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Teaching a student-led course on peak oil

When I first read James Howard Kunstler’s Rolling Stone excerpt in April of last year, I knew I needed to know more about peak oil. Could this be true? Was this man right? Thousands of pages later I have a far more nuanced picture, and am now back at college teaching a course on peak oil.

The Experimental College (ExCo) program at 3,000-student Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio allows students to teach topics of interest that are normally not covered in the standard curriculum, giving them the opportunity to be on the other side of the blackboard. When I met up with another passionate peak-nik on a visit in the fall, we decided that this was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. Even in the 11 months I’ve been immersed in the subject, peak oil has moved from “alternative” news to being splashed across the front page, prices have shot to levels unimaginable a year ago and at least in upper class, left, intellectual circles it is becoming a household term.

At a school like Oberlin, where the introductory course in the Environmental Studies program read Richard Heinberg's Powerdown in the fall and where issues of energy and environmental significance are routinely on display, one might wonder what purpose a peak oil course would serve. Indeed, this was a question we got many times during the ExCo fair at the start of February. To quote Robert Hirsch, “The reality is, this thing is extremely complicated. My honest view is that anybody who tells you that they have a clear picture probably doesn’t understand the problem.” On that note, I’ll start with the “simple” version.

Oil is a finite resource. You get the easiest to extract, cheapest energetically, highest quality reserves first and the production curve, whether by field or country, tends to follow a bell shaped curve. Hydrocarbons, actually energy in general, mobilize our economy and underlie the organization of all systems, humans included. Cheap energy has allowed the miraculous (and quite wonderful in some respects) growth of the past 300 years.
That’s where we started, and three classes into the course I’m already amazed at what is happening with the 20-odd students, myself included.

During the first class we went through all the usual graphs, The Growing Gap, OPEC Reserve Revisions, ASPO Base Case, USA Depletion Profile and even a map, courtesy of Michael Klare, showing the involvement of the US military in the Middle East. As one would expect, the questions ranged far and wide. Although we managed to avoid lengthy discussion about economic objections, alternatives or dieoff, those topics nevertheless came up and I found it hard to say “just believe me.”

I wanted to go on for the next 6 hours about everything I knew, but luckily for all involved, people seemed willing to take our word for it until the next couple of classes. Watching the changing looks and moods in the room one could almost discern that shift from “not another one of these problems” to “hmmm, maybe this is something important, I better find out about it.”

After class, discussion continued briefly, but it seemed most were happy to pay for the course reader and go on their way.

The second class, titled “Life in the Era of Cheap Oil,” went straight to the heart of the “so what?” question. Readings on food took the forefront, but we also focused on the suburban arrangement and briefly touched on the idea of a global economy dependent on cheap oil for transport.

As some of the students had seen The End of Suburbia in a screening aimed at drumming up support, there was a fair bit of interest in the American living arrangement. Perhaps this focus was partly due to the less threatening prospect of a car-less future as opposed to one with, at least for a time, restricted food supplies. In fact many had experiences living car-free, even in more suburban or rural areas. The consensus was that you couldn’t do as much each day, had to spend more time planning and, at least if you traveled by bike, slept more soundly at night. Questions of class and status came up regarding mass transit, with the following hierarchy more or less holding true: Train > Subway/Light Rail > Bus.

One exception held hope for positive experiences of rich people taking the “lower class” bus. To get to Georgetown in Washington D.C., short of driving a car, one must take a bus. One of the students who lived there for a while said she often saw people in suits getting on the bus; however, this demographic apparently doesn’t exist in other parts of the D.C. bus system. When people are forced to change, perhaps it won’t be so hard?

Maybe people were getting used to the idea of decline? From the banter as we gathered our books and left, one wouldn’t have thought we were devoting ourselves to such a morbid topic.

Last Monday, February 27, we went a bit deeper. “Responding to Skeptics of Peak Oil Theory” was almost entirely the section from Heinberg’s The Party’s Over where he contemplates the objections of Huber, Lomborg and Lynch. We opened the class with a point-by-point discussion of each cornucopian’s beliefs and why we should be skeptical.

By and large the students were only asking clarifying questions or filling in details about specifics. Oil shale was also brought up and Udall’s point that, once refined, it is closer to the energetic quality of a potato drew a round of laughter.

I was getting worried that we were too successful. Where was the lone neoclassical adherent? What about the human ingenuity argument? For better or for worse, we were not disappointed. One student did come forward with doubts that there really would be limits to oil. What about the other 50% that we can’t currently get out? What about other technology? Why isn’t Huber’s argument that human’s have always gotten better at extracting resources true?

In some ways I felt like I was arguing science against intelligent design, but I had to think more carefully about my own positions too. In response to the first query, another student suggested some new technology involving “brine injection.” I was taken aback that he didn’t recall that I had mentioned water injection as a secondary technique that had been in use for many decades until I realized that I wasn’t particularly concerned with secondary recovery until I had fully immersed myself in peak oil for several months.

