Unsung peak oil heroes of 2010

Nader rebel poster

Citizen crusader Ralph Nader is our pick for top unsung peak oil hero of 2010. Image: Nick Bygon via Flickr.

Inspired by the Huffington Post’s “Let’s Hear It for the Unappreciated Heroes of 2010,” we’ve compiled our own list of people who tried to help the world prepare for the imminent energy crisis by transitioning to an economy beyond oil.

It goes without saying that the people we list below are tireless campaigners for a better world who deserve more attention. Some of them have already been on CNN and in Time magazine, but just not for their work on peak oil. And each person or group brings a unique contribution that’s sorely needed now to help peak oil get onto the agendas of the world’s nations in 2011.

1. Ralph Nader

You may not think of America’s Citizen-in-Chief, perennial third-party presidential hopeful and bane of big-money Republicans and partisan Democrats alike as a peak oil guy. Sure, Nader gave the featured keynote address at the ASPO-USA conference in Washington, DC this fall. But you have to wonder if the event’s organizers invited him for his energy expertise or because he’s the patron saint of all lost causes.

Think again. Throughout his half-century career as a consumer advocate and democracy activist, Nader has also advocated for clean energy and the environment. His latest book “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” pushes for America to go solar. But more importantly, Nader’s decades of experience afflicting the comfortable — from General Motors on down — at great risk to his career, his reputation and even his personal safety, give people who care about peak oil a concrete example of what we must do now.

To reduce suffering in a lower energy world, it will not be enough for families and even small communities to prepare themselves. All industrial societies will also have to prepare at the regional and national levels. And for that to happen, peak oil activists will have to break the iron grip of big corporations on national governments, particularly Big Oil and Big Coal, who have been keeping the rich countries from passing energy policies to move beyond fossil fuels. What better teacher to show us that this huge challenge is actually do-able than the knight who has vanquished more fire-breathing corporate dragons than any other champion?

2. Rob Hopkins

A Renaissance man for the industrial economy’s coming rebirth as a more human-scale and compassionate civilization, Hopkins somehow manages to put out two or three blog entries daily while helping lead the global Transition movement that he co-founded. A true political visionary, Hopkins saw clearly what generations of sustainability activists could not see — even though it’s a bummer to hear about physical limits to human growth, you don’t need to gloss over the scary facts on climate change and resource depletion to be optimistic about the future.

Like Gandhi or MLK, Hopkins is the rare man who combines the qualities of deep thinker, inspirational leader and savvy communicator. And unlike some peak oil writers who feel that they need to tour the globe to spread their messages about such issues as financial collapse or the failure of our political leaders, Hopkins walks his low-carbon talk by abstaining from air travel. Limiting himself to ground transportation, video calls on Skype and prodigious blogging clearly hasn’t limited his effectiveness. Since the start of Transition Town #1 in Rob’s current hometown of Totnes in southwestern England, the Transition movement has grown rapidly, adding nearly 350 groups worldwide in just four years.

If anything, Hopkins’s disarming modesty (“I don’t want to be a guru”) has inspired people on five continents to adopt Transition as their own movement. And that’s what it takes to start a proper Renaissance.

3. Sharon Astyk

“Tireless” can’t begin to describe this mother of four who runs her own organic farm, has authored three books on peak oil and food issues and serves on the board of ASPO-USA. In her short time there so far, Astyk has already helped reinvigorate the American franchise of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil started in Europe by geologist Colin Campbell. With an aggressive blogging campaign featuring articles such as “Predictions for 2011,” Astyk has helped lead ASPO-USA beyond its geeky roots in oil-depletion research and towards a more active role in public education and advocacy.

A student of both nineteenth-century English literature and twenty-first century communications strategies, Astyk thinks the peak oil movement should borrow from Madison Avenue and K Street alike to help reach a larger public with the truth about energy. She urged attendees at the ASPO-USA conference to have the courage to go beyond boring and ineffective communications on oil depletion issues and dare to “go shallow” to reach a popular audience. While continuing to tell the truth, we should follow the example of the great propagandists of the past.

