Peak Oil, Ten or So Years On

April 20, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

This blog began seven years and almost a thousand posts ago, and I thought it a good time to take stock. Since the blog itself was inspired by the “peak oil” movement, and since it’s been ten years, by some measures, since the peak, I wanted to assess the state of that community as well.

First the personal notes: Many of my posts are reprints of my columns for our local newspaper, or for Grit and Mother Earth News magazines, short and focused on gardening and crafts. I’d like to write longer articles about broader subjects as well, however, as I have for American Conservative or Low-Tech Magazine, so I’m cutting back to twice a week – one new article every weekend, and one reprint or photo mid-week.

There’s a great deal to write about, you see, and too little time. We have three generations of family living in this house, and I spend nine hours a day at my job in Dublin and three hours on the bus there and back. When I get home my daughter and I go through our home-school (or after-school) lessons, and as she gets older our evenings stretch later. Weekends are filled with the chores that go with having gardens and animals, and writing must come in irregular bursts.

Don’t get me wrong – we’re blessed to have these things. When people tell me they too want to start over in the country, though, I want them to understand what that means for us. Our life has been the result of luck as well as work, and the work takes place only in the crannies of an ordinary life in which bills must be paid. Some people live more rudimentary lives than we do, with no electricity or money, but they often learned more rustic skills earlier, or are at their physical peak, or don’t have children, or are willing to live with fewer amenities than my extended family. Few modern people can create such an uncompromising life without community, yet community demands compromise.

I don’t usually write about the things we do to compromise, like working in an office or of waiting – like right now, as I write this – for buses that don’t show. I show Ireland’s thatched homes and stone castles, but not the graffiti or broken windows near my Dublin office, and I talk about the successful experiments rather than the failures.

Many people dream of leaving behind their life’s many chores and failures; few dream of taking on more chores and failing more often, at least for a while as you learn. Yet that’s how life usually works – you give up a dependency or learn a new skill each month or so, often failing and feeling like nothing has changed. Only after some years of this do you look back and realise how far you’ve come.

The same is true of raising a child for an uncertain future. I’d love to home-school her on the classical Trivium and systems theory, away from television and Hollywood culture. Here too, however, life forces compromise, so she goes to school in the village, absorbs pop culture from her peers, and I tutor her at home. She sings Taylor Swift songs, has posters of horses, reads comic books and talks about normal pre-teen girl things with her friends … and I accept that, because with me she also sings Irish folk songs, watches Charlie Chaplin, reads Marcus Aurelius, knows an edible mushroom and understands seres, keystone species and overshoot.

She was a baby when I began writing this, a character of utopian potential in my story; she is now barrelling into adolescence, and the older she gets the more I must accept my role as a supporting character in her story. Growing up means making choices, each one sacrificing the roads not taken, each one taking us further away from the purity of our aspirations, and closer to a bigger, messier future that will one day go on without us.

Such lessons are particularly relevant to the peak oil movement, one of the more heartening developments of my lifetime. A movement to reverse the destructive trends of the modern world could have coalesced around any number of things – a new church, a charismatic leader, a war or economic crash – but in this case, what set it off was online awareness of an obscure geological phenomenon.

Oil wells typically pump their liquid gold from an underground “field” at an escalating rate – faster as the number of wells multiplies. When oil extraction from that field hits a peak, the rate of petroleum slowly declines – bigger fields obviously have higher and later peaks than smaller ones, but they all peak sometime. The theory’s originator, M. King Hubbert, predicted that the USA would hit peak about 1970, and he was right – but he died before he could see whether his long-predicted global peak would come true. When I first began researching the theory, it was picking up interest again, with Hubbert’s scientific heirs using updated information to predict a global peak around 2005.

As a journalist, I wrote my first magazine cover story on the issue in 2004, quoting a number of energy experts with a range of opinions, and bet on a slow crash, midway between the scoffers and the doomers:

I typed much of this late at night while holding my four-week-old daughter, and have been comparing my childhood memories to what hers will be. I knew five of my great-grandparents, all born in the 19th century, and my daughter, if she is lucky, may live to see the 22nd. My parents and relatives grew some of their own food in their back yards, and they canned and preserved and pickled. My wife spins cloth from wool. My old beater car gave up the ghost a few days ago, and I’m biking to work. We have a PC and a TV and are nowhere close to living off the grid, but it’s a start.