We had more or less come to an impasse, but at least there was much less ambiguity about exactly what Heinberg was saying. I still felt uncomfortable with the way we had left the situation. It was almost as if I had all the ammunition and was sitting up on a mountain pelting any advances. Should I have given the skeptics some more leeway? Was I being too harsh? It seemed like the coffin was really nailed shut (to use Lynch’s own metaphor) on the cornucopian position, but maybe we needed one more nail?

In the second half of class we got it, in spades, when we watched half an hour of excerpts from Dr. Albert Bartlett’s lecture, “Arithmetic, Population and Energy.” Professor Bartlett has been giving this lecture since 1969, now in excess of 1000 times. [available for purchase from the University of Colorado or a similar version is available online at Bear in mind the online version is shorter and lacks the snazzy graphs of the purchased one].

He addresses the exponential function, how “constant growth” is insane and the current energy crisis (growth in a finite world). Quotes from the likes of Fortune Magazine, The New York Times, Schlesinger and other government and news sources were met with laughter, but none were quite as hilarious as the late Julian Simon. “[E]ven if our sun were not as vast as it is, there may well be other suns elsewhere.” And what would he propose we do, tow them here?

All kidding aside, the lecture had a profound impact. Many people looked like they were experiencing that same shock one often sees following End of Suburbia screenings. We talked briefly about the issues put forward, but even the student who was so unsure of the importance of peak oil was starting to seem convinced, or at least perturbed.

Perhaps the overwhelming numbers and deadpan delivery just led to shock and subsequent shut-down? Or was it a matter of being emotionally overwhelmed while still taking in the information intellectually?

Considering the nature of the past 300/10,000 years it is a somewhat reasonable assumption to believe that growth can and will continue for the foreseeable future. To suggest otherwise is to suggest that the earth might be, well, round. Next week, we’ll truly see more.

Next week we get into the issues surrounding alternatives. Hopefully the experience with the growth v. non-growth discussion will help us discuss constructively, whatever our beliefs in tar sands, biofuels and PV-solar may be.

Peak Oil ExCo: Crisis and Catalyst for a Sustainable Future
Syllabus and Readings for Spring 2006

1: Introduction
The liquid fuels shortfall, relevant terminology and graphs.

2: Life in the Era of Cheap Oil
How do we use oil in our daily lives? How is it connected to our food supply?

3: Skeptics of Peak Oil
We will address common cornucopian arguments and the problems associated with exponential growth.

4: Alternative Energy Sources
How can we fill the liquid fuels gap? From oil shale to windmills, hydrogen to hydrates and solar to biomass we will investigate potential alternative energy sources while building an understanding of issues like scalability, portability and energetic gain.

  • Matt Savinar, Alternatives: Fuel’s of the Future or Cruel Hoaxes

  • Randy Udall and Steve Andrews, The Illusive Bonanza

5: Modeling Depletion
We will discuss what depletion means, how different people calculate peaking dates and take a look at our fractional reserve banking system.

6: Lessons from Previous Resource Declines
Cuba, Russia and North Korea have all experienced and dealt with resource declines in the recent past. What can they teach us?

7: Looking into the Future
Various writers have predicted the future of our society. We will read some, consider their merits, and make our own predictions.

8: Political Manifestations
President Carter laid out America’s energy policy over 30 years ago: defend Middle Eastern oil at all costs. How might peak oil be involved with geopolitics?

9: Peak Oil and the Environment
The intricate relationship between peak oil and climate change will be explored in detail as well as different directions in environmental thinking through the study of deep ecology.

10: Understanding and Mitigating Collapse Globally
Building on our understanding of societal complexity, this class will be devoted to policy options available to society as a whole.

  • Robert Hirsch, The Hirsch Report

  • Colin Campbell, et al., The Uppsala Protocol [Editor: Uppsala Protocol = Rimini Protocol]
  • Richard Heinberg, Complexity and Collapse: Societies in Energy Deficit

11: Community Responses to a Post-Peak Society
Recognizing that cooperative global action may not materialize we will look to permaculture, new urbanism and revivalist monasticism for community responses.

12: Personal Preparation
So how do I get out on top? How do I keep from getting depressed? These questions and more will be discussed as we think of our futures in a postcarbon context

  • Dimitry Orlov, Thriving in an Age of Collapse

  • James Kunstler, What I Live For

David Huck is a student at Oberlin College and is teaching the Peak Oil ExCo: Crisis and Catalyst for a Sustainable Future with fellow student Grant Huling. David is an Environmental Studies major who has a morbid fascination with pretty much everything, but especially environmental trauma, collapse, human ecology and the like. Any student can apply to teach an ExCo, and as long as one is serious about the material it gets approved. There is no faculty oversight, but evaluations are done by students twice during the semester and up to 5 ExCo credits can be used toward non-major graduation requirements.

David can be reached at david dot huck at oberlin dot edu.

Editorial Notes: Congratulations to Oberlin students David Huck and Grant Huling for their initiative in designing and conducting the class. The syllabus may be helpful to other people designing similar courses. The EB editors added hyperlinks for resources that are available online. Writer Kurt Cobb taught a two-session course on peak oil last fall and posted his syllabus for the course. According to the UCLA Bruin, a student-initiated seminar on peak oil is planned for the spring quarter. -BA

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