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Apocaphilia, Peak Oil and Sustainability

apocnow.jpgAlthough I recognize that the depletion of oil supplies is a serious problem, I haven't always been entirely supportive of the "peak oil" movement. There's a good bit of "apocaphilia" in many of the peak oilers, a fascination with the end of the world that goes well beyond terriblisma. I'm not saying that they look forward to things falling apart, the center not holding, and mere anarchy loosed upon the world, but some may well be looking forward to being able to say "I told you so."

More importantly, a good many of those who pay close attention to the peak oil theories are all too ready to discount any attempt at solutions, declaring flatly that it's too late, that no solutions will be sufficient, and that no amount of "techno-fix" or "idealism" will be able to handle the social trauma inflicted upon our civilization by the depletion of oil reserves. I count James Howard Kunstler in this group, as his Long Emergency (and ongoing blog, Clusterfuck Nation) seem to be terribly influential in the peak oil community. As we've explored here a bit, Kunstler has no time for people who want to fix the system, seeing only the cleansing hand of catastrophe as the only way we'll change our ways.

Obviously such a philosophy isn't well-received here at WorldChanging. Our core principle is that things are bad, possibly even worse than most recognize, but that there are many ways to make things less-bad -- and even, if we're clever, innovative, and insightful, ways even to make things better. Such a philosophy doesn't deny that things could go the way that Kunstler, et al, foresee, but argues that such a fate is not the only possibility. We can change the world, and for the better.

The fact is that doomsday predictions are rarely if ever right; historically, under even the worst possible challenges, human civilization has managed to muddle through without an overall collapse. The same can't be said for individual communities and peoples, as Jared Diamond's Collapse makes abundantly clear. But from diversity comes strength, and the variety of cultures and societies all facing the same risks, the sheer number of people who will take the incipient disaster as an opportunity for innovation, militates against the total civilization collapse scenario.

Adding to the reasons for hope is that we actually have a good idea of what we have to do in order to avoid the disastrous outcomes, and little of what we have to do is outside of our reach. This doesn't mean it will be easy or cheap to avoid significant problems, only that it's possible -- but possible is a helluva lot better than impossible.

Doomsaying is, ironically, self-defeating. Although some people will be discouraged by proclamations that our fate is sealed, many more will be alerted to the depths of the problems we face, and will muster the creativity and social will to bring about the necessary solutions. We saw this with Y2K, and while the peak oil scenario differs from Y2K in many fundamental ways, there's a core similarity: voices in the wilderness, telling us that it's too late, unintentionally acting as catalysts for action.

I should reiterate that not all peak oil aficionados see themselves as Cassandras, revealing our fated destruction. Some -- a growing number, in my observation -- are willing to think about what practical measures can be adopted to avoid disaster. One example, and the proximate trigger for this short essay, is a new post by "peakguy" at the indispensable peak oil website, The Oil Drum. "From Peak Oilers to Citizens for Sustainable Living." looks at what kinds of choices we can make as citizens (as well as consumers) in order to reduce our consumption of oil. Some are practical steps, some are more philosophical, and all should be familiar to WorldChanging readers.

It's interesting to see how the interests of those who wish to avoid an oil depletion-triggered collapse and those who wish to avoid a climate-disruption disaster coincide. At one level, such a correlation is obvious: oil consumption is one of the major causes of global warming, so efforts to reduce such consumption will have positive climate effects, regardless of the motivation. At another level, however, it points to one of the possible engines for greater political and social change: the need to move to a non-oil economy is so great, and covers so many arenas, that alliances are almost inevitable. There's little doubt that the political perspectives of many peak oilers will differ from those of hardcore sustainability advocates, but on this fundamental issue, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

Peak oilers, I say to you: our fate is in our own hands, and success is possible. Apocalypse is not our only option. The end of the oil age isn't the end of the world, it's our chance to make the world better.


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Comments (68)

in one post you have captured the essence of this blog, and that essence is why I keep coming back to read.

I enjoy your positivity. Keep it up.


Great post. Though I'd object the following - that the greatest part of people act like a sadomazohists that would like to watch the world coming crashing down... There are such (like say Kunstler) but they I think are a minority. There is another huge group that needs more positive thinking and ideas and these are the passive pessimists - those that think "Well, the world is going to hell with or without me, let me live for the moment and forget all of that". If I could make a little nasty analogy - after realising the immense complexity and consequences of the problem a lot of people behave like the rabbit being hypnotized by the lights of the coming car... The rabbit does not seek for the solution his eyes are in the coming danger... I'd also argue that in certain sense our whole society is already acting like that. It is very essential to overcome the period of the initial shock and begin seeking for solutions and this post is a great reminder for that.

P.S. As for the parallel between climate change and peak oil alarmists - I'd rather not absolutise... There are more people than I'd like them to be, that you could call "peakoilers" that realise the imencity problem and also point out the "solutions" - tar sands + coal liquification + oil shale. God bless.

That's a great word - Apocaphilia - I have to remember that. Thanks for the shout out. Sustainability is Plan B after we pass the peak. The alternatives are scary and still a strong possibility - resource wars, economic collapse. We still have time to strengthen our communities now to prepare and ultimately I believe we will light the way. Cheers!

Apocaphilia really is a great word, and I agree with the sentiments in the post, but - while there certainly is a large subsection of the peak oil world that concentrates on the doomer aspect and denies that any solution is possible, I think concentrating on them too much isn't a particularly great idea.

There are plenty of people on my blog roll who seem to be mostly positive and are basically trying to draw people's attention to the problem and solutions to it (good examples being Jim at "The Energy Blog" and Kurt at "Resource Insights" for example, along with E-P of course) - maybe they should be getting a bit more publicity when you talk about peak oil ?

Obviously Kunstler is hitting a nerve for some reason, but he's far from the gloomiest commentator out there (why not pick on Jay Hanson for a change ?) - at the end of the day he's an entertainer who bases his routines on possible apocalypses as much as anything.

Its not like the global warming world is immune from this sort of thing either, whether it be "The Day After Tomorrow" or Kim Stanley Robinson's "Forty Signs Of Rain" or even Bruce's "Heavy Weather" - they are all trying to draw people's attention to a serious problem. Making people understand the consequences of not taking action does seem to be the first step in getting them to do something...

This is it, this is exactly why WorldChanging is worth reading daily.

Gav, you stole my thunder in mentioning Heavy Weather -- a bit of pertinent, reasonable apocaphilia by a novelist, given the facts on the ground.

I'm disappointed that the focus here at Worldchanging is still on Kunstler and his supposedly "apocalyptic" prediction that walmart / suburbia will evaporate and food will be grown locally in the future. (You've read his book, right? You're not just criticizing based on your own vivid imagination?)

It's been 9 months. Find another Bete Noir.

Terriblisma -- Apocaphilia -- These invented terms are mythic responses to people discussing, some rationally and some not, a real, actual problem for our civilization.

Terriblisma, in the particular context of Peak Oil, is presumably what some !Kung might experience, watching western civilization thrash around from afar. There is no way to apply it to those of us who actually live in the culture that will be directly affected by this crisis, except via muddled thinking.


If were an astronomer who calculated that a particular hunk of rock would hit the earth, causing a die-off, would I be a pessimist, an optimist, or a realist?

And if I also stated that there were a time frame to apply energy to that rock to enforce a change direction away from Earth, but that there was a point AFTER which applying energy would no longer be useful, would I be scapegoated and ignored for being the bearer of bad news?


Peak oil is a "Long Emergency, even if solutions are found that satisfy and meet our present living standards.

Thanks for the hypnotised rabbit metaphor. Here's a bundle of metaphors about "futures":

Three futures:

- throw a stone out the window
- throw an open piece of paper out the window
- throw an alive bird out the window

Oil Drum is good. Another great source for "peak oil" info is Energy Bulletin - http://www.energybulletin.net/ - they extract stuff from everybody: Kunstler included, but certainly not the only perspective there.

There are three attitudes evident in all this. First the "apocaphilia" Jamais points out; there certainly are a lot of people saying that we're doomed, and seemingly enjoying the prospect. Second there's the "what, me worry" crowd - free markets will fix everything, or (the CERA side of things) there's still plenty of oil to be found; unfortunately they're far too dominant and either complacent or deliberately misleading.

Third are a much smaller set: those who realize there's a problem of immense magnitude, but who also realize humans are capable of meeting the challenge with concerted effort. The problem is, how to shift public attitudes to where that effort can be made. Apocaphilia doesn't help directly (if we're really doomed there's no point), but indirectly it gets people's attention to the problem at least. Complacency doesn't help directly either, but indirectly by letting the problem get worse it also increases motivation for solutions.

