A Response to “Small World” by Andrew Potter, published in the 8/12/09 issue of Cascadia Weekly
By David MacLeod (letter published in 8/19/09 issue of Cascadia Weekly
Andrew Potter’s book “The Rebel Sell,” which was an attempt to demonstrate that all counter-culture movements share a common fatal error in the way they understand society, has been criticized for its “unsavory combo of faulty reasoning and weak arguments." The same can be said about his article published in last week’s Weekly. The Peak Oil tent is actually much bigger and broader than the description that Potter paints of the ‘peakniks.’ Potter himself mentions Jeff Rubin, who is the former chief economist at CIBC World Markets, and considered by many to be one of Canada’s top economists. Other prominent names that could be mentioned include Matthew Simmons, of Simmons & Co.Intl., a prominent investment bank specializing in the energy industry. Simmons is also a former advisor to George W. Bush. Then there’s conservative Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, who has been known to quote from the website LifeAfterTheOilCrash.net on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
When the International Energy Agency warns, as it did in it’s last World Energy Outlook report after a comprehensive evaluation of the worlds 800 largest oil fields, that field by field oil production declines are accelerating and that “current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable,” we know we have a problem of serious proportions, and that this is not just the thinking of cranky doomers who “reject the foundational economic principle of our civilization” as Potter claims.
What Potter apparently does not understand is the role energy plays in our civilization, the unique characteristics of fossil fuels, and the bigger picture and longer range perspective.
The energy density of oil and natural gas have provided an extremely inexpensive and powerful form of energy far beyond anything else that has been discovered. Yes, there will surely be innovation in the future beyond what we can imagine today, but there are no new resources with all of the characteristics fossil fuels provide on the horizon. And that is a problem. An important study done for the U.S. Dept. of Energy, known as “The Hirsch Report,” found that for a smooth transition to a post-oil economy, “mitigation will require a minimum of a decade of intense, expensive effort, because the scale of liquid fuels mitigation is inherently extremely large.” The report characterized the peaking of conventional world oil production as “unlike any yet faced by modern industrial society,” and stated that “without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented.”
The point is that none of the alternatives in place today, even when combined, come close to being able to power our society at its current level.
By Potters measurements, “Over the last 100 years, life in the developed world got steadily better by almost any conceivable measure.” Whether this is true or not is debatable, but I’m not sure Potter recognizes that all of this growth and development was possible only because we spent the one-time cheap energy bonus embodied in coal, oil, and natural gas. When taking the longer view, as Systems Ecologist Howard Odum has shown, we see that in human history, growth spurts have always occurred as the part of a pulsing cycle at times of high energy availability. At some point, a climax/transition point is reached, followed by descent.
The question then is how to prepare for and respond to energy descent. A number of us in our community have come together as Transition Whatcom, in response to peak oil, climate change, and economic instability. We will work towards building resilient and more self-reliant communities throughout Whatcom County with a local food supply, sustainable energy sources, a healthy local economy, and a growing sense of vitality and community well-being. We make no claim to have all the answers, but by building on the wisdom of the past and accessing the pool of ingenuity, skills and determination in our communities, the solutions can readily emerge. Now is the time for us to take stock and to start re-creating our future in ways that are not based on cheap, plentiful and polluting oil but on localized food, sustainable energy sources, resilient local economies and an enlivened sense of community well-being.
P.S. I do recommend Jeff Rubin's book: "Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization. To hear talk supporting re-localization from an internationally respected mainstream economist is heartening.