Peak-ocalypse now: a cult of doom

the four horsemen of the apocalypse

Peak oil doomers are sending you a message via the dark Pony Express, aka The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Image: Rich Man via Flickr.

Change out those barrels of potable water, haul a few more cases of pork-n-beans down to the basement and make sure that Messrs Smith and Wesson are well oiled up. That’s right — it’s time again for the Peak Oil Apocalypse show, sponsored naturally, by Goldline International.

To hear many peak oil bloggers talk recently, you’d think that Western society was sure to collapse by Christmas.

Is “community” bogus?

Dmitry Orlov’s blog is always a good place to go for a scary peak-oil bed-time story. But yesterday’s post by Yevgeny is particularly chilling, as it deconstructs the idea of “community.”

It’s a cornerstone of the Transition movement that the post-peak future will be better if we work with our neighbors. If our cities and towns build more community gardens, open more local businesses and create more walkable development, we’ll have a better chance to thrive in a future where energy is much more expensive.

Rejecting the idea of community as wishful thinking is a direct assault on the optimism of people who accept peak oil but still think the future won’t be either Mad Max or Waterworld.

The Stoneleigh Effect

Then, Nicole Foss, who blogs under the name Stoneleigh, recently did an international tour, including an appearance at October’s ASPO-USA conference in Washington, DC, to warn that credit will dry up and the world economy will soon suffer deflation even worse than in the Depression.

The folks at Transition Norwich in the UK, who appear to be generally optimistic re-localizers, were so impressed with Foss’s warnings that they coined a term, “The Stoneleigh Effect,” to describe the shock and awe typically experienced by the audience after one of her talks.

Doom, then boom

Finally, fellow ASPO-USA speaker and sometime Foss antagonist Jeff Rubin, economist and author of Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization, has recently been predicting $225 per barrel oil in 2012.

Rubin, who says he “believes in the power of prices” to help the ailing economy to eventually heal itself, certainly does see a lighter shade of dark clouds on the horizon than Foss or Orlov and friends. Nonetheless, $225 oil would mean the virtual end of affordable consumer goods, which could just scare a few folks here or there.

Potluck at the Temple of Doom

Whether you think warnings of quick and sure collapse are timely wake-up calls for a complacent and confused society or just plain crying wolf, it’s easy to see how economic doomerism could itself doom the peak oil community and the Transition movement to the status of a minor apocalyptic cult.

The mainstream media has already shown that it likes to paint peak oil into the doomer corner. Imagine there’s no oil: scenes from a liberal apocalypse by Brian Urstadt in the August 2006 issue of Harper’s magazine is a particularly good example, but there are many others done more recently.

Perhaps media outlets are just looking for ways to make peak oil activists look silly so that they can ignore what we have to say. But do we need to make it quite so easy for them to dismiss us?

Even if we can get around the media through our many blogs and online word-of-mouth, scaring the crap out of families struggling to pay the mortgage is not the best way to recruit them to a movement focused on positive responses. Instead, to reach a broader audience, as Sharon Astyk has put it, we need to tell stories that appeal to and resonate with a wider public.

Seduced by myth

We might also examine our own motivations here. Is it possible that many peak oil activists find scary stories just a little bit too entertaining?

As John Michael Greer warns us in his 2008 book  The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age, predicting collapse may be no more rational than seeing a bright future of unlimited progress:

Both these myths have deep roots in the collective imagination of the modern world, and very few people nowadays seem to be able to think about the future at all without following one narrative or the other. It would be hard to find any two narratives less appropriate, though, for the future we are actually likely to encounter. Both of them rely on assumptions about the world that don’t stand up to any sort of critical examination.

Don’t blame the mainstream

It may be frustrating to energy and climate activists that the public seems so slow at getting it, still wavering between poles of complacency on the one hand and fear on the other.

But it’s not the public’s fault that they don’t get a subject as hard to accept as peak oil. It’s ours. And those of us who claim to know better about energy and climate also have a responsibility to avoid falling back on the same  tired old stories, particularly tales of doom.

As Rob Hopkins puts it, “so much peak oil and other environmental literature is doom-laden and information heavy, and most peoples’ reaction is to switch off. How can we design descent pathways which make people feel alive, positive and included in this process of societal transformation?”

His answer: help your city or town develop an Energy Descent Plan, and prepare for the new world with open eyes and good cheer.

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  1. Llewellyn James says

    I do like optimism but when it borders on the insane it’s a completely different matter. When Transition proponents who think that everybody will just transit and will live happily ever after living in harmony with their surroundings (when oil starts to decline), makes me wonder who has actually invented a cult.
    I suggest people before criticizing other’s look at their own shortcomings in their beliefs.

  2. Hun Tun says

    I must say I completely failed to find Yevgeny’s post “chilling”. I’m not exactly sure what your point was in bringing it up, or the other post from Orlov’s blog.

