Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Peak oil and Optimistic Pessimism

On one of the online peak oil forums in which I actively participate there are several members who rejoice as they enthusiastically bring to the group every new pronouncement from the secret land of the energy fairies. This is done with the drive and verve of a snake oil salesman who has just received a new shipment of bottle corks. One could be kind and assume that this is done to bring balance to the discussion in the face of such an overwhelming mass of doom-n-gloom pessimism. And their certainly is a reasonable amount of that around. But, in my mind, that is wholly reasonable. Most of the forum members who are posting messages are relatively new to the concept of peak oil. As such they are overwhelmed by the implications of peak oil and, when they understand the deepest of these implications, quite frankly most of them are frightened, desperate, and find little solace as they look at the geopolitical world around them.

As each of these new whiz-bang energy alternatives is discussed it becomes increasingly clear that none of them is going to be able to offer any serious mitigation to the problems global society will face on the downside of Hubbert's Peak when the global oil supply can no longer keep pace with global demand. The simple reality that we all sooner or later come to terms with is that oil has been the most energy intensive fuel source this planet and our species has ever seen or will ever see. And when peak oil newbies, as they are affectionately called, fully understand the depth of our total societal reliance on oil despair often replaces former denial, even if only temporarilly. The constant reaching out for salvation from the energy fairies is largely seen as just another form of denial. The constant expression of relief at every new alternative energy development project or every new piece of new technology that promises unprecedented energy efficiency is generally viewed as the cruelest of false hopes.
Our forum members who so enthusiastically revel in every new positive piece of energy news, probably understandably, tend to view the generally negative reception of such news as doom-n-gloom. They tend to categorize those who reject these pieces as doom-n-gloomers or trolls. "Who," they ask, "doesn't want society to be able to carry on as long as possible." These techno-fix members do not accept that their wish, their hope, and their endless pursuit of sustaining techno-fixes in ultimately short-sighted in the extreme. This is largely based on the fact that they see energy supply as a problem in isolation. They choose not to consider the extreme damage that we have done to the environment and the extreme psychological damage that we have done to the human species as part of the problem of which peak oil is but a very dominant syndrome. They tend to reject reminders that, at least for the past half century, global agriculture and our ability to feed ourselves has been totally based and dependent upon fossil fuels. They tend to reject reminders that our everyday world is made up of over 300,000 products made from or derived from oil, many of those products themselves critical to the efficient and effective running of global human society. They reject reminders that the current social infrastructure has been built with the first half of the world's oil endowment and that it will take that second half of our oil reserves to rebuild the infrastructure into a sustainable post-oil model.

What these techno-fixers see as pessimism and doom-n-gloom is, in fact, an optimism and expression of hope, a hope that we will soon peak and start the slide down the other side in order to force us all to have to come to terms with eventual depletion and start working on developing the society in which we will have to live on the other side of depletion. There will be tremendous pain on the road to post-oil sustainability and most in the peak oil movement want to get on with the preparation. Any pessimism is based on the frustrating reality that current society has so many serious roadblocks to being able to get on with that preparation that even peak-oilers, despite their being fully aware of what is to come, cannot prepare properly because of those roadblocks. Yes, their pessimism is based on the belief that TPTB will do everything in their power to maintain the status quo as long as possible, regardless of the downside results of that effort. Their pessimism is based on a strong belief that the effort will be far too late and far too little, despite the fact that we have known for at least a half-century that the game would soon be up.

Those who see and understand the full implications of peak oil do not want to see an endless procession of new alternative energies and techno-fixes designed to maintain the status quo as long as possible. Yes, they take mild pleasure in seeing these things shot down. Not because they want to see disaster unfold on the other side of peak oil but because they realize that the longer we wait, the longer we prolong an unsustainable human societal model, the greater will be the unavoidable disaster on the other side. They want to mitigate the worst of that inevitable disaster, not worsen the situation by holding off any longer.

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