Wednesday, December 01, 2010

In The Wake Of Victory

This has not been an easy week for believers in a brighter future. As I write this week’s post, food prices in the global market are soaring toward levels that brought mass violence two years ago, driven partly by climate-driven crop failures and partly by the conversion of a noticeable fraction of food crops into fuel ethanol and biodiesel; the price of oil is bumping around somewhere skywards of $86 a barrel, or right around two and a half times the level arch-cornucopian Daniel Yergin insisted not that long ago would be oil’s long-term price; the latest round of climate talks at Cancún are lurching toward yet another abject failure; and bond markets worldwide are being roiled by panic selling as the EU’s Irish bailout has failed to reassure anybody, investors in US state and local bonds realize that debts that can’t be paid back won’t be paid back, and even the riskier end of commercial paper is beginning to look decidedly chancy.

With all this bad news rattling away like old-fashioned musketry, it can be hard to look beyond the headlines and grasp the broader picture, but that’s something well worth doing just now, especially for those of us who have put in some years in the peak oil scene or, for that matter, any of the other movements that have had the unwelcome job of pointing out that infinite growth on a finite planet is a daydream for fools. What the broader picture shows, when all the short-term vagaries, the rhetoric and the yelling are all stripped away, is something as simple as it is stunning: we were right all along, and the rest of the world is slowly, with maximum reluctance, being forced to grapple with that fact.

We’ve come a very long way since the peak oil movement began to take shape just over a decade ago. In those days, those of us who were concerned with petroleum depletion were basically a handful of heretics howling in the wilderness, at a time when serious books on energy by major academic presses routinely missed the obvious fact that fossil fuels would run short long before they ran out. The suggestion that oil production might be limited by geological factors was dismissed derisively by people straight across the political spectrum; if the price of oil ever actually rose above the rock-bottom levels it then occupied, the conventional wisdom went, the law of supply and demand would infallibly bring new production online and force the price back down.

Then, of course, the price of oil began to go up, and production didn’t respond. All the considerable resources of political and financial rhetoric have been worked overtime to gloss over that extremely awkward fact, but the fact remains: petroleum prices are now at levels that were unthinkably high only a few years ago, the bountiful new production the conventional wisdom foresaw has not happened, and dozens of alternative resources that would supposedly be viable once oil cost $30 a barrel, or $50, or $80 are still nowhere in sight. Last week the IEA, the international organization that tracks energy supplies and predicts their future trajectory, quietly admitted that conventional petroleum production had peaked in 2006, and ratcheted down their projections of future energy supplies yet again.

The mainstream media responded as usual with a flurry of pieces insisting, essentially, that we do too have plenty of fuel, nyah nyah nyah! I’m not sure if anyone was fooled, though. There’s a famous quote of Gandhi’s: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” We’re well past the stage of being ignored, and the few voices still laughing at peak oil are sounding very hollow and forced these days; the fighting is still going on, but that last stage is starting to look more and more like a near term probability.

All this raises an interesting conundrum for the peak oil movement. Of the risks run by any movement that seeks to upend the status quo, the most commonly underestimated are the dangers of success. Plenty of movements that have triumphed over every adversity have faltered or even imploded when adversity gave way to achievement. There are plenty of ways that this can happen, but I suspect the one most likely to beset the peak oil movement will arrive when the movers and shakers of the world’s industrial nations turn to the more respectable members of the movement and say, “Okay, you’ve made your point. So what do we do about it?”

I suspect that this challenge has been on the minds of a number of people in the peak oil scene of late. Several peak oil-related organizations and websites are pretty clearly shifting their focus from arguing for the reality and imminence of peak oil—the necessary focus of the last decade—to advocating and lobbying for some set of responses to the end of the age of cheap energy. A number of other people in the peak oil scene, most of them less organizationally connected, have reacted against this trend in one way or another. Which side is right? Both of them, of course.

The most common source of trouble when a social movement succeeds in entering the collective conversation of politics is the lack of any constructive plan. That’s not going to be an issue here; we’ve got plenty of people proposing plenty of plans, covering the whole gamut of possibility from the sensible to the delusional. No, the problem that the peak oil movement is most likely to face is the one that comes when a movement, having gotten access to the halls of power, lowers its sights to target only that set of goals it can reach consensus on, and thinks it can get from whichever subset of the political class is currently in charge.

That’s a fatal mistake, in two mutually reinforcing ways. First, it allows the subset of the political class that’s currently in charge to turn the movement into a wholly owned subsidiary, by giving just enough scraps to the movement to keep it hankering for more, while dangling the whole package just out of reach before the movement’s eager eyes. That’s how the Democrats turned the environmental movement (among others) into one of their captive constituencies, for example, and it’s also how the Republicans turned gun owners (among others) into one of their captive constituencies – and you’ll notice that neither movement, nor any of the other movements thus co-opted, have ever managed to get more than a few token scraps of its shopping list out of the process.

The second difficulty is the natural result of the first. Once a movement is turned into a wholly owned subsidiary of one end of the political class, it can count on losing any chance of getting anything once the other end of the political class gets into power, as will inevitably happen. The result is an elegant good cop-bad cop routine; each party can reliably panic its captive constituencies every four years by saying, in effect, “Well, granted, we haven’t done a thing for you in years, but think of how much worse it will be if those awful (fill in the blank)s get into power!” Those who swallow this line can count on watching their movement sink into a kind of political zombiehood in which, whatever its official goals, the only real function remaining to it is to get out the vote for one or the other set of mutually interchangeable candidates come Election Day.

Combine these two difficulties and you get the graveyard that’s swallowed most movements for change in America in the last half century. The peak oil movement could end up as just another tombstone in that cemetery if it doesn’t scent the trap and avoid it.

