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Peak Fantasy

I’m going to begin by admitting to a questionable wish that, I believe, others may nevertheless also share: I wish for the coming of Peak Oil. The sooner, the better. Let’s get on with it. Enough of all this practice: when will it be game-time?

In more reflective moments, or at least ones in which I focus on the practical aspects and likely consequences of Peak Oil, I am able to remind myself that my life, and those of my friends and family, are pretty safe and secure right now, and that after Peak Oil, they will become increasingly less so. But my visceral reaction to the news that oil is pushing $100/barrel, that Alaska reserves have been greatly overestimated, that Ghalwar is running dry runs in the direction of excitement and glee.

What accounts for this disparity between the world of pain, suffering, and insecurity (not to mention something like a Tea-Party takeover) that I rationally know and should want to postpone or avoid, and my stronger desire for this brave (or chaotic, uncertain, dangerous, even lethal) new world? Why does the coming of an age of massive depletion release a surge of dopamine in my pre-postcarbon brain?

There is certainly a number of ways to account for this. To be honest, despite Rob Hopkins’ most sincere pleas our better selves, I know I have a good, strong, streak of “I told you so.” Put more subtly, perhaps, I’m tired of being seen as the extremist, my efforts and preoccupations getting narrated as a quirky over-reaction.

It is also likely that my welcoming attitude towards Peak Oil has something to do with my high tolerance of, even desire for, risk (my hobby is—or would be if I had more money and a lesser sense of its carbon footprint—high altitude mountaineering). One of my maxims: you can’t be bored and scared at the same time, and nothing is worse than being bored. I will also accept as a part of this the corollary notion (well-articulated by my wife) that insensitivity to risk depends on a roughly equal amount of denial—the overpowering feeling that, despite my rather gruesome comprehension of the risks, it won’t happen to me. John Greer writes interestingly of this, the notion that in die-off scenarios, we always see the dying as happening to others. Denial is neither just a river in Egypt nor just a mountain in Alaska.

Add to this my semi-conscious apprehension that if Peak Oil has swift and drastic consequences, conditions such as debt (or other kinds of inept adult living) will leap from pressing and dire to routine and inconsequential before anyone can bother (or afford to) evict us from our house--and I can begin to understand my investment in soon seeing the apex of Hubbert’s Peak.

But these factors, as important as they may be, do not get to the heart of my desire for the coming of Peak Oil. This desire, as I have suggested, may be widely shared among members of the “peak oil community” (a laughable designation that is nevertheless right on point). Evidence for this, I believe, is the nature of much Peak Oil reporting and blogging. Indeed, it is almost as if Peak Oil has been designed expressly for the blogosphere, with its immediate sensitivity to daily fluctuations. Of particular note, here, is the ASPO reporting on EB. It is not so much the fact of this dedication to tracking the trends, scouring it for evidence of where we are on Hubbert’s Peak that is significnant. Rather, more notable to me, at least, is how interesting and dramatic I find watching this ticker-tape. I doubt I am alone in all of this.

I believe my eager anticipation for Peak Oil, as well as that of a substantial sector of the peak oil community, has to do with an imaginative misconception of how Peak Oil will actually manifest itself. Readers of this post may, to this point have been restlessly sighing at my assumption that we haven’t already seen a peak in oil production, that Peak Oil has not already arrived. But this assumption on my part actually leads us to the heart of the matter. A desire for Peak Oil, I have to admit, is predicated on the simple, but probably mistaken, view that Peak Oil will be an event. Moreover, it is predicated on the fantasy that this event will be of immediate (rather than retrospective) significance, that it will mark a turning point, open a new world--that summiting Hubbert’s Peak will have the feel of summiting a mountain, with the exquisite suddenness with which a 360 degree view opens up, its frequent feeling of sublime exposure, that sense of finality and achievement that there is no higher point than where I am right now, that all is stretched out below, that I have made it to the top, and than now I will begin my descent.

I have used a graph of Hubbert’s Peak in all of my Transition or Energy Literacy presentations. It is an essential component of my cognitive map for a post-carbon world. But it does suggest a rather linear track. Most clarifying images suffer from this sort of simplification, a simplification that is much more likely to bite us in the behind on our descent from the Peak than on the way up—if, indeed, there is to be this sort of identifiable descent and if, indeed, this bite is to be a discreet event. I am, in effect, arguing that it won’t.

The desire for this kind of singular and defining event is, I think, driven by a larger desire—the desire for clarity. When I close my eyes and imagine the event of Peak Oil, and then stay a moment longer and reflect on the relief that my imagination attaches to this event, I find myself comforted by a sudden lifting of confusion, uncertainty, and dissensus. In my imaginative projections, after Peak Oil we no longer need to convince the masses that our oil supplies are running low, that the growth economy is not sustainable, that oil has done to us more harm than good. We in the Peak Oil community are currently engaged in a pitched battle for the attention of a distracted public and an indifferent political culture. Our worries and concerns, our warnings and predictions, tend to focus on something that is yet to come. Our consuming gaze, today, is fixed on a spectre hovering on the horizon of which we are desperate to alert our friends and neighbors.

While few of us actually would argue that Peak Oil will bring us relief from this world of somnambulistic disbelief, at some level we tend to believe at the level of neurons and pleasure receptors that it will. With Peak Oil, we seem to assume, we can finally put down our pens, step away from the computer, end all the unheard shouting and facebooking, and get on with the more joyful work of growing food and building shelter with our local community.

This is not a very realistic scenario. Peak Oil is not likely to provide clarity. It is far more likely to cast us into a world of even greater conflict and disagreement. Instead of a clear admission from others that we were right after all, resource depletion will likely be blamed on excess governmental regulation, environmentalist over-reaction, or Europeans, and in an increasingly menacing tone. If Sarah Palin’s “drill, baby, drill” has resonance now, think how it will play when oil is at $150/barrel. Palin knows, or will intuit, that she can go farther by blaming liberals rather than geology for our unhappy condition.

Lately I have been posting about narrative, particularly in relation to the work of Hopkins and Greer. Despite the esoteric folds in which reflection on abstract philosophical issues can bury one, I am reminded, especially on the night after the mid-term elections, that story-telling and narration will play a leading role in the post-carbon drama. Perhaps far more urgent than the sorts of stories we tell ourselves as we march towards the Peak will be the stories we tell to guide ourselves down. If being attuned to the ways and means of stories is now important, the significance of this attention may increase many-fold in days and years to come. The pitched battle we now find ourselves in will become far steeper. And pitched downward, now, the potential for a free-fall slide will challenge our judgment and skills with tension and stakes that may, at this point, be hard to imagine.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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