Sierra Club goes totally peak oil — almost

Coming Clean book cover

Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal by Michael Brune, 301pp, $15.95.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Michael Brune’s book Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal, just released in a revised edition to talk about the Deepwater Horizon spill, more or less starts with peak oil.

Why surprised? Because mainstream environmentalists often shy away from the topic. Maybe the idea that cheap oil is running out and that the world doesn’t have anything to replace it with except a little clean energy and a lot of conservation, cutting back and powering down, scares the foundations and corporations that provide funding for big green groups?

And after he was elevated from scrappy anti-corporate activist to head of the Sierra Club, America’s oldest and largest national environmental group, Brune became the face for mainstream environmentalism.

A green jobs guy who can face peak oil

Good for Brune that his book doesn’t gloss over peak oil or bury it in a footnote. Instead, he goes full Hubbert’s Curve right in the first chapter, sounding more like the Hirsch Report, which told the Department of Energy that America would need 20 or 30 years to properly prepare for peak oil, than the head of a big green group touting green jobs and a new clean energy boom:

As we seek to burn more and more oil, many geologists and other experts believe that, very soon, less and less of it will be produced each year. If this occurs without planning for how to equitably distribute a dwindling resource — and without a crash program to implement oil-free solutions — we’ll be in a world of hurt. This is the threat of “peak oil” — and it is growing every year.

Brune then goes on to praise peak oilers (“Peak-oil theorists are like global-warming scientists: ridiculed at first, then politely dismissed, they now see their viewpoints gaining traction”) and cite a few, including Kenneth Deffeyes (“I nominate Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 2005 as World Peak Oil Day”), Matthew Simmons and M. King Hubbert himself.

Then, Brune shows his energy savvy by deconstructing unconventional fossil fuels, from deepwater drilling to tar sands, not only because they trash the environment, but because they’re just not worth the trouble in terms of net energy.

No sacrifice required

But Brune’s real concern is global warming. And just as many books by climate activists do, Coming Clean falls short when it comes to energy solutions, or the lack thereof.

Brune clearly understands the first half of the peak oil argument — that the world is running out of easy oil and easy fossil energy in general. But he doesn’t get, or is afraid to face, the main consequence of peak oil, that renewable energy and efficiency just won’t be enough.

Even with an aggressive ramp up of solar, wind, geothermal and other renewables, along with huge improvements in energy efficiency, the global economy won’t be able to replace all the energy we’re now starting to lose at anything like its current cost, as Richard Heinberg has ably documented in Searching for a Miracle: “Net Energy” Limits and the Fate of Industrial Society.

Brune’s enthusiasm for going green clearly blinds him to the very strong likelihood that, because renewables can’t provide the very cheap energy that industrial capitalism has come to count on from oil and coal, it means that the world’s consumers are going to have to make do with much less energy and much less stuff. We’ll have to power down much of industrial society. And we’ll likely see the disappearance of most global trade and even, as Heinberg predicts, the end of economic growth itself.

This can all sound pretty scary unless you have the optimistic attitude of the Transition movement that a world beyond global industrialism which is more local, human-scale and natural, could be a much better place in which to live.

Brune doesn’t mention Transition. Nor does he cite Rob Hopkins or talk about Energy Descent Action Plans. So I wouldn’t be surprised if Brune hasn’t really thought about a medium-tech, localized future as a serious alternative. Instead, he seems to be stuck in the global industrial paradigm.

It’s no surprise then that Brune dishes up much the same fare you can get from most mainstream environmentalists about how clean energy combined with energy efficiency will allow us to do most of what we do now, only better. It’s not about cutting back — it’s about being smarter with energy, according to Brune.

“We can indeed have cold beer, hot water, loud music, bright lights — and use far less energy,” he says, after just extolling the virtues of efficiency over conservation:

Conservation can be described  as making do with less — shutting off lights and turing down the heat for the good of the planet. Energy efficiency, on the other hand, entails finding clever ways to use energy more effectively while enjoying the same level of comfort. Conservation can involve sacrifice, while efficiency does not; the latter is so sensible and appealing that it should be a no-brainer.

No-brainer indeed. At this date, only Glenn Beck and bankrupt Detroit automakers can argue with screwing in the compact fluorescents and making pickup trucks get more than 12 MPG. But it doesn’t follow that efficiency will allow us to keep running all our electronics. Just ask the folks in Tokyo about bright lights now that they lost 20% of their power supply after Fukushima.

