Cassandra's View

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I took the opportunity this year to travel to Sacramento to attend the annual conference hosted by ASPO-USA – the acronym-impaired may want to know that this is the US branch of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, the largest and most respected organization in the peak oil field. It was, as the Grateful Dead might have put it, a long strange trip, and ever since my return I have been wondering just how to talk about the experience on The Archdruid Report.

That the conference needed to be discussed here I had no doubt. Some of the presentations at the conference were profoundly insightful. Others were profoundly obtuse – and this very fact is worth noting, as a marker of the extent to which intelligent people with the best intentions in the world can still miss the most crucial implications of the systemic crisis facing the industrial world just now. Still, inspiration chooses its own path; it wasn’t until I unpacked a book I’d found in a very different place the day before the conference, and flipped idly through its pages, that I knew how to say what needed to be said.

Perhaps the most surprising personal discovery I made at the conference was that while many people there had encountered these essays, most of them apparently thought that the word “archdruid” in the title was a cute internet handle rather than a job description. I am in fact the elected head of a Druid order, and in that capacity I travel now and then to events hosted by other Druid organizations around the country. It so happened that the ASPO conference took place just after one such event, a harvest festival for Sacramento’s Pagan community, celebrating the autumn equinox.

That’s where I was on the two days prior to the conference, celebrating the coming of autumn with Sacramento’s Druids and Pagans in a sunny, pleasant park east of town. That’s where I wandered into a bookstall in the row of vendors, and bought a copy of an old favorite, Bulfinch’s Mythology; and it was as I paged through the volume, thinking mostly of the challenges involved in finding a place for it on my already overcrowded bookshelves, that I found a reference to the old story of Cassandra.

Most people nowadays have heard the name, but those of my readers who had what passes for an education in the American public schools may not be familiar with the story. Cassandra was a daughter of Priam, the last king of Troy; Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy in an attempt to seduce her but, when she refused him, put a curse on her so that nobody would believe her predictions. She thus had to watch helplessly as all her warnings were ignored and her father’s city plunged headlong into the catastrophe of the Trojan War.

When Troy fell to the Greeks, the Greek commander Agamemnon took her home with him as a captive. In a scene portrayed with stunning force in Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon, she foresaw his murder – and her own – at the hands of Agamemnon’s estranged wife; no one believed her then, either, and captor and captive died together. The crowning irony is that Apollo’s curse has lost none of its power today; more often than not, when someone is described as “a Cassandra” these days, the phrase implies that the dire events that person predicts will not happen.

In terms of the original tale, though, the whole cast of Cassandra’s story was present and accounted for at the ASPO conference last week. The event took place in an expensive hotel across the street from the California state capitol, with skyscrapers filling in for the fabled towers of Troy, and King Priam played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who did not attend the conference but prefers a penthouse suite in the same hotel to the less private comforts of the governor’s mansion up the street. Lunches, finger food for breaks, and hors d’oeuvres for the evening receptions all tended toward the overly precious, and the uniformed hotel staff bustled about like servants at a Bronze Age royal court.

In this setting, the presentations and talk at the conference took on a surreal quality, as though the global civilization we were discussing – the one running out of cheap and easily available fossil fuels – was on some other planet. I’m not at all sure how many of the attendees took the time to connect the energy that provided climate-controlled air, fluorescent lighting, PowerPoint slideshows and overabundant snacks for the conference with the sinking lines on graphs that tracked our world’s rapidly depleting oil, coal, and natural gas reserves. I’m even less sure how many of them traced out those graphs to their logical conclusions and thought through the likely impacts on their own lives; even in peak oil circles, this is surprisingly uncommon

Some of the presentations, certainly, showed no trace of such reflections. To my mind, at least, the most pathetic of them – and I use this word with its full meaning of “evoking pathos,” not in its current sense as a general-purpose insult – was offered by Christer Lindstrom, a pleasant Swedish businessman who wants to solve peak oil by building countless millions of little four-seat computer-guided monorail cars to replace today’s urban automobiles. No hint of the fantastic capital expenditures needed to build a new transportation grid in cities sprawled across three continents, no reference to the immense burden on the electric grid such a project would impose, darkened his presentation.

