Peakniks, Doomers and Collapse

On this page…

  • The Peaknik
  • The Doomer
  • The extremists — Apocalyptic Outsiders.
  • Why Anarchic Collapse? What are the risks?
    1. Overpopulation and Overshoot
    2. ‘Net energy’ — fossil fuels were unique
    3. Complex systems collapse — “The spanner in the works”
    4. War
    5. Regional disasters
    6. Complete financial collapse
    7. The lot combined: Doomer groups
  • Debunking the ‘romance’ of collapse!
  • PS: Bright Green, Light Green, Dark Green and Grey

The Peaknik

The terms Peaknik, Doomer, and Apocalyptic Outsider that I detail below are important terms of reference in the peak oil culture.

A ‘Peaknik’ is interested in the Hubbert Peak theory of oil depletion. They try to to warn politicians; try to prevent the worst case scenarios; try to prepare society. Even if no one is really listening. Peakniks tend to be activists and optimists. I count myself as one. Many believe that as society has ignored peak oil till now, the world will probably go into a Great Depression. However, there is a vast difference between an economic collapse and a civilisation collapse! Us peakniks are still optimists, despite the reality of oil depletion.

The word Peaknik is a neologism — it a variation of the term peacenik. The use of “-nik” evokes a counterculture attitude to the status quo ambivalence about oil supplies.

The Doomer

Doomers are Peakniks that believe peak oil is going to lead to economic collapse, societal disruption, international tension, even war. Doomers will argue for hours that there is no technical or social solution. For them, agriculture’s dependence on oil suggests an inevitable Malthusian Catastrophe. Disaster lies ahead! There be dragons! Except this is not about medieval sailors marking the edge of the map, but sceptical, diligent scientists marking the limits of our ability to adapt to an oil depleted world.

Many don’t campaign as a result, but either resolve themselves to join a small survivalist  community, or resign to whatever doom fate deals. Websites like Oildecline.com cater to doomers that want to get off the grid and prepare for the coming storm, whether or not John Connor or Eli will be there to rescue them! 😉

 

The extremists — Apocalyptic Outsiders

Unfortunately peak oil can attract a cult-like pathology. In many cults the extreme views of adherents has placed them outside of the mainstream. Because they feel alienated and judged by society, they return the favour and judge society. Cults like the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas have been referred to as Apocalyptic Outsiders. Sadly, the peak oil meme can be corrupted in this manner and lead to consequences just as devastating, as one poor Australian family discovered.

I have noticed the tendency for some extreme Doomers to even want to keep peak oil to themselves. This is not characteristic of all Doomers, please don’t take offense if you hold little hope for civilisation at the end of the oil age. I am speaking about a very specific smugness about it all. It seems that the Apocalyptic Outsider has too much of their identity caught up in their end of civilisation belief system — to the point that if society did adapt successfully, these individuals would be disappointed!

The characteristics that mark the Apocalyptic Outsider are:

  • a tendency to gloat smugly over the coming destruction of civilization.
  • a judgmental attitude to the uninitiated (and even non-Doomer Peakniks are scolded for their inferior position.)
  • a tendency to kick back and enjoy esoteric discussions over the end of civilization — rather than actually doing anything about it
  • very harsh criticism of those who do try to raise awareness and promote solutions
  • can be obstructive, critical, destroy group moral
  • They tend to be white guys with a mid-life crisis, no social life, who want to hang out online and gripe about the world.
  • This Apocalyptic Outsider wants to fatalistically congratulate themselves for their clever perceptions rather than campaign, or even set up a Lifeboat as many other Doomers would.
  • Navel gazing time wasters. Avoid at all cost!

Why anarchic collapse — what are the risks?

How can these Doomers possibly believe this stuff? We survived the Cuban missile crisis, bird flu, and Y2K scares — what nutters still believe civilization can just fall apart?

Can I first of all state that the Doomer position represents a significant body of very academic work. Some loners might be in it for the hype, but the main body of the discussion involves some of our brightest academic minds. Just read through the many essays by concerned Professors and other academics at Dieoff.com! It’s enormous! Anyway, into a few of the foundational theories — and some of the more successful popularizers of those theories.

Please note that all of these scenarios are discussed at Wikipedia: Societal Collapse, but maybe under slightly different names.

Risk 1: Overpopulation and overshoot

As I wrote in my site summary article, “The Eclipse”, the human population really is growing exponentially. So as oil runs down will our Green Revolution of oil dependent farming also collapse?

Will population growth push us up against all the other natural limits I’ve discussed until we break Liebig’s law of the minimum?

