I live under what may be the most active volcano in the world -- Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawai’i. While watching lava cascade down its mountain peak, I consider the predicted peak in world oil production and the damage it could do. Its destruction could be far worse on human communities than that of a mighty volcano’s eruption, impacting not only a local area but civilization itself. We live today under the volcanic threat of peak oil, yet most people remain in denial about the potential dangers.
According to geologists -- experts in volcanoes and oil -- slowly flowing crises face humanity as our supply of non-renewable fossil fuels dwindles. Few admit how disastrous peak oil could be. People gather at Kilauea’s base to enjoy lava fountains, seething lakes of molten rock, and incandescent rivers of slowly flowing lava. Yet my college students and friends often scatter when I talk about the consequences of peak oil, unable to consider the magnitude of the end of the oil age. Watching red-hot lava come down the peak, especially at twilight, and into the thirsty turquoise sea is awesome. Blazing fire meets receptive water and produces steam, as the heat is absorbed and cooled. It’s all natural. The deadly consequences of peak oil will be human-made.
Scientists predict that another of the five volcanoes that dominate this island, Mauna Loa, will also soon blow. We recently had our strongest earthquake in six years, a sign that something beneath the surface is happening. One needs to read signals carefully and respond, rather than remain in denial, about flowing lava or peaking oil. Otherwise, you could get burned in more ways than one.
Only certain kinds of people would voluntarily live here, especially in the Puna district where I am. It’s risky. I have lots of lava holes (pukas) on the land where I dwell. You see many people with canes and wrist supports; some fell down or even into lava tubes. Industrial civilization may be falling into a deep hole that it continues to dig itself into. We try to keep the wounded hidden, off television, but they can be dimly seen. It is risky to deny the signs of pending problems due to the end of the oil age.
Hawai’i, a microcosm, has become dangerously dependent upon transportation for our food and many goods, as has much of the industrial world. Food’s average distance from field to fork is 1,500 miles in America. The Hawaiian “paradise” may not be such a good place to be after peak oil. Its gasoline prices have long been the highest in the nation, and already surpass $3 a gallon in some places, climbing toward Europe’s more than $5 a gallon.
Oil is the basis of America’s industrialization and domination of the 20th century. The output from the world’s oil fields will soon peak and decrease each year. What then? We should not expect peak oil to be as glorious as this flow down the Kilauea peak -- quite the contrary. Erupting volcanoes can create a natural emergency. Dwindling oil supplies will stimulate heightened competition for limited natural resources and human-made emergencies, probably on a global scale, given industrial dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels.
I remember seeing and hearing oil wells during my childhood in the 1950s in Texas and California. Such a vigorous sign of industrial growth. Oil production in the U.S. peaked in 1970, after which we became more dependent on imports. As the Iraq War heats up, my mind fills with images of burning oil fields in the Middle East, where the current war for dwindling natural resources is likely to expand. Yet as petroleum’s availability lessens, the demand by rapidly industrializing countries such as China and India and its over-consumption by America heighten.
Where are Noah, Paul Revere and other prophetic voices when we need them? Perhaps 21st century prophets are speaking up, but not many people are listening, yet. We may be receiving early warning signals that we would be wise to attend to and respond by changing some of our consumptive patterns and dependencies. But most are too distracted by our culture of mass consumption to notice.
During another dark time the prophet Noah fortified his life and talked to people about changing their destructive ways. They ignored him. Noah built his ark, gathered his family and hosted a male and female of each animal species to join them. They survived, perpetuated life, and rebuilt civilization after the devastating flood described in the ancient stories of many cultures. Those who ignored Noah’s warning and continued their degradation perished. Once again, we live in mythic times.
“The British are coming!” Bostonian Paul Revere spread an alarm on horseback centuries later to villages and farms, awakening the slumbering colonists to defend their new society. Now some 230 years later, perhaps the appropriate warning to the slumbering masses would be something like, “The Americans are creating a global catastrophe!”
A civilization-destroying flood or the British Empire no longer threatens us, but denial about potential dangers remains strong. According to four recent books and a growing number of scientists and writers, America and those on its industrial highway may be heading into contraction, turbulence, chaos, or even collapse.
The list of times that people were warned by credible sources or natural events about pending crises but ignored them is long. It includes the Italian town of Pompeii. An earthquake warned the people in 63 AD, but few left; most perished in the 1979 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. A Yellow Fever epidemic wiped out half of Memphis in the l870s while leaders assured people that it would not make it there from New Orleans. In Colombia, seismologists warned that a volcano would soon erupt in the l980s. Few left; thousands perished. Will this be our fate if we do not attend to early warning signals about the potential impact of peak oil?
