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The Four Horsemen of Industrial Society: War, Over-Population, Climate Change & Peak Oil

A famous story that has endured through the centuries is recorded in the final pages of the Bible, Revelation 6. It may have relevance to our time and provide images for us to understand our historical reality. I am not totally satisfied with this tale, but it has merit: the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The figures are interpreted variously. Some describe them as War, Pestilence, Famine, and Death.

Given my firm belief in free will and choice, I think that we can influence history, even individually, so I do not subscribe to a deterministic or apocalyptic view. We are not doomed, unless we remain passive and inactive in the face of these threats. Many direct actions are and can be taken to keep the thundering horsemen at bay. Consequently, this article will also indicate efforts occurring at local levels, especially with respect to transforming Peak Oil from a threat into a potential opportunity.

If we take this ancient allegory and apply it to this beginning of the 21st century, what might we see through this old lens? Perhaps we could translate the story to our time as the Four Horsemen of Industrial Society.

War seems to lead the charging Horsemen—be it tribal, religious, nuclear, or high-tech conventional. The ritual warfare of primitive people—in which often there were few or even no deaths—has developed into modern barbaric practices of torture, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and now the real possibility of global annihilation by an intended or accidental nuclear exchange.

Human Over-Population would be my candidate for the second horseman. It worsens the other three conditions, driving them to fiery extremes. The growing number of humans already consume more than our fair share of the globe’s limited and non-renewable resources, without adequate consideration of the consequences to other creatures, life forms, and the elements that sustain human and other forms of life. We continue our expansion without a sense of the finiteness of resources and the limits to growth.

Climate Change follows closely and gets bolder each day with the multiple ways in which we alter and spoil our soil, atmosphere, and water. Fortunately, an increasing number of people are working on global heating, understand how burning fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases relates climate change to oil depletion and are building a science-based mass movement to deal with this horseman. However, the majority of corporations and individuals continue deadly consumptive practices that change the planet’s climate.

Moving up fast in the passing lane, from this reporter’s observation post, is Peak Oil. Combined with the other three--which provide a hazardous context--it may be the soonest to visibly hit industrial societies hard, while the others continue their increasingly threatening galloping. One blogger, Steve Lagavulin, has already predicted that 2006 may be labeled the “Year of Peak Oil” because of the tremendous media and public attention that he expects it will get (deconsumption.typepad.com).

Hurricane Katrina was an example of how Climate Change and Peak Oil can work together as a team. Fired by a warmed Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico it hit the center of America’s domestic oil supply and refining operations, revealing how vulnerable they are. The centralization and complexity of industrial society makes it easily wounded by the fully-armed Four Horsemen and other threats following close behind them. Peak Oil may soon impact oil-dependent societies in catastrophic ways and cause considerable chaos, as suggested by various authors, including James Howard Kunstler in his book “The Long Emergency” and his recent “Predictions for 2006” at www.energybulletin.net. Or some foolish world leaders might push their nuclear buttons, causing even greater destruction.

Peak Oil may be riding what the Bible describes as the white horse, since it is both a threat and an opportunity. It depends on how we respond--the sooner the better, thus minimizing damage and maximizing the opportunities. Some people are already preparing for a post carbon society by conserving energy, being more efficient in its use, and shifting to renewable, non-polluting energy sources, such as solar, wind, and waves.

Peak Oil differs from War, Over-Population, and Climate Change because we can transform it to our advantage. It can be a wake-up call to wean ourselves off the addictive burning of fossil fuels and high-energy cultures. Sustainable responses to Peak Oil could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and eventually even the possibility of global warfare, which runs on huge volumes of oil.

At least one prominent Peak Oil theorist, Kenneth Deffeyes, author of “Beyond Oil” and retired geology professor from Princeton, has used the Four Horsemen image to talk about oil depletion. As the supply of petroleum diminishes and its demand heightens, it will send the prices of gasoline, heating oil and other petroleum-based products soaring. “The least-bad scenario is a hard landing, global recession worse than the 1930s,” Deffeyes is quoted in the Oct. 16 USA Today as saying. “The worst-case borrows from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: war, famine. pestilence, and death.”

“He’s not kidding,” reporter David J. Lynch adds. “Production of pesticides and fertilizers needed to sustain crop yields rely on large quantities of chemicals derived from petroleum. And Stanford University’s Amos Nur says China and the United States could ‘slide into a military conflict’ over oil.” The industrialization of China and India, with their huge populations, makes them a driving force in the increased demand for oil, as its supply simultaneously diminishes.

