Response to Robert Jensen query on intellectual and emotional reactions to collapse

22 June 2010


I am sure you will get many reports of a path of intellectual and emotional reactions similar to mine.

I am an American currently running a small neuroimaging center for the UCL and Birkbeck psychology and language sciences departments in London (I was previously at the UCSD Cognitive Science department for 20 years). However, I was originally educated in geology.

I first got interested in energy in high school in the late 60's and early 70's, after narrowly avoiding being drafted for Vietnam (the war ended 5 months after I got my low-enough-to-be-drafted lottery number). After graduating with an undergraduate geology degree in 1978, however, I turned to neuroscience and temporarily forgot about energy depletion as energy prices collapsed.

I became aware of the issue again just after 9/11 in the run up to the Afghan and Iraq wars. By 2002, I realized the full gravity of the situation. I also started reading more about water, fish, climate, and about how money and the Fed work (I had studied many things in college but I had always studiously avoided economics).

My initial reaction to rediscovering peak energy was a tremendously urgent feeling that I had to get the word out that industrial civilization was at serious risk of collapse in a few decades. For over a decade, I have kept an ungainly 'blog' of (extreme left) rants on war and economics and energy here

Some of the earlier entries reflect that urgency. In Feb 2003, just before the Iraq war started, I gave a public speech against the war at a San Diego demonstration, focussing on peak oil.

This is probably what got me into the always-check-this-guy line at the airport for a few years (I'm off the list now, perhaps because of my proven ineffectiveness :-{ ).

I prepared an hour-long graph-filled peak oil/energy talk and gave it to my department (Cognitive Science) at UCSD in 2004. I did weekly updates on the online talk slides for 4 years.

The talk was interesting enough to the CIA that for a few years, they had a web bot downloading a copy of it every night at 11:30 PM (I didn't change it *that* often and it wasn't *that* interesting guys...).

I also talked a great deal about this to friends and relatives, who for the most part tired of hearing about it.

But after the initial shock of my rediscovery of limits to growth gradually wore off, my emotional tone began to change toward misanthropy. I suppose this is also a typical vice of increasing age (I'm now 55).

It began to become clear that the only way that the terrible catastrophes on the way could have been softened would have been for everyone on the planet to have dropped business as usual 10 or 20 years ago, and to have started retooling all of society while there was still a reasonable surplus of high EROEI (energy return on energy investment) fossil fuel left to power the *energetically* costly conversion process of reengineering energy production, housing, cities, suburbs, farming, fishing, and transport.

That didn't happen. And having lived through the period, it would have been completely impossible to motivate in the first or third world.

But just as important, it is *even more* unlikely that this will begin to happen now. This is because growing energy scarcity will cut into our flexibility as people scramble to prop up floundering systems.

The recent discussion of BP is an excellent example of the kind magical thinking that has convinced me that nothing can be done. People are rightly upset that the BP monster cut many corners in a gamble to save money, and that it is now successfully working with its lawyers to socialize the costs of that gamble-gone-bad while retaining all of the filthy lucre from previous successful bets.

Though the failed BP well was more difficult than average, there are hundreds of equally difficult wells in the Gulf that have been drilled and produced without major disaster, which rightfully makes us all even more angry about what BP did. In fact there are even more difficult wells out there currently in safe operation with, for example, resevoir pressures of 20,000 pounds per square -- versus the 'mere' 13,000 pounds per square inch (that is 6 tons per square inch!) that is blowing oil and methane past the partially closed blow-out preventer in the BP well disaster.

But along with that justifiable outrage, I have seen hardly any trace of realization that the main reason this oil/gas well was hard to drill was that the easier shallow water oil already has 10,000 straws/wells empyting it into our gas tanks. The easier stuff always goes first. People don't want to see oiled pelicans and dolphins; but they won't budge in reducing energy usage or even think about reengineering industrial civilization to avoid collapse. They want to stop deep water drilling but they still childishly want the same amount of oil. They would never getting out of their car onto a bike (unless the bike was in the fitness center). They are traumatized by 1 barrel of oil leaking out every few seconds in the Gulf, but they don't give a thought to the 1,000 barrels of oil used by the world *every second* of every day (1 cubic mile per year), with the US alone using 250 barrels of oil per second.

And people have long forgotten that one barrel of oil equals one year of hard physical labor (invited oildrum post).

But the kicker is that even for someone like me who has spent many more hours than the average person memorizing endless facts about energy depletion, that knowledge is still not powerful enough to radically change *my* behaviour. When my wife and I moved to London, we of course got rid of our car. We walk and ride public transport and I use my bicycle rain or shine. However, I still fly to conferences, and back to the States to see relatives and to do research. My net energy savings have not been substantial.

No politician *or* revolutionary can seriously propose de-growth a strategy and then gather enough popular support to implement it. People can write about it in a theoretical way, but it has virtually no effect on most people's behaviour.

I really think the *only* historically proven mechanism with the power to stop most people from overrunning their resources is constraints on food production. It is true that humans are a lot smarter than animals, mostly because of language.

But this has allowed humans to construct an environment that is so much more complex than any animal society, that they have ended up putting themselves in a similar situation to a herd of deer on an island about to overrun their browse.

The deer can't help themselves. They can't understand their predicament. We people are similar: we can't help ourselves and our predicament is truly beyond our individual comprehension. There are more new third world babies than 'western' babies, which scares rich westerners, who forget that each new western baby uses as much additional energy as 20 third world babies. Even a Second Life avatar in the first world uses more energy than a real-life Brazilian. Both westerners and Brazilians will continue to reproduce.

Given that people live a long time, it will take the death rates of WWI, WWII, and the 'Spanish flu' put together, every year, for 50 years to put a significant dent in our numbers.

It's likely to be a rough ride. I have no confidence my pension will be there in 10 or 20 years from now when I really need it. I talk to my wife about all this. Given that I don't have any plan for how to fix any of it, she justifiably tells me to give it a rest.

I think she has a point.

marty sereno