It’s not that hard to avoid it, either. The key is dissensus: that is, making sure that the movement doesn’t focus on a single set of readily achievable demands, but rather has several competing agendas, with at least some elements in each agenda that ignore the conventional wisdom about political possibility and shoot for the moon. For best results, there should be one detailed agenda, with its own pressure groups and lobbying organizations to back it, that focuses on government regulation and big federal projects, to appeal to the Democrats; there should be another equally detailed agenda, backed by a different set of pressure groups and lobbying organizations, that focuses on market-based approaches and voluntary community groups such as churches, to appeal to the Republicans; and there should be a third agenda that horrifies the entire political class, but has persuasive arguments and vocal supporters and thus can’t simply be ignored.

The point of these competing agendas is that they turn the good cop-bad cop routine against the political class itself. Democrats who want to get votes by pushing a peak oil platform have a set of proposals they can support, with plenty more to come when those are in place; Republicans who want to do the same thing have a different set that they can support, and again, there are more projects to hand once those get going; and then there are those wackos out on the fringe with their extreme proposals, who are always ready, willing and able to frighten Democrats and Republicans alike into backing some peak oil agenda because, after all, if they don’t do something, the wackos might get a foothold.

When subjected to this treatment, the political class typically loses track of the fact that the question has stopped being “should we do something about the issue?” and becomes “what should we do about the issue?” Instead of being manipulated by the political class, in other words, the peak oil movement needs to roll up its sleeves and do some manipulating of its own. It’s been done before by plenty of other movements and it will be done again by many more, and the peak oil movement has enough internal diversity to pull it off with panache.

Regular readers may be wondering where among these three options I see the Green Wizards project. The answer, of course, is that it’s a fourth option – the option that works outside the political process, and aims for those projects that can best be pursued at a grassroots level by individuals and small local groups. If it catches on, as it appears to be doing just at the moment, it becomes the flywheel providing stability for the whole process; government programs come and go, one might say, but backyard gardens endure – which is one reason why we’ve still got a viable organic gardening movement thirty years after the alternative scene that launched it crashed into ruin. Furthermore, if green wizardry really catches on, it could become large enough to count as a noticeable voting bloc – in which case we might yet witness the delicious spectacle of politicians pandering to the green wizard vote by supporting expanded tax credits for home insulation and more state funding for Master Composter programs.

Does this seem improbable? All of it happened here in America during the last round of energy crises, from 1972 through 1981. During those years the environmental lobby in Washington DC, not yet reduced to its present condition of servitude, pushed energy conservation legislation aimed at both sides of the Congressional aisle; there were plenty of advocates for federal programs, but there was also a thriving subculture of appropriate-tech entrepreneurs arguing for a market-based response to the energy crisis; there were plenty of people out on the Ecotopian fringe who did a fine job of scaring politicians into more moderate projects; and of course there was a very large movement of ordinary people who spent their off hours growing vegetable gardens and caulking their windows to save energy.

Now it’s only fair to say that a repeat of that experience will not save the world, or the United States, from the consequences of the quarter century of malign neglect that occupied the time we might have spent getting ready for peak oil. It is very late in the day; as the Hirsch Report pointed out five years ago – ironically, right around the time global oil production peaked – adapting to peak oil without drastic social disruptions requires major changes to begin twenty years before the peak. We missed that chance, and so there are going to be drastic social disruptions. The question is whether there are things that can be done to make their impact less devastating and their long-term consequences less severe – to cushion, in effect, these opening phases of the Long Descent.

I think there are. Some of those things, it’s fair to say, are best done by individuals following Ernest Thompson Seton’s excellent slogan - “where you are, with what you have, right now” - and of course this is what the Green Wizard project is meant to encourage. The backyard gardens, well-insulated homes, simple alternative energy projects and handmade crafts that helped hundreds of thousands of families navigate the stagflation and soaring prices of the Seventies are likely to turn out just as well suited to help an equal or larger number dodge the worst effects of the economic turmoil and spiking food and energy costs that bid fair to define much of our immediate future. There are things that local, state, and national governments can do to encourage these things, to be sure, but we don’t have the time to wait around for them to get to it.

Are there other things that can be done by changes in public policy? Of course, and with luck and a great deal of hard work, some of those changes may be put in place in time to matter. To name only one example, a shift in federal policy that redirected money from highway and airport construction and put it to work laying rails and expanding rolling stock, in an effort to restore America’s railways to some semblance of their former effectiveness as a transport system, could have significant positive benefits for decades to come. It’s worth pursuing this and other steps in the political sphere. Still, the reference to hard work is not there for decoration; any such step, even the most positive, will do nobody any good at all, as long as nobody does anything to make it happen aside from chatting enthusiastically about it on the internet.

As peak oil moves steadily into the mainstream, in other words, the peak oil movement will increasingly be called upon to put up or shut up. That doesn’t mean that everyone ought to support some consensus view or other of practical responses to peak oil; as I pointed out earlier, that’s a sucker’s move, one that would leave the peak oil movement hopelessly vulnerable to the usual maneuvers of the political classes. It doesn’t mean that everyone ought to support engagement with the political system at all. It does mean that whoever you are, and whatever your take on the proper response to peak oil happens to be, it’s time to do something about it.

That may involve planting a backyard garden and weatherstripping your doors and windows, along the lines discussed in the last six months of posts here; it may involve taking an active role in lobbying your Congresscritters and their state and local equivalents; it may involve building some exotic-looking device in your basement – we’ll be talking more about that next week – or it may involve something else again. The one thing it can’t involve, not without complete hypocrisy, is sitting on your backside and convincing yourself that somebody else is going to do whatever it is for you. In the wake of victory, we no longer have that luxury. Instead, the peak oil movement has a window of opportunity, and it’s time for us to use it.


Bill Pulliam said...
One of the old adages used to be that, in polite company, you didn't discuss religion or politics. In mainstream America, of course, this was tossed out the window long ago. But to my surprise, here in the small-town America in which I now live, this still more or less holds sway. Sure, the occasional person will go off on a political rant, but it is the exception and is often a recent transplant. People might have a high level of religious observance, but they don't much have a pervasive desire to actually talk about it, in controversial ways, in the average get-together.

