Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Twelfth Hour

One of the things I’ve noted repeatedly since The Archdruid Report first began attracting a significant number of comments is the way that certain stories maintain a deathgrip on our collective imagination of the future. I’ve written at length in previous posts here about two of those stories, the story of progress and the story of survivalism. Look through the last decade or so of discussion about Peak Oil, or for that matter any other manifestation of the predicament of industrial civilization, and you’ll find the climactic scenes of both stories – the basement entrepreneur laboring away at the technological fix that will save us all, on the one hand, and the plucky band of survivors blasting away with assault rifles at savage, starving, mindless mobs, on the other – circling like broken records.

I’ve come to think that much of the mutual incomprehension that strangles communication among different sides of the Peak Oil scene, and has played an important part in keeping it fragmented and marginalized, comes from the way that so many people in that scene have their ears so full of one or another of these stories that they can’t hear anything else. Still, these two aren’t the only stories that have had this kind of effect on the debate, and I’d like to talk a little bit about one of the others in this week’s post. The story in question is at least as old as the other two, and it has, if anything, even more pervasive a presence in the rhetoric that shapes our collective thinking about the future. Call it the story of the eleventh hour.

You know that story inside and out already. It’s the one in which the world is on the brink of disaster, for some simple and readily defined reason that could be solved if people were only willing to do what was necessary. Things get worse, and worse, and worse, until at the last possible moment before disaster strikes – at the eleventh hour, to use the constantly repeated phrase – people leap up from their sofas and do whatever it is that they have to do to save the world. A few cautionary words about being more proactive next time rounds off the story, and then they all live happily ever after.

It’s a whacking good yarn, of course, which accounts for much of its popularity – everyone likes a taut suspenseful tale – and, like the other narratives we use these days to make sense of the future, it can be applied to almost any situation you care to name. It’s also a very politically useful story, which accounts for the other half of its popularity. If you can convince people that the world really is on the brink of disaster, it’s a good deal easier to stampede them into action, and if you can present them with a plan of action you claim will save the world, people may not look at the details too closely before they embrace it as their one hope of salvation. This can be exceedingly useful, particularly if you have an agenda your audience might not support if they know they have another choice.

The last three hundred years or so of North American cultural politics are full of individuals and movements who discovered these advantages in the story of the eleventh hour. One of the most relevant is also one of the earliest. I don’t know if any of my readers were introduced in college literature classes, as I was, to Jonathan Edwards’ harrowing 1741 sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Like so many preachers before and since, Edwards faced the not inconsiderable challenge of convincing human beings to live like angels, and made the often repeated discovery that one of the best ways to do it was to scare the stuffing out of them. The result is one of the most spectacular invocations of the eleventh hour in all of literature. Edwards bent all his talents to the task of convincing his listeners that as they sat their in their pews, right then and there, the ground might suddenly open up beneath them and drop them screaming and flailing into the jaws of eternal damnation.

It was a great success at the time. Like so many preachers before and since, though, Edwards discovered the homely moral of the story of the boy who cried wolf: you can only scare the stuffing out of people in the same way so many times before the impact wears off, and your listeners become irritated or, worse yet, bored. Few things in popular culture have less cachet than last year’s imminent disasters.

This is problematic for the Jonathan Edwardses of the world, who tend to be one-trick ponies, with careers founded on a single catastrophe and a solution to match. It can be even more problematic for the rest of us, though, because it does sometimes happen that one or more of the Jonathan Edwardses of an age proclaim a disaster that actually is in the offing – even a broken clock is right twice a day – and the story of the boy who cried wolf has two additional morals not often remembered: first, the wolves were real; second, they ended up eating the sheep.

That’s the hidden downside of the story of the eleventh hour. When you’ve told the same story often enough, people become used to the fact that you’ll be back again shortly with another catastrophe du jour, and another one after that, and so on. They stop being scared and become irritated or, worse yet, bored. At that point it doesn’t matter how many more changes you ring on the story or how colorfully you describe this year’s imminent disaster, because they’ve learned to recognize the narrative as narrative – and, not uncommonly, they’ve learned to glimpse whatever agenda lies behind the story and motivates the people who tell it.

The awkward conversation about Peak Oil in today’s industrial societies, I’m convinced, cannot be understood at all unless the spreading effect of these paired recognitions is taken into account. For decades now our collective discourse has been filled to overflowing with competing renditions of the story of the eleventh hour, from every imaginable point on the political and cultural spectrum. Whether it’s the missile gap or the ozone layer, fiat currencies or emerging viruses, immigration policy or trade deficits or the antics of whatever set of clowns is piling into or out of the executive branch this season, somebody or other is presenting it as a source of imminent disaster from which, at the eleventh hour, their proposals can save us.

This is the environment into which the Peak Oil movement emerged when it left its larval stage on a handful of internet mailing lists and started to try to warn the world that the age of cheap abundant energy is about to come to an end. In the language of theater, they found themselves playing to a very unsympathetic house. Mind you, it didn’t help that a significant number of people in the Peak Oil community proceeded to pack their message into the familiar framework of the story of the eleventh hour, complete in many cases with unstated political agendas that are not unfamiliar to those of us who have watched the last thirty years’ worth of imminent disasters come and go.

The irony here, and it’s as rich as it is bitter, is that this is one of the cases where the crisis is real. Depending on how you measure it – with or without natural gas liquids, oil-sands products, and other marginal sources of quasipetroleum fuel – world oil production peaked in 2005 or 2006 and, despite record prices and massive drilling programs in the Middle East and elsewhere, has been slipping down the far side of Hubbert’s peak ever since. Dozens of countries in the nonindustrial world are already struggling with desperate shortages of petroleum products, while the industrial world’s attempts to stave off trouble by pouring its food supply into its gas tanks via ethanol and biodiesel have succeeded mostly in launching food prices on a stratospheric trajectory from which they show no signs of returning any time soon.

