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Peak Freaks

10.28.2005 | ENVIRONMENT

If you happened to be strolling down E. 35th Street in Manhattan around noon on Wednesday, October 5, you may have stumbled across the shirtless, shoeless young man with a wispy goatee meditating on the sidewalk in front of the Unitarian Universalist church between Madison and Park. Or you might have noticed the fellow in the orange jumpsuit, NASA-style, circa 1981. Perhaps you were stopped by a pasty-looking woman and asked, aggressively and completely at random, if you knew a doctor who could help her with the mysterious illness she believes she acquired while volunteering at Ground Zero after 9/11. These and about 400 others were in attendance for the first-ever Petrocollapse Conference, a day-long event organized to allow "tremendous authorities offering a wide range of expertise" to educate the public on Peak Oil, according to Jan Lundberg, a conference organizer and the morning's first speaker.

In his opening remarks Lundberg said the event was "not so much an exercise in proving Peak Oil has occurred or will occur soon, but rather an attempt to explore our post-peak options and fate as individuals and communities." A worthy and compelling task, I thought. Having written and worked quite a bit on New York City transportation issues the last few years, I was slated to do a ten minute talk as a part of the "Local Solutions" panel at the end of the day. I had put together a presentation called "Urban Transportation in the Age of Expensive Oil" showing five transportation and urban design ideas for weaning New York City away from costly automobile dependence.

My presentation wasn't a comprehensive policy proposal. Nor was it a revolutionary break from the current status quo (though, I'm sure many New York City traffic engineers, would disagree with that). Rather, it was meant as a grounded, pragmatic review of five, car-free transportation and urban design concepts that are working well in other big cities around the world but are still considered somewhat radical here in New York. I planned to talk about London's successful congestion charging system, bike paths and pedestrian spaces in Northern European cities, bus rapid transit systems in South America, and this great project to build light rail along 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan called Vision42. I have often found that, short of flying someone to Amsterdam to ride bikes and look closely at urban design, you need photos to convince Americans that a less car-dominated city is possible or even desirable. Even to New Yorkers who mostly don't own cars, the automobile is such an intrinsic part of American life it is simply impossible for many of us to imagine or envision a life not dominated by them.

Yet, as one "tremendous authority" after another got up to warn us of the impending, sudden demise of Western industrial civilization due to Peak Oil, I began to get the sneaking suspicion that this crowd, or at least these conference organizers, weren't interested in bus rapid transit, bike lanes or policy proposals of any kind. The Petrocollapse Conference had been convened to warn New Yorkers that End Times were upon us.

If Peak Oil theory is now mainstream, splashed across the front page of USA Today and the theme of Chevron and BP ad campaigns, then Petrocollapse is a secular, left-wing, non-fiction version of Tim LaHaye's Christian Apocalyptic "Left Behind" series. The gospel according to Petrocollapse is that Peak Oil is coming, and it's coming soon. The transition to the post-carbon world will not be gradual, it will be sudden and massive. And when it comes, the sinners--those profligate American consumers and the corporate whores who oversee them--will all be swept away in violent social turmoil, starvation and environmental disaster. But there's good news too. After the tumultuous mass die-off, a new society will arise from the burned out SUV hulks and melted plastic detritus. In this post-carbon world, humans will have no choice but to live sustainably, in cooperation with each other and in harmony with nature. Those who get religion and accept Peak Oil into their hearts soon enough--they may be among the lucky survivors whose children grow to live in this new and better world.

In other words, "grounded" and "pragmatic" weren't high on the Petrocollapse Conference agenda. This was made immediately clear in Lundberg's introduction as he listed his Peak Oil bonafides and criticized other "prestigious insiders of the Peak Oil 'movement'" for advocating political solutions and policy reforms.

Lundberg isn't interested in policy because he is "promoting fundamental, system-change." He advocates a return to "complete reliance on nature" and "a real community-based" tribal culture. He believes that "we, like nature, are being raped constantly in every orifice" by Western Industrial civilization. "Progress is a new idea, and a dangerous one," at that. "Nature does not need progress."

