Apocalypse, Not ?  

Posted by Big Gav

Toby Hemenway's article Apocalypse, not seems to be the talk of the peak oil town this weekend, prompting a variety of reactions to his attempted rebuttal of traditional peak oil doomerism (or as Dave Roberts at Grist puts it "permaculture-guy Toby Hemenway does his part to cool off some of the more overheated peak oil apocaphilia").

The phrase "the end of the world as we know it" has been uttered so often in the last decade that some Peak Oil advocates simply use its acronym, TEOTWAWKI. This awkward shorthand was once employed by Y2k catastrophists, and that heritage alone--the most unnecessary "sky is falling" panic in my lifetime--is enough to make me skeptical of the negativism embraced by many of my fellow Peak Oil believers. Peak Oil is as inevitable as death and taxes. But for every convert that Peak Oil's doom-and-gloom extremism sweeps up, it alienates plenty of people who might otherwise climb down from their SUVs.

Peak-Oil catastrophism's repetition of doubtful facts and its sometimes muddied thinking betray a lack of critical analysis that discredits the Peak Oil movement. I'd like to delve into some of the errors and half-truths surrounding Peak Oil catastrophism, not as encouragement for those who want to party on blindly into the end of oil, which would be tragic, but as a way of refining and bolstering those arguments around Peak Oil that are valid.

You can find discussion of the article at The Oil Drum, with Prof Goose voicing a positive reaction "I happen to think he makes some very good points", which wasn't entirely shared by the commenters - "vtpeaknik" leading off with a good example:
In general, I think that Hemenway's approach is through the looking glasses of the First World Middle Class, and "on the average". Thus some major points get missed, e.g., that resources are not and will not be equitably distributed, and that major unemployment (that even he predicts) means some people will starve.

Referring to the numbered points above:

1. Depends what counts as a "significant" change in demand. If the demand is inflexible enough to cause a major price increase, as very clearly is the case, then I'd say this can cause major life-threatening problems to poorer people around the world. E.g., we already see many go back from cooking on kerosene to spending hours a day collecting the little that is left of the woods in their area. Also, many depend on cheap food imports, and their price is rising. Sugar price has doubled due to the ethanol craze.

2. This too is observable. Watch the world's richest country plunge into multiple desparate wars, and destroy its own societal values, in a futile attempt to secure what's left of the oil. Watch the people of China destroy their air and water in order to industrialize and buy cars.

3. It would take a lot of time and a HUGE amount of resources to rebuild not just our transportation infrastructure but also our housing. The Hirsch Report specifically addresses the time issue, and concludes that we need a CRASH program to start 20 years before the peak to avoid major, "unprecedented", problems.

4. conservation is good and can achieve a lot, but until we get a cultural shift, the gains will be spent elsewhere, thus no reduction in energy use. Moreover, one person's savings through conservation are another person's income denied. It will be a long time before we'll voluntarily work half time so others can work too. During the Great Depression most people had full time jobs (at lower pay) while a large minority had nothing. See also the next point.

5. I forget whether it was AA Bartlett or MK Hubbert who said this: we don't have an energy crisis, we have an energy shortage resulting in a cultural crisis. The reason our society is indeed very fragile is that we've built an economic/financial system that depends on endless exponential growth, and will collapse without it. This has happened in the 1930's, with great suffering resulting, despite no lack of physical resources. Imagine what it would be like, and the societal reaction, if a depression goes on for a long time with no visible solution, while the few rich party on.

Jason at Anthropik is even more dismissive, labelling the piece "Chicken Little Meets the Ostrich", while MonkeyGrinder was inspired to deliver a well phrased polemic.
There are some serious problems with his analysis. Anyone who invokes critical thinking had better exhibit it, and framing an article around supposed apocalyptic ninnies allows the author to pen a mass of prose which debunks various straw people, while sidestepping structural issues.


"5. Society is so fragile that it cannot withstand large shocks."
Is this really false? It must depends on the definition of a large shock. Maybe we should ask a displaced Katarina victim for their opinion. I’m a bit aghast that a permaculture expert is seemingly unaware of the converging problems for all civilization around the world, including: Rapidly dropping water tables. Rapidly declining fish stocks. Denuded soil, which will take thousands of years to heal without active intervention. Acidic oceans destroying plankton, wee critters currently tasked with providing the bulk of breathin’ air. These problems are “shocking”, and we will meet them head on in an era of waning energy. Cheap energy currently masks, and contributes too, each of these problems! Ironic, yet no one is laughing.

