Friday, October 24, 2008

Ten unfortunate assumptions of energy addicts

Written by Jan Lundberg

Culture Change Letter #186, May 24, 2008

This is a message on record crude and gasoline prices to oil addicts (Hello!). I include their close cousins the green energy addicts (Ciao!). This is prompted by the shallow, momentary news-analyses of the oil market, as well as by the slightly less-shallow boosterism of a green-energy Utopia. Lend me your ears before I say, “Have a global warming day” and we go our separate ways. I'd like to think I’m moving to the country or the high seas.

I want to say “Hey” to the endangered American gas guzzler and all manner of major oil burner, and, "Hail ye plastic-consuming, tax-funding supporters of never-ending war! You’ve been driving up a storm, whether Operation Desert Storm or the next Katrina.” The few who aren’t driving are marginalized like Cassandras -- usually considered losers. Our hearts go out to one and all, for the (c)rude awakening has barely begun.

Some have pondered what it means for pump prices to get past $4 a gallon and for oil prices to get to $135 a barrel. Continuing to ponder away has, significantly, resulted in no action other than be forced to cut back on some expenditures. Your habits and thinking haven’t changed, but they will shortly. This is a heads-up on what goes on with the oil industry; it might help, for there is more than meets the eye that affects everyone. What’s in store for us all, energy-wise and for our very survival?

“You know something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is/Do you Mr. Jones” – Bob Dylan, Ballad of a Thin Man, 1965
Our collective problem as we see the world sputter out of control for the worse (before it gets better) is largely that so many loud mouths claim to know what IS happening here. Honest and wise assessments of what all is really going on are hard to come by, partly because the corporate media suppress independent voices who may have the background and objectivity to offer clarity.

There are several major assumptions blinding most of those who try, within the confines of the dominant culture and “The System,” to grasp trends and glimpse the future:

1) Oil supplies will diminish gradually now that peak extraction has arrived.

2) Alternative fuels and renewable energy can replace our petroleum consumption.

3) The petroleum infrastructure can last or become renewable-energy based.

4) Technology is the equivalent of energy, and energy is energy (all the same).

5) Today’s population of consumers has something to fall back on if and when petroleum-grown/distributed food and petroleum-pumped water disappear.

6) Government and scientists can see us through this challenge and save us.

7) “The market” and “entrepreneurial innovation” offer salvation for our unraveling social fabric and our destruction of the ecosystem.

8) Climate change will be gradual and be reflected accurately by numerical averages.

9) The U.S. population can cope with anything and is at an advantage over other countries especially as scarcity and adversity mount.

10) The “wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan are winnable or can be put behind us with elections, and that the waste of lives and wealth on these wars can be absorbed.

Baby, here are the debunking facts on the above, in order:

1. The oil industry and the oil market are, like the global corporate economy, not set up for contraction. Enough of a shortage will sink the whole ship.

2. Petroleum has no substitute, neither for all its uses nor for the cheapness of the bygone days of rising supply. “Unlimited” petroleum created the growth and abundance we’ve known. The main alternatives are just for electricity and have far lower energy yield than the easily extracted, cheap petroleum of yore.

3. The petroleum infrastructure is hard-wired and decaying rapidly. A replacement-alternative needed to be created decades ago to avoid industrial and economic collapse.

4. Energy comes at a physical cost (entropy) and has been exploited according to convenience at hand. Continuing to wish for a free lunch to power our endless consumption may yield gee-wizz technologies, but there are too many weak links in the supply chain (metals, petroleum, uranium). “Externalities” such as environmental degradation come home to roost with, for example, the cancer epidemic.

5. People are basically eating petroleum as part of modern agriculture’s industrialization and scale dedicated only to profit. Ten units of fossil energy are needed today to create one unit of food-calorie energy, and that does not include transportation or food preparation. The average piece of food in the U.S. has to travel 1,500 miles from its point of origin.

6. Government is not really in control of the gigantic, complex systems it has unleashed for its Big Business constituency. Corruption, incompetence and ignorance prevail, and reflect the dominant culture of materialism and private wealth – at odds with any spirit of citizen-cooperation for the public good. Katrina and Rita were only ameliorated by individual and grassroots volunteerism.

7. Making more money and relying on ever-advancing technology is the basis of not only green consumerism but the promise of a “new economy” that is really just more of the same: a disconnect with ecology.

8. Global warming is already out of control, as positive feedback loops have kicked in. The tipping points, accompanied by mass extinction already underway, are inescapable and are characterized over geological time by sudden, total flips to new states not seen on Earth perhaps for the last 55 million years. It has always been true that Mother Nature knows no restraint.

