Peak Oil is You

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Page added on February 10, 2012

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My Decade of Being “Peak Oil Aware”

General Ideas

Science Magazine just published a great article about peak oil, and I realized it’s been exactly a decade since I became “peak oil aware.” 9/11 had just happened, and to try and understand the world I did something I wasn’t, as an American, supposed to do — I listened to Osama bin Laden and his complaints to try and understand why these attacks on my country had happened. It turns out I found them pretty legitimate. That is, I agreed with his reasons for being angry, but certainly not his method of killing civilians. Even if a percentage of those civilians could be considered “guilty” for their complicity in advancing American hegemony, death without trial was certainly not an acceptable punishment.

Instead it was his complaint about the permanent stationing of U.S. troops on Saudi soil that resonated. It was not hard for me to imagine being so pissed off if the situation were reversed, and Saudi troops were permanently stationed on U.S. soil, that I would join some rebel campaign against them. Patriotism, mixed with empathy, allowed me to understand the attacks from Al Qaeda’s perspective. Granted those two emotions rarely join hands, but somehow I was able to fuse them enough to understand the motive for the attacks even if I abhorred the results.

So, why were American troops permanently stationed on Saudi soil? It certainly wasn’t to defend freedom and democracy. There was only one answer — oil. So I started to read about oil, and quickly came across a recently published book by Kenneth Deffeyes titled Hubbert’s Peak. In it he explained something that I’d intuitively known for a long time but had never intellectually grasped — oil is a finite resource, and will begin, at some point, to decline in production. Not stop flowing, and this is key, but simply to slow, stagnate, then decline. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in Economics, my first instinct was to not seriously worry — higher prices would mean more production. But I was also a grounded soul — a carpenter and a gardener who understood that if there’s a pile of rocks and you keep hauling increasing amounts of them away every day, eventually you’ll reach diminishing returns. In terms of oil, the energy lifeblood of our economy, this implied an inflection point — a peak.

Deffeyes estimated this peak to occur between 2004 and 2008, and used graphs and solid math to back it up. I bought it. A young man in my mid-20s, recently married and starting out in life, I felt that the assumptions guiding the world around me were built on a rotten foundation. Economic growth fueled by never-ending increases in consumption by an ever-expanding population on a planet that from all I could tell was staying the same exact size, was an outright impossibility. Oil price spikes and world-wide economic crises had the potential to wipe out civilization as we knew it. I freaked out.

It’s been a long haul since then. I’m no longer married, for instance. Some of what I thought would happen came to pass. Most of it did not… or has not yet anyways. You don’t change civilization on a dime, even though that’s what I wanted to have happen when I dove into the sustainability movement and became heavily involved with renewable energy, edible landscaping, and all things local. I figured out a while back that the problem isn’t peak oil, or global climate disruption, or peak anything else. And it isn’t us. Humanity isn’t inherently evil.

It’s our attitude and the expectations that come with it that are the problem. Being the first species (but hopefully not the last) to evolve to the point of having an extremely powerful combination of intelligence and manual dexterity means we have the capacity to remake the world, literally from the ground up. We can do this in the way we’ve been doing it, and probably destroy almost every other species on the planet. But we also have the opposite potential — to take this garden of Eden we were granted by luck or design and coax it along into an ever-increasing diversity of life and abundance. To accomplish this we need to come to the epiphany that we are an integral part of nature and do not stand in opposition to it, and from there we need to rearrange our behaviors and expectations so that we enjoy the fruits of this new relationship. That is, rather than gaining our satisfaction by consuming nature, we need to learn (or rather relearn) how to gain our satisfaction from the gifts that nature gives freely and sustainably — healthy and delicious local food, energy from renewable resources, meaningful relationships with members of our local community, and spiritual connections with our surrounding environment, to name a few.


11 Comments on "My Decade of Being “Peak Oil Aware”"

  1. cusano on Fri, 10th Feb 2012 11:55 pm 

    Unfortunately, we can’t get along.

  2. BillT on Sat, 11th Feb 2012 2:39 am 

    When we were hunter/gatherers, we were part of nature. When we realized that we could plant the food we needed, we took the path to today. But, if Mother Nature has her way, we will soon be back to hunter/gatherers again. A few hundred thousand scattered over a battered world.

  3. kervennic on Sat, 11th Feb 2012 3:47 am 


    I have sympathy for your primitivist view, but there is no way we can survive all of us without some agriculture for a while, (and fortunately a smarter one like agroecology and developement of fish ponding, productive wet land instead of drained and so on).

    But this said, agriculture was only possible because of the use of superior violence to maintain arbitrary property of land (which is theft made legal). In a chaotic world as the coming one, agriculture may not be possible at all and we will massively die. So you are wrong when sayingt that “we” will be hunter gatherers. We’ll be dead meat in 20 years if the trend unfold “naturally”.

    There is a way, though, the gracchius method: seize the land and distribute it equally among those who actually work without oil.