Does this mean that we’re finally, for real, at the eleventh hour? That’s the richest and most bitter irony of all. As Robert Hirsch and his colleagues pointed out not long ago in a crucial study, the only way to respond effectively to Peak Oil on a national scale, and stave off massive economic and social disruptions, is to start preparations twenty years before the arrival of peak petroleum production. The eleventh hour, in other words, came and went in 1986, and no amount of pressure, protest, or wishful thinking can make up for the opportunity that was missed then. Listen carefully today and you can hear the sound of the clock tolling twelve, reminding us that the eleventh hour is gone for good.

The problem with this realization, of course, is that the story of the twelfth hour doesn’t make good melodrama. When you’re standing in the train station watching the train you meant to catch rattling out of sight around a distant curve miles down the track, it’s hard to capture the excitement of the desperate pelting run through the station that gets you onto the train just as it starts rolling toward the destination you hoped to reach. Equally, the story of the twelfth hour isn’t all that useful as a tool of political manipulation, since the silence of an empty train station makes it rather too easy to stop and think about whether the destination you hoped to reach was actually someplace you wanted to go.

While it may not make good melodrama or effective politics, though, I’ve come to think that one of the things we most need just now, in the Peak Oil scene and in modern industrial civilization as a whole, is that time of reflection in the silence that follows when the eleventh hour has come and gone, and the last hope of avoiding the consequences of our actions has vanished down the track into the land of might-have-beens. It’s been pointed out more than once that the process of coming to terms with Peak Oil has more than a little in common with the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross injected into our cultural dialogue and Ben Vereen made famous in Bob Fosse’s extraordinary movie All That Jazz. It’s been noticed much less often that the final stage of the process has a gift to offer, and the name of the gift is wisdom – something the world arguably needs a good deal more than it needs another round of comforting melodrama, or another set of political agendas disguising themselves as solutions to yet another catastrophe du jour.


Liz said...

Or, as my husband remarked to my daughter this afternoon after one of her cartoons had finished, "The problem with real life is that not all problems are wrapped up inside of half an hour, with theme music." I think our TV-stunted attention spans may also have something to do with our inability to grasp the magnitude of this issue.

Having recently discovered your blog and finished reading over your archives, I found your writings on the hold narratives possess over our imaginations to be a powerful insight into why society seems to be so desensitised to this coming crisis. And I'm only in the first month or so of my Peak Oil awakening, I can't imagine how depressing it must be for those activists who've been trying to raise awareness for years, even decades...

Liz in Australia

bunnygirl said...

Wow, a lot of good stuff here.

I'm often amused by people who dismiss Peak Oil as casually as they dismiss Y2K, completely overlooking the fact that programmers were busting their behinds to fix Y2K.

I work for a University IT department and there was a big and real problem with Y2K but people were all over it, spending money, writing code, working long hours patching and testing.

Hence, no real problems at date rollover.

Somehow the non-tech public took away the message that it was a false alarm and they look at Peak Oil the same way.

But where are the people investing money and man-hours into solving the problem? All I hear are false promises and crickets chirping. And that worries me.

Then you have the survivalist crowd who sees Peak Oil as a hard-stop sort of event. True, if it came about that way it would lead to chaos. But the far greater likelihood is a long decline that won't be helped by hiding in the woods with a gun and stack of MREs.

And finally we have the banality of our everyday existence, where it's so hard to escape the "everything's great" messages blared from every TV and plastered to every billboard.

Then we come to the office where people obsess over made-up problems and ruin livelihoods over things that we all know deep down don't really matter and will end up in a storage box for a few years, forgotten and finally incinerated.

To preserve our sanity we must either believe the same things matter to us too, or drop out of the game. But at a primal level, I think a lot of people long for the Big Disaster that will jerk everyone back to an appreciation of what's real. That's why so many people stay glued to their TV sets to watch the latest fire or flood. Secretly, a lot of folks long for hurricanes, earthquakes, nuclear war and maurauding hordes.

But Peak Oil hits a little to close to home for most people. We've been a hydrocarbon society as far back as the oldest living person can remember. You might as well say we're running out of sunlight or stars or oxygen.

Maybe we are, but it's a pretty big concept to grasp, let alone believe. Easier to laugh, make lame Y2K comparisons, and then go shopping for the latest tech gadget.

LizM said...


Wonderful post. Perhaps this is why I keep thinking I should get up and do something grand and public spirited, like start a local newspaper about localization, but at the end of the day I always decide to make jam instead. Or agitate among my neighbors to bring awnings back to the building's south and west faces. Or stare at my refrigerator, with malice aforethought, planning its eventual demise. Or checking the temperature in the building's basement to see if it stays constant. Or sew or knit or can or fiddle with the *%$@!&^ solar oven on my west facing fire escape.

It all seems horribly self-indulgent because I enjoy this stuff, but I just can't get it together to do anything big and community-minded.

Ironically, my neighbors, who seem to be aware of peak oil even without my pamphleteering, report that they feel exactly the same way. The nice thing about all this, in addition to the camaraderie of course, is that we've started trading the results of our tinkering. Community garden herbs, jam, jarred tomatoes, homemade grocery bags, and of course there's a lively trade in secrets for heating and cooling without the HVAC. I think we're becoming a much happier pre-war building for it.

Is there a story that ends like that? You know, people just drift into living a bit better and more happily ever after without quite knowing how they managed it?

Bill Pulliam said...

And after the clock chimes 12:00, it just keeps on ticking. Time doesn't cease, the world goes on. In this particular case, we have an advantage that the clock is running on Historical Time, not Hollywood Time, as evidenced by the fact that the eleventh hour took 20 years to pass. So we have many decades of trial and error to figure out "what happens now." Given that, in spite of all our wise and well-informed ruminations, none of us really knows what is coming and what will "work," this luxury of time is a saving grace. There will undoubtably be major errors amongst the trials (I'm betting on biofuels to prove to be one of these, but what do I know?), but eventually a grand web of shifting paths will emerge from the long confusion and we will meander on down them as we have always done.

So I guess it's about 12:05 now?

Loveandlight said...

