Article — From the August 2006 issue

Imagine There’s No Oil

Scenes from a liberal apocalypse

On a Friday last fall, I headed to Yellow Springs, Ohio, to learn more about oil depletion and the imminent collapse of industrial civilization. I was on my way to the Second U.S. Conference on “Peak Oil” and Community Solutions, and the organizers had picked an ideal weekend for the affair. The skies were smeared an oily gray, and 4,300-horsepower military jets roared like horsemen of the apocalypse over the withered cornfields. Hurricane Rita was poised to rip into Texas and Louisiana the very next morning, and both NPR and the Christian radio stations were anticipating her landfall with rapture, speculating on the fate of the Gulf refineries, reporting that the ATMs were out of cash and the pumps were dry, describing Revelation-scale traffic. When the hurricane watch was occasionally interrupted, it was to report on the day’s news from Iraq, which was not good. I myself was traveling without possessions, my bags having failed to appear when I arrived at the Columbus airport that afternoon. I did not imagine I would see them again: the airline had just declared bankruptcy, partially due to a spike in fuel costs, and I felt that I would be lucky just to get home.

I was not the only one to sense doom in the air. The idea that cheap oil had gone the way of the passenger pigeon was seeping into casual conversation, as the nation’s drivers watched prices at the pump creep steadily up. Even occasional readers of the newspaper had begun to debate such matters as the stewardship of petroleum reserves, the mechanics of natural-gas terminals, and the proper placement of wind farms. Towns and cities around the country were preparing resolutions on the impending crisis. Franklin, New York (pop. 1,219), would pass theirs in December, declaring that oil supplies had peaked and that preparations must be made; San Francisco and Portland would follow with similar resolutions of their own. Anxiety was building, and a number of the most worried were converging on Yellow Springs to discuss what, if anything, could be done.

By 5:00 p.m. we were massing at Antioch College’s Antioch Hall, where we would spend the weekend listening to some of the leading thinkers in the Peak Oil movement, which argues that world oil production will soon peak and that ca tastrophe will follow. More than 400 conferees had come from thirty-nine states and five countries, from as far as London and Auckland. As might have been expected, they had arrived by way of a variety of highly efficient modes of transport, including Insights and Priuses and a Mercedes running on vegetable oil. They came on bicycle and on foot too, some having hiked in from the state campground a few miles out of town. They were of all sizes and races, old and young, and there were plenty of women. Many wore T-shirts with messages such as ask me about peak oil, or prepare now for an oil-depleted future. We met in the lobby and stuck on our nametags. There were the excited exchanges of people putting faces to names known only from online forums. The hall itself was a Victorian structure of red brick with a variety of towers, gables, and turrets, and it lent these decidedly twenty-first-century proceedings a touch of the nineteenth, as though we were assembling to see a traveling lecture on the mammals of the upper Amazon.

We moved to the auditorium to hear an opening address by Richard Heinberg, the unofficial leader of the Peak Oil movement. He is not, it should be noted, its father: that honor goes to M. King Hubbert (1903–89), who was chief consultant in geology at Shell Oil during the 1950s. In a 1956 paper, Hubbert predicted that the peak of global oil production would occur in 2000. (In the same paper, he predicted that the peak of domestic oil production would occur between 1965 and 1970; in fact, it peaked in 1970.) But Heinberg is the movement’s evangelist, bearing the bad news to the world. His book The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies has sold more than 30,000 copies, an impressive number for an unadvertised title published by a small press and hardly available in bookstores. He is on the faculty of The New College of California, in San Francisco, though he does not have a Ph.D. (The New College, invented thirty years ago, is not a Ph.D. kind of place.) He had flown in from a Thursday night event in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he had delivered a lecture at Northern Arizona University, and he was headed to Maryland on Monday. In a nod to his standing, he would deliver both the first and the final speeches of the weekend.

Heinberg assumed the podium in a dark green shirt and brown knit tie. He has a little monk-like cap of hair, thin-rimmed glasses, and a reddish goatee, and in stature does not appear to be a large consumer of resources. After waiting a while for a tremendous round of applause to subside, he went on to speak with humor and mastery, tripping lightly over the history of oil and the world it created—from Edwin Drake’s first well in western Pennsylvania to the peaking of U.S. production and the subsequent upheaval during the shift toward foreign suppliers. He noted that global oil reserves were at their highest point in history, just as they had been in the United States before its peak. The global peak, he believes, will likely arrive in the next five years. He produced depressing figures about the potential energy returns of all alternatives, dashing hopes about everything from hydrogen cells and biofuel to the tar sands of Alberta.

