Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Why the Peak Oil Movement Failed

As I glance back across the trajectory of this blog over the last ten and a half years, one change stands out. When I began blogging in May of 2006, peak oil—the imminent peaking of global production of conventional petroleum, to unpack that gnomic phrase a little—was the central theme of a large, vocal, and tolerably well organized movement. It had its own visible advocacy organizations, it had national and international conferences, it had a small but noticeable presence in the political sphere, and it showed every sign of making its presence felt in the broader conversation of our time.

Today none of that is true. Of the three major peak oil organizations in the US, ASPO-USA—that’s the US branch of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, for those who don’t happen to be fluent in acronym—is apparently moribund; Post Carbon Institute, while it still plays a helpful role from time to time as a platform for veteran peak oil researcher Richard Heinberg, has otherwise largely abandoned its former peak oil focus in favor of generic liberal environmentalism; and the US branch of the Transition organization, formerly the Transition Town movement, is spinning its wheels in a rut laid down years back. The conferences ASPO-USA once hosted in Washington DC, with congresscritters in attendance, stopped years ago, and an attempt to host a national conference in southern Pennsylvania fizzled after three years and will apparently not be restarted.

Ten years ago, for that matter, opinion blogs and news aggregators with a peak oil theme were all over the internet. Today that’s no longer the case, either. The fate of the two most influential peak oil sites, The Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin, is indicative. The Oil Drum simply folded, leaving its existing pages up as a legacy of a departed era.  Energy Bulletin, for its part, was taken over by Post Carbon Institute and given a new name and theme as Resilience.org. It then followed PCI in its drift toward the already overcrowded environmental mainstream, replacing the detailed assessment of energy futures that was the staple fare of Energy Bulletin with the sort of uncritical enthusiasm for an assortment of vaguely green causes more typical of the pages of Yes! Magazine.

There are still some peak oil sites soldiering away—notably Peak Oil Barrel, under the direction of former Oil Drum regular Ron Patterson.  There are also a handful of public figures still trying to keep the concept in circulation, with the aforementioned Richard Heinberg arguably first among them. Aside from those few, though, what was once a significant movement is for all practical purposes dead. The question that deserves asking is simple enough: what happened?

One obvious answer is that the peak oil movement was the victim of its own failed predictions. It’s true, to be sure, that failed predictions were a commonplace of the peak oil scene. It wasn’t just the overenthusiastic promoters of alternative energy technologies, who year after year insisted that the next twelve months would see their pet technology leap out of its current obscurity to make petroleum a fading memory; it wasn’t just their exact equivalents, the overenthusiastic promoters of apocalyptic predictions, who year after year insisted that the next twelve months would see the collapse of the global economy, the outbreak of World War III, the imposition of a genocidal police state, or whatever other sudden cataclysm happened to have seized their fancy.

No, the problem with failed predictions ran straight through the movement, even—or especially—in its more serious manifestations. The standard model of the future accepted through most of the peak oil scene started from a set of inescapable facts and an unexamined assumption, and the combination of those things produced consistently false predictions. The inescapable facts were that the Earth is finite, that it contains a finite supply of petroleum, and that various lines of evidence showed conclusively that global production of conventional petroleum was approaching its peak for hard geological reasons, and could no longer keep increasing thereafter.

The unexamined assumption was that geological realities rather than economic forces would govern how fast the remaining reserves of conventional petroleum would be extracted. On that basis, most people in the peak oil movement assumed that as production peaked and began to decline, the price of petroleum would rise rapidly, placing an increasingly obvious burden on the global economy. The optimists in the movement argued that this, in turn, would force nations around the world to recognize what was going on and make the transition to other energy sources, and to the massive conservation programs that would be needed to deal with the gap between the cheap abundant energy that petroleum used to provide and the more expensive and less abundant energy available from other sources. The pessimists, for their part, argued that it was already too late for such a transition, and that industrial civilization would come apart at the seams.

As it turned out, though, the unexamined assumption was wrong. Geological realities imposed, and continue to impose, upper limits on global petroleum production, but economic forces have determined how much less than those upper limits would actually be produced. What happened, as a result, is that when oil prices spiked in 2007 and 2008, and then again in 2014 and 2015, consumers cut back on their use of petroleum products, while producers hurried to bring marginal petroleum sources such as tar sands and oil shales into production to take advantage of the high prices. Both those steps drove prices back down. Low prices, in turn, encouraged consumers to use more petroleum products, and forced producers to shut down marginal sources that couldn’t turn a profit when oil was less than $80 a barrel; both these steps, in turn, sent prices back up.