I graduated from high school in 1986. And I was so woefully ignorant and weak-minded that I don't think I could have dealt effectively with something like Peak Oil back then. After all, I was, if you'll recall a previous comment of mine, one of those silly kids who put their hopes for the salvation of civilization into the college "Politically Correct" scene. I thought it was interesting that you mentioned that year as I've been musing lately with no little dismay what an utter piece of work I was back then. And there were an awful lot of young people like me in a culture such as ours that offers precious little else in the way of self-edification other than material gratification and other traps of the ego.

Danby said...

To name another example, global warming. The time to act was 1960, not 2007.

paul said...

John i have been reading your posts for a year now, i find them fascinating in their concise and straightforward use of a language that i thought was in its final throes.All i can add is WOW.

FARfetched said...

Good thoughts about 11th-hour narratives and their popularity… although I'd say they are at least implicitly tied to the Myth of Progress. I've heard some people in the techno-fix mentality also talk about the "100mpg carburetor" and other technology that the auto/oil companies have conspired to spike; the assumption is that the big corporations will release those technologies in order to survive. (For the record, I don't think such things actually exist — if GM could produce an SUV that gets 100mpg, they would be making 'em already.)

I have some more thoughts, but want to keep this post on-topic and short.

John Michael Greer said...

Liz, I've been watching the approach of peak oil since the late 1970s, as Danby can attest, but I've somehow managed to avoid getting depressed about it -- but then I don't get depressed when the leaves start dropping in autumn, either. The fall of civilizations is a natural process, though it may not always be a pleasant one.

Bunnygirl, agreed -- I know a huge number of people who were secretly (or not so secretly) disappointed when January 1, 2000 came and went without ushering in the end of life as we know it. It says a lot about our present civilization, and not much good, that so many people suspect that total catastrophe would be more pleasant than going back to work on Monday mornings.

Lizm, by my lights what you're doing is the work that most needs to be done, and the showy community stuff is lagniappe at best and a distraction at worst. The story that ends "and then life went on" is ultimately the only story that matters.

Bill, I figure it's about 2 in the morning, actually -- that's why everybody is sound asleep. When the alarm goes off they'll stumble groggily out of bed and wonder why the world looks so different.

Loveandlight, I didn't have much more of a clue in 1986. Fortunately we've had some time to take stock.

Danby, exactly. Svante Arrhenius was warning about CO2 pollution at the end of the 19th century.

Paul, thank you! Applying defibrillator paddles to the English language is an occasional hobby of mine.

Farfetched, expect a post in the near future about the fantasy that some incarnation of Them is behind all our problems. That's another popular story, and one that is more than usually useless in the present context.

Thank you all, by the way, for getting the point of this post.

Bill Pulliam said...

Quite a digression, please forgive:

re: 100 mpg SUV... well I used to drive semis, and I got 9 mpg empty (30,000 lb) and 5 mpg loaded (80,000 lb) in a modern rig. So I wondered, why can't I get a 2000 lb car that will get 200 mpg? Of course the answer is that I probably could, but it would have a power-to-weight ratio like a semi, and it would creep out of traffic lights and freeway onramps at the same pace as a fully loaded big rig. It would work just fine, but you couldn't sell one!

In the future... who knows? Those slow-to-get-rolling big trucks manage to haul all our cheap retail crap from coast to coast just fine in spite of it; similarly "underpowered" smaller vehicles could haul our own butts around just fine too, if we'd put up with it. A lot of this is about choices, not technology or conspiracy.

Bill Pulliam said...

Oh, and back on topic, sort of...

Howard T. Odum, one of the great "mad scientists" of systems ecology and the progenitor of the concept of "emergy" (embodied energy), was throwing up slides of "King Hubbert's Blip" in his lectures 25+ years ago. In HT's wonderful back-towards-the-audience-face-towards-the-chalkboard lecture style, he never bothered to explain who Hubbert was and what he was king of, hence head-scratching about this question became almost an inside gag amongst us grad students in Athens and Gainesville. So I still get a little chuckle now everytime I see the "blip" logo on some Peak Oil web page, thinking about the Late Great Odum brothers.

(There are Wikipedia articles on emergy and the Odum bros)

senecascenes said...

The train has passed and I've left the station to settle in along the shores of a small lake.

Most everyone else connected to Hollywood will continue to stand on the platform expecting the last-second miracle arrival.

Decades of conditioning will be very hard to shake.

awlknottedup said...

There were several threads in this most recent post. The eleventh hour wait is just another way to let someone else do it. Some god, scientist, back yard tinker, or politician will come along and solve everything. Well, there is no magic elixir, no god to make it all right, we made this mess we have to clean it up and live with the consequences.

Another thread is the desire to just start over. If only it is forced on us by a Y2K event, major climate caused calamity, or collapse of society because of those nasty commies (or the more recent scape goat, Muslims), or Peak Oil. With a start over we can all become the tough guy of our dreams or so we think.

Few realize that the current state of affairs is nothing more than a temporary blip in human history. Cheap oil is not much over 150 years old. The out pouring of industrial goods is not much older.

But during those couple of centuries there was so much change that we think that change is constant and that change will bring nothing but good. We forget that for thousands of years few people saw much change and that things just sort of went along nicely.

Danby said...

I noted in the geekish news sources the other day that Steve Wozniak (one of the founders of Apple Computer) was stopped in his Prius, going 114MPH. Why do most hybrids not get 100mpg? Because they build them to go 114mph. The auto companies ridiculously over-build the vehicles and then try to regain the milage on the back side by adding technological gimcracks to the drivetrain.

I have a 1950 Plymouth sedan. It weighs over 1800 lbs, and seats 6. It gets almost 30mpg. Why? it's got a 92 hp engine. That's right, 92 horsepower. That is just slightly larger than the engine in my Geo Metro(86hp). The speed tops out at about 65mph (better on a downslope) and it will go 0 to 60 in about 45 seconds.

Just after WWII, consumers were glad to be able to afford to buy a car, and good enough was good enough. Other cars have filled this market niche; the Datsun B210 (another car I used to own), and the Dodge Neon.

The plain fact is that auto companies build the cars they think people will want to buy. When gas jumps above $10/gal, SUVs will be so out of style.

yooper said...

