A Gathering of the Tribe

I walk half a mile through a chill autumn morning to the bleak little cinderblock building that serves the old mill town where I live as a train station. Wednesdays aren’t usually busy, but close to a dozen other passengers are waitinge before the train pulls up. I climb on board, stash my duffel bag above my seat, get my ticket punched, and then head forward to the lounge car. By the time we roll past Oldtown, where the Shawnee once had a major village, I’m perched at a downstairs table with a cup of tea, some Latin reference books, and the draft translation of a Renaissance handbook on the art of memory, proving (if there was any lingering doubt) that there are non-computer geeks as well.

The train rolls to a halt in Washington a little after noon, ahead of schedule. I shoulder my duffel and head through milling crowds into the cavernous magnificence of Union Station, then back out into bright sunlight. A few minutes later I’ve reached the hotel. It’s one of those grim concrete-and-steel excrescences that justify the claim that Americans have their sense of proportion surgically removed at birth. Not long afterward I’m stepping into the faux-comfy bleakness of the generic hotel room I’ll be sharing for four nights with someone I’ve never met.

I have a few hours to kill—enough time to unpack, visit the hotel fitness center for a good long t’ai chi practice, shower, and replace traveling clothes with something that blends in a bit more with my current surroundings. Later I’ll be meeting a friend for dinner, and later still there’ll be a reception. I check the paper copy of my script, make sure the thumb drive with the PowerPoint half of the presentation is in a convenient place. I’m here for work, as an attendee and presenter at the seventh annual conference of ASPO-USA, the American branch of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil.


Meanwhile, a few thousand miles to the east, the economic system of a continent is coming apart at the seams. During the boom times now fading in history’s rearview mirror, the nation of Greece borrowed heavily to pay its bills, and found no shortage of banks willing to ante up the funds. Now that boom has given way to bust, Greece can’t meet its payments. In the ordinary way of things, Greece would simply default on its debt, and the banks would suffer from what economists call “market discipline;” that is to say, they would take massive losses, and some would go under.

The first commandment of modern high finance, though, is that investors must be protected from the consequences of even their most stupid decisions. Instead of defaulting, accordingly, Greece has been pressured by the rest of Europe to accept one round of massive budget cuts after another, in exchange for just enough money to keep default at bay a little longer. The latest arrangement brokered by the French and German governments includes cuts so sweeping that Greece’s prime minister George Papandreou, returning home, decides to put the matter to a popular referendum.

It seems reasonable enough that in a democratic nation—which Greece is, at least in theory—the people ought to have at least some say in any arrangement so burdensome. This logic does not impress the unelected junta that effectively runs the European Union these days. By the time the ASPO conference is over, Papandreou is forced to retract his proposal, and is on his way out of a job. Meanwhile, European banks are dumping government bonds as fast as they can, Italy is in increasing trouble, and France is probably next.


Thursday morning, after an early breakfast, I head up the street to the US Capitol. The opening session will be held at the, or more likely a, Capitol auditorium. This is part of a maze of underground rooms beneath the plaza in front of the Capitol; we file through an airport-style security checkpoint, follow a guide through spaces that would not seem out of place in a midrange hotel in Pittsburgh, and end up taking seats in what looks unnervingly like a pricey suburban movie house.

Conferences, I have learned, follow one of two models, which might be called the Chautauqua model and the circus model. The Chatauqua model—does anyone these days remember the old Chatauqua shows? Communities across nineteenth-century America built large meeting halls and brought in lecturers to speak in them. Every week or so, outside of planting and harvest time, you could count on an evening lecture at the Chautaqua hall on any subject you cared to imagine; after some entertainment and a bit of speechifying, the lecturer would spend an hour or two talking about Arctic exploration or electricity or, well, just about anything, followed by a lively question and answer session.

Conferences on the Chautauqua model follow a similar pattern. Individual speakers get 90 minute slots, an hour to talk and half an hour to field questions, so there’s ample time to get into details and engage the audience. Conferences on the circus model, on the other hand, have panels of speakers with fifteen or twenty minutes each, and maybe a few questions at the very end; the man on the flying trapeze gets his fifteen minutes of fame, and then it’s on to the clowns or the dancing bears; the famous names are under the big tent, while lesser performers are sideshow acts. Most conferences I attend outside the peak oil world follow the Chautauqua model, but ASPO follows the circus model.