Lundberg foresees, or advocates--it is often not clear which--a complete dissolution of the United States into locally governed bioregions and an enormous culling of the Earth's human population. There are three ways, he says, to deal with the overpopulation problem that will suddenly manifest as an overwhelming crisis once Peak Oil is reached. 1. A rational, gradual and voluntary population reduction. 2. Violent, involuntary reduction brought about by "elites" selecting survivors based on their national or genetic desirability. 3. Humanity simply killing itself off en masse.

Of these three options, Lundberg believes the third, is currently "operative" and "to avoid the second 'option' of top-down culling through violence, the first option, compassionate planning, would have to start soon."

Sure, "Our time as a species in a favorable, biodiverse ecosphere is about up" and "there appears to be little hope for a viable future," but it's not all doom and gloom to Lundberg. Upon petrocollapse, "a new society will come together on a local-ecosystem basis. Cooperation and sharing will be necessary for survival, to make urban and suburban land productive and to assure water is as clean as possible." Petrocollapse will be so shocking and so revolutionary that "a completely different approach to human relations and economics will be adopted." How we will get from here to there and in what time frame, Lundberg didn't say.

What was made clear, though, is that to Lundberg petrocollapse is not so much the problem as it is the solution. "I believe petrocollapse can cure Earth of this civilization," he said. "Civilization is the threat." And, no, he didn't steal that line from Osama bin Laden. Lundberg writes his own material.

Another featured speaker at the Petrocollapse conference was Michael Ruppert, editor of From the Wilderness, a web-based clearinghouse for news headlines and original stories that tend to confirm a conspiratorial worldview of government and corporate power. His book, Crossing the Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil claims that the U.S. government orchestrated the events of 9/11. Conference organizers found Ruppert's version of doom so compelling they gave him two prominent speaking slots.

He introduced his talks by saying "This is the first of two cold showers I'm going to give you. Get ready for goose bumps." Ruppert's thesis: It simply won't be profitable for big corporations and government to slow the global economic decline and human suffering that will be brought on by Peak Oil. So they won't.

Peak Oil, Ruppert said, is the beginning of the end of industrial civilization and it is driving the elites of American power to implement unthinkably draconian measures of repression, warfare and population control. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld have know about Peak Oil for decades and they are implementing "a very clearly established plan" to crash the US economy. The crash will be worse than 1929 and it is "just a few weeks away." If you dig through Ruppert's writing you will find that the crash has always been just a few weeks away.

The Powers That Be have decided that the only way to control U.S. energy consumption is through "demand destruction"--impoverishing Americans, or worse, liquidating them altogether. That the city of New Orleans wasn't rescued after Hurricane Katrina wasn't due to federal government incompetence. Letting American cities filled with poor people suffer is what "demand destruction" is all about. During a break outside with a group of smokers, Ruppert continued, "Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld all have their ranches off the grid. They're all running solar and biodiesel. They know what's coming."

As for those who think they can deal with the global energy crisis through technology, politics or grassroots action, forget it. "There is more psychosis among progressives than there is in the White House," Ruppert said. He believes environmentalists are no less delusional than the Christian Right. If you want to do something useful with your time and activism, fight the global financial system, because "until you change the way money works," Ruppert says, "you change nothing." How to do this, Ruppert didn't say. His only concrete recommendations for action were to buy gold and move to an eco-community. But again, he was stingy with the important details. "My influence is such," he said, "that suggesting a location in public would create a run on property."

No one does a smarter or more entertaining Apocalypse than the day's keynote speaker, James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century. Unlike Lundberg and Ruppert, Kunstler's social commentary is incisive enough that he gets away with it. He is really the only Cassandra a Peak Oil conference needs.

"In the waning months of 2005," Kunstler said, "our failure to face the problems before us as a society is a wondrous thing to behold. Never before in American history have the public and its leaders shown such a lack of resolve, or even interest, in circumstances that will change forever how we live."