I don’t know what world she will think normal. These experts might be wrong, as many have been before them; perhaps our ingenuity will simply come up with a substitute, and we will laugh at articles like this as we laugh at the Y2K scare. Or perhaps the more apocalyptic predictions are right, and my daughter will one day hunt elk through the crumbling canyons of downtown Minneapolis (where we lived at the time).

In lieu of further evidence, I’m placing my money in-between.

My hope is that the crunch will be slow and partly advantageous. She may become an adult in a world where people have three more hours a day from not sitting in traffic, where they cannot escape to the suburbs and are forced to deal with each other. She may see an America where the endless rows of houses have become neighbourhoods again, where more back yards are becoming gardens, where you can walk through them and again see people.

I continued writing about the issue, interviewing the irrepressible James Howard Kunstler for another cover story a few months later. By then, however, my wife and I were already planning to move to her family in rural Ireland — an opportunity, it seemed, to research and embrace older ways of life.

The more I investigated these issues, the more people I found online asking the same questions: How long will various fuels last? (Not forever.) To what extent can solar and wind power do the same things? (Not much.) How much of our food depends on fossil fuels? (Almost all of it.) How does this affect climate change? (It doesn’t make that problem go away.)

What if electricity were cut off, as happened frequently in my hometown of St. Louis? What would happen if air travel suddenly ceased, as happened a few days in Ireland in 2010? What if the economy crashed, as happened here later that same year?

People around the world – perhaps tens of thousands – realised they had been raised in entirely artificial surroundings, addicted to electronics and dependent on others, with no community and no real skills, and began to see what they could do to change that. Some turned to gardening, some to backyard bees or poultry, some began reviving old crafts or tinkering with new inventions. Some began tying these issues together into a larger picture, and their writings circulated in the growing community.

Kunstler probably achieved the most prominence, with articles in Rolling Stone and appearances on late-night talk shows, but a number of other writers carved out their own niche; there were the gentle professionals like Richard Heinberg or Julian Darley, retired oil engineers like Colin Campbell and Ken Deffeyes, suit-and-tie investors like Matt Simmons, and doomers like Matt Savinar and Michael Ruppert. Some bloggers gained some minor celebrity after their posts went viral, like John Michael Greer, Dmitri Orlov or Ran Prieur. Too few women wrote with any frequency, but one exception was Sharon Astyk, who wrote movingly about her life as a farmer and mother.

Specialist blogs appeared to cover personal aspects of an imminent collapse: psychological health, emergency medicine or security. Podcasters like KMO and Jason Bradford gave me something to listen to through headphones at my day job, documentaries like The End of Suburbia and What a Way to Go received widespread attention, and web sites like Energy Bulletin (now brought these all together.

I met kindred spirits here in Ireland, we formed a group called FADA, and we were off to a great start. Irish television personalities gave talks for us, we hosted political debates, we created a community garden, we organised a food co-op and we held several festivals. I gave several talks to teenaged students about what kind of future they might see, and a local student theatre group put on a play based on peak oil. I spoke from pulpits at local churches and convent halls, and I started a newspaper column that I’m still writing eight years later. A similar group, we discovered, was already underway in County Cork, and their name — Transition Towns — was picked up by similar groups around the world.

Rising fuel prices and rapidly growing awareness of the problem gave us a sense that the movement was genuinely moving, even if much of the rhetoric seemed hyperbolic, presuming a widespread and total “crash” close at hand. While praising the growing interest in simplicity and self-reliance, I wrote in the American Conservative in 2008 that:

a critical mass of Americans who believe in an imminent zombie apocalypse runs the risk of making the future more difficult than it need be. Just as a Depression-era panic could crash a bank that would not otherwise have failed, so a widespread belief in a violent and hopeless end could actually make Americans less likely to work together during the next outage or shortage.

In fact, peak oil will probably not be a crash, a moment when everything falls apart, but a series of small breakdowns, price hikes, and local crises. This creates a risk of complacency–see the usual frog-in-boiling-water metaphors–but it also gives us time to act, if we choose to.

Nonetheless, we were gratified to see a spreading sense of urgency. From our isolated position out here through the kaleidoscopic lens of the internet, we watched as towns across the world formed their own transition chapters, meet-up groups, web sites, and emergency plans. A wave of books, podcasts and newsletters — of highly variable quality, from the far left and right alike — advised their audiences how to prepare for the imminent crash.

Then a crash, of sorts, came – in bank debt rather than fuel prices, but a crisis all the same. For a while many of us carried on as we had done, not realising we were seeing “peak peak oil,” as it were. The movement didn’t exactly collapse, and neither did the world, but both saw a drop in measurable activity.

