The clash of ecological economics and the technofix
Culture Change Letter #128
Conferences on petrocollapse, sustainable economics & ecology, and local solutions
The May 6th DC Petrocollapse Conference focused on the inevitability of collapse of the world economy due to the end of cheap oil and the lack of realistic technofixes. Solutions such as ecovillages and organic farming were emphasized, with all the concern and caveats that come from keen awareness of devastating climate change, the intransigence of the corporate state, and cultural change.
The next day another conference, Peak Oil And The Environment / Sustainable Energy Forum 2006, was held (until May 9), also in Washington. The array of speakers was impressive for its depth and range. Stellar scholars William Catton, James Hansen and Herman Daly spoke and interacted with the audience. Many other prestigious speakers participated, including Peak Oil experts Roscoe Bartlett, Richard Heinberg and Julian Darley.
Unless an attendee was well-versed in issues such as net energy (or “energy gain,” as speaker Joseph Tainter calls the process of trying to obtain energy from an energy process), a mixed message comes from divergent agendas of “optimists” and “pessimists.”
Optimists visualize a greener continuation of the global economy – the status quo – featuring car dependence, present population size and consumerism (e.g., energy-sucking appliances), while ignoring likely collapse. Pessimists don’t believe growth can continue, and they look to a more nature-based form of economics. Yet, all participants – speaker or audience member, and even the sparse news-media – proved quite open to the new reality of peak oil and what can result. Almost no one involved thinks the government is going to lead society to rational, bold solutions.
If it seems odd that two similar conferences were held back to back in the same town, let us instead think of the Peak Oil movement on the rise. Indeed, in New York City there was another Peak Oil conference from April 27-29, Local Solutions to the Energy Dilemma. None of the three conferences resulted in large crowds or intense media interest, although success can be claimed by all three events.
Before you read an objective participant’s rundown of our May 6th Petrocollapse Conference, first have a glimpse of the philosophical conflict evident at the May 7-9th conference. Lester Brown offered a convenient “marriage” of wind energy for car propulsion, while warning of ecological deterioration and the rise of China. What Brown does not acknowledge is that the petroleum infrastructure is required for his technological fixes, especially if they would be the key to a seamless transition to greener economics. Nor does he allow that collapse is inevitable due to Peak Oil and the total dependence on petroleum for agriculture and distribution.
It took other speakers such as economist Robert Costanza and author William Catton to challenge Brown and his faction to point out that the bicycle can lead us away from being an Obese Nation dependent on using no end of resources.
Brian Schweitzer, governor of Montana, entertained a ballroom of diners with his folksy anecdotes and faith in trade between food producers and energy exporters. His biofuels and coal liquifaction “solutions” were tempered by his call for conservation: “How low can you go? A hybrid car or a bicycle?” I asked him publicly if he could grasp the scalability required for so-called solutions to perpetuate the consumer economy. His response was to emphasize conservation and curtailment of energy use, but he challenged the audience to give up cars and “live naked in trees, eating nuts.” He is pro-Amtrak and enjoys a high approval rating.
Our May 6th Petrocollapse Conference attracted grassroots activists, a result of our outreach and the coordination of Ethan Walker of Culture Change. We believe that activists such as environmentalists need guidance such as we have offered, because a social-justice tendency sometimes manifests itself as mere suspicion of Big Oil: “Peak oil is a hoax.” And, the big environmental groups, funded to push the technofix, have not been leading the way on Peak Oil awareness. If you would like to join our efforts, contact us. Thank you, Jan Lundberg
SUMMARY OF PETRO COLLAPSE II CONFERENCE IN DC
Sat May 06, 2006
Earlier today about 100 concerned citizens gathered at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, DC for the second Petrocollapse Conference on surviving in a world with declining fossil fuel resources.
The event was sponsored by Jan Lundberg’s organization, CultureChange.org, he of the Lundberg Oil Survey Letter family, although not involved with that publication since the late 1980’s. Nine speakers and two videos were on the program. They dealt with a variety of topics related to our current energy, environmental, and related political issues.