"Even the greatest convulsion in our national experience, the Civil War, was preceded by years of talk, if not action. But in 2005 we barely have enough talk about what is happening to add up to a public conversation. We're too busy following Paris Hilton, Michael Jackson, and the hiring practices of Donald Trump. We're immersed in a national personality freak show soap opera, with a side order of sports 24-7." He summed it up thusly: "Our failure to pay attention to what is important is unprecedented, even supernatural." What is important is this: "We've entered a permanent world-wide energy crisis. The implications are enormous. It could put us out-of-business as a cohesive society."

The Korean War-generation guys sitting next to me winced as Kunstler went on with his assessment of the American personality. "We've become a nation of overfed clowns and crybabies, afraid of the truth, indifferent to the common good, with hardly even a common culture, selfish, belligerent, narcissistic whiners seeking every means possible to live outside a reality-based community."

Kunstler then went on to suggest one proposal. It was pretty much the only concrete policy suggestion to come during an entire morning filled with End Times prophecies. "Let's get started rebuilding the passenger railroad system in our country. We have a railroad system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of."

The audience burst into applause. The Petrocollapse Conference had spent the morning telling the crowd that the world was about to end and they were "delusional" for trying or even caring to do something about it. It was nearly lunch and people were hungry, it seemed to me, for some hope, ideas and possibility of taking action and making change.

* * * *

To the contrary, there were no shortage of policy ideas and suggestions for action at New York University's October 20th "bi-partisan town hall meeting on U.S. oil policy." I recognized a few faces from the Petrocollapse crowd among those filing into New York University Law School's Vanderbilt Hall. The sidewalk meditator, NASA-jumpsuit guy and 9/11 hypochondriac, though, were nowhere to be found amidst the mostly young men in suits and ties.

If the Petrocollapse conference was dominated by conspiracy theorists, then "Winning the Oil Endgame" was the Conspiracy. Present on the dais were former CIA director James Woolsey, Mississippi Governor and former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, former Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Robert Altman and Amory Lovins, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Far from doom and gloom, the Endgame speakers were nearly united in their belief that it was both possible and desirable to keep finding fixes for America's energy jones and to keep the American consumer machine rolling along using new technologies.

The name of the conference, "Winning the Oil Endgame" is also the name of the Rocky Mountain Institute's new book and the event was a bit of a Lovins-fest from the get-go. Amory kicked things off by talking about how new lighter weight vehicles and better propulsion systems that he is developing "could make SUV's that get 66 miles per gallon" and triple the efficiency of the entire transportation sector. "It's the equivalent of finding a Saudi Arabia under Detroit,' he said. "We can save oil faster than they can sell oil." Showing an optimism and an appreciation of SUV's that was utterly absent at Petrocollapse, he added, "We'll look back in 40 years when we're off the oil and ask what all the fuss was about."

Altman, who'd served under President Clinton, urged America to take on five bold initiatives: First, more drilling. Go into "under-exploited regions of the world to expand supply of oil." Second, "re-embrace nuclear power" and "get behind the development of new plants." Third, "more coal-fired electricity plants" built with cleaner, though extremely expensive and still-unproven technologies to sequester carbon emissions. Fourth, build a zillion dollar infrastructure to import more natural gas. And last but not least, we need "more fuel efficient vehicles." Charles Komanoff, a long-time energy economist and activist sitting next to me scribbled his assessment on a scrap of paper: "Final tally: Big ideas for increasing energy supply--4. Big ideas for reducing energy demand--1."

Governor Barbour found himself surprised at how much he agreed with the suggestions of Altman, the card-carrying Democrat. The governor boiled the energy crisis down to three supply-side shortfalls: insufficient domestic production, refining capacity, and "alternative fuels." By "alternatives" Barbour didn't mean wind or solar. He thinks we're not burning nearly enough coal or nuclear energy in the U.S.

Interestingly the meeting's most arch-conservative speaker was in some ways the most reminiscent of the Petrocollapse conference. Like Ruppert, Barbour had nothing but derision for environmentalists. Since the days of the Nixon administration, he said, "environmental policy has trumped energy policy at every turn." The result is the mess we're in today.