Unfortunately some prominent people fall more in the 2nd category than the 3rd, and WorldChanging has that danger itself, for example in the naive discussion of the Kaya identity where "efficiency improvements will solve everything". Amory Lovins is unfortunately more in the 2nd camp than the 3rd for much the same reasons, and to some extent Robert Socolow with the recent Science paper on "wedges" to solutions, suggesting we already have all the technology we need. Though he's moderated that recently by indicating we still have an awful lot of work to do...

Clearly in the third camp are some pretty prominent scientists. David Goodstein of Caltech (author of "Out of Gas"), Richard Smalley of Rice (see his talk to the Materials Research Society for instance: http://www.mrs.org/publications/bulletin/2005/jun/june05_MaterialMatters.pdf ) and Marty Hoffert of NYU for instance. These guys know the problems coming are very very serious. They know there will be considerable suffering if we don't act, and that the suffering will be compounded the longer we delay in acting, and they know that the action needed is on an immense scale, dwarfing just about anything humans have done to this point. But they also are, at least a good part of the time, firmly convinced we are up to the challenge.

These are the guys warning that we need to strengthen the levees, rebuild the wetlands. So far they're being ignored. Will that change before tragedy strikes?

Of course, as with Y2K, if people actually do pay attention and fix the problems in time, tragedy may be averted - and those who look back after the fact will wonder what all the fuss was about. It's probably getting too late for that rosy scenario though.


Kunstler's key insight is that everything is not going to be ok by magical intervention or by the magic of the marketplace. Another key insight is that we need to change the entire structure of our civilization, not just engage in techno fixes here and there. More fuel efficient autos are fine, but only an interim solution.

But Kunstler suggests that it may already be too late and that we are going to enter the long emergency regardless of what we do in the short run. This, while somewhat depressing, still permits the possibility that we will somehow learn to cope. Things will change radically, and what we must get through our thick heads is that it won't be business as usual -- easy motoring -- as he puts it.

But the longer we indulge our fantasies of unlimited energy and unlimited magical technical solutions, the worse the emergency is going to be.

Some communities, like Willits, however, are trying to make the transition. This is a reason for hope.

And yes, your blog, for example, also gives us reasons for hope. Keep up the good work.

I'm glad to see some annoyance with Kunstler and his ilk here.  It also looks to me that he's dancing the Apocalypso, and his words don't say "we have to... or" but "it's going to... no matter what."  People who accept this are likely to take the attitude that it doesn't matter what they do so they might as well do nothing; my thoughts about Kunstler and the people like him were captured here.

It amazes me that there is probably more money being spent for books about our impending doom than on plug-in hybrids, and more on LNG terminals than on the solar-Stirling dish systems which could simply eliminate the need for the gas.

What will it take to get some tens of GW per year of solar and wind out there?

Jamais, please correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems as if you're making an aesthetic choice of futures. There are many facts and conclusions to which you and Mr. Kunstler would agree. Hydrocarbons are finite. Emissions from burning them are perturbing the climate. Our present civilization is founded on the premises of exponential growth and abundant, low-cost energy. Technical fixes are insufficient to address this problem - structural changes to the very goals and rules of our political economy will be needed. We'll need to design new settlement patterns, building systems, manufacturing processes, agricultural practices, modes of transport, and so on. Business as usual is coming to an end.

Yet as you extend from facts to deeper conclusions, you and Mr. Kuntsler part company. Viewing the same situation, you feel optimism, creative challenge and opportunity. (I do too, by the way - I think that most of the changes we need to make will lead us to a far better life.) You and I read Mr. Kunstler's works, and are put off by his "Apocophilia", his Schadenfreude and glee at the pain we'll feel as we begin our transition to sustainability. We don't find it helpful - it seems too much like the raging of an adolescent, angry that he has to live in a less-than-perfect world.

But that turns him into a cartoon and keeps us from asking a very important question. Assume for a moment that James Howard Kuntsler is as intelligent, well-meaning and concerned as you. You and he are in broad agreement about many things. Yet you wind up seeing the world differently. Why? For a moment, don't allow yourself to answer, "Because he's ignorant, mean-spirited, gleeful about the Apocolypse, just trying to hype his book" and so on. Just try to understand, really understand, why he might see things the way he does.

Then, far more importantly, ask why you see things the way you do. That's something few of us do enough of.

If I'm honest, I have to admit that my vision of a sustainable world isn't just a world I think can work, it's a world I long for. I think it's more beautiful than this one. I'd be happier there. If I weren't careful, I could waste my energy despising this world. Personally, I think Mr. Kunstler is in danger of that. But I understand him - there's a lot of him in me.

When we disagree with someone, we can learn a lot about ourselves.

I notice that WorldChanging seems to alternate between stuff like the Great Wager and stuff like this, which I think is the right way to do things.

I'm suspicious of oversimplification on both extremes. The rapture of the nerds (Look that phrase up in a search engine.) is not going to happen nor will global civilization grind to a horrible end of mass starvation and nuclear exchange. The truth is somewhere in the middle and the moment I spot someone handwaving or glossing things over, I get suspicious.

Yes, it is realism to acknowledge that we are in a bad fix right now but, damn it, we invented penicillin and defeated smallpox, we built the Great Wall, we invented Braille, we put people on the Moon. Doesn't our intelligence count for anything? Haven't we gained any wisdom at all?

A hundred years ago, most people didn't even know that sustainability was an issue. Now almost all literate people on the planet have heard something about it. Even in pretending that there is no problem, the critics are forced to acknowledge it. That counts as progress and wisdom to my thinking.

Every day this blog points out dozens of methods and solutions. It rarely says that they are easy or cheap (Although occasionly some turn out to be surprisingly cheap and easy.) but it does say that the solutions are within our grasp and don't require exotic technology OR diminishment of people's standards of living. Bucky Fuller would be proud.

Ted Wolf:

I enjoyed this post and many thoughtful commentaries. I am tempermentally aligned with the "can-do" spirit of Worldchanging, but I just finished Kunstler's "The Long Emergency" and think you are a bit unfair to him.

David Foley's post is helpful in understanding this.

Kunstler's view seems to be that the ramifying causes of The Long Emergency will force a devolution of society to a local and sustainable scale. But that's not going to work everywhere, because our investments in the wrong infrastructure are so vast and the opportunities to "re-purpose" that infrastructure (and the millions of households embedded in it) so limited, that the adjustments will be simply devastating for very large numbers of people. We just won't all make it into walkable village communities with functioning CSAs to feed us.

Of course this too is an oversimplification because the Long Emergency is unlikely to hit suddenly in an apocalyptic season or two. So in large part, the incremental adjustments are hard to anticipate even if we know the direction they must go.

The value of Kunstler and the Apocaphiliacs is that they remind us to see the limits of our cherished solutions. Not to dismiss them, or to scale back our commitment; far from it. But to understand that we are moving rapidly into an era in which all of our present understandings and assumptions are more likely than not, going to quicly prove myopic and limited.

Climate scientist Paul Crutzen says it's a new geological era: the Anthropocene. Of course it's scary, and exciting, and misunderstood. Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a thousand schools of thought contend.

Eric S. Johansson:

I find the whole peak oil discussion rather fascinating because I believe folks may not be paying proper attention to human inertia and willingness to change. For example, a natural assumption is that people migrate into villages or cities in order to gain access to goods and services without the high expensive oil-based transport.

One question is what is the economic impact of loss of equity when people sell or abandon their suburban houses? What will happen to the banking system when people default on mortgages as they abandoned properties? Who will fund that the construction of village properties? What will be the impact on the pet industry and society as people abandon dogs and become more people focused? Will the migration to closer spaces further drop the birth rate?

we have historical precedent for such a scenario. If you look at the emigrant influx in the late 1800s/early 1900s and then in the Depression, the most likely scenario for housing and population are: absentee landlord housing (i.e. real estate trusts) and significant drop in birthrate below what we currently have.

on a personal side, I know that raging introverts like me will probably never leave our flats, and live only through the Internet and cable television because cities are way too noisy and toxic to be visited any more than once or twice a year.

the future such a wonderful place, I hope I never get there. :-)

Pace Arko said something that deserves to be plastered on billboards:

... the solutions are within our grasp and don't require exotic technology OR diminishment of people's standards of living.
This is so true on so many levels and for so many things that it's not funny.  Remember the folks in San Diego who complained that electricity prices made hot showers unaffordable?  They didn't have a solar water heater.  The people who aren't going to be able to afford to heat their new homes this winter?  Bet their walls have the same old 2x walls with carelessly-installed fiberglass batts instead of SIP construction.

Using the right technology from the get-go would have made these problems moot and perhaps even improved creature comforts (an SIP wall is pretty much immune to drafts).  We should be doing all we can to sell this as better living any way you look at it.

