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Of doomers, realists, powerdowners and fantasists

Several days ago Rev. Sam Norton published an article called The Holiness of Stuart Staniford. This careful, thoughtful piece talked about “wishcasting,” which Norton uses to mean “a very widespread human tendency to interpret evidence and information according to an already existing intellectual and emotional structure.”

While I appreciated the tone, I would play the devil’s advocate (as well as the “doomer”) to show that Norton himself, as well as others who hope for a powerdown, may be indulging in the wishcasting they would avoid.

Norton gives several definitions of wishcasting, among them “an analysis governed more by a desire for something to be true than a humble appraisal of what is true.” He links this to the Peak Oil debate by implying that the so-called “doomer” perspective might indulge in “an extravagant claim of certainty or else a distracting and relishing discussion of the potential havoc that might be caused by, e.g. a second Katrina.”

We are told that the doomer perspective is characterized by “an insistence that the future must take a particular shape, one constrained by the laws of physics and envisioning a necessary decline in human population as the inevitable corollary of the decline in available energy. The desires here might be a juvenile wish to see big explosions, or, more likely, a deeply rooted hatred for the present order and a wish to see it destroyed.”

I have left out of this quote Norton’s admission that he shares some of these feelings, but despite that I can’t help but sigh to see the “doomer” perspective described as being based on some illogical chaos-for-chaos’-sake or a vague hatred for the status quo. I’ve talked before (Homeowner’s Insurance and Fire Extinguishers) about powerdowners’ misguided psychoanalysis of the doomer perspective. My thoughts about Peak Oil and its outcomes are based on my honest analysis of the data available, or an extrapolation of current trends, not on some repressed pyromania. I am as fallible as the next person, but no more fallible simply because I can imagine a future that might be unpleasant. Further, I fail to see why anyone would actually desire a second Katrina, not to mention a civilizational crash. Heck, I don’t even like to think about having to use graphite to write instead of petroleum-derived ink from my ballpoint, not to mention a die-off. If one outcome is a peaceful powerdown and the other is chaos and death, who is more likely to be wishcasting: the powerdowner or the “doomer?”

Some of Reverend Norton’s more visceral arguments hinge on his word selection, rather than logic. “Doomer” sounds gloomy and illogical – what if I told you I considered myself a “realist,” and those of Rev. Norton’s persuasion a “fantasist?” Would that change the emotional impact of my argument? “Doomers” in the article are also used in an analogy with religious fundamentalists, people normally charged with being (as Sinclair Lewis put it) superbly trained in reconciling contradictions. But in my opinion, anyone who maintains that biofuels will save the day, that voluntary simplicity is a feasible solution to Peak Oil, or that energy can decrease and population stay the same, is hard at work at contradiction reconciling.

Reverend Norton ends on a Christian note, one that states that an idol is “is anything placed in the position of God and worshipped as a God.” I would submit that the sentiment hope, which he mentions directly thereafter, is just such an idol. Hope is just a teleological hook to which to tie the end of one’s powerdown wishcasting. Thucydides, in the Melian Dialogue of his Peloponnesian War, writes that “Hope, danger's comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources, if not without loss at all events without ruin; but its nature is to be extravagant, and those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see it in its true colors only when they are ruined…” Hoping that everything will be fine on the far side of Hubbert’s Peak seems to be indulging in just such the wishcasting that Reverand Norton wished to condemn.

Reverend Norton says that what he is not persuaded of is “that human civilisation is about to come to an abrupt end.” Neither am I. I have argued elsewhere, however, that it is much more logical for one’s plan for the future at least to entertain that possibility. I will not repeat those arguments here. I simply would like to make the point that we realists (Oh fine, “we doomers”) think what we do because of our logical analysis of the facts, not because we like bombs, hurricanes, or death, or because we have a problem with the police, the Man, or whatever status quo. To imply otherwise, especially when one admits to hope (a synonym for “wishcasting” if ever there were one), is vaguely offensive, though I hardly think the Reverend Norton meant it that way.

If we truly want to have an open dialogue about what the future holds and how we may be able to change it, we all have to do a little less wishcasting and a little more practical planning for all the possible futures, peachy and otherwise.

Editorial Notes: Contributor Zachary Nowak "is an accomplished brewer and a fan of etymologies, splits his time between Perugia, Italy and Upstate New York (USA). He checks the Energy Bulletin headlines twice daily, even if the editors seem to be a little too optimistic for his tastes. He’s working on a book called Crash Course: Preparing For Peak Oil, which he expects someone to pick up to publish sometime in the next century. He likes puns and corny jokes and is rarely gloomy or defeatist, except when the glycerol doesn’t settle out of the biodiesel."

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