I just attended the Saturday session of the 2011 ASPO USA conference. I had been hoping to take a few personal days and attend Thursday and Friday as well, but it is hard to predict the future. I had to get some drawings out on Thursday, and had to do a code study for a Monday meeting. At least commuting was easy on Saturday. I took Metro to Union Station, walked out past Bike Station and about three blocks to the Hyatt Regency.

There were four morning sessions listed: Investor’s Roundtable featured Robert Rapier, whose R-Squared blog I read a bit, Community Adaptation and the Post-Peak Economy with ArchDruid John Michael Greer and Kollapsnik Dmitry Orlov, each of whom I follow a lot, Bringing Peak Oil into the National Policy Debate, and Innovative Communications, Writing a New American Story with Farmer/Author Sharon Astyk, who I also follow a lot. I chose Community Adaptation and sat in the front row. A woman sat next to me and we started chatting about the horrid traffic in DC. They had driven in from Ohio. Her husband brought the latest NY Times and Wall Street Journal. Then a familiar-looking young woman stopped in and gave her a hug. “Was that Megan Quinn Bachman?” I asked. Bachman was moderating the panel, and I had seen her picture on The Oil Drum many years ago when she had co-produced The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.
The agenda must have changed because Sharon Astyk joined Greer and Orlov. Bachman began by asking the audience to introduce themselves, and to suggest topics of discussion. Turns out the Ohio couple were Bachman’s parents, Tom Quinn is, or was, a reporter with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who liked to focus on environmental and energy topics. Both the Quinns are now involved with the environmental movement. I introduced myself and asked whether the panelists thought the Peak Oil narrative had changed in light of the Occupy protests, as we now had a group of people choosing a new living situation. In retrospect I might have mentioned the Arab Spring, too.
One fellow had lived in post-WWII Germany, and expected that post-Peak scenarios could be similar. Another ran a Peak Oil blog in Sweden. Several folk were involved with the emergency management aspect of local governments. A physics professor from CT; a woman from an anti-poverty group; an “urbanite” who noted that his grandparents had been self-sufficient without electricity; an aeronautical engineer; a patent examiner; a Marriott employee; a retired farmer who was part of the Transition Town movement. More than a few mentioned Transition. There were around forty attendees, and perhaps ten were women. Although there were a few young adults, many seemed older, and several men sported grey ponytails.
Dmitry Orlov opened by saying that we had to plan solutions that don’t depend on supply chains. We have to “pre-supply” for the day that, “WalMart goes missing.” Orlov predicted that physical inventory will be worth far more than paper money. Orlov is noted for his dry humor in print, and though that humor flashes through occasionally, he is a generally reserved speaker. He expected that favors would soon be worth more than money, too.
John Michael Greer chimed in to say that technology wasn’t the problem. We have had the technology to prepare for Peak Oil but there has been a reluctance to acknowledge it. Had we continued with energy initiatives that were underway in the 1970s, but shelved by Reagan, we’d be in much better shape now. Greer is an extremely animated speaker, who gesticulates and plays to the audience. He felt that that society’s hallucinatory wealth would eventually be worth nothing.
Sharon Astyk addressed the problem of how to shift from a Growth to Post-Peak economy. She observed that as a farmer, her most profitable avenue in the current economy would be to make goat cheese and sell it to rich people, while in a Post-Peak economy, people would probably be lucky to afford the milk and meat. Astyk seems very comfortable speaking, and puts up with Greer’s teasing. She advised that we should get used to not being comfortable all the time.
Megan Bachman essentially kept track of questioners, the first of whom asked about a timeline for the collapse. I find such questions odd. Actually I find the idea that anyone could actually know the answer to such a question odd, but attendees seemed to think these three people could provide useful answers. The panelists seemed to know each other fairly well, and admitted to substantial disagreement on timing. Orlov thinks next summer will be,”very interesting,” while Greer thinks we’re ten years away from interesting, while Astyk thinks in between. But they all agree that collapse is already underway – for some people. Greer thinks the USA’s long descent started in 1973, and that we have reached the point where investments will essentially lose money from now on. Astyk thinks there will be a range of experiences. Some people will make money and survive the scenario while others will drink bad milk, or lack health care and die early in the scenario. I think it also matters where you are.