That doesn’t mean that peak oil has gone away. As oilmen like to say, depletion never sleeps; each time the world passes through the cycle just described, the global economy takes another body blow, and the marginal petroleum sources cost much more to extract and process than the light sweet crude on which the oil industry used to rely. The result, though, is that instead of a sudden upward zoom in prices that couldn’t be ignored, we’ve gotten wild swings in commodity prices, political and social turmoil, and a global economy stuck in creeping dysfunction that stubbornly refuses to behave the way it did when petroleum was still cheap and abundant. The peak oil movement wasn’t prepared for that future.

Granting all this, failed predictions aren’t enough by themselves to stop a movement in its tracks. Here in the United States, especially, we’ve got an astonishing tolerance for predictive idiocy. The economists who insisted that neoliberal policies would surely bring prosperity, for example, haven’t been laughed into obscurity by the mere fact that they were dead wrong; au contraire, they’re still drawing their paychecks and being taken seriously by politicians and the media. The pundits who insisted at the top of their lungs that Britain wouldn’t vote for Brexit and Donald Trump couldn’t possibly win the US presidency are still being taken seriously, too. Nor, to move closer to the activist fringes, has the climate change movement been badly hurt by the embarrassingly linear models of imminent doom it used to deploy with such abandon; the climate change movement is in deep trouble, granted, but its failure has other causes.

It was the indirect impacts of those failed predictions, rather, that helped run the peak oil movement into the ground. The most important of these, to my mind, was the way that those predictions encouraged people in the movement to put their faith in the notion that sometime very soon, governments and businesses would have to take peak oil seriously. That’s what inspired ASPO-USA, for example, to set up a lobbying office in Washington DC with a paid executive director, when the long-term funding for such a project hadn’t yet been secured. On another plane, that’s what undergirded the entire strategy of the Transition Town movement in its original incarnation: get plans drawn up and officially accepted by as many town governments as possible, so that once the arrival of peak oil becomes impossible to ignore, the plan for what to do about it would already be in place.

Of course the difficulty in both cases was that the glorious day of public recognition never arrived. The movement assumed that events would prove its case in the eyes of the general public and the political system alike, and so made no realistic plans about what to do if that didn’t happen. When it didn’t happen, in turn, the movement was left twisting in the wind.

The conviction that politicians, pundits, and the public would be forced by events to acknowledge the truth about peak oil had other consequences that helped hamstring the movement. Outreach to the vast majority that wasn’t yet on board the peak oil bandwagon, for example, got far too little attention or funding. Early on in the movement, several books meant for general audiences—James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency and Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over are arguably the best examples—helped lay the foundations for a more effective outreach program, but the organized followup that might have built on those foundations never really happened. Waiting on events took the place of shaping events, and that’s almost always a guarantee of failure.

One particular form of waiting on events that took a particularly steep toll on the movement was its attempts to get funding from wealthy donors. I’ve been told that Post Carbon Institute got itself funded in this way, while as far as I know, ASPO-USA never did. Win or lose, though, begging for scraps at the tables of the rich is a sucker’s game.  In social change as in every other aspect of life, who pays the piper calls the tune, and the rich—who benefit more than anyone else from business as usual—can be counted on to defend their interest by funding only those activities that don’t seriously threaten the continuation of business as usual. Successful movements for social change start by taking effective action with the resources they can muster by themselves, and build their own funding base by attracting people who believe in their mission strongly enough to help pay for it.

There were other reasons why the peak oil movement failed, of course. To its credit, it managed to avoid two of the factors that ran the climate change movement into the ground, as detailed in the essay linked above—it never became a partisan issue, mostly because no political party in the US was willing to touch it with a ten foot pole, and the purity politics that insists that supporters of one cause are only acceptable in its ranks if they also subscribe to a laundry list of other causes never really got a foothold outside of certain limited circles. Piggybacking—the flipside of purity politics, which demands that no movement be allowed to solve one problem without solving every other problem as well—was more of a problem, and so, in a big way, was pandering to the privileged—I long ago lost track of the number of times I heard people in the peak oil scene insist that this or that high-end technology, which was only affordable by the well-to-do, was a meaningful response to the coming of peak oil.