Jamais Cascio:

Wow, lots of good comments here. Some replies:

Levin: good point about the elements of divergence between the peak oilers and sustainabilitans. The first would be more likely to embrace coal liquification, etc., than the second. That said, I get the impression that most peak oil folks recognize the need to move to renewable energy, so as to avoid the next peak, be it natural gas, uranium or even (well down the road) coal.

Peakguy: I hope that sustainability becomes Plan A!

Big Gav: Okay, I'll cop to picking on Kunstler; it's mostly due to his visibility, and references to him can serve as shorthand for the "we're hosed" argument. I'll try to be more ecumenical with my opposition in posts to come. As for TDAT, 40SoR, and HW, those are indeed apocalyptic visions -- but they're all explicitly fiction. They may be warnings, but I doubt that any of the authors would call them predictions of what *will* happen.

Jon S.: I have read Kunstler, and his vision isn't just that we'll be living locally, it's more that catastrophic events will leave local sustainability as the remaining population's only option for survival. There's a kind of imposed righteousness to the vision -- an implied, "this will be a morally and ecologically better way to live, so those who complain about what was lost are bad people" -- that I find very unappealing.

Also -- apocaphilia is an invented term, but terriblisma isn't. Follow the link in the first use of the term in the post.

Also -- there's a big difference between an astronomer predicts the impact of an asteroid and one predicting how people would respond to the possibility of an asteroid impact. Saying that "oil is running out, and here are the geophysical and economic arguments to support the claim" is one thing; saying that "oil is running out, and here's the effect on human behavior" is quite another.

Arthur: Energy Bulletin is a good resource, thank you. I do wish they'd put more info into their RSS feeds, though. Sometimes the headlines aren't enough.

Also -- Your "three responses" characterization seems more or less right to me. Unsurprisingly, I disagree about Worldchanging being often more in the 2nd than the 3rd. I think you mischaracterize the Kaya Identity argument. Efficiency improvements won't solve everything, but they can play a much bigger role in the solutions than generally recognized, and make some otherwise unattainable solutions possible. If this puts me in the company of Amory Lovins, you won't see me complaining...

Also -- thanks for the links to Goodstein, Smalley (with whom I'm familiar regarding his nanotech work), and Hoffert.

David: thank you -- your comment is insightful, as always. For the record, I don't think that Kunstler argues as he does to promote his book, or is particulary mean-spirited. I do think he has a long-standing disappointment verging on disgust with the modern world (something evident in his earlier books, btw), and sees in the Long Emergency a chance for a better world (in his terms) to emerge.

Although my disagreement with his arguments does have an aesthetic element, there's more to it than that. I think the world he describes as sustainable is one that fails most people on the planet, and fails to give us a future.

The collapse of western economies doesn't somehow give a hand-up to the impoverished parts of the world; if anything, it makes their conditions all the more dire, as there's no chance for outside assistance to help pull them out of a poverty cycle. There's a politically romantic notion that the only reason the poorest parts of the world are so bad off is that the big powers are suppressing them, but reality is much more complex. Western powers going away because they're dealing with their own internal problems may mean that support for some bad governments goes away, but it also means that other kinds of support -- food aid, economic assistance, even the maintenance of trade and communication networks -- drops off, as well.

At the same time, the world that emerges in the Long Emergency vision is one of stasis, where "stagnant" is more accurate than "sustainable." There is so much more that human civilization can be and do; lives kept to quiet, local subsistence is a betrayal of centuries, millennia of human effort.

Moreover, there's a moral component: the local sustainability scenario is not one that can support the planet's current population. "So what?" some might say, "we have too many people anyway." Except what that means is that millions of people, perhaps billions, will die. I am not willing to accept that as a price for a more aesthetically pleasing world.

Pace: thank you!

Ted: exactly. The apocalpytic vision can be a spur to action. And I do like the "Anthropocene" idea.

Let a thousand schools of thought contend, indeed!

Daniel Haran:

Googling "Great Wager" brings up worldchanging before the myriad sites discussing Pascal. Way to go :)

As for the difference between the optimists and the doomsayers: I reckon most us optimists feel more empowered. Understanding and knowing more history, diverse interests in cultural change, technology and politics all can help us understand the world sufficiently to feel we can impact it positively. Time and again, I realize how much the leverage I have is in my education.

Besides education, temperament plays a role. More important than both of those might be community, even if virtual like Worldchanging :) Culture may be more important than temperament- might be easier to change too.

Great post Jamais.

Technology Review had a similar take on Kunstler this week:

I would also object to an earlier poster putting KS Robinson and 40 signs of rain (the first of a trilogy mind you) with the Day After Tomorrow. Robinson has, I think, from previous books, clearly placed himself in the worldchanging optimistic camp. i.e. bad stuff happens, but it can get better, so long as we are actually doing something about it (?)

I myself believe that humanity will muddle its way out of most tight corners. In my darker moments, I do wonder if that is necessarily a good thing :-)

We may not be revisiting the middle ages soon, but neither will we be living a Wired magazine style glorious future.

Jamais: Thanks for all the responses.

Given the example of the asteroid colliding with the Earth, the point is that you would not ascribe things like "terriblisma" and "apocaphilia" to the hypothetical astronomer and disciples, even if they said, "You know, it is possible this event will wipe out humanity!"

It would be taken as reasonable -- if dire -- scenario. Creativity and problem solving to follow.

That is why I think the continued focus on Kunstler is very unneccesary at this point. Everyone here is smarter than that. He is certainly a grumpy curmudgeon, he does hate certain technology, he does specifically want to see the suburbs replaced with something akin to small town America circa 1905, and his sense of rightousness in defense of his personal scenario can certainly be off-putting.

So what does that have to do with Peak Oil?

Nothing; Kunstler is not Peak Oil.

I believe that you are using a locally created mythology, complete with wide generalizations about those of us who "pimp" Peak Oil, as a stand in for actually seriously analyzing what the consequences of cheap energy declining will be.

Sorry to be so critical. You struck a nerve with "but some may well be looking forward to being able to say "I told you so."

I have a two year old son. Like most people, I like to be proven right about things, but I doubt that means means I'll be laughing maniacally and shouting "I told you so!" if my local grocery store were to run out of milk due to some type of systemic failure, energy related or otherwise.

Jamais Cascio:

Jon, I see what you're trying to say with the comparison to warnings of an asteroid impact, but again I think that the differences are significant. We have many examples from our planet's history and from observations of other astronomical bodies precisely what happens when an asteroid hits. We don't have the same kinds of observations for what happens when a planetary civilization runs out of its primary fuel source. We have local analogies and detailed speculation, but ulimately we have more questions than answers.

(I know I don't need to reiterate this, but just in case: I'm not arguing that everything's fine, that there's nothing to worry about, and that business-as-usual will get us by. Big changes are needed in our infrastructure, our transportation systems, our urban design, and so forth.)

You're right -- Kunstler isn't the voice of the peak oil movement (although he does get mentioned and linked to quite a bit, from what I've seen). As I promised Big Gav, I'll find other dead horses to beat for future discussions of this topic.

More to the point, I never said anyone was "pimping" peak oil, and I certainly never meant to imply that *you* were leading the schadenfreude brigade. Yet I have seen, in the last however many months of following the various peak oil sites, occasional discussions where the strong implication was that the fools who think that nothing's wrong are going to get what's coming to them.

I'm glad you're not looking forward to catastrophic social and economic collapse. I'm certainly not. And I hope we agree that such an outcome, while possible, is still within our power to avoid.

Where does a "peak oil moderate" fit in all this?

I find it moderately depressing. There is a lot of grubby territory between "apocaphilia" and a happy, feel good, future. We are heading for that grubby future, with some good news, and a lot of bad. Is that an Apocolypse? No, it's just the last five years of headlines re-run with minor changes.

I mean, more power to you, if this is what it takes to stay motivated but ... you did see the Energy Bill, right?

So one web site in the world is "smart, hip, 'worldchanging'" ... tremendous. When you guys start to outnumber the Hummer drivers I might try to struggle out of my depresson.

Jamais, thanks, and very well said in your long response above:

"There is so much more that human civilization can be and do; lives kept to quiet, local subsistence is a betrayal of centuries, millennia of human effort."


I have to say I am very disappointed in this post. It seems polarizing to me. I don't believe in doomsday scenarios because I want to. I think that is a gross mischaracterization of "peakers." I believe because the arguments make sense to me.

I'm doing what I can to be part of the solution. I don't want to say "I told you so." I would love to avoid some of the more dire outdomes. Are you kidding?

I don't think being pessimistic precludes the *behavior* that one associates with a "can do" attitude. I'm not waiting for someone else to solve the problem. I think it is important to make a distinction between outlook and behavior.