Also like Petrocollapse, Barbour showed himself to be profoundly gloomy about America's energy future, though he hid it beneath a Southern salesman's optimism. His goal, he said, is for "Mississippi to be recognized as the 'reliable energy state.'" In other words, he envisions a day when things are bad enough in the U.S. that Mississippi can lure big business simply by guaranteeing that it's a place where the lights turns on, and stay on, when your company flips the switch. Towards this end, Barbour is digging into eastern Mississippi's abundant supply of soft light coal, working to build a new nuclear plant and oil refinery, criss-crossing the state with new pipeline, and permitting extraordinarily expensive liquefied natural gas terminals on the battered and vulnerable Gulf Coast.

Sitting to Barbour's left was Columbia University Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs, the only speaker to bring up the "profound environmental problems and danger" of fossil fuels. Speaking immediately after Barbour, Sachs argued that the "evidence is becoming extremely clear" that hurricanes such as the ones that devastated Mississippi this summer are the result of man-made changes to the Earth's climate due to the burning of fossil fuels. Barbour clearly wasn't having any of it. Rather than challenging the professor directly he launched into a lengthy recital of big hurricanes that have hit his state over the last 150 years and an ode to the resilience of the people of Mississippi. It was an exquisite example of Republican climate change denial. If you argued with anything Barbour said you'd sound like you were insulting homespun common sense and the good people of Mississippi.

And that's the funny thing about the Conspiracy. Barbour, the ultimate Republican insider power player, wasn't hiding his agenda. He came right out and said what he is up to. He wants to build massive amounts of new fossil fuel and nuclear energy infrastructure in his state. He wants to keep the American consumer machine rolling along. SUV's, strip malls and suburban sprawl aren't a problem to him, they are entirely desirable. Barbour can't really imagine or simply doesn't see the point in bothering to envision any other way of doing things than the way we're doing them now. He is focused on keeping the system chugging along. Towards that end, he can see that there is a heck of a lot of easily accessible natural gas in the Caribbean. If he can figure out a way to get liquefied natural gas terminals built on his state's Gulf Coast, then the rest of the U.S. will have to go through Mississippi to get a hit of that energy. Talking about man-made climate change and increasingly intense hurricanes doesn't help that project along. It just scares off the investors. That's the Conspiracy--a combination of consumer capitalism and plain old inertia.

Charles Komanoff has been involved in the energy and environmental movements pretty much since they began in the early 1970's. He's a good person to go to for some perspective and both of these conferences had him chuckling and shaking his head. Komanoff acknowledges the possible validity of the Peak Oil analysis, but having heard similar End Times prophecies thirty years ago, he isn't allowing the Peak Oil argument to guide his work and activism. "I think there's an element of wishful thinking and that some Peak Oil adherents are looking for a deus ex machina to sweep away the disaster that is contemporary industrial civilization," he said. "And understandably so. Waiting for Peak Oil is so convenient, so much simpler, and so much more seductive than the hard work of organizing for social and ecological change."

Komanoff was also critical of the Endgame analysis. "There is a big dissonance between Amory's kind of chirpy optimism and actual realities on the ground and actual energy trends." Three decades after Lovins unveiled his revolutionary "soft energy path," Komanoff points out, the U.S. uses 25% more oil, burns 75% more coal and generates 35% more greenhouse gases than it did in the mid-1970s. Though a 66 mpg SUV is certainly more desirable than Detroit's current state of the art, Komanoff doesn't believe Lovins' hyper car project provides us with real answers for our global energy and environmental quandary because the project is "only about improving the fuel efficiency of the vehicle and does nothing about addressing the social and whole system efficiency of travel and mobility and community."

It's "tragic," Komanoff says, because "of the top ten energy thinkers in the world, the first five slots would have to be Amory. Yet, there's so much else missing in his vision, namely the centrality of price." Komanoff believes the solutions to global energy problems will only be found once we are willing to engage in serious discussions about paying for negative externalities like road usage and carbon emissions. "It's a law of nature. Anything inexpensive will never be conserved. Make fuels expensive--really expensive, as befits the climate wreckage and political violence endemic to coal and oil--and everything changes."