Perhaps, it is the eleventh hour for many 3rd world countries right now. These countries are now experiencing the brown outs and blackouts in electrical delivery, as predicted.

Certainly, there will be people seeing the twelfth hour...Perhaps fewer will see the 13th hour, fewer yet the 14th and so-on...

Moral of the story...Not everybody, will live to see another day, it cannot be any other way.

Dwig said...


The nice thing about all this, in addition to the camaraderie of course, is that we've started trading the results of our tinkering. Community garden herbs, jam, jarred tomatoes, homemade grocery bags, and of course there's a lively trade in secrets for heating and cooling without the HVAC. I think we're becoming a much happier pre-war building for it.


Lizm, by my lights what you're doing is the work that most needs to be done, and the showy community stuff is lagniappe at best and a distraction at worst.

John, could you elaborate a bit about "the showy communty stuff"? it sounds to me like Lizm and her neighbors are, perhaps accidentally, growing a community that increases both its store of knowledge and the "multiplied energy" that comes from sharing common resources and goals. (I've been doing some thinking about the relationships between community and commons...)

John Michael Greer said...

Dwig, what I meant by "showy community stuff" are the attempts to build lifeboat communities, pass city ordinances, and influence the political process. Some of that is good to have; none of it is a replacement for the crucial everyday work of individuals learning to get on with life in an age of declining energy availability. That's all.

Erik said...

I came across a reference to this book this morning; it's the first I'd heard of it and wondered if anybody here knows if it's worthwhile: "The World Without Us", by Alan Weisman


Praetzel said...

1) I work in a university IT department too and Y2k was a big yawn. We were laughing ourselves silly at what the higher-ups wanted us to do. Sure sort functions didn't work properly in software written for DOS - but life goes on. The media of course tramatized that one x-ray unit which gave very high doses....

2) 100 mpg car? It's very easy to do. Better SUVs can be built - just witness what the Union of Concerned Scientists did to an SUV - getting better milage than the GM hybrid version at a fraction of the cost.
A 100 mpg car is pretty trivial to do - but do you want 40hp with the acceleration of VW Beetle? Note a series hybrid using a 5hp engine to charge a small battery pack with a 40hp elec. engine will do it. Also the Japanese Kei cars like the Mitsubishi "i" that is rated at 94 mpg (Canadian) and around 3L/100km. VW also made a tandom 2-seater that is 1L/100km.
These things are possible - but who will buy them? Putting things in context my house (and family of 4) take $1k/yr in energy but the cost of buying and maintaining the home is something like 10x that - taxes alone are around 2.5x the energy costs. The car isn't as bad - but the purchase cost is easily 3x the cost of fuel and even insurance and licensing is more than the cost of fuel for our guzzling Ford Escort Wagoon. Gawd how we miss my 1991 Chevy Sprint with 52hp and a 1L engine that average >60 mpg (Canadian - something like 55 mpg US.

Yea I'm burnt out at The Oil Drum. It's doomers all around; everything is the coming of the end. But rather than obsessioning over which particular event is the pivot it makes sense just to do what is right (grow some of your own food, support local food and business and production, improve your homes energy use, build community, get people out of the rat race, don't let kids near the TV or video games and get them living in nature not isolated from it, eat a healthy whole food vegetarian/vegan diet).

Danby said...

rather than obsessioning over which particular event is the pivot it makes sense just to do what is right (grow some of your own food, support local food and business and production, improve your homes energy use, build community, get people out of the rat race, don't let kids near the TV or video games and get them living in nature not isolated from it, eat a healthy whole food vegetarian/vegan diet).

That's exactly it. There is ultimately only one revolution, and it takes place in your everyday life. All that other stuff will be co-opted, exploited and used to manipulate people.

I'd disagree with the vegetarian thing though. Livestock turn grasslands and other unproductive places into food producers. Granted the way meat is raised in the US factory farm is horribly inefficient of fertility and food, but that's not the fault of the livestock, or the carnivores.

FARfetched said...

Bunnygirl and Bill P said much of what I left out: after 12, the clock keeps running and people live their everyday lives in the midst of growing energy scarcity. Things will change, but not in the way they did when the meteor wiped out the dinos or they would if Someone Dropped The Bomb. Things will get a little worse all the time, with occasional brief reversals, but not so quickly that it trips everyone's radar at once.

Lizm, I agree with JMG: what you and your neighbors are doing is what more people (or everyone) need to do. I don't know if "sliding almost accidentally into a better life" makes for a good fictional story — where's the drama? — but it's a story I'd be glad to live in.

Bill P, good point about power/weight ratios and what they do to gas mileage. I seem to remember reading about that someone de-tuning a diesel Rabbit to 17HP (which they calculated to be necessary to keep it going 55MPH on a level highway) and it got over 80MPG. You're right about nobody buying one: I think as out of shape as I am, I could beat a loaded big rig (or a car with 17HP) off the line on a bicycle, up to about 15MPH anyway. :-P

eboy said...

Another really good post JMG.

Looking for what the narrative of the 11th hour tells us. Can serve as a positive contribution for those liberal minded people
who believe that if everybody could share the knowledge of what's coming this would precipitate necessary changes.

looking at failures like Katrina should speak to our need to make preparations. Faith that others will provide the solutions is short sighted.

I think that for those of us who have been receptive to the message that there's something wrong speaks to our faith in man.

Many no doubt share a sober reflection of history. When given the opportunity -we tend to blow it.

Since the media sell audiences to advertisers. Doom and gloom train wrecks and the latest code blue offer plenty of opportunity for shenanigans on the political agenda front.

This can serve to demoralize those that would make change.
I suspect that another common denominator amongst those 'receptive' to this message is the yearning for truth. That even if it is subjective the notion of an honest: 'I calls em as I see's em.' is refreshing.

The only time that we will know exactly when the 11th hour was will be in retrospect.

I suspect that those who identified this problem
years ago. Have recognized that corporate greed and control would prohibit the corrective measures necessary to
address the problem.
Thomas Homer Dixon has said that he thinks that calamities will be required in order to shake some 'vested interests' loose from the stanglehold being maintained with current 'monkey business'

Though other issues like c.f.c.'s and the Montreal protocol have shown that collectively when mobilized we can achieve many goals.