I have really come to understand why this is the case while living here. In a smaller, more interconnected community, you have all got to get along. You don't have the luxury of assembling into like-minded enclaves; there's not that much redundancy in the system. So, you avoid inflammatory topics. If you are talking about gardening, or the stray dog problem, or all the people displaced by the flood, those things just get in the way. Lengthy debates about "issues" are in some ways a luxury, an indulgence for those who are comfortable, secure, and stable. Tomatoes have no religious affiliation; solar panels and caulk are not political statements, they are ways to save money on heating and cooling; poverty is not a member of any organized political party.

I expect that more and more people will rediscover this in the near future. Even as the political rhetoric and religious wars-of-words expand in the media, people faced with hard situations will discover once again that figuring out what works and then getting the work done takes place in a whole nuther sphere of human interaction. Sheesh, animistic yellow-dog-democrat me, I voted for the Xtian fundamentalist Republican candidate for county mayor because he was the only one who recognized the magnitude of our stray, abandoned, and feral animal problem, and the only one who seemed to even be aware that we actually have an expanding local agriculture component to our economy here.

12/1/10, 9:08 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

I've thought much about your spell "there's no brighter future" over the past few months.

So, peak oil zipped past unnoticed in 2006. No great fanfare, just a small footnote somewhere in a report, not to be discussed in the general sphere for fear of upsetting the peasants.

I wanted to add my voice to yours and others regarding concerns about people looking for easy solutions and the expectation that the powers that be will act in the best interests of the population in dealing with the significant structural changes that are occurring in both the environment and Western society.

It's my opinion that the powers that be are fighting a rear guard action to preserve the status quo.

There are no easy solutions, there is and will be hard work and the powers that be do not include you in their thoughts unless you are of some benefit to their programs and/or needs.

You have never offered simple (or technical) solutions to the current predicaments and have always stated that it will be hard work (in a local setting) which will provide some semblance of a future. It’s interesting though, because people keep reiterating (or sometimes demanding) the same tired solutions. Some even want a timeframe.

Instead, you’ve taught us: to learn from history; discussed the current economic shenanigans; discussed politics and political stratagems; told us who the survivors were in the past and why; encouraged pragmatism over lullabies; spoke about soil and it's improvement and rehabilitation; and discussed seed saving (among other things as well).

You are a true druid, as you have given us readers and contributors a path with which to map our own trajectories through an uncertain future. I'm reminded of the old fish versus fishing parable.

Just in case anyone's interested, we are having the wettest year here on record (my local rainfall records stretch back 140 years). It's very humid and almost tropical here now and there's been no or little snow for the past two years. Every year seems to be a little different from the last.

Good luck!

12/1/10, 10:36 PM

Kevin said...
This seems to me like an astute analysis of the way social movements have been co-opted and neutralized in the United States over the past half century. We've seen it played out many times. And your proposal strikes me as quite feasible, provided the political class does indeed come to acknowledge the reality of the situation. For this isn't just about advancing the interests of the peak oil community as a social or political movement. It's about saving the behinds of everyone in industrial societies everywhere before they get very painfully stomped by resource depletion and shortages.

A couple of good instances of successful dissensus come to mind. First, I've heard a famous sound clip in which the radical Black Muslim nationalist Malcolm X says, in effect, "If the white establishment refuse to deal with Dr. King, they will find themselves dealing with me." Presumably the white establishment would have found that a much scarier prospect than talking to Dr. King. Another example is the gay movement, which includes gay Democrats, gay Republicans, gay Libertarians, gay communists, gay Christians, gay witches and pagans, etc., etc. These subgroups are often at loggerheads with one another, but I think they well demonstrate your point that it's useful and indeed necessary to flood the full political spectrum and points beyond.

...and there should be a third agenda that horrifies the entire political class, but has persuasive arguments and vocal supporters and thus can’t simply be ignored.

I think I'm beginning to see where I'll fit in.

...the proper response to peak oil...may involve building some exotic-looking device in your basement – we’ll be talking more about that next week...

That sounds like it could be a lot of fun, so I'm all agog to learn what you plan to discuss.

12/2/10, 12:21 AM

Kevin said...
Bill, in his alarming if not alarmist videos on the topic, Dr. Joseph DiRuzzo states that as the peak oil catastrophe advances (and he does mean catastrophe) stray dogs will hunt in packs and eat people. That notion certainly gives one pause.

12/2/10, 12:28 AM

Paul said...
If you ever get the time, I would really appreciate any insight or suggestions you may have for surviving and perhaps thriving economic decline and political chaos as a minority in America (race and/or religion). My thoughts are to live in an area that is culturally/ethnically/religiously diverse, but these tend to be urban and I know suburban living will not be as easy in a time of expensive oil.

12/2/10, 3:10 AM

autonomyacres said...
Last night myself, my wife and our good freind and neighbor were at a city meeting in the first steps of setting up a community garden. This is a huge step for the city in which we live, they have spent the last twenty years courting Wal-Mart and all the other big boxes. We got volunteered for the sub-committee that will have a lot of say with what happens with this garden. I am excited and optimistic about the possibilities and the small steps that this could lead to. Thanks for the inspiration and wonderful posts John.

12/2/10, 3:21 AM

Jim Brewster said...
Hear, hear! Recently I finally read Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States. One of his central themes is how the political system of this country tends to mollify, coopt, and diffuse movements for real change. He shows how this strategy was very carefully and deliberately followed by the founders, based on what did and didn't work during the colonial period, and has allowed the federal capitalist system to survive through the centuries.

This is also why there is a seeming exception to your point that if a movement becomes part of one party it will be shut out by the other. That exception of course is the capitalist "movement" which actually owns both major parties.

The big paradox is that the system can court radicalism and tolerate dissent as long as the overarching capitalist agenda is not jeopardized.

The novel dilemma we face is that this agenda is now jeopardized by its own history and limitations. How will the political system incorporate economic down-sizing? How will it survive drastic social disruption without its main agenda?

