Energy Bulletin and Resilience: Behind the scenes of the first 10 years
In 2003 two young Australians, Adam Grubb and Liam Cranley, teamed up to fill a gap in the World Wide Web: solid information on peak oil. Prompted by a suggestion from Richard Heinberg, author of The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Society, they imagined a website that would gather all the best information about peak oil and related topics. Although neither had any experience with such a project, they launched Energy Bulletin that year.
Those Australians were soon joined by a curious Californian who landed on their site the following year. Bart Anderson, who would become the longest serving editor for Energy Bulletin (now Resilience) struck up a transoceanic relationship with the Australians. Together they built the web's most recognizable peak oil-related site, one that has been expanded to cover a wide range of topics related to energy and sustainability.
Longtime contributor Kurt Cobb spoke with Anderson, and emailed questions to the founders and two current co-editors, Kristin Sponsler and Simone Osborn. In these excerpts, the founders and editors share their experiences and insights from the first 10 years of this remarkable web publication.
Kurt Cobb: Adam and Liam, what prompted you to start Energy Bulletin?
Adam Grubb: Liam and I brought Energy Bulletin online in 2003. Back then I was living in a big old sharehouse in Melbourne, and I was immersed in learning about peak oil. A lot of my friends were young radical academics, smart people, but none had ever heard of the concept and for many it even had the whiff of conspiracy theory.
The most prominent website about peak oil was Jay Hanson's confrontingly doomerish Dieoff.com. I felt a little lonely actually, with the world going along as if nothing was wrong. However, I was on a global mailing list called Energy Resources, where Richard Heinberg prompted the idea of EB—a website where mainstream news articles and scientific papers relating to peak oil could be collected in one place.
So, I quietly started working on making that happen. For me, EB was also a project to facilitate my learning, a place to look for some positive sides to the challenge, and to give the peak oil conversation some ostensible legitimacy by making the website look reasonably credible. Never mind that I was drinking cheap beer after long work days to help me wind down while working on EB from a dingy sharehouse lounge room, and that I lacked any relevant qualifications. But I think it did look okay.
Liam Cranley: My primary motivation in 2003 was selfish - to reach some view on whether Hubberts successors were correct on the reality and significance of oil peak. I was initially sceptical, wary of the technocratic leanings of some prominent analysts and of implications for campaigns on global warming and neoliberalism, but the very lack of attention being given to the issue intrigued me. Adam & I hardly knew each other at the time, my recollection is of a vague conversation at a gig suddenly stumbling onto this mutual interest that nobody else we knew shared, and questions it seemed noone was asking never mind answering.
KC: What did it take to start the site? What did you have to do?
LC: Adam did the geek work and the style sheet, so for me ‘starting’ was just a matter of helping draft the primer, and then trawling the web for relevant content. Finding content, even back then & on dialup(!) wasn’t that hard, but understanding, weighing and checking novel information, that was what kept us up nights.
AG: There wasn't the plethora of content management systems available, so I cobbled one together. I happened to have coding skills. I think the code was full of security holes though, so the Post Carbon folks later moved the content across to the Drupal platform.
KC: Describe what it was like in those early days and how you were feeling about the project.
AG: There was a sense at the time that the still little-known idea of peak oil was conceptually dangerous. Before oil depletion's physical effects were felt, could the peak oil concept alone cause—who knows?—major events in the futures markets and a pre-emptive market collapse?
On the other hand, could we frame peak oil and relocalization in a way that would help us transcend left/right politics, discover shared core values, and form unexpected local alliances? When one of society's core assumptions—that of endless growth—is being challenged in such an imminent way, many things seem possible and probably are.
I enjoyed watching and being part of the spread and development of the concepts, and learning from all the very intelligent contributors such as yourself, and the wonderful working relationships with Liam, and later Bart.
LC: As readership and contributions grew there was less searching and more liaison, but the basic task remained sifting, reading ridiculous amounts, prioritising and subediting. Too much of it was done overdue and after midnight!
I greatly enjoyed the effort to understand and process, but was stressed by competing demands on my time and by the frankly unsupportive opinions of many of my immediate circle. As I became more convinced of the problems, it was also a constant effort to suppress my tendency towards intemperate editorialising; Adam's and then Bart's patient moderation saved me from discrediting EB many times. Not that all rants are bad, but it was obviously not that sort of website.
KC: Tell us what you've been up to since leaving Energy Bulletin in Bart Anderson's capable hands.
