Peak Oil and Community Solutions Conference (Sunday)

Megan Quinn explains Agraria, a planned post-peak community.
Full report on the last day of the conference below the fold.

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Diana Christian explains her intentional community.

The morning began with a witty and fascinating presentation from Diana Christian, who is the editor of Communities magazine, and a resident of Earthaven Ecovillage, an intentional community in North Carolina.

For those readers not familiar with it, the term intentional community covers a very broad range of situations where people for some reason or other choose to live more closely than in single family housing. This can range from 60s communes (yes, some survived and prospered), through monasteries and other spiritual communities, cohousing (middle class communities where neighbours own their own houses but share common meals and spend more time together), and ecovillages (communities that formed to try and live more sustainably).

I do believe the conference organizers are correct in identifying that some of these communities have considerable relevance to peak oil because they are almost the only places in the developed world where we can see people trying to live with little or no modern energy sources (which they did out of choice rather than necessity).

Christian talked about several communities, but the one that she spent the most time on, and that really caught my attention, was Earthaven, where she lives. Earthhaven started building an ecovillage in 1996. They picked a plot of 320 acres in the back-of-beyond in North Carolina. Although they do use cars to some extent, the community is off the grid. The 60 residents built their own houses using hand labor, and solar power, inverters and battery carts to run power tools. They used mainly natural building techniques - mostly timber post-and-beam with trees cut from their own property, though at times they did bring excavators onto the property for some tasks (and I'm guessing they used gasoline powered chainsaws and sawmills also). They grow a sizeable fraction of their own food. Most of them get their income from businesses run on site.

Thus energy sources for Earthhaven, besides a certain amount of gas for getting to and from the place, are biomass, solar pholtovoltaics, and micro-hydropower. Looking at Christian's slides, I couldn't help comparing with yesterday's pictures of Cuba. The way of life and the standard of living look roughly similar. Earthhaven's houses look somewhat bigger and newer.

One of the strongest impressions from Christian was how much work this has been. They've been working their tails off for eleven years clearing forests, planting gardens, building houses, hauling battery packs around. Lots of hard physical labor. They have not been able to do everything they planned or maintain everything they started for lack of time.

The most fascinating thing to me was the visual impression made by the solar panels in Christian's pictures. Earthhaven has a funky hippy chic with it's handmade timber frame buildings and various low-tech furnishings and homemade appropriate technology appliances. In the midst of this, the solar panels with their neat clean geometric shapes and shiny surfaces look like they were dropped in from some alien advanced civilization. As indeed they were.

Ok, the following is a non-scientific, non-quantitative impression that needs to be carefully examined at a future time. I realize this isn't going to convince anyone who doesn't already have the same impression. But,... but,... the strong visual impression I received was this: a society made up of many Earthhavens might well not be able to manufacture solar panels.

I talked to Christian afterwards and asked her how she thought Earthhaven would do after there was no oil. She thought they'd be ok for a while, but only a while. They could ramp up their food production pretty readily, and they have lots of wood. However, as the solar panels, batteries, and inverters started to wear out, they wouldn't be able to keep them working and would be reduced to all biomass before too long. She also didn't think they'd be safe from their neighbors (who are apparently prone to getting drunk and then roaring around the area in pickups with rifles to go hunting).

Liz Walker amused by a questioner.

Next up was Liz Walker, the burning soul behind Ecovillage at Ithaca, a project in Ithaca, New York. This development involves multiple cohousing communities intermixed with natural areas and community supported agriculture projects. From a peak oil perspective, it showcases integration of housing with local food production. Liz states that environmental assessments of the housing suggest the overall footprint is about half of conventional housing. While definitely a lot greener than your average project, this is still very much industrial-age housing from the market economy, and thus has somewhat less to teach us about any potential post-peak future.

Megan Quinn explains Agraria.

Megan Quinn is the Outreach Director for Community Service, Inc and is also project manager for Agraria, a deliberately planned post-peak community. Megan looks like she's about 16 years old, but belied that impression with a powerfully delivered and confident summation of the last 250 years of industrial history and the likely consequences of unwinding it's energy basis. The broad knowledge of the issues, commitment demonstrated via extensive travel and study, and general thoughtfulness and maturity in one so young suggest a powerful future leader.

Community Service believes a likely consequence of peak oil will be a need to resettle agricultural areas. Currently around 2% of the workforce is involved in agriculture - as recently as the 1930s, it was 50%. Instead of people, we use massive petroleum powered machines. Just as in Cuba, it is very unclear that our agricultural system can evolve to a low-oil future without massive transformation to being much more labor intensive.

I tend to agree with this perspective if post-peak depletion rates are reasonably high, and/or we get sufficiently far into the future without having developed a reasonable alternative way to power large agricultural machinery. Both Russia and Cuba have had to do this to cope with their respective problems, and during the great depression was the one time the urbanization trend in the US reversed itself. Also during the world wars, there was a massive program of victory gardens in both the US and the UK. In hard times, people, of necessity, have to focus on food production. My sense is that, if the evidence for a near-term peak continues to grow stronger, we will start to see a back-to-the-land movement similar to what happened in the late sixties and early seventies, or during the depression.

The midwest seems a particularly likely target since parts of it have been significantly depopulated but it remains a place of enormous agricultural productivity where there's year-round rainfall. The Agraria project is intended to represent a model for this kind of thing. It posits building a small community of super-insulated houses integrated with food production in Yellow Springs (Ohio has cold winters).

It will be very interesting to see how demand for this kind of thing evolves in the next few years. If you're interested, contact Community Service Inc. They are actively recruiting potential members.