The first truly articulate expression of these concepts came from the now famous papers by Thomas Malthus in his 1798 paper. He was concerned with population pressures on agriculture and food supply. Then of course the Club of Rome was founded in 1968. A classic and often misquoted work The Limits to Growth ran a number of simulations on the best computers of the day

Things can fall apart very quickly. As the saying goes,

Every society is only 3 meals away from the next revolution.

Professor Albert Bartlett (who worked on the bomb!) has a now famous lecture, Arithmetic, Population and Energy. Bartlett proves beyond reasonable doubt that there we can have no sustainable civilization without a stable population base that controls its urge to grow exponentially. Every new resource availability — whether by expanding our nuclear energy base or making efficiency gains — will soon be consumed by the inexorable nature of exponential growth. A 20% efficiency gain across our entire civilization does us little good if we then grow our population by 30%!

In a similar vein, Jared Diamond explores some of these themes in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. One has to remember that Diamond’s Pulitzer-prize winning earlier work Guns, Germs, and Steel studied the benefits of the right geology on the development of early civilizations — including positive environmental, resources, local positive energy flows through good grains and foods, and political factors. In Collapse he presents what can happen when these factors work against us, and our resources become depleted and our lands degraded.

However, Professor Richard Heinberg reviews Diamond’s Collapse and concludes that while a great first attempt, the book fails in breadth of analysis. Richard wishes that a civilization theory masterpiece had been compiled, incorporating the works of Joseph Tainter with some of Heinberg’s own work. Basically, Collapse is urgent, but is it urgent enough??!

“Here are my three reasons for concluding that Diamond has in fact made an extremely timid case for the likelihood of global industrial collapse; there are certainly others.” See Meditations on Collapse

Risk 2: ‘Net energy’ — Fossil fuels were unique

Richard C. Duncan presented his Phd in 1989 — The Peak of World Oil Production and the Road to the Olduvai Gorge. This is now known as the Olduvai theory presented at Dieoff.com

The main question here is whether any renewable energy system can really have a high enough ERoEI to run modern life and agriculture. Duncan and colleagues see fossil fuels as a unique, one time only store of practically free energy that humanity gorged in an industrial frenzy. They see all alternative energy systems have a negative or insignificant ERoEI. A typical quote is that “Every wind turbine ever built was built because of cheap oil.”

The uniqueness of fossil fuels is a view called ‘net energy’. Anarchy lurks in a number of quarters such as the collapse of the electricity grid stopping the water coming out of our taps. If the grid switches off forever the water  pumps shut down. When we lose mains pressure and the water stops flowing out of our taps, that’s game over.

Risk 3: Complex systems collapse — “The spanner in the works.”

This perspective tries to assess the risks in an enormously interdependent globalized economy that is fantastically dependent on cheap transport for its very existence.

Factories no longer store vast supplies of components in warehouses. Instead they save real estate costs by becoming dependent on just in time delivery of their needs. Items arrive from a global supply line. This is true of all goods, whether computer components or cars through to the food in our groceries stores.

This makes the whole industrial trading and manufacturing system incredibly fragile and utterly dependent on shipping, airlines, and trucking. Everything is international. Raw ingredients are shipped from a resource nation to a cheap labour manufacturing nation, and then shipped to a first world consumer nation. Primary resources become secondary industry fodder which becomes tertiary industry employment. Finally, the customer drives to the store to pick up the goods. The whole system is inter-related and completely oil dependent. Our global economy is the most complex and fragile “machine” ever built, and oil is the lifeblood of that economy. Without it, the system will die. It’s like throwing a spanner into the works of a gigantic machine monster of pumping pistons and interlocking gears. In other words, “the age of the 3000 mile Caesar salad is coming to an end.” (Phrase by Jim Kunstler on End of Suburbia.)

The former oil-industry executive Jan Lundberg thinks that the economic crisis will be sudden.

“Market-based panic will, within a few days, drive prices skyward,” he says. “And the market will become paralysed at prices too high for the wheels of commerce and daily living.” So forget the price at the pump: when oil becomes truly unaffordable, you will be more worried about the collapse of distribution networks, and the absence of food from local shops.”
The Sunday Times Magazine

Wolf at the door writes of the UK’s “2000 Fuel Protests”

Petrol queue

The European fuel protests of 2000 were an excellent example of what will happen when we are deprived of our petrol and a salutary warning.

The price of oil had been low for some time and when OPEC decided to reduce their quotas, the costs of oil shot up. Fishermen in France began to protest about the rises and the bug spread across the Channel. Farmers (who use low-tax fuel so were more aware of the rises) and hauliers (who saw their Continental rivals using lower taxed diesel) started their own opposition. The government was in a pit as it had gradually raised fuel taxes when oil was cheaper and did not reduce them as the price per barrel rose. The result was blockades of refineries for about two and a half weeks.

