Transition Milwaukee

Rebuilding Community Resilience & Self-Reliance

I’m going to begin by admitting to a wish that others may also share: I wish for Peak Oil. The sooner, the better. Let’s get it over with; let’s rip off that band-aid.

In more reflective moments, or at least ones in which I focus on practical aspects and likely consequences, I am reminded that my life, and those of my friends and family, are pretty safe and secure right now, and that after Peak Oil, they will become increasingly less so. But my visceral reaction to the news that oil is pushing $100/barrel, that Alaska reserves have been greatly overestimated, that Ghalwar is running dry is something like, “bring it on.”

What accounts for this disparity between the world of pain, suffering, and insecurity (not to mention something like a Tea-Party takeover) that I rationally know and should want to postpone or avoid, and my stronger desire for this brave (or chaotic, uncertain, dangerous, even lethal) new world?

There is certainly more than one way to account for this. To be honest, despite Rob Hopkins’ most sincere pleas, I know I have a good, strong, streak of “I told you so.” Put more subtly, I’m tired of being seen as the extremist, my efforts and preoccupations getting narrated as a quirky over-reaction. It is also likely that my welcoming attitude towards Peak Oil has something to do with my high tolerance of, even desire for, risk (my hobby is—or would be if I had more money and a lesser sense of its carbon footprint—high altitude mountaineering). One of my maxims: you can’t be bored and scared at the same time, and nothing is worse than boredom. I will also accept as a part of this the notion (well-articulated by my wife) that a lack of risk-aversion is possible only with an equal amount of denial—with that feeling that, despite rather gruesome comprehension of the risks, it won’t happen to me. John Greer writes interestingly of this, the notion that in die-off scenarios, we always see the dying as happening to others. Denial is neither just a river in Egypt nor just a mountain in Alaska.

Add to this the semi-conscious belief that if Peak Oil has swift and drastic consequences, conditions such as debt will jump from pressing and increasingly dire to inconsequential before anyone can bother (or afford to) evict us from our house--and we can begin to understand my investment in soon seeing the apex of Hubbert’s Peak, and comprehend my identification with my imagined role in a post-carbon world.

But these factors, as important as they may be, do not get to the heart of my desire for the coming of Peak Oil. This desire, as I have suggested, may be widely shared among members of the “peak oil community” (a laughable designation that is nevertheless right on point). Evidence for this, I believe, is the nature of much Peak Oil reporting and blogging. Indeed, it is almost as if Peak Oil has been designed expressly for the blogosphere, with its immediate sensitivity to daily fluctuations. Of particular note, here, is the ASPO reporting on EB. It is not so much the fact that there is this dedication to watching the trends, scouring it for evidence of where we are on Hubbert’s Peak. Rather, more notable to me, at least, is how interesting and dramatic I find watching this ticker-tape. I doubt I am alone in all of this.

I believe my eager anticipation of Peak Oil, as well as that of a substantial sector of the peak oil community, has to do with an imaginative misconception of how Peak Oil will actually manifest itself. Reader of this post may, to this point have been restlessly sighing at my assumption that we haven’t already seen a peak in oil production. But this assumption actually goes to the heart of the matter. A desire for Peak Oil, I have to admit, is predicated on the simple, but probably mistaken, view that Peak Oil will be an event. Moreover, it is predicated on the fantasy that this event will be of immediate (rather than retrospective) significance, that it will mark a turning point, open a new world--that summiting Hubbert’s Peak will have the feel of summiting a mountain, with the exquisite suddenness with which a 360 degree view opens up, that sense of finality and achievement that there is no higher point than where I am right now.

I have used a graph of Hubbert’s Peak in all of my Transition or Energy Literacy presentations. It is an essential component of the cognitive map for a post-carbon world. But it does suggest a rather linear track upon which we imagine ourselves to be. Most clarifying images suffer from this sort of simplification, a simplification that is much more likely to bite us in the behind on our descent from the Peak than on the way up—if , indeed, there is to be this sort of identifiable descent and if, indeed, this bite is to be a discreet event.

The desire for this singular and defining event is, I think, driven by a larger desire—the desire for clarity. When I close my eyes and imagine the event of Peak Oil, and then stay a moment longer and reflect on the relief that my imagination attaches to this event, I find myself relieved by a sudden lifting of confusion, uncertainty, and (yes, Mr. Greer) dissensus. In my imaginative projections, after Peak Oil we no longer need to convince the masses that our oil supplies are running low, that the growth economy is no longer possible, that oil has done to us more harm than good. We in the Peak Oil community are currently engaged in a pitched battle for the attention of a distracted public and an indifferent political reality. Our worries and concerns, our warnings and predictions, tend to focus on something, it is implied, that is yet to come. Our gaze is fixed on a spectre coming down the road, of which we are desperate to alert our friends and neighbors.

While few of us actually would argue that Peak Oil will bring us relief from this world of somnambulistic disbelief, at some level we tend to believe that it will. With Peak Oil, we seem to assume, we can finally put down our pens, step away from the computer, end all the unheard shouting and facebooking, and get on with the more joyful work of growing food and building shelter with our local community.

This is not a very realistic scenario. Peak Oil is not likely to provide clarity. It is far more likely to cast us into a world of even greater conflict and disagreement. Instead of a clear admission from others that we were right after all, resource depletion will likely be blamed on government intervention or environmentalist over-reaction, and in an increasingly menacing tone. If Sarah Palin’s “drill, baby, drill” has resonance now, think how it will play when oil is at $150/barrel. Palin knows, or will intuit, that she can go farther by blaming liberals rather than geology for this unhappy condition.

Lately I have been posting about narrative, particularly in relation to the work of Hopkins and Greer. While the writing has been of inconsistent quality, I have learned much from struggling with these issues, and it is from this work that these reflections were born. Story-telling and narration will play a leading role in the post-carbon drama. Perhaps in a way that is far more pressing than the stories we tell ourselves as we march towards the Peak will be the stories we tell to guide ourselves down. If being attuned to the ways and means of stories is now important, the significance of this attention may increase many-fold in days and years to come. The pitched battle we now find ourselves in will become far steeper. And pitched downward, now, the potential for a free-fall slide will challenge our judgment and skills with tension and stakes that may, at this point, be hard to imagine.

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