Michael Ruppert’s last book, first starring film role and ascendancy to the national stage in 2009
Michael C. Ruppert, who died one year ago this week, was an icon of the peak oil and sustainability movements. A narcotics cop turned independent journalist, he distinguished himself as a determined and intrepid follower of the truth, wherever that truth may lead and whatever ugly skeletons it may expose. Granted, many of his conclusions were too extreme for most people to swallow, earning him the label of conspiracy theorist. He also had a penchant for over-the-top doomsday statements that frequently got away from him. Yet for those who could see past these faults, there was never any doubting Ruppert’s courage, tireless persistence or consummate command of any subject to which he chose to turn his keen investigative talents.
It was in 2009 that Ruppert achieved the height of his recognition and fame. That year saw the release of his book Confronting Collapse, as well as an internationally acclaimed documentary inspired by the book, titled simply Collapse. The book is part beginner’s guide to the crises of our time, part policy proposal for the current U.S. president. The documentary, made by a small independent film company called Bluemark Productions, consists of a curious but captivating interview with Ruppert about the ideas contained in his book as well as his overall life’s work. Recorded in a cold, starkly lit basement, it has a wonderfully noirish feel enhanced by cigarette smoke and jittery, ominous background music.
The seed that grew into Collapse was planted in February 2009, when filmmakers Chris Smith and Kate Noble contacted Ruppert for an interview. They were doing research for a film on alleged CIA involvement in drug trafficking, and Ruppert came to their attention because he had been a whistleblower on this issue during the late 1970s. Ruppert claimed that the CIA had tried to enlist him in its illicit drug operations when he was a young LAPD officer, and that when he’d refused to participate, his life had been ruined.
But Ruppert had little interest in discussing this matter when he met with Smith and Noble. He was consumed by another issue that he had come to see as a far graver threat: the imminent decline of industrial civilization because of peak oil. His latest book, the self-published A Presidential Energy Policy (which would later, in an attempt to capitalize on the success of the film, be re-published as Confronting Collapse) was nearing its initial launch, and he was trying to spread the word about it as widely as possible. Thus, for three hours he led the two filmmakers down a rabbit hole of oil production figures, economic theory, facts about alternative energy sources and other salient details regarding our predicament.1
Smith and Noble spent a few weeks puzzling over where to go from there. While they had not obtained what they’d hoped from the interview, they still found themselves endlessly fascinated by Ruppert and his saga. They were impressed by the breadth and depth of his knowledge, awed by his commanding presence and moved by his unshakable commitment to a path that had brought him much abuse and personal hardship. Suddenly it dawned on them. Ruppert himself was their movie. They would do a character study showing how his long pursuit of the truth about industrial society’s impending collapse had resulted in the collapse of his own life.
In late March, they met with Ruppert again to start shooting. The location was a dank, confined basement in a vacant meatpacking plant in downtown Los Angeles.2 Playing off Ruppert’s law enforcement background and persona of a hard-boiled detective, the crew outfitted the set like an interrogation room. A solitary wooden chair stood in the center beneath an overhead light. At the film’s opening we see Ruppert walk into the frame, take a seat in the chair and begin smoking the first of several cigarettes. The light from above casts deep shadows in his weary eyes and intricate patterns of brown and gray all over the room. As our subject blows a long drag of smoke out through his nostrils, we hear Smith—playing the part of the interrogator—ask from behind the camera, “Who are you?”
The narrative that follows revels in the mystique of U.S. intelligence and secrecy. As Ruppert recounts his upbringing by a mother who had been a cryptanalyst during World War Two and a father who had done clandestine work for the Air Force and the CIA, we feel as if we’re being let in on privileged information. The fine camerawork by Smith, Max Malkin and Edward Lachman reinforces this sense by peering over Ruppert’s shoulders and slowly tracking alongside him. Interspersed with the interview footage is a montage of well-chosen archival images and video clips. We see close-up shots of files with the names and other details redacted, fingerprint records and the opening moments of a space shuttle launch as Ruppert describes his father’s role in helping put up the CIA’s Keyhole Spy satellites. The music, with its furtive, staccato rhythm, lends a conspiratorial air to the scene.
There are volumes of information (some of it hotly contested) about Ruppert’s young adult life, and thus Collapse is to be admired for condensing it into a few broad, telling strokes. (Indeed, editors Barry Poltermann and Chris James excel in compressing the 14 hours of interview footage into a robust 82 minutes.) We’re given a bare-bones outline of Ruppert’s years at UCLA studying political science, his opposition to the Vietnam War and disaffection with government, his five-year tenure as an L.A. cop and the run-in with corruption that brought his law enforcement career to an end. Ruppert is rather succinct on this latter life development. “I was betrayed,” he says, “by a woman who worked for CIA, who was my fiancée. And when I said I wouldn’t get involved in drugs, she disappeared and people started shooting at me.”
