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Peak oil as wishful thinking.

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[degrees]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 tacks 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


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 Aider 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.

MORE ONLINE: What do you think? Take our readers’ poll at

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.

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