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.


Doug said...

A timely-written article. As long as Americans can still watch their favorite NFL football team they think "peak oil" is merely a theory for kooks and whackos. Only when their local gas staions are out of gasoline and a line is two miles long will they finally wake up to the reality of peak oil.

Berkeley said...

I think "fun" is all we have left. Prior generations had whole new (to them) continents to discover, loot, enslave, homestead - maybe they didn't call it fun, but they sure went at it as though it were. An able free male in 1807 had unimaginably deeper dimensions of fulfillment beyond desk cubicles, vacations, mortgages, and playing World of Warcraft! Sir Richard Burton! Captain Cook! The Mountain Men!

Bill said...

Most people take their cues from those in authority to whom they have assigned their sense of judgment. In this case however, those in authority have concluded, probably correctly, that if they were to tell the truth about out predicament they would get blamed for it. So we are not likely to get any official guidance until it far to late to do any good.

As Catton pointed out the age of exuberance ended 30 years ago anyway, and we are all really just sorting out the details of our demise. Before humans can agree on an appropriate paradigm shift to deal with our loss of resources, we will be irrevocably mired in a climate induced global environment change that none of us will have the mental or physical equipment to cope with anyway.

Anonymous said...

Don't dismiss the highly effective false-paradigm of left-versus-right.

Climate change and peak oil are commonly cast as nothing more than dirty pinko-socialist-Marxist ploys to enslave the world via a "new world order" style government which would force us to live more egalitarian lives.

It's a very effective brand of avoidance behavior, right up there with believing Ron Paul is the answer or that elections represent substantive change.

Regardless, I don't think we'll wake up to climate change or peak-oil, -water and -everything for a long time. Even in the depths of crisis I have no doubt we'll employ all variations on the blame-game theme in order to avoid looking at ourselves because in the end that's what waking up entails: facing the harsh fact that we have no one to blame but the person in the mirror. That's one of the hardest things a human being can do.

Not to mention the fact that it will be incredibly difficult for us to believe that our gods of religion and our demigods of science and technology failed us: they did not provide infinite growth on a finite planet.

And there's always the futility factor. I, for example, recently researched "going green" by comparing electricity costs and I learned I can't afford green so I have to stick with coal. Surely this is the case with millions of other Americans as well.

Which is a rather large nit I like to pick with Panglossian, greenwashing types. Sounds great if you can afford the status and smugness. But back on planet earth reality sings a different tune.

vegan_satori said...

Waking up is hard to do. For the most part, we've forgotten how. We dream through the day, barely resting in bed. Our imaginations are in overdrive as we seek ever higher status and greater possessions. We fancy ourselves to be far richer than we are - and spend that way too. Indeed, it is almost inconceivable to most that their entire gestalt is based on a false premise -- that their educations, their careers, their "futures" are all based on belief... that everything will just keep going "normally" fueled by some sort of divine magic. "Don't worry, be happy..." as they used to say (and sing). Even recently the expression: "It's all good." was popular. Perhaps one reason it's not so pleasant to wake up from this absurd delusion is the nasty fact that the real magic is a slimy, dirty, smelly, increasingly rare muck otherwise known as crude oil. Lucid dreamers, if pressed, might shape the solution as "fill 'er up with technology"... clueless that technology isn't energy. We don't want to know how the sausage is really made. Keep the dirty laundry out of sight, even ban clotheslines* - too proletarian - and they remind us of dirty laundry. All deliveries in the rear. Andy Warhol was right, fashion is everything in this dreamy world. Are we to die in our sleep? Wearing the Emperor's new clothes?

*Clotheslines were ropes people would hang clean laundry on to dry out in the sun - and it actually worked! Most human cities were prompted to ban them in the early 20th century, considered "unsightly". Sales of electric and gas powered driers soared, along with energy consumption... even in the suburbs.

Alan said...

Come on, vegan_satori. "Most" cities did *not* ban clotheslines. Only a few ultra-exclusive small enclaves of the well-to-do have ever banned clotheslines. And they certainly didn't ban them in "the early 20th century". Home gas and electric clothes dryers weren't widely available until after World War II and didn't achieve anything like their current penetration of the home market until after 1960. Until then, most people in the U.S. dried their clothes on clotheslines, or in some areas, in community dryers in laundromats.

It's sad that clotheslines have fallen into disuse, but don't blame American cities. Blame American capitalism and people's desire for convenience.

vegan_satori said...


"Clotheslines are banned or restricted by many of the roughly 300,000 homeowners’ associations that set rules for some 60 million people." (see links below) There is a current controversy in New York City over repealing the clothesline ban. The same in other cities and countries like Ontario, Canada.