Bob Waldrop as a latter day Socrates.

Bob Waldrop is a huge teddy bear/Santa Claus of a man who ebulliently told us of his efforts organizing something called the Oklahoma Food Cooperative. This is not your usual food coop - co-operatively owned retailing of healthier foods. It's more radical than that: an attempt to build an alternative and local food distribution system. Using the web, they are building a local market between food producers in Oklahoma and food consumers in Oklahoma. The goal is to have a less transportation-intensive system (food in the US is consumed an average of 1500 miles from where it is produced) that will be more robust in the face of oil shortages, and to produce healthier foods. At the moment they are basically organizing monthly food distributions, but hope to evolve to a store-front with weekly distribution. Bob gave a bunch of interesting tips for replicating what he has done - see his website.

Richard Heinberg in closing.

Richard Heinberg gave the final summation. This is a difficult task at a peak oil conference - the goal of a conference summarizer in general should be to leave the participants inspired, energized, and anxious to go home and put what they've learnt into action. Peak Oil has something of a tendency to be a huge downer as a subject, and so there's a strong pull to get polly-anna and unrealistic about it. Richard managed beautifully to be inspiring and completely realistic at the same time.

What Richard said, in loose paraphrase, was this. Drawing on cultural anthropology, you can look at a society's ideas and values and they say something about how the society will be. You can look at a society's political organization and that says something about how it will be. But in fact, the most fundamental thing about a society will be its core infrastructure. In particular, if you know the way a group of people get their food, you can predict a lot about their political organization, their values, and even their spiritual beliefs.

For example, if a group of people get their food by hunter-gathering, you can be confident that they will live in small tribes, have relatively decentralized decision-making, and they will have animistic beliefs: they will believe the world is alive, sacred, and populated with spirits. (This is true - there's absolutely incredible concordancies between the spiritual beliefs of hunter-gatherers all over the world, see Shamanism by Mircea Eliade for the classic academic study of this.)

On the other hand, if they get their food by agriculture, with the resulting annual surpluses, you will find a hierarchical, class-based society. The possibility of raiding those surpluses will mean there's a military class for doing the raiding or protecting against raids. There will be a managerial class for measuring the surplus, organizing it's distribution, etc. Writing and arithmetic is likely to be developed for managing the record-keeping. And their cosmology will involve a hierarchy of gods, reflecting and justifying the earthly hierarchy. This same pattern has arisen again and again all over the world many times, wherever people switch to an agricultural society. In the special case of a herding society conquering an agricultural society, you get monotheism.

And then we have industrial society, with its unique way of getting food via fossil fuels and its unique set of beliefs and political organizations.

Thus as we go through the de-fossil-fuelizing of this society, we can expect absolutely profound and radical change in everything about our society - its social organization, its political organization, and its cosmological beliefs. This is scary and overwhelming and is likely to get more so. And yet, as a society, we almost certainly have choices between options that are better and worse. We would like to do this without descending into Fascism. We would like, if at all possible, to achieve this transition without a large scale die-off.

Those of us in the peak oil movement have a very important role to play. As individuals who understand what is going on, when the larger society does not yet, the knowledge and expertise we have developed is likely to get very valuable. And we have an opportunity to provide leadership at every level as the rest of society increasingly tries to figure out what the hell is going on. It is our responsibility to exercise that leadership as energetically and wisely as we can in order to steer the transition as well as possible.

I don't know if I've managed to capture the spirit of what he said, but I found it very uplifting and inspiring.

I don't agree with Richard about everything - I think he's a bit too prone to conspiracy theory for my taste - but I do think he has many very wise things to say. He's been thinking about the social and political response to peak oil for a lot longer than most of us. I managed to sit down with him for a one-on-one conversation during the conference (before his closing summation), and I'll report on that tomorrow.

Final Reflections

I found this conference extremely stimulating. I disagreed with a number of speakers, in some cases deeply, and yet I was glad I came and my thinking was moved forward and crystallized by the experience. I heartily recommend it for next year.

My strongest impression is that peak oil is spawning a political movement. That's my new insight. I have tended to view peak oil through the lenses of dynamics, of economics, even of military strategy, but not that of politics. And yet this is going to be a political movement. There were 450 people at this conference - they came from all over the country to a tiny town in the midwest. Just about every single one, by a show of hands, had read multiple books. Two thirds had written an article or given a speech themselves. Everyone I talked to spent numerous hours a day working on the subject in one way or another. Almost everyone I talked to was planning to go to the ASPO-USA conference in November as well. I talked to no-one who was kind-of-curiously looking around, wondering what all the fuss was. These people all had basically the same story. At some point, some piece of evidence persuaded them there was a problem, and they've been utterly obsessed ever since, and nothing yet has disabused them of their worry. They are all incredibly knowledgeable and their worldview has been utterly transformed by what they've discovered and figured out. Peak oil has a way of being transformational to both ends of the political spectrum: Cuban communists discover the value of individual land tenure, Republicans discover limits to growth.

And this movement has grown by over 100% in the last year, judging by attendance at this conference. I believe that level of passion, commitment, and growth spells a very powerful political force in the future. I can't remember any time in my life, on any issue, sitting in a room with such a large and powerfully committed group of people. As long as the evidence for the core hypothesis remains reasonably strong, this is only going to get stronger. And so the good news is that, as scary as peak oil is, at least we are not confronting it alone.

And I think we at the Oil Drum have a role to play here. Despite it's newness, the majority of people I spoke to at this conference were aware of the Oil Drum, and the majority of them viewed it as their first or second source of daily peak-oil information. People came up to me and told me, in the most heartfelt manner imaginable, their appeciation for our work in doing this (even though I, as its most junior editor, should get very little of the credit).

