hi, loser poster

Peak oil and climate change are so important that activists can no longer afford to act like principled losers. Photo: °Florian via Flickr.

I’m pleased that my little article on the high volume of collapse talk coming from peak oil writers recently generated some attention. And I’m grateful that as someone so obviously committed to Transition as Dave Ewolt judged my musings worth an intelligent response. I’d like to address some of his excellent points here.

For me, there are three issues in talking about any kind of post-peak collapse: what I know, what I don’t know, and how I talk to people who don’t care. We should be careful not to confuse these issues.

What I know

I publish a magazine on the nexus of peak oil, climate change and the economy because I think that resource depletion and global warming are grave threats to human civilization.

I know that industrial economies have already overshot their supply of resources, from oil to water to fish in the seas. I also know that we’re quickly filling up all the places to put our pollution, particularly greenhouse gas emissions. And I know that the Earth cannot long sustain a population of seven billion humans and growing.

I know that our societies cannot make peak oil or climate change go away with technology. I know that clean energy won’t replace all the fossil fuels we use now. But I also know that unless we want to shiver in the dark, we’ll need some source of power.

Most of all, I know that the post-carbon future is more likely to be a better future the more people are aware and start to prepare soon. And I know that it won’t be enough for a small in-group of families and communities to be ready if their neighbors are not ready. I know that we need our states, provinces and nations to be prepared too.

What I don’t know

I don’t know exactly what the post-peak future will look like, and I am suspicious of people who claim that they do.

I am grateful for people who make predictions with a healthy humility. I’m sure that both Nicole Foss and Jeff Rubin are aware of the moral responsibility that comes with giving financial advice. But since Foss says that families should prepare now for deflation and Rubin says they should prepare now for inflation, one of them will be wrong. Even as some people benefit from their advice, others will suffer.

I also don’t know if the post-peak future will be generally better or worse than today. I hope that Dave Ewolt is right that peak oil will bring mostly good things. But I think he’s too quick to welcome the end of affordable consumer goods because “$225/barrel oil would help people discover they don’t actually need the stuff in the first place.” Expensive oil will also mean diabetics will have trouble affording insulin, families will lose their homes, and many more children will go hungry.

We should not hold people who make predictions responsible for all the other people who decide to take their advice.

But we should hold ourselves responsible for due diligence when we hear advice and read scenarios of the future. We should not be too quick to accept predictions of extreme events whether in the economy, politics or the environment. We should remember that humans have a natural tendency to find extreme scenarios very seductive, as the quote from John Michael Greer showed in my original piece, and we should resist that seduction.

How I talk to people who don’t care

If we have given up on society, then we can build our own figurative Noah’s Ark and just prepare our own families for the Flood. In that case, we can write off the news media, we can write off using skillful communications techniques to reach the mainstream and we can write off our governments. Instead, we can just continue to give each other pep talks to boost our faith in a world of infidels, celebrating how misery loves company. And we can buy more canned food and ammunition.

But I am not there yet. I am not yet ready to give up on my country or on the other nations of the world. Especially since the peak oil movement hasn’t even really tried yet to reach the mainstream. And the green movement has communicated global warming so badly that they might as well have done nothing. I believe that now we can do better.

“Sea level is rising and Manhattan will be underwater.” “Flee the suburbs while you still can.” Or, as Yevgeny at ClubOrlov says in the post I found chilling, partially for his language here:

…when the local industrial agriculture kicks the bucket and the food will stop being delivered to the cities, won’t the residents of backward little villages be the winners? You can imagine gangster raids into rural places, rifling through barns and fields, and forcing people to pay a tribute, as in feudal times…

Now, maybe Yevgeny was not writing for a broad audience. And this tone might be just right for peak-oil insiders, whether the analysis is sound or not. But for people who don’t know or care about peak oil, such talk will surely backfire. Too much scary talk won’t help us recruit people; instead, it will just scare them away.

If the only way you can talk about peak oil and climate is to try to scare people straight, then sometimes it may be better to say nothing at all.

Good message, good marketing

To reach a wider audience, I’d argue for a staged communication strategy, such as Bob Doppelt’s Five Stages of Change for Climate Protection and Sustainability. His approach aims to gradually move people who are new to the issue of global warming from disinterest to acceptance to commitment and finally to taking action.

Transition Training offers the same skillful approach to talking to your neighbors, friends and family about peak oil. As Rob Hopkins writes on Transition Network, first we must get past the challenge of caring so much about the issue that we lose our cool:

People who are passionate about issues that necessitate change in others (most green issues fall into this category) can sometimes lack an awareness of how they communicate their message. For many, green campaigners can appear fanatical, naive, uninformed, smug, judgmental, patronizing or offensive (very few embody all of these, but I have seen talks by one or two people who managed it). Communicating Transition without such an awareness can, ultimately, be self defeating.

Then, we need to know our audience and use the right approach given where they’re at.

It’s not because I underestimate the danger of peak oil and global warming that I am drawn to sanity in our communications. It’s exactly because I take industrial overshoot very seriously that I hope those of us who already get it will commit to preaching beyond the peak-oil and eco-choir.

We don’t have time to indulge in what political campaigners call principled loser-ism. We cannot afford to be too attached to doing things that don’t work, like trying to scare our neighbors straight. And we cannot be too squeamish to do things that do work like sharing our truth in stages or even recruiting appropriate celebrity spokespeople to help us do that.