9. The average U.S. citizen has become far softer than our tough forebears who worked the land and could create and repair anything their lives depended upon. Crucial skills have been lost along with community. Most other countries have been called impoverished, but even after being ravaged by corporate and government manipulation, they remain –- compared to Northern Americans -- close to the land, and their peoples retain family cohesion.

10. The cost of the Iraq War alone has approached half a trillion dollars and is projected to cost over three trillion in the long run. Far more significant is the death and destruction that, although tragic and incalculable already, will persist for generations. The use of depleted uranium amounts to a nuclear war that the average U.S. citizen knows nothing about, as if one is not affected on this side of the world.

One could add to the list and go far beyond ten. My May 22, 2008 essay on Ecocities (Culture Change Letter #185) contains explanation on the workings of the oil industry and the oil market, helping to inform the seeker.

We do not have an energy crisis or a financial crisis, but rather a culture crisis. The above regrettable assumptions cover most of the attitudinal confusion and error that prevent modern consumers from understanding their own lives. Automatic acceptance of technology, and chauvinism for the Red-White-and-Blue, with some religious faith thrown in, are leading all of us -- humanity and innocent species that we drive extinct -- to what may be oblivion. If this sounds too dire to be possible, look at the direction we are going in, and do the math.

“Hope” is a human trait that we cannot live without, but it can be dangerous to over-rely on. What are we hoping for? Continued affluence for those who slave away, or compete or exploit, so that our homes can be spacious and loaded with electronic convenience?

Why should the loss of our doodads and energy profligacy be considered “doom and gloom?” This column has tried to dispel that false claim since Culture Change’s beginning in 2001, by exploring values enhanced by fundamental change. Some of us have tasted the fruits of truly sustainable living and equitable relationships. We will not restate here the “solutions” or “the answer” that many demand upon realizing profound change is in the offing.

People who are locked into their conventionalism and the collapsing paradigm are afraid to question their own life-styles and their rulers, such that a further-trashed natural world is preferable to taking action that involves uncertainty. Their “System” is sacrosanct, but perhaps society is on the verge of seeing widespread questioning of The System and its demise at the hands of the many.

I used to provide the hungry news media with regular announcements and analyses on U.S. gasoline prices. Seeing the boring pointlessness and the ethical toxic–hole of supplying solace and profitable information to the motoring public and my major oil-company clients, I left. The “truth business” I went into, that of researching and developing alternatives to the dominant forms of transportation, land-use, has been lucrative only in the spiritual sense, one might say. I trot out this background to assure anyone that there is no refuge in playing the game of materialistic “$uccess,” because sooner or later one comes up empty. And, the rewards of opening one’s eyes and meeting people on equal terms of real respect are vast.

I close with my explanation of what we are experiencing and what’s about to hit. I offer a warning and some hope.

We are caught in a culture of denial and ruination: of our rights as humans and animals, and of the absolute interdependence of humans and the rest of nature. Too many of us want to believe the propaganda that brainwashed us as “THE Americans,” regarding our being the most special and justly proud of nations -- never mind the inextricable bases of slavery and the genocide of the native peoples. This is not to say there are not amazingly wonderful Americans today. Nor do we forget we have unique wonders of natural beauty such as the Grand Canyon.

But our phase of history whereby our “exuberance,” as William Catton called our “Overshoot,” is coming to an end more swiftly than some us thought even a few years ago. The world is turning upside down for better AND for worse. The days of pumping gas and flicking a switch are going to be all but forgotten when we lurch desperately toward more human, “convivial” interaction (as Ivan Illich described our next possible phase). That is, if we do not go extinct from our releasing the chemical and radioactive genies into the world. Gone will be the days of further such atrocities done without the permission of all affected.

If we pull through, we will live in such a way to reject false values, idiocies and greedy tendencies that have dragged us all down. This hegemony has at least accelerated its own demise and helped to close the chapter on a bloody period that began many centuries ago. Now it is time for us to open up the doors and go outside to our freedom. Don’t wait for the talking heads or bosses or politicians to give you permission. Just tell them “Have a global warming day.”

May 24, 2008 – Washington, D.C.

