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Drivers In For A Shock

Roger Adair contrasts a new study showing Irish drivers' unwillingness to change their driving habits to the inevitable changes forced by Peak Oil and the collapse of complex societies.

Ireland in a Jam

“Ireland in a jam – how Irish motorists are coping with rising oil prices” Amarach Consulting, Dublin (

This recent study was based on a sample of 622 Irish motorists who use their car to travel to work. They were asked to indicate their level of support for various measures to reduce oil use as proposed by the International Energy Agency. It is possible that similar results would be obtained in many other countries as well

Not surprisingly, the most popular options were working week compression (4 x 10 hour working days) and free public transport!

64% agreed it was difficult to get to work without a car and 50% indicated that they would definitely not prefer to use public transport, even if the system was improved.

However the most telling response was to the question of how high the price of road fuel would have to rise before they would stop using their car to get to work. A staggering (and touchingly defiant) 29% claimed they would never ever give up their car no matter how expensive road fuel became (lucky, old, well heeled and optimistic them!) and 32% just “didn’t know”!

To paraphrase the author of the report “ … the vast majority cannot imagine any price increase that would change their behaviour. i.e. they either don’t know or they simply refuse to change. ” (my emphasis).

For a nation apparently blessed with copious, indeed on occasions extravagant, imagination this is an interesting comment on our inability to imagine what effect rising oil prices and scarcity might have on our society and economy.

We in Ireland are, it seems, largely prepared to spend whatever it takes to keep using our expensive and ego confirming chariots in the absence of any perceived viable alternatives. Public transport is clearly for tree huggers and other assorted losers

Imagination Deficit

This set me thinking that purely economic and technical fix proposals, for addressing increasing resource shortages, must inevitably fail due to the extent we are “locked in” to the current system with little real alternatives other than minor cosmetic tweaks. We may also have very, very unrealistic expectations about what such measures can achieve to retain our current positions and maintain our current comfort zones and energetic lifestyles.

From a politician’s point of view Peak Oil is clearly a total anathema that seriously, seriously needs to be denied. There are clearly no, easy strokes, popular votes or “good news” in it, no comforting sweeties to feed the electorate, and a set of apparently insoluble consequences that they would generally much rather was perceived as someone else’s problem.

It is thus very difficult to usefully imagine the reality of what lies ahead and therefore how one should or have to respond. As many people cannot, or do not want to, imagine anything very different than what they have become used to it would seem inevitable that change will be most likely continue to be resisted to very near the end of the cheap oil era.

Even for those who lived through it, the economically stagnant high interest and tax, emigration period in Ireland is a rapidly fading reality. Surely it, or something even worse, could never happen again after the miraculous “Tiger Economy”?

Still they say that making predictions is difficult, especially about the future, and especially when we choose to forget the past.

Virtually nobody in the 80s foresaw what Ireland was in for in the 90s.

The Road To Who Knows Where

On this basis the only likely energy scenario for Ireland would appear to be increasingly desperate and ineffectual attempts to maintain the business as usual status quo for as long as possible with a few expensive and poorly executed attempts at technical policy fixes. That, until we are hugely surprised to find that forced localisation is inevitably thrust upon us, at a late stage, by external events outside our control.

Ecology and Energy

These sobering thoughts turned me to consider the ecological approach to energy and society popular in the USA. This is the starting point for some of the proselytising Peak Oil commentators exemplified, for example, by Richard Heinberg in his very readable “The Party’s Over”.

Two of the main gurus of this approach are an unlikely pair of American academics, William Catton, a professor of Sociology and Joseph Tainter, a professor of Archaeology. Their style, whilst academic and uncompromising, is laced with an occasional strange and very dark humour that puts me in mind of the writings of Irish novelist Flann O’Brien.

Catton’s magnum opus, “Overshoot – The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change” was originally published in 1980 and still a hot seller. His theme is essentially that we are living off the future to bankroll the extravagant and unsustainable present. The planet has overshot its sustainable carrying capacity due to overpopulation temporarily supported by the “phantom” carrying capacity of non renewable resources.