We’re spared the distressing details of Ruppert’s struggles over the next two decades, during which he worked menial jobs, battled depression and alcoholism, filed bankruptcy, entered into a brief, ill-fated marriage and spoke frequently of wanting to kill himself.3 What we do learn of his life during this period has to do with his development as a journalist and activist. He tells of how he began writing letters to Congress, getting on the record, publishing articles and speaking publicly. In the course of this work, he tells us, he became a “cartographer” whose job was to “map how the world really worked, as opposed to the way we were told it worked.”
Collapse makes fleeting reference to the confrontation, famous among Ruppert’s fans, that he had in 1996 with then-CIA director John M. Deutch. This confrontation took place during a town hall meeting held at Locke High School in South Los Angeles. Deutch was there to address allegations recently made by a kindred spirit of Ruppert’s, journalist Gary Webb, related to CIA/Contra drug smuggling. C-SPAN was also there documenting everything with its cameras, and Ruppert took the opportunity to seize the spotlight. In a brief clip from the broadcast, we see him deliver one of his great iconic lines from behind a reporter’s microphone: “I worked South Central Los Angeles and I can tell you, Director Deutch, emphatically and without equivocation, that the Agency has dealt drugs in this country for a long time.” We then see and hear the crowd erupt into an applause that was literally heard around the world.
Ruppert’s indoctrination into the world of peak oil came in late 2001, when he met a geologist named Dale Allen Pfeiffer. The two became acquainted when Pfeiffer submitted what would be his first publication for Ruppert’s newsletter From the Wilderness. This article, titled “The Background is Oil,” deftly encapsulated a set of concepts and facts now quite familiar to peak oil followers, including oil production curves, energy “slaves” and the litany of everyday things dependent on oil.4 In Collapse, Ruppert tells of the epiphany he had while reading Pfeiffer’s story. He realized suddenly that peak oil was the one piece that made everything else on his map of the world, from 9/11 to the government corruption he had seen firsthand, “resonate and make sense together.”
It is here that the film shifts its focus from Ruppert’s life to the content of his latest book. Images of pumpjacks, tar sands, oilfield maps and war machines flash across the screen as Ruppert explains our energy situation with a mounting and gripping vehemence. He also talks at length about money, its inseverable link with energy and the global financial crisis whose beginning coincided with the advent of nearly $150 a barrel oil—and which he and his reporting staff at From the Wilderness had predicted accurately and in detail. Director Chris Smith did his best to limit the material on peak oil and money so that it wouldn’t detract from the character study at the heart of the film. Yet one is still amazed by how much discussion, detail and evidence Ruppert manages to pack into just a fraction of the movie.
Some critics (i.e., those skeptical about peak oil and societal collapse) have faulted Smith for not presenting opposing views to Ruppert’s. Granted, Smith does hint at some of these alternate views through the questions he poses. He asks Ruppert things like why he discounts human ingenuity, why we should believe today’s prophecies of energy doom when others have proven wrong and doesn’t he agree that you can reach any conclusion you want to from your evidence? When people question why Smith didn’t go further and have some of Ruppert’s critics appear on camera, he answers that this was way beyond the scope of the movie and was of little interest to him. Each of the many dimensions to our crisis covered by Ruppert could be, and has been, the subject of its own documentary. And anyway, talking head documentaries shot in studios bored Smith. He had always felt much more inspired by unconventional character sketches like those for which Errol Morris, who was clearly an influence on Collapse, is known.5
Though Ruppert generally takes well to the devil’s advocate approach used by Smith, he does become annoyed at times. When asked the what-about-human-ingenuity question, he goes off on a tangent—obviously tired of hearing this obligatory, shopworn rebuttal—and has to be urged back on course by Smith saying, “We were talking about human ingenuity.” He then eloquently reiterates the conventional wisdom among peak oilers that human ingenuity can’t overturn the laws of physics. In response to Smith’s question of whether it’s possible to “sort of create a reality based on picking news stories that support your worldview,” he simply laughs and the movie cuts to another scene. Ruppert is at his testiest when asked why he has kept pressing on with his activism when “it just would’ve been so much easier to have walked away.” His impassioned tirade culminates in him demanding just who Smith is to tell him that walking away would have been easier. “You aren’t in my skin,” he barks.
