Facing Peak Oil in Motown

The weekend before the election, as I mentioned in last week’s post here, I went to Michigan to attend a peak oil conference: the Fifth Annual Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions, to give it its full moniker. In more ways than one, it provided me with a wide-angle snapshot of one end of the peak oil movement; since the peak oil story is as much about human responses to geological realities as it is about the realities themselves, the trip – and it was a trip, in several senses of the word – may be worth recounting here.

Archdruids are a bit thin on the ground these days, and so the five years since my election to that office have made air travel a larger part of my life than I’d prefer. (My carbon offset consists of not owning a car.) The drill is almost second nature at this point: pack light and fast, reach the tiny local airport well before sunrise, down a cup of tea and try to ignore the blaring television in the lobby while people going elsewhere file out onto the tarmac and head for turboprops and small jets. For entertainment, I had a volume of Gregory Bateson to read and a volume of thirteenth-century Latin sorcery to translate – in case you were wondering, yes, there are indeed species of geek other than the computer variety, and I plead guilty.

I spent the flight staring out the window at half a continent’s worth of scenery while trying to fit my head around Bateson’s take on systems theory or the tangled syntax of some scrap of atrocious medieval Latin, and spent the ride from the airport to the hotel in suburban Auburn Hills taking in glimpses of Detroit: long-abandoned factory buildings in ruins, gritty slums with colorfully named churches and every third house boarded up, posh suburban neighborhoods with ostentatious yards, huge office buildings breaking the skyline, and then the huge mass of Chrysler’s headquarters complex looming up beside the freeway like a pharaoh’s tomb. I half-expected to see an inscription out of Shelley’s Ozymandias there:

My name is Iacocca, CEO of CEOs;
Look on my works, ye bankers, and despair!

Then we arrived in Auburn Hills. It was the sort of suburb built for cars rather than people, where strip malls crouch back from six-lane boulevards as though hoping that their vast parking lots will shield them from the traffic, city hall looks like one more corporate office building, and reader boards on the same restaurants you’d find a thousand miles away struggle to project a pallid imitation of bonhomie into empty space. The sidewalks – where there were sidewalks – had been there long enough that grass poked up here and there through cracks in the edges, but I never saw anyone using them but me. Drivers on their way into parking lots gave me goggle-eyed looks, as though they’d thought pedestrians were as mythical as hippogriffs. It was a strange place for a peak oil conference; given the equally surreal luxury-hotel setting of this year’s ASPO-USA conference, I started to wonder if some hidden cosmic law requires the biggest possible contrast between the subjects of these conferences and their physical setting.

Still, Oakland University, where the conference actually took place, was pleasant enough, with buildings in late 20th century academic brickwork separated by wide grassy lawns that will make good vegetable gardens in another decade or two. By Friday lunchtime, attendees had started to gather, conversations sprang up, and a curious sort of temporary community took shape, centered on the challenges and possibilities of a world that doesn’t exist yet: the world on the far side of peak oil.

If I recall correctly, it was Randy Udall who pointed out some time ago that the peak oil community divides along a fault line between “suits” and “sandals” – that is, the people who come to peak oil from a background in business, government, and the academy, on the one hand, and the people who come to it from a background in activism and alternative culture, on the other. The annual ASPO conferences are for the suits, while the Peak Oil and Community Solutions conference caters to the sandals; at the latter, community organizers, permaculture designers, and ecovillage residents greatly outnumbered university professors, petroleum engineers, and investment advisers.

One of the things I took away from the conference, oddly enough, is that the divide is a source of strength rather than a sign of weakness. None of the presentations at either conference would have been well suited to the other, which meant that between them, the conferences offered a much broader image of the state of the world’s energy predicament and the options for dealing with it. In the space between the number crunching of the geologists and the visions and strategies of the activists, something useful takes shape. I think the peak oil movement needs both, for much the same reasons that vertebrates have two eyes instead of just one.

By nearly any calculation, though, archdruids fall well into sandal territory, and so it will probably not surprise any of my readers that I found the weekend in Michigan more congenial than that earlier weekend in Sacramento. High points included Dmitry Orlov’s progress report, delivered with his trademark dry wit, on the stages of collapse; a slide show by Shane Snell on ecovillages he’d visited while touring North America in a biodiesel-powered camper; lively conversations with a couple of solar energy techs at the Green Living expo; and three trips to local green hotspots – a charter school’s environmental classroom, a sustainable restaurant in a nearby town, and the Upland Hills Ecological Awareness Center, one of those classic Seventies earth-bermed passive solar structures with big round PV cells above the flat-plate collectors and a wind turbine turning lazily overhead.

This last was particularly welcome, because I came of age in the years when this latter sort of structure counted as cutting-edge tech, and I still have the same sort of nostalgic regard for it other people have for their high school football team or the music that was playing on the radio during their first date. If our society had made the right collective choices at the end of the Seventies, buildings and programs like Upland Hills might be as common as, well, shuttered car plants in Michigan are today; even after the mistakes of the last thirty years, the survivors of the species still have quite a bit to teach.

I don’t propose to claim that all the presentations at the conference were useful or all the speakers inspiring; there were inevitably some slow moments and some ground familiar to everyone present rehashed for the dozenth time, and a few glaring false notes – in particular, a presentation on the Transition Town movement that was as glib and pushy as a pyramid scheme sales pitch, and succeeded mostly in replacing my generally positive take on that movement with hard questions I haven’t yet been able to resolve to my own satisfaction. Still, questions are at least as worth taking home as answers, and often more so.

The night after the conference closed, as I packed for the flight home, I certainly had plenty of questions to take with me. Some of them – the next moves in oil production, the outcome of the upcoming election, the future course of the financial crisis on Wall Street and Main Street – had been buzzing through the conference all weekend. I’m not sure that others got asked at all, but they were implicit in everything we had been doing. From beginnings in a handful of internet sites and email lists a decade ago, the peak oil movement has grown and diversified dramatically, and has begun to find an audience beyond the small circles of worried professionals, green activists, and eccentrics who formed its backbone for so many of its formative years.

At this point nearly all the near-term predictions central to the movement in its early years have proved themselves, while the conventional wisdom that dismissed those predictions out of hand is much the worse for wear. As peak oil proponents claimed, petroleum production worldwide hit a plateau in the first few years of the century, and has never been able to break above it; oil prices have spiked well up into three digits; and the raw impact of energy costs has been implicated by more than one scholar as a trigger for the financial unraveling still going on around the world. The words “peak oil” are starting to find their way more and more often into the mainstream media and the wider public dialogue about our future.

The possibility of opening a window of opportunity for significant change, the theme of my main talk at the conference, can’t be rejected out of hand any more. The question that I couldn’t shake that night is whether any part of the peak oil movement – suits, sandals, or any combination thereof – is ready to deal with the possibilities and problems that will have to be faced if that happens. That question, too, I have not yet been able to answer to my own satisfaction. I hope other peak oil proponents are thinking about it too, because we may all have to confront its implications in the fairly near future.