Looking at cars for example. We have long had the knowledge of materials that are stronger than steel, biodegradable and weigh a fraction of the weight.

Just as small farmers have warned for 50+ years of the folly of agribusiness.

An organized demand destruction is required. Sustainable enterprises should be supported.

Insulation, solar hot water, wind and solar where available are contributions towards an organized demand destruction. And perhaps the greatest is growing as much of your own food as you can.
These are all positive steps that contribute towards solutions. And serve as shock absorbers.

yooper said...

Hello John,

I was fool'en around on Jay Hanson's new post,"kill_ape-peak_oil", when I came across a message that I believe you offered on a link from another site, I'd like to offer this to you're readers here...... forgive me, if this was not you.)

In this model it is suggested,(under the best case scenario) that the average of excess deaths will reach 100 million for 75 years.(Beginning this year). To put this into prospective, WW11, was 10 million per year for six years.....

Futhermore, these excess deaths are expected to reach 50 million per year by 2012, by 2017 to 100 million, peak at 2027 at 150 million and then tapper.... Hmmm, kinda like Adam's story the way I read it....

Ok, John, from this standpoint, what would you suggest that someone like "bunnygirl" do, who is 40 years old and lives in Houston, Texas? I'd like to hear this now...Not from a prospective of 50 years from now..........I lived in Houston, Texas for 3 1/2 years.

From one of you're earlier posts you replied to a young boy,"Yes, I'm a druid". Show me...........Better yet, show everyone, a believeable sceniaro in the near future, I suppose this would be like writing an obituary of someone who who has'nt died yet...remember? For perhaps, 1/2 the people reading this post, their life will end PREMATURELY. No? Surely, this cannot be taken likely.....

Perhaps, we should be discussing THIS? Viewing the future has got to come from more than a historical prospective....What we are about to encounter, has NEVER happened in the history of mankind.. Some suggest there have been six die-offs, but not like the one we're going to experience. And suggesting this would be like another Roman "holiday" like decline is ludicrous.

Communtiy efforts might be pipe dreams... Surely, there will be a chaotic period, after that, then maybe....What truely endeared me to,"Adam's Story", it was that indeed Adam came from out of the woods.....

Thanks John, sorry for being so hard on ya.....yooper

Weaseldog said...

This has been an excellent post and great comments.

My first awakening came from Carl Sagan in the series, 'Cosmos'. I admit though I got the message, I didn't quite believe it or grasp what it meant.

In the 1990s, I started getting a handle on what petroleum meant to our civilization. The epiphany came after arguing with an infinite growth preaching economist. Oil, thermodynamics, industry, economics, it all start falling into place and I began to understand the order inherent in it all.

Then in 1998, Colin Campbell and Jean Laherre published, "The End of Cheap Oil", in Scientific American.

After that, more pieces began to fit and I realized that for half of the world, energy has already been in decline. As the first world has increased oil consumption, we've been forced to deny energy to the third world. Sure, we send them care packages made from oil consumption, but we deny them the fuel to build their own industries.

This cam home to me in stark contrast when I saw a satellite picture of the Earth at night. Africa's interior was pitch black. Only its port cities were lit. I remembered seeing such a picture of Africa in the 1970s, that showed the interior lit. You could see light from the headlights of cars driving on the highways, criss-crossing the continent. you could see well lit cities all across the continent. It wasn't as bright as South America, but it looked like it was up and coming. Only the Congo was dark.

Then came the IMF reforms, and the lights went out.

I figure we're probably at 12:00:45 atm. The chimes have stopped, but we can still hear springs vibrating as last memory of their tolling. But this is only the 12th hour for the first world. Much of the rest of the world has been in decline for some time, and we've paid scant attention.

Now the world energy supply is in decline. Growth for any entity can only come at terrible expense to others. This is essentially the cannibalism phase. For those with means to do so, it is the last chance to build lifeboats and try to stay ahead of the downturn. In the long run, no place is safe. But I can see how the Middle East can be perceived as best bet for those accustomed to living in luxury. After all, so long as you have easy access to oil, you have the energy to defend your shores. But when you can't get it anymore, it is probably best to be moving somewhere else.

If you could direct the flow of billions of dollars a year, what would your lifeboat look like?

The arguments for intentional demand destruction are rational. It is the only defense against those who want to co-opt our own security in order to try to enhance their own.

But I fear we're but a small voice in all of this. As this article points out, most of those even aware of Peak Oil, expect some kind genius to invent a way out of this mess, so that we need not change our ways. As a culture, we believe that we can put off the day of reckoning over and over again, with one more quick fix. and the fact that the world hasn't fallen apart, gives them a sense of security, and feeling that there is still time. So we go on, trying to grab all the stuff we can. We continue to work and shop and talk about the future, about vacations and argue over how important it is to kill people we'll never meet.

At times, all of this fills me with a sense of sadness. I do realize though, that this is the another turn of the Great Mandela. We've have a great run. And we are being true to our nature. If we were rational enough to deal with this problem responsibly, then we never would've gotten where we are.

Nnonnth said...

JMG, I have read every single word you've written on here, but this time you've gone too far. You have made an out-and-out factual error and I've caught you. Whatever you say from now on, I am going to have to take it less seriously.


Seriously, this as usual is the truth coated in brass tacks and what's even cooler is this comments page - all intelligent, all useful, can't add anything, don't disagree with anything...

JMG's investment of patient foresight just keeps paying off, and it seems like there's actual genuine sanity here or something. I love this page.

yooper said...

Gee, what a great blog! What great insights these posters have!In my opinion, "The Archdruid Report", is perhaps the very best, the peak oil world has to offer.

Much thanks to you John, for not only providing this site, but for the compassion you've shown towards the personalities posting here. Again, again and yet again.

I suppose the "twelfth hour" is very relative, depending where you live. Surely, it has already come for some third world countries as weasel dog has observed. I'm also agreeing with those that we'll only recognize this in retrospect, in this country.