Real declines don’t happen everywhere at once, but one person or community at a time. At first I knew only that our own group was grinding its wheels; the people who reliably got things done became burned out, exhausting their energy on overambitious projects, while meetings were dominated by arguments between the kinds of people who enjoy trying to dominate meetings. Likewise, the movement did not disappear; Kunstler and Heinberg are still churning out books, KMO’s admirable podcast continues, and the redoubtable John Michael Greer writes excellent books faster than I can read them.

Most of the movement’s pundits, though, withdrew or shifted direction. Prieur somewhat recanted his belief in a slow crash, while Orlov’s writings grew increasingly eccentric and conspiratorial. Astyk turned her attention to an admirable project of raising foster children, but also cut back her once-prolific writing; a few months ago she sold her farm. Julian Darley has a small film company, and the web site biography skips over his peak oil years. Matt Savinar became an astrologer. Simmons and Ruppert are no longer among the living.

To call this a defeat, however, would use the wrong metaphor. The peak oil movement, if you can call it that, was never one side of a struggle, nor did its value ultimately derive from petroleum geology. Its value, rather came from pulling together a number of trends, predictions and responses that until then had been small and isolated. It drew rural survivalists, scientists, eco-enthusiasts and many working-class families into a loose coalition of people, sharing the common realisation that a more self-reliant world was possible, cost-effective, and fun.

Many people and groups never slowed down at all, of course, but even those that folded, like mine, left behind projects – a local soap-making business, a food co-op, a garden – that remain active. They might have left less tangible legacies, like liberal and conservative neighbours bonding over beekeeping, or hundreds of teenaged students rethinking their assumptions about the future. The same is true everywhere people gathered around this issue — perhaps hundreds of thousands around the world – and pared down, went without, researched, experimented and learned, met others doing the same things, and learned from veterans of movements past until, without realising it, they were mentors themselves.

That last part is key, because the people who learned from the last crisis – who have some land for a garden, or who know how to grow and fix things, or who have livestock to breed and distribute – will be key to helping their neighbours through the next ones. If people from the peak oil scene want to remain credible in the eyes of others, however, they need to not repeat the mistakes of the past. For example:

1.) Don’t predict the Zombie Apocalypse. Too many writers talked about when the “crash” would “hit,” in the usual end-of-the-world language – I’m sure I used such words myself at some point. Yet the energy experts I interviewed pointed out that as conventional oil hit limits, less conventional sources – oil shale, deep-water drilling – would become more viable. They aren’t a simple substitute, of course – they require a greater investment, so the net energy result is much less – but they can ease or even temporarily reverse the decline. That is exactly what has happened in the 11 years since, yet predictably, mainstream pundits use this to “prove” that our energy sources are not limited.

Some pundits keep predicting that this year, whatever year it is, will finally see the big crash, and every year they are wrong – as wrong, to be fair, as people who each year predict a full recovery.

Predictions like this come easily for laptop prophets keeping a web site, but they have serious consequences out there in the world, where real people are reading them. Around 2006, while we had just moved to Ireland, Australian teenager Tasman McKee discovered Ruppert and Savinar’s web sites, read Ruppert’s 9-11 conspiracy book “Crossing the Rubicon,” and became caught up in their feverish predictions of civilisation’s end. His e-mails home to his parents became filled with musings about oil prices, imminent war and “teowawki” (The End of the World as We Know It).

A year after he first learned the term “peak oil,” Tasman’s body was found on a mountain he loved; his suicide note to his family mentioned “this nonsense suicide civilisation.” He specifically mentioned peak oil and the web sites he was reading in his final e-mails, so we know it was a factor in his decision. Yet a million people kill themselves each year, according to organisations that track that sort of thing – how many of them were influenced by these or any number of other apocalyptic predictions?

2.) Reach out to a variety of people. One of the peak oil movement’s great advantages also made it fragile – it drew people from across the culture-war divide, something that almost never happens these days.

Most political issues these days, especially in my native USA, fall into well-worn demographic grooves; evangelical Christian/Republican/conservative, or leftist/countercultural/protestor, or academic/liberal/Democrat, or some other stereotype. Even issues with broad appeal are too easily squeezed into a pop-culture box by the mainstream media; protests against the 2003 Iraq invasion often drew priests, nuns, veterans, libertarians and union workers, but news crews reliably covered the hippie with the upside-down flag.