LC: Consuming too much bad news ultimately burnt me out. I abandoned professional science ambitions and eventually moved out of the city and took up manual work, which was the best thing for me at the time. I have greatly diversified my skills, work in building energy efficiency and enjoy participating in the life of a small community. My worldview now is somewhere between [Dmitri] Orlov and [John Michael] Greer, more diy & mutual aid than survivalist, and sniffing all the roses that each day brings. I am probably still more of a pessimist than Adam or Bart but much more relaxed about it than I used to be; decline is upon us and most are ignorant about the role of resource depletion, but it was ever thus. I’ve enjoyed being wrong about how fast we would decline, but the trajectory is, I think, unmistakeable.
AG: My first time physically around lots of peak-oil-aware people was in Kinsale, Ireland in 2005 at the Fueling the Future conference organized by Rob Hopkins and colleagues. I expected dour and argumentative types given my experience of online forums. But there was a very positive can-do atmosphere. I remember one of the other volunteers, an older lady, happily declared her readiness for work by saying, "Show me the shit and I'll scrub it." I liked the vibe there, and it's something I hope I've carried to the rest of my life.
These days I co-direct a successful small permaculture company with Dan Palmer called Very Edible Gardens. We earnt our chops as volunteers, and as co-founders of the Permablitz (a volunteer edible garden make-over network), which I still help facilitate locally. Last year my wife, Annie Raser-Rowland, and I released The Weed Forager's Handbook, a book about edible weeds, and we're currently talking to publishers about our next one, which is a fairly philosophical but hopefully funny book about how frugality and hedonism are actually complementary.
KC: Thanks, Adam and Liam for sharing your thoughts, and for the gift of this enduring site that has become central to the discussion of the world's energy future.
KC: Bart Anderson agreed to spend some time sharing his experiences as an editor of Energy Bulletin (now Resilience). Bart, I know you weren’t there right at the beginning, so you might talk a little about the people who started Energy Bulletin, and how you got involved with them.
Bart Anderson: In 2002 I retired as a technical writer from Hewlett-Packard and was casting about for somewhere to put my energies.
I was deeply interested in environmentalism and ecology, so I joined the local Master Gardeners program and attended a permaculture class given by Toby Hemenway, Jude Hobbs, and Rick Valley.
As I was looking around the web, the topic of peak oil caught my eye. I'd heard about peak oil about 30 years before, and thought it made sense. However, I found it hard to get good information. The scare websites were okay, just not something I wanted to get involved with. My background had been in journalism, so I felt strongly about news sources being reliable.
Then I ran across a nice clean-looking site—informative, balanced, fair—something I could relate to. It had the neutral name Energy Bulletin. No word as to who was doing it. I just felt that it was a trustworthy site, and so I began contributing. When I found good articles, I would tell the editors about them. Soon they gave me editing privileges, and I got to know who was behind the site: Adam Grubb (who went under the nom de web of Adam Fenderson) and Liam Cranley, another Australian with a wild sense of humor.
We got along well and I became more deeply involved. We’d have our staff meetings online. I in Palo Alto, California; they in Melbourne, Australia.
KC: And, what year was that?
BA: It was 2004. They had just started the site the year before.
KC: So, as you’re becoming more involved and experienced with Energy Bulletin, what was it like in 2004 and then 2005 and 2006 when prices really started to rise? Was there a change in the audience? When was it demonstrable that Energy Bulletin was becoming a popular site?
BA: At the beginning, the first few months, we were getting several hundreds of hits per day. Of course, you never really know who’s looking at your web pages. I tracked the rise in hits and it was rather gradual. Over a year or two, we began getting several thousands of views per day. What did we get up to? Maybe 11,000 site visits per day, with each visitor viewing an average of about 2.4 pages.
When oil prices and gas prices went up, the readership would spike. In periods like the current one, when the oil supply seems to be okay, readership maintains at a level that is not as high. But it never plummets.
Who was the audience then? We could get a rough idea of who viewed Energy Bulletin by examining the site logs. Early on, we saw visits from government and corporate sites. We got feedback from government officials and politicians as well as corporate and oil people. They would be the few individuals in any organization who are open to new things. I’m sure they didn’t represent the majority. We also had visits from military sites.
Based on interactions with readers, I would say that the average reader at first was a white technical professional, aged 37 to 63, overwhelmingly male. Visitors came mostly from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia, though there were readers from all over the world. At the beginning they tended be analytic types: computer programmers and engineers. That was understandable since most of the information we published then was analytical and dense with technical terms.