And the reason people liked it was in part because they felt that, with our tremendous team of commenters, they could find almost everything they needed to know by reading the Oil Drum. But also because we are, for the most part, reality-based, open-minded, and professional, rather than being stuck in a fixed ideology. "You guys are the voice of reason in the peak oil movement" as one man put it to me.

And that's our task here I think. This movement is going to be an extremely powerful force. It is tiny and utterly powerless now. It will be somewhat less so next year, and the day will come when politicians will quake and run as fast as they can to get out in front of it. At 100%+ annual growth, that day will not be too long in coming. If near-term peak oil is true, this movement is going to grow into a political force comparable to the Civil rights movement, or the Suffragette movement, or Bolshevism, or Fascism in its historical impact. It has the potential to be good or bad. It's critically important that it goes in a direction that will actually work. As with the Cubans, our society probably only gets one chance to manage our oil peak. And that means gathering all possible points of view and pieces of evidence, examining them as rationally, fearlessly, and open-mindedly as possible, and debating each other; debating fiercely, yes, but respectfully and with a deep understanding that what binds us is more important than what separates us: as a society, we must not screw this up. We must, as rapidly as possible, figure out the best possible path over this very dangerous terrain and get that word out. The Oil Drum has a role in helping to do that.

Unless, of course, we are wrong about oil supply issues, or someone invents a silver bullet. In that case, we'll all disperse off and do something more productive, as we should. Only time will tell.

Finally, I'd like to give my thanks to Community Solutions: Pat Murphy, Faith Morgan, Megan Quinn and the many others who helped them organize this extremely stimulating conference. I'd also particularly like to thank Larry and Gail Halpern who put me up in their house, provided excellent conversation, and generously tolerated me monopolizing their computer for hours each night after the conference in order to write these reports.

Thanks for your take on the Yellow Springs Peak Oil and Community Solutions conference, Stuart.  I would like to stress a couple of points that I saw as crucial for this conference, and more generally, for the discussions here at TOD.

The "Hirsch gap," as you have named the key result of Robert Hirsch's report, is essentially the first-order answer to all of the proposed alternatives to petroleum-based fuels.  If peak oil is real, and if the oil peak is coming before the end of this decade, then the time scales for ramping up any of the alternatives are simply unworkable.  Put another way (again, assuming the reality of near-term peaking), a society that cannot obtain as much energy as it thinks it requires for day-to-day operations is a society that probably does not have enough extra energy to re-invent itself with massive new infrastructure projects.  As I am sure others have pointed out, all of that infrastructure takes energy and capital investment, and the costs will rise roughly proportionally to the cost of input energy.

Conservation, and that means roughly transportation in a zeroth-order approximation, is the only quick semi-solution.  Driving 10% less (about three miles per car per day) would save around one million barrels of oil each day.  There are clearly limits to how far such reductions can be taken, if we still want to get to work and go shopping.  However, our past record is questionable in even making the attempt.  See the graph of miles driven per automobile as a function of gas price in the 1970s and 1980s.  Oil demand is very inelastic, certainly in the short term, and slightly less so in the long-term; we need the stuff and, to some extent, don't seem to care how much it costs.  See this graph for the record over the past four years.

As Stuart has mentioned, depletion rates are the crucial to everything that follows an impending peak.  If depletion is 7%/year (high, but certainly not out of the question) we will have to cut our usage in half in a decade, all else being equal (which it will not be).  Transportation being key, driving less for work and for shopping means being more localized.  Unfortunately, we have built up a suburban, commuter living arrangement that might be poorly suited to adaptation to these changes.  The point of the conference this past weekend was simply that intact, functional, localized small communities can be more efficient, and ultimately more humane, than much of our current globalized, fossil-fuel subsidized lifestyle.  It is a bit utopian and maybe even idealistic, but it is one type of solution.

Finally, the comparisons to Pol Pot and claims that leftist Peak Oilers are looking gleefully for a huge population die-off are more than a bit ridiculous in this context.  Pointing out that fossil-fuels-drenched agricultural practices have enabled the support of large populations, that those fuels are disappearing, and that we may not have good substitutes, does not equate at all to a wish for the death of billions of human beings.

I agree on all counts, RJB, but i would like to expand on a couple of points.

First, the "we're not Pol Pot" thing can't be repeated enough.  Any inclination at all on the the part of the mainstream, particularly the news media and politicians, to see us as extremist will be incredibly counterproductive.  (I think that as long as Some People get more than their share of press, this will be inevitable.  One prediction from Kunstler or Ruppert that collapse or wholesale change is imminent, if not accompanied by a clear statement that such a result isn't to be wished for, very quickly turns into an overly broad brush that is then used to paint the whole PO community as a bunch of wackjobs.)

One the issue of transportation and oil consumption, you're clearly right that that's the first place we should look for a large (in absolute terms) amount of conservation.  But I think we should all keep in mind just how close we are to substituting electricity (only 3% of which comes from oil in the US) for some of our transportation oil demand.

The first step in reducing oil used for transportation will indeed be driving smarter and less.  But the next step won't be localized living--it's just too expensive and inconvenient to reshape entire communities to any appreciable extent.  The second step is converting local transportation to electric cars.  Mitsubishi is already talking about an all electric Colt model ( with a range of 90 miles/charge, which would be fine as a second car for the overwhelming majority of households, and would likely work as a primary car for some others.

