Neither apocalypse nor paradise

hi, loser poster

Peak oil and climate change are so important that activists can no longer afford to act like principled losers. Photo: °Florian via Flickr.

I’m pleased that my little article on the high volume of collapse talk coming  from peak oil writers recently generated some attention. And I’m grateful that as someone so obviously committed to Transition as Dave Ewolt judged my musings worth an intelligent response. I’d like to address some of his excellent points here.

For me, there are three issues in talking about any kind of post-peak collapse: what I know, what I don’t know, and how I talk to people who don’t care. We should be careful not to confuse these issues.

What I know

I publish a magazine on the nexus of peak oil, climate change and the economy because I think that resource depletion and global warming are grave threats to human civilization.

I know that industrial economies have already overshot their supply of resources, from oil to water to fish in the seas. I also know that we’re quickly filling up all the places to put our pollution, particularly greenhouse gas emissions. And I know that the Earth cannot long sustain a population of seven billion humans and growing.

I know that our societies cannot make peak oil or climate change go away with technology. I know that clean energy won’t replace all the fossil fuels we use now. But I also know that unless we want to shiver in the dark, we’ll need some source of power.

Most of all, I know that the post-carbon future is more likely to be a better future the more people are aware and start to prepare soon. And I know that it won’t be enough for a small in-group of families and communities to be ready if their neighbors are not ready. I know that we need our states, provinces and nations to be prepared too.

What I don’t know

I don’t know exactly what the post-peak future will look like, and I am suspicious of people who claim that they do.

I am grateful for people who make predictions with a healthy humility. I’m sure that both Nicole Foss and Jeff Rubin are aware of the moral responsibility that comes with giving financial advice. But since Foss says that families should prepare now for deflation and Rubin says they should prepare now for inflation, one of them will be wrong. Even as some people benefit from their advice, others may not benefit.

I also don’t know if the post-peak  future will be generally better or worse than today. I hope that Dave Ewalt is right that peak oil will bring mostly good things. But I think he’s too quick to welcome the end of affordable consumer goods because “$225/barrel oil would help people discover they don’t actually need the stuff in the first place.”  Expensive oil will also mean diabetics will have trouble affording insulin, families will lose their homes, and many more children will go hungry.

We should not hold people who make predictions responsible for all the other people who decide to take their advice.

But we should hold ourselves responsible for due diligence when we hear advice and read scenarios of the future. We should not be too quick to accept predictions of extreme events whether in the economy, politics or the environment. We should remember that humans have a natural tendency to find extreme scenarios very seductive, as the quote from John Michael Greer showed in my original piece, and we should resist that seduction.

How I talk to people who don’t care

If we have given up on society, then we can build our own figurative Noah’s Ark and just prepare our own families for the Flood. In that case, we can write off the news media, we can write off using skillful communications techniques to reach the mainstream and we can write off our governments. Instead, we can just continue to give each other pep talks to boost our faith in a world of infidels, celebrating how misery loves company. And we can buy more canned food and ammunition.

But I am not there yet. I am not yet ready to give up on my country or on the other nations of the world. Especially since the peak oil movement hasn’t even really tried yet to reach the mainstream. And the green movement has communicated global warming so badly that they might as well have done nothing. I believe that now we can do better.

“Sea level is rising and Manhattan will be underwater.” “Flee the suburbs while you still can.”  Or, as Yevgeny at ClubOrlov says in the post I found chilling, partially for his language here:

…when the local industrial agriculture kicks the bucket and the food will stop being delivered to the cities, won’t the residents of backward little villages be the winners? You can imagine gangster raids into rural places, rifling through barns and fields, and forcing people to pay a tribute, as in feudal times…

Now, maybe Yevgeny was not writing for a broad audience. And this tone might be just right for peak-oil insiders, whether the analysis is sound or not. But for people who don’t know or care about peak oil, such talk will surely backfire. Too much scary talk won’t help us recruit people; instead, it will just scare them away.

If the only way you can talk about peak oil and climate is to try to scare people straight, then sometimes it may be better to say nothing at all.

Good message, good marketing

To reach a wider audience, I’d argue for a staged communication strategy, such as Bob Doppelt’s Five Stages of Change for Climate Protection and Sustainability. His approach aims to gradually move people who are new to the issue of global warming from disinterest to acceptance to commitment and finally to taking action.

