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Lessons from amateur radio

Of the many recent signals that peak oil has come of age as a social reality, the one I find most interesting is the efforts being made, on nearly all sides of the cultural spectrum, to find reasons not to talk about it. The ongoing superspike in the price of oil, for example, has been blamed on almost everything under the sun except the simple, easily verifiable fact that worldwide petroleum production has been stuck on a plateau since late in 2004, and shows no sign of going anywhere but down in the foreseeable future.

Now of course it’s true that speculation has played a role in driving up the price of oil, though as many speculators have bet on a decline in oil prices as on a continued rise – check the short interest on oil futures on any of the exchanges in recent months if you doubt that. It’s also true that Russia, for example, has been using its newfound energy wealth as a political weapon, though there’s rich irony to be savored in watching pundits in the United States, which built an empire on its own now-depleted petroleum reserves, criticizing Russia for doing the same thing. If oil production was still increasing at 2% per year, none of that would matter.

Look at the situation in the light of the relationship between supply and demand and the nature of the current crisis is hard to miss. Over the last year, the price of oil has approximately doubled. According to conventional economics, a price increase on this scale ought to stimulate new production, since oil reserves that were economically marginal when oil was $70 a barrel are much less so when oil is $140 a barrel. During the same period, despite frantic drilling on the part of oil companies, production has remained stuck in a narrow band. This only makes sense if production is constrained by non-economic factors. That, in a nutshell, is the peak oil concept: at a certain point, geology trumps economics, because you can’t pump oil that’s not there any more.

This may seem obvious enough. To most of the people in the world’s industrial nations right now, though, this sort of logic is unthinkable, for intensely personal reasons. Accept the reality of peak oil, and the future most people have planned for themselves and their children stands revealed as one of history’s all-time bad jokes. Worse still, the reality of peak oil means that all those who turned their backs on the lessons of the 1970s energy crises, and wallowed in the quarter century of excess that followed, have personally contributed to making the world their children will inhabit a poorer place. That’s a hard pill to swallow at the best of times, and this goes a long way to explain the passion for finding someone else – anyone else – to blame for the unfolding crisis.

They’ll get over it eventually, when it becomes clear that what I have called the age of scarcity industrialism is the new reality, and no amount of scapegoat-hunting is going to change that fact. In the meantime, it seems to me, it’s crucial that the peak oil movement keep going forward. Ten years ago, when the idea of oil priced above $100 a barrel was considered laughable by serious people, we correctly predicted the shape of the future. Now it’s time to move on, and propose constructive responses to that future as it takes shape around us.

And that, dear readers, is what landed me in a converted World War Two barracks building the Saturday before last, with a multiple choice test on the table in front of me and a group of elderly men from the American Radio Relay League waiting to grade it.

A few words of explanation are probably in order at this point. One of the major achievements of the last two hundred years, it seems to me, is the emergence of communications networks that allow news and information to move from one side of the planet to another at a faster pace than messengers on horseback or sailing ships can travel. Though there had been plenty of earlier attempts, using semaphore and other visual systems, the telegraph revolutionized communication across the industrial world, and launched a series of more complex media – telephone, radio, television, and finally the internet. Not all these were an unmixed blessing, it has to be said; every technology has its downsides, but on the whole, widespread access to long-distance communication has been much more a blessing than the opposite.

There are also few dimensions of modern industrial society more vulnerable to breakdown in the age of scarcity now beginning. The internet, the crown jewel of modern communications, depends on a huge and energy-intensive infrastructure that may well prove unsustainable in the future. A single server farm can use as much electricity as a small city, and the technology that makes the internet possible in the first place requires plenty of energy, exotic raw materials, and a very high level of technology – none of which can necessarily be guaranteed in the decades to come. On a broader level, most of today’s telecommunications, including the internet, support themselves through advertising sales, and the economic model that makes this work will have a hard time surviving the collapse of the consumer economy.

At the same time, electronic communications media need not be as dependent on today’s industrial systems as they are. It’s quite possible to build a vacuum tube – the backbone of radio communications in the days before transistors – from commonly available materials using hand tools; Peter Friedrichs’ excellent book Instruments of Amplification, which details how to do this, has become popular reading on the more outré end of the do-it-yourself crowd. Fifty years ago, widely available books for the teen market such as Alfred P. Morgan’s The Boy’s First (and so on up through Sixth) Book of Radio and Electronics taught aspiring young electricians how to build remarkably sophisticated gear out of oatmeal boxes, spare parts and salvaged scrap. The possibility of viable electronics in a post-peak oil era deserves exploration.