Brune seems to be dismissing conservation largely because it’s a downer that won’t sell well to the public or to politicians. That would be fine in a list of talking points for activists to lobby their Congressperson on cap-and-trade. But in a serious book about energy I’m looking for truth, not spin.

Stir these into your martini

Even so, Brune’s book is worthwhile for the smart little energy factoids he scatters throughout, such as:

  • To get oil from Canada’s tar sands, more landscape must be excavated than was moved for the Great Wall of China, the Suez Canal, the Great Pyramid of Cheops and the ten largest dams in the world — combined.
  • After years of research and billions in subsidies, not a single coal plant has ever effectively captured and stored all of its greenhouse gases.
  • In the 2006 congressional election, four of the top five recipients of oil industry contributions were defeated, whereas all the candidates who refused all oil money won their elections.

Cocktail party conversation, anyone?

Makes me almost look forward to the next time some Fox News fan wants to argue about how there’s plenty of oil left if only the environmentalists wouldn’t stop us from drilling. If only.

— Erik Curren

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  1. Jim Barton says

    Michael Brune spoke in my hometown on Nov 20th this last year. I was VERY impressed– for a number of reasons:
    1- I don’t know if you’ve volunteered with the Sierra Club, but they are often slow & cautious to adopt new ideas. He represented a breath of fresh air. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there was considerable in the national steering committee before hiring him.

    2- I was very struck by some personality traits he shares with Rob Hopkins. In fact, of all the folks I’ve seen on video or in person since “meeting” Rob in Jan. 2007, he is the person who most reminds me of Rob.

    A- The first is a warm sense of sociable community making, and a search for commonalities in the midst of difference– a sense that we can disagree, yet not be disagreeable; along with call to stay in touch with our better selves, as community residents (of our towns and our planet which is actually a rather large village).

    B- The second, more technical, is a deep sense of project management– that we CAN get there from here, and that the process of mapping we are currently and planning backwards from our envisioned future are two key attributes of that. As are milestones (and in the case of Transition, celebrating the achievement of them).

    C- The third is the strong radical visions they share– leaving fossils fuels behind. Easy to say; hard to map out. Many people found and/or direct organizations; many people write essay about how far we have to go; few have the skills to bridge that gap.

    D- The fourth is the sense that both of them seem to have that we are talking about organization & cultural transformation– It’s not just like building a skyscraper, or taking on some other project, but reconfiguring a system wherein many dysfunctional aspects are supported by other dysfunctional aspects. A breakthrough into health in one sector will lead to breakthroughs in other sectors, unless the positive breakthrough is dragged back down by the other unhealthy actors, habits & system elements.

    3- Both the Sierra Club and Transition have local groups all through-out the US.
    The Sierra Club has 1.4 million members, 88 chapters & hundreds of sub-chapters (“groups”).
    Transition has 88 “official” Initiatives in the US, and about 120 mullers.

    It would be fascinating to listen to a joint interview of Rob and Michael (or just the two of them in conversation), looking at the similarities– and their differences on lobbying/campaigning, direct action, and the needed outreach/diversity in both organizations.

    And how they might both jointly call for a strong Day of Action on September 24th!

    • says

      JIm — I’ve never met Michael Brune but have heard about him for years since he was in forest activism. I always admired his corporate campaigns, particularly Home Depot, which seemed effective. It does seem that Brune brings a younger more open-minded energy to the Sierra Club, of which I’ve been a member on and off for twenty years. Thanks for making all the parallels with Rob Hopkins and Transition. The two groups could really be a natural fit. And I like your interview idea. Maybe we’ll pursue it.

  2. Tod Brilliant says

    Erik –

    Great and fair assessment. I have to echo, to a degree, what Jim says. But I’ll be short as dinner is on…

    It’s simply great to see the head of the Sierra Club, an org that has for too long been behind the curve, step up and take some swings. Judging from what I’ve seen, I’m betting he has a pretty nuanced personal view that incorporates a surprising amount of relocalization and resilience-building efforts. In time, those will percolate…

    • says

      Tod — Hear, hear. The Sierra Club is a big and powerful group of folks who all have the right perspective on fossil fuels and climate change. The book made me more optimistic for the future of the Club and that they might again take leadership of the huge US green movement after the dispiriting developments of the last few years. I’m especially glad to see the Club under Brune take action against big corporate polluters in politics like Koch Industries.

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