Chatting with Komanoff I quickly realized that these were the kinds of pragmatic but forward-thinking conversations and policy ideas that were missing from both conferences. Both conferences seemed intent on paralyzing their audiences into inaction by suggesting that all they could really do is wait. Wait for the Petrocollapse or wait for Amory Lovins' 66 mpg SUV's.

* * * *

The New York City Oil Awareness Meetup gathers the second Wednesday of the month at 7:00 pm at Wai Café, a Chinese health food take-out joint in the Flatiron District. Dan Miner, a senior vice president for business services at the Long Island City Business Development Corporation, runs the meeting. Miner is rapidly making a name for himself as a leader in New York City's sustainability movement. In addition to running the Peak Oil Meetup he has formed a New York City Energy Policy Working Group and authored a paper called "Preparing New York City for the Coming Energy Crisis."

On Wednesday, October 12 a group of about 25 people gathered in the back section of the restaurant for dinner, drinks and Peak Oil. Perhaps not a good sign for the ultimate survival of the species, only five or six women were on-hand. Tapping a piece of silverware to a glass, Miner got the meeting started by asking if anyone new to the group would like to introduce themselves. A skilled and natural facilitator, Miner makes people feel comfortable to talk yet he keeps his meeting on-task and moving.

One member makes it clear at the outset of the meeting that he is there for the emotional support. A big, handsome New Yorker with a job in information technology, Rob is not the type you expect to get all touchy-feely. "I was dealing with Peak Oil by myself for a long time," he says. "My family got sick of hearing me talk about it so I started seeing a psychiatrist." An active member named Phillip chimes in, "You're not the only one. I know 20 other people who are seeing shrinks because of Peak Oil."

To address the emotional side of the issue members Simon and Bill started a sub-group called "The Clinic / Peak Oil 101." For many "there is a paralysis that comes when you first start dealing with Peak Oil," Simon says. The Clinic is designed to help people "start moving." Once you've gotten over the initial emotional reaction you can "start doing practical things. Get out of debt. Learn a new skill. Think about moving to a new place and buying gold." Phillip adds, "There are no easy solutions. No matter how you tell people about Peak Oil, you're going to have to change your life. At some point people are going to have to accept the fact that the lifestyle we live here isn't going to be maintained."

Since Miner took over as moderator, the New York City gathering has grown into the biggest Peak Oil Meetup in the world with 167 members and as many as 35 people attending meetings. These divide broadly into two groups. The Relocalizers believe New York City won't be viable in the age of Peak Oil and are looking for new places to live and new skills to live in a world without modern conveniences. The Sustainable New Yorkers are dedicated to educating and preparing the city for what they see as a lengthy and potentially tumultuous energy crisis.

Relocalization meetings are often run by a graphic designer named Elise. At the Meetup, she invited people to join her in Clarksville, New York for a workshop on outdoor survival skills: how to start a fire with flint, build shelter out of natural materials, and prevent hypothermia if you're stuck outdoors in the cold. "If you need to get out of New York City quickly, you might need to know how to survive in the woods," she says mater-of-factly.

In San Francisco, she notes, "they're turning ornamental gardens into vegetable gardens. Can you imagine Park Avenue, instead of tulips, tomatoes?" Elise is working towards joining an eco-village or starting one. Her ultimate goal is to "be part of a secure, sustainable food network." She is planning a trip to Vermont to learn vermaculture, the practice of cultivating worms to use their castings, that is, their poop, as a natural fertilizer. In the Peak Oil future that Elise envisions, the staples of industrial agriculture; mechanical combines, nitrogen fertilizer, trucks shipping lettuce 3,000 miles across the country, will not be available.

Phillip is also a Relocalizer. After Elise finishes her report, he invites the group to join him in Hancock, New York from October 31 through November 12 for a 72-hour permaculture course taught by Australian Geoff Lawton (permaculture is a broad study of sustainability--nothing to do with worms or hair curling). Phillip also says that he and his partner are "doing a weekend trip to a dairy farm." One caveat: "It's a gay thing. We're going to make wreathes and learn how to milk cows. And I've never touched a teat." No one laughs. "Come on folks, a little sense of humor!"