There are doubtless other reasons as well; it’s a feature of all things human that failure is usually overdetermined. At this point, though, I’d like to set that aside for a moment and consider two other points. The first is that the movement didn’t have to fail the way it did. The second is that it could still be revived and gotten back on a more productive track.

To begin with, not everyone in the peak oil scene bought into the unexamined assumption I’ve critiqued above. Well before the movement started running itself into the ground, some of us pointed out that economic factors were going to have a massive impact on the rates of petroleum production and consumption—my first essay on that theme appeared here in April of 2007, and I was far from the first person to notice it. The movement by that time was so invested in its own predictions, with their apparent promise of public recognition and funding, that those concerns didn’t have an impact at the time. Even when the stratospheric oil price spike of 2008 was followed by a bust, though, peak oil organizations by and large don’t seem to have reconsidered their strategies. A mid-course correction at that point, wrenching though it might have been, could have kept the movement alive.

There were also plenty of good examples of effective movements for social change from which useful lessons could have been drawn. One difficulty is that you won’t find such examples in today’s liberal environmental mainstream, which for all practical purposes hasn’t won a battle since Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act. The struggle for the right to same-sex marriage, as I’ve noted before, is quite another matter—a grassroots movement that, despite sparse funding and strenuous opposition, played a long game extremely well and achieved its goal. There are other such examples, on both sides of today’s partisan divide, from which useful lessons can be drawn. Pay attention to how movements for change succeed and how they fail, and it’s not hard to figure out how to play the game effectively. That could have been done at any point in the history of the peak oil movement. It could still be done now.

Like same-sex marriage, after all, peak oil isn’t inherently a partisan issue. Like same-sex marriage, it offers plenty of room for compromise and coalition-building. Like same-sex marriage, it’s a single issue, not a fossilized total worldview like those that play so large and dysfunctional a role in today’s political nonconversations. A peak oil movement that placed itself squarely in the abandoned center of contemporary politics, played both sides against each other, and kept its eyes squarely on the prize—educating politicians and the public about the reality of finite fossil fuel reserves, and pushing for projects that will mitigate the cascading environmental and economic impacts of peak oil—could do a great deal to  reshape our collective narrative about energy and, in the process, accomplish quite a bit to make the long road down from peak oil less brutal than it will otherwise be.

I’m sorry to say that the phrase “peak oil,” familiar and convenient as it is, probably has to go.  The failures of the movement that coalesced around that phrase were serious and visible enough that some new moniker will be needed for the time being, to avoid being tarred with a well-used brush. The crucial concept of net energy—the energy a given resource provides once you subtract the energy needed to extract, process, and use it—would have to be central to the first rounds of education and publicity; since it’s precisely equivalent to profit, a concept most people grasp quickly enough, that’s not necessarily a hard thing to accomplish, but it has to be done, because it’s when the concept of net energy is solidly understood that such absurdities as commercial fusion power appear in their true light.

It probably has to be said up front that no such project will keep the end of the industrial age from being an ugly mess. That’s already baked into the cake at this point; what were once problems to be solved have become predicaments that we can, at best, only mitigate. Nor could a project of the sort I’ve very roughly sketched out here expect any kind of overnight success. It would have to play a long game in an era when time is running decidedly short. Challenging? You bet—but I think it’s a possibility worth serious consideration.

***********************
In other news, I’m delighted to announce the appearance of two books that will be of interest to readers of this blog. The first is Dmitry Orlov’s latest, Shrinking the Technosphere: Getting a Grip on the Technologies that Limit Our Autonomy, Self-Sufficiency, and Freedom. It’s a trenchant and thoughtful analysis of the gap between the fantasies of human betterment through technological progress and the antihuman mess that’s resulted from the pursuit of those fantasies, and belongs on the same shelf as Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society and my After Progress: Religion and Reason in the Twilight of the Industrial Age. Copies hot off the press can be ordered from New Society here.

Meanwhile, Space Bats fans will want to know that the anthology of short stories and novellas set in the world of my novel Star’s Reach is now available for preorder from Founders House here. Merigan Tales is a stellar collection, as good as any of the After Oil anthologies, and fans of Star’s Reach won’t want to miss it.