12/2/10, 5:17 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Bill, the same rule about religion and politics applies in a Masonic lodge, and in a lot of other old-fashioned community organizations. It has its virtues!

Cherokee, exactly. There are no easy solutions -- in fact, there are no solutions at all, not at this point. There's just a lot of hard work to save what can be saved in the limited time we've got.

Kevin, thank you for the Malcolm X quote! Unfortunately white America did deal with both Rev. King and him, and not in the way he had in mind...

Paul, that's a massive question, of course. I'll put some thought into it, but as a white American who can blend into most settings, I don't know how useful my comments will be.

Autonomy, good for you! That's very promising to hear.

Jim, to my mind Zinn's analysis is a bit one-sided. The system we've got has been used by many different factions to pursue their own ends; it's just that the left has more often than not been, on the one hand, inept at practical politics, and on the other, unwilling to accept that compromise is an inevitable part of any multipolar system. That said, you're quite right to point out that the current spiral of crises cuts to the core. My guess is that the system won't survive it -- but it's unwise to assume that what replaces it will be any better, or even as good.

12/2/10, 5:44 AM

Don Plummer said...
Your third group sound like the people we call prophets. They're the ones that make everyone nervous.


Here in Ohio, we could use some help with political strategizing. You mentioned the need to divert highway money to rail projects. Our current governor applied for and received a federal stimulus grant to begin passenger rail service between Cincinnati and Cleveland, with stops in Dayton and Columbus. This corridor (called "3-C" for short) is the busiest transportation corridor in the USA that currently doesn't have passenger rail service. The infrastructure is already in place--the proposal seeks to make use of existing track owned by the freight rail companies. Upon startup, the train would run at an average of 50 mph, including stops(not the 39 mph that the detractors claim), with a top speed of 79 mph. And from Columbus to Cleveland, the average speed looks to be closer to 60 mph. Speeds will increase as service is improved over time. Initial financing, as I said, comes from $400 million of stimulus money, money which can only be used for passenger rail, according to the federal guidelines. The Ohio Dept. of Transportation (ODOT) would subsidize the line at an estimated $17 million per year--which is less money than they spend mowing the grass along the highways. The subsidy would not come out of general revenue funds, which are currently projected to be between $4 and $8 billion in the hole for the next biennium (2011-13). ODOT has plenty of money, most of it earmarked for highway projects, of course.

This project is really a win-win for Ohio, especially given peak oil and the prospect for near-term fuel shortages. And given the increasing dysfunctional nature of air travel, we're going to need the mobility that rail travel will give us.

But to try and make a long story shorter, the governor was defeated for reelection last month, and the new governor-elect is ideologically (and I would also say obsessivley) opposed to the rail project; he has vowed to kill the project as soon as he's sworn in early next month. He is unwilling to listen to reason and just earlier this week characterized those who support passenger rail service in Ohio as a "train cult." His mind is still in the 1950s, transportation wise. He even tried to get the feds to allow Ohio to use the $400 million for--guess what?--highways, but fortunately, Transportation Sec. Ray LaHood turned him down. If he kills the project, another state will get the $400 million; already several have lined up to ask for it.

We don't have very many options to keep this project alive, other than contact our US senator who supports it, and maybe Secretary LaHood to see if it could be done despite the governor-elect's intransigence. The governor-elect shouldn't be able to kill the project singlehandedly, but apparently he has the authority to do it--or will as soon as he's sworn in. I fear that if we don't take this opportunity to get the trains running, we'll never have another. Anyone have any other suggestions?

12/2/10, 5:46 AM

Jim Brewster said...
John, I agree (and so would Zinn when it comes to his historical analysis being biased), and I don't have any delusions that a successor system will be better or as good as what we have now. Of course many things beyond politics will feel worse when we don't have the luxury of cheap oil.

12/2/10, 6:05 AM

blue sun said...
You forgot to congratulate the USA for our "success" in Afghanistan!

Here's something you won't see on the cover of the New York Times.....the duration of the USA's military presense in Afghanistan has now exceeded the former Soviet Union's......

And we've done oh so much better than them! Minerals galore! Maybe a decade or two from now China will outlast us! JMG, I believe you once said that Afghanistan is "where empires go to die"....

And hard work! Man, I thought I was going to get to watch everthing go up in flames from the comfort of my couch!

12/2/10, 7:28 AM

fourpie said...
Oh Boy! I really loved your disection of the way movements become a subsidiary to a political party.
The text should be kept in the wallet and read out loud at meetings to remind everybody of the dangers and the rewards from avoiding such treatment.
Brilliant! Thanks.
Phil Joyce, Andover, UK

12/2/10, 7:42 AM

Andy Brown said...
JMG, Have you ever read any works like James Scott's "Weapons of the Weak" or even more fun, "Good Soldier Svejk" by Jaroslav Hasek? The focus there is on the strategies by which the non-powerful manage to make themselves more or less ungovernable. It's not a classic "political project", (at least according the normal analysis) but it strikes me as one that fits pretty well with a lot of the ethos of Green Wizardry - especially if the political classes continue to respond to resource depletion by trying to get us to participate ever more absurdly in our own destruction.

12/2/10, 8:37 AM

Pat said...
Excellent post, JMG.

As a now retired dental hygienist, I used the 4-step model of care - Assess, Plan, Implement and Evaluate - to provide oral care to my clients.
I find that I use this model in all my personal activities as well as any lobbying effort.

What your article has done is a small but most essential part of the "assessment" process. knowing the condition of the 'body' AKA as community in general. This then allows one to determine the greatest need for care, education and most important the desire/permission/willingness to proceed.
Once the assessment is completed, the needs are determined, the options are considered and presented for consideration and choice.

Your timely article addresses a part of the this process and the mental, political and emotional challenges that will arise.

I know that I could never provide professional and conscientious care to anyone without fully informing them of the situation based on a full assessment that they had first agreed to undergo. I then presented the options for dealing with any evident needs and challenges and then let the client choose the option that s/he was prepared to follow.

