John Michael Greer - A Window of Opportunity

by: Heather on 11/06/2008
Posted in: Peak Oil

John Michael Greer, author of The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age has allowed us to share his presentation from Plan C: The Fifth U.S. Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions. It's quite long, so I'll post Part One today and Part Two tomorrow. It's well worth the read.

Thanks John!

I'd like to start by thanking all of you for coming to this conference, and the conference organizers and the sponsoring organizations--Community Solutions and the Upland Hills Ecological Awareness Center--for making it happen. We have a lot to talk about this weekend. There's some good news to share, some good ideas to exchange, and no shortage of major challenges that we need to confront, together and individually; and a conference like this offers possibilities for all those things.

It's an auspicious date for such an event, too. In the faith tradition I follow, the Druid faith, sunset today marks the start of the festival we call Samhuinn, the feast of the ancestors. It's a time of endings and beginnings, the end of the harvest, the beginning of our new year, and endings and beginnings make up a great deal of what we have to talk about this weekend. The way of life nearly all of us have grown up with--a way of life founded on the extravagant use of irreplaceable fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources, and on the pursuit of unlimited economic growth at all costs--is coming to an end around us.

That's the rarely mentioned driving force behind the economic convulsions of the last few months; behind the political crisis under way in this and many other countries; and also behind the very widespread feeling nowadays that our lives and our societies have gotten onto the wrong track, that something has to give--something has to change. And that realization, uncomfortable as it often is, is the place where endings give way to beginnings, because it's the willingness to face change that's really been lacking in the mainstream of the industrial world for the last quarter century or so; and that willingness has begun to spread, in recent months, to an extent that might have been hard for any of us to imagine, say, ten years ago, when today's peak oil movement was first beginning to coalesce.

I don't think it's irrelevant just now to glance back for a moment at that earlier time. I think it was '97 or '98 when I first encountered people online who were talking about the end of the age of oil. The concept wasn't new to me; I spent my adolescence in the 1970s reading The Limits to Growth, Roberto Vacca's The Coming Dark Age, that sort of cheerful literature; at the time, for a variety of reasons, the future they portrayed made a good deal more sense to me than the bland pronouncements of business as usual forever being retailed by government and the media. I somehow managed to miss finding out about M. King Hubbert and the Hubbert Curve during those years, but his prediction of a global petroleum production peak sometime around 2000 wouldn't have surprised me at all.

It's important to remember just how thoroughly Hubbert's estimate dropped off the radar screens of our society's collective discourse once Jimmy Carter's cardigan gave way to Ronald Reagan's bluster about "Morning in America." Those were the years when political manipulation, the breakneck exploitation of North Slope and North Sea oil reserves, and the hard-won conservation gains of the Seventies combined to crash the price of petroleum to just over $10 a barrel--corrected for inflation, the lowest price in recorded history for the core energy source of an entire civilization. During those years even the most basic elements of energy literacy got mislaid. I remember a book on global energy concerns, published in 1997 by no less a firm than Oxford University Press, that completely missed the fact that world oil production would necessarily start declining long before the last barrel was pumped out of the ground.
This sort of pervasive misunderstanding helps sketch some of the obstacles the early peak oil community faced, back in the days when the Running On Empty email list was pretty much the only online meeting place for peak oil discussions, and we all checked dieoff.org every few days or so to check out the latest estimate of peak production date from Richard Duncan or Colin Campbell or Jean Laherriere. There were very few of us then, we were pretty thoroughly marginalized, and for all practical purposes, nobody else was listening. The phrase "peak oil" hadn't even been coined yet, much less denounced on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, and the price of oil was still bumping around not too far above ten dollars a barrel. The notion that another energy crisis like that of the Seventies might be breathing down our necks was dismissed by all sensible people, and those of us fool enough to try to talk about our concerns outside of a few very limited circles got looked at as though we'd suddenly sprouted two spare heads.

What a difference a decade makes. Since that time we've seen three major spikes in gasoline prices, the last one soaring to levels that mainstream economists considered unreachable only a few years ago. The other fossil fuels, and in fact the whole range of commodities, have jolted unevenly upwards to levels just as remarkable; despite recent declines, many of them are still high by the standards of recent history, and I think most of us--and a good many economists, for that matter--are aware that there's still plenty of upside potential in the near future. We've seen two massive speculative bubbles soar and slump, wrenching the global economy to the breaking point; we've seen the neoconservatives, who were just another bunch of intellectuals with an agenda back then, seize political power here in the US, set out with banners flying to remake the world in their own delusional image, create a military, political and economic fiasco of epic scale, and begin a one-way trip out the exit doors of American public life, as discredited as any political movement I can think of in our nation's modern history.