In the Capitol auditorium, of course, we’re all in the big tent. ASPO’s ringmaster—er, executive director—and the head of the board say a few words, so do the two Congressmen who’ve taken the time to show up, and then it’s on to the major names. Chris Skrebowski, former editor of one of the oil industry’s main trade publications; William Catton Jr., whose 1980 book Overshoot is still far ahead of most other publications on the subject; Jeff Rubin, former chief economist for Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce—that’s the first lineup. Skrebowski is precise, Catton measured and thoughtful, Rubin breezy; he sounds a bit like an aging California surfer, which makes an odd fit with his message, which is basically that in the absence of cheap fossil fuels, the global economy is screwed.

There’s a break, and then the next lineup follows—Richard Heinberg, Chris Martenson, Angelina Galiteva, Roger Bezdek. It’s all pretty much variations on a common theme. The next to last is an exception; she’s a California bureaucrat who insists airily that there’s nothing to worry about because alternative energy can easily pick up the slack. She gets asked at the end about the huge and arguably unavailable volumes of rare earth elements and other scarce resources a major buildout of alternative energy tech would require, and evades the question with practiced ease.

That’s how the rest of the day goes. There are some memorable talks, but those who read the peak oil blogosphere have already heard most of it. A fair number of people skip one or more panels and head for the lobby or the bar, where the real action generally seems to be.


Meanwhile, a few hundred miles north, uncomfortable news is beginning to filter back from the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest in New York City. Despite the loud rhetoric of participatory democracy, control of the half million dollars or so of money donated to the protest has been eased into the hands of an unelected committee. Those pushing this arrangement insist that this is because OWS can’t make decisions effectively; this claim is all the more curious in that some of these same people are among those who pushed OWS to adopt the consensus system that’s preventing it from making decisions effectively.

Those of us who are familiar with the professionalization of dissent in recent decades have seen the same process at work countless times. Call it coercive consensus: the manipulation of the forms of consensus to enable a faction with an agenda to take control of a large but unfocused movement. It’s become the standard model for organizing a protest on the American left these days, and is a core reason why the American left has accomplished so little in the decades since that model came into fashion.

The justification for consensus you usually hear these days is that consensus prevents the majority from dominating a minority. This is true since, as a handful of activists have pointed out, consensus allows a minority to dominate the majority. Given standard democratic methods, a gathering of people with common concerns can choose its leaders, set its agenda, make decisions the majority supports, prevent those decisions from being endlessly reconsidered, and get things done. Coercive consensus stymies all these; it’s all but impossible for a consensus-run group to remove even the most manipulative moderator, stop a power grab, or make a decision that won’t be revisited any time it suits the controlling minority to do so.

By the time the ASPO conference is over, the first whispers of these difficulties have started to spread through the peak oil scene. What will happen in the months to come is anyone’s guess, but promising movements time and time again have been hijacked by such methods and reduced to irrelevance.


My roommate is Guy Dauncey, an environmental activist from British Columbia. Attendees who learn that the two of us are sharing a room go wide-eyed and start to giggle, because the ASPO staff would have had a hard time finding two speakers whose ideas are further apart. Guy believes that a green and prosperous world with abundant alternative energy is within our grasp. Still, he’s a likeable man, and we easily find other subjects to talk about when we’re not either asleep or busy at the conference.

We are both presenting on Friday, and the big top is hopping all morning; Guy’s slot comes in a plenary session on alternative energy right before lunch. His presentation blends enthusiastic claims about solar power with Teilhard de Chardin evolutionary mysticism and an insistence that people like me, who suggest that the hard realities of our situation predict a much less genial future for which we need to get ready, are among the main obstacles to bringing his happy future world into being. It’s hardly the first time this argument has been directed my way; I don’t take it any more personally than he takes my jab, later on, at grandiose projects drawn up without reference to the limits of the real world.

After lunch and a rambling speech by eco-farming proponent Wes Jackson, it’s sideshow time, and my session gets under way. It’s on local and community responses to peak oil; that wasn’t what I’d planned to speak about, but the ASPO staff assign speakers to panels by a logic all their own. For all that, it‘s a good panel. Aaron Newton talks about his experience coordinating a local farming program in the rural South. Peter Kilde presents the findings of a task force trying to help poor people and the organizations that serve them get ready for the end of the age of cheap energy. I sketch out the lessons of the 1970s energy crisis for the present. Naomi Davis, an African-American community organizer, comes last, and steals the show with a report on her program to reinvent Chicago neighborhoods as self-supporting and self-governing urban villages. It’s the one really innovative thing I encounter in any of the panels, and deserves the enthusiastic applause it gets.

