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Peak fun (and the inevitable hangover)

Peak oil. Peak gas. Peak food. Peak energy. Peak climate. And now, peak everything!

While the Internet is abuzz with the latest pessimistic forecast about our resource future, the public by and large is busily enjoying the peak. Isn't that what one would expect at the peak? SUVs continue to leave the showrooms, airlines are jammed with vacationing passengers, the cruise lines are still cruising, and the theme parks are still amusing people with their themes. It's no wonder that Americans and many others in the wealthy countries of the world have little time to notice all the bad news.

The truth is that the world has now lost touch with its pre-petroleum memory. The vast majority of people alive now only know the continual ascent of fossil fuel power. Today's fun seekers have experienced only increasing abundance (except in a few places such as sub-Saharan Africa). This state of affairs flummoxed one attendee at a recent peak oil conference.

"Why don't people get it?" he wondered.

"They're too busy enjoying the peak," I responded.

"We're at peak fun," another conference goer added.

"But, the facts are all there on the Internet," the first conference goer insisted.

In order to comprehend the idea that we are at peak fun, however, one must have the background to see that we are also at or near a number of other peaks, I explained. Otherwise, what people are experiencing seems merely the extension of a trend that they have come to rely on. And besides, when you are at the peak of the biggest party ever thrown in history, the fossil-fuel party, who worries about the hangover?

So, the task for peak oil activists is two-fold. First, educate the public. This is no small task given the complexity of all the peak issues confronting us. Second, get the public to care now rather than later when severe consequences start rolling in.

Peak oil activists are inevitably cast (rather unfairly I think) as a bunch of killjoys. The activists are not really trying to take pleasure away from life; rather, they would really like to redirect us to different forms of pleasure that will be appropriate within the constraints of an energy-starved world. Unfortunately, the message that often emerges focuses on the expected terrible hangover from our fossil-fuel splurge. And, any attentive listener to the peak oil story during this final fossil-fuel party would quickly (and correctly) conclude that it's too late to avoid that hangover completely. Do we activists offer a cure? Alas, no. We only offer ways of coping with the inevitable pain.

Some activists are certainly working on what they believe will be a better, more just, more leisurely world where happiness will not be derived from excessive consumption. That sounds all well and good. But perhaps it does not sound quite as good as the party which is going on now with its metaphorical punch bowls filled to the brim and its party dip and other food crowding the tables.

We might be tempted to try to conjure up the image of a better party in the future where our quality of life has improved in some ways; but it is hard to compare something that has yet to arrive with something that already exists.

So, if lecturing a world full of fossil-fuel drunks about the dangers of their addiction won't work, and if telling them a better world awaits if they would only kick the habit won't work either, then what will work to get the attention of the partygoers at the last great fossil-fuel bash? I'm afraid that like the Titanic, we'll have to hit an iceberg before the danger even gets noticed by the vast majority. And even then, it will still be necessary to explain to them what is happening and to guide them to take full advantage of the few available "lifeboats" such as conservation, efficiency, and a less vehicle-dependent and less energy-dependent life.* (We won't, however, have to convince them about the wisdom of alternative fuels though these will likely be in short supply.)

This doesn't seem like the kind of result most peak oil activists have in mind. They would rather see us make major preparations in advance. Perhaps we will get lucky. Perhaps there will be some breakthrough in the public mind before it is absolutely too late to engage in preparations. But I think we activists must all be ready to accept assignments on the emergency rescue team. Given the lateness of the hour, it may be the only role left to us.

*It is worth noting that the passengers and crew of the Titanic did not at first perceive the danger of the situation and delayed lowering the first lifeboat for an hour. Also, the number of lifeboats was only half of what was needed to accommodate all the passengers. Even so, far less than half were saved because the evacuation was so badly managed that many lifeboats cast off without being filled. These were the tragic results of thinking that the ship was unsinkable.

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