    Yet the gracchius failed: they got murdered and though having popular approval, they did not apparently get popular actual support. People got scared or entertained.

    This could succeed this time if some people would get motivated to fight fiercely to get and keep their land from a weakened civilisation. In a word learn to replace state or civilisation violence by individual and cooperative self defence against those who like to have other feeding them. and are the driving force to centralisation, class division and when energy is scarce, hardcore slavery.

    That is a new concept, putting an end to human domestication. Until now people have accepted to get defended and pacified by their masters, just like sheeps by the shepherds, to get jobs, to get food all by miracle (and obedience)…

    And they are surprised that the shepherds are fooling them… that is their role in the civilisation scheme, and they will continue to do so as long as people are ready to work for them.

  4. BillT on Sat, 11th Feb 2012 4:27 am 

    Kerv…again we agree to disagree. But, there is no way, using ANY now unused land/water to produce crops, that is going to work. Like all animal species, when we exceed our resources, we will die off in huge numbers quickly. Most soil will NOT support any farming because it is dead, has been leached / eroded to the point that it would be like trying to grow plants in sand.

    Fish farms? Nope! They are self destructive and will not produce enough to off set the loss from the oceans.

    You might buy some land (the only way you will get it in today’s world) and improve the soil while there are still the resources to do it, but when the crunch comes, you better be ready to defend it with your life. Even hunter/gatherers fought for the resources they needed and eventually, the cultivated land that they passed down to their children. That kept the number of humans under control until we discovered that we could do more if we used oil and natural gas to enhance our ability to do everything.

    Now we have 7 billion on a planet that can only support maybe 1/10 of that many. So, the other 90% will die as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride the Earth over the next few decades.

  5. Timson on Sat, 11th Feb 2012 5:26 am 

    @ BillT
    I agree that human population could shrink to 1/10 but that’s still 700 million people and not a few hundred thousand as said in your first mail…
    And, unfortunately, it’s also true that you can live like there’s no tomorrow untill the last can of corned beef. And it goes down very very quickly fom there. There are numerous historic examples in both animal and human populations.

  6. Plantagenet on Sat, 11th Feb 2012 7:00 am 

    Bill T’s suggestion that “mother nature” will “have her way” and turn the human race back into hunter gatherers is silly. Mother nature doesn’t have an opinion—-mother nature doesn’t even exist. Clearly we are facing a crisis due to peak oil, but the crisis is at hand because humans are exceeding the carrying capacity of the earth, not because some imaginary magic spirit has got it in for us.

  7. BillT on Sat, 11th Feb 2012 9:36 am 

    Plant…”Mother Nature” is a metaphor for the system of life on the planet, not a ‘spirit’ and any intelligent person knows that. That system does not feel or think or go away, it just works. Be it lemmings, birds, or any living thing, when it exceeds it’s resources, it is killed off by natural events. In some cases, it is by disease, others by starvation, and sometimes by war over what resources are left. Or all three. Humans have exceeded the carrying capacity for decades and now we are going to find that there is no way to avoid the die-off.

  8. kervennic on Sat, 11th Feb 2012 2:00 pm 

    To all of you that are interested in this debate, I recommend to read about Zerzan and all the numerous so called civilisation critics. You may be know about them, otherwise look up on the net and a bit further.

    Zerzan is interesting because he is tackling a few fundamental questions, though one should not buy all of his thinking which has sometimes provocative claims. One major concept is domestication and the denaturation of human soul. There is an ongoing conflict in recent human history between what we are forced to be via our material conditions that enabled us to be so numerous (agriculture, cities, promiscuity, containment, work, division of work …) and our mental biological state that evolved during 100 000 of years as egalitarian hunter gatherers with little work division and the posiblity to split from native bands.

    Because of our need to survive in such unpleasant conditions (compare to the eden civilised people, who were not as healthy and loafers as we are today, could face when meeting remaining hunter gatherers tribe), we accepted to be self domesticated, have powerfull chiefs and military structures and obey from birth to death. This domesticatioin comes at a continual price of moral pain. For Freudian, this pain is a sickness. In fact it is a perfectly sane state of mind, simply reflecting fundamental contradictions.

    Up to now, this pain has not been obliterated and we are still not domesticated. Many of us dream of going back to loafer stage, to avoid work, have nervous break down, cheat, secretely hope that their boss will die, that al qaeda will save us from work and destroy civilisation or even that jesus will come back to set an end to this crappy world.

    But on a daily base, the violence of the social whip keeps us going, and we know that uif we decide to be hunter gathere, we will one daynget shot by the land owner (or be fined and go to jail if we obey the police).

    However if this conflict inside civilisation still remains, it is because the issue is not solved. Civilisation was only a time fix that as such as no future materialy (agriculture is not sustainable, in science, for instance, they just published how bantu in fact massvely deforested and damaged the soils a few millenia ago in africa). But on the human side it is the same. thousands of year of selection, by killing those who opposes by the hundreds of thousands (pizarro killed 80 000 incas or so in one day), has not erased this mental contradiction: the civilised state of mind will not be achieved because it is contradictory by nature.

