Peak Oil as Wishful Thinking

Tom Athanasiou is the director of the Earth Island-sponsored project EcoEquity and a member of the Greenhouse Development Rights authors’ group. His interests focus on distributive justice within the global environmental emergency.

Is our civilization doomed?

I don’t think so, though I’ll admit that the case for doom is a pretty good one. But I wish to be clear on two points. First, it’s not too late to avoid disastrous climate change. We’re in trouble, no doubt about that, but we have the science, the technology, and the money to save ourselves. Second, we simply won’t do so if we give ourselves up to the habits of pessimism.

Is “peak oil” a good way to talk about all this? The short answer is No, and this despite the fact that it draws attention to planetary limits, and to the great resource crunch that’s now rising on the horizon. Still, peak oil – as a stance and as a reality – is essentially irrelevant, and even distracting, at least in the all-important climate context. We’re just not running out of fossil energy soon enough, not in time to prevent climate catastrophe. It’s not even going to be close.

Bottom line: If we even get close to burning the fossils we already have on our books, we’re toast. And yet we’re dead certain to discover a whole lot more. All this has been clear for years, and widely known since Bill McKibben put “unburnable carbon” onto the map last year in his great Rolling Stone piece. But the human “carbon budget” is now official, for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just cast it into some pretty solid numbers. As Thomas Stocker, the co-chair of the IPCC’s “Working Group 1,” put it: “There’s a finite amount of carbon that you can burn if you don’t want to go over 2°C [of warming]…. That implies if there is more than that [in fossil fuel reserves], that you leave some of that carbon in the ground.”

Most of that carbon, actually.

In this context, it’s a bit grim to watch as the peak-oilers strain to save their epicycles. Recent strategies include arguing that the fossil fuel industry’s flacks are overestimating the size of the oil reserves; that the size of the frack-gas resource in particular is being radically exaggerated; that, in any case, they never said that oil would run out, only that it would get crushingly expensive. All of which is questionable, and all of which avoids the real issue, which is that, as the grassroots climate-justice folks have been saying for years, we have to “leave the oil in the soil.”

The key question is how we’re going to do this. How are we going to negotiate a “great transition” to a new world in which – despite planetary limits – all people, everywhere, are able to find paths to dignified and sustainable ways of life? Because if this isn’t the promise of the great transition, then we really are doomed. And this is a very different promise from the one suggested by peak-oil images of universal energy scarcity and “powering down.”

The deeper issues here turn on the problems of economic justice in a small world. Does peak oil help on this front? It does not. Nor does it help us counter the fossil-fuel cartel, which has essentially melded with the most oligarchic and nihilistic wings of the plutocracy (e.g., the Koch brothers).

Fortunately, there are other approaches: A breakthrough in the global effort to negotiate a fair and ambitious climate treaty would help a great deal. So would real campaign finance reform in the United States. So would the political deepening of the “climate preparedness” and “community resilience” movements. And the fossil-fuel divestment movement, especially, seems to be a harbinger of great things to come.

None of these strategies, however, can work unless there is simultaneously a technology revolution of the first order. And here’s where the problem of ritual pessimism raises its large and ugly head. Because most peak-oilers, it turns out, not only believe that we’ve entered a time of immutable and altogether generalized scarcity, they also believe that technological optimism of any sort is a form of denial. See, for example, their take on what’s called “Energy Return on Energy Investment,” and their tales of a world in which we’re so short of affordable fossil energy that we can’t actually build out the infrastructure of a high-functioning global renewable economy. Point them to alternative views – like, say, those in the Rocky Mountain Institute’s excellent Reinventing Fire – and they reply that they’ve run the numbers, and that Amory Lovins is wrong.

And there’s another strange twist in their tale, one in which “debt” is suddenly as big a problem as net-energy deficits. Take a look, for example, at Richard Heinberg’s The End of Growth, wherein we learn that “the world economic system is a kind of Ponzi scheme that is only kept going by the confidence of its participants,” and that “the Keynesian remedy doesn’t cure the ailment but merely extends the suffering.” Or check out Climate After Growth, a new Post-Carbon Institute report that announces that “the debate between stimulus and austerity is a distraction” and that the coming reckoning is caused by not only “the end of the age of cheap oil,” and “the diminishing economic impacts of new technologies” but also by “the vast mountains of debt that we have incurred.”

Please understand me. I don’t intend to be divisive. But I read Climate After Growth on the morning of October 1, even as the House Republicans – the shock troops of idiot neoliberalism – were taking to the air to wave their “debt crisis” banners against the Affordable Care Act. In this context, seeing the peak-oil worthies go on about “the vast mountains of debt that we have incurred” struck me as a bit rich – and more than a bit dangerous.

We do indeed need a new politics of limits, but not one that tries to paper over tough realities – for example inequality, now hardening into a new caste system – with an overstated and tone-deaf pessimism. Just having a politics of limits isn’t good enough. Our politics are going to be a politics of justice within limits, or they’re going to drive the green movement into irrelevance. Or into something even worse.

For an opposing view, read what Aaron G. Lehmer-Chang has to say.

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