On a broader scale, our society's collective discourse about energy and the future is changing--slowly, almost glacially, but it's changing. As former US secretary of energy James Schlesinger famously commented, America has only two modes of response to energy issues--complacency and panic. What we've learned in recent years is that the first of those modes is not as firmly welded into place as so many of us assumed.. During the Eighties and Nineties, I think nearly all of us on the ecological fringes, no matter how attentive we were to the geological realities behind our society's fossil fuel addiction, got used to complacency as a way of life in this country; we forgot how quickly panic can take hold and get very large numbers of people thinking about the unthinkable in a hurry. If anyone had predicted a decade ago that the very people who were most loudly promoting the virtues of a free market system, unshackled from government intervention, would be begging for massive governmental intervention this fall, how many people would have given that claim a moment's consideration? Yet here we are.

I think we're close to a similar moment in the energy field. Just as the economic crisis had its share of trial runs--the sovereign debt defaults of the 1990s, the tech-bubble slump earlier in this decade--we've already had several energy price spikes, as I've mentioned, and each one saw more people cross Schlesinger's line and give way to panic. I remember when gasoline first breached $2 a gallon over most of the nation earlier in this decade; a lot of people who'd previously dismissed my ravings about peak oil started giving me uneasy looks. More recently, as gas prices rose to levels most Americans previously encountered only in nightmares or trips abroad, peak oil as a concept has begun to move in from the fringes in earnest.

Every time one of these price spikes faltered and prices went down, of course, we saw the inevitable attempts to find a way back to complacency. Anything that can get turned into a reassurance does get turned into a reassurance. The price of oil is down; that disproves peak oil--even though "down" in each case amounts to a price that would have seemed economically disastrous two years before. The Caspian fields, or the Alberta tar sands, or the Barnett Shale will save us from peak oil--even though none of those, despite huge tax subsidies and immense energy inputs, have succeeded in replacing the ongoing production declines in old supergiant oil fields such as Ghawar and Cantarell. And then, of course, the price of oil starts going up again.

We're hearing the same chorus of reassurance right now, of course, now that the latest round of price spikes has given way to the latest round of retrenchment, and we'll doubtless hear it again as the cycle continues. What strikes me most forcefully just now, though, is that the chorus is starting to get noticeably ragged around the edges. The laughter is more forced, the rhetoric more extreme; the reassurances take on the strident tone of the snake oil salesman who no longer trusts his own remedy enough to use it on himself. That's fatal. What Jean-Paul Sartre called "bad faith" can go on for a very long, time so long as it's kept stuffed down in the subconscious. Once it bursts up into full conscious awareness, though, something has to give, and drastic change is pretty much a foregone conclusion.

That's where we are right now; and this is why I think it's very possible that a window of opportunity will open for the peak oil movement, and possibly many other movements as well, in the years immediately ahead of us. History shows that when the existing way of doing things falls flat on its face, such periods of opportunity are tolerably common. One such window opened in the early 1930s, when the overexuberant capitalism of the Roaring Twenties crashed and burned, and ushered in the long social nightmare of the Great Depression--the last Great Depression, I should say, since we seem to be well on our way to another one right now. It's hardly an accident that Community Solutions, which is co-sponsoring this conference, can trace its origins to the years of crisis in the 1930s. A lot of things we now consider normal, even dowdy and conservative--for example, government insurance of bank deposits; social security; and legalized labor unions--were dismissed as impractical radicalism before that window opened; but a society's definitions of what's practical, what's possible, and what's necessary for survival, stretch like Silly Putty in such times of crisis.

Another window of opportunity, as I've already suggested, opened in the wake of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo and stayed open for most of a decade. During that time, in a nation that had learned to treat cheap abundant energy as a birthright, a great many people found the courage and forbearance to try another way of living. Economic pressures had a lot to do with that, of course; the Seventies were a time of serious and protracted economic instability, and cutting energy costs starts to look very sensible when prices are rising faster than your take-home paycheck. The sheer unavoidable reality of the energy crunch also had a lot to do with it; when your access to gas on any given day depended on the last number on your license plate, the pedal to the metal attitude of the previous decades looked a good deal less inviting.

Yet I'm not convinced that these factors were the whole story. In the Seventies, the impact of stagflation and energy shortages on our national conversation jolted a good many Americans out of complacency into panic, and their attitudes and behavior changed accordingly. Many of those changes never had time to become set in place; the political gimmickry and reckless overproduction that crashed the price of oil in the following decade, and allowed America to finish out the millennium in a warm self-satisfied haze, saw to that. Still, a surprising number of the positive changes of the Seventies made it through the Reagan years more or less intact: recycling, which came out of the Seventies as a somewhat exotic fad and ended the Nineties as a growth industry; organic agriculture, ditto; the farmers market movement, ditto; and a great deal of expertise with appropriate technology and alternative energy that, at the end of the era of "Keep on Truckin'," just kept on truckin', and remains a significant resource today.