Dr. John Darnell is energy advisor to Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, MD-6th, the only member of Congress who is talking about peak oil and the realities of our dismal energy future. He compared our current energy situation to the Apollo 13 near-disaster of 1970, when that Moon mission suffered a catastrophic explosion and only made it back to Earth safely through training, cooperation, conservation of remaining energy, and innovative thinking on the fly. He called for a similar emergency crash effort to deal with declining fossil fuel resources and the need to move to a sustainable society, both in the short and long-terms.
Several themes recurred among various speakers. Micheal Kane of “FromtheWilderness.com” warned of the big lie of Big Renewables, and the political snake oil sales people pushing them. Mark Robinowitz of “Permatopia.com” also warned of malicious politicians guiding the World to a “Last man standing” scenario in a global struggle for the World’s remaining oil reserves while defrauding voters at home in electonically rigged elections. Conference organizer Jan Lundberg outlined many of the myriad problems that will befall the World if our leaders won’t tell citizens the truth, leaving it up to us to spread the word, although he did hold out hope that a more localized and sustainable World would eventually emerge. Conference moderator Jenna Orkin, whose child was a high school student four blocks from the WTC on 9/11, added that most Congressional staffers are totally in the dark about our energy problems, and that most people in this Country can’t comprehend the coming crisis because they have no reference point for anything this dire in their memory or that of anyone they know.
Three presenters and one video did provide positive visions of a more hopeful future – if we act soon:
Diana Leafe Christian, editor of “Communities” magazine, and a resident of Earthaven Ecovillage in NC, showed how sustainable communities and practices can succeed in rual, urban and suburban settings.
Alternative farmer Joel Salatin explained how environmentally sound agriculture can be sustainable, nutritionally healthier and profitable. He also warned not to believe the “organic” label on food products, since that designation has been hijacked by the corporate food industry. His was perhaps the most uplifting and humorous presentation of the day.
Pat Murphy of Community Service, Inc. presented their video “Cuba After Peak Oil”. This look at how Cuba coped with the end of Soviet support of their economy and the U. S.’s virtual blockade of the island nation for trade, by drastically reducing individual energy consumption, implementing local, organic agriculture, and concentrating on local communities and solutions. They went from the most petroleum dependent agriculture in the Caribbean to the least, and are able to sustain a life expectancy as good as ours and an infant mortality rate better than ours while consuming 1/8th the energy per capita the U. S. does.
After a lunch break and press conference that did not include very many reporters and no TV coverage (just one indication of how much we have to overcome to get the message out), featured speaker Richard Heinberg, the professor and author of “The Party’s Over” and “Powerdown” presented his take on the Colin Campbell term “The Oil Depletion Protocol”. Warning of resource wars and mass die-offs in a global economic collapse if we do nothing, Prof. Heinberg presented a rational plan to deal with declining energy resource alocation on a global basis.
A second video on plastic pollution in the seas painted a grim picture of how universal the problem of petroleum based plastic pollution is to sea life and the other creatures that live off of them. There is virtually no place left in the oceans that has not been touched by this problem.
Albert Bates, the final speaker, and a resident of “The Farm” in TN, dealt with what would happen to any country, like ours that tries to go it alone to maintain an oil-intense economy. He suggested that terrorism is a logical outcome of such a policy, as well as accelerated climate change resulting in more intense storms, rising sea levels, and increased release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Several speakers did touch on the very sensitive topic of overpopulation, something either ignored or denied by the mainstream media and commercial interests. They did vary widely in their judgements of how big a sustainable population would be. Mark Robinowitz suggests that as many as 9 billion people could live in a low energy consumption sustainable world, while most who comment at all on this believe that without massive petroleum inputs the world can only sustain a population of less than 2 billion.
The conference ended with a peak oil folk music jam session led by Jan Lundberg on guitar and Richard Heinberg on violin.
All told, the conference left one with mixed feelings of doom at the lack of interest by most of the world at the train wreck we’re headed for environmentally and energy-wise, but hopeful that at least some people are working to build a human-scale sustainable future for those willing to change their ways and learn how to survive.
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The column above appeared also in Peak Oil News and the Daily Kos, in slightly different form. Peak Oil News is compiled by Tom Whipple for ASPO-USA (Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas).