I expect that in just a few years we'll see a lot of suburban homes with solar panels on the roof that help offset the cost of charging up one or both of the family's cars (plug-in hybrids or all electrics).

Yikes, that Colt is five years away!  You can get an electric Twike next year.
Yes, the current plan from Mitsu is to bring out the Colt EV in 2010, but I'm sure they could pull that in at least a couple of years in response to market conditions.

Plus, the Chinese have said publicly that they intend to become a major force in the car market, and they're pushing the development of all-electrics very hard.

The car business will be one of the most volatile parts of the US economy in the next 5 years, perhaps second only to airlines.

[quote]The car business will be one of the most volatile parts of the US economy in the next 5 years, perhaps second only to airlines.[/quote]

If new companies spring up to provide new energy-efficient vehicles, they'll probably do all they can to get cheap labor, and minimizing labor, while avoiding "union trouble". (Fortunately for some, when there is volatility in the auto market, it means plenty of re-tooling, and re-tooling means more work for skilled machine builders, programmers, electricians, welders, etc.)

Even in China, where we outsource our lower- and lower-middle class jobs, their workers lose their jobs to automation, because it's still relatively cheap to build the machines with their cheap labor over there, and recoup their savings after only a few years, just like over here.

The very best get paid more, while the mediocre and marginal get fired and have to settle for lower and lower positions on the totem pole. Then the going rate for those jobs get bid down and down until the people doing them are living on the edge of poverty.

What happens to society when the low-level bookkeepers, ebay traders, hair and nail workers, GAP salesmen, and package delivery employees, get paid less and less, until they're finally and undeniably prole? Does society automatically swing left? Do we have a functioning constitution limiting the power of the state? If not, isn't this one of those suicidal civilization scenarios? You know - 'most democracies only last about 200 years, because when the general populace figure out they can vote themselves funds from out of the treasury, they do so, quickly bankrupting the republic.' How does that work out in a republic as big as America?

Isn't it when property is no longer held 'sacred', it loses all worth, and international capital flees? And isn't this a real possibility?

If that happens, could a new economic paradigm replace the current one within a realistic period of time to avert catastrophic failure of our complex capitalistic division-of-labor society? I mean, the American economy can't just stop.

Regardless of which side you sit on the issue - if you're a 'hard core' wealth-redistribution lefty, then you must understand the power of the communist utopian dream (the proletarian revolution, and all that), and if you're on the right, then you must understand the simple argument relating asset value to property rights enforcement - the possibility that a catasrophic failure of the current political regime, due to an extended economic crash resulting from the end of the cheap energy era, could forseeably tip the political scales towards a new unrestricted left-wing democracy, (or 'mobocracy'), and the likely resulting rise of a wealth-redistribution regime the likes of which the world has never seen, which could easily destroy the asset value of 'America Inc.' in the international capital markets.

I read sometime ago a rumor that the mint has a whole set of new money to instantly replace the old money currently in circulation, but easily distinguishable from the current bills. They would be redeemed for money currently in circulation domestically, so that international debt may be forgiven without messing with any untidy stacks of cash which might be lying around across the globe. (drug money, laundered money, mujahadeen payments, etc.)

I wonder if a FOIA request would be enough to find out if the feds have already planned for this possibility.

If they haven't, then someone should tell them that they should.

I, too, found this conference extremely stimulating, even if I  disagreed with a number of speakers. I'm glad that Stuart wrote the detailed summaries so that others can get a taste of it.

I'd just like to caution against the tendency of measuring solutions against a yardstick of practicality under a total collapse scenario. For instance, the Earthhaven ecovillage may well run into problems if they can't replace their solar panels, or may have to deal with roving bands of starving, gun-toting raiders if the worst scenario should play out. But man am I impressed with their forward thinking and strenuous efforts in a direction that the average U.S. citizen has never given a thought to. They have overcome the hurdle of mindset, and offer a hopeful example of a lower-energy/lower-consumption lifestyle that might be both workable and attractive. Yes, it is probably unlikely that 10 billion people could or would live this way, but it seems like more than a step in the right direction given the alternatives.

The last I heard, peak oil knows no politic's, thus your last paragraph makes no sense here.. If I were you, I would refrain from such remakrs..
Yes, but the response to peak oil will be intensely political.
Thanks, these were very informative reviews.  Your description reminded me of the advanced, long-life community in Zardoz, except that Earthaven doesn't have force fields to keep out the Brutals.

BTW, this is Solar Tour weekend: Oct 1-2 Find a tour near you.

Peak oil as a political party.  i like it.  i think this has ought to be the way to go.  karl marx --> communist manifesto.  the Oil Drum --> Peak Oil manifesto.
"We would like to do this without descending into Fascism."

I think that sentence called for small-f fascism, but that is a quibble. This is not a quibble: Very likely "we" would LIKE to get to a sustainable world without descending into fascism, but what we would LIKE and what is LIKELY are two things. Oh, and they are NOT THE SAME thing. As a white nationalist ecofascist, I say: why not an ASCENT to fascism?

Sounds like an interesting conference. I am reminded of a conference in New Hampshire in 1972, run (I think) by Mildred Loomis; there was a lecture on "The Ten-Thousand-Year House", and bats flying through the room we slept in. It may have been a barn.

So Saturday you hear about an 80% die-off of the human population and are offered guidence from Castro's Communist government on adapting to reduced oil.  On Sunday you hear about a series of communes and the replacement of the nuclear family.  

Now you're talking about spawning a passionate political movement.

Communists, communes, radical politics and now sex.

I'm telling you guys, John Q. Public is going to think you're starting a CULT.