On the other hand, history is full of prophecies that did not happen. For example, not much occurred because of the Y2K scare at the end of the millennium; most computers kept going and technological society did not collapse. Biologist Paul Ehrlich’s predictions in his 1968 “The Population Bomb” did not explode, at least not yet. So people are understandably skeptical about doom and gloom scenarios. But before quickly dismissing the multiple threats that peak oil combined with environmental degradation might present, perhaps it would be wise to consider the arguments in these authoritative books.
The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century by James Howard Kunstler is the newest of the books reviewed here, published in May. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond, appeared earlier this year. Richard Heinberg’s Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World, 2004, followed his The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies, published originally in 2003 and recently updated.
The ideas in these books are not all new or unique to these writers. Other prominent authors, such as Bill McKibben and Daniel Quinn, have written about these matters for years. These new books are newsworthy for various reasons: Collapse had a huge 200,000-copy first printing by one of the world’s largest publishing houses, Viking/Penguin/Putnam. It rose to the number-two spot on the New York Times bestseller list and continues to sell well.
Emergency was excerpted in the widely read Rolling Stone magazine and Kunstler continues to publish related articles in popular magazines like the Atlantic Monthly and Orion. Kunstler appeared in the recent film “The End of Suburbia,” as did Heinberg. Heinberg has been speaking across America and recently has been on an international speaking tour in Africa and Europe, where his ideas have been well received.
The prophetic mantle of the vintner Noah and the silversmith Paul Revere is one that 21st century author Kunstler seems to wear well. “A rock-star reception” is how a Vermont newspaper recently described Kunstler as receiving at a local college, noting that he is an “eloquent, funny speaker.” Elsewhere he is described as “quirky” and willing to use earthy slang words. Diamond is a more removed academic who focuses on the environment and does not say much about peak oil. Heinberg is an activist, as well as a college teacher, who champions changes necessary for a more sustainable post-petroleum world. Powerdown is based on solid theory, practical, and solution-oriented.
PEAK OIL AND DENIAL
These messengers are getting their message out about peak oil and environmental destruction to an expanding number of people. These ideas may finally reach a critical mass. These prophetic voices are engendering substantial urgent discussion around the world and even beginning to stimulate lifestyle changes. Americans have been reluctant to listen to these 21st century prophets; Europeans and others have been more responsive.
“Carl Jung, one of the fathers of psychology, famously remarked that ‘people cannot stand too much reality,’” Kunstler begins his new book. Kunstler’s first chapter is entitled “Sleepwalking into the Future.” Perhaps it is time to wake up.
Go ahead, if you must, and remain in denial a little longer about the growing scientific evidence regarding the pending environmental disasters that could combine with peak oil to create catastrophes. Some dismiss these analyses as mere “doom and gloom.” Diamond effectively devotes part of his final chapter to arguing against such “One-liner Objections.”
When I try to teach these facts to students at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo and to friends, they often respond with doubt, or quickly change the subject to something more pleasant. “Perilous optimism” is how Heinberg describes such a response. False optimism in the face of overwhelming evidence of pending disaster -- such as the Jews and others had in the early stages of Nazism -- has been deadly for millions of people.
“It has been very hard for Americans -- lost in dark raptures of nonstop infotaiment, recreational shopping and compulsive motoring -- to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally alter the terms of everyday life in our technological society,” Kunstler writes. The narcotics and privileges of modern life are numerous and effective to dull us. Before you dismiss the ideas of Heinberg, Kunstler, and Diamond, at least read this review.
Oil production, even according to geologists for the industry itself, is about to peak. The exact date of oil peak is debatable, but many indicate that it may be sooner than previously expected -- perhaps even next year. We will continue to have oil, but less of it will cause its price to soar. Gas prices have shot up before. The difference this time is that they will not come down but keep going higher. “This is going to be a permanent energy crisis,” Kunstler contends. “We will have to accommodate ourselves to fundamentally changed conditions.”
The consequences of peak oil will be greatest in the United States, because of our extreme dependence upon it to fuel our auto addiction. “We are in for a rough ride through uncharted territory,” writes Kunstler. “America is about to go bankrupt,” predicts Heinberg.
Europe will not be as hard hit as the United States. “They have cars but are not car-dependent,” Kunstler commented in a Vermont newspaper. “They did not destroy their towns and cities. We did. They did not destroy their public transit. We did. They did not destroy local agriculture. We did.”
