Thursday, November 03, 2005

Three Peak Oil Meetings

The Energy Bulletin posted this article by Aaron Naparstek that helped me define the edges of the peak oil responses and consequently my own place among them. He discusses three events: the "Petrocollapse" Conference, the "Winning the Oil Endgame" town hall, and a NYC Oil Awareness Meetup group.

The Petrocollapse Conference took place in Manhattan on October 5 and it featured speakers such as Jan Lunberg, Michael Ruppert, and James Howard Kunstler. All three are pretty serious "doomers" on the peak oil spectrum and don't put much stock into policy solutions.

If Peak Oil theory is now mainstream, splashed across the front page of USA Today and the theme of Chevron and BP ad campaigns, then Petrocollapse is a secular, left-wing, non-fiction version of Tim LaHaye's Christian Apocalyptic "Left Behind" series. The gospel according to Petrocollapse is that Peak Oil is coming, and it's coming soon. The transition to the post-carbon world will not be gradual, it will be sudden and massive. And when it comes, the sinners--those profligate American consumers and the corporate whores who oversee them--will all be swept away in violent social turmoil, starvation and environmental disaster. But there's good news too. After the tumultuous mass die-off, a new society will arise from the burned out SUV hulks and melted plastic detritus. In this post-carbon world, humans will have no choice but to live sustainably, in cooperation with each other and in harmony with nature. Those who get religion and accept Peak Oil into their hearts soon enough--they may be among the lucky survivors whose children grow to live in this new and better world.
On the other hand, the next event was all about policy.

If the Petrocollapse conference was dominated by conspiracy theorists, then Winning the Oil Endgame" was the Conspiracy. Present on the dais were former CIA director James Woolsey, Mississippi Governor and former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, former Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Robert Altman and Amory Lovins, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Far from doom and gloom, the Endgame speakers were nearly united in their belief that it was both possible and desirable to keep finding fixes for America's energy Jones and to keep the American consumer machine rolling along using new technologies.
They promoted drilling, nuclear power, coal-fired electricity, natural gas and more efficient vehicles. Little mention was made of the "profound environmental problems and danger" of fossil fuels.

A third perspective was offered by a member of both audiences, Charles Komanoff, "who has been involved in the energy and environmental movements pretty much since they began in the early 1970's."

Komanoff acknowledges the possible validity of the Peak Oil analysis, but having heard similar End Times prophecies thirty years ago, he isn't allowing the Peak Oil argument to guide his work and activism. "I think there's an element of wishful thinking and that some Peak Oil adherents are looking for a deus ex machina to sweep away the disaster that is contemporary industrial civilization," he said. "And understandably so. Waiting for Peak Oil is so convenient, so much simpler, and so much more seductive than the hard work of organizing for social and ecological change."

Komanoff was also critical of the Endgame analysis. "There is a big dissonance between Amory's kind of chirpy optimism and actual realities on the ground and actual energy trends." Three decades after Lovins unveiled his revolutionary "soft energy path," Komanoff points out, the U.S. uses 25% more oil, burns 75% more coal and generates 35% more greenhouse gases than it did in the mid-1970s. Though a 66 mpg SUV is certainly more desirable than Detroit's current state of the art, Komanoff doesn't believe Lovins' hyper car project provides us with real answers for our global energy and environmental quandary because the project is "only about improving the fuel efficiency of the vehicle and does nothing about addressing the social and whole system efficiency of travel and mobility and community."
Finally, Naparstek looks at the NYC Oil Awareness Meetup group. This is the same network that I am involved with so I was particularly interested in how other groups are developing. They deal with the emotional component and have started a subgroup formed to help people get through the paralysis that learning about peak oil brings. Philosophically, they have broken into two approaches: "The Relocalizers believe New York City won't be viable in the age of Peak Oil and are looking for new places to live and new skills to live in a world without modern conveniences. The Sustainable New Yorkers are dedicated to educating and preparing the city for what they see as a lengthy and potentially tumultuous energy crisis."

Despite such dread, there is often a sense of action and possibility at the monthly meeting. Miner makes a point of emphasizing that there are things you can do to prepare for Peak Oil and people interested in doing them with you. At the Meetup, you aren't so much assaulted by the gloomy hopelessness that pervaded the Petrocollapse and Endgame conferences.

In my group, similar distinctions apply. As one member put it, there are "three possible scenarios for the P.O. future, and I can actually argue in support of each:"
1) Nothing Happens (Yergin): Things keep going smoothly (with maybe a slight bump in the road), alternative energy sources are identified in time and the economy will continue to grow at 4% indefinitely-business as usual. The Deniers say, "Everything is fine."

2) Soft Landing (Simmons): The energy crunch causes, at minimum, a recession or possibly a full-blown depression. The US has been through recessions before and will weather this one. A global depression may result as the US economy falters and consumers stop spending but in the end. "We'll tighten our belts and pull through somehow."

3) Hard Landing (Kunstler): The worst case scenario is an economic and social collapse-the stuff of doomsayers' dreams. "Oh shit."

Some Peakniks come in somewhere between 1 and 2, or between 2 and 3. The optimistic 1.5ers see a problem, but believe we can address it-they're the Organizers and Activists. 1.5ers will push for education, political action and programs like carpooling, bike lanes, public transportation, and tax credits for installing solar.

The 2.5ers are the Preparers; they're less optimistic and will be more concerned with readying for a stark, downscaled future-learning about farmsteading and food storage, getting off the grid, learning self defense.

The 3-or-worse crowd (the Survivalists or Apocalyptics) will start hoarding food, buying rural property and stockpiling ammunition like a survivalist. (NOTE: None of these generalizations are intended to be judgmental; everyone has to follow their own instincts.)
We found this to be an interesting starting point in identifying where each of us fell on the spectrum, and hope to create a group that can meet the needs of each.

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