At two points in the film we glimpse a human, vulnerable side to Ruppert as he begins to lose his composure. The first time, he cries out of anguish at how long he and other peak oil activists have waited to be heard and heeded. His other emotional moment comes as he suddenly realizes something new about President Barack Obama’s plight as the leader of a declining empire. This second time, he tells the director he needs to cut because “a whole new realization is opening to me about what I’m actually saying.” The camera cuts away so that he can process this new insight and let the emotion pass. We aren’t let in on what new realization he’s had.
A notable omission from the movie is any reference to Ruppert’s recommendations for the president, which are the main point of the book. These include eminently sensible ideas like placing a moratorium on highway and airport expansion and constructing a second strategic petroleum reserve to be filled with refined fuel products, rather than the crude that fills the current reserve, and for use only by state and local governments. No doubt Smith avoided this topic to focus more fully on the human drama of Ruppert’s story. Even so, briefly touching on it during the solutions portion of the film, which at present deals only with individual preparedness, would have been entirely appropriate.
It’s hard to say why Collapse never touches on the alternative 9/11 theories that Ruppert detailed in his first book, Crossing the Rubicon (New Society Publishers, 2004). Did Ruppert simply fail to bring these up during the interview? This seems likely, given how his focus had shifted from redressing past atrocities to preparing for a post-oil future. Still, Rubicon, with its argument that 9/11 was an inside job orchestrated by Vice President Dick Cheney, is a vital clue to understanding the persecution that Ruppert felt had been meted out to him.
One unfair charge against Collapse is that it skips over the 2009 sexual harassment ruling against Ruppert by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. This criticism is unfair because the bureau’s $127,700 judgment against Ruppert didn’t come about until after the film had premiered. The complainant in the case was a former staff writer and editor for Ruppert’s newsletter who alleged that he had made many unwanted advances toward her during her employment there, and had then fired her in retaliation for reporting his behavior.6
For his part, Ruppert insisted the woman had been a government plant tasked with destroying him for an exposé he was about to publish. He admitted to the most egregious incident in the complaint—standing in her doorway for 10 seconds "wearing only his underwear and a smile" when the two of them were working alone in the office one night—but said he did it because he had to resort to extreme measures in order to get her to “show her hand.” At any rate, Ruppert openly addressed the whole perplexing mess when he spoke at showings of Collapse. He called the case ridiculous and assured everyone that he and his supporters were busy raising money for an appeal.7
The project he had been working on at the time of the alleged sexual harassment was an investigation into the friendly fire death of NFL star Pat Tillman in Afghanistan in 2004. This report, published in seven parts over three months in mid-2006, was titled “The Tillman Files,” and was done in collaboration with retired Special Forces Master Sergeant Stan Goff.8 Ruppert considered this series a crowning achievement of his newsletter and credited it with ousting then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from the Pentagon.
More than a few people have been dismayed by the ending of Collapse, believing that it unfairly tries to undercut Ruppert’s credibility. In the final moments of the film, we’re shown an excerpt from an article written about Ruppert in 1981, in which a number of people call his mental state into question.9 After that, we’re told the following: “Michael Ruppert currently lives in Culver City, California. Michael has stopped researching and writing about collapse. His latest book came out in May and was largely ignored. He now spends his time writing lyrics and playing music. He is currently late on his rent and trying to avoid eviction." Then there’s a brief scene that aches with loneliness. Ruppert sits alone on the back doorstep of his home with only his dog Rags for company. Distracted by a bone, Rags runs out of the frame, leaving Ruppert once again the only soul on screen.