What would a viable long-distance communications network in the age of peak oil look like? To begin with, it would use the airwaves rather than land lines, to minimize infrastructure, and its energy needs would be modest enough to be met by local renewable sources. It would take the form of a decentralized network of self-supporting and self-managing stations sharing common standards and operating procedures. It would use a diverse mix of communications modalities, so that operators could climb down the technological ladder as needed, from computerized data transfer all the way to equipment that could be built locally with hand tools. It would have its own subculture, of course, in which technical knowledge and practical expertise would be rewarded, encouraged, and fostered in newcomers. Finally, it would take a particular interest in energency communications, so that operators could respond to disruptions and disasters with effective workarounds at times when having even the most basic communications net in place could save many lives.

The interesting thing, of course, is that a network that fills exactly these specifications already exists, in the form of amateur radio. During a long and complex history, the original loose network of radio experimenters who pioneered the airwaves in the first three decades of the 20th century morphed into a worldwide community of radio hobbyists, who are assigned their own segments of the radio spectrum. Licensed and occasionally encouraged by governments, “ham radio” – the origins of the nickname are a subject of some debate – flies almost completely under the radar of the wider culture these days, surfacing only when someone in the media notices that in the wake of some natural disaster, a group of local radio amateurs stepped up and kept emergency communications going when all other channels shut down.

All this was in my mind when I sat down two Saturdays ago and prepared to take the first of a series of FCC exams that would qualify me for an amateur radio license. Like a fair number of my generation, I’d been involved in amateur radio in my teen years – my Boy Scout troop had a ham radio club – but it got lost somewhere in the tangles of a difficult adolescence. Six months of study had, I hoped, prepared me for the most challenging test of all, the Element Four exam required to get an Amateur Extra class license, which authorizes operations on all amateur bands and all modes. Longtime readers of this blog will have already guessed that I had my Pickett slide rule with me, to crunch numbers as needed.

As it happened, that six months of study paid off, and the Pickett performed splendidly. I passed all three required exams, and a week later got an envelope from the FCC containing my Amateur Extra “ticket,” call sign AD7VI. The next task is to assemble a station; given the limits on my budget, that will involve a good deal of scrounging and probably some homebuilt gear as well, but that’s hardly a disadvantage; a Druid interested in appropriate technology has much to gain by practicing technological salvage and getting some facility with a soldering iron.

All this has several lessons that may be worth considering as we move deeper into the age of peak oil. First, of course, members of the peak oil community interested in practical responses to the future ahead of us could do worse than look into amateur radio. The internet has been the crucial framework for peak oil organization and information sharing since the dawn of the peak oil scene in the late 1990s. If the net becomes unstable, or outlying areas begin to lose access – both real possibilities as energy prices rise and infrastructure falters – having something else in place as a backup has much to recommend it. The Druid order I head has similar concerns, and similar plans in process.

Second, many other technologies vulnerable to the impacts of peak oil, climate change, and the other impacts of the predicament of industrial society have potential backups and replacements in the large and little-known world of hobby subcultures. An astonishing number of what we might as well call “trailing edge technologies,” from black powder firearms through handloom weaving to long-distance sailing on windpowered boats, have survived intact to the present in the form of hobbies pursued by their own community of aficionados. Those communities, and the knowledge they preserve, are potentially an immense resource as we look for more sustainable ways to do things in the aftermath of the age of oil.

A third lesson, though, may be the most relevant of all. I’ve suggested elsewhere that our civilization is the first, and thus the most clumsy and tentative, of a new class of human societies – technic societies – as distinct from earlier forms as the first urban agricultural societies were from the tribal cultures that preceded them. One of the inevitable blind spots our historical position imposes on us is a tendency to confuse the particular cultural forms evolved by our technic society with the requirements of technic societies in general. Amateur radio is a reminder that there are ways to handle long-distance electronic communications that do not involve, say, mass broadcasting supported by huge energy inputs and the financial payback of a consumer economy. This is worth keeping in mind as we begin the long transition toward the ecotechnic societies of a sustainable future.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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