The implications of just this minor shortage was tremendous. Naturally there were huge queues at petrol stations to refuel, but there was also panic buying at the shops. Some ran out of bread and milk. Postal collections were suspended on Sundays to conserve fuel. Farm animals were threatened with starvation because the feed was unable to be delivered. Schools closed down and hospitals cancelled all but emergency operations. And all this from two and a half weeks.

Michael Meacher, who was Britain’s environment minister for six years, is plainly terrified.

“The implications are mind-blowing… Civilization faces the sharpest and perhaps most violent dislocation in recent history.”
The Sunday Times

By the time our governments realize that we really are at peak oil it may be too late to prevent enormous economic pain. I believe this is the case already. However, there is a vast difference between a Great Depression and the total destruction of society. On the other hand, a Great Depression is bad enough. To go descend further allows the potential for normal societal patterns of growing food, getting to work, shopping, and confidence in “the system” to break down. So what comes to the rescue after the airlines are bankrupt, the economy has tanked, once profitable jobs become irrelevant and the unemployment skyrockets. What happens the other side of massive unemployment queues, soup kitchens, people on the streets, corporations going bankrupt, government’s losing tax revenue as the economy sinks further?

The “Complex systems collapse” Doomer then looks at how other multiple factors collide. As Wolf in the Door illustrates so well, if a terrorist event or simple industrial action and protests get out of hand (which is very likely) then oil is not just more expensive, there may not even be any for official government purposes! There will be simultaneous challenges that are economic, industrial, social, technical, agricultural, psychological, psycho-social, political, cultural, and international. Other things all crash and reverberate off each other. One event makes the next worse in a cascade of ever descending anarchy.

Risk 4: War

The Carter Doctrine says:

“Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

For more detail, please go to Wolf at the Door and click on Future then Oil wars. This is probably the single most important reason to campaign for awareness. If people know peak oil is a geological event, they are less likely to support further oil wars.

See also:
Three types of doomers and fantasy collapse | Energy Bulletin

Risk 5: Regional Disasters

Back in 2004 my then 5 year old boy nearly died from Leukemia. I know what it is like to have a child waste away before your eyes. I know what it is like to be a parent in pain, willing to do anything, desperate to save a child’s life. I have first hand experience of that desperation, and it has changed me.

So I see the potential for previously civil and polite parents to start screaming and rioting if supermarkets run low on supplies. There is nothing that can induce a sense of helpless panic and rage and manic energy as fear for your child.

What do you care if your nation eventually makes it, but your region or city collapses into chaos and your kids are killed in looting? You don’t have to believe in the inevitable end of Western Civilization to care about peak oil — you just have to remember Hurricane Katrina. That was a very predictable risk management exercise and the government bungled it completely. It sure felt like the end of civilization to them!

Risk 6: Complete financial collapse

The ABC recently hosted “The Ascent of Money” by Niall Ferguson. To present the case for economic collapse, I will hand you over to the ABC’s ‘Big Ideas’ podcast which recently played the 2010 John Bonython Lecture by Niall Ferguson.

Is the rise and fall of empires cyclical or arrhythmic? How does economic profligacy – whether the result of arrogance or naivety – contribute to the downfall of civilisations?

Today Professor Ferguson will argue that great powers or empires are in the strict sense of the word, complex systems. Made up of very large numbers of interacting components that are quite asymmetrically organised. In other words, he continues, their construction more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid. They operate somewhere between order and disorder. Moreover imperial falls are nearly always associated with fiscal crises, when there are dramatic imbalances between revenues and expenditures.

Thus alarm bells should be ringing in Washington DC but what does that for mean for Australia?

via Empires on the Edge of Chaos – Big Idea – 22 August 2010.

Risk 7: Putting them all together — Doomer groups!

With overpopulation and overshoot, the complexities of replacing an alternative transport and energy system at the same time, the possibility of war, and of course the wild-card of global warming thrown in, it is no wonder that many peak oilers lose hope.

* Life After the Oil Crash

Matt Savinars’ Life after the Oil Crash (LATOC) — is one of the most popular peak oil sites on the net which starts:

Dear Reader,
Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon. This is not the wacky proclamation of a doomsday cult, apocalypse bible prophecy sect, or conspiracy theory society. Rather, it is the scientific conclusion of the best paid, most widely-respected geologists, physicists, and investment bankers in the world. These are rational, professional, conservative individuals who are absolutely terrified by a phenomenon known as global “Peak Oil.”