    I think probably the most likely candidate on the peak oil scene for turning into a cult of any kind is Transition. Time and time again I have seen Transitionites attack anyone who challenges an extremely rigid definition of “Community”, a concept so sacred nobody is allowed to do anything other than praise it. This post is a perfect example of this kind of zealotry.

    Reading anything that comes out of the transition movement feels like being beaten to death by marshmallows. I think I will stick with Mr. Orlov’s “bed time stories”, which are based in the actual experience of individuals and communities rather than some artificial and rarefied concept of “Community” which is paraded around like a sacred cow.

  3. Todd says

    Ah, synchronicity! I was just thinking that your article is complete cussing nonsense, and Orlov has chimed in with exactly that on his site: “I am happy to be able to assure you that this is all complete nonsense.”

  4. says

    Erik you really ought to think before you write this crap. Or get a better editor.
    The title is misspelled; Foss is a pro-community solution supporter of Transition Movements; unlike cheerleader economists, most peak oil experts and financial reporters are finally recognizing the role of the declining economy in Transition; economic Depressions do happen; Orlov is accurately describing Russian community responses and highlighting American lack thereof; and even Rob Hopkins tells you the bad news first. Did you even read your article hyperlinks?

    I suppose you are going to align yourself next with climate deniers to avoid appearing apocalyptic on the environment?

    You’ve had only 3 e-zine issues so far. You are going to have to decide: Are you really going to be a “voice” for the Transition movement ; or are you going to dumb down its message with anti-intellectualism, abandon Transition values like inclusivity, and attack potential allies just to attract personal attention from the mainstream media?

    We’ve had enough political divisiveness and strawman argumentativeness. That’s what the mainstream media likes. Don’t go there.

    • says

      Helen, is there a right way to spell a made-up word? Anyway, I’ve changed the title so it sounds more like “apocalypse.”

      I like your rhetorical question about climate deniers, but I think you can’t have read any of my writings on climate change in Transition Voice, or else you’d know that I stand clearly with science and against so-called skeptics. I take a lot of heat for that sometimes, but I don’t mind.

      I also stand by my criticism of doom talk on either issue. Start with global warming, which is actually losing ground in public opinion due to a failed communications strategy that relies too much on trying to scare society straight. Melting ice caps, NYC under water, disease pandemics and other scare images of climate change haven’t won over the public. No, they’ve just turned people off. That’s why we had no climate bill this year in the US. And after the failure of Copenhagen, there’s no solution on the horizon for the whole world either.

      I don’t want to see peak oil go the same way.

      I admire Dmitri Orlov, Nicole Foss and Jeff Rubin. We enjoyed publishing your piece on Foss this month and we’re looking forward to putting out others on her and Rubin in December. I think all of our Peak Oil Cassandras have done a lot of powerful awareness-raising inside our small but strong community. In my piece, I brought up some friendly questions about the impact of dire warnings on a larger public. This was a way to start discussion in the peak oil community about how we go beyond preaching to the choir to reach people who are watching Jon Stewart instead of reading the Oil Drum. I’d like to believe that this lively discussion has some value to us all, whether we have degrees in economics or not.

      I think those of us who know better can sound the warning in a reasonable way, but then focus more on solutions.

      Can we take the US deficit-cutting movement as a model? They’ve taken a scary problem and, through skillful communications, they’ve helped a wide swath of the public to care about cutting the federal budget even in the middle of the Great Recession. That’s the kind of success we need.

      • says

        It is possible to be witty and light without dragging others down in attempts to make their contributions to Transition seem less important than ours. I understand that we want to look like we are having fun going into Transition so that we won’t scare off people. But what we think is fun frankly isn’t sufficient to attract average folks from what they already are having fun doing, like watching their favorite TV shows instead of for instance attending a Transition Town group.

        They need a motive to switch over to our version of fun. Experts like Foss and Orlov, who have provided what Hopkins calls the “head” [knowledge base] of Transition are providing that motivation so why not let them work with you on that. Blaming the “head” part of the Transition movement as being too negative for pointing out the dangers is a trap that leads to complacency in the “heart” and would affect the the “hands” part of Transition.

        As for broader appeals: the mainstream media is naturally threatened by a switch from mindless consumerism to environmental community activism. They *always* will pooh-pooh the experts. Climate deniers are just one manifestation of this phenomena. Gloom and doom ridiculing of peak oil and economic concerns is another. Instead of helping the media to marginalize movement experts as doom and gloom party poopers, let’s show them the respect they deserve while we all enjoy building our community Transition solutions.

        • says

          Helen, thanks for sharing your perspective. I think I adequately expressed my admiration for the folks concerned in my previous comment, so I’m going to let it stand. Transition is all about having frank and open discussions about difficult issues, so I hope we have both added some light to the room.