Collapse premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and was a big hit with moviegoers and critics alike. It was one of the festival’s official selections for 2009, received four out of four stars from Roger Ebert and even became a contender for a Best Documentary Oscar nomination (though in the end it wasn’t nominated). One particular line of Ebert’s became a rallying cry for Ruppert and his fans: “I have a pretty good built-in B.S. detector, and its needle never bounced off zero while I watched this film.” Ruppert went on a nationwide promotional tour and met some big celebrities who loved the movie, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Val Kilmer and Mel Gibson. Ruppert reported that DiCaprio even brought him Havana Montecristo cigars fresh from Cuba as a gift. Ruppert’s income from the film was, sadly, nonexistent in the first year after its release, thanks to the 2 million pirated viewings that took place during that time. Yet he didn’t seem as angry about this as one might assume. Rather, he welcomed the thousands of new people converted to the peak oil cause as a result.10
Though not all reviewers were persuaded by Ruppert’s arguments about collapse, almost all of them found the movie’s portrait of Ruppert the man to be an engrossing one. Linda Barnard of the Toronto Star wrote, "Cassandra or crackpot, Michael Ruppert is impossible to ignore." GRITtv host Laura Flanders admitted that she couldn’t decide whether Collapse represents “the prophecies of a brilliant mind who will terrify you to death, or the rantings of a crazy man,” but nonetheless described the film as “gripping,” “beautiful” and “mesmerizing.” She also responded very strongly to the quality of isolation in those final scenes, saying that “by the end of [the movie] you think, This guy’s really alone.” Los Angeles Times reviewer Robert Abele responded to this feeling as well, saying he was moved by the film’s “compassionate look at the strain Ruppert endures from knowing he has only ever been right.”11
People new to the issues found Ruppert’s deeply knowledgeable discourses riveting and eye-opening. A favorite excerpt was one in which he talks at length about oil’s role in food production. It’s a tour de force of detailed description on all the oil-powered machines that plow, plant and irrigate fields; the coal and natural gas used to generate electricity for powering irrigation; the natural gas needed to synthesize ammonia for fertilizer; the oil used to make pesticides; the oil-fueled machines that spread fertilizers and pesticides, harvest the crop, transport it to processing plants; the oil-derived plastic in which the final product is wrapped; and the gas-guzzling 18-wheelers that move the food to distribution warehouses and supermarkets.
Ruppert himself loved the documentary and didn’t at all mind his portrayal as a man whose life had collapsed, who was behind on his rent and whose most recent book had been ignored. When asked whether he felt the text at the end of the movie was belittling toward him, he replied, “No, I really didn’t take it that way. I’m extremely satisfied with the movie and with Chris Smith, who did a brilliant job of directing.” He added, "[M]y life has collapsed many, many times, and anybody who’s ever walked a mystical path will understand that completely.”12
In December, A Presidential Energy Policy received a welcome facelift from Chelsea Green Publishing, a leading purveyor of books on ecology and sustainable living. The original, self-published edition had been hurriedly written and was in definite need of an editor. Chelsea Green gave it a thorough edit and sharp design that drew on imagery from the film. The cover photo was one peering at Ruppert from behind as he sat in that dark, smoky basement. Both Ruppert and his publisher were glad to reap the fruits of the Collapse bonanza, and in the process they gave final, polished form to an important entry in the peak oil literary canon.
Ruppert appeared in three more films. His only other starring role was in Apocalypse, Man, an online documentary produced by the digital media company Vice in 2014. Like Collapse, it consists largely of monologues by Ruppert about the end of industrial civilization as he sits in an empty room, this time alternating between a tipi and the borrowed camper where he lived at the time. (Earlier that year, he had moved, penniless, to the outskirts of Calistoga, California, where friend and follower Jack Martin had offered to put him up.13) However, it soon becomes apparent that this film has a much darker vibe than does Collapse. Ruppert rants more fervently and with gritted teeth. He becomes emotional earlier and more often. At one rather depressing point, he even foreshadows the end he would soon choose for himself. “I came here to die…or commit suicide,” he says.
On the last day of 2009, Ruppert published a blog post that revealed a lot about his psyche and the burden he had carried for so long.14 The post consisted of a fan letter he’d received followed by his reply. The fan had asked how he went on with his life knowing all that he knew, and Ruppert had responded with this message:
You put one foot in front of the other and learn how to put the biggest questions on a shelf. You keep asking smaller questions. Sometimes you learn how to stand still and do nothing at all. Sometimes you just stand still and hurt. — You cry. You make jokes. You make mistakes. You break down. You forgive yourself. You dust off and you keep walking. You take time out to play and try to remember that there is something divine out there smarter than you that works in unseen ways. You come to understand that rest is a weapon and that knowing by the intellect is only a small part of knowing. — The process can be very traumatic. But what it teaches more than anything else is patience and endurance. Sometimes you lose your sanity only to later discover that it can come back with a deeper awareness that wasn’t possible until you lost it. — Most of all you do simple, selfless, and direct acts of love and nurturing for others along the way. You learn to accept them when offered to you. You surrender to whatever it is that awakened you and gave you the balls to start asking the big questions in the first place.
And you hope.
For Ruppert, the final step in the journey described above would come on April 13, 2014, when he would die, at the age of 63, of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. Like so many things about Ruppert, his decision to end his own life would mystify those who followed and cared about him. What can be said for certain is that for now, as he enjoyed his time in the limelight at the end of 2009, he had finally found the vindication denied him for so long. He had at last had his moment.