Moderator Jenna Orkin played wonderful Chopin, Michael Kane performed spoken word, The DC Guerilla Poetry Insurgency provided rap and rhythem, and Randall helped out on guitar with Richard and Jan performing Depavers tunes.
The volunteers made things possible, as did the Unitarian church and its capable audio-visual faciliator Scott. The Resistance Media Collective and environmentalist-consultant Greg Smith helped our conference get decent media attention.
The New York Times, famous for acknowledging Peak Oil in its March 1, 2006 editorial, seemed to forget about peak. So, during the local Peak Oil conference when an editorial came out about the pathetic gasoline-price remedies coming out of Washington, I whote this letter that the Times published on May 1st:
To the Editor:
Re “Pander at the Pump” (editorial, April 28) was hard-hitting and informative, but included a contradiction.
While certain Band-Aids and half-measures by Washington would merely boost demand for gasoline, as you pointed out, the same effect would result from your plea for better fiscal management than tax cuts for the wealthy.
So “struggling families would be better able to weather higher prices at the pump” also means consumers’ being able to afford to drive more.
The overarching point should be that the world’s peak in oil extraction is a major factor in higher prices for fuel.
Transportation fuels are only part of what oil provides. Petroleum is our source for food production, distribution and preparation — more essential to survival than the ability to drive personal cars.
Arcata, Calif., April 28, 2006
The writer is executive director of Culture Change, a nonprofit energy advocacy group.
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Jan Lundberg’s “publicist,” the firm he formerly ran, continues to monitor aspeacts of the oil market:
“CAMARILLO, Calif. (AP) — The average retail price of a gallon of gas rose nearly four cents across the nation during the past two weeks, according to a survey released Sunday. Self-serve regular averaged about $2.94 a gallon, up from $2.91 two weeks ago, said Trilby Lundberg, who publishes the nationwide Lundberg Survey of roughly 7,000 gas stations.”
Collapse from the inside – or powerdown?
Although this column has analyzed repeatedly the implications of global Peak Oil as the main factor in the termination of a culture featuring waste and greed, we can just as easily see the crumbling from within that the heart of the system is undergoing:
Going under fiscally, ecologically, ethically and in other in social ways… Petrocollapse, population crash, no more driving to the shopping mall… A new world to open up right under our noses. Some of us remain optimistic about culture change.
Setting the industrialized world off toward unforgiving petrocollapse could be the politically volatile Middle East or other sources of oil-supply interruption (Venezuela, Iran or Russia), China’s bidding up the price of fast-dwindling oil, or haywire “natural” disasters. But these are external manifestations of our deeply flawed culture. This culture both spawned and sprang forth from Western Civilization, and is characterized by domination and exploitation that the Earth never witnessed before – certainly not on any scale resembling this historical period.
The collapse from within is taking place as you read this: dishonesty, fraud and denial seem to prevail among our rulers who increasingly govern without our consent. Most people in the U.S. eligible to vote did not vote for recent presidents. And who rules the presidents? The corruption of elected officials is not limited to newsy scandals, but in the normal way of doing business in legislatures: “campaign contributions” and “horse trading.”
On a personal level, anyone who is part of the industrial society’s machinery is alienated from nature and isolated from people more than any other culture allows. Community has been replaced by consuming.
The culture that paves over the best farmland – constantly driving species extinct, so it can import food from other continents – cannot endure. Nor should it be sustained for the sake of “growth” or “jobs.” A better world is possible.
Anyone can tell a sick economy and nation from a solvent one. It is only a matter of time until the game of deficits & debt is up.
The business of killing people, known as war and the arms trade, enforces on the larger scale the system of exploiting humans forced to work so that wealth can be derived from the ravaged Earth. War is rot from the inside, undeniably poisonous, and serves to create enemies and weaken a (social) structure’s integrity and longevity.
People get increasingly tired of the taxes and loss of benefits such as the Bill of Rights and Habeas Corpus. Soon, people will rapidly get tired of expensive petroleum and permanent shortage, and will demand, as author Jim Kunstler regales us, their Cheese Doodles. That is, until they must plant some food in their former lawns.