With the majority of the Meetup members seemingly falling into the Relocalizer category, discussion turns fatalistic. Simon says, "If we don't smarten up real fast, 3 to 6 billion people will die in the next 40 years." Perhaps sensing that he's getting a little grim, he quickly adds, "We're living through the death of a civilization and the birth of a new one. It's going to be exciting if you survive."

Despite such dread, there is often a sense of action and possibility at the monthly meeting. Miner makes a point of emphasizing that there are things you can do to prepare for Peak Oil and people interested in doing them with you. At the Meetup, you aren't so much assaulted by the gloomy hopelessness that pervaded the Petrocollapse and Endgame conferences.

That is, until Miner announces that we have a special guest and Jan Lundberg is invited to say a few words. Lundberg used to produce an oil industry newsletter but has since renounced any ties to the petroleum business and runs a web site called Lately he's been touring the country via Amtrak, speaking to groups about Peak Oil and showing a movie about plastics pollution.

Lundberg immediately kicks into 60's revolutionary mode. "We've got to pull the rug out from under the system, subvert the fascist police state and subvert corporate fascism. We've got to stop buying new cars. Buying an old car at least undermines the enemy." The speech grows darker. "We could see the final energy crisis this winter. It would create a cascade of effects in which the house of cards collapses. Then we have mass starvation and exodus from high population areas for the land."

I interviewed Lundberg a couple of days after the Meetup to try get more of a sense of how he sees us getting from petroleum-addicted society to the sustainable future that he envisions. It was difficult to steer his focus away from the Apocalyptic. "We've paved over the best farm land. We've ruined water sheds. And we've become isolated individual units of consumption. We've lost family cohesion. Peoples' traditions have been trampled. When people have sold each other out in their own families and they imagine that they are above and separate from nature, they will pay a very large price."

As he digresses down this path I recall a moment during the Meetup when someone asked Lundberg why his sister Trilby, who now runs the family business, The Lundberg Report, doesn't use her position as a prominent energy industry pundit to talk about Peak Oil. In his response, you begin to get the sense that there is, perhaps, something very personal behind Lundberg's dark vision. "Trilby seized the company in a hostile take-over that involved the abuse of our mother. Her husband is an OPEC gigolo. She's nothing more than a mouthpiece for the major oil companies. It's a complete waste of what was once America's most trusted energy industry newsletter. They are sell-outs for the buck. That's what most people are in the professional classes. They just want to be praised for earning a dollar and reporting to work every day."

At the Petrocollapse Conference, Kunstler wound up his speech with a warning. "As our society comes under increasing stress, we're liable to see increased delusional thinking, as worried people retreat further into make-believe and pretend." The Peak Oil movement was beginning to feel like an example of just that.

* * * *

A couple of days after the Petrocollapse conference, I received an e-mail from Lundberg. It was a surprise because prior to the conference, all of the e-mails and phone calls that I had left with him had gone unreturned.

He thanked me for my presentation and then delved into a critique. My ten minute presentation, he felt, didn't explain what would be necessary in a world in which "gasoline and diesel are gone." The car-free urban transportation ideas I presented seemed "more geared toward business-as-usual reforms" and next time I "might want to put more visionary images out there that depict scenes more like Cuba in their Special Period."

Forget for a moment that not even the most pessimistic Peak Oiler believes that gasoline and diesel are going to be "gone" any time soon. If there is one thing I've learned from reading the literature and going to the conferences it's that there is no harsher put-down in the Peak Oil world than calling something "business-as-usual." B.A.U. is about as rough as it gets.

Curious about what kind of urban transportation presentation Lundberg would have rather shown at his conference, I e-mailed him back a couple of days later. "Jan, what are you saying? You'd have liked to have seen Cuba-style images of horses pulling SUV's down Park Avenue?"

"Actually, Aaron, yes," Jan replied. "Although SUVs are heavy."

Finally, some pragmatism.

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