What Are We Not Talking Enough About?

One of my many other hats is the one I wear as a member of the ASPO-USA board and editor of the Peak Oil Review Commentary. My favorite kind of commentary is the one that puts together short pieces from a lot of thinkers, all answering the same question - and this must be the favorite of a lot of people, because it has generated a tremendous response. Perhaps favorite response to the question "What are we missing? What part of our environmental/energy/economic crisis isn't getting enough attention?" was Nate Hagen's answer (only partly excerpted here):

Basically, though it's counter-intuitive, we don't have an energy shortage but a longage of expectations. This is actually good news, but it requires a shift in perception, objectives, and actions. Ergo, before we are able to create and implement what a better future looks like, we likely first have an appointment with the digital, financial reaper, and will have to deal with the social stability and logistical issues that accompany a large reduction in what we thought we had."

Or maybe it was Peter Kilde's analysis, which points to the lack of focus on the poor - and how many of us are joining them (again, this is just part of his larger point):

So many of the programs and services that assist the poor are really largely designed to help in planning, whether called case management, budget counseling, job and career development, homelessness prevention or community organizing. They don't do much for bad luck, but can be a very effective antidote to poor planning, while providing some tangible relief from poverty's hardships. So now, when the preparation for harder times ahead requires more planning assistance for the poor than ever, another face of the imminent collapse, bankrupt governments, is threatening to severely cut those very programs that low income families need most, like community action agencies. This too is a little discussed but important reality as the ranks of America's poor reach 45 million and is growing fast."

Or maybe it was Kurt Cobb (and yes, there's more good stuff here too!):

Many of the rights we take for granted in an energy-rich age are really products of that energy, not of the political process. For example, the right to travel means nothing if you cannot afford to do it. The right to consume as many resources as one can get one's hands on is a product of a resource-rich age. Such rights may have little meaning for most people in a resource-impoverished future. Our natural inclination is to extrapolate our current forms of democratic governance into the future and assume more or less the same scope of action for the individual under that system. If central governments remain robust-not a given based on current trends-then their policies in an age of declining resources will, of necessity, restrict more and more our presumed "freedoms" that are tied to consumption.

Ok, I can't decided - we had so much response (and the discussion has continued) that I have had to spread it over three weeks. You'll see mine later on, and some more of the best ones in the next two coming weeks. Meanwhile, read the whole thing - these are just excerpts of three opinions and there are many more - this week also has Dmitry Orlov, Art Berman, Bill McKibben and Steven Kopits - and I haven't even gotten to Richard Heinberg, Nicole Foss, Jeff Rubin, Jeff Brown,Toby Hemenway, Tad Patzek, Tom Philpott,,,,you begin to see why it will take three weeks!

I also welcome suggestions here for questions to ask an ever-widening group of ASPO's allies and supporters - what would you like to hear people address?


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I think an important issue we're not talking enough about is what the downslope / downside will look like post peak oil. There's been plenty of discussion about timing and about reserves, but not nearly enough about how things will decline. Will we see a decline of 2% per year or 5% per year? Will there be major discontinuities? Will we see all liquids production stay flat while actual crude+condensate decline at 3%? How much faster will net exports decline than crude+condensate?

And of course, once we discuss the decline of oil in particular, we should probably discuss how that is likely to interact with the economy.

I'd be very interested to hear what you and the folks you list above think about these questions.

I'd want to see more about how energy waste and poor energy source choices are locked in by old state and local laws and regulations, old municipal and county codes, and even HOAs, all written to enforce a Mayberry that never was. Change the rules on the ground, and there may still be some ground someday.

I would like to see city planning addressed -- and socio-business assumption.

One for-instance, is commute. Public transit is not the answer, 'cause it merely enables a vast network of services and expectations that an employer sits, immune, at the center of a web of transit requirements to gather all the employees, customers, deliveries of product and support material, visitors, etc. to a central location. This applies equally well to consolidating school districts, to building central shopping malls and districts instead of neighborhood stores, and is not limited to any large store or employer. The single-family dwelling, remotely away from the 'traffic' of shopping and employment districts, is based on the assumption of cheap energy to run that home, and to fuel the personal or private transport.