231 comments:

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Larry Menkes cSBA said...

Good work! I was never too invested in creating a Transition Town but Hopkin's points on sustainability translate easily. I think the" stealth" model for transition can work when positioned inside local government, as I am. I've been advocating this as an issue of fiscal responsibility. I use the Lawrence Livermore figures for wasted energy in the US economy (61% - 86%) to argue for ending energy waste. As a nationally certified Sustainable Building Advocate and trained energy auditor I generally know where to look for energy waste. The Township Supervisors and other political leaders are very vulnerable to charges of fiscal irresponsibility. In my township we waste over 50% (easily achievable) of our building energy and can save $250,000/yr. Even so, it can be a long process and requires patience and an understanding of family systems process and the addictions model.

Ed-M said...

JMG,

Well your wife didn't miss much -- it was just the Peruvian Naked Chef.

NomadicBeer said...

PRIZM - about christianity and Paul. Reading Paul's letters in the Bible (and getting some context from other sources) almost ruined Jesus for me (note: I am not a believer). The gospels are amazing - I could see someone great even through all the discrepancies and contradictions.
But Paul was just a salesman that got rid of the group of altruistic hippies that were the apostles and replaced them with a ruthless business.

I guess that explains the success of the religion, but at what price?

Kevin Warner said...

I am wondering if the subject of oil depletion has been relegated by most people to the same closet as the Millennium bug. Nothing to really show after all the fuss, fury and hype from all the predictions made. In any case, as all the trillions of dollars, pounds, euros printed after the 2008 financial crash to save the banks and financial institutions is still washing through the world's economy, totally distorting price discovery of resources like oil, it is impossible to price it to it's true worth. What should a tank full of petrol be worth?
It can be a hard sell to a lot of people to say to them that they can forget their holidays in Bali, rip up their backyard pool and entertainment area for food crops and ditch their latest digital toys, all for a cause whose effects are not really being seen by most people. I think a lot of people say why do this when my neighbours are still enjoying the good life? And for what? For something that they may not see in their lifetime? I don't say that I agree with this. But I can understand this attitude.

On a different note, I saw something the other day which gave me pause at https://www.rt.com/viral/370695-virtual-girlfriend-japan-gatebox/ in reference to where our technology is taking us. If you scroll down near the bottom, there is a short video that promotes this device. I have to say that as for myself, I found this video to be one of the most saddest and poignant that I have ever seen. Watch it for yourself.

Agent Provocateur said...

JMG,

I was listening to an interview of Michael Sandel (prof at Harvard) on CBC radio yesterday.

It appears his views on Trump and Brexit are fairly similar to yours. I can't say who has precedence.

Thought you might be interested.

Hubertus Hauger said...

With Dick Burkardt and JMG I agree, that we "... now need a "post-peak" movement focused on that bumpy ride, that volatility, and how to survive it. That's what "resilience" is all about, also "de-growth"."

We have already reached the limits of growth, whith that unavoidable "catabolic collapse" down the slope to a compulsory simplification of life. We are carried along already, ready or not!

We are getting resilient and do "shake-out" the burden of overload!

onething said...

Nastarana,

"For persons who are dismayed or offended by gay marriage: if you want young people to form families, they need to be able to support those families in some state other than miserable poverty. That means a lot of prices, starting with rent, need to come down. A long ways down, and that means a whole group of someones besides people who are already poor need to accept smaller returns on investment for the sake of the greater good. To put it in religious terms, we need to revive the notion of a just profit, as opposed to whatever the traffic will bear."

I would love to see this sort of idea gain traction. I doubt it really has much bearing on gay marriage, but I, for one, am tired of seeing the god of money go unchallenged. An example is the idea that corporations are to make money and that indeed if they had any other consideration at all, ever, under any circumstances, they would be acting immorally toward their shareholders. And that gets a bleak silence of agreement. I say not so! And especially not so if corporations are persons. Decency and various social values should always come before profit. Profit is the extra that might be yielded after every other consideration.

Patricia Mathews said...

Molly Loves Movies will probably tell you this, as she has told me, but the best way to sell what we have to do on the downside of Hubbard's Peak, is to emphasize the money-saving aspect of it.

PRiZM said...

