In The Wake Of Victory

This has not been an easy week for believers in a brighter future. As I write this week’s post, food prices in the global market are soaring toward levels that brought mass violence two years ago, driven partly by climate-driven crop failures and partly by the conversion of a noticeable fraction of food crops into fuel ethanol and biodiesel; the price of oil is bumping around somewhere skywards of $86 a barrel, or right around two and a half times the level arch-cornucopian Daniel Yergin insisted not that long ago would be oil’s long-term price; the latest round of climate talks at Cancún are lurching toward yet another abject failure; and bond markets worldwide are being roiled by panic selling as the EU’s Irish bailout has failed to reassure anybody, investors in US state and local bonds realize that debts that can’t be paid back won’t be paid back, and even the riskier end of commercial paper is beginning to look decidedly chancy.

With all this bad news rattling away like old-fashioned musketry, it can be hard to look beyond the headlines and grasp the broader picture, but that’s something well worth doing just now, especially for those of us who have put in some years in the peak oil scene or, for that matter, any of the other movements that have had the unwelcome job of pointing out that infinite growth on a finite planet is a daydream for fools. What the broader picture shows, when all the short-term vagaries, the rhetoric and the yelling are all stripped away, is something as simple as it is stunning: we were right all along, and the rest of the world is slowly, with maximum reluctance, being forced to grapple with that fact.

We’ve come a very long way since the peak oil movement began to take shape just over a decade ago. In those days, those of us who were concerned with petroleum depletion were basically a handful of heretics howling in the wilderness, at a time when serious books on energy by major academic presses routinely missed the obvious fact that fossil fuels would run short long before they ran out. The suggestion that oil production might be limited by geological factors was dismissed derisively by people straight across the political spectrum; if the price of oil ever actually rose above the rock-bottom levels it then occupied, the conventional wisdom went, the law of supply and demand would infallibly bring new production online and force the price back down.

Then, of course, the price of oil began to go up, and production didn’t respond. All the considerable resources of political and financial rhetoric have been worked overtime to gloss over that extremely awkward fact, but the fact remains: petroleum prices are now at levels that were unthinkably high only a few years ago, the bountiful new production the conventional wisdom foresaw has not happened, and dozens of alternative resources that would supposedly be viable once oil cost $30 a barrel, or $50, or $80 are still nowhere in sight. Last week the IEA, the international organization that tracks energy supplies and predicts their future trajectory, quietly admitted that conventional petroleum production had peaked in 2006, and ratcheted down their projections of future energy supplies yet again.

The mainstream media responded as usual with a flurry of pieces insisting, essentially, that we do too have plenty of fuel, nyah nyah nyah! I’m not sure if anyone was fooled, though. There’s a famous quote of Gandhi’s: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” We’re well past the stage of being ignored, and the few voices still laughing at peak oil are sounding very hollow and forced these days; the fighting is still going on, but that last stage is starting to look more and more like a near term probability.

All this raises an interesting conundrum for the peak oil movement. Of the risks run by any movement that seeks to upend the status quo, the most commonly underestimated are the dangers of success. Plenty of movements that have triumphed over every adversity have faltered or even imploded when adversity gave way to achievement. There are plenty of ways that this can happen, but I suspect the one most likely to beset the peak oil movement will arrive when the movers and shakers of the world’s industrial nations turn to the more respectable members of the movement and say, “Okay, you’ve made your point. So what do we do about it?”

I suspect that this challenge has been on the minds of a number of people in the peak oil scene of late. Several peak oil-related organizations and websites are pretty clearly shifting their focus from arguing for the reality and imminence of peak oil—the necessary focus of the last decade—to advocating and lobbying for some set of responses to the end of the age of cheap energy. A number of other people in the peak oil scene, most of them less organizationally connected, have reacted against this trend in one way or another. Which side is right? Both of them, of course.

The most common source of trouble when a social movement succeeds in entering the collective conversation of politics is the lack of any constructive plan. That’s not going to be an issue here; we’ve got plenty of people proposing plenty of plans, covering the whole gamut of possibility from the sensible to the delusional. No, the problem that the peak oil movement is most likely to face is the one that comes when a movement, having gotten access to the halls of power, lowers its sights to target only that set of goals it can reach consensus on, and thinks it can get from whichever subset of the political class is currently in charge.

That’s a fatal mistake, in two mutually reinforcing ways. First, it allows the subset of the political class that’s currently in charge to turn the movement into a wholly owned subsidiary, by giving just enough scraps to the movement to keep it hankering for more, while dangling the whole package just out of reach before the movement’s eager eyes. That’s how the Democrats turned the environmental movement (among others) into one of their captive constituencies, for example, and it’s also how the Republicans turned gun owners (among others) into one of their captive constituencies – and you’ll notice that neither movement, nor any of the other movements thus co-opted, have ever managed to get more than a few token scraps of its shopping list out of the process.

The second difficulty is the natural result of the first. Once a movement is turned into a wholly owned subsidiary of one end of the political class, it can count on losing any chance of getting anything once the other end of the political class gets into power, as will inevitably happen. The result is an elegant good cop-bad cop routine; each party can reliably panic its captive constituencies every four years by saying, in effect, “Well, granted, we haven’t done a thing for you in years, but think of how much worse it will be if those awful (fill in the blank)s get into power!” Those who swallow this line can count on watching their movement sink into a kind of political zombiehood in which, whatever its official goals, the only real function remaining to it is to get out the vote for one or the other set of mutually interchangeable candidates come Election Day.

Combine these two difficulties and you get the graveyard that’s swallowed most movements for change in America in the last half century. The peak oil movement could end up as just another tombstone in that cemetery if it doesn’t scent the trap and avoid it.

