Article — From the August 2006 issue

Imagine There’s No Oil

Scenes from a liberal apocalypse

( 2 of 5 )

Peak Oil has been called the liberal Left Behind. This is dismissive but, in the manner of all good put-downs, also fairly accurate. At the conference the attendees certainly did seem to be to the left of the average American. The motto of Heinberg’s New College, for instance, is “Education for a Just, Sacred and Sustainable World.” And there was general applause when Simon Whelan, in the course of making a comment, characterized President Bush as a “psychopathic assassin.” And the number of gray ponytails in attendance at the conference would have reassured any conservative hoping to dismiss Peak Oil as liberal nonsense.

The movement does have some conservative adherents, though they are not so numerous. The most active, indeed perhaps the only, congressman truly fretting about Peak Oil is Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R., Md.), a former professor of physiology and a true right-winger. The last two bills introduced by Rep. Bartlett give some hint as to the range of his interests: House Resolution 507, calling for “an energy project with the magnitude, creativity, and sense of urgency that was incorporated in the ‘Man on the Moon’ project to address the inevitable challenges of ‘Peak Oil’”; and House Bill 42, which proposed “[t]o ensure that the right of an individual to display the flag of the United States on residential property not be abridged.” He lectures on Peak Oil whenever he can, and often shows up at events where Heinberg and his colleagues are in attendance.

Perhaps more than anything, the unifying trait of the Peak Oilers may be a love of information. They always seem to be carrying books, ferreting out government reports, and generally amassing news on energy supplies from around the world. They are intimate with terms such as “terawatts” and “micropower.” A discussion with a Peak Oiler can often seem like a gathering of the motivated students in a cross-disciplinary class on economics, physics, geography, and political science, and it is hard after an hour with them not to feel that the numbers add up to disaster.

Not all Peak Oil discussions, however, are lofty and professorial, for there are many practical implications to the coming collapse. At the conference’s Saturday luncheon, I met, among others, a National Guardsman just back from the desert adventure, a nurse, three autoworkers, and a financial analyst. The analyst was particularly anguished, being in the uncomfortable position of having either to advise his clients to invest in a system that would soon disappear or to recommend more honestly that they withdraw their money from his care and start a farm.

Conversation, over the meal of pancakes, organic fruit, and vegan bacon, ranged widely. I heard things like:

“Men hear about Peak Oil and they want to go out and buy guns and get back to the land. Women just stop and say, ‘How will I feed
my children?’”

“I met a blacksmith. He says we’ll have a lifetime’s supply of steel from all the abandoned cars, but he’ll have to switch to charcoal for his forge.”

“Charcoal’s not hard to make. You just need the right wood and a pit.”

“The ruling elite are not going down without a fight.”

“Everything shifted in me and I just knew I had to get out of my suburban home.”

“Did you know there are no shoe manufacturers left in the United States? We’re going to need cobblers.”[2]

[2] Not strictly true. Alden and Allen-Edmonds still make shoes here in the United States, although it is odd to imagine a postapocalyptic America clad in cordovan wingtips.

“And someone’s going to have to make canning jars too.”

Near the end of the conference on Sunday, one of the organizers, a woman named Megan Quinn, discussed plans to build a lifeboat in Yellow Springs called Agraria, and she presented a blueprint of it on a large piece of posterboard. It showed a tiny, Middle Earth–style village nestled amid trees, with rows of crops radiating outward. Quinn told us that each home will be smaller than 1,000 square feet, less than half the current average, and built with a variety of materials—including straw bales, cordwood, and stick adobe—as well as with traditional framing. Windows will be triple-glazed, with insulated shutters for extra warmth, and hot water will be heated by the sun. There will be no driveways, garages, street lights, or air conditioners. There will be root cellars.

According to Quinn, more than two dozen Peak Oilers from around the country have expressed interest in joining. As Quinn sees it, there is not very much that is optional about the plan. “If we don’t start thinking about the next generation now,” she said, “it could be the end of humanity.”

After Quinn’s presentation, there was a panel with Quinn and two other experts in eco-villages. The audience asked questions about the move to the lifeboats, and a number of them revealed the anxieties of a liberal in a survivalist’s world.

“What do we do with the mentally ill?” asked one woman.

“You’re not going to have time for people with major difficulties,” said Diana Leafe Christian, the editor of the magazine Communities. “It’s just too hard. You’re going to need all hands on deck.”

“I second that,” said Liz Walker, the cofounder of an eco-village in Ithaca, New York.

It was a typically hard-nosed answer. The lifeboats are not shaping up to be the love-nodes of the Seventies, at least not in the first years.

Another woman stood up and asked, “What are our communities going to do about the urban exodus? There’s going to be violence, social breakdown. Should we all be bearing arms?”

This is a question that comes up frequently, and makes many Peak Oilers slightly uncomfortable, but they are learning to live with it.

“You make a good point,” Walker replied. “We’ll make a perfect target.” It was not what she had hoped to discuss, though, and she pointed out that security would be better addressed if regions could move toward locally sustainable lifestyles in advance.

“We’ll want to practice compassion while being very prudent,” Christian added. “We might want to think about revisiting some old issues, like guns.”

More from Bryant Urstadt:

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