Peak Moment Television - Watch Jan's interview here


  1. Toby Hemenway gave his permission to post his reply to this article when I posted it to the Permaculture Listserv:

    Lundberg gives no references in his original article, and I agree with ----- that he's just making assertions and telling us to believe they are facts, and condemns anyone who won't believe him as "blind." Although I think we're in for a heap of trouble, energy-wise, it's insupportable to make statements like, "2. Petroleum has no substitute" since people also said that there were no substitutes for wood, whale oil, coal, copper wire, and a hundred other now-replaced commodities. It's foolish to claim we know all there is to know. Remember that physicists in the 19th century said that all the major discoveries had been made. (I'm not saying I know of an oil substitute, just that it's dumb to say there can never be one!)
    So he really needs references to back up those claims. However, most of them are predictions and guesses, like (paraphrasing) "oil depletion will be rapid--those who say it will be gradual are wrong." Hubbert's curve looks pretty gradual to me; what's his evidence? His statements cannot be proven, but he treats them as the only truth.

    Lundberg may be a bright guy, but he come across as a complete asshole: shrill, angry, demeaning anyone who disagrees with him, one-sided, making unsupported and unsupportable assertions, and offering only complaints and no solutions. I've read a few of his pieces, and they all seem the same. Even where I agree with him--and I do in many places--I wish he wouldn't assume that most everyone else is stupid. I made that mistake in a couple of articles I wrote, and I still regret having alienated a lot of people who would have been allies. Lundberg is alienating a lot of potential supporters (like me and probably David) as well. Peak oil needs better spokesmanship than that.


  2. Jan Lundberg replied to a letter I sent to him in regard to the above comment and he OKed my reposting of it. Thank you very much Jan. Here it is:

    Hello Keith,

    I don't know if we've had the pleasure of meeting, but I'm a long-time fan of the Permaculture Activist magazine starting from when it was Hawaii based.

    To give you the response you request regarding my writing and sources, I offer personal background. To start, let me point out that some of the readers who responded to my article didn't seem to notice the beginning sentence, "This is a message on record crude and gasoline prices to oil addicts (Hello!). I include their close cousins the green energy addicts (Ciao!)." I realize that my challenge to the "green energy addicts" was provocative, but maybe I achieved a modest public service: Green-energy technotopians have gotten sort of a free pass by the media, and have received far easier funding than those working for fundamental change involving energy curtailment. Anyhow I'm honored that you and Permaculture Activist readers may want to hear more from me, specifically my defense of what I say and why I say it:

    Every once in a while I formally "put on my oil-industry analyst hat" and hold forth, more frequently in recent time. There are too few of us able to do this, and of the supply experts (as opposed to geologists or engineers) I often feel rather singular for speaking about peak oil especially as an anti-oil activist. Whether I'm at a given time sounding super humble or very forward, my views on the oil industry that incorporate the big picture are suppressed by the big corporations and government. First, the immediate market-effect of oil in terms of cents per gallon is seen as all-important, and when my message rejects automobile dependence and I bring up climate change and oil-wars my view is not permitted for mainstream audiences. I realize that activists and those educated regarding ecology and energy are the key audience and peers I've been cultivating 90% of the time. I write in various tones depending on the situation or topic.

    It is my activist track record and oil-industry experience that primarily separates me from oil prognosticators today, so that a writer on peak oil who is an academic or an expert in some other walk of life may appear more "objective" and find more wide acceptance. Also, it so happens that my conclusions about oil and the economy are more dire than other prognosticators, making myself marginalized. My advocacy is radical. And people often become emotionally infused in their response to my findings and opinions. Fortunately, the Permaculture Activist reader is presumably an activist and can therefore more easily relate to where I'm coming from.

    If one claims I offer no solutions, this is a non-reader of Culture Change and our Auto-Free Times magazine. I have mentioned Pedal Power Produce and pointed to the work of Albert Bates, and others, countless times. However, as we have collectively passed the point of being able to re-gear The Machine (as the Hirsch Report on peak oil confirms), and climate change is now out of control, there are no "solutions." There are, however, options for survival.

    Usually I write as an observer trying to incorporate all I know, and I normally have a rational, humble tone. I've done 206 Culture Change Letters and a lot of public speaking, interviews, etc. I've been often told I come across as so calm and reasonable such that conservative people can hardly take offense. If I had been as brazen and impatient as some of your readers' imply, I would have run up against a dead end and have lost my audiences long ago. I'm always trying to see how I can get across some heavy points in a positive- or responsible-sounding fashion. Sometimes I get an audience of millions. What prevents me from ever building on that is not my style or attitude, I suspect, but rather the content of my statements even when believed as fact: the major media outlets do not allow anti-car and anti-consumerism messages to be repeated, if these masters can prevent it (which they do 99% of the time).