      • says

        To paraphrase Yoda, I actually don’t think people are scared enough. Or maybe rather, not scared of the right thing. New York underwater or melting ice caps are abstract disasters, especially if you don’t live in New York. Very much more expensive food, water rationing, mandatory car pooling and such reality-based examples are much more likely in my view to hit home to people. But (and this is a very big but), you also have to show an alternative. And that is almost completely lacking (at least in any media most people come into contact with). This may be because talking about such alternatives are per definition a critique of present day western style society, and the movers and shakers in today’s society don’t want that. Which is a problem.

        But I also very much believe that you *will not* make people change by just being positive and not pointing out that this course leads to disaster. Because if this course does not lead to disaster, why change? I’m perfectly comfortable right now, thank you. If this is working, I’ll stick to it.

        • says

          At the same time there are myriad studies showing what is successful in communication, and what is not. Scaring the crap outta folks is great fun, but does it get results? For some who are ready for those results, perhaps so. But they’re in the minority. If scaring folks with impending doom were a successful narrative, right now we’d all be celebrating the mass conversion of the world over to the triple threat predicaments of peak oil, climate change, and economic crisis. What is the reality? We’re not celebrating that mass conversion.


          I would argue that it’s because it’s not working. Now there may be a great many reasons why it’s not working, but part of it is form.

          Also, I’m a big fan of logic. Arguing that doom scenarios have their limits is not the same as arguing that the only alternative to doom scenarios is being perennially positive.

          The answer, as is so often the case, is somewhere in between.

  5. SUnger says

    John Michael Greer has much to offer. However, he has looked at past collapse situations and come to the conclusion that a modern collapse will occur over long periods- even centuries.

    He may be correct or possibly not. However, we are now in a situation which is unprecedented in human history. We are dealing with a world where massive capital flows on the order of trillions of dollars ricochet around the planet at the speed of light. Compare this to the collapse of the Roman empire where it would take weeks/months to transmit information or money from one part of the empire to the next.

    *90% of American society & infrastructure has been built since WW2. And it absolutely ceases to operate without cheaply fueled personal automobiles. As we are at peak oil, future oil will soon go to maintaining and repairing the present infrastructure and little/none will be left for major alternative energy transitions, rebuilding railroads, relocalizing our major urban centers, etc. We have waited too long to begin such transitions and will soon be locked in a vortex of rapid devolution of this society.

    *The intricate complexity of all of our systems is a major point of vulnerability. When in history has it been possible for a teenage computer hacker in China to shut down basic infrastructure in the US or Europe? When in history has it been possible for financial speculators in NYC to collapse governments in Europe? When in history has it been possible for two politicians ie Obama & Medvedev to sit in their little offices and press a button which could destroy not only most human civilization but possibly wipe-out the Earth’s biosphere- certainly not the Roman, Mayan, or Chinese civilizations. Let’s not forget that the automobiles that we take for granted are possible only through a long complex supply chain of mechanical parts, electrical parts, rubber, plastic, synthetic materials and, of course, lots and lots of cheap fuel to make it all go.

    *We have witnesses massive exploitation of planetary resources as we climb the exponential curve. Many of these resources are scraping the bottom of the barrel and are only presently recoverable because energy (primarily oil as the most adaptable) remains cheap at the moment. Oil is the master resource and allows extended recovery of most other resources even as the last deposits thin out. As oil prices begin their climb/ and or shortages develop, heavily exploited mineral and other energy deposits become quickly uneconomic.

    * And, without cheap oil, even many of the newer oil finds will be unrecoverable- in other words the cheap oil of superfields Ghawar and Cantarell have allowed such boondoggles as ultra-deep oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, Canadian tar sands, subsidized ethanol & biodiesel to proceed. So many oil deposits that are now listed as “proven reserves” will never be recovered as the big superfields of the 1950s and 60s fall into year-after-year depletion.

    *As for Stoneleigh, I feel she is doing a valuable service. She is performing shock therapy to a complacent civilization which could help many people escape being wiped out in the coming destruction of the world’s most massive, hypercharged, computerized, mass of interlocking debts that has ever existed in human civilization. And she realizes that that the American-centric bubble-ized mindset of the average American/Canadian must be given a reality shock in order to face this likely reality. After all, Westerners have had access to the greatest learning machine every built- the Internet for nearly 20 years and still 90% of of Americans have never even heard of peak oil or understand about financial bubbles. And she feels that time is growing short on these issues and wants to save as many people as possible. Kudos to her.

  6. zeke says

    Twice in my life, my refusal to accept an impending reality smacked me up along side the head in a very uncomfortable way. My “optimism” almost destroyed me. So I learned, long ago, to keep my mind open to “potentials” and have a backup plan just in case. Consequently, I have a great deal of difficulty with the “it’ll all work out” people. And, naturally, they have a lot of difficulty with me. But finding yourself on the road, all belongings in the back of a pickup, no job and two kids is an enlightening experience. Tempers your optimism so to speak.