“Our messaging shouldn’t suck,” as she put it in her ASPO talk. ‘Nuff said.

4. Transition US

The prospects for the world economy to make a successful transition from fossil fuels to conservation and clean energy are surely dim without cooperation from the globe’s largest consumer and polluter. At the same time, if America becomes an ally of clean, human-scale living, then there will be no more powerful force on Earth for good.

The good folks at Transition US, based in the San Francisco Bay area, have overseen the founding of 77 official local Transition groups, starting in Boulder and reaching from Washington State and Arizona to Maine and Florida. On a shoestring budget, they’ve sent Transition trainers around the country to help empower citizens as evangelists of re-localization. They’ve also offered inspiration and information on tap through regular blogging and online programs. Finally, they have managed to maintain unity as the movement comes of age in the land of the Cowboy and the lone individualist, skilfully facilitating debate on contentious issues such as the role of religion and spirituality in Transition training and the relationship of US groups to the movement’s founders in the UK.

Going forward, we’d like to see Transition US reach out more beyond green-friendly California and the liberal Pacific Northwest, especially to America’s power centers on the East Coast. And now that they’ve successfully completed their recent $200,000 fund-raising campaign, it looks like they’ve got the resources to become a truly national presence.

5. Bianca Jagger

An internationally known human rights and environmental activist, Bianca Jagger was so concerned about peak oil that she made contact with ASPO-USA. As a result, she joined Ralph Nader as a keynote speaker at the group’s Washington, DC conference this fall. There, she spoke eloquently about how clean energy is a human right, how corporate polluters should be tried as criminals against present and future generations and how global warming and peak oil activists need to work together to succeed.

Lighting up the room with celebrity stardust, Jagger is nonetheless a committed activist who earned her chops the old-fashioned way — by facing down a death squad in Honduras. Based in London, she runs her own foundation to promote human rights globally and was recently seen at the front line of her own Avatar story, the successful effort to stop UK-based mining conglomerate Vedanta Resources from desecrating sacred tribal land in northeastern India.

In Memoriam: Matt Simmons

At the end of July, it was Transition Voice’s privilege to conduct one of the final press interviews with beloved oil-industry banker Matt Simmons before his untimely death on August 8th of this year. Not merely an unsung peak oil hero of 2010 but a force in the energy world for four decades, Simmons got into oil after the 1973 oil crisis when he founded a firm in Houston to finance drilling projects, Simmons and Company. A firm believer in free-market capitalism and a long-time Republican, he served as an energy advisor to George W. Bush but he didn’t cotton to Dick Cheney.

Simmons believed that the Club of Rome was right that depleting resources would hobble economic growth and by interacting with drillers and producers Simmons came to suspect that world oil was soon going to peak because the world’s largest producer, Saudi Arabia, had started to peak. Simmons became a crusader for honest reporting of reserves, and demanded that the Saudis in particular open their books. His 2005 book Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy used the best figures available to show that the Saudis had much less oil than they claimed and produced solid evidence for the global oil peak in the early twenty-first century, a peak that was confirmed this year by the International Energy Agency.

In recent years, Simmons became convinced that energy of all kinds from the world’s oceans — tidal, biomass and others — would help the industrial world transition smoothly and profitably from fossil fuels. To propagate his vision, in 2007 he founded the Ocean Energy Institute in Maine. But Simmons had no patience for a certain kind of offshore oil drilling and he was one of the most outspoken critics of BP’s clean-up after the Gulf disaster this spring. Before the Macondo well was capped, Simmons saw such a threat to communities on the Gulf Coast that he advocated either a mass evacuation or use of a nuclear bomb to stop up the leakage.

A man of passion and conscience who was not afraid to face often withering criticism from the energy establishment, Simmons predicted dire consequences for America if we did not start soon to kick our addiction to fossil fuels. But as an entrepreneur and optimist to the end, he was convinced that better solutions were out there and that whoever developed them would make lots of money while helping to save the world.

— Erik Curren

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