|Yes, that's us. The Earth, photographed from a distance of 4 billion miles by Voyager, is the dot in the centre to the right. Do we look like masters of the universe?|
Wikipedia will tell you that peak oil is the theoretical point at which half of the world's oil reserves have been extracted. This is literally true, but it's not the whole story. Many people in the peak oil blogosphere spend inordinate amounts of time and mental energy trying to figure out how much oil or gas is left in various fields around the world and how much time we have left to do something (i.e. how much time we have left to do nothing).
To me, this is not what peak oil is about. I know, for example, that one day (God forbid) I am going to die. I don't spend much time trying to predict the exact date of my death, instead I just get on with living in the time allotted to me. My demise is not so much a problem that can be dealt with, but a predicament that I must live with. In the same way it seems to me that to focus so much on how much recoverable fossil fuel there is in the ground seems to be missing the point.
But I haven't always thought like this.
For me, the penny dropped in around 2009 when I read Thomas Homer Dixon's The Upside of Down. Here, for the first time, was someone talking about the ecological crises we face from an entirely different angle. Instead of evil corporations and politicians Homer Dixon took a broader view, looking at the history of empires, using Rome as an example of how civilizations begin to feed off themselves and eventually collapse. It occurred to me for the first time that I might be part of a civilization in decline.
Amazon.com, the next time I logged on, kindly said that if I liked Thomas Homer Dixon, I'd probably like John Michael Greer too. I put The Long Descent in my electronic basket and, a few days later, the book that would change my life forever arrived in my postbox. I eagerly read the jacket – at the top it read 'A harrowing but ultimately hopeful vision of the aftermath of the age of oil'. I read it cover to cover in a day.
Whoa! The book was a banquet for the mind – a true epiphany The concept of catabolic collapse was probably the most radical idea I had ever heard of. Of course, I had heard the term peak oil bandied around for years but it had always remained at the abstract level. Reading The Long Descent I suddenly found myself staring into a chasm, and it was far more frightening than any environmental apocalypse scenario I had considered before. Just who was this John Michael Greer and what gave him the right to such genius? I Googled him, expecting to uncover a picture of a mild-mannered but crumpled-looking academic with a neat centre parting standing in front of a Powerpoint presentation. Instead I was presented with a man with a long beard and wearing white robes standing in a megalithic stone circle like some real-life Merlin.
I was stunned. I found out that he was an American archdruid and had written books on spirituality, magic and science fiction. He did not seem to be possessed of a normal mind, so sharp and penetrating were his insights. All of the other non-fiction authors I had read to date paled by comparison.
But I was hungry for more, and sent off for more books. Richard Heinberg was next with The Party's Over and Peak Everything. Then came others. Michael C. Ruppert, Dmitry Orlov, James Howard Kunstler, Sharon Astyck – I devoured them all.
And every book I read seemed to spread out tentacles and demand that I read the works of other great minds. E.F. Schumacher, whose book Small is Beautiful was one of the core texts here (as is his Guide For The Perplexed), and eventually I got onto William R. Catton's Overshoot – the first book to seriously address human ecology back in the 1980s.
All of these writers addressed one simple fact – the peaking of world oil supplies, happening right about now. But what they went into in ever greater detail is the consequences of that peaking. Whole new worlds opened up before me. I found myself reading and thinking about this stuff practically every waking minute (and sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about it too). The realisation that we would not face a nice orderly transition to some other kind of fuel that would allow us to keep everyday life looking more or less like it does at the moment had hit me in the gut like a three hundred pound gorilla charging at me. The implications!
Up until then, my general reaction to the term peak oil was: so what? As anyone raised on a diet of environmental liberalism I despised oil for polluting the seas and heating the climate. Wars were fought over oil, river deltas poisoned and real-life J.R.Ewings existed just because of this sticky black goo. The sooner it was all gone then the sooner we could all drive electric cars powered by wind turbines!
But I had been missing the point all along.
I realised that I had become a peak oil Cassandra. Up until then I had always assumed I was an environmentalist. I felt I had been an environmentalist from the age of about six when I gazed at a shiny new plastic bucket in our garden and worried to myself that it seemed so … unnatural. From that point onwards I followed the familiar arc of learning and, attending a meeting with Jonathan Porritt when I was 18 made up my mind that, whatever I did in life, it had to involve saving the world somehow.
I failed miserably on that last bit, and despite doing all the greenie things such as recycling, experimenting with vegetarianism, working as a rainforest volunteer etc, etc, the gap between what I believed in and what I should actually be doing continued to widen. The great consumer culture boom that began in the 1980s was like a tsunami that carried everyone along on it and it was only possible to profess environmental views in polite society if it were done in the context of middle class green consumerist tokenism. Cognitive dissonance led to gnawing guilt and in the year 2000 I quit my well paid job as an energy trader – a job which I just seemed to have floated into like a stick being swept along on a river - and set off around the world for almost two years with my wife, living out of a backpack. Along the way I spent quite some time in Laos, and saw first hand how a nation could be stripped of its natural resources in the name of development.