Folks, I read your comments with some bemusement, since I came from a place that had few, and small cars, not much money, no supermarkets, and lots of people with no education. And it wasn't so bad, and in some ways better than what I see around me now. It was called the 1930"s.

People were mostly, as far as I could tell, pretty happy- they got along ok with each other and helped each other out, and even travelled long distances and had fun doing it. And even I, as a poverty kid, could go where I wanted around town by hitchhiking. I never got murdered or beat up, only bored silly every now and then by some preacher trying to save my soul.

Since then I have travelled all over the world, seen lots of poverty way worse than anything at home, and also seen lots of good people leading good lives on very very little energy or much of the stuff we think we simply have to have.

And when I return to this country, what hits me the hardest is WASTE, WASTE, AND MORE WASTE. Obscene waste of materials, energy, human effort, education, imagination opportunity, brains, everything.

This country could go for a decade on the stuff just lying around unused in basements and attics and storage huts and used car lots and city dumps.

And it could live forever on the opportunities and ideas heaped all over the place just waiting to be picked up and put to use.

Let's have a little contest. Somebody make a list of big problems, one at a time, so the rest of us can have fun putting down a bunch of real solutions to each, and then on to the next, until we have got them all done and we can relax and go have a beer before we put our plan into action.

I will start it off, BIG PROBLEM- clueless politicians.
SOLUTION- Every candidate for office must score high on the BFQ- the Ben Franklin Quotient. As we all know, Ben was very smart, very pragmatic, very scientific, very funny, able to talk sense without a teleprompter, skilled at getting people to work together, and so on and so on. There are a hell of a lot of people in this country, all we have to do is to use the BFQ to sort out some of the good ones for public servants.

Next problem?

Hey, wimbi:  how goes the Stirling project?


I would love to avoid some of the more dire outdomes.
To avoid them, people have to have enough belief that they are avoidable (rather than inevitable) to take the necessary actions.  Kunstler's doomsaying doesn't leave room for that; if people are listening to him seriously, we first have to refute his message of futility before we can persuade people to do something other than fret while continuing Business As Usual.

Jamais and all - you might be interested in my review of Amory Lovins' recent Scientific American piece. It's rather full of problems...

Wimbi: The biggest difference between today and the 1930's would be population, and the green revolution, a petroleum artifact.

I pretty much agree with you aside from that.

Jamais, and E-P: Kunstler to me has a lot of value as someone who is willing to raise awareness for peak energy. He's an opionated and quotable shock trooper. I've defended him in the past mostly on that basis. He doesn't invent facts, he sources right back to the geologists. (NOT economists.) Beyond that, his scenarios, asian pirates et al, are his own.

I strongly believe that beyond awareness, people will deal with Peak Oil based on the dictates of their own personality, talents, and abilities. The idea that Kunstler is going to infect people with undue hopelessness, and instill an inertia of inaction, is silly. People don't behave like that. If someone is predisposed to hopelessness and inaction, sure.

The quote on Mobjectivist's Peak Oil site seems appropriate:

"Tell people something they know already and they will thank you for it. Tell them something new and they will hate you for it." - George Monbiot

WorldChanging is a valuable, positive resource. I stop by almost every day. I think the editorial staff here owes it to their readers to come up with their own response to peak oil, rather than relying on reactionary polemics.

Jamias: Thanks for the response (to all of us) - I understand why you flog the Kunstler dead horse, but I'm just a bit dismayed that it seems to end up polarising the "peak oil" crowd from the Viridian one, when I believe that one is the solution to the other's concerns.

Adrian: While I agree that KSR's 40SoR and TDAT are very different in the level of alarmism (and basis in reality), they still make the same point to my mind - very bad things will happen if we don't arrest the progress of global warming. I will admit I cheated a bit by ignoring the imminent release of "50 Degrees Below" and the fact that it points out some of the ways forward. But my point was that some alarmism is used by almost everyone pointing out large scale problems before they start discussing solutions. And I'd like to think the peak oil camp isn't (on the whole) just saying we're all doomed - just doing the initial groundwork to raise awareness.

As for the difference between Kunstler and the fictional globally warmed futures, maybe the reason I see things a bit differently is that I tend to view "The Long Emergency" as science fiction - extrapolating present trends out into the future. As Jon and I have been babbling over at my blog, you can't take someone who predicts asian pirates raiding the pacific northwest in the near future entirely seriously.


EP- The stirling project was going gangbusters until the one essential thing was snatched away from me- my super technician was reassigned to a goddam whizbang military project. They have promised to give him back next week but I might have to just finish it myself--very slow.

Illustrates one of the problems- priorities. Just think what we (WC) could do with the military budget!

Jon S- Sure, we have twice as many people here now as when I was a kid, and a lot of them are way too fat, too, but things are going better. The rate of change is still bad but the rate of change of the rate of change is getting better and better. I was part of the problem (3 kids-too many) but my kids are part of the solution ( 4 grandkids-just right)

But let's keep going on problems and solutions.
PROBLEM- transportation. SOLUTION- the Ziare method. I rented a car in Kigali to go to Goma to visit my peace corps daughter. The jeep was soon overflowing with Africans, all speaking three or four languages, laughing, fixing flats, finding gas, bananas and in general larking it up as I the witless mzugu wended my way I knew not where, but they did. Every thing worked splendidly and we all had fun. And I found my daughter and delivered the gross of condoms she had requested.

Lesson. If we can all act like christians we can do wonders.
Yes, you don't have to tell me. Not long after, those fun people were chopping each other by the thousands. That's another problem. Let's work on it.

Daniel Haran:

Arthur: I just finished reading you review of Amory Lovin's work, and perusing his article (I'm familiar enough with his work by now I don't think I need to read its entirety).

Metrics like energy percentage used to move the driver as opposed to the car makes for an amazingly useful heuristic. If we remain stuck considering the motor's efficiency, we miss out on the gains to be made by changing the materials of the car. It's a "cold beers and hot showers" over kilowatt-hours scenario again. A showerhead that uses half the water is a more elegant solution than a water heater that is twice as efficient. A smaller hot water heater, and perhaps eliminating the tank (and the need to keep it maintained at a certain temperature, and the materials needed to build it)- the compounding losses are made obvious by the savings generated by the more direct solution.

You recognize this yourself when you consider mass transit over cars. The metric is no longer the motor's MPG, but the efficiency in transporting people. A bus is what, 30 times more efficient than a car? Even the best hybrids won't achieve that! Lovins just goes a step further, asking why people need to move in the first place. For grocery shopping, socializing, going to work: and he proposes a solution that directly addresses those. People want mobility as much as they need kilowatt hours.

Lovins is relentless in pushing us to consider end-use efficiency. Even if we don't share his ideas for urban development or his enthusiasm for his every idea, we have to be fair and not label him as merely a polly-annaish capitalist. He has done his share of ranting against modern capitalism's blind-spots; his attempts at pushing various efficiencies by making them irresistible in the market place are more pragmatic than ideological.

As for work towards shifting public attitudes- again, let's be fair: he has been working for 30 years educating people. His discourse focuses as much on attitudes as on actions people can take: it empowers us rather than ask us to believe in something or write letters. In my experience, the Cassandras that scare people do as much to paralyze as to motivate. In fact, let me be clear: I believe that the majority of doomsday Peak Oilers are doing more harm than good.

I agree that these matters transcend Kunstler. That's why I didn't even mention him in my post.

The alternatives to fossil fuels already exist:

  1. Energy efficiency: Never mind the exotic stuff that's still in the lab
    (which is often mentioned here), there are already more products and tools on
    the market right now then we really know what to do with. The real problem
    here is how to overcome social and economic inertia and replace all the
    infrastructure rapidly and cheaply with technology that already exists.
  2. Solar energy: Engineer Poet cited San Diego. WorldChanging cites many
    examples of solar energy being used in tropical regions of the developing
    world. Many of these don't use expensive PV cells. They just use solar stills,
    tromb walls, light pipes and other simple, cheap and easy to maintain
  3. Nuclear fission: Yes, this has a lot problems of its own: Expense, ways
    are needed to reduce and recycle the waste and there is the threat of military
    use. But as fossil fuels are exhausted, I don't see how we can avoid it.
    Europe and Asia (Japan and France for example.) appear to have realized this
    long ago.
  4. Biomass: Aside from burning or refining animal dung, I am more skeptical
    of this one. We'd have to convert huge areas of farmland over to fuel crops
    and I don't think output will be close what we currently expend by burning
    fossil fuels.
  5. Wind: This is growing more and more common. Sure some of it might be an
    eyesore but is it really more so than a hydroelectric dam? This stuff is
    proven and relatively cheap technology; we just need to use more of it. I
    don't know it's output will be sufficient to meet the growing needs of the
    developing and post-industrial world but it's part of the solution.
  6. Doing without: Are cars really as useful as they used to be? Really? I'm
    on shaky ground here but it seems to me that technology and the economy has
    changed a lot since the 1930s. Maybe cars really are less useful now. As the
    price of fuel goes up, maybe people will return to mass transit, move closer
    to their workplaces, telecommute and ride bicycles again. I don't know if this
    is really a loss of living standards. It seems more like a fashion thing to
    me. Kilts and sarongs versus pants and shorts.
The real problem here is how to figure out ways to replace infrastructure rapidly and cheaply with a minimum of social disruption.

