My Peak Oil Story

Just received my copy of the new collection Peak Oil Personalities from Inspire Books.

Compiled by Dr. Colin Campbell, founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) in 2000,the book includes essays by 25 contributors from both sides of the Atlantic- some of them oil geologists, describing how an understanding of Peak Oil has impacted their lives, and what consequences it will have for society.

I wrote the first draft of my chapter in March 2010; when Colin came back to me nearly a year later to ask if I had any revisions, I felt that my views had changed so much that he should leave me out of the book. Still keen to have my input, Colin persuaded me to just make some revisions to reflect my current thinking on the issue,so here I present the chapter as it appears in the book.

I will write a full review of this fascinating book in a subsequent post, and continue with a critical look at the Peak Oil movement in the coming weeks.

While reading my contribution again makes me squirm a little as I remember the evangelical fervor with which I preached the message of Peak Oil Doom for a few years, I think it still gives an important insight into some of the motivations and thinking behind aspects of the peak Oil movement.

My Peak Oil Story

My views on Peak Oil and its possible consequences for society have changed considerably from when I wrote the first draft for this collection.

I come from a small town in the south of England. My father was a tree pathologist, and my parents were keen gardeners. I certainly picked up a lot of my love for Nature and the outdoors from them, especially trees and woodlands, but also had a keen interest in social issues and politics, opting for sociology for my degree.
I was brought up with a strong conservation ethic, although far from austerity, and clearly remember the power cuts of the early 1970s, which I now understand to have been a result partly of the US peak in oil production around that time and the “First Oil Shock”. My father’s injunction to turn the lights out! and save energy is still with me today.

Sociology opened my eyes to the complexities of human behavior and the injustices of society, but rather than continuing with any political activism, I opted for solutions: learning to grow my own food and become more self-sufficient, rather than continuing to depend on an industrial system that seemed both inhumane and unsustainable, became my main priority.

In 1989, I completed my first course in Permaculture Design in Shropshire. Permaculture fitted my needs and aspirations perfectly: a practical approach that leads to self-reliance through simple, appropriate design solutions and a low-tech approach with the emphasis being on working with nature.

I was, by this time, already convinced that industrial society’s days were numbered: the big question was always: how long before major systems failures? How long before collapse?
In a burgeoning world population, ever-increasing calls for more growth and consumption in the industrial world, pollution, species extinction… it seemed clear that something would have to give.

At this time, there was also a growing awareness of climate change, and of the depletion of fossil fuels.
I first read about just how completely dependent on the dwindling resources of fossil fuels we have become in Thom Hartman’s The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight. This made a big impression on me. I began to think like a human geologist – everything that we thought of as the modern world, the economy, modern appliances and machines, our dreams and aspirations, our very personalities and consciousness perhaps, are all dependent on this magic black substance dug out of holes in the ground.

For the first time, reading Hartmann’s book, I came to understand that even renewable technologies such as wind and solar have a fossil fuel component. There just seemed no getting away from oil, but still the question was unanswered: how long before it starts to run out?

I moved to Ireland in 1992, and spent the next few years working as a landscape gardener and permaculture designer. I began teaching in schools with the Heritage in Schools Programme, building school gardens and planting trees. One of the topics I made a point of covering in those classes was our dependency on oil, not just as a fuel but to manufacture nearly everything we think of as making up the modern world. Few, if any, of the school children I talked to had any understanding that plastic came from oil.

I started teaching short permaculture courses in 2004. I was giving a talk in Dublin with Davie Philip of the Cultivate Centre and he said that I just had to see a film The End of Suburbia which he showed me. It was really this film that joined together all the dots of sustainability, fossil fuel depletion and the End of the Oil Age. This was my first introduction to the concept of Peak Oil, and I understood, for the first time, that it was not a question of the oil running out, but of global peak in supply, leading to spiraling prices, shortages, oil wars and marking the end of what we have known of as the modern era of “endless” growth.

Not only that, but this turning point was not at some far distant point in the future, but was increasingly believed to be just a few years away. I learned that global peak in oil discovery had been around 1964 – the year I was born. This made the whole issue somehow more personal and immediate. My whole life had been lived on the rising curve of oil extraction, and the society I had grown up in was also predicated on continuing growth in energy supply. According to Peak Oil theory, substitution and new technology will not be able to make up for dwindling supplies of this precious liquid.