Seriously, the transition post-peak will involve the commitment of massive amounts of private capital.  So far, I haven't seen anyone on Oil Drum that would trusted with the that kind of money.  You need to get away from the survivalist mentality and focus on how one can help within the existing social and political frameworks.

Thanks to Stuart for providing an honest and insightful reporting of the conference.

yeah you have a point, who the hell wants to live on a farm and ride on horseback after having tasted the convenience of petroleum and the fruits of cheap energy and techno-gadgets like the i-pod-mini.
This is an excellent point, and raises an interesting question: what post-peak transition business plans would be attractive to private capital?
I've got the best solar power design going, but my customers are going to be electric utilities. Line focus photovoltaic is peaking power natural gas replacement only.
Otherwise you are on your own as far as gasoline and diesel replacement go. I recommend investing in coal mines and methanol/dme plants.
As to private investment plans, Areva, Constellation, and Bechtel have one - merchant nuclear power plants.  Of course, Areva is owned by the French government but if they want to subsidize and finance new nuclear power plants in the US, we should welcome them (cough, cough!)

For the small investor, I like limited partnerships in stripper oil wells.

There must be opportunities in real estate and development as well. Sooner or later, someway or other, the suburbs will need to be replaced with denser towns and more compact villages. While the intentional communities Stuart reported on are commendable, wholesale transformation of our built geography will more likely be driven by for-profit businesses.
We don't have enough uranium for the plants we have left. Every time you open a new plant you use up fuel that would have kept an old plant going. Note that I do not say that this is a bad thing, just that it is irrevelant to total energy production.
That's not a winning argument.  Today, there is an estimated 50 years of known uranium reserves.  That's a LONG time for metallic ores - compare to copper, moly, etc.  And that doesn't include the recycling of nuclear war heads or nuclear spent fuel nor breeder reactors.

The Saudi Arabia of Uranium is Australia and they shutdown uranium prospecting for decades so to protect prices.

Here's a longer explanation of the market dynamics of uranium prospecting:

The key point is that no professional mining company is going to invest in ore prospecting when they might not be in a position to exploit it and make any money for 50 years.

Sorry, but fuel for nuclear reactors is not a constraint to a vast increase in nuclear energy production.

"Seriously, the transition post-peak will involve the commitment of massive amounts of private capital." I agree. I guess the capitalists are behind the ball, here though. Whenever they get together their conference, I'll go to that one too.
Massive amounts of private capital investment or not, PO is on its way. So probably is much more labor-intensive and small-scale agriculture. Changing energy bases have a way of changing everything else about a culture, as Heinberg pointed out, whether people want to or not, are cooperating or not, etc. It behooves us all to try to help make the transition as humane and as intelligent as possible. Let's hope for a 7% per annum depletion rate, or less! No Matter what our wishes might be, a steep depletion rate will be rough. Camus spoke once of "the benign indifference of the universe." Some people would argue with the inclusion of "benign", but few --looking at the history of civilizations-- would argue with the notion of "indifference". Myself, I like the addition of 'benign'. It points out that there's no malevolence at work here, only realities.
I think that The Oil Drum community is a pretty balanced and thoughtful group of people. Suvivalists would scorn us. It's fine to reject the Yellow Springs ethos if you wish--many of us do.

Your posts are big on critique. So far as I know, nobody here is seeking venture capital, and we're not putting up business plans for your trust or approval. We're trying to work out the ramifications of a very, very thorny problem.

Peak oil is the mother of all problems, and it's not a left or right issue. There are lots of things that can partially mitigate the effects, but as of now there are no clear and technically feasible solutions. There is an absolutely enormous gap between what we can do, and what we need.

I agree the the closer we get to solutions that employ existing social and political frameworks, the faster they will diffuse. Right now, TOD is heavily focused on assessing the situation, which has not yet been properly done. We are short on solutions, but they will be developing as the issue becomes clearer.

So, what are your solutions that will attract private capital and solve our woes?

Rick, you asked for my plan? OK, I'm throwing down, dude!

Here's my suggestion on how to fuel our electric power system for four years:

I would also point out that the US nuclear power industry has just burned up its 10,000th Russian nuclear warhead.  Just 10,000 more to go and then we can start on their plutonium bombs.  Today, 10% of our nation's electricity is fueled by those Russian warheads.

In the longer run, we'll see expanded electrification fueled by a much bigger fleet of nuclear power plants. More coal too but already nukes are cheaper! Transport fuels will come from "unconventional" sources - Gas-to-liquids at first, until stranded natural gas is gone (20 to 30 years) then increasingly nuclear-assisted hydrocarbons such as tar sands, oil shale, etc.  Hydrogen from nuclear would work but I'd think that if we aren't greenhouse gas purists, then nuclear-assisted coal to liquids is more convenient.

Our cost of energy will go up, and the huge capital requirements for the transition will depress our global economy to some degree but it can be done.  And not by some aging hippies in a backwoods commune!  The least they can do is stay out of the way.

Just don't expect some magic solution.  Energy is all about physics and there is nothing, NOTHING, out there at this moment.  Cold fusion is as good as it gets.

My fear is that my great-grand children will someday ask me "How come you didn't build more nuclear power plants when you had the chance."

You said "Transport fuels will come from 'unconventional' sources". Transport fuels are the key weakness here. The unconventional is already being rejected, because there's not enough refinery for the sour, heavy oil, which is just mildly "unconventional", compared to tar sands!