It’s not that hard to avoid it, either. The key is dissensus: that is, making sure that the movement doesn’t focus on a single set of readily achievable demands, but rather has several competing agendas, with at least some elements in each agenda that ignore the conventional wisdom about political possibility and shoot for the moon. For best results, there should be one detailed agenda, with its own pressure groups and lobbying organizations to back it, that focuses on government regulation and big federal projects, to appeal to the Democrats; there should be another equally detailed agenda, backed by a different set of pressure groups and lobbying organizations, that focuses on market-based approaches and voluntary community groups such as churches, to appeal to the Republicans; and there should be a third agenda that horrifies the entire political class, but has persuasive arguments and vocal supporters and thus can’t simply be ignored.

The point of these competing agendas is that they turn the good cop-bad cop routine against the political class itself. Democrats who want to get votes by pushing a peak oil platform have a set of proposals they can support, with plenty more to come when those are in place; Republicans who want to do the same thing have a different set that they can support, and again, there are more projects to hand once those get going; and then there are those wackos out on the fringe with their extreme proposals, who are always ready, willing and able to frighten Democrats and Republicans alike into backing some peak oil agenda because, after all, if they don’t do something, the wackos might get a foothold.

When subjected to this treatment, the political class typically loses track of the fact that the question has stopped being “should we do something about the issue?” and becomes “what should we do about the issue?” Instead of being manipulated by the political class, in other words, the peak oil movement needs to roll up its sleeves and do some manipulating of its own. It’s been done before by plenty of other movements and it will be done again by many more, and the peak oil movement has enough internal diversity to pull it off with panache.

Regular readers may be wondering where among these three options I see the Green Wizards project. The answer, of course, is that it’s a fourth option – the option that works outside the political process, and aims for those projects that can best be pursued at a grassroots level by individuals and small local groups. If it catches on, as it appears to be doing just at the moment, it becomes the flywheel providing stability for the whole process; government programs come and go, one might say, but backyard gardens endure – which is one reason why we’ve still got a viable organic gardening movement thirty years after the alternative scene that launched it crashed into ruin. Furthermore, if green wizardry really catches on, it could become large enough to count as a noticeable voting bloc – in which case we might yet witness the delicious spectacle of politicians pandering to the green wizard vote by supporting expanded tax credits for home insulation and more state funding for Master Composter programs.

Does this seem improbable? All of it happened here in America during the last round of energy crises, from 1972 through 1981. During those years the environmental lobby in Washington DC, not yet reduced to its present condition of servitude, pushed energy conservation legislation aimed at both sides of the Congressional aisle; there were plenty of advocates for federal programs, but there was also a thriving subculture of appropriate-tech entrepreneurs arguing for a market-based response to the energy crisis; there were plenty of people out on the Ecotopian fringe who did a fine job of scaring politicians into more moderate projects; and of course there was a very large movement of ordinary people who spent their off hours growing vegetable gardens and caulking their windows to save energy.

Now it’s only fair to say that a repeat of that experience will not save the world, or the United States, from the consequences of the quarter century of malign neglect that occupied the time we might have spent getting ready for peak oil. It is very late in the day; as the Hirsch Report pointed out five years ago – ironically, right around the time global oil production peaked – adapting to peak oil without drastic social disruptions requires major changes to begin twenty years before the peak. We missed that chance, and so there are going to be drastic social disruptions. The question is whether there are things that can be done to make their impact less devastating and their long-term consequences less severe – to cushion, in effect, these opening phases of the Long Descent.

I think there are. Some of those things, it’s fair to say, are best done by individuals following Ernest Thompson Seton’s excellent slogan - “where you are, with what you have, right now” - and of course this is what the Green Wizard project is meant to encourage. The backyard gardens, well-insulated homes, simple alternative energy projects and handmade crafts that helped hundreds of thousands of families navigate the stagflation and soaring prices of the Seventies are likely to turn out just as well suited to help an equal or larger number dodge the worst effects of the economic turmoil and spiking food and energy costs that bid fair to define much of our immediate future. There are things that local, state, and national governments can do to encourage these things, to be sure, but we don’t have the time to wait around for them to get to it.

Are there other things that can be done by changes in public policy? Of course, and with luck and a great deal of hard work, some of those changes may be put in place in time to matter. To name only one example, a shift in federal policy that redirected money from highway and airport construction and put it to work laying rails and expanding rolling stock, in an effort to restore America’s railways to some semblance of their former effectiveness as a transport system, could have significant positive benefits for decades to come. It’s worth pursuing this and other steps in the political sphere. Still, the reference to hard work is not there for decoration; any such step, even the most positive, will do nobody any good at all, as long as nobody does anything to make it happen aside from chatting enthusiastically about it on the internet.

As peak oil moves steadily into the mainstream, in other words, the peak oil movement will increasingly be called upon to put up or shut up. That doesn’t mean that everyone ought to support some consensus view or other of practical responses to peak oil; as I pointed out earlier, that’s a sucker’s move, one that would leave the peak oil movement hopelessly vulnerable to the usual maneuvers of the political classes. It doesn’t mean that everyone ought to support engagement with the political system at all. It does mean that whoever you are, and whatever your take on the proper response to peak oil happens to be, it’s time to do something about it.

That may involve planting a backyard garden and weatherstripping your doors and windows, along the lines discussed in the last six months of posts here; it may involve taking an active role in lobbying your Congresscritters and their state and local equivalents; it may involve building some exotic-looking device in your basement – we’ll be talking more about that next week – or it may involve something else again. The one thing it can’t involve, not without complete hypocrisy, is sitting on your backside and convincing yourself that somebody else is going to do whatever it is for you. In the wake of victory, we no longer have that luxury. Instead, the peak oil movement has a window of opportunity, and it’s time for us to use it.