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Waiting for the Millennium, part 1: Peak oil goes mainstream

Longtime readers of this blog will recall that one of its central projects early on was an attempt to deconstruct the most deeply entrenched set of myths industrial culture uses to define the future. To borrow a phrase from Carlos Castaneda, the myth of progress and the myth of apocalypse were worthy opponents, and I hope the confrontation with them was as educational, and occasionally entertaining, to my readers as it was to me. I’m pleased to say, though, that the dubious choice between a future of endless progress toward some technocratic Utopia and a future of sudden cataclysmic collapse into some romantic Utopia has lost much of its grip on the peak oil scene.

That’s not to say these particular narratives have gone away completely. I don’t recall the last time a week passed without at least one message in my inbox claiming that I’m all wrong and humanity will keep on marching onward and upward to a destiny among the stars, and at least one more claiming that I’m all wrong and industrial civilization will blow itself to smithereens at some vague but imminent point in the very near future. Still, such comments no longer make up most of the responses to each week’s post here, as they once did. The Archdruid Report was only one of many voices in the conversation that midwifed that change, of course, but I like to think that it helped.

That shift needed to happen, not least because today’s peak oil movement may be standing on the brink of a momentous shift very few of us are expecting. For just over a decade now, since the first peak oil activists blew the dust off M. King Hubbert’s predictions and realized that they made a great deal more sense than the easy optimism of the cornucopians, people concerned about peak oil have daydreamed of a future when the rest of the world would finally get around to noticing that you can’t extract an infinite amount of oil from a finite planet, and that technological, economic, and social arrangements predicated on endless supplies of cheap oil might be a good deal less clever than they looked. Very few of us, though, have really taken that possibility seriously, which makes it all the more ironic that peak oil may be on the brink of going mainstream in a big way.

Place the peak oil movement in its context and the dynamic is hard to miss. Fifteen years ago the idea of peak oil was so far off the radar screens that serious books on energy published by academic publishers – Janet Ramage’s Energy: A Guidebook (Oxford University Press, 1997) is a good example – no longer remembered that oil production would crest long before the last barrel was pumped out of the ground. Ten years ago the peak oil movement was the outermost fringe of the fringe, a tiny network of retired petroleum geologists and engineers crunching numbers to predict the timing of an event most experts claimed would never happen. Five years ago the first really good books on the subject – Kenneth Deffeyes’ Hubbert’s Peak, Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over, James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, and a few others – were in print, and denunciations were beginning to issue forth from pundits who, until that time, had considered the peak oil movement to be beneath their notice.

Over the last year or so, the journey from fringe to mainstream has shifted into high gear. Peak oil has become a known quantity in the financial media, with a growing number of market pundits treating it as a real and inevitable phenomenon; blue-ribbon panels of various kinds are advising various governments that they really had better start paying attention to the future of petroleum; the US military has given dwindling energy supplies a place high up on the list of imminent threats to America’s security; even the world of haute culture, so often last in line to notice even the biggest changes sweeping through society, has been served up with a jumbo helping of peak oil courtesy of the Dark Mountain Project. All that remains is for the political leaders of an industrial nation to start talking about peak oil, and to judge from some of Barack Obama’s recent press conferences about the BP oil spill, that day may not be too far away.

What will happen then? It’s interesting to note that slightly muted versions of the two mythic narratives I discussed earlier in this post play a large role in speculations about the impact of peak oil going public. Some people – not many of them, but there are some – still cling to the hope that the people of the world’s industrial societies will take a deep breath, face up to the challenge of peak oil, and rescue the project of progress and the hope of brighter futures ad infinitum. Others, rather more of them, are convinced that a public announcement that the age of oil is ending will result in mass panic and the collapse of public order in an orgy of rioting, looting, and target practice with live ammo.

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that neither of these is particularly likely. A great deal depends on the circumstances, to be sure, but I suspect the first reaction will have a good deal in common with the oil shock of the 1970s, when the United States passed its own Hubbert peak and a nation used to limitless cheap energy had to face shortages and soaring prices. When that happened, some people buckled down and got to work; others panicked to one degree or another, though the rioting mobs of survivalist fantasy were in notably short supply; still others dismissed the entire thing as a Communist, liberal, conservative, or Fascist plot – I don’t think anybody but the Amish missed being blamed for the energy crises of the 1970s – and something close to a majority just shrugged or grumbled, according to temperament, and muddled through.

In the midst of these disparate reactions, a great deal of constructive work got done, and it’s arguable that even now the alternative energy scene hasn’t caught up to the point that the leading edge of the appropriate technology movement had reached when funding cuts and ultracheap oil brought the boom down on the whole thing in the early 1980s. If we get a similar muddle of disparate reactions, another round of equally constructive work is potentially within reach. Of course there will probably also be another round, on a larger and louder scale, of the debate between the myths of progress and apocalypse mentioned earlier in this post, and there will doubtless be plenty of flailing as people work their way through the five stages of peak oil – those are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and getting off your rump and doing something, in case you didn’t know.

Still, it’s also uncomfortably possible that we could also get something a good deal more destructive than what emerged out of the Seventies. For all the troubles of that decade, energy resources were still relatively plentiful and the economies of the industrial nations were far less topheavy with financial hallucinations, profiteering, and outright graft than they have since become. The limits to growth were in sight, but they had not yet begun to clamp down hard, and energy researchers could reasonably trace a curve of transition that could get the world’s industrial nations to sustainability without massive social and economic trauma.