KC: I recall when I started working with you, the site was updated not always on a daily basis, but certainly on a weekly basis. And then that changed because the number of articles that were being written about peak oil and related issues just began to mushroom.
And also, you found that certain people were consistently writing pieces that were very much aligned with Energy Bulletin’s mission. And so, you started to have a regular group of writers. Maybe you could talk a little bit about who those people were and how you came to know about them.
BA: At the beginning we updated the site maybe a couple times a week. Then it got a lot more intense, exactly as you say. There are multiple reasons for that.
First of all, awareness of peak oil had edged into the mainstream. When we began, you could read every article on the web that mentioned peak oil. Now, of course, there are a million or so Google hits on “peak oil.”
Number two, something I felt strongly about, was that we needed to diversify our audience beyond the narrow demographic of middle-aged professionals. Because, if this is a real problem, we need everyone on board. We made an effort to bring in people from different countries, different ethnic groups, different professions. We encouraged women contributors.
Third, early on, Adam received a message from a reader saying, “You’re just giving us doom and gloom. What are we supposed to do with it? It’s horrible. Give us something to do.” And so we made a commitment not just to focus on the problems, but also to show positive responses.
Fourth, the peak oil community came to realize that it’s not just about oil. We needed to look at all the different energy sources, energy as a whole.
Then we came to realize, it’s not just energy. Energy is tied up with so much else—agriculture and water supplies, for instance. In California much of our energy is used to deliver water—I don’t remember the figures, 5 or 10 percent, a huge amount. [The California Energy Commission estimates that the number is 19 percent when all “after the meter” uses of electricity related to water are included.]
We started as a site narrowly focused on peak oil, but as our understanding grew, the ramifications became overwhelming.
The last part of your question was about the individual writers. That aspect also evolved over time. Writers would find our site and ask, “Would you be interested in publishing this piece of mine?” We always had an open submission process, so that if you wanted to contribute, you could sign up and start submitting articles. This didn’t mean they’d be posted, but the possibility was always there.
We found some really good writers in that way. Our hope was to make the site more readable and interesting, and provide them a platform so they could get recognition.
We also reached out to writers whose work we admired. When we found good writers like you and John Michael Greer and Sharon Astyk, we would ask permission to repost their articles. In 95 percent of the cases we got an immediate yes, and a blanket permission: “Publish anything of mine that you like.”
For me, coming from the competitive worlds of high tech and journalism, it was a delight to work in this way.
KC: Say a little bit about your relationship to other sites that began to appear like The Oil Drum, which unfortunately is no longer updating. How did you view them as part of that space of peak oil, and how did you interact with them?
BA: The peak oil relationships were both very new and very satisfying for me. The key was that nobody was making any money. We were all doing this for the love of it. Adam and Liam were open to making alliances and connecting with other people.
The Oil Drum people contacted us during their start-up. We gave them publicity and would post their articles, encouraging readers to visit their site. For both of us I think that was a very satisfying relationship.
Interestingly, at the beginning, Energy Bulletin was the site with the reputation and The Oil Drum was this little newly hatched project. Toward the end, The Oil Drum became very well known, earning a reputation for quality and depth, both in the peak oil world and in the mainstream media.
Peak oil people, in general, seem to be happy for other people’s successes. Each of us found our own niche. For example, we at Energy Bulletin had a different take on things than The Oil Drum. They went for that demographic of professional engineers and technical people, while we aimed at a broader audience.
There were quite a few other sites and people that we made alliances with. It would take a long time to list them all. One constant ally was ASPO, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, a source of rock-solid analysis and cool-headed political savvy. ASPO members from various countries in the world were a great source of articles. I also have to mention the “Energizer Bunny” of the peak oil movement, Tom Whipple, a one-man news agency on energy and peak oil.
For me personally, the most important ally was the Transition Movement. We had heard about this odd social movement in England, and it really fit in with our view of things. Early on we posted their articles and pointed people to them. I hope we helped to bring awareness of Transition to a lot of people.
KC: There was a point at which you came to be flying solo on Energy Bulletin. And, I know that you devoted an enormous number of hours to it. Maybe you could talk about that experience—why you chose to stick with it and spend that much time on it, and how you eventually let go it by finding people that you felt confident would carry on the tradition.
BA: Why don't I answer the last part first?
One of the key groups that we began to interact with was the Post Carbon Institute and Julian Darley [its executive director at the time]. And, of course, it was Richard Heinberg [longtime PCI associate and now Senior Fellow-in-Residence] who first made the suggestion to start what ended up being Energy Bulletin.