I used the Stages of Change approach quite often to understand where the client was at that moment in time.

The Peak Oil movement will need to do something similar to understand the best options to present to each audience being addressed,I believe.

As you suggest, the different options for addressing the situation will need to be presented and people will implement those that they can understand and use.

12/2/10, 8:38 AM

William said...
I really appreciated this column, beginning with the first paragraph's summary of some of the major features of our industrial civilization that are coming unglued. You might also include the unusually large numbers of local banks that are being quietly closed (failed!) by the FDIC, with concomitant higher fees for remaining banks. And you've previously mentioned the desperate printing of $600 billion by the Federal Reserve to counter the collapsing money supply (due to collapse in housing values and mortgage based securities).

12/2/10, 9:00 AM

Michael said...
JMG - one of your most thought provoking posts. I do think the peak oil community has (rather suddenly) achieved victory. Or perhaps we might say that ecological facts have begun to assert themselves. In any case it behooves the movement to think carefully about what to do next. As a member of ASPO I will certainly be thinking about what it should focus on going forward.


12/2/10, 10:32 AM

ChristineStone said...
Sharon Astyk did an article a while ago about considerations for people who are going to relocate, including minorities, etc.


12/2/10, 11:08 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Don, I'm by no means an expert at practical politics, but it seems to me that your most likely tools are the rest of the political establishment, on the one hand, and the media on the other. If people in Ohio start saying that the new governor is losing the state $400 million because he's got a phobia about trains, and hammer that over and over again, it could become enough of an issue that the state legislature yanks his chain and makes the thing happen despite him. Of course this late in the game it'll take a massive effort, and may not work, but it may be worth a try.

Jim, true enough.

Blue Sun, I did indeed say that Afghanistan was the place where empires go to die. It's all the more ironic that we've fallen into exactly the same trap as the Soviet Union.

Phil, one can only hope!

Andy, I haven't! I'll have to check them out.

Pat, thank you. That's an excellent model.

William, I could have filled the whole post with signs of things going catastrophically wrong. These days the sky is black with birds coming home to roost...

Michael, exactly. Now's the time.

12/2/10, 11:40 AM

Michael Dawson said...
I'm interested in the question of whether we are even entitled to call ourselves a movement yet. Does anybody know the rough number of people who claim to be peak oilers?

And the other question is leadership. While I agree dissensus is a core value and an important lesson for any advocate of social change. But has there ever been a social movement that's won anything that didn't have a major leader? One is tempted to say the green movement, but the question there is what has it won? Not much that I can see, at least not much that wasn't probably going to happen anyway with or without it (LA would've cleaned its air, greens or no greens)?

Changing anything substantial having to do with energy use is a direct challenge to capitalism. That isn't going to happen via ankle-nibbling.

12/2/10, 12:41 PM

Mark said...
Wonderful and timely post.

We know no-dig, mulched gardens work, composting, rainwater catchment, ponds, passive water harvesting earthworks, humanure, backyard chickens, perennial food plants, seed saving, bartering, foraging, hunting... It seems clear that I'm walking the fourth way on this one.

Really, I'm curious what your opinion and/or insight is with the connection between the mainstream recognition of peak oil and the 2012 re-draft of the farm bill? Using this design process, can effective legislation be put in place that removes current agri-welfare programs and redirects efforts to small-holdings, homesteads, small-scale farms, community farms and gardens and broadacre tree crops and livestock grazing? That's where I see quite a lot of leverage... And with peak oil comes millions of acres of abandoned wheat, corn and soybean fields that can be filled with trees or regenerated back in pasture or redistributed amongst homesteaders -- just some top of the dome thoughts... Would love to hear your piece.

12/2/10, 1:01 PM

luna said...
But has there ever been a social movement that's won anything that didn't have a major leader?

Mark - the women's movement and the civil rights movement come to mind. Though they both had strong leaders in the early days (eg Emily Pankhurst, Martin Luther King), those movements went on to develop a lot of internal dissensus, but huge changes were made possible simply by massive socal and moral pressure on left and right of the political spectrum.

12/3/10, 4:59 AM

tom rainboro said...
An interesting post. Covers a subject matter that doesn't seem to appear on the 'peak-oil scene'.
What is the 'peak-oil scene' or 'peak-oil community' anyway? Seems to be a remarkably small group of people, that could easily over-estimate its own influence, because it is constantly talking just to itself. In the U.K. it surprises me how what I consider to be the 'peak-oil scene' is isolated from other related movements e.g. the Green Party and the smallholders' ('homesteaders') community. Partly this is because
people want to 'build' their own discrete, separate organisations.
I'm someone who was (a young) part of the 1970s green movement, often mentioned on this site (studied
'Limits to Growth' at school, became a conservation volunteer, co--op member, anti-nuke protester etc etc) so I've seen the described behaviour of representative democracy over and over again. We need to remember
that powerful politicians have power because they are skilled at being powerful. Unfortunately this often does not occur to the unsuspecting leaders and negotiators for community or opposition groups. They accept
an invitation to talk to government, buy a suit and hop on a train to the capital city. Back they come with a feeling of importance and a message about how keen the government is to help. They are 'lambs to the slaughter' in political power play. It seems to me that demands from opposition groups on government should
be non-negotiable. Politicians can only be trusted when they feel so lacking in power that they are
desperate to please. If you get into a situation where you are trading 'X' for 'Y' then don't expect a long-term gain.
The question then arises of how to put politicians into that position. Is it possible through the ballot box? A couple of times over the last 10 years the U.K. government has been forced to jump about like a cat on a hot tin roof. Both situations involved blockades of oil-refineries - the first during an oil-price spike and the second when refinery construction work was going mostly to foreign workers. In both cases direct action seemed to have been organised via emails and text messages - no long drawn out campaigns, meetings and conferences. It shows that if people want something strongly enough and apply the right pressure then change can come.
I also suspect that there are limits to what any government can offer. This is simply because our
democratically elected politicians are not actually the most important power in the land. Money and other sources of power are in the background. Here in SW England I think that there should be a push for a lot more small farms to be established. Such a move would be very threatening to the 'powers-that-be' and I cannot see it being carried through by a democratic government. We have a resilient form of government here in the U.K. called 'constitutional monarchy'. It's resilient because it has 'redundancies'. There are 2 governments - the obvious one and a spare one in the background. Nearly all of the close male successors to the throne have been, or are, in service with the military. (I've heard that in the U.S. the sons of rulers tend to avoid military service). In the case of any crisis here there is a second government 'in waiting' and
immediately available.