As for what will happen after the oil runs out, Heinberg presented an unnerving outline. The economy will begin an endless contraction, a prelude to the “grid crash.” Cars will revert to being a luxury item, isolating the suburban millions from food and goods. Industrial agriculture will wither, addicted as it is to natural gas for fertilizer and to crude oil for flying, shipping, and trucking its produce. International trade will halt, leaving the Wal-Marts empty. In the United States, Northern homes will be too expensive to heat and Southern homes will roast. Dirty alternatives such as coal and tar sands will act as a bellows to the furnace of global warming. In response to all of this, extreme political movements will form, and the world will devolve into a fight to control the last of the resources. Whom the wars do not kill starvation will. Man, if he survives, will do so in agrarian villages. It is a terrible scenario, and for delivering it, Heinberg received a standing ovation.

Heading to my rental car, I found myself immersed in a now familiar feeling, one I have experienced many times during the months I have spent reading books on Peak Oil and conversing with Peak Oilers. At those times, I move through the world in wonderment at the commonplaces of my life that are slated to vanish: the plastic pen in my pocket, the clear holder for my nametag, my fleece sweater (all made of plastic, largely derived from natural gas, the supplies of which are closely linked to those of petroleum), my shoes, pants, and shirt (all shipped at large energy cost over thousands of miles), the money in my wallet (soon to be worthless paper), my car (naturally), and even the road it was parked on (asphalt’s major component is petroleum). It is unsettling to watch the world disappear, though a little exciting too.

I had met my first Peak Oilers in July at a health-food restaurant in Manhattan, which plays host to the monthly gathering of the NYC Peak Oil Meetup Group, one of thirty-nine worldwide. The group is led by Dan Miner, a dapper man favoring crisp button-down shirts and black dress shoes in the lug-soled mold. He is forty-four, a senior vice president of the Long Island City Business Development Corporation, in Queens, and not unaware of the irony of this. “I spend all day trying to get new businesses to start up in Queens, to get buildings built,” he told me before the meeting started. “And in my free time, I talk about how it’s all going to end.” When Miner had come to his first meeting, the previous December, there were four in attendance and no leader, the original founder having vanished. Under Miner’s stewardship, though, the group has flourished. By July there were nearly a hundred members, and about thirty had shown up on that particular evening; the group has since grown to more than 340.

I sat next to Philip Botwinick, a middle-aged bookkeeper, and his partner, Tom Nielsen, a corporate librarian. Botwinick, one of the more outspoken and active members of the group, is a solid man with close-cropped gray hair and a wide-eyed look; Nielsen is smaller, much quieter, and wears a hearing aid. I asked Botwinick what he expected to happen in the city. “It’s going to be a nightmare, just like Soylent Green,” he told me, referring to the 1973 film that depicts a Manhattan where fresh water and food are reserved for the rich while the poor are harvested for cannibalistic purposes. Botwinick told me that he fully expects fascism to arrive along with the economic collapse. “I’m Jewish and I’m gay,” he said. “I’ve seen what can happen. I know where it’s going. I’m not sticking around.”

As my veggie burger arrived, Miner called the meeting to order. “This is a city of 10 million, and we get thirty here?” he said. “People can’t freaking deal. All right, let’s get this party started.”

Some urban Peak Oilers do think the city can be saved with planning, and they held the floor first. One woman, whose name I did not catch, suggested tearing up all the asphalt and turning the avenues into gardens. Bicycles would glide along paths in the shadows of the buildings. It was a beautiful image and it was roundly applauded.

Conversation turned to the city’s skyscrapers. According to the Peak Oilers, the buildings will be impossible to heat in the winter or to cool in the summer, and there might not even be enough spare energy to keep the elevators running. Charles Kramer, a fifty-two-year-old copyright lawyer in thick black glasses, suggested covering them with solar panels and then putting windmills on the roofs.

“We could put gardens at the bases of the windmills,” added someone in the back.

Simon Whelan, a programmer and another of the group’s busiest members, had some comments about all of this. Whelan, with his wavy gray hair, looks a little like General Custer might have had he survived and prospered into his fifty-second year. He is an expert on the subject of Peak Oil and often disabuses members of their hopeful fantasies.