Transition Training offers the same skillful approach to talking to your neighbors, friends and family about peak oil. As Helen La Trobe writes on Transition Network, first we must get past the challenge of caring so much about the issue that we lose our cool:

People who are passionate about issues that necessitate change in others (most green issues fall into this category) can sometimes lack an awareness of how they communicate their message. For many, green campaigners can appear fanatical, naive, uninformed, smug, judgmental, patronizing or offensive (very few embody all of these, but I have seen talks by one or two people who managed it). Communicating Transition without such an awareness can, ultimately, be self defeating.

Then, we need to know our audience and use the right approach given where they’re at.

It’s not because I underestimate the danger of peak oil and global warming that I am drawn to sanity in our communications. It’s exactly because I take industrial overshoot very seriously that I hope those of us who already get it will commit to preaching beyond the peak-oil and eco-choir.

We don’t have time to indulge in what political campaigners call principled loser-ism. We cannot afford to be too attached to doing things that don’t work, like trying to scare our neighbors straight. And we cannot be too squeamish to do things that do work like sharing our truth in stages or even recruiting appropriate celebrity spokespeople to help us do that.

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  1. says

    “Foss says that families should prepare now for deflation and Rubin says they should prepare now for inflation, one of them will be wrong”
    I think this is because Rubin’s definition of ‘inflation’ is simply ‘rising prices’. Foss’s definition would be an increase in the money supply in REAL terms (i.e. purchasing power). Foss visualises a collapse in the real money supply even whilst prices are rising – i.e you have a lot more currency but you can buy less with it. Therefore no contradiction, but confusing.
    I lurk on the edge of the TM – have done Transition Training, participate in some local Transition Initiative activities. Transitioners could become more sensitive as to what a self-selecting bunch of people they are. A world of vegan cafes may be heaven to them but would a truly apocalyptic vision to most others.
    As for communicating with the ‘mainsteam’, you have to be aware of how this process can actually change you, rather than vice versa. A TV advert for an organic farm in England has recently gone ‘viral’ on youtube – over 1 million views. Maybe this is your way forward?

  2. says

    The US is today consuming as much oil as : China, Japan, Germany, Russia, and India, –COMBINED– !!

    You might need “messages” and “marketing” , but the primary thing you need, is simply to increase your TOTALLY RIDICULOUS tax level on gas, full stop.

    And you need it quickly, and at a serious level, the rest is details.

    • says

      Isn’t that the truth. But boy, our poor US, absolutely no political will to bite the hard bullet. Wonder how, if, or whether its possible to change the tide there? Vexing question.

      And how about how we consumers need to conserve? Fat chance many Americans will do that. But we can try to move the needle, try.

      • Oz says

        Actually, I think that (thinking taxes are the problem) not only is not the truth, but it just demonstrates how woefully ignorant many are about both politics and economics and the implications of peak oil.

        Murray Bookchin, father of social ecology, way ahead of the curve on green issues (publishing ‘Our Synthetic Environment’ months before Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’), wrote:

        “The notion that man must dominate nature emerges directly from the domination of man by man… But it was not until organic community relation … dissolved into market relationships that the planet itself was reduced to a resource for exploitation. This centuries-long tendency finds its most exacerbating development in modern capitalism. Owing to its inherently competitive nature, bourgeois society not only pits humans against each other, it also pits the mass of humanity against the natural world. Just as men are converted into commodities, so every aspect of nature is converted into a commodity, a resource to be manufactured and merchandised wantonly. … The plundering of the human spirit by the market place is paralleled by the plundering of the earth by capital.”

        Modern government – most especially in the US – is wholly predicated upon violence and the threat of violence, i.e. domination of human by human, and consequently, of nature by humans. As G Washington put it:

        “How soon we forget history… Government is not reason. Government is not eloquence. It is force. And, like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

        Increased taxation invariably empowers exactly the institution which relies most on domination and violence to operate, which leads to domination of and violence against nature, which is the fundamental problem.

        Until we give up our “modern” (read: primitive) notions of central-government-as-provider which entail at their core domination through violence and the threat of violence of one set of persons by another set of persons (theoretically but not in fact “chosen” by the former set), ecocide will continue.