    I started in the oil industry in 1971, calculating U.S. gasoline demand month by month and brand by brand, for major oil company clients. I therefore have this background I use today, that other's generally don't have whatsoever (even a few years or even months' worth) in the oil industry. This does not make me some great energy analyst across the board, although the role of alternative fuels were a big area of our study at Lundberg Survey in the late 1970s onward. What makes me unique (or close to it) is having been immersed in the two opposite camps for years: oil and environmentalism. It took many years of both (my activism sandwiched the oil years) for me to develop my radical critique of society and keep the oil factor in mind as I kept up my analyses and projects. I am a foe of the present system and advocate its end sooner than later, through buying local and engaging in self-sufficiency -- living the future now, as today's dominant system cannot be fixed. This is not a common stance, and if one does take it it's not often admitted publicly. With the urgency we are faced with regarding Earth's ecosystem and the economy's accelerating train-wreck, there are times when I feel my writing or radio interviews have to go right to the chase. Not everyone will be in agreement; sometimes one speaks to the semi-aware and leads them slowly to major conclusions, and at other times one may try to speak just to the well-aware and try to lead them with a shock to one more "ultimate" level. This sounds like a confident, big-ego person saying this; so be it. It's my area of expertise, while someone else has great expertise in something else I know nothing about!

    Despite the criticisms you've shared with me -- I understand them -- I can actually back up what I said in that article that crystalized my findings of decades. For example, I've said and written many times why I feel there is no substitute for oil: scalability, energy-profit ratios, and the materials from petroleum. Must I always point to "Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in teh Coming Decades" (1986, chiefly by Robert Kaufman)? As to my claims that peak oil will not behave like a mirror-image of the upswing on Hubbert Curve, I have made this clear many times and one can read it on and Maybe your irate reader should consider that my opinion on peak oil may have a different basis than someone else who has not had my years of observation and activism.

    As a matter of practicality my credibility (with or without sources listed) has to rest on my being the source for the information, after my 37 years in the game. I didn't start this; when publications listed us as the source for oil and transportation facts I thought, "Fine with me, we earned it!" Also, one reason I can be a Source is there may be no book written on the role of the oil market in determining peak oil's effects and society's disintegration. may be the chronicle if you include the Auto-Free Times articles we have there. The Lundberg Letter up until fall of 1986 would be another important reference (after which it is compromised in my opinion), but good luck finding all those back issues if you're not a major oil company or have access to the library of Goldman Sachs, for example. Go to Lundberg Survey as a citizen without big bucks and be treated with contempt.

    There are times when I feel compelled to say "Listen Up!" regarding oil and energy, but it may be a literary device as I try to get some writing done and distributed as part of my work and career. I have also tried to write more shockingly lately, having been influenced by recent events and commentators such as Jim Kunstler -- if you look at my two decades of writing on these issues, you see that I did not dare sound brutally honest or arrogant in the 1990s when my ideas were seen as far too radical. Now that they're not so radical-sounding anymore, I let loose more freely. I know I can't please everyone.

    No one can know everything. I can barely repair a bike or navigate a sailboat anymore. I only recently took a permaculture course, last March, from Albert Bates. I just saw a fine presentation on permaculture by Leonard Barrett for the Portland Peak Oil group, and what occurs to me is that I don't normally speak the language of permaculture although there's nothing in it that's foreign to me. I have long incorporated bits of it into my daily speech and writings at will. I guess permaculture is not quite "the Name" of what I'm up to. So when I come from my own direction, beginning as an activist youth, with my parents' social-justice/environmental teachings, plus that oil industry background, I step way back to basic principles I've picked up about our planet or Nature, resource exploitation, entropy, human behavior, political history, etc. If I were to provide bibliographical back up for every point I make and for every essay or report, I would slow myself and the reader down a whole lot.

    As anyone knows from our Culture Change articles, we almost always have links for "Further Reading" or as "References." Occasionally a piece of writing lacks many or any. I guess I could always attach a big list. I have no assistance much of the time, as we have a shoestring budget. But we keep going and will keep stepping on toes if necessary (never with ad hominem attacks). The idea is really unity, but getting there is stressful much of the time.

    You are free to post my response above to your list. Thanks for this interesting exchange.

    Here's "Further Reading" (more background on my career):

    What Culture Change learned after 20 years

    Former resident continues campaign against petroleum dependency
    by Donna Tam/The Times-Standard

    Ten unfortunate assumptions of energy addicts