rapidly to the brink. By contrast, the leisurely pace at which organizations move and professional cultures change could mean a long gestation period before any substantial increase in public education efforts takes place. But as I reflect about this, it seems unfair to make these scientists responsible for doing everything. In truth, ecological scientists have already heavily influenced school and college curricula. And, they have inspired many popularizers of their work including teachers, writers and activists who are furiously trying to educate the public about basic ecological concepts and about the results of ongoing ecological research.
So here's my answer to the question which is the title of this piece: No, ecologists cannot save the ecosphere, not by themselves. They are going to need a lot of help from those of us who are able to translate their work into something the public and policymakers can digest. And, they are going to need even more help to put into practice our evolving ecological understanding in a way that can provide a sustainable home for us, for our descendants, and for the many species whose fate now lies in our hands.