        Oil isn’t so cheap because it is not properly taxed – it is so cheap because the externalities associated with it are not born directly by the oil and gas companies (and passed along directly to the consumer). The US government uses taxpayers funds to heavily subsidize oil and gas companies, not just directly, but in all sorts of indirect ways (e.g. read up on mountaintop removal mining – who bears the health care and long term remediation costs for the surrounding communities?). Putting the same government which socializes these externalities onto taxpayers (via taxation) in the first place in charge of yet another mode of taxation to make oil expensive to offset those policies which make oil cheap is insanity. If you want to call for governmental action, call for a repeal of all subsidies, direct and indirect, which lead to cheap oil in the first place! Require oil companies to bear the externalities. The price to the oil companies and thence to the consumer would rise dramatically, and without empowering violent, venal and corporate-owned government, and without accruing obscene profits to companies extracting and selling fossil fuels.

        Suggestions to raise taxes thus represent, at best, short-cut thinking, and at worst magical thinking.

        Furthermore, the idea of raising taxes “at a serious level” is a fantasy – if you believe any American politician (let alone a majority of them) would raise gas taxes (let alone for all products whose manufacture depends on oil) to the point where it would make a dent, then I have some beachfront property in Phoenix I’d like to sell you. It’s magical thinking.

        And in fact, were American politicians to do so “at a serious level”, then the outcome would be precisely what many people fear when confronted with peak oil: immediate socioeconomic collapse. If we dislike 20% unemployment, how would we feel about 50%? How about 80%? A system designed explicitly for cheap inputs doesn’t just shrink when those inputs dramatically increase in cost – it breaks.

        Furthermore, if you did raise taxes that much, who would it hurt the most? Hint: it would not be the oligarchs, the wealthy elites.

        Consider also: the Europeans already tax the hell out of petrol, and their society is also totally unsustainable – albeit, marginally less so than America. But the analogy here is that we’d drive off a cliff at 30 mph instead of 50 mph.

        Sustainability means – by definition – only using resources at the rate at which they renew themselves. This means cutting our fossil fuel usage by 99.99%, not 30% or 40% or even 50%.

        Furthermore, to buy into the notion of raising taxes is to buy into the notion that there is a silver bullet that government can deploy to save us all from the consequences of our collective, trans-generational actions. There’s not. (See, magical thinking, above)

        Finally, as Einstein famously said “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.” The idea that raising taxes will solve the problem, or even make a significant difference, is a great example of trying to solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it.

        For all of these reasons and more, proposals to raise taxes on oil strike me as little more than blaming exercises cloaked as ‘solutions’.

  3. Hun Tun says

    How typical of a marketer to favor style over content.

    There’s no point in trying to reach a mass audience hypnotized by electronic hallucinations and the organized spectacle of the political-entertainment-media complex. They won’t notice what’s going on until it’s too late to do anything about it (i.e. when they can no longer comfortably hop in their SUVs and cruise on down to the mall for retail therapy).

    I know that doesn’t jive with your “the customer is always right!” focus-group oriented marketing philosophy, but I would argue that it’s precisely this approach that has played a large role in bringing about the situation we find ourselves in. Certainly the subordination of politics to marketing has made our political systems impotent in the face of the converging energy, economic, and ecological crises.

    What was that Einstein said about not being able to solve our problems with the same type of thinking that engendered them?

    So if the goal isn’t to dumb down an important message for a mass audience that’s just going to ignore it anyway, what should be our goal? I would suggest a more helpful model for understanding what our role should be can be found in Albert Jay Nock’s 1937 essay “Isiah’s Job”, a copy of which can be found here:

    I would suggest that Mr. Orlov’s whole point is not to “scare the neighbors”, but rather that he is speaking to the minority (the “remnant”) that is willing to seriously consider these issues. The fact that Orlov and his guest bloggers don’t want to hold hands and sing kumbaya while offering up praises to the god of Community as you Tranisitionites are wont to do does not mean they trying to scare people. It means they are being honest about what is coming and are relying on their real world experiences of a society which collapsed. As a result, I am far more apt to trust what Mr. Orlov and his compatriots have to say than I am to trust the words of somebody is more concerned with middle class suburbanites’ delicate sensibilities than the truth.