    However, I learned, the hard way, to not rely on solutions that weren’t in hand. If it’s not here, right now, it’s not real. Otherwise I am little better than the “god will solve it folks”. In my small corner of the world, it’s called wishful thinking. Don’t get me wrong, I hope the wishful thinkers are right and some solution will appear. I just don’t put my life on the line for it.

  7. says

    Erik’s piece today, Do Shoot The Messenger, takes this conversation further:

    It’s helpful to keep in mind the subtleties in Erik’s message above, and in the column I just linked to. It’s not that scary talk isn’t engaging, nor skepticism unworthy. The question is whether this is working beyond a group of self selected folks? It’s great if you’re aware, and you’re prepared, but if your neighbor isn’t, because they’re not attracted to your brand of doomerism, that may not be helpful when that shit hits the fan. And by then it’s too late.

    We should also be mindful of our personal lenses (what we prefer, what we’re attracted to, how we see things, what we have to protect or defend) to avoid either equating thoughtful exploration and legitimate criticisms with attacks maliciously designed to alienate; or to conclude that what we don’t like to hear represents the triumph of stupidity over self-assigned apriori intellectualism.

  8. MotherOfGod says

    Erik Curren writes:

    “The mainstream media has already shown that it likes to paint peak oil into the doomer corner. Imagine there’s no oil: scenes from a liberal apocalypse by Brian Urstadt in the August 2006 issue of Harper’s magazine is a particularly good example, but there are many others done more recently.

    Perhaps media outlets are just looking for ways to make peak oil activists look silly so that they can ignore what we have to say. But do we need to make it quite so easy for them to dismiss us?”

    Translation: If I only I could love XXX enough/ wear the right clothes/ smell better, XXX would stop abusing me.

    • says

      How can we be so beaten down when we haven’t even really tried to get into the mainstream media? Sounds like putting up the white flag before the first shot is fired.

        • says

          That’s how other causes succeeded — from Civil Rights, to clean air and water laws, to consumer protection. We’ve got a solid core of activists now for peak oil. Now, we need to recruit more allies in the larger public to help communities take action locally and help citizens demand good energy policy from Washington. And we’ll need the media to help reach an audience big enough to make those things happen.

          • says

            “…the mass media in the United States is nothing but the public relations wing of the corporatocracy, primarily the military industrial complex.” – Orlov

            It does not care about citizens’ demands.

          • says

            I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with Dmitri. From 20 years experience with the news media and in communications, it’s more complicated than that. Most reporters don’t do journalism for the money. Instead, they really care about issues. Now, maybe their corporate-owned papers and stations won’t let them do all the stories they’d want or take the angle they might like always, but plenty of good counter-cultural stories do make it into the press. Ralph Nader, one of the world’s great anti-corporate activists has successfully used the corporate-run media against corporate control of society for 40 years. If it’s good enough for Nader, it should be good enough for us.

          • gus says

            Hi, All,
            Just came here by semi-chance; thanks for creating this place, Erik.

            Actually, we might have a better shot at reaching and getting coverage from the local, small-scale media, whether it’s “mainstream” or not. Such sources almost always seek extra letters, columns (esp. if unpaid) and unique things to cover, provided they’re LOCAL and don’t come off as paranoid. (Of course, that’s becoming harder to find as the smaller outlets get bought by the big chains, but they do still exist in some places.)

            Likewise, smaller papers often have more flexibility in what they can cover, although not nearly as many resources to do it with. Don’t expect them to go to an ASPO conference, etc., but they have just as much Web access as the big boys, and, with some luck, you might find a reporter who has actually been there a while. Not often, unfortunately. Because the pay sucks, these jobs are often used as stepping stones by college grads hoping to go to one of the big cities — often without realizing those big media outlets are laying people off in droves. .

            I say that as one of those smaller-paper reporters; I’ve been here five years and am starting a farm on the edge of town. Since I’m not planning on leaving anytime soon (the big media rat-race has never interested me), I have more time to give to issues I care about, and this is one of them, but I still have to write a lot of crap I don’t care about.

            Like Orlov, I can’t stand the corporate MSM; they are corrupt, esp. TV. Today’s MSM wouldn’t give Nader the time of day if he didn’t already have name-recognition. Although there are sometimes chinks through which a message of real change can get through their armor, that chink almost always closes very quickly, mostly because of the profit motive basis: Real facts require research, and most reporters aren’t allowed the time to do it. So they end up drafting the fastest piece they can, which often means one of the following: bloodshed, arrests, angry controversy (usually simplistic), something adding tiny irrelevancies to an already-dead issue without real analysis, or total fluff. That’s esp. true of alternative politics, real economics (as opposed to the corporate claptrap) or anything science-based.

            Case in point was last year’s gubernatorial election here in MA: Although we had a Green running, even the quasi-liberal Boston Globe barely touched her. One debate story gave her a paragraph near the end, then spent the last several paragraphs talking about the Dem and Rep candidates’ visits to a local diner.

