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    Peak Oil: Comic Book Minds


    In the classic suspense thriller Wait Until Dark, after killing his reluctant partners-in-crime, Carlino (Jack Weston) and Talman (Richard Crenna), small-time mastermind Roat (Alan Arkin) dismisses them as amateurs, saying, "... they had comic book minds." Creative types like Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Harvey Pekar brought a more literary sensibility to comics, of course, but the insult worked in the 1960s.

    At TPM Cafe (and just crossposted here at dag), David Seaton notes that Peak Oil theory is finally going mainstream, citing two of the usual gurus:

    What makes the Kochs and the neocons nervous enough to spend so much money

    Doomsters like James Kunstler and Dimitri Orlov, especially Kuntsler, paint the oil-less future as some sort of survivalist's Arcadia, where self-reliant citizens, grow vegetables, sew their own clothes and do a lot of carpentry without power tools.

    At ScienceBlogs, Casaubon's Book blogger Sharon Astyk feels we've entered a second phase of discussing Peak Oil:

    I Can Save the World Better Than You, Nyah Nyah!: A Short History of the Peak Oil Movement and Reflections on Wizards, Transition and the Interstices of Reason

    In some ways, I think of the three of us [John Michael Greer, Rob Hopkins and herself] and some other people as the "second wave" of emergent peak oil writers - our accomplishments and worldviews are different, but as peak oil thinkers we have some essential commonalities. By this I mean that the first wave, which began in 1997 with Colin Campbell's publication of his first paper on peak oil, and included a large number of petroleum geologists (Ken Deffeyes), some political scientists (Michael Klare) and a mix of early-aware writers (Richard Heinberg), folks working out of their fields but doing important research (Julian Darley and Matt Simmons) and journalists (Jim Kunstler). That first wave of books was mostly about raising the alarm and awareness - and it was extremely effective and important. Most of us can date some measure of our awareness to books like Twilight in the Desert, The Party's Over, Beyond Oil and The Long Emergency.

    These books were mostly about raising the alarm, doing the difficult work of telling a public never educated about petroleum production or resource depletion how we know this might happen, why they should be worried, and what a post-peak future might look like. And they were enormously successful and important books, most of them published before 2005, and most of them still being read now by people who are still experiencing a sudden "oh crap" recognition of the data they are seeing.

    But this first wave prognosticated like they had comic book minds - or for a more up-to-date insult, like they had TV hourlong drama minds. Reading Peak Oil columns, and Kunstler's novel, World Made By Hand, one had the impression that the industrialized world was going to fall apart rather quickly - and homogenously - in a massive shock of oil depletion and unaffordable energy. But it hasn't. Not a one of them predicted that a global recession would reduce the demand for oil and keep the prices under $100/barrel.

    Reality tends to be more like a Russian novel than an episode of Superman or CSI. But in this novel there are billions of characters, thousands of them are calling the shots, and the setting varies wildly around the planet. Astyk at least, tries hard to emphasize that her back-to-the-farm approach can't work for everyone.

    That's why Greer's Green Wizards and Hopkins' Transitioners and my readers are all focused on shifting the food system. That's why Nate Hagens' sense that this is mostly our neurology pushing us down the wrong path and Prieur's sense that we are drawn to overextension by our inner natures are so close. This is why Nicole Foss, Dmitry Orlov and Amanda Kovattna are all so concerned with how people will hold on to housing. When you turn your head to the realities we are facing - a lot fewer resources, more people, a less stable climate, a less stable economy, environmental degradation, the stories aren't that different. All of us reject the idea of cartoon apocalypse. All of us reject the idea of techno-optimism. All of us live in the grey middle space of the future.


    Greer thus chastizes me for having too short a view of history. I accuse him of erasing the suffering of the short view. Hopkins argues for community organizing strategies. Orlov points out that his direct experience is that those communities are self-organizing. And all of us are picking up on real faults in the thinking of others - not all the truth, but real faults sometimes, and new ways of thinking sometimes. The interstitial spaces have probably the greatest degree of truth in them - that the long and the short view will both be lived, that communities will both self-organize in unpredictable ways and be served by previous organization. The fighting is at least as important as the agreeing.

    No one knows what comes next.



    I think the doomsters are impossibly romantic. My feeling is that if oil becomes prohibitively expensive our logistical cornucopia will fold up and we'll have rationing, high taxes and lots of regulations, in short something like life in socialist countries before the USSR collapsed... that is, if we are lucky. What we may very well get, and what I think the Kochs and most other billionaires would like, is African type poverty among the masses, with the rich living in fortified enclaves, moving from place to place in helicopters with their bodyguards, like the rich do in Sao Paulo, Brazil to avoid being kidnapped or robbed.


    I've often wondered why the rich were so sanguine about jettisoning the middle class. I have a DVD about the kidnapping business in Sao Paulo, and I would think the prospect of losing an ear would give anyone pause - if there was another choice.

    What Sao Paulo illustrates is that it is possible for a very rich person to live very well surrounded by masses of dramatically poor people. My idea of a post peak oil world is that it probably would be like that. The lives of the very rich would be like they are today and the rest of us would be terribly poor. That is what life was like for thousands of years and that is what it probably will return to being.

    David, are you thinking the effective form of government would be a military dictatorship that foregoes whatever pretenses we still maintain about having, or at least valuing, a semi-functional republic which we like to call a democracy?