    You’ve cited John Michael Greer’s very sensible admonition that we should not be sucked into either the Scylla of “pre-millenial” apocalyptic thinking nor the Charybdis of “post-millenial” apocalyptic thinking. Given your proposed approach, I would like to direct you to a more recent piece written by Greer’s, called “No Time for Lullabys”:

    We don’t have time for some marketer to sing us a bunch of lullabies.

    • RamblinRose says

      Hun Tun, you seem passionate, driven, purposeful. But you don’t seem to have a monopoly on the truth, nor even a very strong claim to it, particularly given how illogical much of your comment is.

      Also, your contribution is so filled with assumptions (opinions of yours) that you take as equal to truth, that you can’t even see what this magazine is trying to accomplish. If this magazine is dumbed down, then Orlov is extra dumbed down.

      This site is easy to read, and isn’t that a welcome relief after peak oil article after peak oil article that seems to be 20 words shy of a book, and in desperate need of some editing, not to mention being so blinded by personal opinion that it leaves no room for comparison to other approaches and issues that might affect the understanding.

      Nothing about Erik Curren’s writing has to me seemed anything like dumbed down. Quite the opposite—they’re intelligent, provocative, and ready to take a new angle on things.

      Orlovians are fanatical, not only about collapse TONIGHT by 5pm, but about Orlov himself.

      If you’re so convinced that the whole world are idiots, and that anyone who tries to communicate with idiots are themselves idiots, then sure, be comfortable in your delusion that you alone “get it”, you alone “see through” it, you alone know who is worth it and who is not. Judge people like Curren, assume the worst in him (he’s just a tawdry marketer after all, never mind that this site appears to be all volunteer). But you, you, now you’re someone special, Hun Tun. Keep coming here to keep the rest of us on our toes on the only REAL TRUth, the real truth that you possess and are generous enough to bestow on us.

      The whole peak oil community is deeply grateful.

      • Oz says

        Hun Tun is certainly opinionated, but I don’t see evidence of the illogic you cite. That is, you seem to disagree with his *premises* – but his logical reasoning flowing from those premises looks pretty sound to me.

        In fact, if logical argument is where you wish to make a stand, then I would point you to the logical fallacy the author of this blog made in this section:

        “If we have given up on society, then we can build our own figurative Noah’s Ark and just prepare our own families for the Flood. In that case, we can write off the news media, we can write off using skillful communications techniques to reach the mainstream and we can write off our governments. Instead, we can just continue to give each other pep talks to boost our faith in a world of infidels, celebrating how misery loves company. And we can buy more canned food and ammunition.

        But I am not there yet. I am not yet ready to give up on my country or on the other nations of the world.”

        In fact, what Curren is doing here is presenting a false dilemma or false choice fallacy. He is leaving out an enormous range of options which fall between the extremes he presents. This is disingenuous in my view, because it serves to shut down the discussion, rather than encourage it.

        For example, for my part, I wrote off our federal government as a positive change agent ages ago, because I believe it is a huge part of the problem, and serves only to impede searches for solution, but I’m not off building Noah’s Ark, as Curren suggests. Instead, I think working with my community, virtual communities (like Greer’s Green Wizardry effort) local non-profits and other NGOs – and even with local governments at times – represents a more efficacious use of my time and energy.

        While passionate and opinionated, Hun Tun went to some lengths to point readers to additional ‘points to ponder’ which he thinks bear on the subject at hand – by Greer, and by AJ Nock, one of the most incisive, insightful and under-read writers of the last century. In that way, I see him as contributing to the discussion and at least trying to back up his argument.

        Your post, on the other hand, seems only intended to express YOUR opinions and assumptions without adding to the discussion – the exact same ‘crime’ of which you accuse Hun Tun.

        I’d suggest that all of us – including Hun Tun – have something valuable to say, even if some of us (and I am guilty of this myself) at times respond in less than skillful ways. I think most of us can identify with where Hun Tun is coming from, after all. The suggestion that most Americans are wallowing in denial and delusion and that this fact is unlikely to change given the inertia of this dynamic will surely not shock anyone in the peak oil movement. It’s easy to allow frustration to spill over under such circumstances. Happens to me all the time, and sometimes I manage it better than others.

