Interview: Gail the Actuary

Gail Tverberg

Actuaries help companies manage risk. Gail Tverberg wants to help us all manage our energy risk.

“If I plant a garden and all my neighbors are starving, I’ll have to share it with them and it’s not going to go very far,” says Gail Tverberg, known to readers of the Oil Drum as Gail the Actuary. “You have to solve the problem for the whole population.”

Maybe that’s why Tverberg thinks that people who care about peak oil need to reach out beyond energy buffs to a larger public.

“I hope that content will not be cut back too much,” Tverberg writes of recent changes to the five-year-old hub for peak oil discussion that she feels will take the Oil Drum away from responses to peak oil and towards a narrow focus on “analytical posts about energy.”

Such posts would most likely target the Oil Drum’s core audience of engineers and other technical professionals who tend to be largely middle-aged and overwhelmingly male.

“We don’t have a lot of young college graduates. It tends to be a serious audience,” she told me.

For his part, Nate Hagens, who will be supervising a new editorial board that will vet content for the site, writes that the Oil Drum will “aim for fewer but in general higher quality posts, and hope that a raising of the bar will attract new writers/analysts with a wide range of energy expertise.”

Going deep or going broad

But Tverberg, a longtime editor of the site, is not sure that catering more exclusively to a technical audience will be good for the Oil Drum, now one of the top-ranked peak oil websites in the world.

“I don’t know how this will change The Oil Drum’s role in the peak oil community,” Tverberg told me. “I expect those in academia will like it a bit better, as will some readers with a very technical bent. Whether or not the site retains its broad appeal will depend on whether it can continue to provide a reasonable cross-section of articles. If the only articles that make it through the approval process turn out to be narrow technical articles, I think the Oil Drum will lose quite a few of its more general readers, including high-level decision-makers.”

Though she was not involved in the changes to the site, Tverberg wishes the Oil Drum well and will continue to submit some of her own writing there.

Meantime, in mid-2010, she started her own venture, Our Finite World, where she blogs on the connection between peak oil and society and publishes the occasional guest piece. Of the latter, so far the site has run two separate pieces on world food supply, the first by Gary Peters, author of the textbook Population Geography and another by best-selling author, farmer and ASPO-USA board member Sharon Astyk.

“At the Oil Drum, I have also written quite a few overview articles for people trying to put all of the pieces together. I expect to continue to write this kind of article at Our Finite World…I have also tried to round out the Oil Drum’s technical content with articles on many different subjects related to ‘Energy and Our Future.’ I will probably continue to write about those issues at Our Finite World, and may offer some of them to the Oil Drum review board for possible approval.”

In response to an open invitation to suggest topics for the site, readers suggested that Tverberg continue her focus on financial implications of peak oil while tackling such lively topics as how to best communicate energy issues to a larger public (less “gloom and doom”), what families and communities can do to mitigate the impacts of peak oil and the connection of population, globalization and world economic crisis.

Realistic, but with hope

While Tverberg does want to encourage people to discuss responses to peak oil, it would be difficult to call her an optimist. At this point, Tverberg thinks that any combination of conservation, clean energy and other solutions would be too little, too late to allow industrial economies to continue long beyond the oil peak.

“Assuming that we can do something to fix the situation is too much,” she told me.  “We can maybe fix it a little bit but our ability to mitigate the situation is going to be fairly limited. We have to learn to be happy with what we have and learn to be flexible and do what we can as it goes along.”

At the same time, Tverberg wants America to do more to prepare for the peak. And gardens are just the start.

She wants us to stop wasting money on airports and road widening and start laying track for electrified passenger trains that would be manufactured domestically. She wants us to plan ways to run all of the existing infrastructure that citizens take for granted — from water treatment plants to bridge repairs — on much less energy in the future. And she wants us to appreciate the things that don’t require energy but make our lives worthwhile, from the joy of family and friendships to the pleasures of music.

Finally, Tverberg, who lives in suburban Atlanta and thinks that her area has about average prospects to do well in a post-peak economy, wants society to look back to the past before oil to help build new technology for a future beyond oil.

“I would like to see us do something in alternate power that we could actually maintain instead of alternative power that depends on minerals from China that we may not be able to get in the future. For example, we used windmills in the middle ages. Nobody’s looking back at the things we did in the past that we could do now.”

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  1. Sandy Steubing says

    Good luck, Gail. I do not have a technical background so I’ve always been a fan b/c 1) I could understand what you wrote and 2) your writings corresponded to other non-technical writers like Heinberg. So thank you very much and I will read your writings wherever they appear. I do hope I can continue to comprehend some of what is on TOD.

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