For every action there is a reaction. Much can be said of trends. Very often, there is a "pause" period before an action can change course. Spotting these pauses can be very tricky and are often only realized after the fact, when they occured.

For one, I'm always on the lookout for this "pause" to occur which might bring about a reversal in direction for this country. This is what the "twelfth hour" will mean to me. Perhaps, it's already happened and I'll never "see it". Perhaps this transition is so slow, it'll never be recognized...

Thanks, yooper

FARfetched said...

There will be techno-fixes. There, I've said it. What I haven't said is that techno-fixes are going to solve The Problem. They won't. What will happen is that population will decline, and society will change, to the point where solar, wind, and water (and biofuel, which includes wood, ethanol, etc) can support both population and society. I make no prediction about how much the population will decline or how much society changes, at least for now.

I see two flaws in the die-off predictions. First, they take no alternate sources of energy (or societal changes, requiring less per-capita energy usage) into account. I've said repeatedly on Kunstler's blog, where the doomiest of the doomers hang out, that most US citizens could cut energy consumption 20% and be better off — and nobody has disagreed.

The second, and perhaps more important flaw, is assuming a sudden change of state. History teaches us to be wary of sharp boundaries; it's their rarity that make them stand out. As I said in my second post, things will deteriorate slowly. People will die of conditions that could have been treated, or they'll die of hypothermia or heatstroke, or they'll die violently… or they won't be born in the first place. The same thing happens to people right now, even in America. It'll just happen more often.

As far as whether half of us die "before our time" or not… well, I have high cholesterol and high blood pressure. I'm doing most of what needs to be done about it, including eating less meat, taking my meds, and trying to get a little exercise — and by the grace of God, I got below 200 pounds this week for the first time in 20 years — but who knows if it will be enough? If not… well, a heart attack isn't a pleasant way to go, but at least it will be quick. I'm not going to push up my blood pressure worrying about it. :-P

RAS said...

Hey JMG. This is a very good post. I had to come back and re-read it a couple of times before I was ready to post a comment. I had never really thought of the "11th hour" as a metaphor before, much less all of the political/social causes of the past couple of centuries being jammed into this metaphor, but it makes sense.

I did realize a while ago that the time for beginning preparations for Peak Oil had long since passed. Still, it's a little discomforting to think of the 11th hour sliding by before one is in kindergarten -and that you and your generation will be the ones primarily responsible for dealing with the aftermath.

yooper said...

Hello John,

When am I gonna learn to keep my mouth shut?! Perhaps, I've opened a can of worms suggesting the Chefurka site.....

I'd like to remind readers this is one man's insight of what MIGHT happen. It is based on assumptions, period.

I want to agree much of what farfetched said, that technology will play into the factor, we will learn to depend on less, (we better!). Perhaps new oil will be found.....

This will be the second time around for this deer to be frozen in the headlights, so to speak. The twelfth hour? I can remember another twelfth hour many years ago..

If I remember it right, times were not so rosey, during the early 1970's. New oil discoveries were on a steep decline, millions were starving to death in third world counties,(the green revolution was just beginning).

As I layed on the beach of Lake Superior and was watching the "Salties" go by loaded with grain, heading for the U.S.S.R., India, and other places around the world, I wondered, is this it? That was over 35 years ago......

I was taught at a very young age that I'd likely never see better days. Gee, I've been riding into the sunset, ever since. My "instructors" were wrong about what "surely" lay right before us.....

However, like John say's,"A broken clock is right twice a day". That does have me thinking, perhaps they were wrong the first time around, but, what about the second?
Certainly, these men were before their time, but, by no strecth of the imagination, "stupid".

I've recently confronted one of these great teachers, the only one yet alive. The first question, I asked was, "why?" (Why make my life so cussed miserable for the past 35 years?) There was a twinkle in his eye as he shot back, "to prepare YOU for what surely lies ahead!)......................

Thanks, yooper

Panidaho said...

Ok, John, from this standpoint, what would you suggest that someone like "bunnygirl" do, who is 40 years old and lives in Houston, Texas? I'd like to hear this now...Not from a prospective of 50 years from now........

From one of you're earlier posts you replied to a young boy,"Yes, I'm a druid". Show me...........Better yet, show everyone, a believeable sceniaro in the near future, I suppose this would be like writing an obituary of someone who who has'nt died yet...remember? For perhaps, 1/2 the people reading this post, their life will end PREMATURELY. No? Surely, this cannot be taken likely.....

Perhaps, we should be discussing THIS?

Yooper, John Michael is an intelligent and articulate writer, but he doesn't have a crystal ball. ;-)

As for what you and bunnygirl should be doing, well - if you think about it, you already know what you should be doing. You should be seeing to your health as best you can, you should be learning low input ways of living and earning a living, and you should be getting whatever spiritual house you have in order. And you should be helping those you love do the same. Body, Mind, and Spirit - you will need all three in good shape no matter what the future looks like.

What form your actions should take is highly dependent upon your personality, your skills, and your particular situation. There is no one size fits all here. No one can give you a roadmap - you have to make one for yourself. As you have said, while other civilizations have crashed before, this civilization is an order of magnitude larger than any in history, so while there will be similarities, what eventually happens will in some ways be like nothing else that has ever happened before.

Trying to wait until you get a clear picture for the future before deciding what to do probably isn't a good idea. Wasting time and doing nothing, imo, is probably the worst choice one can make when faced by this sort of uncertainty. Take it as a challenge and work to draw yourself up a really good personal roadmap. One that will leave you a better person and in better shape no matter what the future holds.


magicalnet said...

Bravo. I've been reading your posts for some months now and have always been impressed.

Somehow we must face the full intensity of our situation, and own our responsibility. In the light of that truth, however, miracles are still possible.

Weaseldog said...

Farfetched, for the short term, I still agree with you.

Sure, we can cut 20% of the waste out and still do quite well.

It is cutting out 95%-98% of our energy usage that concerns me.

The alternatives essentially all derive from solar power. Ethanol and the rest are produced using sunlight as the energy source. If we all stopped eating, we'd still need eight planet earth's worth of farmland to power our cars. Even if we improved mileage, eight fold, we'd still need to divert the entire output of our planet to power our cars.

