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Peak oil risks becoming an apocalyptic cult

the four horsemen of the apocalypse

Peak oil doomers are sending you a message via the dark Pony Express, aka The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Image: Rich Man via Flickr.

Change out those barrels of potable water, haul a few more cases of pork-n-beans down to the basement and make sure that Messrs Smith and Wesson are well oiled up. That's right -- it's time again for the Peak Oil Apocalypse show, sponsored naturally, by Goldline International.

To hear many peak oil bloggers talk recently, you'd think that Western society was sure to collapse by Christmas.

Is "community" bogus?

Dmitri Orlov's blog is always a good place to go for a scary peak-oil bed-time story. But yesterday's post by Yevgeny is particularly chilling, as it deconstructs the idea of "community."

It's a cornerstone of the Transition movement that the post-peak future will be better if we work with our neighbors. If our cities and towns build more community gardens, open more local businesses and create more walkable development, we'll have a better chance to thrive in a future where energy is much more expensive.

Rejecting the idea of community as wishful thinking is a direct assault on the optimism of people who accept peak oil but still think the future won't be either Mad Max or Waterworld.

The Stoneleigh Effect

Then, Nicole Foss, who blogs under the name Stoneleigh, recently did an international tour, including an appearance at October's ASPO-USA conference in Washington, DC, to warn that credit will dry up and the world economy will soon suffer deflation even worse than in the Depression.

The folks at Transition Norwich in the UK, who appear to be generally optimistic re-localizers, were so impressed with Foss's warnings that they coined a term, "The Stoneleigh Effect," to describe the shock and awe typically experienced by the audience after one of her talks.

Doom, then boom

Finally, fellow ASPO-USA speaker and sometime Foss antagonist Jeff Rubin, economist and author of Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization, has recently been predicting $225 per barrel oil in 2012.

Rubin, who says he "believes in the power of prices" to help the ailing economy to eventually heal itself, certainly does see a lighter shade of dark clouds on the horizon than Foss or Orlov and friends. Nonetheless, $225 oil would mean the virtual end of affordable consumer goods, which could just scare a few folks here or there.

Potluck at the Temple of Doom

Whether you think warnings of quick and sure collapse are timely wake-up calls for a complacent and confused society or just plain crying wolf, it's easy to see how economic doomerism could itself doom the peak oil community and the Transition movement to the status of a minor apocalyptic cult.

The mainstream media has already shown that it likes to paint peak oil into the doomer corner. Imagine there's no oil: scenes from a liberal apocalypse by Brian Urstadt in the August 2006 issue of Harper's magazine is a particularly good example, but there are many others done more recently.

Perhaps media outlets are just looking for ways to make peak oil activists look silly so that they can ignore what we have to say. But do we need to make it quite so easy for them to dismiss us?

Even if we can get around the media through our many blogs and online word-of-mouth, scaring the crap out of families struggling to pay the mortgage is not the best way to recruit them to a movement focused on positive responses. Instead, to reach a broader audience, as Sharon Astyk has put it, we need to tell stories that appeal to and resonate with a wider public.

Seduced by myth

We might also examine our own motivations here. Is it possible that many peak oil activists find scary stories just a little bit too entertaining?

As John Michael Greer warns us in his 2008 book The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age, predicting collapse may be no more rational than seeing a bright future of unlimited progress:

Both these myths have deep roots in the collective imagination of the modern world, and very few people nowadays seem to be able to think about the future at all without following one narrative or the other. It would be hard to find any two narratives less appropriate, though, for the future we are actually likely to encounter. Both of them rely on assumptions about the world that don't stand up to any sort of critical examination.

Don't blame the mainstream

It may be frustrating to energy and climate activists that the public seems so slow at getting it, still wavering between poles of complacency on the one hand and fear on the other.

But it's not the public's fault that they don't get a subject as hard to accept as peak oil. It's ours. And those of us who claim to know better about energy and climate also have a responsibility to avoid falling back on the same tired old stories, particularly tales of doom.

As Rob Hopkins puts it, "so much peak oil and other environmental literature is doom-laden and information heavy, and most peoples' reaction is to switch off. How can we design descent pathways which make people feel alive, positive and included in this process of societal transformation?"

His answer: help your city or town develop an Energy Descent Plan, and prepare for the new world with open eyes and good cheer.

Editorial Notes: EB reader Charlotte Du Caan comments: Delighted though we were on This Low Carbon Life to be mentioned in Erik Curren's article (Peak oil risks becoming an apocalyptic cult) we cannot take the credit for coining the phrase The Stoneleigh Effect. I first heard it at the 2010 Transition Conference in June where Nicole Foss was speaking. As far as everyone knows it was Rob Hopkins who came up with it (though I heard it first from Peter Lipman, as the shock waves began to ripple through the hall). Whoever's predictions are correct in the end about oil and the economy, a lot of us right now need to wake up to the reality of Big Change on the horizon and Stoneleigh did a great job of sounding the alarm. With best wishes, Charlotte Du Cann This Low Carbon Life Transition Norwich

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