Published Feb 15 2009 by La Spirale
Archived Feb 18 2009
The future is Amish, not Mad Max: interview with Bart Anderson of EB
by Laurent Courau
The French La Spirale is "an e-zine for the digital mutants." According to their About Us page, they were born in the early 90s as part of the Cyberpunk movement, and subsequently expanded their coverage to "the obscure side of contemporary popular culture."
They say they are guided by the idea that "the eccentrics of today foreshadow the world of tomorrow and that the most interesting cultural currents appear systematically in the margins, far from dozing institutions and mass media."
It could begin like a remake of Mad Max II… “In an indefinite future, oil reserves are exhausted and violence reigns. An ex-highway patrolman goes to the aid of a community under attack by hordes of motorized punks. The battle takes place around the storage tanks of a refinery.”
In spite of the expected end of fossil fuels, Bart Anderson of The Energy Bulletin is reassuring. The post-industrial apocalypse will not happen tomorrow. At the risk of disappointing the more hardcore fringe of La Spirale's readership, less anxiety-producing outlooks are possible.
[Energy Bulletin provides an] inventory of our current situation, possible futures and case studies. It suggests ways out of the crisis which evoke the lifestyle of Amish communities rather than the outrageous violence of Mel Gibson's first films. On the silver screen, Humungus and his dogs of war can continue on the path of sound and fury - the future will do without their services.
Laurent Courau: Your site puts forward the concept of "peak oil." Could you begin by reviewing this essential point for the readers of La Spirale?
Bart Anderson: There is a limited amount of petroleum in the earth. After the easy deposits have been exploited, we go after deposits that are more difficult and expensive to develop (e.g. tar sands, deepwater and arctic oil). At a certain point - peak oil - the amount of oil produced reaches a maximum. Afterwards, less and less oil is produced.
In this way oil production follows a more-or-less bell-shaped curve, Hubbert's Curve. The curve takes its name from the Shell Oil geoscientist, M. King Hubbert, who presented the idea in 1956 and predicted the peaking of U.S. oil production, which occurred in 1970.
There's no serious argument against the general idea. The debate is about when the peak will be reached and how steeply production will fall. Much discussion is devoted to the consequences of peak oil - economic, political and environmental.
There was a resurgence of interest in Hubbert's ideas during the oil crises of the 1970s, but that died down as oil dropped in price. Peak oil started to arouse interest again in the early 2000s, due to work by Colin Campbell, Kenneth Deffeyes and other scientists. Oil companies generally opposed the idea of peak oil in the past, but now seem to have overtly or tacitly accepted the idea.
Less well known than peak oil, is the fact that Hubbert's analysis applies to other resources. We will be facing not just peak oil, but peak coal, peak natural gas and peak phosphorus.
The oil companies have discovered fewer and fewer petroleum deposits since the middle of the 60s, while the demand continues to grow. Does this mean that we've passed the peak of production and that we've been on a critical slope for several decades ?
Are you asking whether the falling rate of oil discoveries since the 60s means that we have already reached peak oil? That would be one of the signs that peak oil is to come, but it doesn't mean that peak oil is already here. Peak oil production occurs several decades after the peak of oil discoveries since it takes years to develop the deposits and bring them to full production. (I may have misunderstood the question.)
Current projections of peak oil range from 2005 to about 2025. People in the peak oil community generally believe the peak will come sooner rather than later. Oil industry estimates are typically farther in the future.
We are all now learning just how closely oil production is related to economic conditions. Due to the recession, demand for oil is down, price is down and production is down. Of course, this has the effect of pushing peak oil into the future.
Many of us are not so concerned about the exact date of peak oil, since we will only know for sure years after it has happened ("in the rear view mirror"). No matter what the date, we need to start preparing for the transition now.
I don't have a driver's licence and have never driven a car in my life. And I discover that more and more people are doing the same thing, both in France and Europe. Do you think that this is a increasingly widespread phenomenon, and is it the same in North America?
Wonderful idea. Don't you find that living without a car makes you see things differently than other people?
It reminds me of the advice that farmer-poet-environmentalist Wendell Berry gave to young people in the 1970s, when he said that the most revolutionary thing they could do would be to grow gardens. His point was that gardening gets you in touch with food, soil, the climate - in a much deeper way than books or the intellect.