The idea of society’s consciously reducing its energy use due to acknowledging the end of cheap petroleum is an attractive one. Powering down is what we need to do immediately, but instead the world is trying to power up. Global warming, hello? Policy choices for powering down or mitigating petrocollapse are many, but it should be no surprise that they will continue to languish and remain among wonks and activists. Given the decay of the system from within and the addiction of consuming vast quantities of nonrenewable energy in this nation and other large consumers, Dr. Robert Hirsch’s prediction must come true: unless infrastructure change takes place two decades ahead of peak oil, there will be “severe economic hardship.” The U.S. Dept. of Energy got his report in Feb. 2005, but the Titanic has not yet bothered to adjust the helm.
One could satisfy oneself to an extreme degree in arriving at extensive knowledge of the system’s growing weakness, mismanagement, and lunacy, such as by accessing reports on FromTheWilderness.com or even from mainstream sources of criticism such as truthout.org. But it doesn’t accomplish much if we get bogged down in blogs or even great books, when we have already passed the point where action and system-replacement – not just “regime change” – was urgently justified.
As the nation’s “free press” is bought by car advertisements we aren’t going to get the truth. The corporate media are compliant in “keeping a lid on it” (Culture Change Letter #99) as to the true state of both the economy and the ecosystem, although much information does get through for those who pay critical attention. But it’s as if all one has to do is wave the flag – no matter what atrocities, rip-offs, dysfunction and hypocrisy prevail as the U.S. leads the way in destroying the world – and a large segment of the population will resound with a bleat. Prior to the current administration’s worsening follies, the bleat would have been more of a salute. Next we’ll be seeing more the middle-finger salute.
If the above analysis has validity, and we can agree we are in an unprecedented time for our species’ survival due to climate change and the demise of the petroleum feast, then we should not mislead ourselves or mislead others. Misleading is justified by those trying to continue to make their bucks, understandably so. There is also a reasonable tendency to downplay the danger and to whitewash or greenwash the two-headed crisis of the environment and an economy that will collapse once the growth bubble bursts.
Lester Brown, founder of Worldwatch Institute, gave a speech in Washington at the Peak Oil and the Environment conference on May 8th which begged this question:
“As cars’ becoming cleaner would eliminate air pollution by less than 50%, given the whole ‘life cycle’ of the car, this is a partial conversion of the infrastructure; and, as wind-energy systems are also part of the oil infrastructure, and this is a partial conversion, and, as the agriculture and distribution systems are entirely dependent on petroleum, is not collapse the inescapable outcome that would be accompanied by your scenario of localized renewable energy?” (the question was submitted but not addressed.)
Brown is great on warning us of ecological collapse, but he has never been able face petrocollapse. He seems to really believe that wind energy will power the present size car-fleet, as if this makes for a sustainable economy. Not to pick on this very bright, exemplary man: there is little funding for those who openly anticipate petrocollapse and system-replacement, so it makes political and economic sense for one to rather support a popular technofix.
Yet, if a real tsunami is coming our way and can be seen in the distance, it is not a “maybe” that can blow over as we cling to our positions. Such positions range from moderate reform of energy usage to sweeping policy change. However, megacorporations do run the show today. Some officials and very well-off folks want, in effect, people to keep quiet and to trust the government to do its wondrous New Orleans-style magic. Radical change is resisted until the tsunami of nature’s or of social forces crash down and swamp the landscape.
There is room for many analyses and interpretations of our interesting times. But this does not mean that all disciplines are equal, e.g., oil analyst or lawyer, organic farmer or bureaucrat. Nor do our interesting times involving oil mean that just any opinion is equally valid; some things are known. Such as, civilizations tumble and empires do fall, and it’s mainly due to resource depletion. At our DC Petrocollapse Conference on May 6, 2006, one speaker unintentionally weakened a common vision of most of the speakers by asserting “No one knows what peak oil outcome will be like.” This sounds reasonable on its face, but some things are inescapable: billions of us cannot continue to be fed for many days without endless petroleum. On the positive side, there’s the inescapable likelihood: that people will simply have to come together to utilize their local ecosystems on some kind of community level to guarantee survival. Ultimately, a sustainable culture is achieved universally, with all due diversity and difficulties, if the race is to endure and evolve.