Clearly, there is a serious transition coming our way. When it will come, and what exactly it will look like, is impossible to predict. But I'll borrow a line from 'Shrek', to describe how our government is meeting the challenge, "What you're doing is the opposite of helping."

Our fearless leader seems to be worried only about a few things: What kind of speaking fees he can earn when he leaves office, whether Petreaus can sell Bush's war and when can we get the war on Iran rolling.

There's nary a whimper from the top levels of government (Except the Pentagon), as to preparations for Peak Oil. Every dollar is being spent on population control, and none on infrastructure preparations. We're building prisons and training our soldiers in urban combat and crowd control.

A pessimistic person might come to the conclusion that our Federal Government is setting up a violent clash between the people and the Government. But that would be silly wouldn't it? But maybe that's what happens when the Pentagon is the only agency that is drawing up contingency plans for Peak Oil.

It is my opinion that a hard scrabble fight for the last producing oil fields, could likely lead to their destruction. So I don't believe that Homeland Security's preparations will make any long term sense. What ever they might be trying to set up, will burn out like the rest. in that perspective, the trillions of dollars we are wasting, does us no good at all. It in fact harms our future. It may well be intended to accelerate events.

Bush tells us that he makes decisions with war on his mind, that he makes the decisions that no one else would make. I believe him. But what are they thinking? What is the intended outcome of these decisions? Does he even know? His plan to settle in Dallas and collect checks from the Freedom Institute, has me wondering if this fool knows anything at all?

Yooper, that pause between events, is known as a criticality. It is a fundamental step in phase transitions. And you nailed it.

dZed said...

Another great post, John, as always. Your turn of phrase on the two forgotten morals in the story of the boy who cried wolf made me stop and stare into the distance for a minute, just in appreciation. What a strong turn of phrase.

I'm two weeks into my Appropriate Tech grad education, and sometimes it's hard not to look around and swallow the "technology will cure all ills" line of thought. A fellow student left his first wind energy class shaking his head at the material -- the first day focused so exclusively on large-scale wind projects that he was bemoaning the use of the term "appropriate technology" at all. Still, it's all about how you apply technology, and if what you say is true (What many people say, I should point out) and we are past-peak, the application of technology will become even more important, since we'll be surrounded by it without much energy to run any of it.

And a quick P.S., two weeks ago I was a quick dismisser of biofuels, but now that I've done some work in the area, I've come to be very interested in two aspects of the technology (Neither of them having anything to do with driving), namely methane-producing biodigesters and the use of biofuels for heating, both of which could be very useful in a post-peak world.

Anyway, a great blog as always.

Joel said...


re: people secretly longing for disasters to be worse than they really are, George Carlin speaks for many of us.

John Michael Greer said...

Many thanks, all, for some great comments. I apologize for not being able to respond to everybody this week -- too many words to write and not enough hours in the day. Just a couple of comments before I turn in.

Praetzel, you may be amused to learn -- if you didn't know already -- that Stuart Saniford over at the Oil Drum had a post a while back citing me as an archetypical doomer, while Leanan -- another Oil Drum regular -- has described me as the most depressing writer on peak oil she's read. Meanwhile I have other people who insist I'm a hopeless Pollyanna who refuses to deal with the horrible future breathing down our necks. I suppose you can't please everybody...

Yooper, for a good counter to Paul Chefurka's stuff, take a look at any good account of the demographic situation in the former Soviet Union. Their population is dropping steadily -- at present rates, it'll be half its present level long before the next century arrives. The point I'd encourage you to notice, though, is that their society is still functioning at least as well as it ever has. Between 1345 and 1351 one-third of the population of Europe died of the Black Death; the results were considerable, but civilization didn't collapse then, either.

It's quite probable that many of us will die before our currently estimated statistical lifespan runs out, but it seems to me that this is a lot less important than how we use the time we have. We all die sooner or later anyway, and mere quantity of life is not necessarily the factor that matters.

More generally, I disagree completely with your claim that what we're facing is historically unprecedented. Civilizations fall all the time; it's one of the things they're best at. Ours is a bit bigger and more complex than past examples, but it's showing every sign of following the familiar curve into the compost heap of history.

Every argument I've seen for a sudden collapse relies on treating worst case scenarios as the only option, and assuming that nobody anywhere will take measures to deal with crises as they unfold. That's no more realistic now than it was in the runup to Y2K -- and you might want to go back and read the strident claims from that period, rehashing the fallacy that overnight collapse was inevitable.

As far as what people might want to do in the immediate future, I've discussed that many, many times on this blog. Start with this post on ten initial steps and read from there. I plan on writing a book on the subject in the not too distant future, and first drafts will be appearing here, natch.

Farfetched, absolutely -- there will be technofixes. They won't make peak oil go away, but they may make it a lot more livable. I'm partial to solar hot water heaters, amateur radio communication nets, local railroads, and composting toilets, among many other things. Once we accept that the 11th hour has come and gone, we can start thinking about what to do about the realities of our situation, and much can still be done.

RAS, yes, your generation got a bum deal, and the one that comes on your heels has a worse one waiting for it. I suspect that the epitaph on my Baby Boom generation's collective tombstone will amount to "They inherited so much; they left so little."

Weaseldog, given that the depletion curve works out to 2-4% once you factor in new energy sources, and most of that 95% of energy we'll eventually have to do without is wasted, I think we can manage it. As I've argued elsewhere, the process by which the industrial age comes apart may take about as long as the process by which it built itself up, and that leaves plenty of room for adaptation.

That doesn't mean there won't be crises, disasters, and a lot of human suffering; it does mean that those who learn to get by on a lot less energy will be in a much better position. I've lived without electricity, central heating, and running water, and still had quite a decent quality of life; I submit that a lot of Americans, in particular, could do without 75% or more of the energy they use daily and discover that their life was actually improved by the loss. That's another reason why I don't buy the catastrophic implications of peak oil.

Dzed, both the biofuel applications you mention were, IIRC, explored in the 70s; you can't support an American middle class lifestyle with them, but short of that they're very much worth developing. Not surprised to hear that everybody's talking about big wind projects -- I hope you can get the training you need to develop more realistic projects despite that bias.