Given your so called perfect democracy, free "city" perspective... I guess "capitalist" power and money never affect politics...! (Wouldn't it be nice if we were all capitalists? -- then we would all have capital... instead of being just worker-slaves for the rich, the few who control capital and are the only real capitalists.) ...perhaps you don't think all the mob/political/construction corruption in the sports arenas ever happened either. The various governments and their politicians have worked hood and cloak with the "capitalists" to pass laws banning clotheslines.

Now I'm not exactly sure when clotheslines were banned in New York City but the WikiPedia shows a picture from 1904 with clotheslines stretching over streets between buildings... it sure didn't look like that by the mid 40's.

I wrote about clotheslines to paint a picture of real life versus fantasy... obviously they are not the solution to Peak Oil!!! But if there will be people in the future, and if they wear clothes, the clothesline will come back from obscurity, and the Maytag repairman will be really idle.

However the clothesline issue is a lot hotter than you apparently think, or probably want others to think about... it's actually quite radical stuff in this crazy culture...

Here are a few links fuelish deniers don't want you to notice:
"Project Laundry List began in 1995 when Dr. Caldicott gave a speech at Middlebury College peace symposium and said, "If we all did things like hang out our clothes, we could shut down the nuclear industry." Learn more about our Board of Advisors and our Board of Directors."
"As soon as Dalton figures out how his corporate buddies can make money by allowing people to hang out the laundry he will lift the ban. Until then keep using those dryers."
"In some places, however, zoning regulations may prohibit their use as clothes lines are sometimes associated with poverty or considered unaesthetic." "clotheslines came to be associated with people who couldn't afford a dryer. Now they are a rarity, purged from the suburban landscape by legally enforceable development restrictions."

Alan said...

Dear vegan_satori,
The only point you raise which contradicts anything I said is that New York City apparently bans outdoor clothes-drying (although it's not clear whether that applies throughout the 5 boroughs or just in areas of high-rise apartments).

Homeowner associations which ban clotheslines are *not* cities and, even though their rules govern some 60 million people, they are *not* cities or any other form of government. They are simply private associations of property-owners and it's not known how many of them actually ban clotheslines and of the ones that do, how many actually attempt to enforce such bans.

The fact that the province of Ontario has not prohibited communities and homeowner associations from banning clotheslines cannot be interpreted to mean that Ontario bans clotheslines.

So, indeed, "most" cities do not ban clotheslines and some of the citizens among those 60 million residents of communities governed to some extent by homeowner associations undoubtedly have the right to dry their clothes outdoors also.

I never meant to imply that it wasn't stupid and wasteful to ban clotheslines, but it's silly and incorrect to claim that "most cities" have banned them.

Most Americans do not live in homeowner association-governed communities. Most Americans (and probably most Canadians) are completely free to dry their clothes outdoors.

I dry my clothes outdoors whenever the weather permits and have for quite a few years. My family did it when I was a kid, too. It was frequently my job to hang out and bring in laundry.

There is, however, more than a little "inconvenience" associated with drying laundry on clotheslines (especially in wet and/or cold weather) and most people jumped at the chance to dry their clothes mechanically indoors.

Whether people really desire and value "convenience" or it's just another unnecessary way to spend money inculcated by Madison Avenue is whole 'nuther discussion which I don't propose to get into here.

But, as sad a commentary on us as it may be, there are probably 10 people who would defend their clothes dryers with physical violence for every one of us who wants to dry our clothes outdoors.

vegan_satori said...


My, my... you just can't seem to deal with the truth of Political Corruption and its tie-in to capitalist exploitation of human masses and the Earth, can you?

To the point of bringing in suggestions of violence -- and forfeiting your whole argument. Where the hill are you coming from, dude? What are you trying to defend? Lousy politicians and their shady deals with capitalists?

Most "modern" cities all over the globe have banned clotheslines... City, town, suburb, same culture of corruption. It isn't just a "Homeowners association" thing. Meanwhile, the so called "Homeowner associations" are typically dominated by the developers... they are not democracies, not by a long stretch. Many are owned/run/operated by ultra right wingers. I have plenty of personal experience with such oppressive situations, to my chagrin... they might as well be governments for all the actual corrupt power they wield -- while they consistently obey the sterile world notion foisted upon us by the powers that be -- the Corpocracy run by the Cleptocracy. Individualism and self-sufficiency -- empowerment of the masses -- is anathema to them. It must be hidden and repressed.

Hanging up white sheets and t-shirts would be white flags of surrender to the realization that we must live within the limits of nature... that we cannot dominate it... something you, and right wing deniers, seem to begrudge - violently. They prefer to talk about flights to Mars. Aero-Space welfare freaks.

I guess you'd rather live in Disneyland. Where the violence is directed at reality itself.

Anonymous said...

Water will probably be the future oil.
I would like that you to write about it.