            Anyway, thanks for reading; hope that was helpful…

          • says


            It’s good to see you here. I appreciate your perspective as a writer at a smaller paper. We’ve worked well with the reporters in our town of 25,000 and have found that they’ve done some good pieces on our work with Transition Voice and the activities of our local Transition group. Sometimes their stories even get picked up by the AP or their parent syndicate (in this case, Gannett). I’d like to see ASPO-USA or someone do a national letter-to-the-editor campaign on peak oil as you suggest.


  9. ClimateTruthout says

    I am utterly amazed at the unmitigated pile of nonsense emanating from the contributors on this thread. The posters so bent on defending club doom seem to have the reading comprehension of middle schoolers, at best.

    Loughrey, what gives? You accuse others of strawmen and then look at your posts. It’s one strawman after another.

    I see this piece today as provocative, raising serious questions about how successful the message of global warming and peak oil is in the world. From that, Loughrey, you draw conclusions that are no where in the piece, schooling others on what they better do to get in line. Watch out, you seem to be saying, “here come da judge!” Check out your strawman: “You are going to have to decide: Are you really going to be a ‘voice’ for the Transition movement ; or are you going to dumb down its message with anti-intellectualism, abandon Transition values like inclusivity, and attack potential allies just to attract personal attention from the mainstream media?” Take a look in the mirror. What, have you got some omniscient straight line to the objective truth? There’s only two choices and they come from your viewpoint, or else? Give me a break. To use your phrase, “You write this crap?”

    As for the dumbing down allegations—what? This is one of the most accessible, intelligent sites on these issues on the Net. There is some amazing reporting on here, some great essays, its got a great look and feel, and it asks the questions that almost no one else is asking about the various movements. What a fresh addition it has been as a counterpoint to what already exists out there. That is wrong, how? Because transitioners (sic) are supposed to just worship at the altar of figureheads and not question them? On one hand I see you tearing down this site and its writers and editors, telling them not to tear anyone down, and then lauding folks like Stoneleigh and Orlov who spend a good portion of their time…wait for it…tearing things, people, leaders, ideas, approaches, methods DOWN! (And nothing could have surprised me more than to see that and then see Erik reply that they actually published something by you. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. I don’t see you published anywhere else. Didn’t your off-target whines belong in e-mail as a staff issue?)

    And where did the nonsense about being in the mainstream media arise? This site is accessible, yeah, and that’s great. But mainstream? You’d have to be an idiot who hasn’t gotten out in years to call this mainstream. When I want to read 10 point font rambling essays that last 28 minutes I go to Oil Drum. But my God, how many of these can I read before I just want a quickie?

    Jeeze, rant over.

    On to the topic. I liked this piece. It made me think that all the ragging I do, loudly I might add, in order to scare the bejeezus outta people and get them to take notice, which, now that I think about it, has made me fairly unpopular at parties and among family, might not be the best approach. This post actually made me think I should rethink how to tell the climate story. I still love Orlov. I still love Stoneleigh (and I sure don’t find them as victimized by this as some of you do, nor as big of experts—Stoneliegh is a biologist turned enrgy worker who writes on econ, Orlov is an engineer who writes on econ; does this make them experts?). But I’m still thinking I might rethink my tactics. Is that so bad?

    • says

      Wow, this column has stirred a lot of controversy. I will say though, in part from my 6 years as a discussion moderator at, it’s possible to disagree and yet do so with a civil tone. So while I encourage debate, I hope it can be done without the personal attacks, without the unfounded assumptions, and with a little benefit of the doubt that we’re all in this together. That doesn’t mean that more public figures won’t be the subject of some scrutiny, but it’s one thing to call that into question, and another to accuse one another of writing “crap” or worse on the discussion thread. So if everyone could dial it down, that might help foster understanding rather than enmity.

  10. says

    A response from Orlov

    [Update: Looks like we ruffled some feathers in the Transition Towns neck of the woods. Here I am doing my best to bring to you stories of real survival by real Russians (so you don’t have to limp along with your hackneyed Mad Max/Waterworld clichés), and for that I am painted as being part of an “apocalyptic cult” that rejects the sacred idea of “komyooniti!” This, they say, is a “direct assault on the optimism of people who accept peak oil!” I am happy to be able to assure you that this is all complete nonsense. Jean, who attended my talk in Lincoln, MA last week, wrote this: “I found you very reassuring in your reminding me that despite all the upcoming disaster life will go on; perhaps not as we would like but then perhaps not so bad either. Somehow I had lost track of that. It may not be the life we’re familiar with but then it might be a better life too.”]

    But what is “Community”?

    SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 21, 2010

    • says


      Thanks so much for writing your essay. It’s great to see thoughtful, well written responses that truly address the substance of an issue. Throughout history in any given movement the way that movement has grown, changed, been infused with new energy and ideas is, in a sense, because of the clashing of ideas, the discussion of viewpoints. At it’s best this is respectful, such as your response. But hey, there are clashes in history too, with confrontations between intellectuals about what things really mean, imply, suggest. Or how something should be rethought, re-examined, reconsidered. What an exciting opportunity to discuss, explore, share, prod, develop. Thanks so much for contributing to that process! Best, Lindsay

  11. Digitmaster says

    The only true motivator of human behavior is pain… When it hurts enough people will change the way they do things.