Time to crash -- I've got another post to write tomorrow, after all.

Bill Pulliam said...

In reference to the (long) decline. JMG said:

"That doesn't mean there won't be crises, disasters, and a lot of human suffering"

Recall also that there have been plenty of all these during the great "Golden Age" blossoming of civililization during the era of abundant cheap energy. These are simply facts of human existence, with which we will continue to deal as we have for the last few hundreds of millenia. Wars, famines, plagues, scarcity, these are not new things under the sun. They are among the oldest things in the time span of human existence.

On the flip side, just as there has bee much human suffering even during the "boom," we can count on their continuing to be much human triumph and joy even during the "bust." Art, scholarship, exploration, literature, sport, invention and ingenuity, celebrations and ceremonies; these are also ancient and tenacious things.

Weaseldog said...

Yes Michael, things may slow down in a somewhat rational and deliberate way. But I don't think that is a sure bet.

Water is a serious problem that is masked by cheap energy. In a few short years, Las Vegas is going to be running out of ground water. When that happens, the whole ecosystem in the region will die. Currently, because the water table has dropped so low, they have to pump water just to keep the streams and rivers refilled. Its a law... But who's going to pay for that to continue, when water becomes too rare and expensive, to even keep sin city going?

The D/FW Metroplex has a poisoned water table. Without chemical treatments and pumping stations, we have no water. If you drink the well water, you'll suffer liver and kidney failure from all of the fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides in it.

Our agriculture is of course, heavily dependant on pumped water.

Now I agree that individually all such problems have solutions. But Peak Oil means that they will all need solutions at the same time.

Though there could well be a rosy outlook to all of this, there aren't any historical perspectives that can provide one. You argue that this collapse is not unprecedented. But there is one thing different this time. When the civilization begins to fail, it will be failing everywhere at the same time. There will be no place to go. For the first time in history, there will be no place that can absorb the refugees. No greener pastures for billions of of people to walk to.

I fear that Africa is our model for the collapse. The people there, really have no better place to go to. Now, at the moment, Africa is made worse, because the First world steals their food and worsens their problems in many, many ways (See Darwin's Nightmare). But It can't see the situation there improving until the population has resettled at a much lower level.

After all this, consider that even if the worse predictions of war and pestilence come true, then this is just a brief blip in our history. We very likely will survive as a species, and begin evolving and differentiating again, on the other side of the bottleneck.

You and I agree, our purpose here is not to maximize our quantity. Even so, boom and bust cycles actually limit our quantity, as each recovery tends to be smaller. A steady state over a long period of time, has the potential of producing more souls, for those who feel that maximizing the quantity of humans, is more important than the quality of life.

I have no crystal ball. but I do like your scenario. Let's see what happens after Bush starts bombing Iran and kicks off WWIII.

Panidaho said...

Our fearless leader seems to be worried only about a few things: What kind of speaking fees he can earn when he leaves office, whether Petreaus can sell Bush's war and when can we get the war on Iran rolling.

There's nary a whimper from the top levels of government (Except the Pentagon), as to preparations for Peak Oil.

Unfortunately, I also see very little obvious preparation - so litte that I am beginning to wonder if "Bush's War" and the possible impending war with Iran are not our government's main plan for dealing with Peak Oil. That and sucking Central and South America dry of whatever energy resources they can provide. It's what Heinberg calls "Last Man Standing" and frankly, the thought of it makes me ill. Like some sort of bloated energy vampire, we appear to be maneuvering our way into being able to maintain our wasteful and unsustainable lifestyle longer by draining the life of others.

RAS said...

JMG, agreed. I vacillate back and forth over whether or not I ever want to have children. On the one hand, I don't want to bring children into a world where they will face head on all that's coming. On the other, if we give up, stop having kids, and stop going on, what's the point?

Heather said...

Thank you for your fascinating post. I have linked to it here:


Raymond said...

There was a boy that cried wolf … and he cried … and he cried.

In the film “Se7en” we are told by Detective Lieutenant Somerset that “apathy IS a solution”. As disturbing as that film is, this statement maybe the most disturbing part of all because, I think, there’s a definite possibility that apathy may be the ONLY solution available to us. John Doe got it wrong however. I’m sure that no one from that parallel world cared what he did and for good reason. He had far too much competition. There’s ALWAYS a boy crying wolf.

The average person sees between 400 and 600 ads PER DAY-that is 40 million to 50 million by the time s/he is 60 years old. (

So, in accordance with another film, “Minority Report”, …”Hey! John Michael Greer! Wouldn’t you love a cold Monster-Cola right about now?”.

I imagine that most people accept the validity of Global Warming and Peak Oil. Like acne, obesity, domestic violence and the imminent destruction caused by that “next mass-extinction event” we all, I’m sure, accept the reality of this in much the same way that we accept the realty behind the need for a bright smile, fresh breath and that new car. Yet, I expect that we believe the latter to a greater extent than the former. We are of course conditioned to believe it. In fact, I would say that we are conditioned TO BELIEVE (and, equally, to BELIEVE-NOT [just another belief]). I perceive apathy (that is, MASS-APATHY in its present form) to be a symptom of a rejection of conditioning. In this sense it’s a rejection of conditioning that has exceeded our capacity to BE INFLUENCED. As such it would seem to me that apathy is a solution to survival in our modern, commercial world. It is the only way, short of isolation, to create a barrier between my CONDITIONED mind and the “psychic stew” of the outside world continuously crying wolf.

I do suppose that all this sounds pessimistic. Unfortunately, I can’t find another way of getting to a core understanding of the overwhelming state of apathy in the world. Clearly, a commercial existence has developed through the interplay of an uncountable number of actors and, like any innovation, we simply can’t anticipate the manner in which this innovation plays out. It is interesting though how nearly all the many facets of the innovation seem to come together in a manner so thoroughly destructive of itself. It suggests to me that the “commercial world” innovation, as it has developed, is a very unsuccessful adaptation. Still, can’t we please keep the internet?