I'm sure you could describe at length what car-less living means for you.
For me, it has meant a much higher quality of life. Twenty-three years ago my wife insisted that we live in a neighborhood where we could walk almost everywhere we needed to go. Her decision proved to be one of the best we ever made. As a result, we know the people and stores in our community. We don't have to be concerned with traffic jams or the price of gas. We get exercise and fresh air.
Unfortunately, living without a car is not as easy in America as it is in France. The suburban culture is much more developed in America and in many places it is virtually impossible to get around without a car. Consequently, I still own one..
Nevertheless there are pioneers in car-less living in the U.S. It is such a novel concept, that some of the pioneers write blogs about it (for example Alan Durning in Seattle, Washington
Reforming our ways of thinking and consumption seems unattainable. According to you, what would be the first changes to put into practice at a global level. Also, what are the first sacrifices that we should make as individuals?
A change in worldviews may be more possible than it seems at first. When conditions are ripe, people's ideas can change very quickly.
During the last century, China went from a backward feudal society, to an epic struggle with a military invader (Japan), to an ultra-left Communist society under Mao, to a spectacularly successful neo-capitalist power.
For us to change to a more sustainable way of life actually is a less extreme transition than what the Chinese went through. Many of the ideas and technologies for sustainability are already developed. Traditional forms of sustainability are still present and can be revived.
A couple of years ago, I sat down with Julian Darley, co-founder of the Post Carbon Institute, and wrote our ideas down on a napkin. Our program, so to speak:
1. Energy decline is inevitable.
2. Big energy is not the way out.
3. Reduce consumption and population.
4. Start from where you are.
5. Produce locally.
6. Relish the power of symbolic seeds.
7. Honor public service.
8. Anyone is welcome. (non-sectarian, not promoting any political party)
9. Hope and reason. (no rants, not fear-based).
If there were one suggestion I could make, it would be: "Take your time and go deeply into the subjects of depletion and sustainability." In the light of peak oil, our common ideas about progress, economics, science and politics are in drastic need of revising,
Sometimes it feels like the words of the song: "Everything you know is wrong."
Going through the process of re-thinking assumptions is psychologically hard. Some people compare it to the "Five Stages of Grief" described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BCbler-Ross_model
When one speaks of an oil shortage, it evokes for many of us the film "Mad Max II" which is based on a similar scenario. Without falling into an extreme catastrophism, what would be the consequences of a decline in energy resources in the short- and medium-term?
Ah yes, the Mad Max scenario. The good news is that the reality will bear no resemblance to the movie!
A better place to look for clues is history. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba and North Korea no longer had access to cheap oil. Both suffered, but Cuba (whatever you think of its political system) responded in a positive way - changing to a more organic form of agriculture and sharing the burden. (See the film "The Power of Community – How Cuba Survived Peak Oil" http://www.communitysolution.org/poc.html
For the developed countries, we have precedents in the 1973 oil crisis and World War 2.
For the Global South, we have precedents in what went on last year, when rising prices made oil unaffordable for many.
I think it's important to distinguish between a temporary oil shock, such as the 1973 oil crisis, and the long-term decline of oil production. Temporary shortages we've seen before. They mean disruption and economic turmoil, but they can be managed.
Declining oil resources is different. Obviously prices will rise ("the end of cheap oil" is how oil companies phrase it). Transportation will be hit since our cars, trucks, etc. depend on liquid fuels, Manufacturing will be affected since petroleum is an input for many products. Most importantly, agriculture will be crippled since industrialized agriculture is based on oil, for machinery, pesticides and food transport.
And here's the double-whammy. Just when we need to switch to rebuild our infrastructure and develop new energy sources, we'll find that the job will be much more expensive. High oil prices mean higher manufactuing and transportation costs.
For this reason, people who believe in peak oil are urging their governments to start making the transition now. Google on the "Hirsch report" for a more complete explanation.
The bottom line is that the consequences of peak oil are not preordained. Far-sighted national policies + an educated public = a difficult but doable transition. We would even find some benefits (better health, a re-discovery of community)
What are the viable forms of alternative energy, renewable and therefore valid in the short- and medium-term? Where are we today in this effort, in terms of research and scientific experimentation?
