Peak Freak

by Jenna Orkin

Peak Oil is here and I'm freaking out. 

What's Peak Oil? you're thinking if you're like me six months ago. Sounds as though it has something to do with science and economics, both of which are boring. Also I don't have a car; do I need to know about this? 

Peak Oil is the notion put forth by M. King Hubbert around 1950 that the world would reach a point at which half its oil resources would be used up, after which it's all downhill. Precipitously. These resources are finite. It's not as though the earth crunches more rock and produces more oil ready for delivery to our boilerrooms. In addition, the remaining half of the oil will be harder to extract. Some of it won't be worth the expense so it'll just sit there while the economy grinds to a halt and people starve. 

We're about at that point now. Peak Oil is here and its consequences just over the horizon like a herd of horses that's invisible at the moment but nonetheless stampeding towards us. 

"Oil has topped $54 a barrel," writes Mike Ruppert in a devastating article called GlobalCorp on his website, Fromthewilderness.com . "It's gone up more than 25% in less than three months and fifty per cent over the last year; 400% since 1999. This amid strong signs that global oil production may have already peaked, as declines around the world are not being offset by new production. New fields may come online but the respite will be very short-lived. There may be a few "mega" projects (about a six-day supply for the planet in each) which may produce momentary price declines but the trend is irreversible. Official bodies like the International Energy Administration (IEA) are openly wishing that demand growth might slow in 2005, when actual figures already prove this wish utterly fanciful. China's oil demand is expected to grow by 33% this year. Industrialized and developing nations are expanding their economies as fast as possible to generate cash and liquidity as a means of securing more oil."

I met Ruppert once and asked him the naive question that he probably gets asked fifty times a week by Pollyannas like me: What about wind, solar, hydrogen? 

To replace what oil does in our society, he explained, you'd have to blanket the earth with so many solar panels, there wouldn't be any place left to grow food. Other experts maintain that wind is a viable option mostly in windy places such as Northern Europe; and the production of hydrogen uses more energy than the hydrogen itself produces. 

As for conservation, this leads to a Catch 22 known as Jevon's Paradox: If, say, you save money by using less oil and put that money in the bank, the bank will lend it to six people who will use it to expand their businesses and hence, use more oil. 

Not that we have to worry about that anymore. Ruppert's article implies that whatever might have been done once to staunch the effect of diminishing oil reserves, it's too late now. 

So what does the world look like when the economic bubbles puffed out with hope start to burst? 

Ruppert quotes oil expert Jan Lundberg in Electric Vehicle:

The trucks will no longer pull into Wal-Mart. Or Safeway or other food stores. The freighters bringing packaged techno-toys and whatnot from China will have no fuel. There will be fuel in many places, but hoarding and uncertainty will trigger outages, violence and chaos. For only a short time will the police and military be able to maintain order, if at all. The damage that several days' oil shortage and outage will do will soon wreak permanent damage that starts with companies and consumers not paying their bills and not going to work. After an almost instant depression seizes the modern industrialized world, and nation-states break down, the frantic attempts of people to feed themselves, stay warm and obtain fresh water (pumped presently via petroleum to a great extent), there will be no rescue. Die-off begins. The least petroleum-dependent communities will survive best. These "backward" nations will be emulated by the scrounging survivors of the U.S. and the rest of the "developed" world, as far as local food production will be tried - in a paved-over, toxic landscape by people who have lost touch with the land... 

Hence my freak out. 

Now: Where to move? I live in New York City, the epitome of a paved-over, toxic landscape such as Lundberg is talking about, although I've always been fond of it. It's not enough to stock up on food (this morning I bought a large cylinder of powdered soy protein, expiration date 2008.) Since water gets pumped out by petroleum or natural gas which is in similar straits, better go someplace with a well.

I once spent a weekend with the Amish. They're quaint-looking from a distance but talk about fundamentalism.... Sustaining their way of life all these centuries has depended on a willful ignorance of whatever glories mankind has picked up on its path to inevitable selfannihilation. And there have been some; anyone who's reading this on the internet or even a printed copy is taking advantage of several. 

But now those voluntary blinders are looking pretty enlightened. Did 'primitive' cultures that rejected modern ways always know it would come to this? Keeping their ears to the ground did they see that the rest of us, opting for the ease of modern invention and the dazzling entertainment of the twentieth century were making a Faustian bargain? 

I've been worried in the past about screaming about Peak Oil. It's obviously a subject that the Powers that Be are not keen to have widely acknowledged. (Can't you hear Donald Rumsfeld scoffing, "Henny Penny, the sky is falling.") The media too, those former town criers, have been uncharacteristically mum unless their characteristics have changed in the last several years, as a few commentators have noted. 

But the Ruppert article has brought a sense of, "What do we have to lose? Save whatever can be saved." 

My kid's in college where he's as safe as anywhere else, I suppose. My loved ones have been warned. 

What about the rest of the world? 

"FTW [fromthewilderness] now has tens of thousands of daily readers who understand what is happening and who are urging me to stop trying to convince the rest of the world," Ruppert writes towards the end of his article. "They want us instead, try to and help those who are already convinced. We cannot save everyone. We can only help those who are asking for it. That is our constituency - our contract. The doors will always be open for latecomers."

Which means, I would imagine, that he won't be writing about this for the Radical Academy. 

The word 'saved' gives Ruppert's article a religious quality. But he's not talking about souls or eternity. He's talking about real lives, now. 

I won't describe his epiphany about what impulse it is in mankind that has led us to this point. The purpose of this article is to serve as a wake up call although if you're anything like me, the wake up call will also keep you awake at night.

Jenna Orkin has written articles for Counterpunch and other websites on the environmental disaster of 9/11 as well as other subjects. She is an activist, currently as Spokesperson for the World Trade Center Environmental Organization .


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