I wonder if it's possible to take a honest look at the cost of going to rail for ALL long-distance transportation in the United States, and bikes and buses for all local. The remaining liquid fuels need to go to agriculture as we transition to a local food production regime. Compared with the cost of the current heavy vehicle on open road paradigm, an ultra light-weight rail system might offer the best medium to long-term solution to local shipping and transporation.

Rail currently offers the best "mass-to-energy" ratio, meaning it's the most efficient way of moving mass over land - as long as it's utilized. Empty passenger cars offer little gains.

Rail can be electrified, which is THE most flexible energy transport method. Electric rail vehicles don't care what the source of their energy is from - nuclear, coal, wind, solar.

Too bad no one thought of this before.

Oh... they did.

Hey Frustrated!

We're on a "Peak Oil" blog but an equally important issue is "Peak Natural Gas".  We've already peaked on North American natural gas and the price is going through the roof - $13.91/mmBTU yesterday at Henry Hub.  Gas fuels 20% of our electricity so the price of electricity is on the increase as a result.

We're rushing to build new liquefied natural gas terminals so we can import the stuff but there growing competition for the gas from Gas-to-Liquids which will convert the gas into very high quality diesel fuel which will sell for a higher profit.  Hence, LNG won't last long, given what we know about the resource.

I agree that transport fuels are the most visible and most sensitive issue right now but a cold winter this year might see delivery shortages and old folks dying in their cold, unheated homes.

I'm also a rail fan and love those long-haul Amtrak routes.  Electrification of the rails should increase but that's capital intensive.  Here in California we voted for a high speed rail route between San Francisco and Los Angeles (maybe San Diego too.)  However the environmentalists are holding it up by preventing it from directly connecting San Jose (more people than SF) by blocking a route through a dippy state park.

That's kind of how I interpreted this summary. A lot of thoughtful people performing social experiments in sustainability.

I'd like to know more about these alternative fuels. What are they?

In two wonderful Letters to the Editor in Oil & Gas Journal the past 4 or 5 weeks, the alternative fuels canard was swiftly crushed.

Biodiesel? Let's use the entire US crop of soybeans and corn (petroleum supported yields no less).

7 DAYS of US consumption from the entirety of these crops.

Methanol? Taking harvestable forests, growing patterns, and annual per acre yields from tree farms (there goes the paper and lumber industries) and generously using the BTU content of wood as a fuel instead of using the diminished BTU content of the methanol conversion, this quick and dirty analysis determined that wood could sustain at most 7% of US electricity demand.

Granted, these are truly 'back of the napkin' analyses, but they are quite conservative in their inputs.

And political movement? Good luck.

For methanol you can look here:

For biodiesel from jatropha you can look here:

For BtL you can look here:

For biofuels in general you can look here:

Biofuels will be part of the solution, not the solution.

Most wood is scrapped, most of the rest is used for paper, most of the rest for lumber, and all of it is recyclable into fuels. It would be more expensive than thirty dollar a barrel oil, but perhaps not more expensive than ninety dollar a barrel oil. Looks like we will find out someplace along the oil price curve.
On the other hand, synfuels put a limit on oil prices, so maybe we won't. It costs almost as much to build a pyroligneous plant or a lysing plant for wood as to build a coal based synfuel plant, so it's really coal price limited.
I suspect that many "Peak Oilers" are reluctant to "focus on how one can help within the existing social and political frameworks" simply because they believe that it is just that "framework" that has led us to this point. Perhaps if you could provide further clarification as to what you mean? Should we write our congressmen? She would we pen letters to the editor of our local papers? Perhaps put up placards on our lawns?

No one really knows what's going to happen after the peak. Perhaps nothing, and perhaps a great deal. If nothing happens, then we're all sort of wasting our time worrying about this. If a "great deal" then working within the current "framework" may not do us a lot of good as we watch that framework disintegrate around us. Pascal's Wager seems to apply in this case, I would think.

But seriously, if you can suggest some ways to work "within the framework" I'd love to hear them.

Funny you should ask about writing your congressman as I have done just that twice and to date have not received a response. I'm still waiting..

Not to mention, I once subscribed to the largest Yahoo peak oil group and found it interesting for a while. I ask a few question and usually received many responses until the day I ask if anyone had written their congressmen.. Not ONE response! It was y2k all over again..  Interesting

Stuart, Thank you for these three reports. I found this one particularly uplifting. And it was good to hear that Heinberg did an inspiring finale. I look forward to seeing your report on the conversation you had with him. It interests me that you feel some pause around his 'conspiracy' perspectives because I do as well, and I have written to him about how I think including such remarks is counterproductive to PO education, even if it were to be verifiable by facts. It's just not relevant to the immediate concern of waking the population up and getting this culture moving re PO. Thank you also for showing photos of the speakers. They greatly added to the feeling of 'being there'. And thanks to your hosts for letting you 'hog' their computer for hours every evening. We all benefitted! Go Oil Drum!
There are businesses which have taken energy conservation seriously and are more profitable because of it. Once Wall Street accepts that no amount of investment in petroleum is going to increase the amount coming out of the ground
they will put their money into renewables big time. It will be the only option to restart economic growth. Nanotech PVs are not that far from mass production. Zinc is way ahead of hydrogen as a future energy storage and distribution technology. Improvements in the efficiency of ethanol production and processes based on grasses offer great opprotunities. FT gasification can work on such a broad range of feedstocks and can put out a broad range of products I wish I could afford to build my own.
On the other hand we have neglected science education for several decades so we have a generation of investors and MBAs who can't even comprehend the difference between fuel and energy. They believe what Rush Limbaugh and the GOP controlled media tell them. Don't ask questions just keep buying gas guzzelers. Keep wages low enough so there is enough cannon fodder to steal whatever oil is left in the world. The Arabs and Chinese will keep buying bonds so we can have tax cut after tax cut and so many forms of corporate welfare it boggles the mind. Maybe I pray the shock will be enough to change the political balance but not so much as to make economic collapse inevitable.
I had a good time too, listening to all the people who think as I do, but I also could not avoid the thought that nobody was really taking all this heavy talk seriously.  After all, we all-almost- did just as I did- drove an empty car a fair distance at high speed, and had not a hint of car pooling to get back and forth to the 20 minute away motels.

