June 18, 2010
We’ve known about it for decades. It’s mentioned in the most prestigious of newspapers, such as the The Independent (UK) and The New York Times. It’s occasionally covered on the most heavily trafficked web news sites such as The Drudge Report and CNN.com. Prominent but retired figures like James Schlesinger, former US Secretary of Energy, have publicly expressed their concern about it. Even the most conservative of pro-business organizations, such as the International Energy Agency (IEA), have publicly expressed their alarm about what’s happening. Yet, not one prominent corporate leader or politician in America today has been willing to stand up publicly and take a stand about it. I am talking about “peak oil,” the fact that we have recently reached, or are very soon about to reach, peak world production of petroleum.
We’re now forced to go to very inhospitable environments to find more petroleum to feed the world’s voracious appetite. Perhaps the most salient of examples is the horrendous BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, still gushing as I write this (June 2010). We, the people of industrialized countries, are so desperate to find more oil, that we now do things like go to the Artic, and risk severely damaging not just the Gulf of Mexico, but the pristine Artic National Wildlife Refuge as well. It’s peculiar that this doesn’t seem to strike most people as insane. That we are so dependent on petroleum that we would cause what may well be the most severe ecological disaster in America’s history in order to get more of it for our fix, that doesn’t seem to get many people talking about getting off the stuff. If they do talk about it, many people say things that only reinforce our existing dependency, words such as “drill baby drill.”
Meanwhile, those who would offer a fantasy, about how the peak oil conversation is a just a lot of hot air, they are given great prominence and a high pulpit from which to preach their fantasy. Perhaps most prominent of these are the economists who believe in a world without limits, where every resource has a readily-available substitute, and where every problem will be worked out by “the market.” They disparage conservation efforts with fancy theories like Jevons Paradox, which says that it doesn’t matter much if energy efficiency improves, because people will just use more of the fossil fuel involved. We will regret that we made them the high priests of American society. Meanwhile, the loyal and hard working geologists, environmentalists, and contingency planners that have been sounding the alarm about peak oil are largely ignored. For the most part, there’s not even an attempt to refute the statements of these Paul Revere types — they are simply ignored. So what’s really going on here?
We’re up against the power of denial. This stubbornness and unwillingness to deal with reality is actually quite dysfunctional. If you were a passenger driving in a car with a friend, who was under the influence of a few drinks, and he or she seemed to have fallen asleep at the wheel, would you try to wake them up before the car you were both in crashed into something hard and immobile? Or would you just sit there, remaining silent? The analogy is actually quite apt. We — the people in the developed world who are so very dependent on petroleum — are on a crash course with reality.
Unless we start dealing with this reality immediately, and do so quite intensely, we are going to bring on much more serious repercussions than would have been suffered had we told the truth and promptly dealt with the problem. Some of these severely negative effects are probably unavoidable, given that we have ignored the problem for decades. But we make them still worse, the longer we wait to get out of denial. These repercussions include massive unemployment, a crashing stock market, a crashing real estate market, and widespread bankruptcies. I’m talking about shortages and rationing of motor fuel, blackouts of the electrical grid, and the failure of government to do much of anything about it. I’m talking about still more environmental degradation, shortages of other natural resources, and a surging population whose basic needs are not being met. In some places, widespread hunger, and even starvation, is also likely to result. I’m not making this stuff up, just summarizing what we’re clearly headed for.
Many of us humans tend to deny what’s going on when we don’t like it. We fall into this place of being frozen and paralyzed by our fear. I’m not a psychologist, but I would guess it has something to do with the desire to avoid pain. But the pain of confronting the truth is going to be nothing compared to the pain of the collision just ahead on the road.
The task for us all starts with an end to our preoccupation with our self, with a going beyond our selfishness. We need to stop putting our own feelings (discomfort about what the future will bring, looking foolish, being wrong, whatever) ahead of what’s right, ahead of what needs to be done, ahead of what would be respectful of both nature and future generations. We need to start envisioning what life is going to be like for our children, and our children’s children, if we don’t quickly change the direction in which we are speedily traveling. This visioning process has an official name: scenario analysis. To help us with this effort, there is a large body of research and a large body of experience already available in the contingency planning community. But even those people who are not working in the contingency planning field can and should still prepare their own future scenarios.
It’s time that we started modeling a new type of human being, and here I’m talking about someone who is willing to put their petty selfish feelings aside, someone who is willing to roll up their sleeves and get down to work doing the work that must now be done. I’m talking about a new type of human being, a more evolved human being, someone who deeply gets that we are all in this together. This human being knows that what we do today (such as driving a SUV long distances to commute to a job) has a significant impact not only on themselves, but also on other human beings, on animals, and on nature.
This new human being will also need to admit that there are no shortcuts, that to create a certain result, such as a new economy that is no longer dependent on petroleum, a great deal of serious work must be done. Denial and stubborn refusal to grapple with the truth does not make it go away. Denial of the truth does not mean that the truth is an illusion, it only means that the individual adopting this strategy is ill-prepared and poorly-adapted to the reality of what’s happening. The part of us that thinks we can deal with something by denying it, that is the part that thinks that we can use shortcuts, thinks that we can get away with cutting-corners. That is magical childish thinking, and it’s time for all adults in the industrialized countries to start thinking like, and acting like, responsible adults.