Personally, I would advocate requiring a 'suitability' certificate to sell or rent lodging, certifying that there is a reasonable amount of employment within 2 miles, and shopping within 1.5 miles -- or assess an excise tax on the lodging, for profligate energy consumption.

I would also like to see employers engaged in city planning, via a tax on employers of 1 penny per employee per day per mile that employee lives away from that employer. Whether or not this would turn into a gateway revenue process, it would bring to employers and cities the relationship of long commutes and employment. Maybe set an incentive for employers to reduce average daily employee commute by 50% each year for five years, by progressively halving the tax each year the incentive goal is reached.

I think that talking about the problems and their potential solutions are the easy part, how we actually get those solutions implemented is the hard part. In a democracy citizens have to convince politicians to act on their wishes, but how you get citizens to wish for the right things and then apply pressure to their politicians and legislators is the big trick. Not a lot of people are talking about that, mostly they are writing or talking about how stupid or apathetic or selfish those citizens are. Trying to educate citizens about issues and solutions is one thing, convincing them to act on it is quite another. Most activists seem to be preaching to the choir and/or trying to instill despair in already-despairing citizens.

There are some people doing some interesting research in this area, but as far as I know there are no big answers yet. My personal opinion is that love and a sense of belonging is the ultimate answer, the proximate answer is a lot more complicated. I don't have any big answers either, but I sure think this is an area that needs more attention.

Probably not really an answer to your question, but I saw the quoted comment about right to travel and have to say that it is wrong ... right to travel includes the right to cross borders between states or even different towns or even across town without passports and special permissions, the right to move across the state line and not get disqualified from certain benefits because of a residency requirement, and more. So it is much more than affording to travel to DisneyWorld, or travel in the sense of travel pages.
(You, Sharon, probably won't be surprised) but I am generally interested in how civil rights and our definition of what those rights are is related to bigger issues like peak oil and the coming zombie attack.

By Susan in NJ (not verified) on 25 May 2011 #permalink

As touched on in your comments, I am interested in how we continue to create a safety net for the poor, disadvantaged and disabled when our governments can no longer provide support and how we engage the public in being active in providing political support to create change.

By Nena in GA (not verified) on 25 May 2011 #permalink

Things one might expect to happen, and are worth discussing:

1) The rollback of female equality, as work evolves to require more manual labor and as more adults need to be home to grow food and take care of children. Women had fewer rights before the information economy.

2) The rise of the prison chain gang, and the pressing into service of minorities to fill them, as states need to reduce prison expenditures by hiring out convict labor. Think of forced labor in Atlanta between the wars, which involved a form of unofficial slave labor.

3) The return of public health menaces such as epidemics, as clean water and health care become less available. Polio, cholera, etc. were present in our lives just decades ago.

4) The growth of the salvage economy, as we "unbuild" the exurbs, made uninhabitable by high oil prices, in preference to letting them deteriorate and house mosquitoes, meth labs, etc.

5) The return of hunger as a widespread phenomenon, not limited to our poorest citizens.

6) The growth in the underground economy as nominally unemployed people increasingly work off the books.

7) The growth of barter (labor for food, e.g.).

8) The relaxing (or ignoring) of zoning regulations in the suburbs, letting people take in boarders, grow food, run businesses out of their home, sell food and drink without a license, offer private schooling without a license, etc.

9) The return of old norms, including matchmaking, clannish behavior, etc.

10) The rise of gangs and organized crime to provide order in, or at least control of, some industries, neighborhoods, and even towns.

11) The rise of local manufacturing.

By Avec Frites (not verified) on 25 May 2011 #permalink

My bugaboo with the peak oil community is their lack of pushing or focus on planting nut trees. Any kind of a shock food wise from oil disruptions or climate disruptions is going to need to be mitigated by nut trees for protein for the most abundant, resilient (in the long term) response. I am frustrated that that is not put forward more!!! My biggest concern is starvation and how are we going to feed people. If we can't feed people all the larger issues of getting along go out the window.
Karen F
Northern Virginia

True-cost economics -- the need for externalities to be internalized in any kind of sustainable economic paradigm.

By Sue in the Wes… (not verified) on 25 May 2011 #permalink

Karen F, I agree with you about the value of nut trees. Few are planted because it would require a long term view and investment. Are you planting trees yourself? As for problems related to feeding people, it appears to me that that is already baked into the cake.