That possibility was foreclosed when the leaders of the major industrial nations embraced short term politics instead of meaningful planning in the years right after 1980. At this point, the resources that might have powered a transition to sustainability have been burnt to fuel one last orgy of conspicuous consumption, and the consequences of that final spree, combined with epic economic mismanagement and a good solid helping of chicanery and outright fraud, have tipped the industrial nations of the world over into what promises to be a long and difficult period of economic malfunction.

When familiar myths fail and life gets difficult, in turn, the results rather too often include a form of collective flight into fantasy well known to sociologists and students of history. Think of cargo cults, Ghost Dancers, Americans waiting in a suburban Chicago backyard to be taken off the planet by the Space Brothers, and every other example you recall of people responding to a difficult situation by a leap of faith to a farther shore that didn’t happen to be there. Now think about it again, remembering that this time the motivating factors may well include the symbols and slogans and passionate hopes that matter most to you.

The standard jargon for phenomena of this kind is revitalization movements. They happen when a society is hit by repeated troubles that cut straight to the core of its identity and values. In such times, when existing institutions fail and the collective foundations of meaning crack, there’s a large demand for some new vision of destiny that will make sense of the troubles and offer a way past them to some brighter future. The economics of popular belief being what they are, that demand very quickly finds an ample supply.

Revitalization movements, like new cars, come with standard features and a range of optional gewgaws that can be added on to suit the tastes of the buyer. The standard features include a thorough critique of the existing order of society, which is meant to show that the troubles have occurred because either the people who have suffered from them, or some other group that’s to blame for them, have misbehaved and are being punished; a vision of a Utopian future that will arrive right after the troubles if the right things are done; and a straightforward plan of action to make the transition from the troubles to the Utopian future. The problem is that the plan of action can’t actually deliver the goods; that’s what defines something as a revitalization movement rather than, say, an ordinary movement seeking social change. Revitalization movements emerge when all the practical options for dealing with a crisis are either unworkable or unthinkable.

The optional features range all over the map from the harmless to the horrific. A focus on purification, for example, is one common optional feature, but purification can mean a great many things. In the Native American revitalization movements of the twentieth century, for example, it usually meant abstaining from alcohol and other toxic products of white culture, and did a great deal to help First Nations communities begin to recover from the ghastly experiences of the previous century. In the European revitalization movements that sprang up in the wake of the Black Death, by contrast, it usually meant getting rid of Jews and other social outsiders who were blamed for spreading the plague, and helped lay the foundation for the witch hunting mania of the following centuries.

It seems uncomfortably likely to me that such movements could be set in motion by the emergence of peak oil as a publicly acknowledged crisis. Tendencies in that direction are already welded firmly in place in popular culture across the industrial world. The Sarah Palin supporters who turned “Drill, baby, drill” into their mantra du jour are engaging in incantation, to be sure, but there’s more to the slogan than a comfortable thoughtstopper; a great many of the people who mouth it believe with all their heart that all we have to do is drill enough wells and we can have all the petroleum we want, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to get those wells drilled. That plan of action can’t deliver the goods; they might as well be out there with the cargo cults, building mock airfields on isolated Pacific islands hoping to bring back the DC-3s full of K-rations and cheap trade goods that landed on a hundred archipelagoes during the Second World War. Still, that’s not something they are likely to grasp any time soon; mere reason has essentially no power against a nascent revitalization movement.

The shift from incantation to revitalization movement is under way on the other side of the political spectrum as well, though it hasn’t generally gotten as much traction yet – a reminder that in America, at least, the ideologies of the left these days tend to be favored by the still relatively privileged middle classes, while the working classes that favor ideologies of the right have gotten the short end of the stick for decades. Still, the tendencies are there. Watch the conversations on most reasonably active peak oil forums, and you’re very likely to see people insisting that all of us, or at least a chosen few, can make the transition to a brighter future if only we follow some plan of action they are eager to share. In those conversations, the seeds of the revitalization movements to come are putting out their first tentative shoots.

If those seeds sprout and blossom, keeping a clear mind amid their heady perfume will be a more challenging task than I suspect most of my readers realize. What sets revitalization movements apart from the more incantatory activities of the true believers in progress or apocalypse is that revitalization movements actually buckle down and do something, and tolerably often, at least some of the things they do are worth doing. Hope is an intoxicating drug; hope blended with opportunities for apparently constructive action is an even stronger one; add the emotional lure of belonging, the promise of mutual support and encouragement, and the rush that comes from dropping ordinary concerns for the single-minded pursuit of a shared ideal, and you’ve got an addictive high that’s hard to resist and harder to quit. That’s why revitalization movements so often gather large crowds, and proceed to follow out the consequences of their internal logic to its furthest extreme, no matter how catastrophic the consequences might be.

In the present case, they could be catastrophic indeed. I think most people know in theory about the destination of the road paved with good intentions, but revitalization movements that go awry have a bad habit of putting that theory into practice. Next week, I’ll explore those uncomfortable possibilities in more detail, and in the process, show how the magical thinking that underlies revitalization movements could be put to use in much more constructive ways.

For the moment, though, I want to pass on the counterspell against incantatory thinking that I mentioned at the conclusion of last week’s post. Like the magic spells in fairy tales, it comes with a taboo that limits what you can do with it. The taboo is this: you can use it to guard yourself from incantations, if you think about it and understand it, and you can pass it on to someone else who’s ready to receive and understand it. If you give it to someone who’s not willing to accept it, though, it will cause exactly the flight into incantation and fantasy it’s meant to prevent. Here it is:

There is no brighter future ahead.

Keep it secret; keep it safe. We’ll talk more next week.

Editorial Notes: Part One of a two-part essay.

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