One fellow related that Occupy Philadelphia was discussing moving to vacant buildings in a recent general assembly. Orlov jumped all over that because he believes indoor camping will be a solution for many displaced office plankton – which seems to be Russian slang for, “white collar personnel doing some easy secretarial and paper work, drinking coffee more than working, etc.” Greer suggested that while Occupy seeks consensus, adaptation-minded folk might be better off seeking dissensus, a word he borrowed, meaning that we should maximize the diversity of our responses rather than putting all our eggs in one basket. Astyk agreed that Occupy was an experiment, and might be an early model of what will eventually happen.
A woman stood up, and in a tremulous voice suggested that Occupy and the Transition movement should somehow engage each other and come together. Her statement started to sound a bit like a rant, though, and I sensed discomfort in the room. Orlov said something about Occupy’s open source paradigm, and Greer started to respond, too, but she cut him off. It took several minutes of crosstalking before Bachman convinced the woman to let Greer speak. Greer asked the woman not to put words in his mouth. I didn’t realize it, but apparently Greer has made it clear that he does not support the Transition movement – but he doesn’t oppose it, either. He suspected that Occupy protestors would be completely unaware of the Transition agenda, and saw no use in one group co-opting the other. Astyk observed that Occupy is really not a movement anyway.
Another fellow asked how the 1% would respond to Occupy, and if they would play fair. General hilarity ensued. I forget who gave the obvious answer, “No, of course not – they have never played fair,” but Greer noted that although it was genius to frame Occupy as the 99%, and they had a decent turnout, they were actually one of many competing movements. He predicted that there would almost certainly be violence.
Someone asked how much time we had to prepare for a post-peak life. Orlov suggested that one ask whether they really needed their job, and thought that we all might profit from time off. Astyk joked about having to fake looking for work while we collected unemployment benefits, then amid some laughter, expanded about the benefits of learning to fake things. She noted that the three panelists were up there because they had shown skill over the years in pulling answers out of their asses. (That doesn’t seem to stop people from asking questions, though.)
Someone asked about the Repudiate Your Debt concept that Orlov had mentioned on his blog, then someone else asked whether the 1% would lose their identity along with the value of their money. Greer described staying at a house in the West, the interior of which was decorated in an over-the-top Western style. His point was that more than just the 1% spend time and money to create their identities. Orlov slyly wondered if Wall Street cast a spell that made corporate executives act like corporate executives. Astyk fully expects that loss of identity will kill people who fail to realize that what is happening is not their fault. Orlov suggested that with so many children being born out-of-wedlock, people might form groups other than families for support. Greer suggested we become poor now, so as to get used to it. Astyk noted that while women had a lot of roles, often a man’s job was to have a job.
Bachman announced a break, and the non-white population of the room doubled as two black and one brown hotel staff came in to shoulder the movable partitions back into their nests. In the lobby, I noticed Nicole Foss walking through. She posts as Stoneleigh on The Automatic Earth and had been speaking earlier in the conference. I began speaking with Johan, the young peak oil blogger from Sweden. Johan’s card tells me he has a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies and a Bachelors in Political Science from Uppsala University. His blogsite, Cruel Crude, is in Swedish, but can be translated. Johan had attended ASPO last year, and had recently interviewed Foss when she visited Stockholm. There are several videos like the one above on his site.
Johan said Sweden was heavily fuel-dependent, and mentioned that he had ordered a Tesla S sedan. I asked if Swedes followed the Passiv Haus movement, and he said there was something in Sweden called Ahouse. He was not familiar with the Solar Decathlon, so I gave him a general description, particularly how they had limited costs in the last competition. 