Cars are a good example of this. At the turn of the last century, cities used to be designed in a way very differently from the way of urban sprawl emerges now. It took us a least seventy years to get to this point. It might take use at least as long to revert existing cities to pre-car urban planning.

If Kunstler is talking about infrastructural problems like this, then he raises some good points. Infrastructural change is the central issue for transforming to a post-fossil fuel economy.


It's interesting to see how the interests of those who wish to avoid an oil depletion-triggered collapse and those who wish to avoid a climate-disruption disaster coincide. At one level, such a correlation is obvious: oil consumption is one of the major causes of global warming, so efforts to reduce such consumption will have positive climate effects, regardless of the motivation. At another level, however, it points to one of the possible engines for greater political and social change: the need to move to a non-oil economy is so great, and covers so many arenas, that alliances are almost inevitable. There's little doubt that the political perspectives of many peak oilers will differ from those of hardcore sustainability advocates, but on this fundamental issue, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

That's the ideal. But the reality is that the shift away from oil is not towards a less hydrocarbon intensive economy, but towards its opposite, a more hydrocarbon intensive economy.

The US is building 100 new coal plants. India is building 150, China is building 200. 5 of them are hyped as 'clean coal'. 5 out of 450.

The most disastrous scenario would be that a car manufacturer creates cheap, high capacity, fast-charge batteries for cars - because if that happens, there's no stopping the utilization of coal-for-electricity on a life-destroying scale.


Pace Arko, you cite great alternatives, but you forget to mention the biggest one, the one that's going to rule supreme, and that throws all our efforts for a clean future through the window: coal.

After reading the blogs for a year or so, it strikes me that we are never short of "ideas." The limiting factor is the rate at which those ideas permeate and are accepted wider society.

Let's face it, we have made essentially no progress in reducing per capita petrolium use in the last 20 years:


I'd reinforce the point, as a frustrated pragmatist, that we've had no shortage of "ideas" in those 20 years.

I say this too often, but I have no choice. The fundamental change we need to make is to stop exponential growth of population, and of our consumption of materials and energy.

The Prime Directive of our social life is: Be Fruitful and Multiply.

The Prime Directive of our political economy is: The Economy Must Grow.

All the wonderful work cited here - efficiency, renewable energy, fuel cells, Stirling engines, efficient transport - will not, by itself, amount to much unless we change our Prime Directives.

We're having a discussion about solving present and imminent problems. Yet our society is organized to double its size every 20 years or so, forever. Our rallying cry is "Onward! To the ever-thinner ice!"

Wimbi's sensible, level-headed story of his youth in the 1930's describes a time when our impact on the planet was roughly one eighth of today's. Our story of now will soon appear as quaint.

I've read that when Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, the natives literally could not see his ships for several days. Their minds couldn't process something so far removed from their experience. A shaman, seeking visions, finally could "see" the ships. Once he told his vision to the others, they could "see" the ships too.

I don't know if that story's true, but it's at least a powerful metaphor. Most of us here try to make some small contribution. My own work is environmental architecture, a lot of nuts-and-bolts of insulation, glazing, space efficiency, indoor air quality and so on.

But I think we need to play the Shaman role too, or our day-to-day work won't amount to much.

I think this is what Mr. Kunstler is trying to do. Sadly, I think he has failed. He sees our greed, ignorance and myopia and concludes we're hopeless. The idea that we could be cooperative, visionary and intelligent is so far removed from his experience that, like the ship, he can't see it.

Can we do a better job?


Jevons Paradox
“The Jevons Paradox is an observation made by William Stanley Jevons who stated that as technological improvements increase the efficiency with which a resource is used, total consumption of that resource may increase, rather than decrease. It is historically called Jevons Paradox since it ran counter to Jevons' own intuition, but it is not a paradox at all and is well understood by modern economic theory which shows that while a change in the efficiency with which a resource is used can trigger a change in its overall consumption, other variables must be known before the resulting change in overall consumption can be predicted.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons_paradox

Increasing efficiency only benefits the individual, not the whole society. Example: 1970’s oil shock in the US lead to great increases in energy efficiency, which were swallowed up in the following years by even greater energy usage on an absolute and per cap basis.


Just for fun:

Scientists find that frvstrated white men who are uncertain about their m@scvlinity (repressed h*m*s*xvals calling themselves het*ros) buy gas guzzling SUV's.

Seriously. Here:http://www.livescience.com/humanbiology/050802_masculinity.html">http://www.livescience.com/humanbiology/050802_masculinity.html

The research also finds that they support the war in Iraq more and that they're more h*m*phobic.

This goes to show that the true problem of our energy crisis is indeed those St*pid White Men full of angst.

[Worldchanging has problems with the words "h*m*ph*bic" etc...]

I am often amazed, astounded and disappointed by the complete nonsense that some people say and apparently believe.  Example:

Increasing efficiency only benefits the individual, not the whole society.
Increasing efficiency means that a given amount of input yields more output; if the product has a marginal benefit to society (not always true; arguably, American society now gets negative benefit from certain inputs like food calories) then making more improves the whole society.

If increasing efficiency always makes society worse off, then decreasing efficiency always makes it better off and society would be improved by destroying half of what we make (cutting efficiency), even more by destroying 3/4, and best off if all output was destroyed.  The logical conclusion is that society would benefit if all food, housing and other products were destroyed and the remaining questions were limited to whether individuals would die from starvation or exposure and how quickly.

The assertion is obviously and grossly wrong.  Anyone who asserts it is a just target for ridicule; anyone who believes it is either brainwashed, incapable of rational thought and reflection, or both.


“Increasing efficiency means that a given amount of input yields more output…”

Perhaps you missed the rest of it in haste:

Example: 1970’s oil shock in the US lead to great increases in energy efficiency, which were swallowed up in the following years by even greater energy usage on an absolute and per cap basis.

Guilty of a blanket statement yes; not guilty of this argument by reduction to the absurd:

“The logical conclusion is that society would benefit if all food, housing and other products were destroyed and the remaining questions were limited to whether individuals would die from starvation or exposure and how quickly.

The assertion is obviously and grossly wrong. Anyone who asserts it is a just target for ridicule; anyone who believes it is either brainwashed, incapable of rational thought and reflection, or both.”

So why did you say it then?

Increase the bird seed, more birds will feed, procreate, resulting in more demand for bird seed.

Best of luck.

Here is my frustration:

We who ride bikes, we who buy Priuses, we who post to these comment threads, we are all in the fringe. We are not making any noticeable traction in US society.

Per capita petroleum consumption fell in the 70's, but has been flat (or slightly) increasing in the last 20 years.

We should be real about that. Being flat on per capita petroleum consumption means that we are not making ANY year-by-year progress to reduce oil dependence.

I think the main disconnect in this anti-Apocalypse thing is that it an argument directed from one part of the fringe to another. The mainstream of society isn't even mentioned or involved. To borrow from Monty Python, "it's about the ROMANS!" ... and not the other rebels.

And I think, excess optimism in the face of so little accomplishment is unwarranted.



When will enough people wake up and realize the Emperor has no cloths?

"The aim here is efficiency, not austerity," Cheney said of calls for increased efforts to conserve energy. "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy." (…)

Conservation is no cash cow for Cheney's friends in the energy industry. The vice president understands this. That's why he said Americans shouldn't be asked to "do more with less." “

To paraphrase Jan Lundberg… besides that riding a bike will make you a lot healthier.

No, Bigelow.  I saw that just fine; it happens to be completely irrelevant.  US oil consumption grew in the 1980's because supply grew and prices fell, but greater efficiency caused benefit to grow even faster.  If supply starts to shrink, increasing efficiency will still yield more benefit than otherwise.

Average fuel economy of the US fleet is about 22 MPG (~11 liters/100 km).  Potential efficiency is far greater:  Volkswagen has built an experimental 1 liter car (1 liter/100 km, or 235 MPG).  If we could get even half that performance (118 MPG) we could get 34% more vehicle-miles out of a quarter of the motor fuel.  (Prius+ conversions have achieved upwards of 150 MPG in some driving cycles.)