Few issues draw even that kind of coalition; with most subcultures now getting their news from their own micro-targeted media, most of my countrymen are stranded on ideologically alien planets from each other. Everyone supports diversity in the abstract, but reaching across class or culture-war lines has become, for many Americans, literally unthinkable.

As someone from a Christian and conservative background, I valued the presence of so many people from that side: Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, Bush-Cheney advisor Matt Simmons and the American Conservative magazine. Compare that to climate change, an issue that became politicised as an emblem for a single faction, and which suffered as a result.

Broad culture-war support has a purpose beyond simple utility, one that deserves more space than I have here: Dialling down our consumption and simplifying our lives will mean going back to a more traditional, even conservative, way of life in many ways. That does not mean adopting the strange obsessions of Fox News celebrities, but it will also not resemble the lifestyle of hip urban progressives. A more traditional world has lessons to teach us that violate our pop-culture stereotypes of left and right, and that make both sides of my country’s culture war deeply uncomfortable.

3.) Police your group. One reason most hippie communes failed in the 1970s, I suspect, was not because all communal living is doomed to failure – certainly monks and Shakers did it successfully — but because the people most likely to become hippies were the people least-suited to the conformist discipline of communal life.

In the same way, public meetings about fringe issues – even valid ones – draw that sliver of people who show up for public meetings, usually eccentric and individualistic. Few actions unite such a disparate group, and not everyone will have the spare time and energy to devote to extra work. Most people will simply watch, and should be encouraged to contribute something small.

Less benign, however, are people who want your fledgling group to throw its weight behind their cause. That happened, in my experience, with the US Green Party, originally begun by homesteaders in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. It originally drew a diversity of political and religious groups around the common cause of ecology; years of infighting, however, drove away everyone but a core of countercultural activists.

I’ve heard similar stories about other groups, left and right alike, that could not sustain a diverse group around a common ideal, and ended up as a small and militant fragment. If you have a group of your own – say, building gardens or gathering neighbourhood compost – stick with that mission and build outward and upward, rather than allowing yourselves to be side-tracked.

4.) In the same vein, keep your goals simple. A Group to Transform our Self-destructive Consumer Culture and Create a New Future Based on Self-Reliant Localism (GTTOSDCCACANFBOSRL) will face a pressure of expectations and breadth of ambition beyond the capabilities of most uncomfortable meetings of neighbours over tea.

An arrangement with three neighbours to buy food in bulk for half the price, however, has room to expand and grow. The same is true for a garden group that spends its Saturdays tending each person’s garden in turns. The same holds for a cooking-from-scratch group, or a fix-it contest, or a not-quite-legal carpool / bus service. You’re not going to conquer the world, but you might get ten more people to go in on a pig.

These simple and straightforward groups can appeal to people of many subcultures at first, expanding and possibly incorporating other ambitions down the road. If a few years from now a company buys up your water supply and makes rain collection illegal, you can organise your neighbours – but it helps to first know and trust them from the gardening group.

The activists who predicted a total and imminent crash were wrong, and the Big One never came and never will. Yet a lot of little ones did – fuel prices, bank crashes, foreclosures, outages, shortages, oil spills, fires, droughts and hurricanes, all in the last several years alone – and they might come larger and faster in the decades ahead. That’s where you come in.

Whatever you thought the next ten years would be like, perhaps you learned how to filter your own water, fix a broken bicycle, sew a ripped coat or compost your waste. Perhaps you just met a lot of people doing the same thing, and learned to listen to each other rather than the television. Even if the future didn’t precisely fit your expectations, that time was well spent, giving you something to build on and teach others.

All this runs somewhat against our most common cultural fantasies, either the leftist dream of populist revolution, or the apocalyptic fantasy of escaping in a lifeboat. It doesn’t mean rising up as a people, taking on the powers that be and winning. It means giving up that dream.

It means not winning, and not seeing crises as an opportunity to win against your political enemies, but to serve – including serving your enemies. It means preparing for an uncertain, messy future that will one day go on without you.

That, however, is how things need to happen: you change a bit, and help others do the same, and then do it a bit more, often feeling like you are failing. Only after years go by you look back and see how far you’ve come.

Brian Kaller

Former newspaper editor Brian Kaller wrote his first magazine cover story on peak oil in 2004, and since then has written for the American Conservative, the Dallas Morning News, Front Porch Republic, Big Questions Online and Low-Tech Magazine. In 2005 he and his family moved to rural Ireland, where he speaks to schools and churches, and writes a weekly column for the local newspaper.  

Tags: building resilient communities, peak oil, peak oil community