And the earnest young guy who had lunch with me and a few other old geezers left almost all of his TWO plates of food on the table for us to take away for him, after talking our heads off about the need to conserve!  As we ancient ones mopped up every crumb on our plates and listened in silence.

Man!  I remember the depression and WW2, people got along just fine with something like an order of magnitude less STUFF than today, and I seem to remember that we had a sense of community and spirit  that just aint here any more.

As my old boss used to say, 'what we need is a good depression' to correct the excesses.  And oil depletion could provide that opportunity, IMHO.
My grandfather used to say the same thing.  He owned several service stations before the war, and worked at the Phillips Old Ocean refinery (now  ConocoPhillips Sweeny) for 32 years afterward, and knew basically everything there was to know about the oil industry.  He died in 1999, and while I've missed his insights ever since, I've really, really regreted that he wasn't around to help me understand what was happening ever since PO arrived in my consciousness.
Amen. I'm 35 and my mother told me stories of finding her mother in the middle of the night, just sitting in front of the cuboard looking at all the cans, and taking comfort in them. Of course she had lived through the Depression.

People my age, slightly older, and younger, have no idea. Unless they are like my wife's students and came here from whatever Soylent Green country they fled.

The comments on this topic also evince that most do not comprehend the enormity of what is being said.

I wholeheartedly disagree with your sentiment. I was raised in a phenomenally penny pinching environment. Driven by my grandparents. Depression upbringing.

I just do not understand the hysteria of the Peak Oil populace (Yes, I toured the webring. Quite enlightening. And sad).

Is there a problem? Yes. Will I see it in my lifetime? Yes. Will it massively disrupt my current way of life in my lifetime (50-60 years to go, long lived family). Maybe. Only maybe.

Yes, I'm in the industry. Which means I have studied it on a daily, weekly and monthly basis for 12 years. Upstream and downstream. And not only oil. Energy in general.

I'd be very interested to have you elaborate on what you think will happen and why.
Mad Oilman, as an insider to the oil industry, I'm certain any additional information you can provide to support your ideas will be welcome here at the TOD.
Mad Oilman wrote:

Is there a problem? Yes. Will I see it in my lifetime? Yes. Will it massively disrupt my current way of life in my lifetime (50-60 years to go, long lived family). Maybe. Only maybe.  Yes, I'm in the industry. Which means I have studied it on a daily, weekly and monthly basis for 12 years. Upstream and downstream. And not only oil. Energy in general.

Energy is not the whole story.  The more I've studied Peak Oil the more I've become convinced that it's a social-economic-political problem more than a technical one.  Back in 1929 they had a really big problem appear all of a sudden, even though there was no shortage of oil or any other natural resource.  What collapsed was the financial system.  And they dug out of that by using a massive subsidy of fossil fuels.  There are many dangers currently in the teetering financial system, e.g., extreme debt on all levels.  Then add the peaking of oil on top of that, and you have the stage set for even bigger problems, and we won't have the energy resources to fix it via technical means.  The real problem is not oil, it is an economic system that REQUIRES exponential growth of everything - and that is about to be forced to stop growing.  When the stock market collapses and those rumored alternative greenbacks are worthless due to hyperinflation, where will those private capital investments come from?  Why would those who "have" invest in an economic environment that does not promise (unearned) profits, since it is shrinking?  They'll take what's left of their toys and go home, like they did in 1929.  The rest of us better learn how to grow our own food.

"The rest of us better learn how to grow our own food."

Sounds like a Survivalist sentiment to me.

Karl Marx made the similar observation about capitalism as your assertion that "an economic system that REQUIRES exponential grownth of everything..."

(BTW, I respect Marx for some of his insights into capitalism but not for his prescriptions.)

Another theory of economic growth and long business cycles (a field where Trotsky made a real contribution) is that depressions force capital to take risks on new technologies since there is no longer return on older industries and financial instruments.  The Great Depression brought us TV and the jet plane.  The 90-91 depression brought us the internet and an explosion of computerization, and so on.

Question from an economic dummy:

If eneryone (business, institution ...) was forgiven his debt on the same day, what would happen ?  Suddenly no one would have any debt. That's being done for some poor coutries, no ?

I just wonder when push comes to shove, if this debt problem is a real or imaginary problem.

Well, let's see. If I lend you my life savings, and then you repudiate your debt to me, then I have a real problem, not an imaginary one.
You cant have both . A stock market collapse and hyperinflation. Look at german markets during Weimar. Stocks in many cases are more real than paper money. They represent ownership of assets whereas the dollar represents Uncle Ben's promise that it will be worth a dollar.
Re: TOD is becoming known...

Tonight I had the pleasure of attending the first meeting of Boulder Valley Relocalization (BVR). Stephen Andrews, co-founder of the American branch of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO-USA) spoke and there were excerpts from "The End of Suburbia". The Andrews talk was pretty good and covered the basic territory very well, I thought.