We were always aware of Richard and tried to highlight his work. Over the years, our relationship with Post Carbon grew closer. Post Carbon's support became critical later on, as Adam and Liam found they could no longer spend the time they had been devoting to Energy Bulletin. We were all doing this gratis, and people have to earn a living. So that was fine. There was never any bad feeling about their leaving.
As my wife will tell you, I overdid it, sometimes working 10 to 12 hours a day—probably not a good idea. But it was a wonderful experience. We were learning about energy, water, phosphorus, group dynamics—like an ongoing graduate school seminar with brilliant minds opening up to us one area after another. I’d get up in the middle of the night, post articles and write to people. It was a real high.
A number of us, in looking back over our lives, will see that there was a time when we sort of went crazy and did something really important. That’s how I feel now. I hope the other people who were involved in Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, and the whole peak oil movement feel that way as well.
KC: Let me turn your attention to 2008. That had to have been a high point for Energy Bulletin, because of the oil price spike when oil hit its all-time high of $147 a barrel in July that year. Talk about the run-up to that price spike and what that year felt like.
BA: Our experience during that period relates to something I know is on your mind right now, Kurt. You've been writing about Nassim Taleb's concept of antifragility—how we should not predicate our behavior on being able to forecast the future. That was a lesson I think we internalized early on.
People would make predictions about future oil prices and the date of the peak. But in our coverage we always tried to say, “You can’t do that, predict the exact peak.” When the price of oil went up so dramatically, it got headlines and brought more people to us and The Oil Drum. That’s great. But we didn’t pay a super amount of attention to short-term price movements. Because it makes you manic-depressive. It’s hard to continue in that mode.
That being said, the experience was heady. All of a sudden, publications like The New York Times, the Financial Times and The Economist—that never paid attention to peak oil at all—began quoting people from the peak oil blogosphere. Some publications were even interested in having an alliance with us.
Other secondary effects of the price rises were also compelling. For example, the success that [U.S. Representative] Roscoe Bartlett had in getting the GAO [Government Accountability Office] to produce a report on oil prices and peak oil.
Or when the IEA [International Energy Agency] recognized peak oil as a significant issue. Or when the Hirsch Report [a report on peak oil commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy] finally got widespread attention.
That’s how I perceived the rise in prices, through their secondary effects and the increasing amount of attention peak oil got. Of course, our readership numbers were getting higher, so that was nice.
KC: And then, there was the crash in oil prices. And your fortunes in terms of number of readers turned around.
BA: I don't think it affected us as much as other sites because we had diversified our coverage. We still tracked oil prices and posted articles about how the numbers were being distorted by the mainstream media. All good stuff. But we were mainly covering deeper long-term issues. It didn’t matter what oil prices were doing in the short term. The Transition Movement is a wonderful example of that long-term thinking.
So we weren’t dependent on peak oil being a popular issue. Our numbers went down, but not that much. We had regular readers and our numbers were still respectable. Again, this is in line with your idea about not predicating one's behavior on making accurate forecasts.
We always try to tell people, “Don’t go by the last six months in oil prices when making your plans, because you’ll be whipsawed.”
KC: At some point you got some backing from Post Carbon Institute because of your long association with them.
BA: We had been a shoestring operation, with Adam paying the web hosting fees out of his own pocket. Julian [Darley] of Post Carbon reached out to us. He was very supportive of what we were doing. When we needed some help—technical help, for example, having machines that could handle the traffic—he was instrumental in making sure that we got it.
At a certain point Post Carbon started handling our web hosting, which was very much appreciated. If it weren’t for Post Carbon and Julian, we’d be gone by now.
Over time we grew closer and closer. Now, of course, we’ve been a project of Post Carbon for the past four or five years, operating under their umbrella. If every news organization had a relationship with its supporters, like the relationship we have with Post Carbon, it would be heaven for journalists. The Post Carbon people have been a delight to work with.
KC: And, you got some help after that, after they made it a project of Post Carbon Institute.
BA: Yes, over time the workload was getting to me, and I realized I was skirting burnout. Simone Osborn and Kristin Sponsler started helping out with the editing. The quality of the people that you work with makes all the difference in the world. It had been wonderful to work with Adam and Liam, and now it is wonderful to work with Simone and Kristin.
They started off slowly. We always spent time talking—we'd have weekly Skype meetings where we would work out problems and talk about issues. That was how they became enculturated to the ways of Energy Bulletin—and how they enculturated me to their way of doing things.
