Peak Oil Optimist ?  

Posted by Big Gav

Rob over at "Peak Oil Optimist" had a rather demented freak-out this week about the millenialist tendencies in some peak oil circles (and gives a very good example of how not to deal with sensible comments - if you don't like reasoned debate than just ban comments altogether and save people the time of composing a reasonable reply).

I think he's kind of missing the point - a lot of the dire warnings about the peak are intended (I assume) to motivate discussion and action in the same way that "The Day After Tomorrow" was meant to wake some people up about global warming.

And even the most extreme peak oil sites like don't seem gleeful about the imminent demise of humanity that they predict, contrary to Rob's accusations - they just think its inevitable because a large mass of the western world's population clearly doesn't listen to warnings about unsustainable behaviour.

If you want to be optimistic about it thats great - but the optimism should be based on positive actions that are happening to deal with the problem, rather than repeating the "market will solve all problems" religious mantra that seems to be increasingly emanating from the US these days (every single party state needs some simple slogans for the proles to chant I guess).

The original rant was inspired by an interesting article at Anthropik called "The Opposite Of Malthus" which is worth reading. Rob's rant also inspired a reply, "On Optimism", which I guess expresses the primitivist view on peak oil.

Many call me a pessimist, because I see the collapse of civilization in the next 15 years--whether by Peak Oil, global warming, or simply its increasing fragility--as inevitable, as well as the concommitant death of 99% or more of the current human population. But then, in the future I foresee, after breaking its 10,000-year-old fever in the greatest strife any animal has ever had the misfortune to behold, those who choose to survive by changing their lifestyle will get to live the balance of their days in the peace, freedom and simple joy which has been unknown to our civilized kind for 10 millennia. It's not a perfect utopia, except in comparison to civilized life. Civilization is all about living today by indebting the future; eventually, that must be paid. In the future I foresee, we pay it all at once and be done with it.

Rob also has a (much less fraught) post on methane hydrates which views them in a positive light. One article he links to is a good one from "Mechanical Engineering Magazine" that discusses the economic viability of extracting natural gas from methane hydrates. He doesn't comment on the global warming implications unfortunately, something I've morbidly moaned about previously.

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Yikes, freak-out is the right term for that comment thread.

Expecting biology to pull us though (i.e. cyano-bacteria in wheat ???) seems otherworldly optimistic for a physics-minded techno like myself.

dude is arguing against straw men, not ideas and people who exist in the real world.

A variety of opinions about something as complex as Peak Oil is valuable.

when the end of the world comes, some people will just draw the curtains.

The primitivists are homicidal loons. If he thinks industrial civilization is so bad, I offer him the following proposition: where would he rather come down with a case of acute appendicitis: Chicago, or in the headwaters of the Amazon?

As for cyanobacteria, the whole point is that they exist in clover and the legumes naturally; figuring out how to get those same into wheat and make wheat a naturally nitrogen-fixing crop is hugely important. Perhaps I didn't make that clear, but the primitivists (and their arguments) are hardly straw men; I encounter them every day it seems.

But Rob - they aren't homicidal loons (well - Ted Kaczynski was, but he was an exception I think) - you were the one ranting about machine guns.

I'm not a primitivist myself, but they seem to be saying that humanity deserves what it gets if everything falls apart - but they aren't trying to push the process along - in fact, in that they tend to withdraw from industrial society, you could say they are actually trying to avoid contributing to any potential fall.

Your government, on the other hand, are a bunch of homicdal loons and are making the various problems we're all facing much worse.

Simply abusing your commenters and then cutting off the conversation seemed like pretty bad form too.

As for cyanobacteria, I quite like the idea of nitrogen fixing wheat (or rice, or corn) - is anyone attempting to create this or are you just dreaming about how nice it would be ?

My response to the former is that the primitivists either want such a scenario, or they do not and are being coy. Either way, I find them morally reprehensible.

As to the latter -- well, of course people are looking into it. It's the holy grail of plant biology, because it would radically reduce fertilizer inputs to plant growth.

Oh, and as to whether the US government consists of a bunch of homicidal loons -- no question there, but that wasn't exactly the matter under discussion.

I keep crossing my fingers that Bush is smart enough to figure out that $4/gallon gasoline will be the necessary result of an Iran invasion, and that would rapidly terminate the Republican majorities in both the House and Senate in the 2006 midterm elections.

" I offer (the) following proposition: where would he rather come down with a case of acute appendicitis: Chicago, or in the headwaters of the Amazon?"

False choice. The answer is Cuba.

Or Europe - as Kunstler just pointed out:

"The Europeans have very different ways of life and standards of living. They have cars but are not car-dependent, certainly not to the degree we are. They did not destroy their towns and cities. We did. They did not destroy their public transit. We did. They did not destroy local agriculture or the value-added activities associated with it. We did. If Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia got bumped off by a Wahabi maniac tomorrow and the West was put under a new oil embargo, the Europeans would still be able to get around. We would not."

Rob, you simply close off too many people and ideas with your blanket assertions. We are not all primitivists. And a semi-agrarian society is not the death knell for civilization.

Business as usual - now that is scary. Show me the tech, guessing isn't enough.

I remember in the nineties I got worked up over the Hydrogen economy. I was extolling the virtues to my dad and he asked me, "How much electricity does it take to make Hydrogen?" Stopped me in my optimistic tracks.

That started an ongoing quest to find alternatives to oil, which is shortly to be depleting.

I've read just about every post on your site, and most peak oil sites out there.

I'm still looking.