In a attacking the apocaphyles, a little criticism of Hubbard’s peak has crept in, as well as some useless analysis of why production slowed down. Earth Day had nothing to do with Texas. What a hoot. The off shore supplies are trivial. A careful thinker might consider that Hubbert’s key insight was not the curve, but rather that ALL oil reservoirs are finite and can be produced at predictable rates until they are kaput. And if by “other sources” Hemenway refers to oil shale, it should be noted that only one thing stands in way of production. Rocks. Rocks being heavy, such that there is no net energy during production. Not a tender concern for environmental damage. When the rocks are jammed with coal, mountains are bulldozed.

And my view ? Well - I think most readers will have gathered over the months that I'm skeptical of the more extreme types of doomerism, as I think that there is plenty of energy to go around if we orient our economies around using it efficiently and don't pander to vested interests in the oil and coal industries and make harnessing renewable energy our number 1 priority. I also think the ASPO, for example, underestimates the amount of liquid fuel that can be produced from tar sands, extra heavy oil / bitumen and coal-to-liquids (at enormous environmental cost).

However, I don't discount doomer scenarios entirely though, as peak oil isn't the only problem we are running into. As MonkeyGrinder notes - there are a range of (interlinked) catastrophes of varying degrees of seriousness all emerging at once, and the combination of these may well sink us given the appalling short-sightedness exhibited by our political leaders (a few forward thinking nations like Sweden excepted).

Speculation about US air strikes on Iran is continuing, prompted by a new article by Seymour Hersh (the quote below is from the original article at The Herald, which has subsequently morphed into one entitled "US air strike talk 'psychological warfare': Iran" - I really hate when a permalink appears to be anything but permanent - one of the reasons for my use of "long" quotes).
The US administration is stepping up plans for a possible air strike on Iran, according to a report by influential investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.

Hersh's story in the April 17 issue of the New Yorker magazine quotes former and current intelligence and defence officials as saying the administration increasingly sees "regime change" in Iran as the ultimate goal.

"This White House believes that the only way to solve the problem is to change the power structure in Iran, and that means war," Hersh quotes an unidentified senior Pentagon adviser on the war on terror as saying.

The report says the administration has stepped up clandestine activities in Iran and has initiated a series of talks on its plans with "a few key senators and members of Congress".

A former senior defence official is quoted as saying the military believes a sustained bombing campaign against Iran will humiliate the leadership and lead the Iranian public to overthrow it, adding that he was shocked to hear the strategy.

The report also says the US military is seriously considering the use of a tactical nuclear weapon against Iran to ensure the destruction of its main centrifuge plant at Natanz.

From the Hersh article:
“This is much more than a nuclear issue,” one high-ranking diplomat told me in Vienna. “That’s just a rallying point, and there is still time to fix it. But the Administration believes it cannot be fixed unless they control the hearts and minds of Iran. The real issue is who is going to control the Middle East and its oil in the next ten years.”


In recent weeks, the President has quietly initiated a series of talks on plans for Iran with a few key senators and members of Congress, including at least one Democrat. A senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, who did not take part in the meetings but has discussed their content with his colleagues, told me that there had been “no formal briefings,” because “they’re reluctant to brief the minority. They’re doing the Senate, somewhat selectively.”

The House member said that no one in the meetings “is really objecting” to the talk of war. “The people they’re briefing are the same ones who led the charge on Iraq. At most, questions are raised: How are you going to hit all the sites at once? How are you going to get deep enough?” (Iran is building facilities underground.) “There’s no pressure from Congress” not to take military action, the House member added. “The only political pressure is from the guys who want to do it.” Speaking of President Bush, the House member said, “The most worrisome thing is that this guy has a messianic vision.”

Some operations, apparently aimed in part at intimidating Iran, are already under way. American Naval tactical aircraft, operating from carriers in the Arabian Sea, have been flying simulated nuclear-weapons delivery missions—rapid ascending maneuvers known as “over the shoulder” bombing—since last summer, the former official said, within range of Iranian coastal radars.

The FT reports on continuing concern about rising energy prices - "IMF warns high prices risk global crisis".
High energy prices are “exacerbating” global economic imbalances, increasing the risks of a crisis, the International Monetary Fund will warn next week.

The IMF will say in its World Economic Outlook report that “global current account imbalances are likely to remain at elevated levels for longer than would otherwise have been the case, heightening the risk of sudden disorderly adjustment”. A draft of the second chapter of the report was obtained by Expansion, the Financial Times’ Spanish partner paper.

High oil prices are increasing the US trade deficit, the report says. In addition, the recycling of petrodollars is driving down interest rates providing an unsustainable boost to US private consumption.