Now Matt is making his way into peak oil feature movies. He starts this preview for A Crude Awakening with the controversial quote, “Oil is our God.”

* The Dark Mountain project

“This project starts with our sense that civilisation as we have known it is coming to an end; brought down by a rapidly changing climate, a cancerous economic system and the ongoing mass destruction of the non-human world. But it is driven by our belief that this age of collapse – which is already beginning – could also offer a new start, if we are careful in our choices. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.”
http://www.dark-mountain.net/

Now for a change of pace!

Debunking the ‘romance’ of collapse

George Monbiot of the UK’s Guardian writes: I share their despair, but I’m not quite ready to climb the Dark Mountain, where he argues that:

Like all cultures, industrial civilisation will collapse at some point. Resource depletion and climate change are likely causes. But I don’t believe it will happen soon: not in this century, perhaps not even in the next. If it continues to rely on economic growth, if it doesn’t reduce its reliance on primary resources, our civilisation will tank the biosphere before it goes down. To sit back and wait for what the Dark Mountain people believe will be civilisation’s imminent collapse, without trying to change the way it operates, is to conspire in the destruction of everything greens are supposed to value.

Nor do I accept their undiscriminating attack on industrial technologies. There is a world of difference between the impact of windfarms and the impact of mining tar sands or drilling for oil: the turbines might spoil the view but, as the latest disaster shows, the effects of oil seep into the planet’s every pore. And unless environmentalists also seek to sustain the achievements of industrial civilisation – health, education, sanitation, nutrition – the field will be left to those who rightly wish to preserve them, but don’t give a stuff about the impacts.

We can accept these benefits while rejecting perpetual growth. We can embrace engineering while rejecting many of the uses to which it is put. We can defend healthcare while attacking useless consumption. This approach is boring, unromantic, uncertain of success, but a lot less ugly than the alternatives.

For all that, the debate this project has begun is worth having, which is why I’ll be going to the Dark Mountain festival this month. There are no easy answers to the fix we’re in. But there are no easy non-answers either.

Or, as Alex Steffen from Worldchanging writes:

But real apocalypses are sordid, banal, insane. If things do come unraveled, they present not a golden opportunity for lone wolves and well-armed geeks, but a reality of babies with diarrhea, of bugs and weird weather and dust everywhere, of never enough to eat, of famine and starving, hollow-eyed people, of drunken soldiers full of boredom and self-hate, of random murder and rape and wars which accomplish nothing, of many fine things lost for no reason and nothing of any value gained. And survivalists, if they actually manage to avoid becoming the prey of larger groups, sitting bitter and cold and hungry and paranoid, watching their supplies run low and wishing they had a clean bed and some friends. Of all the lies we tell ourselves, this is the biggest: that there is any world worth living in that involves the breakdown of society.
Worldchanging October 2004

And at another point:

“But this sort of Worldending thinking is poisonous. Like so many other ego-apocalyptic fantasies, it plays off two toxic memes: the idea that collapse is a positive force, and the idea that people have no ecologically acceptable place on this planet. Better writers than me have explored why both of these ideas are insane. What isn’t explored often enough, though, is the effect these ideas and their like have on our culture: they sap our will to do better.Collapse and extinction scenarios stoke our resignation, and let us off the hook for taking the tough, hard steps we’ll be called to take over the next century if we are to build a sustainable civilization. We can’t build what we can’t imagine, but there’s a corollary as well: what we imagine has a way of deeply influencing us (or, as Montaigne put it, “A firm imagination often brings on the event.”).

A culture full of engaged, creative optimists with visions of a bright green future will produce a very different world than a culture of jaded misanthropes waiting for the Planetary Melt-Down. Optimism is a political act, challenging as it does the primary defense of the status quo — that change is impossible. It is also a creative one. Yet our culture is full of portrayals of the end, and almost completely empty of images and stories and plans that show today to be the beginning of a new era. That’s dysfunctional.

We know that we can do profoundly better than we are, that indeed, there’s no technical reason why we can’t build a society whose impacts on the natural world are positive.

So, yes, it’s interesting to read a story about how long it would take for our skyscrapers to fall into ruins — but it’d be thrilling to read a story about what it would take for humanity to thrive on Earth forever.”
Worldchanging, October 2006

George Monbiot sums up his thoughts on Apocalyptic Outsiders brilliantly in this conversation. The whole conversation is well worth reading, and I laughed when I saw the same old meme’s and exchanges and counter-exchanges resurfacing in this tired old argument. Apocalyptic Outsider’s can be so predictable, and so evasive, and so inconsistent! This paragraph, near the end of this exchange, made me laugh out loud.

