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ASPO-USA Asks: “What Are We Missing?” - Part 2

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent the position of ASPO-USA.)

There are so many challenges facing us as a result of Peak Oil and related issues that it is easy to miss something important. ASPO-USA asked more than 50 leaders on Peak Oil to share what they felt was the most critical issue we’ve all been missing, the thing every one of us should be talking about - but aren’t. The answers were eye-opening, and have started a discussion that continues. This is the second in a three part series (first available here), in place of a traditional commentary, Peak Oil Review will run a range of perspectives on this issue - from geologists to food experts, from social critics to scientists - what are we missing? Where should we be putting more attention, more resources? All of us miss things - but between so many working minds, we have a better chance of covering the expansive ground that we have to address. We thank all of our contributors for expanding our vision! - Sharon Astyk, Tom Whipple, and ASPO-USA

RICHARD HEINBERG

“Peak Oil and Peak Coal are by themselves seldom acknowledged, but there is a further problem that gets even less attention in the media. It’s one that could have greater short-term impact than anything else (short of a truly apocalyptic natural disaster). And that is the impact of Peak Resources upon the world’s financial system. It’s the End of Growth. We’ve already seen a dry run in 2008, with an oil price spike triggering the worst financial meltdown since the 1930s. As resource supply limits tighten, we’ll eventually see a re-run - but this time the world’s governments and central banks will already have exhausted their bailout capacity. Politicians may rail about deficits, but few if any of them understand the relationship between Peak Debt and resource limits - and their ignorance will make it all but impossible for them to mount effective responses. That’s why it’s probably up to communities to design their own resilience strategies.”

Richard Heinberg is the author of eight books including Peak Everything (New Society, 2007). He is a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute and is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost Peak Oil educators.

BART ANDERSON

“What intrigues me most is the concept of culture change. How are we, as a culture, going to change as we go into the post-carbon era? Mainstream attitudes and beliefs have been formed during a time of high consumerism and energy glut, so “everything we know is wrong.”

The future will emerge from beliefs and grouplets that are currently marginalized. For clues to the coming culture, I look toward people who are multi-cultural, or who have been exposed to traditional ways of life.

One of the most important technologies to develop is that of group dynamics. Current American culture is brash, self-assertive, centrifugal. We could live that way because we were rich. As energy and resources become constrained, we will find that co-operation and good listening skills have a high EROEI.”

Bart Anderson, teacher, journalist and technical writer, is co-editor of the Energy Bulletin and active in Transition Palo Alto.

ERIK CURREN

“Though shaken, the United States remains the world’s sole superpower and its largest consumer and polluter. For global civilization to get through peak oil and fight climate change, the US must stop obstructing international efforts to power down from fossil fuels and to cut greenhouse pollution.

But our nation will never abandon its suicidal consumerism and profligate use of energy until citizens overthrow what Adbusters’ Kalle Lasn has called America(TM).

  • Less a country than an ad campaign, America(TM) is a lifestyle where “cool” as defined by Nike, Apple and Calvin Klein is the ultimate value. You become cool by buying stuff you don’t need and replacing it as soon as you can with the new and improved model.
  • Standing as it does for conspicuous consumption and criminal excess, America(TM) is destroying our ecology while it poisons its own people with toxins physical and mental.
  • The spread of America(TM) around the world means that China builds a new coal plant every day and that Indians can buy a $3,000 car.

If America(TM) is not stopped, global ecological overshoot and resource depletion will soon reach catastrophic tipping points.

We need a Second American Revolution to take the (TM) out of America. And not from today’s travesty Tea Party, which is nothing more than a front group for corporate welfare. The original Tea Party was the opposite, as much a revolt against the oligarchy of the East India Company and other corporations of the day as against British rule. In this spirit, today’s revolutionaries must revolt against the capture of the organs of the state by plutocrats from Big Oil to Wall Street, who will never forgo their profits even it means the end of our nation.

To recognize the oligarchs, citizens must free themselves from the consumerism that has become the true opiate of the masses.

We must take back our minds and our wallets from corporate cool. Only then can we take back our country and help our humanity to have a future.”

Erik Curren is the publisher of Transition Voice. He has been involved in environmental and energy issues for two decades.

KEITH FARNISH

“In discussions of Peak Oil and other shortages, we seem to have lost our sense of deference to what, after all, is something we only have the right to borrow. Every drop of oil extracted by civilized humanity is a drop of oil that won’t be returned: yet we view that as a Resource, something that is there to be used rather than something that just happens to be there. The oil was not put there for us to use, it just exists, and we happen to be using it, to our likely tragic denouement. The same attitude pervades forests (which we call timber, or potential grazing land), mountains (which we call open-cast mines) and marine life (which we call fish stocks). Resources they might be, but they are not *our* resources, they are part of the Earth we share. Oil may not be part of life, except to a few forms of bacteria, but neither it is a “resource” that we can use as though it belongs to us. That attitude will be our undoing.”

Keith Farnish is an environmental writer, philosopher and activist. He is the author of Times Up! and The Unsuitablog.

AARON NEWTON

“I have set aside any hope of a meaningful response to energy descent or climate change in the United States at the federal or state level, which means international action will continue to be ineffectual as well. I feel this sentiment has set in among many of those who keep up with these issues. I now follow the developments of peak oil in the same way I follow baseball, as a pastime. I am interested in whether or not monthly total liquids production has in fact eclipsed the all time high of July 2008 in the same way I occasionally check to see if the Phillies are still leading the NL East.