  12. says

    I like this blog!

    I like this post!

    LLewellyn James, Hun Tun, and Todd demonstrate the doomer sneering that I anticipated this post would collect. Well done guys! No facts or statistics, just sarcastic sneering. You’ve just demonstrated exactly what Erik is discussing: how doomers retard this message getting out there.

    Helen Loughrey is to be commended for actually voicing some critiques that can be investigated. Yet I would avoid elevating Orlov to “Saint Orlov the prophet of the Holy Order of Collapse” as this results in too simplistically comparing the collapse of the USSR with the current situation in the USA today. It dumbs down the situation. Yes there is debt. Yes there is dangerous dependency on oil. Yes, Depressions do happen!
But so do miracles! Electric cars, fast-rail, New Urbanism and Nuclear power could have America off the majority of it’s oil in 20 to 30 years.

    Electric cars
    China is about to mass-produce a cheap electric car with a mere 80km hour top speed (more efficient / km) and 160km range. The price? Only $10 grand!

    Better Place are demonstrating their more expensive, more powerful EV’s that have battery-swap technology for instant ‘refill’. It’s coming to Israel, Denmark, Canberra, and San-Francisco. Whatever the model, whether small cheap batteries or battery swaps or even quick charge supercaps that some companies are working on, EV’s are coming.
And what will they run on? Nuclear power. There’s enough uranium to run today’s Gen3 reactors for generations yet.

    And long before we reach ‘peak uranium‘ we’ll have GenIV reactors. We already have 300 years experience with ‘breeder‘ reactors. The physics is known. The plans are drawn up for GenIV, and it is almost ready to be deployed in commercial test phases.

    GenIV Integral Fast Reactors are nearly ready to roll off the production line. These babies EAT nuclear waste and warheads. They could run the world for 500 years — yes, 5 centuries — just on the nuclear waste and warheads we already have sitting around in storage! FORGET YUKKA MOUNTAIN! Why would you bury material which could run the world’s energy needs for 500 years and is ultimately worth about $30 trillion dollars as a result! Yukka is madness!

    So energy decline? No. I think we need to think in terms of an energy bottleneck. We’ll have a decade or so of rationing as we prioritise the remaining oil to important industries. “Big government” will probably create emergency employment programs building out Fast Rail and New Urbanism and everything else we’ll need to get through this. Just as they did during the Great Depression with America’s best idea, the National Parks system. Just as they did for the Hoover dam.

    And as America finally legislates that all new family-cars must be 100% electric, you’ll start to recover some of that $600 billion you lose overseas each year importing oil! I can think of a few uses for that money in your country! My own country of Australia is starting to lose more and more money in buying imported oil. When will we learn?

    There are simply SO many alternatives to oil and even using oil in the first place that I’m sure we can get through this. Doomerism is a cult. It’s unthinking cowtowing to those ‘leaders’ that write a convincing paper — from a certain limited point of view. Many of these people are smarter than I am. But that doesn’t matter. Because I — yes even I — can see whole genres of solution that they omit discussing. Because they don’t want to. And that just smacks of dishonesty!

  13. Monk says

    In reality, much of the world has been “Mad Max” for decades. Only a fraction of the world’s population belong to the middle class. Most human beings lack one or more basic needs and earn only around two dollars a day.

    In addition, significant amounts of resources (if not most) has been consumed by the same middle class. Now, a growing number of the poor are receiving more credit and are becoming part of the same. That is why demand for oil from developing nations is rising considerably, and these nations have much larger populations.

    Finally, we need to include the other points given by other comment writers.

  14. Alex says

    I just stumbled across this website (and the whole peak oil/”transition” discussion). I’ll give you my non-believer, outsider’s opinion (which I’m sure will be resoundingly shot down by all the True Believers who read my post):

    1. I’m inherently skeptical of anyone making a doomsday/apocalypse/end of “the world as you know it” claim. I mean, history is filled with doomsday prophecies (be they religiously, politically, economically, or pseudo-scientifically motivated). Every single one of them has been wrong, from Y2K to killer bees to 2012, and yes, even earlier generations of the peak oil crowd (they’ve been swearing that oil will dry up “less than 20 years from now” for darn near a century). Sorry guys, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for this particular sky to fall.