Instead, we watched pretty computer graphics and video footage of prototypes circling a little test track in Uppsala. In a world blessed with cheap abundant energy, some such thing might be worth considering. Still, one of the core implications of peak oil is precisely that the huge projects of the recent past – the interstate highways and the Apollo programs – are slipping out of reach as the surplus energy that made them possible depletes out from under us. Ignore this essential point, and it’s easy to come up with technological fixes that will solve the peak oil problem; applying them to the real world is another matter.

None of the other presentations were quite so detached from the realities of our predicament, but some came close, clinging to a model of business as usual that has already been outstripped by events. Other presenters showed a clearer grasp of the situation Among them were geologist Ken Verosub, who provided a crisp summary of the fundamentals of petroleum science and the steep and ongoing decline in American oil reserves; David Hughes, another geologist, who put coal into the energy picture and showed the dubious figures behind claims that coal – currently being used at the same rate per capita as in 1910, and itself subject to drastic depletion – can replace our declining oil supplies; and engineer Robert Rapier, familiar to readers of The Oil Drum, who sorted out sales hype from reality in the biofuels industry.

What set these presentations and others apart from the more facile ones, at least from my viewpoint, is that the former recognized that we are long past the point of ready answers. The cry for solutions is a common one, and understandably popular. Still, thinking of peak oil as a problem we can solve by some grand project, or combination of projects, misses some of the most crucial features that define the crisis of the contemporary industrial world.

The essence of that crisis is that we no longer have the resources or the time to bring about changes in our infrastructure or technology large enough to make a significant difference on a national or international scale. We threw away that opportunity when the industrial world abandoned the steps toward sustainability taken in the 1970s. The quarter century from 1980 to 2005, when energy was cheaper and more abundant than ever before in human history, could have been used to launch the transition to sustainability, but that opportunity was wasted – along with all those billions of barrels of oil – and all the wishful thinking in the world will not bring either one of them back.

The Limits to Growth, the most insightful (and thus the most vilified) of the warnings issued during the Seventies, outlines the resulting predicament in detail. One of the central themes of that study was that constructive change had to happen while there was still a surplus of energy and other resources to fuel it. By the time significant shortfalls begin, all available resources are already committed to current needs, and any attempt to free up resources for some new project comes into conflict with the demands of existing economic sectors. The US government may be in a position to loan Wall Street $700 billion it doesn’t have – in today’s economic world, money is so close to a mass hallucination that it’s not surprising to see it wished into being so casually – but actual resources such as fossil fuels, trained labor forces, and time are not so flexible.

The recent troubles set in motion by attempts to promote ethanol production show how the resulting limits work. Diverting corn to ethanol production boosted US gasoline supplies over the short term, but sent food prices soaring, sparking inflation across a wide range of products and causing a cascade of problems elsewhere in the economy. This was a relatively modest example, because ethanol production for motor fuel used existing pipelines, gas stations, and other infrastructure; something on the scale of an attempt to replace gasoline with hydrogen – which would require a completely new infrastructure from top to bottom – could draw down remaining resource stocks so drastically that, pursued with enough misplaced enthusiasm, it could drive an economic collapse all by itself.

Thus a focus on grand solutions is self-defeating, even when those solutions are not as obviously beside the point as Lindstrom’s dream of a mini-monorail in every garage. We need to start with a close look at the resources that are actually available for change in the real world, with all its political, economic, and cultural complexities. We need to recognize that the apportioning of resources to any economic sector, however absurd it seems, has a constituency that backs it and can be counted on to fight against attempts to divert it. We need to accept that no one is likely to agree cheerfully to cuts in their standard of living unless they themselves see a very good reason for the change – and after so many decades of predictions of imminent doom by purveyors of apocalyptic fantasies, another round of warnings just isn’t cutting it.

These hard limits sketch out the range of action available to today’s industrial societies in the first years of the age of peak oil. They do not make a cheerful picture; Cassandra’s view never does, and this is why clear assessments of unpleasant realities so often get pushed aside in favor of grand, elegant, and optimistic visions flawed only by the minor fact that they are unworkable in the real world. I don’t claim to know whether this habit will one day bring down Sacramento’s towers in flames, as it did the towers of Troy; still, as those towers shrank in the rear window a week ago, the possibility was hard to dismiss out of hand.