At a certain point, personal things in my life required that I stop the 12-hour days. For a time I was not doing a whole lot. They stepped in and took over the editorship. I still try to keep my hand in. When they are on vacations, for example, I take over. But I no longer am responsible for the day-to-day routine. They took all the pressure off of me, and I’m grateful for that.
KC: Finally, Energy Bulletin changed its name.
BA: That’s right. That sure got people’s attention, didn't it? I think the name change was the biggest controversy we ever had, along with the changes to the look of the website. About these things, different people have different opinions. Nobody knows who’s right until maybe 10 years afterwards. I think there was a great deal to be said for changing the site's emphasis to resilience.
But it was hard on those of us who were used to the old ways, and those who were really into energy analysis. Energy-centric articles are still being posted, and one can get the same information as before. But the site does have a different feel, and people felt strongly about it.
I appreciated the fact that Post Carbon listened to many of the comments from readers. We made changes to the interface, changes which solved most of the issues that were brought up. These changes are always hard. But we did it, and it's history now.
Overall, I think this is one of the most successful transitions I’ve ever seen for a web publication.
KC: Thanks, Bart, for taking us behind the scenes of Energy Bulletin (now Resilience) as the site evolved over the years.
KC: Current co-editors Kristin Sponsler and Simone Osborn agreed to answer a few questions by email. First, how did you come to be involved with Energy Bulletin (now Resilience)?
Simone Osborn: I came to Energy Bulletin via some work I was doing for the UK-based Oil Depletion Analysis Centre (ODAC). In 2008 I helped work on a report which ODAC published with support from Post Carbon Institute called Preparing for Peak Oil: Local Authorities and the Energy Crisis. Following on from that, I was asked if I would be interested in helping Bart with Energy Bulletin. At the time Bart was holding the fort on his own, which was a huge amount of work. This was at a time when peak oil was suddenly hitting the mainstream news as the oil price was skyrocketing. Bart was a great mentor and over time Bart, Kristin, and I became co-editors.
Kristin Sponsler: I became involved with Energy Bulletin because I had been employed briefly by Post Carbon Institute to help run their online bookstore. After PCI decided to close the bookstore, I started helping Bart and Simone out with editing Energy Bulletin. I had read a lot of books and articles about peak oil, climate change, and increasingly about the very nascent Transition movement. So, I felt that I had some background in the field, but it was still quite a steep learning curve.
KC: How would you describe the mission of Resilience and how has the change in name from Energy Bulletin to Resilience affected that mission?
KS: At the time that I started working with Energy Bulletin we featured a lot of what I would call “hard” energy articles from such sites as ASPO-USA [Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas—USA] and The Oil Drum. Also we weren’t posting the variety of authors and topics that we do now, although we did have relationships with authors like John Michael Greer, Rob Hopkins, and Sharon Astyk—as we do to this day. And, of course, we could publish original content from PCI authors such as Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch.
I discovered that both in my work with Energy Bulletin and with Transition in Bristol [England] that I was becoming especially drawn to working with relocalized food and economic systems. I wanted to learn more about how Transition and Post Carbon’s thinking on those topics could help people respond to these rather crushing environmental issues in an empowering way, rather than just sit in a dark room and ruminate on when the whole system was going to collapse around their heads. So I started seeking out and posting more articles about these topics on Energy Bulletin. I think I was already unconsciously starting to follow the path that would lead away from focusing quite so much on the pure energy and peak oil issues.
SO: To me the mission of Resilience is to provide information, inspiration and support to the many, many people who are out there responding to the issues in their communities, as well as to raise their profile and build virtual community. I really think that the site has evolved with our readers. Initially, Energy Bulletin was one of only a few voices raising the alarm on peak oil and resource constraints. As more people heard that message, a new group of thinkers and writers began the work of building responses to the predicament. In time we found that Energy Bulletin was giving as much focus to responses as we were to investigating the issues. Also, the issues we were covering had broadened from just energy constraints and impacts, to challenges around economy, food, and other aspects of life.
KC: Are there any future developments which you'd like to tell us about?
SO: We’re going to be focused on building our community, building relationships with new writers, and continuing to work with our partners creating engaging and practical resources around resilience. This year we published the third of our three PCI Community Resilience Guides and worked with Transition US and Chelsea Green on webinars for each of those. We’re currently working with our partners on a resilience resource guide for people and communities engaged with this work.
KC: Thank you Adam, Liam, Bart, Kristin, and Simone for sharing your insights into a website which has been at the center of the peak oil discussion worldwide and which continues to address that issue and a wide array of others on which our future depends.
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