12/3/10, 6:25 AM

Twilight said...
It would be wonderful if someone could get the present government to embark on useful programs like electric rail or home insulation. The bar for the effectiveness of such efforts would not be very high – compare the benefit and the magnitude of spending to our imperial military adventures or the banker bailouts. But I'm not so sure about the tactics you propose.

I tend to put a bit more stock in Zinn's interpretations, but even if you read it only as a historical record of events it's clear there was major social stress in the nation in the early 20th century, with wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a small elite class. Eventually it got to the point where at least some of the elite began to recognize that they needed to give a little something back and build a middle class buffer, lest they lose control. But this did not really work until the aftermath of WW2, when the establishment of a global empire combined with the age of oil to bring so much wealth to the US that it was easy to give enough to the general population to build that buffer.

That process continued to advance until the 1970's when the US reached its peak in per-capita income and oil production (amazing coincidence, huh?). Since then power and wealth have again been concentrating into a smaller group, now surpassing the level of the early 20th century, with a corresponding loss of power for the lower classes.

Some additional differences from the 1970's are the consolidation of media/propaganda outlets and virtually unlimited corporate spending on both propaganda and political lobbying.

At this point both parties represent the same wealthy constituents, with the public switching back and forth at every election, trying to effect change using a lever that's no longer connected to anything.

There are other issues where the public really is very concerned (jobs, health care, etc.), yet often as the party in power changes there is no change at all in policy, or sometimes even personnel. And regardless of which party is in power, the outcome of changes is always further concentration of wealth and power using whatever issue is ostensibly being addressed as a vehicle. If that cannot be made to happen then the issue can be ignored, and there is no avenue for the public to change that.

So then how do you get something accomplished in the public policy sphere? How do you appeal to the real constituents of the political class? It's a kleptocracy. To get something done means to show them how they can use it to accumulate wealth and power and accepting that much of the funding gets siphoned off, but such is life in a corrupt failing empire. Think of it in the same way as harnessing energy flows – the money will go to the oligarchs, the question is how to harness some of that flow to get something useful done along the way.

12/3/10, 7:34 AM

gsanford said...
Sorry, JMG, but I don't see evidence of us having "won" the argument of limits to growth in the court of public opinion.

I see people pessimistic about the economy (and by extension, a growing cynicism about conventional politics), while at the same time, moving further towards denial of climate science (with peak oil falling even further behind).

If that's what you call winning an argument, I'd hate to know what you consider failure.

12/3/10, 1:09 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Michael, leaders are a liability for movements for social change; the existing order can either buy them off or bump them off, and problem solved. The women's movement is a great example of a movement with no dominant leader that has accomplished a heck of a lot; there are plenty of others.

Mark, good question. I'll need to do some research first.

Luna, well put.

Tom, like most movements in their early days, it's fairly small and still getting its feet under it. I expect to see that change as oil prices keep wandering unsteadily upwards.

Twilight, that's a fair assessment. As I see it, the system is fundamentally broken at this point, but the vast majority of people aren't willing to push for change, because they're aware -- quite correctly -- that any meaningful adaptation to the future we're facing is going to involve a lot of pain for everybody. That means change will come in the wake of fairly serious systemic crises and the collapse of elements of the existing order. What we can do here and now is get ready for that, and in the meantime try to draw as much support as possible out of the system for constructive steps as we can, before things start breaking up in a big way.

Gsanford, well, since I never said we'd convinced the general public of the limits to growth, your objection is kind of flailing at a straw man, now isn't it? The victory is simply that peak oil is increasingly finding its way into the mainstream of future planning on the part of government, military, and business groups, and that implies that certain things may be accessible that weren't an option before.

12/3/10, 3:44 PM

jean-vivien said...

it seems people will not need govt programs for home insulation, as it is relatively cheap ? Compared to setting up a rail system...

Anyway, any pointer to "gray-green" wizardry, i.e. identifying (and using) old electronic parts to make useful stuff ? (radio, light, dynamo... the 3 that come to mind)

How to reuse circuit boards (ubiquitous), or power adapters (bulky, also called wallwarts) ?

12/3/10, 3:49 PM

Bob said...
To continue the conversation regarding the concept of "victory," I too was initially confused about the concept. In fact, today over at the Post Carbon Institue's site, there is a lengthy article about the future of American higher education that seems focussed on making it more accessible and affordable to the masses.
My reaction to THAT post was "What does this have to do with a post-carbon world?" My only response was that maybe they feel that we need to be producing more and better scientists to solve our energy problems.
So, PEAK OIL, as a concept, has many interpretations. We may claim victory in the sense that it will soon be an accepted fact, and that policies and attitudes might change as a result. But obviously the most likely response will be the one we have seen for the past 4 decades: We can think, buy, invent, fight, lie, or borrow our way out of this. Just as Darwin and his successors proved that evolution is a fact, and the world is much older than the 6000 years claimed in a popular book, we can all be happy that Peak Oil will inevitably be accepted as reality. Similarly, while we can move on to the next steps JMG describes here, many of us will be bogged down by the annoying and time-wasting task of repeating the facts over and over, just as biologists have to do battling creationists on school boards. The "Intelligent Design" equivalent that has already surfaced is the group of people insisting that life as we know it can continue indefinitely by simply replacing oil and coal with solar panels, wind turbines, and happy thoughts (and perhaps a unicorn or two?).
I guess what I am trying to say is that while this IS a victory, it is a small one, to be followed by many small victories (winning this same argument over and over for years if not decades) that will take place amid other larger victories, and (of course) massive inevitable defeats. THIS is why Green Wizardry is so vital, and has become so appealing: my neighbor to the right can insist that the IEA is a puppet of the UN that is really controlled by the antichrist, and that God will make more oil when we've earned it, while my neighbor to the left will say that we all need to move to a commune powered by geothermal energy, the aforementioned solar and wind power, and body odor, while I know that I can truly rely only on myself, my family, my close friends, and the knowledge and wisdom of the ages passed on by an arch-druid blogger, to muddle, sweat, and work our way through to the next chapter, whatever that will be...