NomadicBeer, you get tonight's gold star pointing out that being an altruistic hippie gets a movement no where! It's not until the movement starts making sales pitches that it gets off the ground. Likewise, following the path of KISS will get the movement nowhere. It's not that people don't want to give things up. They just don't want to change what has been working for them, and no amount of hard evidence will convince them otherwise. A little magic is needed to persuade them that they'll be rewarded for following the path of KISS. Our job, as disciples (just following the analogy, I'm not a believer either) is to find out what types of persuasion work, and which don't.

canon fodder said...

While the net energy concept is more useful than peak oil, it’s susceptible to accounting gimmicks. One set of net energy figures says solar electric is great, another says it’ll never break even. Then the discussion devolves in to a legalistic one as to what reasonably constitutes an input, assessing the energy costs of all the inputs, what timeframe we accrue the outputs, assumptions about energy production, etc. etc. It’s far too easy to get lost in the accounting minutia and lose sight of the essential discussion of what kind of civilization we can sustain at a particular net energy input.

The net energy analogy to profit is a good one, but look at the accounting of Enron or Worldcom (or much of the current SP500) and you can see just how flexible the concept of profit can be. I guess how you present the issue depends on the audience, and how cantankerous or pedantic they are.

One of the issues I have had when discussing peak oil is how intimately intertwined with every aspect of our civilization it is. Most people easily make the connection between oil prices and oil production, a result of the whole supply and demand concept that permeates American society. Likewise, it’s an easy transition to gasoline for cars. But where I see people’s eyes glaze over is when the impact on peak oil gets to agriculture (not the transportation, but production), clothing, medicine, and just about any mass consumer product. You rapidly go from a small problem with an easy solution - I’ll just drive less or ride my bike - to a huge one since oil drives our entire society. The trick of any future peak oil movement will be to break down the societal dependence into smaller chunks, and fashion the outreach programs on them, leaving the overall integration for later, if ever.

The other issue is what I call the third-rail of peak oil - population. The sad fact is a non-fossil fueled world cannot support the current human population. How do you advocate, educate, or motivate a global population reduction of at least 30% over the next 30-50 years? Theoretically, it’s easy - just have a birth-death ratio of about 99% - about a 5% reduction in what we currently have. But from an advocacy viewpoint, people treat you like a one-eyed purple people eater if you bring it up. Perhaps this is a problem that will sort itself out, like during the collapse of the Soviet Union where chunks of the population simply “opted-out” by various methods.

As you rightly said in your closing, we now face a predicament, not a problem. While people are going to demand solutions, the most we can offer are mitigations. I can definitely see a movement where we present the steps to climb down as the whole fossil fueled society ratchets down in systemic creative (and no so creative) destruction. Local/sustainable farming, energy conservation where possible, alternative energy where appropriate, reduction of consumable goods in favor of durable ones (cloth diapers), and other things quickly come to mind. The hard part will be keeping focus when the timeline is likely to exceed the lifetime of most people living today.

nuku said...

@Kevin Warner,
Re cost of oil: how much is a tank of petrol (gas to you Yanks) worth?
Here’s a seat-of-the-pants calculation based on human labor:
If your car gets 25 miles/gallon (which I think is kind of average) how many people would it take to PUSH that car with you in it for 25 miles and how long would that take? For argument’s sake, we’ll say the road is smooth, paved, and flat.
I figure it would take 6 strong people a minumum of 4 hours to get you from A to B. At minimum wage of US$7.25/hr that’s $174 per gallon!!! Is oil under-valued?
Is the Pope Catholic?
As JMG has said many times, oil is one of the most concentrated and dense energy sources available. It is a fracking incredible resource which we humans are recklessly plundering.

nuku said...

@Kevin Warner,
Re cost of oil: how much is a tank of petrol (gas to you Yanks) worth?
Here’s a seat-of-the-pants calculation based on human labor:
If your car gets 25 miles/gallon (which I think is kind of average) how many people would it take to PUSH that car with you in it for 25 miles and how long would that take? For argument’s sake, we’ll say the road is smooth, paved, and flat.
I figure it would take 6 strong people a minimum of 4 hours to get you from A to B. At minimum wage of US$7.25/hr that’s $174 per gallon!!! Is oil under-valued?
Is the Pope Catholic?
As JMG has said many times, oil is one of the most concentrated and dense energy sources available. It is a fracking incredible resource which we humans are recklessly plundering.
I agree that for most people, any change of lifestyle in the direction of living with LESS will not occur until they are forced into it. Humans are temperamentally short-sighted.

nuku said...