I prefer to concentrate on the Demand side of the equation - how can we reduce our need for energy? The media, government and scientific establishment concentrate on Supply, but little attention is given to Demand. As people are beginning to discover, however, the cheapest form of energy is the Negawatt (the energy that you don't use).
The opportunities to save energy are everywhere - at work, at home, in the community. In contrast, you and I do not have much say about how society generates its power.
A discussion of energy sources gets very technical very quickly. Perhaps I could make some suggestions for people as they investigate the subject on their own?
* The most hopeful strategy seems to me solar and wind, combined with the electrification of transportation. The problem is that renewables now provide a very small part of our energy, and ramping them up will take time.
* Be skeptical about schemes that seem too good to be true. I don't know how many articles I've read that start out: "Here is the technology that might, just might, be the solution to our energy needs."
* Look for hidden costs, unwanted side effects (especially with biofuels). Corn ethanol has had the effect of raising food prices, for example.
* Pay attention to the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) -- how much energy do you get out of a process for each unit of energy you put in? Even though the figures won't be exact, they can give you a general idea of the potential for a new energy source. For example, fossil fuels like oil have had a high EROEI (for example above 10:1), whereas many alternative energy sources like corn ethanol have a low EROEI.
* A good source for a discussion of technical issues is The Oil Drum http://www.theoildrum.com/
I've just learned on the pages of Energy Bulletin about the existence of the Transition Town Movement, which originated in the United Kingdom and is now spreading throughout the English-speaking world. Could you describe Transition, its importance in the USA and in the world, and the concrete initiatives that its members support and develop?
I think you're right to point to the Transition Town Movement. It's one of the most encouraging developments in sustainability. The movement has "gone viral," with Transition Towns forming across Britain, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
I'm not a participant, so I can't describe Transition Towns from my own experience. However I have been impressed with its approach, which is non-dogmatic, inclusive and local.
The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2008/sep/10/ethicalliving.transit...
...) describes Transition Towns like this:
"The idea behind transition towns is simple: if you have no faith that governments will take meaningful action on climate change and "peak oil", then you can come together as a community to do something about it.
... it presents communities with a 12-step guide to a low-carbon economy. Step one is to set up a steering committee to take the project forward. Steps two to 11 are about raising awareness, setting up working groups to discuss topics such as food and fuel, and liaising with local government. Step 12 sees the creation of a unique energy action plan.
I highly recommend the "Bible" of the movement, the "Transition Town Handbook" by Rob Hopkins. Here's hoping that the movement will expand outside the English-speaking world.
What general advice and suggestions would you give to individuals who want to act and take their destiny in hand?
The old-fashioned virtues should be making a comeback in a low-energy world. For example:
* Being able to be happy with few material possessions.
* Self-reliance and do-it-yourself skills.
* Loyalty to family, community and place.
* Relationships rather than The Market.
* Prudence and thrift.
* Honesty, hard work and sobriety.
* Some belief system, whether it be religious or political.
It does sound like a traditionalist's wish list, doesn't it? A strange thing happens when people begin imagining a world after cheap oil. One realizes that these characteristics have a survival value.
For more, see the Simple Living or Voluntary Simplicity movement. In French: Simplicité volontaire
Where and in what situation do you imagine yourself to be in 20 years?
My personal situation should be about the same as it is now. We live simply so we aren't much affected by the outside world. I am happy with books, a garden, a bicycle and my family. I'm concerned about the turmoil that may accompany the coming transition, but more for the sake of young people than for myself.
Energy Bulletin brings together much information on the state of the world. What do you see in the future, for this summer, then for the winter of 2009?
I think economic problems will hold our attention rather than the price of oil over the next year. Just how bad are things going to get? Will we see political changes? I'm watching the demonstrations taking place in France, Iceland, Bulgaria.
On energy issues, I'm watching Israel's coming elections. If Benjamin Netanyahu and a center-right coalition come into power, will there be military action against Gaza and Iran? How will that roil the energy markets?
In terms of forecasting the future, I've been influenced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his Black Swan theory, in which unforeseen events occur with dramatic consequences. The future has a high uncertainty factor, and we should plan accordingly.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Editorial Notes ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
French version is at:
This interview is part of a special issue on survival.
Laurent Courau has a related interview with Graham Burnett of Spiral Seed (UK) - in French.