    But in the end it does not mean that we have, can or will go back. Hunter gatherers also began to do cultivation without getting sedentary. The issue is to define what we want to do and find ways to achive this, not to think about a definite written path that is dubmitted to us.

    Nature is evolution and invention, and there is no natural “state of living” However there are formula that do not work and i hope that civilisation, that obliterate all mental freedom and choices, will prove to be a complete failure.

  9. kervennic on Sat, 11th Feb 2012 3:16 pm 


    There is absolutely no doubt that the carrying capacity has a definite limit.

    There is also little doubt that we have reached its limit given the way we produce food and that we are now loosing the battle against erosion and pests as we have destroyed soil and biodiversity.

    But there is also another possible approach than a static one. We are part of nature and have been invented by it. If we are there it is not because we are only a problem. At one point we could have helped to stabilize ecosystems and make them more resilient. Obviously it is not the case anylonger.
    But it does not mean that we cannot have a useful role as a species.

    Ecosystem are fragile and usually recede when stressed by climate. This is the interplay of the many species and that strenghtens system, and the variety of species and roles have probably enabled more resilient systems. However today we have simplified it because of the need to sustain civilisation. This is of course a complte catastrophy.
    But we are probably initially devised as a part of complexification (now i do not know if ecosystem darwinism is actively studied to give some more rational argument).

    That is why some schemes like agroecology might not be dumb, but for that we should use our brain to deeply understand the interplay betwween species climate and soil to make system more resilient and not less try to find intelligent things to do.

    For intsance by carefully designing slopes to retain water we can increase biomass and make soil instead of bare stones. This is what has been done by small farmers in mountain areas. Off course if done massively that could have bad impacts on some other species(good and bad)…
    But on the whole industrial agriculture is probably not the most productive way to use land. It is only the productive way to sustain a civilised world (need to store, transport and process with machines).

    If labour force i splentiful and not wasted in other tasks, one can imagine to go back to more complex agro schemes, for instance trying to restore wet area like it was the case in many european countries before the middle age and combine like in part of asia, cultivation, fish farming (without feeding), duck farming and so on.

    Beside considering sea, if we were putting all the industrial fishing to the dump field and go back to sailing, my guess is that in a decennia without trawling, fish catch would jump instead of decline. In norh usa (atlantic), i saw some report by david attenborough, showing that sailors fisherman were catching 20 times more fishes than today modern boats (overal catch). So the first thing to do is to get these boat out of business by any means. They are just scrapping rests on a plundered stock, but the stock and the outcome should be much bigger if it had not been so savagely wasted to make fish flour or dropped dead in the sea.

    This is why it is not written that we have to die massively, unless society decide for us and do nothing to get out of the trap.

  10. BillT on Sat, 11th Feb 2012 3:18 pm 

    Kerv, I read your long rebuttal, but, you assume that when we reach hunter gatherer stage, there will actually be police or land ownership. Or that humans will give up their habits easily to adjust to this “Zerzan” idea of perfection. Not going to happen. Man always has the freedom of choice and no-one can yet prevent him from thinking. It is when he puts his choice and thoughts into action that may be restricted by his peers. The Alpha male in a group of baboons is the leader, but, he can and is deposed if he does not conform to the group needs.

    However, the topic is peak oil / energy and our ability to rebuild the world. What I am saying is that we passed the point where that may be possible about 33 years ago when a certain US President was putdown by the masses for proposing just that kind of change. The thought that we could, in fact should, start to prepare for the world of less was not acceptable to the American people. And we will have to be forced to downgrade our wasteful lifestyles. That process is underway.

  11. Arthur on Tue, 14th Feb 2012 5:22 pm 

    “I listened to Osama bin Laden and his complaints to try and understand why these attacks on my country had happened. It turns out I found them pretty legitimate. That is, I agreed with his reasons for being angry, but certainly not his method of killing civilians.”

    OBL has always denied he had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks.

    Anyway, I do not think we will fall back to hunter/gatherer levels. At college I learned that modern society can stay modern with half the current max energy levels. Just implemenent a set of strict energy saving rules. Car sharing, electricity rationing, etc. I bet that the low energy internet is here to stay. An iPad burns merely 2.5 Watt! That’s nothing.

    And if I may plug my nation:

    The Netherlands to a large extent were created during the 17th century by pumping seawater over the dikes (or was it using a few thousand wooden wind mills and low energy peat carbon (albeit with 2 million people rather than 17 million now).

    Modern windturbines have 10 times the size of the old ones and far better efficiency.

    I have little doubt that the car will vanish. Soon. And boy are we going to miss coffee from Brasil. It will be uncomfortable but I do not believe in Mad Max scenario’s.

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