When we came back we started a family and moved to Spain where I set up an environmental newspaper and renovated an old farmhouse with a view to becoming an organic farmer. This was all well and good and I appeared to be finally walking my green talk, but what I still did not appreciate was the fact that my whole way of life and the system we lived under was still vastly subsidised by fossil fuels. I laboured under the idea (propagated in my newspaper) that at some point people would 'wake up' and become environmentally conscious. I guess you could call it naïvety.
How do you explain to someone who considers themselves non-religious that the modern religion they have been indoctrinated with is scientific materialism wrapped up in the idea of progress? It is a bit like trying to explain the concept of wetness to a fish. I considered whether I was religious or not. Having been brought up to all intents and purposes an atheist, how could I possibly consider anything else?
But peak oil had taught me a lot about the way the world works. To plunge into the peak oil universe is to begin to grapple with everything from thermodynamics, macro economics and human ecology to mythology, sacred geometry and the true meaning of religion. I looked at the word religion again – it comes from the Latin and means 'a reattachment' to the universe that we are a part of. Anyone who seriously considers themselves as a separate entity from the universe should go on a long walk somewhere remote and have a good think.
I began to think in terms of energy and matter. We all live on a globe floating in space around a sun. All of our energy comes in the form of relatively weak and diffuse rays from that sun and the fact that we are gobbling our way through fossilised sunlight in the form of oil with no regard for the next generation or the life support systems of the planet that we have evolved to live on – the only planet we will ever live on - is a cause for some concern (to put it mildly). Since our grandfathers' grandfathers were babies we have used this windfall of energy recklessly to convert materials formed by nature into materials that only have value to mankind. Everything we have produced, from cars and factories to hand crafted violins and beautiful works of art is a form of pollution from the Earth's point of view. Every time they tell us on the news that the economy has grown a bit, that effectively means that the natural world has shrunk a bit.
But point this out to people and you will usually be met with a blank look, or worse. To suggest that the vast store of fossilised sunlight we have been gorging ourselves on for generations is coming to an end and that our societies, economies and psyches are utterly unprepared for it is to invite being called a doomer. Another thing one quickly learns via peak oil is that when confronted with perceived bad news we quickly revert to our base social primate 'see no evil …' selves.
If you want to find out for yourself try telling a few people the following points and check their reaction:
- In the future we won't have most of the medicines we rely on today
- In the future we won't build bases on the Moon or Mars
- In the future there will be no new energy sources that rival petroleum in their ability to power a vast industrial economy
- In the future there will be no point in having a pension
- In the future very few people will travel to foreign countries
In most instances the people who don't laugh and tell you to get a life will suggest instead that you should read up a bit on 'what's really going on'. A vast solar array covering the Sahara/Nevada Desert will power all of Europe/North America. New Thorium powered nuclear reactors will come online shortly and give us all the electricity we desire at virtually no cost. We'll grow algae in the sea and use it to make biodiesel. A big mirror in space will beam down energy straight to our smart grids.
In any case, there's no need to worry because the Arabs have masses of oil but they are hoarding it for themselves. The planet is actually full of oil but the evil corporate controlled media is keeping it a secret from us.
Those clever guys in the labs will think of something!
Quite often people won't be quite so polite when you suggest that humankind is subject to the same kind of limitations as other species and to say so is to invite foaming mouthed rhetoric spewed out angrily.
If you know people who say these things what they are doing is projecting their belief system onto you. They don't need any evidence that we are destiny's darlings (to borrow a phrase) or that the entire planet seems to have been formed just so that we could evolve into our present form and spend our time playing Angry Birds on our iPhones. They don't need any evidence because this is what most people choose to believe – and if enough people all believe something all together doesn't that make it come true?
Alas, no. We have but one planet and we are but one species amongst millions on its surface. Individually we are microscopic and insignificant. We have a great capacity for destruction, but also a great capacity for creativity. We have never really got over our monkey mindedness, which is a shame because that would have been quite useful in our current situation. “What's a smart species like us doing in a predicament like this?” asked the Italian peak oil writer Ugo Bardi a few weeks ago.
Still, if all of the above sounds like bad news, then there is good news as well. Like all people in a state of denial (and I am including British environmentalists George Monbiot and Mark Lynas here), it can be tough to face up to reality. But once you have done so things become easier. To study and become viscerally aware of the implications of our looming energy descent naturally leads to questioning about what we can do about it. This is the good part, because it involves empowering yourself. Growing your own food, building stronger relationships, quitting the soul destroying cubicle job, insulating your home and stepping off the debt treadmill are just some of the overwhelmingly positive things we can all do. You can get involved with your local Transition movement and get a hold of Rob Hopkins' Transition Handbook. You can brew your own beer, make your own soap, write your own songs and decide never to watch the X Factor again.
These are some of the things that I focus on on a daily basis. An awareness of peak oil - lets call ourselves peaksters - provides us with insights into the nature of our predicament – it's going to be a rough ride down the far side of Hubbert's peak, but we can either rise to the challenge as individuals, families and groups, or we can keep our heads in the sand and allow ourselves to be buffeted around by the forces of chaos as the entire system we have built our lives into begins to come apart at the seams.
The choice, as they say, is ours.