    If so, would you foresee instability for the rich on account of a dictator confiscating their property and riches, or do you think the rich would more or less agree to finance the dictator of their choosing, for a relatively modest fee, as it were?  Perhaps groups of rich people will form and band together to finance enough private military capacity to deter intervention by a pesky, uppity dictator they regard as intent on taking too much of their wealth?  Also, successions can be tricky under dictatorships--too much lack of control and potential for instability which the rich cannot fully insulate themselves from.

    OTOH, if the practice of citizenship continues its decline as a meaningful reality in nominal republics, and as the powers that be continue to refine the use of communications strategies to distract, manipulate and deceive the electorate, that type of dicatatorship might not prove necessary.


    Dictatorships are often supported by, and answer to, an oligarchy, hence are not as troubling to the rich as all that.

    I'm thinking about socialism really, social-democracy if we are lucky.

    As what you desire, do you mean?  Or what you see us headed towards?  I was picking up on your comments on what I thought was the latter.

    It is in our hands... for the moment.

    Also surrounded by masses of bodyguards. In an early scene of Y Tu Mama Tambien, the two young protagonists note that the bodyguards outnumber the wedding guests.

    As a layperson, I like to think of peak oil at the apex of a gradual supply curve with an unknown amplitude. As long as the oil supply curve outpaces the consumer demand curve, not problem. It's when demand starts to outpace the production capacity of the supply curve that the critical point is reached. Eventual the consumer demand curve will intersect with the oil supply curve at its apex, where the supply cannot satisfy any demand beyond that point. There's still plenty of oil! Just too many tanks to fill. We will have reached the peak capacity our known oil reserves can handle. For all those American wells that went idle since the 60's when they reached their peak output capacity, I wonder if the output reduction after they peaked was linear to the output before the peak was reached, or was the capacity drop off more severe? That would be a good indicator of the time lapse between peak oil and a dry well. And that's info that's being kept secret. It would give a good foundation how much time would be necessary to retool our population centers to cope with a world with less oil to lubricate life as we know it.

    While the curves often looked symmetrical in older wells, modern methods of extraction like nitrogen injection, seem to lead to steeper declines. This fellow's thesis shows a good assortment of decline rates on Prudhoe Bay, Cantarell and major fields in the North Sea.



    I'm a green freak, but happen to have worked in/around this field for 20 years, and I find most of what's written to be fairly nutbar. Kunstler, for instance, I think is cracked. More widely, I find that most of those writing have very poor conceptions of how economics works. Not that I have it nailed down, I don't - but these people are buffoons. "Cartoon" may be the right word, I donno.

    Cause it's not that the oil is gonna run out, it ain't. It's just that as we run out of that nice fat layer of excess that insulated demand from supply, we're gonna start seeing spikes and surges more often. So price will be used more often to push some people and sectors and countries out of the check-out line.

    And the surprise - I think - will be that many Americans, especially the lower working-class, living in exurbia, driving two aging vehicles, may not make it. The Chinese and Indian middle-classes may well be better positioned to outbid them.

    This will in turn trigger all sorts of structural changes, international changes, you name it. But anybody that tries to predict how those will play out is nuts.

    And the whole thing about oil "running out" or the suburbs emptying or a full-scale shift to organic, labour-intensive agriculture? It may happen, but it'll because of war or somesuch - not because the oil ran out or prices went to $300/barrel or nonsense like that.

    Finally, anybody wanna comment on "peak natural gas?" Cause a lot of these same people thought we had tapped natural gas out in North America. Turns out there were enormous quantities of it tied up in shales and such. Now, I don't LIKE how we're gonna access this natural gas, but access it we will - and are.

    "No one knows what comes next" - well said.

    I'll tell you when they stop going after oil - when it takes more energy to get the stuff out of the ground than they get from it.

    That and only that will be the end of the oil nera.

    Unless there are govt subsidies to do so, as with ethanol.

    Doubtful.  All the subsidies in the world can't turn an energy sink into an energy yield.

    No, but the seed money will turn someone a profit for a while.

    Ethanol, the recipe for starving people in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

    From what I've heard, to cultivate such resources as oil and natural gas from shade deposits would be wasting more energy units to extract the resource than the energy units the final products would yield. Doesn't sound so energy efficient to me. Also, the amount of energy extract would only satisfy consumer demand for only a matter of months. Seems global thirst for oil is so huge that a large a super field with a yield of a billion barrels wouldn't last a year. Oh and that nice fat layer of excess that separated supply from demand was eaten up by new demands by new energy consumers from India and China...thanks to NAFTA and free trade moving their manufacturing bases there creating a new wave on consumers for a finite resource.

    This is an interesting discussion, one that the majority of citizens mentioned in the discussion probably would not appreciate.

    I do not think that the world will go to hell quite as fast as in the discussion. That is, Sao Paulo though may be a valid reference for poverty vs primacy, but the leap to a future world with helicopters ferrying the rich to and fro seems a stretch.

    There are for example alternatives to oil use. Electric vehicles are an effective, resource smart, practical alternative to gas burners.

    If you really believe in Peak Oil doomsday, go for a hike and take your friends along, then tell them to take their friends. Get to the trailhead in an EV if you can. Ride a bike or an ebike.





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