12/3/10, 6:03 PM

michaeljayclark said...
In the Tampa Bay area in Florida we have been having monthly meetings and attended many events with the movement of changing from petroleum vehicles to electric vehicles. We have also been pushing solar as the preferred way to recharge these vehicles.

In San Diego they have an electric car co-op where anyone can bring a car in, purchase the parts required to convert it to electric and just supply a helping hand and the group will convert the car to electric.

The EV co-op idea is going to be started in Tampa Bay. This is a model that can be used around the country.

25 cars have been converted in San Diego to add to the many already converted to electric. Tampa Bay has about 10 cars that have been turned to electric from petroleum.

These numbers are small BUT there have been more cars converted in the last few years then there has been in the last 20 years. There was a big movement for electric cars in 1970's but died out.

Prices for lithium batteries have fallen dramatically in the last few years. Just three years ago buying a battery pack of lithiums was $20,000 or more. A decent size lithium battery pack can be purchased for around $6000. The prices will fall even more as more battery producers come online and demand keeps steadily rising.

Oil companies have been manipulating the price of oil to combat such ideas as producing electric cars. The California Air Resources Board created a mandate that told the car companies that by 2010 10 percent of cars sold in California must be zero emission. To answer that mandate Ford, GM, and Toyota they started producing electric cars starting in 1997.

Do you remember what happened to the price of a gallon of regular gas? It dropped as low as 89 cents per gallon, at least here in Florida.

CARB was sued by the manufacturers to defeat the mandate. CARB gave up easily in 2001.

Then what happened to price of a gallon of gasoline? It SKYROCKETED? Why? without a mandate from a government forcing a car company to make electric cars the low prices of oil in 1997 where made up by $2 or more per gallon after the defeat of the CARB Mandate.

A year ago when a gallon of gas reached almost $3.50 per gallon of regular gasoline we had the highest attendance at our electric car meetings. As the price dropped as did our attendance.

Last summer the price of regular gasoline was predicted by the same experts to yet again go over $3. I immediately predicted that the oil companies would not let that happen and keep the price under $3. I was right. The price was $2.90 or so but did not go over $3.

Last Winter was the coldest on record and the price of oil should have risen over $3 to match the demand for heating oil. It didnt proving that the oil companies do not want to see the price of gas rise above $3. We'll see what happens this winter. I can tell you that Florida has gotten cold to fast. We already have freeze warnings. This was unheard of 5 years ago.

12/3/10, 7:29 PM

Justin said...
Paul (and JMG) - I've given a lot of thought to the subject as well, as my family is a very mixed one (our children's ancestry covers 5 continents). We have heard that the South is by no means culturally homogenous, and there are many areas that are far more tolerant than before, but the intense racial violence isn't far enough in the past to let us feel comfortable. Sadly most of the midwest is at least as racist, though they aren't as open about it (I as a white man am able to hear it all, as I blend in pretty well). I would also discount most of California, as there is a lot of racial tension not far under the surface. Think of the Watts riots in the 90s. The southwest and most of the west seem bad simply because the dry climate would be challenging in the future we seem to be facing.

If you want to stay in the mainland US, the place that has seemed the most welcoming to US (we don't have much experience in the Northeast though) is surprising the most racially homogenous of them all - the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps it is because there isn't a sizable enough minority population for most people to develop prejudice, that or the powerful liberal element. Combie that with a large green wizard movement, and it is a worthwhile consideration.

It is not, however, my first choice. Hawaii's big island has half the ancient pre-contact population. It is incredibly easy to grow anything there. Energy needs are minimal (you don't need heat or air conditioning, ever). Wild food is abundant (with a little education you can find more food in a day than you can eat in a week in the wild). Best of all, it is extremely ethnically and culturally diverse. Whatever your race you will fit right in. Land isn't as expensive as you might think either. You can get a small house on an acre of land for under 50,000 (though the area I'd like to live in is more like three times that).

The problem is getting there. I moved away 6 years ago and have been "moving back in 2 years" ever since. If you are single and have no children it should be fairly easy though. You can always just go and work on farms for room and board (check out WOOF).

Good luck,


12/3/10, 8:21 PM

gsanford said...
"The victory is simply that peak oil is increasingly finding its way into the mainstream of future planning on the part of government, military, and business groups."

I guess I've set a higher bar on the definition of "victory".

12/4/10, 11:35 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Jean-Vivien, that question would take a book to answer adequately! If you haven't yet done so, I'd encourage you to hook up with the local amateur radio scene -- partly to get your license, partly to learn from the retired engineers who seem to make up the bulk of ham radio aficionados everywhere -- and to start collecting old books on electronics from the days before everything was done with integrated circuits. Start building simple projects and go from there!

Bob, exactly! You get today's gold star. Getting the concept of peak oil on the table is a small victory but it's the one that the peak oil movement has been pursuing since things first got going more than a decade ago. That victory is the end of one long road but the beginning of another, even longer journey; it means we get to (and also have to) move past the simple fact of peak oil into the larger and more daunting question of what can be done in response to it.