Yes, the words I use are fierce, but yours are strangely neutral. I note that you have failed to answer my question about how many people the world could support without modern forms of energy and the systems they sustain, but 2 billion is surely the optimistic extreme. You describe this mass cull as “a long descent” or a “retreat to a saner world”. Have you ever considered a job in the Ministry of Defence press office?

This email sums up the various concerns I have with the Apocalyptic Outsider mentality.

Dear Paul

If I have understood you correctly, you are proposing to do nothing to prevent the likely collapse of industrial civilisation. You believe that instead of trying to replace fossil fuels with other energy sources, we should let the system slide. You go on to say that we should not fear this outcome.

How many people do you believe the world could support without either fossil fuels or an equivalent investment in alternative energy? How many would survive without modern industrial civilisation? Two billion? One billion? Under your vision several billion perish. And you tell me we have nothing to fear.

I find it hard to understand how you could be unaffected by this prospect. I accused you of denial before; this looks more like disavowal. I hear a perverse echo in your writing of the philosophies that most offend you: your macho assertion that we have nothing to fear from collapse mirrors the macho assertion that we have nothing to fear from endless growth. Both positions betray a refusal to engage with physical reality.

Your disavowal is informed by a misunderstanding. You maintain that modern industrial civilisation “is a weapon of planetary mass destruction”. Anyone apprised of the palaeolithic massacre of the African and Eurasian megafauna, or the extermination of the great beasts of the Americas, or the massive carbon pulse produced by deforestation in the Neolithic must be able to see that the weapon of planetary mass destruction is not the current culture, but humankind.

You would purge the planet of industrial civilisation, at the cost of billions of lives, only to discover that you have not invoked “a saner world” but just another phase of destruction.

Strange as it seems, a de-fanged, steady-state version of the current settlement might offer the best prospect humankind has ever had of avoiding collapse. For the first time in our history we are well-informed about the extent and causes of our ecological crises, know what should be done to avert them, and have the global means – if only the political will were present – of preventing them. Faced with your alternative – sit back and watch billions die – Liberal Democracy 2.0 looks like a pretty good option.

It’s harsh to have to spell this out, but peak oil awareness is too important to let self-obsessed Doomers interfere with either your activism or thought life. Life is too short, and your activist time too valuable, to get sucked into this worldview. We could still nuke ourselves back to the stone age, but do you want to live your life in a cave waiting for that to happen? I think the odds of it are low. I plan to live a full life with my family, while occasionally campaigning for environmental awareness on the side.

Further reading:
Anarcho-primitivism

PS: Bright Green, Light Green, Dark Green and Grey.

Just to let you know, Worldchanging uses the terms Bright Green, Light Green, Dark Green and Grey.

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3 Responses to Peakniks, Doomers and Collapse

  1. Pingback: George Monbiot on Collapse and Apocalyptic Outsiders « Eclipse Now

  2. pyrotex says:

    Well, I was given “official” notice that I was a Doomer. But my current “bet” that Earth will only support 1.5B is predicated on some assumptions: I assumed that the American Energy Culture (AEC) and transportation culture (ATC) and business culture (ABC) will resist all efforts to change them until they literally collapse. I assumed our political culture (APC) would do the same, resisting and forbidding serious change until the lights literally go out.
    On the other hand, sometimes low probability events (LPE) DO occur. (Obama, for example) Might not other LPE occur as well? Perhaps a small but highly vocal minority of our Congress see the light and start demanding changes to our ABC, AEC, APC, ATC? Perhaps a few “near-miss” almost-catastrophes that enlighten all but the most dogmatic citizens? Perhaps a few planetary-class leaders capable of backing down our Big-Biz tyrants?
    Who can know? I would like to believe that there will be “heroes” of this age to come, heroes of the like of George Washington, Queen Elizabeth I, Mahatma Gandhi, Abe Lincoln, and M. L. King Jr. Men and women, not of steel, but of carbon composites and high-alloy titanium, who can lead us between the vortices of doom, to a new age as different from the American 20th Century as it was from the French 17th.

  3. eclipsenow says:

    Interesting… so can I just clarify something? You don’t think that it is technologically impossible to prevent anarchic collapse, but are hoping that it is not politically impossible to prevent some of the nastier scenarios above? Then we might be a lot closer on the peaknik / doomer spectrum than I initially thought.

    On the American car & transport culture, I have to say that some of my heros are at Worldchanging.com. See this article, My other car is a bright green city for some hope in that regard. Indeed, the Worldchanging site documents many such changes in American culture that are starting to spread… such as the Mayor of San Francisco preferring New Urbanism / Ecocities and public transport.

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