Friday, June 15, 2007

Peak Oil and Hope

Of all the cries of doom that shake the souls of environmentalists like me, peak oil is the most apocalyptic. It is inevitable and irrefutable. Someday, maybe someday soon, the supply of oil will no longer keep up with the demand. When that happens, it will begin the end of the world as we know it. The nightmare scenarios are frightening.

But the peak oil apocalypse is also--I'm coming to think, slowly, cautiously, after struggling through depression--full of hope. In fact, by writing this little piece I have convinced myself. Peak oil is our environmental salvation!

I first heard the words "peak oil" at a Community Environmental Council (CEC) event. Two guys were working the crowd like high-tech entrepreneurs in a room full of venture capitalists. Since I didn't really know anyone there, they found me an easy audience. They told me all about the likelihood of war, famine, global anarchy. They told me that the oil companies, see, know all about peak oil, and so do their political lackeys in the Bush administration. Why else would they go to war in the middle east? They told me that Wall Street wizards, see, know all about it and are in a panic to protect their wealth somehow, even profit from the catastrophe somehow. They wanted to know, see, what Santa Barbara was doing to prepare, where we would get our food, our water, our livelihoods. In short, these guys could have come straight from that oracle of peak oil, the rapturous web site for zealots (WAIT! DON'T CLICK THAT LINK unless you are prepared to be depressed for days. Are you ready? Can you handle the truth?) L.A.O.T.C.

I listened to these guys, but I was paying attention to other things, mostly to my unfamiliar surroundings. The event took place at a very nice estate, very pleasant, very understated. All the people were very nice, very well-meaning, very wealthy. Since I'm just a blue-collar boy with too much education, I couldn't help thinking, "I want me some of this elegance, this importance, this charm." I don't need no bluff-top estate. I don't need to be Founder, top donor, or President of the Board. But I want my stake, my claim, my place. In short, I promptly forgot about peak oil.

In this way I think I'm pretty typical. For most of us, our worldly desires, worthy or otherwise, cloud the apocalyptic realities. We can't be living everyday as a response to ecological alarm bells. As even evangelicals waiting in rapture for the Millennium profess: Prepare for the apocalypse, but live your life.

I have no illusions about this ostrich attitude. Forgetting about the realities of peak oil is not helpful, only necessary as a coping strategy. Equally necessary is lifting our heads out of the compelling sands of our lives and taking a look at the approach of doom. For this clear, heartless, rational vision, however, we need more than the tragedy of doom and forgetting. To face the realities of the future, we need more than reason. We need hope.

This need for hope is why the peak oil apocalypse is special. It portends an apocalypse in the precise religious and etymological sense of the word, that is, as a revelation. Peak oil reveals to us exactly what, as environmentalists, we most want: a world without oil. Instead of preventing global warming or preventing pollution or preventing the depletion of aquifers (etc. etc.), the peak oil apocalypse is a positive vision. It gives us, as inevitable and irrefutable, a world without oil. Amen.

Okay, so there's that transition period of war, famine, and global anarchy between now and then; our way of life will be destroyed, most of us will die, yaddah yaddah yaddah. Or maybe not. There are other, more gradual scenarios. As unlikely as it sounds, we may actually generate leadership that manages an orderly transition to the post-oil economy. We can work toward that goal. Solidify the grassroots! Ride your bike! Go solar! Eat slow and local! Exercise your entrepreneurial energy for innovative change. Support the CEC's Fossil Free by '33 initiative! Keep your eyes on the prize: A world without oil.

More specifically, peak oil heralds a world in which local, communal bonds will develop. Even James Howard Kunstler's Long Emergency allows for the hope of more human closeness. Bill McKibben says that, even as physical life gets harder, we'll be happier.

If I look at the politcal and economic situation rationally, I see no reason to believe that we can create an orderly transition to a post-oil economy. But hope isn't about reason. It's about faith.

Keep the faith! World without oil! Hallelujah!


Anonymous said...

Yep, real nice and happy. Right till the former Blackwater contractors turned post-peak oil raiders show up at your door and take your women and your vegetables.

Queen Whackamole said...

Great post, Patrick.
The good news is, we have some notice, and maybe we'll use our time wisely. I see a lot of people paying attention, getting involved, making choices that will help cushion our landing. Sometimes, I feel like we are united against the shared challenge ahead. There are moments that I agree with the commnet by anonymous 12:36, but most days, the sense of unity and activism prevails.

I feel like I have an opportunity, even a calling, to be part of the solution through voluntary simplicity, alternative transport, local foods, etc... I've never been so aware of the impact of my personal choices. That awareness is incredibly empowering. There are so many ways to make a positive difference, some big, some small. Yesterday I bought milk from Strauss Dairy, which uses reusable glass bottles rather than plastic (petroleum) jugs. A tiny, tiny choice, but each day is full of such choices, each a potential victory in the struggle to become fossil free.
So, I guess in an odd way, I appreciate this new conciousness, even if it hurts sometimes (okay, a lot of the time)...

Anonymous said...

queen whackamole,

yeah but for every person paying attention there's 1,000 cheering on the oil protection service known as the military as it ass-rapes children at Abu Ghraib so that struass dairy can get the oil for the truck to deliver the milk you bought.

Queen Whackamole said...

Sometimes it feels like the ratio is 1000-pro-war to 1-against, but it's not. Maybe if there's any good to come of our invasion of Iraq, it's that Bush's war has forced more Americans to come to terms with the ruthlessness of our oil-driven corporatocracy. I've seen a lot of hard-core republicans shocked into action.

And while I'm not sure how Straus delivery trucks are powered, I'm pretty impressed their commitment to keep their dairy running without fossil fuels.

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