If you're claiming that efficiency yields no benefits to society then someone's been played for a fool, and it sure isn't me.

odograph:  We're just coming out of a period of all-time low petroleum prices.  A lot of people are still in denial; give it time.

I am tempted not to even state why I think we are in this spot just because .. I'd be making another blog post out on the fringe.

I'll do it fast, and feel free to ignore it:

Start Why ...

I agree low prices were a factor, I agree Jevon's Paradox was a factor, I think suburban lifestyle was a factor, and finally I think government dysfunction was a factor.

We, as a nation, actually figured out that we should reduce our oil dependence and adopted CAFE (rather than European-style gas taxes) as the main method. Then, we put holes in CAFE to completely eliminate its effectiveness.

We're in a bad state because we thought plans were in place and didn't realize until too late that a "bad CAFE" was worse than no CAFE at all.

CAFE was a perfect dysfunction - a political compromise that created burdens without benefits.

... End Why

Now, I'll certainly give it time (what other choice do I have?), but I think I also (we also?) have to recognize the possibility that no cavalry will ride over the hill. Like a slow-moving version of Kartina, we may discover that we are on our own.

I don't see that as "terriblisma" because it may not be that "terrible" - it may "just" be a period of relatively "normal" economic upheaval. Plan accordingly.



As an individual I do everything I can to increase my efficient use of energy; and for society it is a good also. But that is not the point. One definition of the progress chimera is increasing energy consumption. We are humans and discover we have energy “left over” so we use it for something else. I have tropical fish. I have a bird bath heater. I have a computer. 15 years ago this was not true. I still have a car.



Economic upheaval / declines have happened to the British Empire and the Dutch before them too. It is drearily similar to the decline of America, except the previous ages didn’t possess nuclear weapons or depend on oil.


Well, now, let's cheer up a little. Think of all the IMPOSSIBLE things that have come to pass in one mere lifetime.

Black folks can vote in Lousiana.
Nobody smokes in airplanes
Cars do not spew lead into little kid's brains
Halogenated hydrocarbons don't go into the ozone layer (as much)
The Germans and French are not plotting to kill each other.
A lot fewer megatons of bombs are hair-triggered at me and Igor
And you can add a lot more to the list that I have never thought of.

Problem is, of course, that these simple changes took generations of moaning and pointing out the obvious by hordes of angst-ridden good people lke y"all.

But now you will tell me we don't have generations of time to fool around in. Maybe we could speed up the learning process by looking at how the Europeans coped with catastrophe during WW's 1 and 2. As I remember, heart disease went way down in Denmark because those Nazi swine took all their bacon.

Anyhow, Keep up the good work.


The car of 2020-2030 will be a hydrogen fuel cell backed up plug in electric suv with total robotic driving driving along roads strung with overhead wires much the same as many trains use to power themsevles.

Short stretches of road will be elctrified and cars as they pass under these wires will whip out a power ribbon to joice up on the fly. 15 seconds at 120 mph is only 2500 feet or so. Spaced 25 miles apart thats on;y 1/50th of the roadway.

Simple realy.

Planes will be a bit more spendy to fly but so the hell what? They will run on liquid hydrogen and as a result while bulkier looking they will weigh alot less for a given cargo load or carry alot more cargo.

Boats... A boat doesnt need to be small so storing fuel as liquid hydrogen isnt a big deal But compared to low grade fuels they use now hydrogen will always be about 6-10x the cost.... But then fuel isnt the major cost in transportation anyway and likely enough biofuels will exist to provide low grade burnables for most boats.

Food? America will be fine with its franken food and fake food and ohood factories and whatnot. Frankenfood will fix its own nitrogen weed itself and will be faster to grow. Besides the simple trueth is if we lost half our food most of us would be healthier.

The same cant be said most everyhere else.

Weakening? No. America just is passing the torch onto a new world police state...China. And hping they dont wise up to the fact the job sucks before we manage to run and hide and enjoy our retirement.

The future is ahead of us looking mighty interesting and stormy but we have a nice comfy chair and if we have played our cards right it will be the chinese out in the storm racing around to keep the world working while we sit and sip hot coccoa and watch. I love a comfy chair a storm and hot cocoa dont you?

Richard Scalzo:

Great discussion going on here, and although there's some fur flying I suppose that's the nature of this particular topic. I personally came upon the Peak Oil issue via Matt Savinar's http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net -- so definitely the "run for the hills" angle a la Kunstler. That had me not sleeping at night for quite a few weeks.

Other links, such as those provided here on WorldChanging, have helped to round out the picture quite a bit. (Thank you all very much.) The situation is still very complex, yet it seems to me, as others like Jamais, Pace Arko and others have said here, that the fundamental questions are not about technology (we have a lot of good solutions waiting to happen) but about human nature: Are the majority of people out there basically good and simply unaware of the need for action, or are they ignorant and short-sighted, or are they tragically selfish and unwilling to listen to reasoned arguments for change? What's the most effective way for the (very small) minority of people who are aware of these solutions to get the public to start implementing them? What fraction of the population has to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, and to what extent does it need to conserve (if not sacrifice), in order to balance the remaining fraction of the population prone to waste? How do the convictions and actions of individuals end up determining the collective behavior of our society? -- where are the real driving factors, flows, feedback loops etc.?

It is definitely encouraging to see what technology has done and is currently doing for us. But if one's belief is that people fundamentally suck, either in an individual or a collective sense, then that definitely puts a damper on one's confidence in any solution short of killing off the people that suck. The more I read, the less interested I am in looking at the technology itself (though of course it will be vitally important in any ongoing solution), and the more interested I become in trying to figure out how to get the Big Systems to move in directions that are not suicidal.

Bigelow writes:

One definition of the progress chimera is increasing energy consumption.
Which is pretty obviously flawed.  Once you've lit a room for the desired work or mood, more light is not progress; once you've got your house warmed to 70-something, more heat is not progress; once you've got yourself fed adequately, more food can be damaging.

Progress isn't just more of the same; it can be the same from less (which fluorescents provide over incandescents) or different and better products (iPods and pocket AM/FM radios both play music but the iPod represents progress regardless, and KFC and escargot are both food but the latter is generally regarded as progress).

The moral of the story:  use a bad measuring stick, and you'll get bad measurements.


Can we all join Engineer-Poet in a moment of salivating at the prospects of owning a Prius plug-in conversion or a VW diesel, I know I do.

Now let’s look at what auto manufacturers are doing:

Hybrid Cars Losing Efficiency, Adding Oomph

I believe most of us will squeak by somehow, but not because of something e-poet or I say.

Best of luck

Wintermane, even if we had the technology to make affordable hydrogen cars (current platinum fuel cell autos cost $1,000,000), it would cost $1,000,000,000,000 to put a nationwide system of fueling stations in place.

More here:


Really, I know you are more practical than some, but we are dealing with the most crucial issue - delta between current systems and future theoretical ones.

It doesn't really matter if the answer is hydrogen or electric or X ... the question is when/if we start building, or if we spend another year or two or ten in the blogs going on about it while congress passes another clone of their past Energy Bill.

Wimbi -- You are right that cultures can change -- all of your impossible examples are good except they have little to do with energy.

That's what we're talking here -- Given a peak in oil production, what comes next for energy?

I've been following all of the alternative energy sources on my blog for several months now. Many are promising, but the capital investments are lagging, in other words, the infrastructure is not there to pick up the slack when oil starts to decline. (Some, like corn ethanol, create more problems than they solve.)

In this environment, the less that is done prior to the peak, the more likely a systemic crash is, a la Joseph Tainter.

So, again, ideas don't cut wheat. When I look at all the talk about alternative energy -- I wonder -- where's the beef?

It's important. This isn't an arbitrary question, given that our western civilization and infrastructure is presently built around petroleum and derivatives.

The hour is later than we think. Time is a component of peak oil.

(Sorry to be dramatic -- I hope that doesn't mark me as an apocaphiliac -- I personally have no interest in paying for my sins)

Jon S., oil may peak this year or in 35 years. No one can say authoritatively when it will happen. It's important not to confuse a shortage of refining capacity, temporary closure of drilling platforms, a tanker stuck in the Suez canal, or other events as "Peak Oil." But when oil does peak, here's what available, quickly, easily and cheaply: increased efficiency of its use. That will buy us precious time, and will make more costly alternatives easier to bring on line.

I agree with E-P: efficiency benefits everyone. But I think Bigelow was pointing to the conundrum of growth: gains in efficiency are swallowed by increases in consumption. In such a system, efficiency is growth's enabler. It works like an arms race.

It's pretty tough, but not impossible, to figure out an energy system that could meet our needs, especially if we become much smarter with our use of energy. But our economy demands our energy system double roughly every 20 years, quadruple in 40, eight-fold in 60. Now that's a real head-scratcher!