And you really trust the information coming out of the Cuban government regarding infant mortality, health care, and the like? You are naive. It's still a dictatorship. The primitivists' love of Cuba is pretty ridiculous, and hasn't been examined nearly closely enough.

Haha! Meaning - I'm a commie, a pinko. You don't know me. Give it up.

Sure governments lie - all the time, all the governments.

Excuse me, did I say you were a commie?

My point is that the Cuban government can say whatever it wants -- have their numbers been verified by an independent third party?

Define independant. There have been several in depth cuba articles on energy bulliten, but I have no idea if you would classify their authors as primitivists or not.

Rob, I think you have a great blog. But when you come across an idea you don't like, not only do you frame it in a limited way, you lob personal insults, or, insults that can't help but be taken personally.

Bold, provocative stances are fine, but they are harder to back down from than nuanced ones.


Mein Kampf was once the demented scribblings of a crank in a Bavarian jail. I have to take the writings of the primitivists no less seriously; their plans, should one of their cult somehow get into a position of power, would end in the deaths of billions. I find their contempt for human life as repulsive as the Nazis' "final solution", and take their hostility as a prima facie attack on me personally; why shouldn't I? Either they're kidding (in which case, why?), they're out to make a point (yuck), or more likely, they lack the courage of their convictions (they are pussies lacking the puissance to implement their savagery). My shout-out was to get them to come forward with their vile little plans and take action, something I believe they won't do (yup, I'm betting on option number three).

Flood in his criticism wrote "a good third of the German Nazi party came from forest worshipping blood and soil movements that sprang up in Germany in the aftermath of world war one." I see these same motivations in the modern primitivist movement, and believe these same need to be exposed for their base motivations.

Come on Rob - this sounds pretty crazy - which of the primitivists are trying to gain power ?

Which of them (other than Ted Kaczynski) has written that they plan to actively harm humanity ?

They are misanthropic, but I don't see any evidence they wish to do anything about it - the core of their belief seems to be that nature will take its course (or its revenge, to their way of thinking). No human intervention required.

They certainly aren't any sort of organised political force.

On the other hand, if you want to do "Mein Kampf" comparisons, go and do some reading at the Project For the New American Century or The Committee On The Present Danger (have you ever watched "The Power of Nightmares" ?) - there are far more dangerous loons around than a bunch of disgruntled nature lovers...

Their claim is that the earth would be better off if 7/8ths of humanity were dead. All right; let's see it in action. Come on. Right now. Let's go. Put up or shut up. Start the killin'.

I don't think they will. You're right, only Kaczynski has had the huevos to pull that one off, and for exposing the primitivists, I thank him. But the only difference between him and the others is that he's had that courage and they haven't. Should I simply ignore their morbid views therefore? Or should I call them on it?

As to the PFANAC creepos, they're just another example of Lord Acton's Maxim in action.

Your ability to glom everyone together and skip over any possibility of diversity of thought never ceases to amaze me, Rob.

Yes, I believe quality of life would be immensely improved by a human population in millions, rather than billions. Many eco-anarchists I greatly respect believe this can be done gradually, but given the state and nature of civilization (since the Neolithic, not the Industrial Revolution), I think this has more to do with wishful thinking than reality. Given that, I'm preparing myself to survive the ordeal, rather than wasting my effort on something I don't think is possible. I think humanity's best hope for survival lies in such preparations.

I'm not standing in your way; I'm not standing in the way of any of my friends and colleagues who are pursuing a "gradual drop-off." As always, diversity is the best assurance of survival. If we all pursue your suggested course, and you fail (as you almost certainly will), then the species ends. If, however, I pursue my own path of preparation, how do I harm you? And if I'm right, then you needn't worry that your failure will mean the doom of our entire race.

I am not a fan of Kaczynski. His writing is often genius, but to attempt the use of force against civilization is utterly futile. You have all the people, and you have all the guns.

But the romantic in me loves a lost cause. What makes me really not like Kaczynski is that he put himself up as god, meting out death and judgment. He took it upon himself to decide who should live, and who should die. This is the same cardinal sin that damns civilization itself. We and our food must live; that which eats our food must die. That which occupies space we can use, must die. That which we can make use of, must die. It is this rampant expansionism that makes civilization so unsustainable.

I am not going to take death and judgement into my own hands. They belong to the gods--whether they're one, many, or simple the deterministic forces of nature. They'll decide who lives and dies; I'll just do my best to be among those chosen to live. One day, they'll decide against me, and I'll be food for something else. I can accept that, but I won't go willingly today ... and probably not tomorrow.

That's my stance, and the stance I've always taken. I'm not going to change it, no matter how many times you tell me I'm supposed to believe every word Kaczynski writes, or how often you trot out the same infantile rhetorical flourish.

Rob - you ask "Should I simply ignore their morbid views therefore? Or should I call them on it?"

You should ignore them.

They aren't harming you. They would be more than happy to ignore you if you left them alone.

They aren't advocating any direct action against anyone - they just think the world is doomed and want to try as best they can to try and survive the apocalypse they forsee.

I think its best you just leave them to it. There is enough demonising of people being done as it is without fanning the flames further.

Jason - thanks for posting - I was feeling a bit hesitant about describing how you guys see the world, and its much better to get it from the horses mouth, so to speak.

One bit of vaguely related silliness I have noticed was the "Green Guerillas" post over at Global Guerillas.

If the primitivists (or eco-anarchists, if thats their preferred term) were advocating this I'd say they were nuts - but they aren't - so just let them be.

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