Like the Seventies, the time of crisis beginning around us right now has three primary elements--the impact of resource depletion on the nonrenewable fuels that keep our society running; the impact of pollution on the subtle balances of the biosphere that provide us with the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil and stable climate that allow us to produce food; and the impact of these two sources of radical instability on an economy and society founded on the assumption that limits don't exist. Unlike the Seventies, though, the crisis this time isn't primarily an American crisis. It's not just America that has reached the peak of conventional oil production this time, and is staring production declines in the face; it's the entire world, and the handful of countries that are still able to increase their petroleum production are more than outweighed by the many more than have already seen their production decline significantly. In the same way, the ecological crisis of our time--of which global climate change is only one symptom, though it's the one that has garnered the most media airtime--is a global challenge, and the economic tsunami now sweeping around the world has left no nation untouched.

It's a bigger crisis this time. Is it likely to get bigger than the crisis of the 1930s? That's a much more complex question than it looks like, because the 1930s were not a standalone crisis. The global economic chaos of the Depression years was ultimately driven by the decline and fall of European empires, a four-decade process that began at Sarajevo in 1914 and continued straight through to the fall of French Indochina in 1954. We have many different labels for the stages of that time of immense crisis: the First World War, to begin with; the Russian Revolution and the civil war that followed it; a dozen wars in central Europe that most Americans have never heard of; the rise to power of European fascism, beginning with Mussolini's March on Rome in 1922; the bubble economy of the 1920s, so similar to the one falling apart around us right now; the global Great Depression of the Thirties; the Second World War; and after it, the implosion of the last European colonial empires and the birth of something like half of today's independent nations. Quite a bit of change got packed into those forty years, and by the time it was over, nearly every certainty of the world of 1914 had been chucked into history's dumpster.

The parallels between the time of crisis beginning around us right now, and the great crisis that shaped the century just past, are not simply a matter of scale. In the pages of Overshoot--a book that ought to be on the required reading list for everyone here, by the way--William Catton pointed out that the age of the world that is now ending--the Age of Exuberance, as he called it--had two principal foundations. The first was the Western European discovery, conquest, and ruthless exploitation of most of the rest of the planet, a process that concentrated the wealth of the world in the hands of a handful of nations.

The second, piggybacking on the first, was the discovery, extraction, and equally ruthless exploitation of the Earth's long-buried fossil fuel resources: coal, then oil, and then natural gas. For all practical purposes, when the conquistadors of Europe finished overrunning the New World, they invaded the prehistoric past, conquering an empire of deep time even more extensive than the one they established in geographical space, and exploiting the tree ferns of the Devonian and the giant reptiles of the Jurassic to enrich the inhabitants of nineteenth-century western Europe. Those two empires, the colonial empire of space sprawled across the earth's surface and the geological empire of time plunging down through the strata into the distant past, enabled the nations of western Europe to build a civilization more technically complex and more extravagant than any other in history. Like every other civilization in history, though, it reached its peak and began its inevitable decline; once you reach the summit, all roads lead down.

That was what the twentieth century was about: the decline and fall of Western European global dominance. In 1914, the British Empire alone covered one-quarter of the Earth's land surface. Britons boasted that the sun never set on the British Empire; their less charitable rivals suggested that this was because God Himself wouldn't trust an Englishman in the dark. By 1954 all of it was gone. The French empire, which included close to half of Africa and all of Indochina, among other places, and the last scraps of several other empires went through the same decline and fall at the same time. The empire of space was gone. The empire of time remained, even though it was under new and mostly American management, and it was still vast enough and lucrative enough to make up the difference and then some.

But now the empire of time is ending. Partly the other nations of the world have learned how to make use of the same model of empire, to extract the fossil fuels buried under their own soil, and increasingly to put those to their own uses, rather than turning them meekly over to Western oil companies for our benefit. Partly, though, the entire model is breaking down as the resources that empower it dwindle and deplete. The European conquerors who seized control of three continents, and exterminated most of their native peoples in the process, used to talk all the time about the "inexhaustible" wealth of their new possessions; their descendants have slowly and unwillingly had to come to terms with the fact that the word "inexhaustible" does not apply to any reality in human experience. In the same way, the conquistadors of the geological past, the people who opened up the Earth's carbon reserves to human exploitation, gave little thought to the possibility that humanity could run short of fossil fuels, and eventually run out. Yet that's where we are now.

I'll post the 2nd half of this talk tomorrow. And check out The Long Descent for a much more detailed description by John Michael Greer of how the world is likely to look after Peak Oil, if we choose to see the coming challenges as opportunities. Also have a look at his blog The Archdruid Report to read his excellent weekly essays.

The Long Descent

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