People confuse he ongoing quest to make batter options for a lack of options. The fact is we can replace oil right now but we dont WANT to. We want to improve the options we are looking at and wait till we HAVE TO CHOSE.

Unlike say denmark where they have to chose 10 years ago we in america dont have to choose likely for another 10-20 years. We have backups being made to push the need to chose out farther.

Chosing later is always the best option when it IS an option. By the time we must fully commit we will already know what failed and why because someone else will already have failed.


Aw shucks, Jon S. What I was trying to point to in my little list of impossibilities that happened is that people's heads DO change. Everybody else is making the point that energy per se is not really the fundamental problem, but all this stupidity about endless growth is. What we gotta do is change what it is we are after. As EP says, you got enough light, you don't need more, same with food, cars, vitamin pills, everything.

So what is enough? Me, I got plenty of plenty, and it isn't much. I'm not claiming virtue here, just an accident of birth- the depression, wherein if I had a nickel, I was rich.

I once again quote my favorite philosopher Ken Boulding- "There are two groups of people who believe in endless growth-idiots and economists".

Truth to tell, I am with Amory Lovins on this energy thing- we actually have a lot more than is good for us, as evidenced by our ruining our nice little planet with what we have.

I propose a title for somebody to write a book around -"How to Blow Ourselves to Hell with a Hair Dryer".

Wimbi -- Glad to hear you think that endless growth is a silly path to follow, especially (I would add) when we are using our planet as a toilet in the process. Growth as tumor.

Some people actually confuse the apocalypse with a future where our thoughtless, "would you like fries with that", consumptive behaviour is curtailed.


There is a thought going around that doing something to prevent an energy apocalypse is just not profitable enough for America’s elite. What do you think? Especially checkout the last two.

“The EPA recognizes that its preliminary fuel economy estimates are overstated, and downweights them for posting on new vehicles at the point of sale. Despite this, Congress has mandated that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) use the preliminary, unadjusted estimates to evaluate compliance with Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. (See the NHTSA website at www.nhtsa.dot.gov for a detailed description of the CAFÉ system.) This approach forces CAFE assessments yet further away from real-world experience. (…)

Our in-depth analysis of 303 vehicles from model years 2000 thru 2006 tested by CU shows that 274 models delivered lower fuel economy using CU’s tests than that promised by the EPA sticker. Only 29 models achieved fuel economies as good as or better than EPA estimates. Hence, 90% of the vehicles tested had EPA stickers that overpromised the vehicle’s fuel economy to the consumer.”

“• Even though conservation and improved energy efficiency should have been a centerpiece of America's energy policy, Congress has sidestepped politically dangerous measures like vehicle fuel economy and energy prudent development.

• Congress continues to make technology decisions based on political expediency rather than science based inquiry. One would think they should have learned their lesson after they used the Police Power of the State to force the use of MTBE as a gasoline additive – and poisoned our drinking water in the process.

• Worst of all, Congress has failed to communicate the need for a comprehensive energy policy to the American people. The realities of resource depletion have been largely ignored. One can only wonder, is this because Congress doesn't understand the problem? Or because it wants to avoid the subject?

Only two champions of truth stand out in my research of the Congressional Record. Joseph P. Riva, Jr., a Specialist in Earth Sciences for the Library of Congress, did an excellent report on oil depletion "World Oil Production After Year 2000: Business As Usual or Crises?" in 1995. (For the numerically challenged, that's ten years ago). The other voice is Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, R- Maryland, who was allowed to speak before the House of Representatives on Peak Oil for one hour at 10 PM on March 14, 2005, and again for 10 minutes at 11:40 PM on April 20, 2005. (Late night presentations are allowed for subjects that Congress doesn't want to think about).

Congress could have done a better job. America is the one nation on this planet with the financial and technical resources to launch an international program of science based cooperative energy research, development, production, and distribution. We could have made substantial improvements to energy efficiency and conservation, cooperative petroleum sharing agreements among nations, and long term international supplier/consumer agreements. Everyone on our planet would be a beneficiary. Creative cooperation is far more likely to be productive than political confrontation.

Am I right? You decide. Take the challenge. Do your own homework. (…)”


This report was prepared as an account of work sponsored by an agency of the United States Government. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, makes any warranty, express or
implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information, apparatus, product, or process disclosed, or represents that its use would not infringe privately owned rights.
Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process, or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the United
States Government or any agency thereof. The views and opinions of authors expressed herein does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

Our results are congruent with the fundamentals of the problem:

Waiting until world oil production peaks before taking crash program action leaves the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for more than two decades.

Initiating a mitigation crash program 10 years before world oil peaking helps considerably but still leaves a liquid fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked.

Initiating a mitigation crash program 20 years before peaking appears to offer the possibility of avoiding a world liquid fuels shortfall for the forecast period.

The obvious conclusion from this analysis is that with adequate, timely mitigation, the costs of peaking can be minimized. If mitigation were to be too little, too late, world supply/demand balance will be achieved through massive demand destruction (shortages), which would translate to significant economic hardship, as discussed earlier.

K. Risk Management
It is possible that peaking may not occur for several decades, but it is also possible that peaking may occur in the near future. We are thus faced with a daunting risk management problem:

On the one hand, mitigation initiated soon would be premature if peaking is still several decades away.

On the other hand, if peaking is imminent, failure to initiate mitigation quickly will have significant economic and social costs to the U.S. and the world.

The two risks are asymmetric:

Mitigation actions initiated prematurely will be costly and could result in a poor use of resources.

Late initiation of mitigation may result in severe consequences.

The world has never confronted a problem like this, and the failure to act on a timely basis could have debilitating impacts on the world economy. Risk minimization requires the implementation of mitigation measures well prior to peaking. Since it is uncertain when peaking will occur, the challenge is indeed


The division between optimists and pessimists seems to boil down between those who are happy with options and those who need to be reassured by some effective action.

You know, Jack La Lane told everybody how to be fit and healthy 50 years ago. I don't think we could say we have no obesity (etc.) problems, because the option is available. Maybe the tagline would be:

The "option" does not negate the trend.

Philip Bogdonoff:

No need for doomsaying. Various versions of the Zimbabwe story below are playing out in manty parts of the world already and, as the price of oil rises, will spread to more regions. Even (especially?) for the developed world, to paraphrase the etching on auto mirrors, "The future is closer than it appears."

Those who hope for technological improvements, as green as they may be, need to do the math. The scale of the change we face is enormous!

See, esp., engineer John Howe's The End of Fossil Energy and The Last Chance for Sustainability. He's done the arithmetic for you: http://www.mcintirepublishing.com/pages/energy.html

The first-order issues are:

I. BASIC EDUCATION about energy so that we can make informed choices. Teach especially:

A. EROEI and net energy analysis.

B. Energy density. For example, it would take a physically human 16 weeks of 40-hours/week of manual labor to replace the energy in a single gallon of gasoline! (see Howe) What is available from renewable sources is far, far less. We are currently running the global economy on something like 22:1 EROEI fossil fuels; we will transition to something closer to 3:1 in the next 20-30 years, if we manage well.

C. The scale of investment needed to create the infrastructure for renewable alternatives, whether it be insulation, solar, wind, geothermal, earth-bermed/underground buildings, etc.

Here's the big picture (each "X" is 1%):

Current world energy sources:

Oil - 39% (peaking)

Natural gas - 23% (about to peak)

Coal - 24% (will peak soon as we switch to using more)

Hydro - 6.9% (maxed out?)

Nuclear - 6.7% (faustian bargain?)

All others - less than 1%

("All others" includes solar, wind, biomass, waste, wood, geothermal, tidal)

Within the next 20 to 30 years, the amount of energy society will be able to use from oil, natgas, and coal will drop to a fraction of what we use now. How we use the remaining fossil fuels is critical. Wiley E. Coyote (us) is about to realize he is in mid-air above a very deep canyon. It's time to build a parachute.

II. POPULATION - voluntary vs. Nature-imposed scalebacks. I don't know how we address this one civilly. It's tough.

III. REDUCTION OF CONSUMPTION. Gotta, gotta do this!

IV. INVESTMENT IN SOIL, ECOSYSTEMS AND OTHER RENEWABLE INFRASTRUCTURE ("ECOSTRUCTURE"). We will become more and more dependent on the healthy functioning of Nature's systems. We need to re-invest in them.

V. PSYCHOLOGICAL AND SOCIAL PREPARATION FOR DOWNSIZING, including the issue of "rightsharing" of resources (including intergenerational issues) and developing cultural replacements for material wealth.