MJ Clark, er, there's a lot more behind the rising price of gas than the actions of oil companies -- notably this little thing called geology. As I'll discuss next week, while I have my doubts about the whole electric car business, I applaud those people who are putting their money where their mouths are and actually making or buying them; still, 35 cars out of a couple of hundred million is a very, very, very small step.

Justin, the Pacific Northwest has a more troubled racial history than most people realize. Oregon used to have laws barring African-Americans from settling there; racism against Chinese and Japanese immigrants was a huge issue all over the Northwest for a very long time, and racism against Native American people still is. As a Seattle native and former southern Oregon resident, I'd caution you not to rely too much on the appearance of liberalism.

12/4/10, 11:39 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Gsanford, something that the peak oil movement has been trying to achieve since day one deserves a bit of celebration, I think. As Bob suggested, this is a small victory and will need to be followed by a lot of others, but it's a crucial step.

12/4/10, 12:55 PM

Dorothy said...
Kevin & Bill: the packs of abandoned strays have already started.. 00 coyote/deer shot works if you can see them, or can hear which way they are moving. Since most ARE abandoned pets, they are NOT afraid of humans or human habitations or other domestic critters. Do NOT hesitate.. some of them have crossed with coyotes and/or wolves and are particularly careful.

12/4/10, 7:21 PM

John Bray said...
Re: Justin and WOOF - though my comments are not particularly addressed at Justin :o)

As someone who has used the WWOOF system in the past (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) I feel qualified to offer some words of caution (to both sides).

Basically it's a barter system: work in exchange for food and board. But it should, in an ideal world, be more than that. It should offer the workers (WWOOFers) chance to learn something about farming and farmers (WWOOF hosts) should give them something useful to learn about and TEACH them. Too often, though, it's seen an opportunity for a cheap holiday by one side and an opportunity for cheap labour on the other.

So you need to choose carefully whether as a Wwoofer or as a host.

A couple of years back we took on a couple to help with our Olive harvest. We told them in advance that picking olives in January/February/March is no easy task for 8-hours a day. Even in Southern Spain it gets cold! But they still came to Spain - though they only lasted a couple of weeks.

12/5/10, 5:43 AM

Dwig said...
@Don Plummer: I second JMG's comment: the governor can get away with it only as long as there's not a sufficiently large and vocal constituency in favor of the plan. (You'll probably find it useful to identify who the governor's supporters in this are; you may have to deal with them as a whole.)

Here's a potential resource (for you and anyone who's pushing rail transportation): Alan Drake, who posts regularly on The Oil Drum as "alanfrombigeasy", has been a tireless advocate of resurrecting and enhancing the rail system (I won't say "revitalizing" 8^). He might be willing and able to help out. Here's a recent article of his, the first chapter of an intended longer work.

@Justin: some folks may get stuck looking for "WOOF"; they should try "WWOOF". Either way, it seems like a good way to check out "alternative arrangements" for those who aren't connected strongly to a large family or BFF network.

@JMG, MJ Clark: if the electric car movement is coupled with a movement to localize energy production, it could be a very useful combination during the early stages of descent. (For one thing, it could make local transportation more resilient against failures of the centralized energy network.)

12/5/10, 7:15 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Tom Rainboro,

A thoughtful piece.

It might surprise people from outside Australia to know that we are also a constitutional monarchy. It might be worth remembering that in 1975, the representative of the monarchy sacked the elected government of Australia and called for an election of both house of our federal parliament. The monarchy is not without power and people in Australia are not clamouring for change either.

Good luck!

12/7/10, 1:21 AM

joanhello said...
Speaking of building things in the basement, here's an interview with a man who clearly exemplifies Green Wizardry: he's rediscovering the wisdom of our ancestors in the particular area of food storage and using it to build low-impact root cellars and ice houses and so forth:

12/8/10, 6:32 PM

sofistek said...
I'm not sure I'd agree that the prestige of science is already low. It could be argued that the prestige of climate science is low (unjustifiably so, given the results of several inquiries, but that doesn't matter to Joe Public) but not science in general. But I can't see how even climate science prestige is "continuing to wane".

With extreme weather events getting more extreme, it may not be too long before most people genuinely do accept AGW, instead of just saying they do.

But I take your point, that the aligning of the two "movements" may not be in the best interests of one of them.

TOD producing the premier peak oil journal in 10 years time? I very much doubt it. I would expect the settling of our societies, to a lower level of activity and energy, (what some might think of as collapse) to be well underway by then. Peak oil will be an historical note, at that point though, if society holds together, there may be a place for some precise information on oil reserves and how they are being allocated/rationed.

Yours is a great blog and should be read by everyone, but it isn't. TOD has (I assume) a much greater readership. As such, it should address all of the issues that a decline in oil production affects, as it always has done. I feel that energy is but one small piece of the puzzle and should definitely not be taken out of context of the big picture. We need to re-engineer society, not just our energy infrastructure.

12/10/10, 1:22 PM

Sololeum said...
In defence of a fellow Australian I strongly believe that if our society wants to keep our wasteful way of life in the face of energy scarcity then it will need to have a dictatorial government. I have been saying this for at least 5 years on Sydney Peak Oil.
The rationale being the wildly fluctuating price of energy will prohibit any "market" solution as investors could see the project going broke during a recession with low prices - And democracy will demand a continuance of our way of life with a massive build of nuclear plants that will ultimately fail when diesel becomes virtually unavailable. This waste of resources will make matters far worse than needs be.
As non-facist and a non-materialist ideally I would opt for a simpler society - not Mayberry but 1937 Darrowby (Thirsk. The books by James Heriot give you an idea of the old small scale agriculture where twenty milking cows was a large herd. It will cost virtually nothing to revert to his lifestyle - all is needed is the repealing of capital friendly health legislation that prohibits raw milk, and home / farm cooked / processed goods from being sold. Compared to pre-second world war times we have a huge stock of housing and other buildings, and we have great technology like the Zebra Salt battery - so instead of the old Morris 8 vehicles we could have electric vehicles for the few that actually need them.

1/13/11, 3:10 PM