Neocon vulture and new head of the IMF's Bretton Woods sister establishment the World Bank, Paul "Iraq floats on a sea of oil" Wolfowitz has visited East Timor, declaring "Oil 'curse' could be Timor's blessing". Personally I think the track record of the "curse of oil" is a pretty good one, so I wouldn't be partying too hard if I were Timorese.
Being oil-rich can be a curse for some developing nations, says World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz, but he is hopeful East Timor will be the exception. Mr Wolfowitz made the comments during a visit to one of the world's newest and poorest nations, which won its independence in 2002.

The government in the capital Dili hopes revenue from the oil and gas rich Timor Sea will go some way to alleviating poverty in the country. Timor signed off on an oil and gas deal with Australia earlier this year which could result in a $US10 billion windfall for the country.

Resource Investor has an article on the energy market called "Peak Oil Passnotes: Oil Prepares to Push On".
If you are attached to the oil markets it is a great time to be plugged in. Very little is really making sense, after all if we really factored in Iran’s nukes, American strikes, Israeli strikes, French riots, Nigerian mayhem, Alaskan pipelines, Iraqi collapse, Repsol downgrades and Hugo Chavez we would already be at $100 and ready for more.

Instead the oil market is like a hungry child in a sweet shop. It can’t sit still and it is permanently distracted by something more amazing than the last thing it was sucking. The Europeans are sucking up Brent crude of that there is no mistake. The normal gap between Brent and the WTI has evaporated as European natural gas prices, currently around 99 pence per therm for 2007, have forced a switch back to oil for some power generators. That is the same as $110 oil. Plus Europe’s refiners are back on stream and champing for product.

Brent is just 50 cents off its all time closing high and pump prices in the U.K. are closing on $2.00 a litre. But then nothing else is sitting still either.

Salon has an article called "Goldbugs on the march" that looks at the rising gold price (in nominal US$ anyway).
The price of gold hit $600 an ounce on Thursday, its highest level in 25 years. What's going on? Prices are high for commodities of all kinds these days, from oil to copper to sugar, but there are usually concrete explanations for that, mostly having to do with surging demand from the booming Chinese and Indian economies.

A survey of the financial press today indicates that everything's going on. The desire for gold appears to be the measure of all things. When the dollar is weak, investors turn to gold, and the dollar has been sinking for months. When oil prices rise, inflation threatens, and gold is seen as a hedge on inflation (oil prices rose again today, to $68 dollars a barrel). Current events -- anouncements that Zimbabwe may nationalize its gold mines, or that Iran is testing new weapons designed to sink ships in the Gulf, make people nervous. So they buy gold.

Chevy's new advertising campaign for their Tahoe SUV seems to have brought out a lot of creativity in the peak oil world (along with various green and environmental type of movements). Halushki has a summary of some of the spoof ads that have spawned in the wake of this ill considered platform for corporate lampooning (though maybe it will turn out to be a successful viral marketing campaign in an unexpected way).

TreeHugger notes that not all the "subversive" versions live very long - Chevy aren't completely incompetent it seems.
Poor GM can't do anything right these days. Some ad company had the great idea of a contest where you make your own ad for the Chevy Tahoe. They let you pick the pictures, add the text and music. Grist, Worldchanging and others took a shot at it- hilarity ensued. Hop right over to Total Tactics and try them out. Not all work- it appears there are censors ferreting out the subversives.

TreeHugger also has a look at the "Climate Race" between the "Wind Rabbit & Nuclear Tortoise".
We have some more wind power myths to tend to below the fold. But we'd like to frame them, first, with the increased plausibility of an oncoming climate emergency. Here are the future drivers for the single scenario we'll look at. Per capita power consumption is increasing in many nations, but especially in US with high levels of immigration, homes full of appliances, and all things digital. To mitigate a coming climate crisis, we have a decade or less in which to begin a serious transition to lifestyles which are less carbon intensive. What mix of new electricity generation capacities will we build and why?

A new nuclear plant needs around a decade to get up and running, from concept to completion. Possibly less time would be needed if all goes well; or more if the public hearings get dicey or if government runs out of incentive money. A majority of the US population senses that dramatic climate changes are underway; yet, only a small minority believes that cultural sources are the primary cause. We don't think a responsive and aware majority will arise in time to get a large number of new nuclear generation plants under construction withing the next 10 years. See where this is heading?


As for the myths that most need to be demolished, here they are:

* Wind Turbines are a Nuisance
* Turbine Lighting is Excessive
* Nearby Residences Will be Affected by Shadow Flicker
* Turbines Interfere with Television and Other Communications Signals
* Turbines are Ugly
* Wind Turbines Do Not Benefit Local Communities
* Wind Projects Depress Tourism
* Wind Projects Don't Contribute to the Local Tax Base
* Wind Turbines aren't Safe
* Blades Cause Dangerous Ice Throw
* Turbines May Throw Blades or Collapse
* Wind Turbines are Expensive and Unreliable

For the de-mythologizing pdf please look here.