Anyway, I was talking to the local organizer of BVR and alluded to our "draft Roscoe" thing. He said he'd seen it and looked here on the site everyday. Then in a slide this guy gave a list of six web sites to look at. TOD was number three on his list. TOD has got a growing, positive reputation. That's certainly something to be proud of.

He listed Matt Savinar's site (Defcon 1) but qualified it by saying that it was very pessimistic. Nonetheless, a person new to peak oil could not have walked away from the presentations without thinking that civilization was at the very least in big trouble. I leaned over to the person beside me and said "remember, this is the optimistic view".
Thanks for taking the time to give us your reviews Stuart - they've been enlightening.

One comment I have is re your doubts that the world population could be sustained  living the sustainable lifestyles espoused by the community solutions folks. I saw a talk recently by David Holmgren, one of the founders of permaculture, about energy descent. He made a couple of particularly interesting comments that stayed with me. He showed a curve of possible energy-use futures including (in descreasing order of energy use) cornucopian, green-tech, power-down (or energy descent) and die-off. He saw the most likely futures as lying withing the green-tech - powerdown range and that to start with these futures might start off fairly similar. The other comment he made was that some people dismiss a "solution" (such as permaculture) saying it isn't a universal solution and that this stems from the short-sighted expectation of a magic bullet.

This comment applies equally well to critiques of alternative energy sources as of alternative lifestyles - eg if they can't provide the whole answer then they are often unwisely dismissed as "no good".

More people living lower-energy lifestyles has to be part of the solution in my view. The energy footprint of westerners is huge and wasteful and anything that addresses that has great benefits in helping us get through peak oil.

I completely agree with you on that last para. There seems little doubt we are going to have less energy post peak, and the only question is how much less, and how the savings that will have to be made get distributed. I just have not yet been persuaded that a "no more non-renewables" approach is remotely viable. There are peak-oilers who oppose using any LQHCs and building any more nuclear power stations because they want to get sustainable as quickly as possible. I sort of think the burden is on them to show there's any hope of feeding the world that way.
Yes I agree that not rejecting anything out of hand includes LQHC. But when it comes to feeding the world I'm not sure oil is the main problem. Other problems such as population growth, water availablility and degrading agricultural land could well be worse. Not a great deal of gas is used in fertiliser and there is huge room for improvement in supply chains which in many cases are much longer than they need to be. We can start by cycling to the supermarket once in a while :-)

I'm skeptical of the ability of market forces to solve many post-peak problems, but food is one area where I think they will push things in  the right direction. Food with a lower "mileage" will be cheaper and presumably people will respond by buying it (or growing it) over much more expensive stuff that has been freighted half way round the world.

Markets would work great if we could only find a way to make them reflect the whole true cost of things, like for example, the health, transport, quality of life and so on related to coal burning, and not just part of the cost as is done now.  Sure, I know that would be hard to do, but as Amory Lovins likes to say, what we do now is set these other costs to the only value we are certain is wrong- zero!

Economics is a criminal activity as presently practiced , and economists should be put in stocks in Boston common, and pelted with rotten stock market reports until they mend their ways.

Scary it is, how many PO-aware people get sucked into framing things in the psycho-babble terms of the "economists" and the "no-countants".

"Markets would work great IF ... you write.

But what the heck are these things you call "markets"?

Is your definition the same as everyone else's?

Is it possible that the term is so vague and so ambiguous that it means to each person just what he or she wants it to mean?

Maybe you were too scared to confess that you didn't know what "markets" means. You've seen those supply and demand curves in class. Everyone shook their head yes, they understand. So you nodded yes too.

Now tell me. What gives your teacher the right to draw a 2-D straight line and call it a "supply" line. Nothing.

Maybe it should loop back on itself and have unidirectional splits and extend into the 3rd dimension (time)? And even into fourth, fifth dimensions (i.e. governement regulations, competing environment)? And maybe it should be discontinuos in certain places, like in this price/quantity zone, no one would want it or no one would produce it, or no one knows or all points are valid? What gave your eco teacher the right to draw a straight line? Nothing. He just made it up. Ditto for the demand points.

And before you get suckered into believing that "markets" means just supply versus demand graphs, what about the simple farmer's market?

The farmer is selling plucked chickens and the housewife is buying it for a "fair" price because it saves her the work of not having to raise the chicken and kill it, and pluck it herself.

But the farmer dumped the virus infested chicken feathers into the local river. Now the woman's kids are drinking water downstream of the farmer's place. Soon they will get sick. The doctor will prosper when she brings her sick kids to him for help. Then, if it's this new fatal bird virus, her kids will die. So now, what is the actual "price" she paid for the plucked chicken? And did she knowingly want and "demand" that plucked chicken and all its consequences?

What is the meaning of "markets"?

Think on it. Don't just accept the psycho-babble. Your economics teacher will reward you (with an F minus) if you dare to question the religion.

 " if we could only find a way to make them reflect the whole true cost of things, like for example, the health, transport, quality of life and so on "

What is the meaning of "markets"?

This goes back to what people say when I inform them about peak oil. Their favorite response is the "they" will take care of it.. The so called invisible hand the feed and provides for everything is what everybody believes in.. SO what if "they" don't have the answer??  

Hello, I'm a first time poster.

Wrt population decline, just like any organism humans are subject to population fluctuations. It's simply going to go up and down, and at times may crash. In "bad" times, some animals' populations are decimated. Even though humans are more sophisticated (?), the universal laws of nature are inescapable. Perhaps the peak oil discussion is somewhat "anthropocentric".

I'm surprised at the chatter on this site without reference to analysis or data. Where can one see models on the economic and agricultural scenarios? It might be helpful to reference those.