    2. I do realize that petroleum is a finite resource. At some point in the future, global petroleum production will peak and begin to steadily decline. I get it. But an overnight collapse of society is far from a sure bet. A panic-driven view of this seems to stem from an inadequate understanding of basic market forces of supply and demand. Oil won’t go from $80 to $250 overnight. There will be spikes up and down to be sure, but the general trend of oil prices in the long-term will be a steady, manageable increase over time, not an overnight jump. Oil is one of the most closely monitored natural resources on the planet; I’m highly skeptical that every oil producer, national government, petroleum-related investment firm, and oil processing or consuming company in the world will be caught by surprise one morning and say “Whoops, its all gone… why didn’t we pay closer attention to monitoring oil production and reserves? Shucks.”

    Over the long term, the supply of oil around the world will eventually decline, and prices will correspondingly increase. Simultaneously, the cost of alternative forms of energy will become increasingly more cost effective as research and technology progresses in those fields. At some point, the rising price of petroleum-based energy will intersect with the falling price of alternative energy and from that point forward, individuals, communities, nations and the world as a whole will steadily shift away from petroleum.

    Just my two cents. Of course, such optimism and anti-Chicken Little approaches don’t sell many books, fill many lecture halls, or make for particularly interesting blogs =\ Let the True Believer rebuttals begin…

    • says

      Alex — Good to see you at Transition Voice and thanks for your thoughtful comment. The peak oil movement needs a reality check sometimes and your points are the ones we need to consider.

      I tend to agree with you that oil depletion will affect society gradually, but on the other side, the novelist Douglas Coupland imagines a very convincing scenario for a sudden oil shock. See our review: “Cocktails at the oil crash.”

      I also think the key concept in peak oil is not when the oil runs out, but when the world hits the half way point. After that, lots of people will still use oil, though higher costs will destroy demand over time, starting with the poor. And as demand is destroyed, it will start to really hurt the economy and change the way we do business in many ways.

      Finally, you’re right, there’ve been lots of predictions about oil depletion in the past that haven’t come true. But the laws of physics say that they’ll come true sometime. And now may finally be that time, at least if you believe the International Energy Agency, which released a report last fall saying that conventional oil had peaked in 2006. We did a piece on it also: “It’s official: Peak oil came in 2006.”

      Anyway, thanks again for your thoughts and we hope to see you back at Transition Voice soon.


  15. Bloomer says

    While the majority lives in peak oil denial, I been loading up on oil stocks. Making some short term profits before once again we go back into a oil shortage induced recession. Wash, rinse, repeat.

    • says

      If you’re lucky enough to have something to invest, I think the really smart money is on preparing for peak oil. The people at Energy and Capital seem quite strong on this.

      • Bloomer says

        Another way to prepare for the oil crisis, trade in your gas guzzler for a fuel efficent car. Obama’s cash for clunker program recieved way to much criticism in my view. Reducing Americas’s oil dependency by encouraging and subsidizing the masses to reduce oil consumption is the first step in coping with future oil supply disruptions.

  16. says

    ‘Doom’ – if I talk to people who like burning up petrol in their cars about peak-oil then they label me a ‘doomer’. This is because ‘they will fix it’. (Who is ‘they’? How will they ‘fix it’?) And so it doesn’t really bother me that Transitioners also label me also as a ‘doomer’, because it seems to me that their vision of the future is a happy-clappy business-as-usual-with-wind-turbines. They are in denial about any other possibility.
    As a result the followers of transition initiatives have tended to be rather affluent middle-class greenies who are convinced that the problems of the world (the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change) are caused by those uncouth, uneducated chappies that they would rarher not have at transition meetings. It’s not surprising, therefore, that when they bump into Stoneleigh who intoduces Economics and claims that THIS is the system that will collapse first, bringing down pension funds and savings accounts, that these Transitioners choke on their muesli. This is NOT what they were promised!
    As for ‘community’ – who can argue against the idea? But show me one place anywhere in the world where everyone, including the petrolheads, are united on environmental issues as a community. The initiators of the transition movement dodged this by retreating into middle-class green ghettos (in the U.K. Totnes, Stroud, Lewes, Brixton come to mind). These ‘initiatives’ are not community movements, they are clubs of like-minded people. Even in the grandest ghetto of them all – Totnes – they drew back from claiming that their Energy Descent Plan belonged to the community. This is because it blatantly DOESN’T belong to the community. They had to present it as an ‘offering’ or ‘invitation’ to the community. Transitioners in Totnes are worried because they attract visitors who (4 years after the creation of the ‘Transition Town’) see nothing different about it at all. This is because it isn’t that much different – have a look at the crowded supermarket car-park!
    I can accept Transitioners to a certain extent as ‘fellow-travellers’, maybe their hearts are in the right place. I will certainly take in any knowledge or wisdom they might have. Just don’t give me everything else (including personality cults) that comes with it!

  17. says

    We’re also looking at that doom to boom scale. On the one hand people who are just a little too obsessed with looming disaster, and on the other, those who think we’re all going to be riding a sunny wave into a solar and wind future of green utopia. Neither option helps with what is needed most—conservation. And both options make it all to convenient to come to pat conclusions that don’t serve a broader and deeper look at complex issues.