"Think progress" has a good demonstration of George Bush showing his usual quick wits and verbal dexterity responding to a citizens questions, which was enthusiastically received by his crowd of fervent admirers.
Q: You never stop talking about freedom, and I appreciate that. But while I listen to you talk about freedom, I see you assert your right to tap my telephone, to arrest me and hold me without charges, to try to preclude me from breathing clean air and drinking clean water and eating safe food. If I were a woman, you’d like to restrict my opportunity to make a choice and decision about whether I can abort a pregnancy on my own behalf. You are –

THE PRESIDENT: I’m not your favorite guy. Go ahead. (Laughter and applause.) Go on, what’s your question?

Q: Okay, I don’t have a question. What I wanted to say to you is that I — in my lifetime, I have never felt more ashamed of, nor more frightened by my leadership in Washington, including the presidency, by the Senate, and –


THE PRESIDENT: No, wait a sec — let him speak.


Q: Can I ask a question?

THE PRESIDENT: I’m going to start off with what you first said, if you don’t mind, you said that I tap your phones — I think that’s what you said. You tapped your phone — I tapped your phones. Yes. No, that’s right. Yes, no, let me finish.


Now, you and I have a different — of agreement on what is needed to be protected. But you said, would I apologize for that? The answer — answer is, absolutely not. (Applause.)

To close, its tinfoil time, with Jeff at RI switching tracks from parahistory to his evolving exploration of the paraphysics of zero point energy. The linking of some of the ideas in the movie "What the Bleep Do We Know" to the zero point idea is quite an inspired piece of speculative fiction really - as the proportion of the population that understands physics at the subatomic level is vanishingly small (and it's not a field that seems entirely settled anyway), much of this sort of speculation is pretty much impossible to debunk (other than to point to the absence of free energy devices). The tales of Nazi anti-gravity research and the like that accompany zero point always add an interesting historical twist to the tale.
A holographic brain should be expected as the natural, biological decoder of a holographic universe, such as that of quantum physicist David Bohm. In these compatable models, the brain becomes a participant in the construction of reality by assembling certain frequencies of wave patterns. Just as a hologram cannot be divided against itself as each division contains the base wave pattern required to recreate the image, so Bohm says our brains are smaller aspects of the whole picture that nonetheless "contain the whole knowledge of the universe." Our perspectives are determined by the frequencies to which we're attuned, so the virtual reality we construct encompasses only a narrow spectrum of the quantum wave pattern, or zero point field, that both contains us and which we ourselves contain.


Light is a form of wave motion, as is sound. A formerly distinguishing characteristic of the two was thought to be that light can travel through empty space, while sound needs a medium, but zero point theory has done away with the vacuum: light traverses the medium of the quantum field. Shamanic initiations appear to stimulate the reception of both wave patterns. For instance, ayahuasca ceremonies generate visual stimuli while the presiding ayahuasqueros sing sacred songs, icaros, said to be taught by the plants or elemental spirits. "I am not the one creating the song," says a shaman. "It passes through me as if I were a radio":


Laurence Rockefeller spent a fortune - or what might pass as a fortune for the rest of us - on paranormal research, and gave particular attention in his later years to UFOs and crop circles. I think it's always instructive to consider what captures a Rockefeller's interest.


Great roundup. Thanks for the mention.

THe Hersh article scares me out of my pants.

THis may upset the neighbors, the sight of a monkeygrinder running about without his knickers, but damn it, if BushCo actually nukes iraq, THEY SHOULD BE SCARED.

what is the point of trying to stop nuclear proliferation if you are going to NUKE people?

christ on a crutch.

Using the pretext of preventing nuclear proliferation as justification for nuking someone is somewhat ironic.

I'm sure these guys have a good laugh when they come up with some of these plans. Being a professional propagandist would probably be enjoyable for a connoisseur of black humour...

"Dismissive"? Ouch. I wasn't trying to be dismissive at all. I think Hemenway's a really smart guy, and his article was great. I didn't agree with a lot of it, but I agreed with a lot of it, too. I noticed in his article that Hemenway invoked the "Chicken Little" bit--my title was meant to point out that such appeals to emotion are not arguments in themselves, and that you can come up with the same thing for the other side very easily. I don't think Hemenway is burying his head in the sand--but then, I don't think I'm a "chicken little," either. The title was meant as a jab to highlight how useless that line of argumentation is, and that we should leave that kind of thing behind and deal with evidence, rather than rhetoric.

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