The Four Horsemen are indeed a team and ride together. They are connected at the neck. By working on any of them, one can potentially influence all four in positive ways.

Deffeyes, however, does not talk about how running out of oil could in fact turn us toward more sustainable practices that reduce damage to the Earth. An increasingly number of people are educating themselves about energy, developing energy literacy, and moving beyond studying it to taking direct actions to change their energy usages.

One area where such energy work is actively occurring is the San Francisco Bay Area. The author that most champions the development of a Peak Oil mass movement is Richard Heinberg. He lives in Sonoma County in the North Bay and has written “The Party’s Over” and “Powerdown.” Two active groups in the area are the successful Climate Protection Campaign (www.climateprotectioncampaign.org) and the new Beyond Oil Sonoma County. The mayor of the small town of Sebastopol in Sonoma County, Larry Robinson, has appointed a Citizens Advisory Group on Energy Vulnerability to deal with Peak Oil and related issues. He joined with others in the fall of 2005 to begin planning two bioregional gatherings on energy vulnerability, one scheduled for May 21 with elected officials and the other for Sept. 29.

The Post Carbon Institute (www.postcarbon.org) and Willits Economic LocaLization (WELL) (www.willitseconomiclocalization.org) in the small North Bay town are examples of other groups taking positive actions to organize communities to respond to Peak Oil and related threats. Post Carbon has helped organize “outposts” around North America. WELL is also organizing a bioregional gathering for the spring. Such groups can potentially transform Peak Oil threats into opportunities to build better living arrangements of humans more in harmony with nature and its environmental resources, including the climate within which we must dwell.

Such local groups advocate renewable energy resources such as solar, wind, and waves. Unfortunately, centralized, industrial corporations are currently promoting “clean coal” and nuclear energy with million-dollar advertising campaigns as the appropriate energy replacements for oil.

If there were to be an apocalypse, of any sort, what would end? I doubt that fundamentalist Christians are correct that everything would end. Oil-dependent, climate-changing industrialization would be most likely to end. What then?

Some societies, including indigenous ones, would survive and could even prosper, as would some individuals. Those who have already left water-scarce areas, big cities, and large metropolitan areas for rural areas where the climate is mild, water is abundant and growing food is easier, may be more likely to manage potential catastrophes. People who are off the electrical grid, get their water from catchment and/or nearby streams, and grow their own food are more likely to manage oil descent. Self-reliant people living in community with the skills to take care of themselves are more likely to prosper than those dependent upon centralized energy systems for their water, food, entertainment, and lifestyles.

The relationship of Climate Change and Peak Oil and work on them recently have become discussion topics. I wrote about this in a review of British geologist Jeremy Leggett’s recent book, called “Empty Tank” in the US and “Half Gone” in the UK. The review was published in various places under the title “Climate Change Expert’s New Book on Oil Depletion.” It can be seen at www.energybulletin.net and at www.climateprotectionblog.com, where one can add comments.

“Thinking about both climate change and peak oil requires new thinking and new mechanisms,” asserted permaculturist Rob Hopkins in a review of a booklet by British economist David Fleming. The review is available at www.energybulletin.net. This review and booklet offer non-apocalyptic, solution-oriented views, though they are somewhat idealistic, abstract, and impractical, in my opinion. The review suggests permaculture—a holistic system of design and agriculture with nature in mind--as one of the helpful things people can do to keep the Four Horsemen at bay. Rather than “new thinking,” perhaps what we need is different thinking, which might be a return to some old-fashioned local thinking and doing.

One group in Hawai’i that has begun to host Peak Oil gatherings is the permaculture La’akea Community (www.permaculture-hawaii.com). A participant in that process, Galen Kelley, commented on the Four Horsemen allegory as follows, “So, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are galloping into present time. Indeed. And it seems they have offspring. I would have to add the dark horse, the one we all have to outrun. It's cantering 'cross our psyches like necro-shadow, leaving a festering fear and an inert despair. It is that horse that must be lassoed and broken of its dark mission. From there the others may prove manageable.”

What do you think about the Four Horsemen allegory and applying it to our own historical moment?

(Dr. Shepherd Bliss, sb3@pon.net, writes for the Hawai’i Island Journal and owns Kokopelli Farm in Northern California.)

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