I now spend very little time on awareness in regards to people that have no idea about these issues; turning down invitations to speak to such groups and avoiding the topic at cocktail parties. Instead I spend time with those people working on plans for regional and local responses to the future in a world with less of everything available to us. I’m telling people that sure, it is interesting and somewhat useful to continue to follow the saga of peak oil and climate change but that they should spend the lion’s share of their time on actionable projects with a bullseye mentality of home, community and region and not to worry too much about what happens outside a 25 mile radius of their home.”

Aaron Newton is a sustainable land planner and director of environmental programs at Outdoor Living, a design firm. He is the author of “A Nation of Farmers.”

JEFF VAIL

“In my opinion the biggest AND least discussed issue is that the hierarchal nature of our economic-political system demands perpetual growth. Accordingly, any “solution” that does not promise a return to growth will be rejected out of hand by that system, but any “solution” that does promise perpetual growth is a false hope.

Hierarchies compete in a peer-polity ecosystem and must adopt short term strategies to maximize growth or be out-competed by others that do, no matter how unsustainable the pattern in the long term. This will not change in a broader environment of perpetual real contraction - there will always remain opportunities for competitors to pursue a maximization strategy at the cost of others. Energy descent will not put an end to the pursuit of growth by hierarchies - it will only make the game more cutthroat and zero-sum.

Why the focus on hierarchies? This systemic demand for growth is a symptom of centralization and the accompanying competition for resources from the periphery (both geographic and conceptual). This systemic need for growth does not exist where there is scale-free self-sufficiency (a resilient characteristic hierarchies trade for efficiency), either localized, networked, or both.”

Jeff Vail is a Colorado business litigation attorney and a contributor to The Oil Drum.

RAYMOND DE YOUNG

“In studying and teaching about environmental and resource crises in general, and peak oil and localization in particular, you can observe that after study or reflection or both, people often come to a “downshift moment.” Evidence, trends, and relationships coalesce into a new mental map. In the case of downshift, the initial facts are largely about the material - natural resources and wastes on the one hand, money, credit, debt, and insurance on the other. At other times a downshift moment seems to happen when people “face the facts” about change, about bewildering trends, declining availability, displaced costs that finally come due, discontinuities in supply and in the environment. But sometimes the downshift moment is more than a matter of knowledge accumulation; it is also a matter of clarity emerging from the realization that in our lifetime, steady material decline will become the new order.

This downshift moment can even be a sensuous moment underlain by strong but mixed emotions. One can almost feel the difference between the experiences and expectations of the cheap-energy era and those of the coming transition and the steady state beyond. Recalling with pleasure an electrifying lifestyle while grieving its loss will certainly be part of the experience. Uncertainty and anxiety will surely accompany such a sweeping transition, but anticipation and fascination and impatience to get a move on can also be expected. All of these are feelings borne by the possibility of genuine challenge and meaningful opportunity.

I think that we need to talk more about how to bring people to this downshift moment and help them through it, always being sure to end our conversations on the many embedded benefits in the transition we have to make.”

Raymond De Young is Associate Professor of Environmental Psychology and Planning at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment. He is co-author (with Thomas Princen) of the forthcoming book, The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press (2012).

NICOLE FOSS

“We need to start addressing the cause of our problems - the hierarchal structure of out political-economic system that we generally take as a given - rather than continue to focus in isolation on the many symptoms of this structure.

In my opinion, commodities (including oil, metals, agricultural commodities etc.) are in another speculative bubble, which I would expect to resolve as the last one did in 2008 - with a very sharp speculative reversal crashing prices in a matter of months. Bubbles form as positive feedback loops where the anticipation of higher prices in the future drives momentum chasing, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in the relatively short term. Speculators jump on the bandwagon and drive prices far in excess of what would be justified by the fundamentals, then they take their profits, dump the sector and short it, creating a price crash (i.e. a self-fulfilling prophecy in the other direction). This financial gaming can overwhelm, and wreak havoc with, sectors of the real economy. We may or may not have seen the high for the year, but I think the high is not far off, and when the reversal comes I expect that high to stand for perhaps a few years.

As supply and demand become tight, what one typically sees is not a one-way price escalation, but an exaggerated boom and bust cycle with very high price volatility. We have seen this play out for the last several years. It is also part of the general topping process of the credit bubble, with moves in many markets governed by the general ebb and flow of confidence (and therefore liquidity), so that many prevailing trends (i.e. stocks, commodities, bond yields, the dollar etc) turn at similar times. Such a turn is rapidly approaching in my view, and with it will come a resumption of the credit crunch, but more powerful this time. A notable casualty could well be the European monetary union.

I would expect the speculative reversal to be the initial stage of finance impacting on energy prices. As we move into depression, the price crash should be followed by a dramatic weakening of aggregate demand, and therefore price support. Purchasing power will be falling due to credit contraction and spiking unemployment, undermining demand, which is not what you want, but what you can pay for. Even as prices fall, affordability is likely to get worse for most, as purchasing power may fall further (and perhaps faster) than price. I think we could see oil reach $20/barrel, but this would not be cheap oil for most people under depression conditions.

In my opinion, oil will bottom early in this depression. As depression leads to escalating conflict, I think resource wars will intensify. Conflict, and the lack of investment that depression would ensure, set up the conditions for a supply collapse down the line. In a few years I think low prices could give way to a veritable moon-shot, continuing the exaggerated boom and bust cycle. Against a backdrop of deflationary depression (i.e. the collapse of the global credit bubble, which is deflation by definition), this would render oil products completely unaffordable for many.

While I think the next few years will be remembered as a time of financial crisis, an energy crisis is clearly coming. Financial crisis can delay it, but at the cost of making it worse a few years later.”

Nicole Foss is the co-editor of The Automatic Earth, where she writes under the name Stoneleigh.

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