Author’s Note: I am grateful to Dr. Carolyn Baker, who knew and worked closely with Ruppert, for her consultation on this post. It helped me make sure I had Mike’s story right.
1 Chris Smith, interview with Laura Flanders, "GRITtv » Collapse: Portrait of a Loner," GRITtv, Nov. 12, 2009, grittv.org/?video=collapse-portrait-of-a-loner (accessed Mar. 2, 2015).
2 Patrick Goldstein, “’Collapse’ is the strangest doomsday film yet,” review of Collapse (Bluemark Productions), Los Angeles Times, Nov. 10, 2009, http://articles.latimes.com/2009/nov/10/entertainment/et-bigpicture10 (accessed Mar. 30, 2015).
3 Matt Stroud, “The unbelievable life and death of Michael C. Ruppert,” The Verge, Jul. 22, 2014, http://www.theverge.com/2014/7/22/5881501/the-unbelievable-life-and-death-of-michael-c-ruppert (accessed Feb. 9, 2015).
4 Dale Allen Pfeiffer, “The Background is Oil,” From the Wilderness, Dec. 18, 2001, http://www.fromthewilderness.com/free/ww3/dec2001_files/background_is_oil.html (accessed Mar. 13, 2015).
5 Smith, interview with Flanders.
6 In the Matter of FROM THE WILDERNESS, INC. dba From the Wilderness Publications and Michael Ruppert as employer proxy, Case No. 39-08, 30 BOLI 227, 287 (Sept. 16, 2009), available at http://staging.apps.oregon.gov/BOLI/Legal/From_the_Wilderness.pdf (accessed Mar 14, 2015).
7 Robert Plain, “’Wilderness’ relocates to Venezuela,” Ashland Daily Tidings, Aug. 25, 2006, Updated Jan 4, 2011, http://www.dailytidings.com/article/20060825/News/308259999 (accessed Feb. 27, 2015); Ruppert, interview with Joe Rogan, "JRE #170 – MICHAEL RUPPERT," The Joe Rogan Experience, Dec. 27, 2011, http://podcasts.joerogan.net/podcasts/podcast-170-michael-ruppert-brian-redban (accessed Mar. 9, 2015); Smith, interview with Flanders.
8 Stan Goff, “FTW Investigative Series: The Tillman Files,” From the Wilderness, last updated Sep. 20, 2006, http://www.fromthewilderness.com/the_tillman_files.shtml (accessed Mar. 29, 2015).
9 Randall Sullivan, “‘The spy who loved me‘: An officer’s battle with obsession,” Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Oct. 11, 1981, http://www.drugwar.com/cv11.shtm (accessed Feb. 27, 2015).
10 Roger Ebert, review of Collapse (Bluemark Productions), Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 9, 2009, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/collapse-2009 (accessed Mar. 20, 2015); Ruppert, “Michael Ruppert – Confronting The Peak Oil Crisis,” YouTube video, Jun. 30, 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=3b9cDOl9kJM (accessed Mar. 20, 2015); Ruppert, interview with Guy Evans, "Episode 53 – Michael Ruppert on his portrayal in ‘Collapse’, CIA complicity in drug trafficking, 9/11, and more," Smells Like Human Spirit, March 13, 2013, http://smellslikehumanspirit.com/podcasts/michaelruppertcollapse (accessed Mar. 6, 2015).
11 Linda Barnard, “Collapse: The chilling predictions of an ex-cop whistle blower,” review of Collapse (Bluemark Productions), Toronto Star, Dec. 11, 2009, http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/movies/2009/12/11/collapse_the_chilling_predictions_of_an_excop_whistle_blower.html (accessed Mar. 30, 2015); Flanders, "GRITtv » Collapse: Portrait of a Loner”; Robert Abele, “CAPSULE MOVIE REVIEWS : He sees society’s doom,” review of Collapse (Bluemark Productions), Los Angeles Times, Nov. 13, 2009, http://articles.latimes.com/2009/nov/13/entertainment/et-capsules13 (accessed Mar. 30, 2015).
12 Ruppert, interview with Guy Evans.
13 Jack Martin, “The Death Of Michael C. Ruppert – Narrated by Jack Martin,” YouTube video, Apr. 28, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydNqFyvisCo (accessed Mar. 17, 2015).
14 Ruppert, “A NEW YEAR’S EVE MESSAGE,” From the Wilderness’ Peak Oil Blog, Dec. 31, 2009, mikeruppert.blogspot.com/2009/12/new-years-eve-message.html (accessed Mar. 26, 2015).