Denial can be tricky, and it does this in an effort to try to maintain its position of prominence in the consciousness of those who have adopted this dysfunctional position. For example, that part of us that likes denial, also likes to color issues in black-or-white (dualistic) terms. For example, either peak oil is a non-issue that we shouldn’t even to talk about, or else we’re all going to die as a result. If today you believe that it’s a non-issue, then you rationalize that you might as well continue your denial. If instead today you believe that everybody is going to die as a result of peak oil, then you can figure “there’s nothing to be done, so why bother worrying about it?” And so you then are back to denial, with perhaps another mask put over the truth. It’s only in grappling with reality, which will be something in between these two extremes, that we can discover what for us would be a right response to peak oil.
It’s time that we all looked at our own personal process surrounding denial of the reality of peak oil, and for that matter, our denial of peak natural resources as well. What part in each one of us has been selfish and unwilling to broaden our perspective to include our impact on other beings and the planet? What part of us has been thinking that we could get away with shortcuts, when we know darn well that we can’t? What part of us has been engaging in mind games, like dualistic thinking, in order to be able to continue with our denial?
To the extent that we can move through these blocks to encountering the truth, in its full impact and implications, to that extent we can start to evolve into the new type of human being that we all potentially are. And by the way, I’m working on it too. For us all, this will require on-going effort to keep confronting the truth as it is revealed. I hope to see you all, the new human beings, after we get through these turbulent times.
Charles Cresson Wood, MBA, MSE, CISA, CISSP, CISM, is a technology risk management consultant with Post-Petroleum Transportation, in Mendocino, California. His most recent book is “Kicking The Gasoline & Petro-Diesel Habit: A Business Manager’s Blueprint For Action” (see www.kickingthegasoline.com).
June 2, 2010
By Charles Cresson Wood
In 2009, the Obama administration granted BP a special exemption from a legal requirement that the oil company perform an environmental impact study (EIS) exploring the results of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico with its platform called Deepwater Horizon. According to the Washington Post, the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) gave BP a “categorical exclusion” so that it might promptly commence drilling with Deepwater Horizon, even though MMS knew that an EIS had not been completed. The MMS report claims that the ecological consequences of an oil spill could be ignored because such an event was “unlikely,” and besides, “no additional mitigation measures” would be needed in the event of a spill.* We now know that this was a horrendous mistake. Here, as in many other cases, the questions people ask are instrumental in creating the future they manifest.
This cause and effect relationship — between the questions they ask, and future they create — applies to contingency planning in all domains, and on all levels of potential damage. Said differently, successful contingency planning is critically dependent on creating realistic scenarios about what the future might look like. The relationship that many businesses, non-profits, and government agencies have today with Peak Oil is much like the relationship that the MMS had last year with the possibility of a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Many organizations are unquestionably aware of very serious oil related problems looming on the horizon, but they have not yet integrated realistic scenarios into their internal contingency planning efforts. As a result, they remain dangerously exposed to very serious losses — including going out of business.
These organizations are, by default, waiting to see what type of losses will ensue, waiting to see how painful and expensive these losses will become. Perhaps then they will be compelled to take action to do something about Peak Oil? As the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico so clearly shows, this is a very dangerous and ill-advised strategy. Instead of waiting to see what will happen next, we should all be asking ourselves: “How horrendous, how destructive, and how ultimately-suicidal does the evidence have to be before we all agree that the age of cheap oil is over?”
It’s one thing to be preparing contingency plans for a future scenario that has a very remote possibility of happening, perhaps an airplane crashing into the headquarters building of an organization in question. It’s another thing entirely to plan for something big that we know definitively will happen, and will happen within the next five to ten years. Peak Oil is a certainty — the only open question from a probabilistic standpoint is: “When, over the next few years, will serious adverse impacts will be experienced?” Many organizations are driving completely blind because they haven’t seriously analyzed these things, so management at these organizations now has no idea how serious the adverse impacts will be. These organizations are in effect guaranteeing that the problems will be a whole lot worse than they need to be, because they haven’t yet gotten their act together to transition to other energy sources, to prepare contingency plans, and to take similar steps enabling them to weather the metaphorical storms ahead.
Likewise, it’s generally acceptable (from a standard of due care standpoint) if an organization doesn’t do contingency planning for relatively-low-negative-impact scenarios, such as an isolated incident of violence in the workplace. It’s an entirely different matter if an organization fails to do planning for a high-negative-impact scenario, such as a massive oil spill that threatens to decimate the economy in a major portion of the country, and that threatens to make thousands of animal species extinct. Similar to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Peak Oil involves many high-negative-impact scenarios that absolutely must be anticipated and planned for. These high-negative-impact scenarios include massive unemployment because the petroleum-dependent system on which we depend can no longer be maintained in the wake of petroleum wars, embargos, shortages, rationing, terrorism, and high prices. Other Peak Oil related scenarios include bankruptcy of critical suppliers and major customers, because they can no longer profitably participate in an energy infrastructure based on low-cost petroleum fuels. Airlines and long-distance trucking firms are now acting as canaries in the mine — their recent mergers and bankruptcies have been caused by the prominent position that petroleum-based fuels play in their cost structures.