That evening is Speakers’ Dinner, and a bona fide fanboy moment for me. William Catton is there, of course, and I nervously approach him, say a little about how much Overshoot meant to me, and ask if he’d likea copy of my latest peak oil book, The Wealth of Nature. He graciously accepts, and then flummoxes me completely by offering me a copy of his new book Bottleneck. We talk for around a quarter of an hour. I do my best not to act like a 14-year-old Twilight fan who meets the actor that plays the sparkly vampire, but that’s basically how I feel the whole time; few books influenced me as powerfully as Overshoot, and anyone familiar with Catton’s ideas can find them easily enough right down at the foundations of most of mine.


Meanwhile, in the south of France, the much-ballyhooed G-20 summit meeting is lurching toward what even the mainstream media admit is complete failure. The financial crisis in Europe is the focus of discussion, but nobody seems to be able to come up with any response to the widening spiral of trouble. Reports claim that US officials are pressuring Europe to flood the markets with freshly printed euros; the dire implications of such a step are clearly of less interest to the Obama administration than the impact of a Eurozone fiscal collapse on the American economy, and thus on Obama’s fading reelection prospects.

Meanwhile another head of state, China’s Hu Jintao, has quietly taken center stage. It has been a little over a decade since the old G-7, the exclusive club of core industrial economies, was forced to open its doors to a baker’s dozen of rising powers This time, Hu moves and speaks with the assurance proper to the leader of the world’s next great power. It doesn’t hurt that 200 miles overhead, the Chinese space program has pulled off another impressive feat, docking an unmanned Shenzhou space capsule with Tiangong 1, China’s equivalent to Skylab and Mir and the next step in the Chinese march into space.

The European press spends the days before the G-20 meeting feverishly speculating about the hope that China might bail Europe out of its widening crisis. Nothing of the kind happens, of course; the Chinese would be fools to accept that role this early in the game, and they are anything but. If a bailout offer comes from China at all, it will be much later, when European leaders are desperate enough to accept help on almost any terms, and it will come with a hefty price tag of China’s choosing. By the time the ASPO conference is over, Europe’s heads of state are heading home to a cheerless welcome.


For an imperial capital, Washington DC is surprisingly pedestrian-friendly, and I have no problem making my way Sunday afternoon to a lunch appointment with friends. Saturday was anticlimax; I was on two panels for which apparently nobody did any planning or preparation at all, and which proceeded to ramble aimlessly for their alloted time. Thereafter everything more or less ground to a halt, except for conversations among those who weren’t leaving quite yet.

I head through Chinatown, thinking of conversations over the days just past. I’ve had long talks about the prospects for sail transport, rail lines, and streetcars, with people who know these technologies inside and out; I’ve spent time with some old friends and several new ones, met more of the regular readers of The Archdruid Report, and been asked for advice by younger attendees who, I’m startled and then amused to notice, seem to approach me with pretty much the same diffidence I felt approaching William Catton. It’s more than that, though: this is as close as we have just now to a gathering of the tribe.

There’s a passage from Hermann Hesse’s novel Demian that is on my mind as I walk the streets of this city of faltering empire in this bright November sunlight. Emil Sinclair, the narrator, has come to recognize himself as one of a diffuse and disparate group—call it a circle, an order, a tribe—marked by something half-seen and half spiritual that can be glimpsed in the faces of those who share it. What unites them is not an ideology or an organization, but an orientation toward time, toward the future. The unmarked people around them live their lives in relation to the world as it is, but the ones who wear the mark in their faces are oriented toward a world that does not yet exist.

The friends I meet for lunch have the mark in their faces, and we spend a pleasant couple of hours over burgers and tall glasses of craft beer, talking about beekeeping and brewing and other useful skills for the aftermath of the age of cheap abundant energy. Not long after I’m climbing aboard the train that will take me back home. As the Washington suburbs roll by, I get another cup of tea, but the translation will have to wait for another time; I get out my reading glasses and settle down to read my signed copy of Bottleneck. I am still reading it when the train arrives at my station three hours later. While I have been away, humanity has extracted another 378,000,000 barrels of crude oil, 56,2500,000 tons of coal, and 36,000,000,000 cubic feet of natural gas out of the planet’s steadily depleting reserves.