The mythology of development based on growing a country's economy meant you could tell the poorest "just wait, things are getting better, everyone is getting richer". As we pass "peak" (oil, natgas, coal), economies will start to contract and the tensions between the haves and have-nots will grow. We need to address this head on.

Humanity is entering an era that will demand we transition from a "teenage" culture of no-limits, "I'm immortal" to one were we must admit our limits and take responsibility for our present day neighbors and our children's future.

Best of luck to us all,

-- Philip B. / Washington, DC



Running on empty in Zimbabwe
The capital is all but out of fuel, writes Jan Raath in Harare

September 19, 2005

THIS is a city grinding to a halt for lack of fuel. The Zimbabwean capital has just enough petrol to keep one fire engine running.

Prison officers were unable to drive prisoners to court last week, there have been no refuse collections for a month, ambulances can be seen queuing outside dry petrol stations and thousands of taxis and buses lie idle because they have nothing to run on.

Leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change Morgan Tsvangirai walked the 6km from his home to his Harare office on Friday in a gesture of solidarity with the tens of thousands of Zimbabweans for whom there is no longer any public transport.

He said: "This is an intolerable situation. We cannot continue to endure this ... The Government must realise it has turned Zimbabwe into what it is today."

Zimbabwe's deepening fuel crisis is not immediately obvious. At peak hours there is still enough traffic on the roads to cause congestion. But those vehicles are mostly running on black-market petrol that sells for about $Z200,000 ($12) a litre -- eight times the official price. At that price, Zimbabweans buy no more than they have to.

The true scale of the crisis was revealed by city council clerk Nomutsa Chideya, who said the situation was so bad that all the fire brigade had left was a quarter of a tank of fuel in one fire engine. "If there is an emergency, we won't be able to attend," he said. "We have to pray there will not be a crisis.

"We have not received diesel for the past four weeks. We are not able to attend to any sewerage or water pipe bursts because all our vehicles are grounded."

Sources at the council confirmed there had been no refuse collection for more than a month.

Mr Chideya said it had been forced to buy 10,000 litres of diesel on the black market. "We will face the consequences later. At the moment, we will have to deal with the situation."

The fuel shortage is crippling Zimbabwe's industry, too. Last week, Patison Sithole, chief executive of the country's only sugar refinery, said it had halted exports. It had stopped receiving the coal needed for the refining process because the National Railways of Zimbabwe did not have the diesel to move the coal.

Farmers' unions said the country was facing the worst agricultural season since independence in 1980. Already devastated by President Robert Mugabe's mass land grab, the farming industry is facing unprecedented disaster because what little fertiliser, seed and crop chemicals are available cannot be delivered.

Air travel is frequently disrupted. A German diplomat recently had to scrounge lifts on each leg of a three-stop trip with Air Zimbabwe because there was no jet fuel.

The fuel crisis is into its sixth year. Economists say it has never been so bad and can only worsen as the economy deteriorates and hard currency earnings needed to import fuel grow scarcer.

Last week, funds earmarked for fuel imports had to be temporarily diverted to make a partial repayment on the country's debt to the IMF.

The Times

Original URL: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,16646634%255E2703,00.html


A great discussion here. I find myself agreeing with Big Gav and Jon S. from Peak Energy. Misc comments:

1. I echo the recommendation to read the articles of Richard Smalley and to listen to the lecture of Nathan Lewis. They are at a much higher level than the usual discussion about energy futures.

2. Thanks for the mention of Energy Bulletin. We try to have a variety of viewpoints -- essentially anyone who is serious -- ranging from Thomas Friedman to Jamais Cascio to Stan Goff to the more articulate doomers. At this stage, I think one can learn from all of them. And even if you disagree with a viewpoint, it's important to know what it is.

3. I think it's a big mistake to lump Kunstler with the Doomers. The hallmarks of the real Doomers are biological metaphors (population curves of bacteria in a Petri dish), predictions of massive die-off, gruesome and hysterical images (cannibalism, breakdown of society). Doomers are dubious of the efficacy of any organized responses and tend towards survivalism.

4. For me techno-optimism is like diet fads that promise painless weightloss; there's an avoidance of the root problem -- too much food, not enough exercise. Similarly, we KNOW what the roots of the energy problem are -- over-population, over-consumption and wastefulness/inefficiency. Dealing with these problems is not going to be painless. Technology can help, but it also can be an mechanism for avoiding awareness of the extent of our predicament.

-Bart, Energy Bulletin co-editor

The last couple posts have been great round-ups of the problem(s).

I hate to step back with just a quibble, but I think the quote "it would take a physically human 16 weeks of 40-hours/week of manual labor to replace the energy in a single gallon of gasoline" is a little worst-case.

I'll see Howe, but even without looking it is obvious that this is based on some most-efficient use of that gallon. Part of our opportunity is that the average use is far less efficient than that.

People communte without cargo in 22 mpg cars (on average). The average person can ride a bike 22 miles in a couple hours. So for that inefficient use a gallon saves you a couple hours of moderate labor.

... we're left to see how much people will pay to avoid a few hours of manual labor every day. I'd imagine that the bulk of them (no pun intended) would keep driving, but a few of the healthier and happier ones would start to ride bikes.

People would be a lot happier about riding bikes if their places of work had shower and changing facilities so they wouldn't have to either drive their air-conditioned car on hot days or have to remain sweaty for the entire day.  This kind of enlightenment appears rare in the USA.  Without it, it becomes very difficult to do the right thing even if one would really like to; being dirty and sweaty all day is a career-limiting move.


On Low Quality Hydrocarbons (Part I)

“The problem is clear in the graph above which looks at the approximate annual growth in LQHC net production required to balance the depleting conventional oil. You can see the growth rates needed are astronomical, even under the mild scenario. The problem is that when you have a really big production stream (conventional oil), and a little tiny production stream (LQHCs), it takes very large growth rates in the latter to compensate for even modest depletion rates in the former. Are these outlandish looking growth rates likely to be feasible? (…)”

Somehow the optimistic scenarios presented in the above post don't provide any comfort to me. When you speak about preserving civilization, you are not talking about some global entity which is beneficial to everyone (6.5 billion humans), but rather the United States of America and its gas-guzzling resource-wasting world-polluting 300 million citizens.

Can anyone justify the continued prosperity of the United States against the backdrop of two billion people who are already suffering from perpetual poverty, a lack of the basic necessities of life and without any promise of Social Secuity, health care or retirement? The collapse of Western civilization is only going to serve to distribute human suffering more equitably.

Don't deceive yourself: Human civilization is coming to an end, and when it does it will be gone forever. Soon enough, nature is going to take back all of those lands which humans have destroyed in the process of wealth-creation. The roads, parking lots, malls and subdivisions will return to their formerly wild state. Beneath the trees the crumbling remnant of Western civilization will mystify your descendants: What are these things? What purpose did they serve? But only if these people are fortunate enough to forage for enough food to allow free time for intellectual pursuits.

A large amount of knowledge gathered during the last two centuries will become lost. Humans won't mourn the loss because at that time the information will not serve any useful purpose. There is no need for internal combustion engines once fuel disappears, nor any need for computer chips when the energy infrastructure collapes.

In the next several decades, the world's human population will peak at approximately nine billion. Very quickly after the peak is attained, nature is going to deplete this excess as it attempts to balance the human population with the resources remaining. Within a millenium, or perhaps sooner, the human population on the Earth will stabilize at approximately a hundred million (if that much).

Ultimately, the homo sapiens will become extinct, and the only memory of humankind's existence will exist as a spike of carbon dioxide and pollution within the geological record. Fortunately for humankind, nature will preserve no memories of humankind's violence, wastefulness and foolishness. Fossilized bones will remain, and that will constitute humankind's only contribution to the Universe.


David Mathews


"Facts do not cease to exist just because the are ignored." A. Huxley

levi civita:

I totally agree with David Mathews, except for his conclusion...

...just when the human population will stabilize to a 100 million strong running bow-and-arrow communities, the Deep Space Network's right-circularly polarized signals will be decoded by a alien race. They will come to see, and then rescue humans. They will teach humans the secrets of the hyperdrive, and the humans will teach the aliens the virtues of exponential growth and compound interest.

...a few hundred years later when both the human and the alien populations have collapsed to a mere 50 million each, alien2 will arrive with the cavalry...

Manny Lopes:

This article and and its replies are(is?) my first exposure to this site.

There is a plethora (sp?) of information here.(and I've just read this piece!)

I am so glad I stumbled upon this place.. I've been aware of "peak oil" since January 05' and have been looking for as much info on it and on our energy futures as possible.

Thanks to everyone who's posted. This is the best discussion on these topics that I've ever read. Keep em' comin...

thanks, Manny.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on September 15, 2005 4:26 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Open Technology Roadmap.

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