@William21,
With respect, the topic you have raised has been covered by JMG plus others in several iterations.

For starters, the hard calculations you want always involve many assumptions, and if you really want to be totally honest you need to trace out ALL the implications including the “externality trap” see ADR http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.co.nz/2015/02/the-externality-trap-or-how-progress.html

Give me your e-mail address and I can e-mail you a 66 page Word doc, very calculation-dense, footnoted study of all known alternative energy systems with regard to how they might power our “high energy civilization”. Have a read and then come back with your comments.

Re batteries: I did read on the web (it might have been cited by an ADR commentator a while back) a detailed study which looked at the theoretical possibility of a lithium battery big enough to power the world given present energy usage. Conclusion? Not even theoretically possible due to lack of energy density, conversion losses, and not enough lithium on the planet. Anybody have that link?

Of course there’s always the hope that “They’ll come up with something“.

Nastarana said...

Dear Patricia Matthews, I agree about emphasizing cost saving when questioned about one's eccentricities. I would add that, occasionally, it is possible to gently point out, or allow others to infer, that achievement, however small--start where you are with what you have--is a path to building and or regaining one's self respect.

Nastarana said...

Readers, and of course the author, of TAD are now all designated 'deplorables'.

http://charleshughsmith.blogspot.jp/2016/12/are-you-deplorable-take-this-quiz-to.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+google/RzFQ+(oftwominds)

A badge to wear with pride. I wonder how long it will be before someone markets the t-shirt, and someone else copyrites the word.

Rafiki56 said...

@William21 See http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/ for the answers ye seek.

Ben Johnson said...

@ Shane - OK that makes sense. Sounds like the KY GOP might be giving up on social issues, or at least they realize it don't get much traction these days. I do hope the trend continues.
Unfortunately, the OK GOP sounds a lot more reactionary/theocratic, and they won't bury the culture issues. As I said in my first comment, the voters' very reasonable (IMHO) rejection of the amendment getting rid of the separation of church and state clause, may be a sign that voters are rejecting social issues even if the politicians aren't.

Matthias Gralle said...

@Nastarana:
I am completely shocked every time I read about (US-) American libraries replacing books with electronics. I have never seen that in Germany, and I don't see it here in Canada (but I've only been here for a few months). Good libraries were what I most missed in Brazil, but then they didn't have free electronic access either.

American Herstory X said...

Hi John, I saw you missed a post last week -- I hope you are OK. (I'm sure you've gotten this message from a good number of your blog's fans). Anyway, have a beautiful Solstice. All my best wishes to you and your family. -Kimberly

Varun Bhaskar said...

David,

Added to the list!

Regards,

Varun

Martin B said...

I think there are two reasons for the demise of the peak Oil movement: 1) The oil price fell; and 2) There is considerable overlap with Climate Change activism.

As someone who used to get their daily dose of gloom from the old TOD (where I first read a sensible-sounding chap called John Michael Greer and wandered over to his website), I was as flabbergasted as most when the oil price fell so low and for so long. It wasn't supposed to happen like this! I blame the Saudis and their completely crazy idea (IMHO) to pump oil as fast as possible and sell it as cheap as possible, instead of dialing back the pumps and wallowing in the extra cash a higher oil price would bring.

The CC crowd would like to see fossil fuel power production phased out, as would the PO crowd, albeit for a slightly different reason. The big difference is how they would accomplish it. CCers by promoting energy alternatives, POers by promoting energy frugality. And unfortunately, wind turbines, solar panels and Teslas are sexier and less of a pain than insulating buildings, air-drying laundry, and riding bicycles.

Shane W said...