After the break, Dmitry Orlov wanted to give a brief powerpoint presentation, but some questions remained in the queue. Two questions about hard vs soft needs and food security led to one attendee telling us about being one of 1400 hippies that took up farming in Tennessee. Before plugging Plenty USA and Kids to the Country, he suggested that while not everyone could return to the farm, people could farm plots of land away from the home. Several panelists noted that commuting to, and securing such plots might be problematic in the near future. The fellow who had lived in post -WWII Germany recalled having food stolen, probably by neighbors, and said, “unless my neighbors are well-fed, my stash is gone.” I was reminded of comment I read on the Oil Drum back in 1995 or so. While discussing the possibility of food shortages, one fellow wrote, “If you come to my door looking for food, I will shoot you and your pregnant wife.”
With a question about Climate Change, the topic moved to general security as an attendee warned people against buying low-lying coastal land. Astyk noted that she and her husband had bought what they could afford – cheap land in the hills with little topsoil – but that since the two tropical storms flooded Vermont, she no longer envies the folks who had richer land in the valleys. Many of them are now living in FEMA trailers. She also warned against the, “othering of other people,” including right-wingers, recalling that in every episode of genocide she had ever read about, the survivors always said, “the people that did this to us were our neighbors – our children played together.”
We finally got to Orlov’s presentation, Post-Collapse Planning, which he had prepared in consultation with Ugo Bardi, who blogs at Cassandra’s Legacy.  Their message was fairly simple: the familiar Hubbert’s Peak shows a gradual ascent and an equally gradual decline. In many fields and many nations that has been the case, but Orlov and Bardi feel that those nations have been able to stave off the effects of declines by importing oil, as the US did after its 1970 peak. Orlov’s point is that we obviously can’t import oil from another planet. Greer poked fun at the economists’ notion that oil supply will be created if there is demand as a belief in magic that even his magician friends found staggering.
Yergin’s NY Times article (which I discussed) claimed much the same thing, but not creating oil, so much as expanding our definition of oil to include other liquids like ethanol, and expanding our willingness to tear up the land and pollute water to get at anything that can be made into synthetic oil. Without additional oil to bail us out, Orlov feels the decline curve will be very steep – something they call the Seneca Effect.
Greer feels that civilization can survive without oil, as it did before, but that social inequities will lead us to a Dark Age of some sort, perhaps 300 years from now. In discussing preparations, he mentioned that his wife makes soap, as does mine. 
Someone asked for comment about another presenter’s claim that solar energy can be deployed on a large scale. I think they meant Ken Zweibel, author of the Solar Grand Plan – which suggests a switch from coal and natural gas-fired plants to huge arrays of solar panels. All the panelists love the guy, Greer was actually sharing a room with him, but they foresaw all sorts of technical problems with cleaning and maintaining solar panels in the dry, dusty desert environment that was proposed. Likewise there will be repair and replacement requirements for solar panels and wind turbines that may be beyond our future capabilities. Greer feels that energy-on-demand – indeed the energy grid – is a modern fetish. Orlov feels that solar (thermal) energy is best used for thermal uses like heating while wind (kinetic) energy is best used for kinetic needs like moving water. Such uses don’t lead to massive conversion losses. Other than generating small amounts of energy for communication, they don’t see a huge role for alternative electricity.
As a humorous conclusion to a serious topic, someone asked about Jim Kunstler’s depiction of post-Peak women’s roles in his novels. I’ve only read World Made By Hand, but I thought the female characters were well-described by feminist reviewers as “fuck bunnies.” Astyk more diplomatically described the women as being primarily interested in, “sex and serving sandwiches,” but feels that Kunstler is partially right in that caring for children leads women towards different types of work than men. Greer noted also that men were more disposable than women, hence drifted towards more dangerous activities in a Darwinian fashion. Greer felt that Kunstler had drawn from a peculiarly American 1960s view of women (think Mad Men) rather than something more traditional.

I’ve been following this issue for six years, and little of what was said is terribly surprising to me, but it is clear that energy depletion gurus can only provide general predictions and advice.