“I’m glad you brought up some of those ideas,” said Whelan. “But you’ve got to think about how many kilowatts of power you need to put in to get a kilowatt out. It’s called EROEI”—he pronounced this err-oh-ay—“Energy Returned on Energy Invested. By many calculations, working with solar panels and wind turbines, you’re often getting close to zero on your EROEI. And you’re trying to do it eighty stories up. That’s not saying it wouldn’t work, just that you might not be as ahead as you need to be.” He went on for a long time about the hopeless deficiencies of alternative-energy solutions. “And now I’ll stop talking,” he said, and did.

The meeting moved on to the role of government. It was agreed that politicians had reached new heights of uselessness and that the Peak Oilers were on their own. Miner reported that he had tried more than once to speak with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s staff about these issues, but they had not shown much interest. “They just think I’m crazy,” he said. “They don’t know what to make of me.” Someone else mentioned that he had gone to a debate and asked the Democratic mayoral candidates about their views on Peak Oil, but he had been ignored.

Finally, the group took up the subject of escape. Within the Peak Oil movement, “relocalization” is the general term for the return to small towns and local economies. Violent chaos will rule after the collapse and before relocalization can be achieved, and the Oilers hope to ride this time out in self-sufficient interim communities they call “lifeboats.” Botwinick is perhaps the most committed to “not sticking around,” as he put it, and has been leading the New York group in its search for a place to build just such a lifeboat. His report at this meeting was somewhat dispiriting.

“We’re up against a lot of challenges,” he said, and then went on to describe a visit he had recently made to a self-contained community in Vermont. Botwinick had been talking shop with a member—“asking him technical stuff like ‘How do you make decisions as a group?’”—when he mentioned that Tom, who was standing right beside him, was his “partner.” The man’s small son turned to his father and asked, “He’s not going to the Kingdom is he, Daddy?” From there the visit quickly wound down.

A similar excursion to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, had been equally disappointing, though for somewhat different reasons. This was the country of the Amish, who have been perfecting a low-energy lifestyle for centuries, and their presence in the area was expected to be inspiring and possibly crucial. Since the Peak Oilers expect the collapse to coincide with the worst effects of global warming, including a new ice age, it was also important to know that Lancaster lay safely south of all previous glaciers. Two weeks before the meeting, Botwinick, Miner, and another group member named William Burke had driven the 160 miles in Botwinick’s Honda Civic.

“It was a fiasco,” Burke reported. “It was all strip malls and big-box stores, same as everywhere else.” There wasn’t much farmland available either. Burke, forty-seven, keeps a neat part in his hair and wears golf shirts and khakis. He works for a big-box chain—in IT, managing inventory[1]—but when the crisis hits he expects the whole operation to vanish in a matter of months. He calls himself a “Peak geek” and loves to discuss things like the capacities of specific refineries, energy routes, the different grades of oil in the world’s major wells, and the status of Europe’s strategic reserves. He is already storing cans of beans and tuna, and has put away food for his three cats too.

[1] No one really seemed to know why there were so many computer-oriented people in the New York group, but Whelan pointed out that Meetup groups are essentially a creation of the Internet, and thus particularly attractive to the computer-savvy.

There were also questions from new members. “Shouldn’t we be thinking of moving somewhere really warm?” asked a young Starbucks barista who had come with her boyfriend. “Where we don’t even need to heat our homes?”

“It’s really good that you’re joining the discussion,” Whelan said. “But the warmer parts of this country pose a lot of problems. We can’t go to the Southwest, for instance. There’s no water, and it’s going to be a desert again. And the Southeast? It’s all NASCAR and guns and born-again Christianity. How do you think we’re going to fit in?”

No one had an answer.

Around ten o’clock, Miner adjourned the meeting, and the members broke down into smaller groups. Burke mentioned that he had just been by the coin shop, and at this he withdrew a one-ounce Canadian Maple Leaf gold coin from his pocket. He is selling his stocks, he explained, and buying one gold coin each week. He is also buying silver, and when the economy vanishes he intends to use his hoard to buy farmland somewhere with the others. “I’d like to have at least 100 ounces of gold and 2,000 ounces of silver, as a minimum safety margin,” he said. “Even better would be 200 or 300 ounces of gold.” Whelan nodded. He, too, is mostly in gold.

Burke fingered the golden disc for a bit and then handed it around a little nervously. He had just paid $450 for it, and it was only slightly larger than a quarter. It was exciting to hold. In its glint there seemed to be a hint of the perilous future.

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