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Commentary: The 2011 ASPO-USA Conference: Truth in Energy, Truth in Community

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

The 2011 ASPO-USA Conference, held in Washington, DC November 2-5, in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, attracted more than 300 participants from many walks of life. These attendees were brought together, presumably, by a belief that we are entering an era of inexorable decline in fossil fuel production and a desire to face head-on this very serious yet underreported predicament.

This was my first ASPO event, so I have to rely on others’ perspectives on how this year’s conference compares with the six that preceded it. ASPO board member Megan Quinn Bachman, who has attended 18 peak oil conferences in the past several years, described this ASPO conference as her “peak conference” in terms of content, participants, and discussion.

I agree with Megan that the combination of topics explored and the roster of speakers conspired to create a compelling event. I was impressed by the ambitious effort to showcase the implications of, and possible mitigation strategies for, peak oil and the truly eclectic array of sessions and attendees. (I say “eclectic” rather than “diverse,” because the faces in the seats and behind the microphones suggest that the organization is still dominated by white men over the age of 50, although this is shifting significantly.)

Participants included geologists and others from the oil and gas industry, academics, activists, farmers, Transition Towners, financial professionals, and students, among many others. Is there another conference where you might sit down at a table between appropriate technology guru Albert Bates and geologic consultant Arthur Berman? If so, sign me up!

Among the presenters were members of the peak oil pantheon, including Jean Laherrère, co-author, with Colin Campbell of the seminal 1998 article “The End of Cheap Oil,” and Overshoot author William J. Catton. Also present, though not as a speaker, was Dennis Meadows, whose landmark 1972 book Limits to Growth sent presenter Richard Heinberg on a trajectory to become one of the world’s most prominent and influential peak oil authors, most recently of The End of Growth: Adapting to our New Economic Reality.

The theme of this year’s event was “Truth in Energy.” The week before the conference, ASPO set the stage for this theme with a press conference held on the steps of the Department of Energy, where ASPO leaders challenged the Energy Information Administration’s unrealistically optimistic oil supply projections. They also called upon Secretary Steven Chu to provide accurate information and to support the creation of a National Oil Emergency plan in concert with other federal agencies.

Throughout the conference, the truth that was told, from different perspectives, was this: as a civilization we are not only on a bumpy plateau with stagnant global oil production (which I will now forever hear in Jean Laherrère’s accent as a “beaumpy” plateau), we are bumping up against non-negotiable limits-economically, geologically, and ecologically.

Richard Heinberg observed that “the U.S. is leading the world into the post-growth era.” Economist Jeff Rubin described an economy that simply cannot grow at the baseline 3 percent rate in the context of $100/barrel oil. And several prominent analysts, led by Robert Hirsch, Chris Skrebowski, Robert Rapier, and Charles Maxwell, each reminded us that we face inevitable and possibly devastating supply shortages within a few short years. According to Hirsch, because the U.S. has absolutely no handle on this problem, “decline has a big head start over mitigation.”

Roger Bezdek laid out a detailed rationing scenario, which to me underscored just how unlikely it is that government will have the resources and political will to deploy such a plan.

Sobering findings, delivered against the backdrop of the Greek Tragedy, Occupy Wall Street, and a new International Energy Agency report that we have missed our chance to avoid dangerous changes to global climate.

The sessions and speakers also attended to responses on many fronts, including transportation, personal finance and investing, education, shale gas, and food, some featuring powerful local examples that could be replicated and scaled up. There were also some robust and hopeful explorations of the expanding viability of renewables, especially solar.

But one of the most tangible and significant advancements was laid out by keynoter Wes Jackson, president of The Land Institute (who, incidentally, introduced me to the concept of peak oil when I was a college student in the 1980s). After decades of breeding and experimentation, The Land Institute, through genetic selection, has developed a perennial grain called KernzaTM, which is a relative of wheat. Their goal is to make the crop farmer-ready in another decade, and someday a widespread component of a perennial polyculture that mimics the prairie ecosystem, making possible a truly sustainable agriculture.

A dramatic moment literally unfolded as Jackson hoisted a life-sized, floor to ceiling photograph of the perennial KernzaTM, with its massive, 16-foot long roots, next to the hybrid wheat that is the mainstay of our diets and our agriculture, with its spindly roots reaching barely a foot below the earth. This development could be a key factor in moving agriculture off fossil fuels and in addressing the soil crisis-which, Jackson argued forcefully, is a more pressing priority than peak oil.

Another bright spot was a presentation by Naomi Davis, founder of Blacks in Green, the acclaimed Chicago-based organization committed to building sustainable, self-reliant “greenvillages.”

The conversation deepened with presentations by an all-star cast of thoughtful commentators, including John Michael Greer, Nicole Foss, Dmitry Orlov, and Sharon Astyk.

A critical theme that emerged throughout the conference was that we must get much better at telling the story. Chris Martenson, creator of “The Crash Course” made a compelling case for the need to shift the consensus narrative toward a new story that will engage and unite people behind valuing energy stewardship.

This conversation continued in a session called “Innovative Communications: Writing a New American Story,” where an animated and verbose group discussed strategies, obstacles, and opportunities around moving the peak oil story into the mainstream.

This is a conversation I have been having with many people in the movement, including ASPO-USA, with an emphasis on developing a message and creating a collaborative, coordinated communications strategy. As Transition Voice’s Erik Curren pointed out, getting heard is not ASPO’s strong suit. Despite efforts to reach out to reporters, there was virtually no coverage of the conference outside of the peak oil blogosphere. This is definitely an area where ASPO can and must develop capacity.

Media types are fond of saying that if an event doesn’t get covered, it didn’t happen. But this conference definitely happened. And what it created was a general assembly of a community, one that shows tremendous promise as a model for cross-sector collaboration. This kind of collaboration is desperately needed if we are to have anything resembling a soft landing as we head down the fossil carbon mountain.

The ability to convene and build this multidisciplinary network is, in my view, ASPO-USA’s greatest asset. The only way to fully understand the peak oil story and address it is to learn not from just geologists and economists but also historians, sociologists, permaculturists, urban planners, and farmers. We should also hear from individuals whose lives have already bumped up against those economic and ecological limits, to learn from their experience of adapting to new circumstances.

As informative and important as the sessions were at ASPO 2011, the real work, as John Michael Greer observed, took place at the hotel bar and at meals. This is the kind of venue where we incubate the human and social capital that will be our strongest currency in the future.

As I sat in the plush lobby of the Hyatt Regency during the conference, enjoying the company of interesting people who share my world view and my concerns about the future, I couldn’t help but wonder how much longer it will be possible to put on big, energy-intensive conferences, with people traveling from distant states and continents. But then I was reminded of the final bullet in Gail Tverberg’s presentation on future financial scenarios: “Appreciate what we have now.” With this in mind, I took a moment to appreciate what was taking place among this remarkable polyculture of experts and committed citizens.

With the urgent nature of the challenges we face, there is no question that the time has come for ASPO-USA to bring its best game. From many conversations at the conference, I sensed that the organization is actively seeking to re-group and evolve, while continuing its commitment to Truth in Energy. I look forward to being a part of the conversation and helping to tell the story.

Alice Oldfather, a member of ASPO-USA’s advisory board, is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in Albany, New York.

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