The impact of declining petroleum resources will reach far beyond rising fuel costs. “Oil and (closely related) natural gas play a role in virtually all aspects of our lives,” writes Rob Bolman in Eugene, Oregon’s daily newspaper. “Almost all plastic products are made of oil. Modern agriculture is little more than a system of turning oil into food as pesticides, herbicides, agricultural machinery and food transport all depend on oil.”
A National Geographic cover article in June of 2004 entitled “The End of Cheap Oil” had a two-page photo with some of the hundreds of oil-based products in a typical suburban home: shoes, toys, kitchen items, furniture, recreation items, etc. According to a recent Gallup poll Americans think oil prices are the No. 1 economic problem facing the country. But this does not deter many from buying gas-guzzling SUVs. Americans are more likely to blame the problem on Arabs or “terrorists”, rather than on our own growing depletion of non-renewable fossil fuels.
What will happen when plagues such as war, overpopulation, deforestation, over-farming, and environmental degradation collide as we approach the end of the oil age? Kunstler details such matters in his chapter “Nature Bites Back: Climate Change, Epidemic Disease, Water Scarcity, Habitat Destruction, and the Dark Side of the Industrial Age.” Commenting on just one of the consequences of the pending peak oil, Kunstler notes that “The Iraq War has only been the overture to more desperate contests ahead.”
Biologist Diamond’s Collapse is the most mainstream and scholarly of these four books, though it is very readable. He offers 575 pages of research and analysis, documented by substantial further readings, an index, and helpful illustrations. Diamond provides a historical/cultural narrative of societies that have either squandered or savored their natural and human resources, drawing parallels across centuries and continents. On the downside he examines the Polynesian culture of Easter Island, the American civilizations of the Anasazi and Maya and the doomed Viking colony of Greenland. His success stories include Japan and Iceland.
Civilizations that ignored environmental signals went into decline, whereas those that attended to those signals prospered. Given globalization -- which Diamond describes as “the strongest reason both for pessimism and for optimism” -- he warns that the next collapse could be global rather than merely regional.
PEOPLE ARE TALKING AROUND THE WORLD
Throughout Europe and elsewhere America’s difficulties in Iraq, with the falling dollar, and other economic and political problems are widely discussed. Whereas many Americans are still in denial, others have alreadybeen planning for America’s contraction and its worldwide implications.
These four books and other documentation have stimulated many online and in-person discussions about these matter. “I chose not to put blinders on,” states Stephanie Bath of Hawaiian Acres on the Big Island. “Even if this whole issue is not a reality, the principles of conservation and alternative energy can only be a positive thing for us and future generations. I can teach my children solid principles, use the car as if it were my last tank of gas, solarize, minimize, plant a garden. When someone is ready to change, when they want to, I will share the little things that we as a family have done.”
“We are having a picnic on the railroad tracks and the train is in sight. Please pass the potato salad,” is how Gerald Trumbule of Denver describes our historic moment with so many people unwilling to consider the urgency of the numerous threats.
“The suburban development machine has transformed the outskirts of Santa Rosa, CA,” notes Russell Sutter, a therapist. “This has resulted in a landscape with the originality and authenticity of a discarded gum wrapper. It replicates the same dead, soulless neighborhood corners, strip malls with pizza shacks, and corporate big box stores with an efficiency of an assembly line. What happens to the soul of a country that creates thousands of places that no one can care about?” Sutter later adds in an e-mail, “The American Dream is in for a great contraction.”
“How many times have we heard very convincing predictions of imminent collapse,” writes skeptical 60-year-old David Holmstrom from Boston. “Hasn’t happened yet, and ain’t gonna happen in our lifetimes. It will continue to be a slow process, not dramatic enough to waken our ‘emergency’ response.” Holmstrom, however, is pessimistic “about our children’s lifetimes.” His primary concerns for them are global epidemic disease, famine, and “running out of fresh water -- or wars over water use.”
Heinberg was recently lecturing in South Africa, where the May 4 Cape Times newspaper reported him as saying, “It’s too late to maintain a ‘business as usual’ attitude. What is required is to manage the change that peak oil will bring in a way that causes the fewest casualties.” In South Africa and elsewhere in his international lecturing, as well as in his recent book, Heinberg outlines four options for America:
1. Compete for remaining resources through wars.
2. Wishful thinking that the market or science will come to the rescue.
3. Acknowledge that we are in the early stages of disintegration and seek to preserve the most worthwhile culture achievements.
4. Powerdown by reducing energy use drastically through conservation, economic sacrifice and population reduction. Heinberg describes this in his book as “the path of self-limitation, cooperation, and sharing.”