In an age where so many decisions are dictated by the numbers, it is surprising that so many organizations still fail to do Peak Oil related contingency planning. In fact, it is illogical NOT to do this type of planning, and the numbers prove this position. Many organizations do contingency planning for low-negative-impact events like an isolated case of workplace violence. And many organizations do contingency planning for very-low-probability events like an airplane crashing into a building. But these same organizations are often at the same time failing to plan for the high-negative-impact, and virtually certain, impacts of Peak Oil. For the detailed mathematical calculations substantiating this analysis, see my blog post on this topic (http://kickingthegasoline.com/contingency-planning/the-irrationality-of-not-preparing-contingency-plans-for-peak-oil/).
The construction of future scenarios is dependent on asking the right questions. The questions we ask will inform the scenarios we construct, and the extent to which they are realistic or not. Many of us have been asking old-fashioned and ill-informed questions, and as a result, the contingency planning scenarios that we have created are most unlikely to come to pass. For example, asking the same questions about deep water oil drilling that one asks about shallow water drilling, that approach has been shown to be ill-advised, dangerous, and obsolete.
Among the old-fashioned and ill-informed questions that we have been asking is this favorite of politicians: “How can we sustain economic growth and expansion?” Efforts to sustain economic growth and expansion with fossil fuels will only create more hardship, more damage to the environment, and more straining to keep things going when we can no longer do that. Fossil fuel production, in fact production of the vast majority of non-renewable natural resources, is peaking if it is not already on the down-slope (its status depends on the resource you are talking about). This means that fossil fuels and non-renewable natural resources will be much more expensive in the future, that is if they are available at all. Efforts to keep our current petroleum-dependent economy going with these non-renewable resources will only cause more damage and pain. The horrendous spill of oil in the Gulf of Mexico is just one of many examples showing that we cannot keep going with this same approach. A much more empowering question is instead: “How can we meet basic human needs, and how can we continue our basic business activities, and how can we reduce our adverse impact on the environment (climate change for example), when there is much less energy available, and when the energy that is available will be commanding a much higher price?”
Another ill-informed and old-fashioned question that many people are still asking is: “In the wake of energy shortages and high prices, how can we maintain the globalized transportation and distribution system that we currently employ?” Continuing to ask this question will likewise only make life painful, exceedingly difficult, and ultimately impossible to sustain. The upcoming high energy prices, and intermittent shortages of energy, mean that the production, transportation and consumption of goods will be done, in the near future, on a much more localized basis. It will soon be neither economically viable, nor ecologically sustainable, to continue our current globalized transportation and distribution system. A much more empowering question to instead be asking is: “How can we produce essential goods and services locally so we don’t need to rely on the fossil-fuel-dependent globalized transportation and distribution systems?”
Yet another ill-informed and old-fashioned question many of us have been asking is: “How are we going to replace all the fossil fuel energy we currently use with renewable energy systems?” The fact is that fossil fuels, particularly petroleum, are incredibly dense and packed full of energy, and there is no good renewable energy system that we know of which can fully replace them. In other words, we can’t help but have our standard of living adversely impacted in a big way by declining energy availability and escalating energy prices. We must instead be talking about energy descent, or using much less energy than we have been using. A much more empowering and realistic question to be asking therefore is: “Given that we will have much less energy to consume in the years ahead, and given that what energy we do consume will probably be much more expensive, how can we retool local businesses so that they are ecologically sustainable, and resilient in the wake of the many changes that they will be going through?”
As it turns out, there are a significant number of old-fashioned and ill-advised questions that we have been asking, questions that are dangerously distorting our anticipated future scenarios. It is only through realistic questions that that we can create credible scenarios, and through these realistic scenarios, then go on to create truly responsive contingency plans. Businesses, non-profits, and government agencies need to seriously scrutinize the questions they have been asking, need to seriously question the validity of the assumptions they have been making, and need to deeply understand that the future will not be just more “business as usual.” With appreciation to Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition Towns movement, this author signs off with a request to all businesses, non-profits, and government agencies: please start asking the right questions.
Charles Cresson Wood is a technology risk management consultant with Post-Petroleum Transportation, in Mendocino, California. He is also the author of the book entitled Kicking The Gasoline & Petro-Diesel Habit: A Business Manager’s Blueprint For Action (see www.kickingthegasoline.com).
* For purposes of this discussion, let’s ignore reports that government regulators falsified safety inspection reports, were awarded bonuses for rushing oil-drilling permits, and approved the final permit for BP’s catastrophic drilling operation in fewer than 10 minutes.