@cannon,
I can think of many ways in which we can change our attitudes towards human mortality that are low hanging fruit to get population down. Eliminating suicide prevention, addiction treatment, smoking cessation and anti-smoking programs are a good place to start. Developing less biophobic attitudes towards these predicaments could go a long way towards getting life expectancy down to more manageable levels. Looking at these things philosophically with a sense of fatalism or indifference could help. Not viewing every disease as needing a cure and thinking "if not for X, then what will people die of?" when people crusade for "curing" every imaginable disease is a good start. Simply surveying the vast cultural differences in attitudes towards disease and death and adopting a less biophobic one than the West would help. The Russians manage to be much more indifferent to smoking and drinking than the US. The third world is much more indifferent to disease and dying. It would really help if we viewed a lot of these things as predicaments and not problems in need of solving, and stopped getting so biophobically bent out of shape over them, and stopped trying to extend life as far as possible.
Regarding peak oil, one thing I think the US should have tried, but never probably will, is price controlling gasoline with a minimum price of say, $6-8/gal. or more, and investing the difference between the retail price of a gallon of gas and the cost to produce a gallon of gas, into conservation and less extravagantly wasteful transportation options. The same could be done for other fossil fuels, and should have been done starting in the 70s instead of the useless National Maximum Speed Limit. The only way to get people to change is to hit them in the pocketbook, and provide other alternatives (trains, transit, etc.)

Agent Provocateur said...

Onething et al,

Yes. You are right, "and bake the planet" was rhetorical overkill on my part. Perhaps "and lightly toast the planet" or "and warm the planet on both sides" would have been better.

What I was crudely trying to convey was that the unpleasant climate change results of "burning all the fossil fuels we can" will be whatever they are going to be regardless of the human timescale we do it in. From the perspective of geological time its all the same: 50 years or 150 years to burn it all are both a blip.

I understand JMG is attempting to kick the peak oil movement in its collective ass. To what end though? Most people won't change their lives much, mostly because they really can't and/or don't want to. The bulk of humanity will change only when they have to. Its like people's reaction to death. We all know we are going to die but we all live like we are going to live forever. As for death or repentance, yes, yes, yes ... but later.

The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put this nicely to the effect that we have to get those pipelines working to get all that dirty tar sands oil to market so we have a healthy economy to address climate change. So: yes, yes climate change ... but later. First we have to burn all the fossil fuels.

Of course I have a problem with this. But realistically, could he say or do anything else? The hope is not there.

Incidently, I expect a militant response concerning the proposed pipelines from the first nations community when push comes to shove. A friend of mine was the operations officer in the army unit sent to address the Oka crisis. The government of Quebec wanted the Canadian Army to "attack" the Mohawks who had taken possession of the land in question. When they were told "attack" means "kill", they backed down and the well orchestrated events that followed were the result of agreements to ensure all sides saved face and no one was killed. One hopes the same for the domestic oil conflicts to come. Oh ... the Mohawks won ... over a proposed golf course!

Perhaps the kick in the ass is intended to get governments to respond in a more appropriate way. I fear the more powerful governments of the world are all too aware of peak oil. The actions they have and are taking basically involve getting a lock on what's left. This is certainly not the action most in the movement would have hoped for, but can we say it was not foreseen and perfectly understandable?

The first consequence of governmental peak oil awareness has been war.

No one in the peak oil community who got the word out should feel guilty though. Its not your fault. But, realistically, did we think it would be otherwise?

Golocyte Golo said...

"It's unfair! It's unfair and you're harming us. There is no reason for it except bigotry, so stop it!"

Mr Greer gave us a great overview of the technical reasons why the PO movement failed. But there is another reason: PO is hard to understand unless you have education, patience, curiosity, and numeracy. Gay rights won because of the phrase above. It's better than easy to understand; it is impossible to misunderstand. *Nobody* gets EROEI, depletion rates, economic feedbacks, or Mr Greer's inspired theory of catabolic collapse without study. *Everybody* understands unfairness.

Peak oil will only survive as a niche study amongst intellectually energetic nerd types and pessimists *until* something as emotionally appealing and unmistakable as "it's unfair" can be found.

Here is the best I have, though admittedly it's not good at all: "We are in danger. Not this instant, not right now, but it's coming, and it's the most serious danger we've ever faced. We must unite to save the good of who we are."

What I'm about to say will sound disgusting to about half of you. We must claim (and believe) that we're trying to save Western Culture because we love it, and we want to preserve it's precious accomplishments.

A powerful repulsive force is the sense that many, many, many outsiders have that we secretly or not-so-secretly despise Western culture and think our society is the problem. Therefore, when we say something is going to wreck Western society unless we change, we are perceived as disingenuous at best, destructive liars at worst, and moral scolds in any case.