Heinberg spoke in Lisbon, Portugal, at the Fourth Annual Workshop of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil May 19-20, 2005. In an abstract of his comments there published in his monthly Museletter, Heinberg writes: “If the 20th century saw America’s economic and geopolitical ascendancy, the 21st will almost certainly see its decline,” Heinberg concluded. China is predicted by many to be the next dominant power. “Within years, the average American will have less opportunity, purchasing power, and mobility. Food will cost more and consumer choices will be severely constrained. Life expectancy may decline markedly and America’s cities will likely fall into decay.”
“American life will have to be reconstructed along the lines of traditional towns, villages, and cities,” Kunstler adds. “We are going to have to live a lot more locally,” he continues, “Say goodbye to Phoenix and Las Vegas.” Desert cities without water will be hit hard, as will Hawai’i, which is so dependent upon cheap transportation. Wal-Mart and similar corporations will not fare well.
Hawai’i will be one of the first and hardest hit places by oil peak. We currently import over 90% of our food. As recently as the l930s, according to Kona farmer Nancy Redfeather, Hawai’i produced the majority of its food. But the onslaught of colonialism with its plantation mono-crops for exportation -- like sugar and pineapple -- destroyed a genuine local agriculture.
Some people -- including prominent environmentalists such as Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute and Jeremy Rifkin in the book The Hydrogen Economy -- point to alternative fuels to solve the petroleum shortage. “No combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run American life the way we have been used to running it,” Kunstler contends. “The widely touted ‘hydrogen economy’ is a particularly cruel hoax.”
“Hydrogen is not a source of energy, just a way of storing it,” writes Heinberg. It takes more energy (supplied by oil) to produce the hydrogen than you can get out of it. Heinberg dispels various alternatives in his chapter “Waiting for the Magic Elixir: False Hopes, Wishful Thinking, and Denial.”
Suburbs, cars, and roads receive a strong indictment by Kunstler. “We poured our national wealth into the construction of a living arrangement that has no future -- and the future is now here. The infrastructure of suburbia can be described as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” He adds that we “let our towns and cities rot away and replaced them with suburbia, which had the additional side effect of trashing a lot of the best farmland in America.” As he peers into the future, Kunstler foresees that “the automobile will be a diminished presence in our lives. Our roads will surely suffer.”
REASONS FOR HOPE
Though all three authors look our serious problems straight in the face, they each also offer credible things that can be done to minimize damage and re-organize civilization along more sustainable lines. Though there is much to lament, there are also reasons for hope and actions that can be taken. For example, on May 1 the Natural Museum of Los Angeles opened the thought-provoking exhibition Collapse? that draws on Diamond’s book. It will stay open until January of 2006, contributing to the growing worldwide discussions of the ideas in these and other pending books on related subjects.
“Reasons for Hope” is the final section in Diamond’s book. He writes how our problems, though serious, are not insoluble. He feels that we can learn from the mistakes of previous civilizations, make painful decisions about values, and engage in long-term thinking and planning. Kunstler predicts that, “our lives will become profoundly and intensely local. Daily life will be far less about mobility and much more about staying where you are.”
At the well-attended First US Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions earlier this year in Yellow Spring, Ohio, Heinberg maintained that “it is a time to be hopeful. It is a good time to cherish one another and embrace the young with our experiences and vision…It is a scary time to be alive, but it is a wonderful time to be alive.”
The activist Heinberg described the following characteristics that alternative infrastructures should have to survive difficulties: “organic, small-scale, local, convivial, cooperative, slower paced, human-oriented rather than machine-oriented, agrarian, diverse, democratic, culturally rich, and ecologically sustainable.” He suggested that people “grow more of your own food, conserve energy, become active in your local community, learn useful arts and skills, stock up on hand tools. We must plant the seeds for what can and will survive.”
“Prepare for a different America, perhaps a better America,” Kunstler concluded a recent talk in New York. “And prepare to be good neighbors.”
If what Kunstler, Heinberg, Diamond and others are saying is accurate, it will create major changes in the way we all live. Early American’s responded promptly to Paul Revere’s alarm, survived, and prospered. The people of Noah’s time, however, continued their destructive ways and perished. The choice is ours.
Dr. Shepherd Bliss teaches at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo, writes for the Hawai’i Island Journal, and has contributed to 18 books on diverse subjects. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
Back to the Ancient Future by Joe Bageant
Other Articles by Shepherd Bliss
Other Articles by Shepherd Bliss