The end result being “die off” – a huge reduction in human population and energy consumption to sustainable levels. This is reminiscent of the exuberant life cycle of yeast introduced into the sugar and nutrient laden environment in a wine brewing vat.

He describes a range of strategies relating to how homo sapiens has leveraged advantage over the natural environment including takeover (colonisation), tool use, specialisation, scope enlargement and drawdown. Whatever you may think of his overall thesis these are very useful concepts to understand how we have got where we are and what the future may hold once drawdown, the using up of natures non renewable stocks of energy sources, becomes non viable.

Tainter, on the other hand, develops a general theory of social complexity as a problem solving strategy in his seminal 1988 work “The Collapse of Complex Societies”. His theme is that past complex societies have collapsed essentially as a result of the decreasing rates of return on investment in increased levels of (energy and resource consuming) complexity in society. He illustrates his theory with detailed and scholarly reference to numerous collapsed societies including the (solar powered) Roman Empire.

He postulates that once the point of initial high returns from increased complexity is well passed any society or empire becomes increasingly susceptible to collapse as increasing amounts of scarce and limited resources have to be devoted to obtaining less, and eventually negative, marginal benefit at ever increasing costs.

This surely sounds very familiar today in modern Ireland with ever larger amounts of public money energy being used to less and less effect in an apparently impossible task of obtaining value for money “progressing” in an increasingly complex world. Tainter illustrates this unavoidable phenomenon with reference to the productivity of such areas as modern health care and research in the USA.

He concludes that however much we like to think of ourselves as something special in world history, in fact industrial societies are subject to the same principles that caused earlier societies to collapse.

Sustainable Societies and Denial

Tainter, the archaeologist, revisits Complexity in a 1996 paper “Complexity, Problem Solving and Sustainable Societies”. Here he addresses the problem of how aversion to historical knowledge leads policy makers to look for the causes of events only in the recent past and thus the opportunity to understand the long term reasons for current problems is lost. He concludes:-

“Regardless of when our efforts to understand and resolve contemporary social problems reach diminishing returns, one point should be made clear. It is essential to know where we are in history.”

Catton, the sociologist, addresses the problem of denial of the earth’s finite carrying capacity in a 1994 paper “The Problem of Denial”.

Here he proposes that the outpourings of proponents of unlimited growth are like confabulations (elaborately unreal stories concocted as rationalisations) and this behaviour resembles symptoms of the medical condition anosognosia (inability of stroke patients to recognise their paralysis).

He concludes “ Denial by opponents of human ecology seems to be a way of coping with an insufferable contradiction between past convictions and present circumstances, a defence against intolerable anomalous information”


So there you have it, a pretty heady combination of overshoot, die off denial, adversity to historical knowledge and societal collapse. It is no wonder these works have been taken to heart by various “end of the world” survivalists well represented on various e-groups and web sites such as Running on Empty, Die Off, etc.

However, as Tainter makes clear, collapse need not necessarily be into a state of total chaos and some sort of dog eat dog, “Mad Max” style, future conflict between well armed survivalists defending their fortified bunkers and fuel supplies. He defines collapse (and the consequential localisation) as reversion to a simpler state of civilisation (localisation) which can result in a sustainable and improved return on the resulting reduced cost of social complexity.

I believe he is correct in this conclusion and that efforts put into developing sustainable post peak oil strategies must take this on board as a central precept and a likely eventuality to prepare for.

It looks as if all those motorists who cannot imagine change are in for quite a shock.

Editorial Notes: This essay was originally written to the FEASTA Energy e-group involved in the Energy Scenarios Ireland project. Rob Hopkins also wrote about the project here: Ireland: Energy Scenarios and Beyond…. Roger Adair is a qualified electrical engineer with an MSc in Energy Management from the University of Sunderland and 10 years working experience in the design, manufacture and installation of renewable energy systems. -AF

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