And now for a moment let me be the scold. The claims, deeply woven into the fabric of our movement, that the western world is the problem----that we are inherently destructive, inherently exploitative, that we are wealthy only because we stole it through colonialism, that we basically compare to the Mongols, etc---- WHETHER TRUE OR NOT will repel most people, and will prohibit formation of a large scale movement. If we have to convince people that their culture is basically wrong before they can fully join, they will sense poison and feel repulsion, and whether or not they can refute our arguments will be irrelevant.

Movements don't coalesce around good science. They coalesce around emotion. PO needs an emotional appeal that is both universal and impossible to misunderstand. We've got to find that appeal.

Larry N said...

Too late. The t-shirts are out. Example:

http://www.badideatshirts.com/Deplorables-For-America-T-Shirt-P3673.aspx

Sarenth said...

As someone who has struggled for years just to get his head above water and pay down some debts, the largest barrier to entering a more influential part of the Peak Oil Movement was simply money. Most of the long-term ways of addressing Peak Oil that I have known or had the ability to look to in the future involved investing a decent amount of it.

So, my wife and I spent much of the last few years learning what we could, whether it is crafts such as crochet (her) and leatherwork and woodwork (myself), and both of us working in the family garden. We also took classes on timber framing and building with cob. So the skill set has expanded, slowly, over the years.

We've both settled on the kind of land we are looking for, preferring to stay close to our jobs and families if able, and taking up abandoned farmland or a home with acreage.

We want to demonstrate the hope of living in a post-petroleum future. I think, more than anything, the biggest problem I have had in trying to explain what a post-petroleum future looks like is that ready examples of good, healthy living in such a way were quite scarce on the ground. It's easier now that more folks have come forward and are actively demonstrating it, getting classes into our universities and working to spread the word by mouth if nothing else.

We're not quite to the point of buying our own land, not without some help, though we finally have the means to tackle that project in the long term. So here's to hope, to hard work, and to the plan panning out.

Sarenth said...

Another skill both my wife and I have picked up is brewing. For the moment we work with yeast grown specifically for mead making (our shared hobby/passion), though I would like to learn how to carry yeast through into life cycles so we can grow our own.

The problem, of course, is that the sources I go to look into this tend to say dismissive things like "It's so cheap to just buy the stuff." Of course it is. Mass transit and lab setups requiring lots of out-of-sight-out-of-mind inputs allow for that. It is a skill we would like to develop, all the same, with as low cost of inputs as possible as reliably as possible.

In the future we would like to do beekeeping and do more otherwise to complete the full life cycle of meadmaking and similar ventures in our own home/community. Resilience begins in small ways, and this is one we enjoy already.

Martin B said...

@nuku. You might have been thinking of "A Nation-Sized Battery" by Tom Murphy of Do The Math. He looked at building a lead-acid battery for the USA and concluded you would need 5 billion tons of lead.

Known world lead reserves are 80 million tons, about one sixtieth of the amount required for the USA alone.

http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/08/nation-sized-battery/

Unknown said...

@nuku, re $174/gallon value of gasoline:

I suspect if oil was actually that expensive, that people would lose their excuses for not riding bikes around everywhere. Your calculation reminds me of the reason for the name of the "22 billion energy slaves" website.

Tangent: Why do we call it "riding" a bike, vs "driving" a car? The verbs imply that one activity is far more passive than the other, when the opposite is true. Especially for a vehicular cyclist...

-Joel

Pantagruel7 said...

CounterPunch published an article on Brexit and the Culture of Progress by Paul Kingsnorth today. It's the first time I've seen Kingsnorth appear on CounterPunch.

Phil Harris said...

JMG
It might seem odd to think of an attempt to describe a complete mess as 'profound', but I am tempted to bring this comment of yours forward into next weeks discussion.

It gets my vote for profound quote:
"Chris, that's a hugely important point, of course. One of the basic rules of game theory is that you can only maximize one variable at a time; if you prioritize the biosphere, sooner or later you're going to have to accept less resilience, and if you prioritize resilience, sooner or later you're going to have to accept a worse outcome for the biosphere. Thus in the real world you end up making awkward compromises between a flurry of competing variables, none of which can be neglected but none of which can be given absolute priority. A real mess!"

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