  18. says

    “Who is they?”
    $10 thousand dollar electric cars

    The global initiative of Better Place

    The New Urbanists

    GenIV nuclear power that could run the world for 500 years on nuclear ‘waste’ and warheads.


    These solutions exist in technological form. Some are still being commercialised (like GenIV reactors that we have 300 reactor years of experience with but are just working the kinks out in commercialisation).

    But I’m convinced that EVEN with a Greater Depression from peak oil, which is probably inevitable, the other side can be cleaner, greener, energy secure and just downright beautiful! Imagine oil wars being inconceivable because no one wants to go back to such a dirty and downright expensive energy source! Imagine the Asian brown cloud GONE, and asthma and other breathing difficulties cured, because we no longer burn coal or oil or gas. Gen4 nukes offer all this. They are coming.

  19. says

    This is a difficult situation we are in and there is likely no way to get more than 5% or 10% of the population aware of how critical the issues we face are before they blow up on us.

    I will be speaking to a transition group this week and when I do that I always make my job to brings some in-depth analysis of what we face to the conversation. What follows is not a criticism, just an observation. In my view, most Transitioners do not understand the interlinking dependencies we have set up and thus do not understand how events are likely to play out.

    For instance, if asked, most Transitioners will say that the production of oil 10 years after the peak will be the same rate as 10 years before the peak. However, that is not likely to be true as the recently leaked German military report points out. Economies work well within a narrow band. Once they move outside of that band they tend to contract precipitously. This robs every sector, including the energy sector, of needed capital to continue drilling. Thus we are headed for a shark-fin curve in which oil production on the downslope decreases much faster than it increased on the upslope, in other words, the so-called “shark fin” production curve. You can see it in my ASPO talk here:

    In almost every area I can point to most Transitioners’ view of the decline is very early in the process of understanding. Foss, Orlov and dare I say it, myself, endeavor to fill in the picture more because without an accurate view of what’s coming we will make insufficient preparations.

    P.S. As for electric cars and such, they need a functioning economy to enter the market. The technology will exist but very few people will get the opportunity to own it. Electric motorcycles and scooters are another matter.

  20. says

    Hi Andre,

    Once they move outside of that band they tend to contract precipitously. This robs every sector, including the energy sector, of needed capital to continue drilling.

    You have this exactly the wrong way around. Many sectors of the economy will be hit hard and fast, but OIL? As oil hits $200 a barrel are you really trying to suggest that there won’t be an incentive to ‘Drill baby drill’?

    P.S. As for electric cars and such, they need a functioning economy to enter the market. The technology will exist but very few people will get the opportunity to own it. Electric motorcycles and scooters are another matter.

    This is an assertion without any proof. IF governments pass the right legislation, or IF the marketplace sees what is coming and overnight does a WW2 retooling of their industry to produce only cheap electric cars (as the China link above shows is possible), then what is the problem?

    (Other than the fact that I like New Urbanism, not cars!)

    The car fleet changes every 16 years or so? That’s 6.25% per year.

    What is the expected decline rate of petroleum / gasoline for the car market?

    Now add a few car-pooling schemes, a few cycling schemes, and the slow but steady exponentially rewarding installation of New Urbanism as city governments realise the benefits of this fast growing movement (such as Portland, Oregon) and you have a variety of mechanisms by which we’ll help take the pressure off the oil price.

    My only fear is that electric cars may be *too successful*. I like the idea of vibrant walkability, of oil independence through oil irrelevance. Of energy efficient cities. Of not needing oil in the first place! Then there should be ample energy left over from GenIV reactors to produce hydrogen or synfuel for agriculture and heavy vehicles as us suburbanites gradually shift over to electric vehicles and New Urbanism.


  21. gus says

    Eclipse now noted: “As oil hits $200 a barrel are you really trying to suggest that there won’t be an incentive to ‘Drill baby drill’?”

    Actually, Andre’s probably right. Look at what happened when it peaked at $145 in July 2008: Everyone freaked and it plummeted again. That plummet shut off the spigot to a lot of oil exploration (and a ton of other things), and the Gulf disaster only added to the problem. Yes, in theory, $200 oil would allow a lot more cash to go to oil exploration, but that expense (esp. if some predictions about it hitting in/before 2012 are right) would suck the life out of almost every other economic sector, bankrupting the very communities who would be using the oil.

    Other than that, I basically agree with you, Eclipse. I’d much rather see healthy, walkable communities, with the vehicles used for public transit and emergency responders. I hope to see some of the side streets ripped up and replaced with bike/walking lanes flanked by raised-bed gardens or fruit trees, the parking lots ripped up entirely or partly used for open-air tent markets and performance spaces, and a re-expansion of what the concept of “public land” means. In my semi-rural area, I expect some of the nearby houses to be vacated and maybe eventually torn down and the currently vacant parcels to be for all practical purposes forgotten by their absentee owners, so those of us who remain are likely to “inherit” more farmable land than we can work ourselves. :)

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