Not wanting to see tumultuous change or “severe economic hardship” – as the U.S. Department of Energy has been advised will be the price of not preparing for peak oil (Hirsch, et al 2005 study) – prompts many of us to offer wishful speculation on the experience in store for an oil addicted population.
A gifted Peak Oil activist and chronicler (Peak Oil News daily) is Tom Whipple. His latest column in the Falls Church News-Press is “The Peak Oil Crisis – Powerdown or Collapse?” Although he accurately represented the negative aspect of our position as organizers of the conference, he made a case for an outcome flowing from Peak Oil other than collapse. I was surprised that he seemed to back away from agreeing with me that collapse was our common fate. His reasoning is that “the truth is likely to fall somewhere in between” and that the nation has overcome big challenges before (with the aid of cheap fossil fuels, however).
A tsunami is not automatically a half-tsunami just because there are different opinions. Some opinions are founded more closely on reality than others. And some are often prescriptions for a version of the status quo. One thing for sure, we will be finding out soon.
Our friend Mr. Whipple missed the message of culture change as the real process at hand and also as the answer to living in a future not as dreary as he says we foresee. Additionally, an analysis of the effect of permanent, terminal shortage that is peak oil requires us to anticipate the oil market’s role in exacerbating shortage. When people can’t get to work or get food – after we have pigged-out on petroleum as long as possible and failed to decrease population in a compassionate, orderly, gradual way – die-off and collapse must hit hard. Mr. Whipple holds out for “explosive growth in mass transit, alternative vehicles and ride sharing,” which appears hopeful of minimum disruption. But we basically agree about Peak Oil, as he concludes: “One thing is sure however, the peaking of world oil production is certain to launch a round of social and economic changes comparable to the advent of the industrial age.”
Powerdown was written by Richard Heinberg. He believes that there will be a collapse. ‘Nuff said. He spoke at our Petrocollapse Conference and news conference, although his book spells out options for a softer landing than hard collapse and wars – if we as society made the effort. There are preparations for a decent “Plan B” here and there. But aside from Post Carbon Institute’s growing relocalization network, the effort is not quite being made. In the diplomatic realm, a major hope lies in the international Oil Depletion Protocol, proposed by Dr. Colin Campbell, and spearheaded by Richard Heinberg.
The Washington Post “kept a lid on” our Petrocollapse Conference even though it was national and in its back yard. We virtually spoon-fed the publicity info to three departments at the Post. The Washington Post, like so many other news organizations, carefully chooses your news. In avoiding the subject of peak oil, the newspaper appears to pretend that the American Empire will keep muddling along as if we are a united people blessed by eternal resources. Simultaneously, the Post’s brilliant acquisition of a cartoonist, Tom Toles, lets fly with zingers such as May 16th’s cartoon: He compares the capitalist’s non-comprehension of why workers don’t appreciate the economy to a meat packer’s non-comprehension of cattle not appreciating their place in the operation.
People may not rise up, as a casual reader may correctly believe as he or she may dismiss this essay or Tom Tole’s message. The point is that whether people rise up or not – and they tend to do it only when physically hungry enough – the system is set to implode from its own contradictions and excesses. Rather than rise up, people may stampede until their final supply of calories gives out. Petroleum addiction is the top item of vulnerability on any given day. As the band Chicago sang in 1969, “I know it’s hard for you to change your way of life… but if we don’t, my friend, there’s no life for you, no world for me.”
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Tom Whipple’s column in suburban Virginia newspaper: www.fcnp.com/610/peakoil.htm
Rundown of the Petrocollapse Conference and subsequent Peak Oil and the Environment conference: www.tompaine.com
The Dept. of Energy’s Hirsch report (SAIC): www.projectcensored.org/newsflash/the_hirsch_report.pdf
The Oil Depletion Protocol: postcarbon.org/initiatives/oildepletion
From The Wilderness publications: www.Fromthewilderness.com
Culture Change Letter #128 on peak oil conferences: culturechange.org
for May 6 DC Petrocollapse Conference and Oct. 5th NYC Petrocollapse Conference: petrocollapse.org