        BTW, I must admit to curiosity as to whether you actually went and read the Nock and Greer pieces Hun Tun linked prior to responding. They are both worth reading, IMO.

  4. says

    As any politician knows, it’s important to have something positive to say — some positive outcome to get people behind. I would love to see more folks in the alternative energy and peak oil crowd embrace the phrases ‘independence’ and ‘freedom’. Striving for ‘energy independence’ or ‘freedom from energy imports’ are goals it is impossible to argue against given American cultural values.

    The more we can portray conservation and alternative energy as ‘independence’ or ‘freedom’ — from corporate owned utilities; from environmentally challenged international corporations; from undemocratic oil exporting nations — the more we can align the goals of reduced fossil fuel use with age-old American values that have gone temporarily out of favor. It’s time to put ‘independence’ along with ‘self-reliance’ and ‘hard work and thrift’ back in the American lexicon.

  5. says

    “If we have given up on society, then we can build our own figurative Noah’s Ark and just prepare our own families for the Flood. In that case, we can write off the news media, we can write off using skillful communications techniques to reach the mainstream and we can write off our governments.”

    I am intrigrued that views like this appear to be attached to the Transition Movement (TM). What first attracted me to TM was that it appeared to be 1. community based 2. voluntarist 3.decentralised. To anyone like me who thinks that these are good ideas the most important communication is with your family and neighbours in your community. The most important ingredients of the communication media are vocal chords, fresh air and a garden fence to lean on, plus maybe a local newspaper. The author seems to have given up on this. Neighbours are written off and the mainstream media given more importance. The author’s path will inevitably be one of trying to impose solutions on to his neighbours. The author’s idea of ‘society’ is something imposed ‘top-down’ rather than built ‘bottom-up’.

    Similarly I thought that whilst TM is not overtly antagonistic to government it expects government to fall in with TM – not the other way around (probably starting with local government). The sort of movement that behaves in the way that the author suggests would resemble a traditional political Green Party, not my idea of TM. Still, maybe that’s the way that TM has gone, since it now appears to be centralised on Totnes and have salaried workers.

    • Kate says

      That paragraph you quote was being offered as a hypothetical scenario which the author, in the next paragraph, states that he doesn’t agree with. He’s not suggesting TM should behave this way, in fact the opposite. I think you’ve missed the whole point of the article.

    • says

      Agreed, thanks MotherofGod.

      There’s room enough on here for everyone to voice their views, to hold divergent viewpoints, and to agree to disagree. But please, everyone, keep it civil. These are tough times; being kind, or at the least respectful and civil goes a long way to fostering understanding and just better communication, even where there are no clear right or wrong answers. Let’s build a decent forum for the vigorous exchange of ideas without the need to pile on or add personal attacks.

  6. Monk says

    A drop in oil production isn’t the only problem but also demand, esp. from China and many other countries. We usually forget the fact that most human beings need more oil than we imagine.

    Second, the question of giving up the U.S. is already a foregone conclusion. The country is deep in debt (almost $60 trillion) and it can never be paid. The only thing that the country can do is take on more debt and hope that the dollar will not fall apart, something that it has managed to do for forty years.

    And then there’s environmental damage, including very abnormal droughts and floods which are wreaking havoc on food systems, not to mention topsoil destruction and many other problems.

    Given that, I’d say that the “marketing” has been spot-on and has been initiated courtesy of Mother Nature. The question is, will human beings be smart enough to see these problems in relation to each other?

  7. Des Carne says

    Why not just permanently delete the following terms from our vocabulary – it will lead to far better communication:


    None of the above, which all have religious overtones, to my way of thinking, help create solutions to the practical or human problems of living now or in the future, however you want to describe it..

  8. Foster says

    When the right side of the Peak really hits agriculture, it does look as though the ability to feed billions of people will be gone forever.

    If two to four billion people die –across a twenty to thirty year time frame, that may not be an “apocalypse,” but it will very likely an unavoidable bad time for everyone. The math makes it look like WWII every year for 2 or 3 decades. Because of that realization, i made a little book, Dans Macabre ad hoc Petrocollapse
    here’s the pdf

    I do want to look on the bright side, but very few people are looking at all. Hence the book. It was my way of processing and coping.

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