For myself and my colleagues at the time this was not a doom and gloom end of the world scenario; rather, it was a powerful opportunity to campaign more vigorously for a shift to sustainable lifestyles. Like most environmentalists we felt strongly that modern society could not continue on what we saw as the fantasy of unending growth; and the peak oil theory seemed like the most compelling evidence we yet had for change.
I started reading around the subject, and was amazed to find the introduction to Richard Heinberg’s book The Party’s Over,

Colin Campbell

written by one Dr. Colin Campbell of Ballydehob, West Cork. I literally looked him up in the phone book and began giving film showings and talks with Colin in and around West Cork.

A few years later, in 2007, I contributed a short chapter to Colin’s booklet Living Through the Energy Crisis, which presented the evidence for the imminent peaking in world oil supplies, and an early proposal for community adaptation.

The following year I took up a teaching post on the Practical Sustainability Course in Kinsale. I had already given a copy of The End of Suburbia to Rob Hopkins, who had created the course some years before, and he immediately turned it into a class project, creating with his students the report Kinsale 2021- An Energy Descent Action Plan.

The first Energy Descent Action Plan

I took the opportunity in the summer before the new term started to travel to Slovenia for a two-week permaculture design course with the co-originator of permaculture, David Holmgren.

Rob Hopkins (left) with David Holmgren, Fuelling the Future, Kinsale 2005

His book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, had been published in the previous year, explaining how the origins of permaculture, more than thirty years before, were deeply rooted in an understanding of peak oil and resource depletion. It was this book that first made more widely known the concept of energy descent and of how civilisation would have to adapt each year and in each generation to declining supplies of fossil fuels, fuels that would have to be made up for, not by a magic elixir of some new technology, nor by a switch to renewables alone, but by dramatic changes in the way we relate to natural resources and run our economies.

These were exciting times. On the course in Slovenia, we would stay up til the small hours each night listening to David explain the relationship between energy, society and ecology, arguing and debating the implications for a low-energy world, and how much time we would have to adapt.

David Holmgren travelled back with me to Ireland where we went straight to the Fuelling the Future conference that Rob Hopkins had organised at the Kinsale College. During my first term as a tutor in Kinsale, some of the students launched the concept of Transition Towns, gaining the backing of the Kinsale Town Council for implementing the recommendations contained in the Energy Descent Plan.

I included classes on peak oil as the main underpinning theory as to why we need permaculture, and gave dozens of public talks around the country over the following couple of years.

On the Peak Oil/Collapse circuit

Meanwhile, Rob Hopkins had moved to Totnes, England, and his charisma and hard work quickly led to the Transition Towns concept going viral. Peak Oil, together with the other carbon twin – climate change – had become a galvanising theme for a whole new social and environmental movement, drawing together many groups and ideas.

It was around this time that a group of my friends set a “peak oil sweep stake”: we each made a “bet” on the future price of oil five years’ hence. Mine was the most pessimistic- I apparently was convinced that some in five years oil would be rationed, and declined to put a price on it, so scarce would it have become. When the time was up and we reviewed the bets, it turned out that the price was within a dollar or two of what it had been at the time: the price was essentially unchanged.

It was this experience that first made me question some of my assumptions about Peak Oil and the supposed civilisational collapse that would inevitably ensue a few years over the peak. I started to think differently about how much we can really predict about the future.

Even though I continued for a few years to teach classes on Peak oil and the need to powerdown, as the years went by it started to feel like civilisation might be proving more resilient after all.

Of course since then we have seen oil price spike to over $150 and as I write it has once again tipped $100/barrel- this in the midst of the deepest recession in one or two generations.

Clearly as the pressure in the oil wells declines the pressure on society to respond in some meaningful way with a new strategy for energy usage, which will be a truly gargantuan task.

I also became influenced by “eco-skeptics” such as Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Matt Ridley author of The Rational Optimist. They reinforced the idea that there have been many predictions of doom, resource depletion, over-population and ecological collapse in the past few decades, but they have not come to pass.

From looking more closely at how far we still are from replacing fossil fuels with renewables such as wind and solar I began to realise that a “powerdown” response was not going to be relevant except temporarily perhaps in times of recession: we are all so power hungry, the sum total of human ingenuity will have to be brought to near on the issue.

I am much more optimistic now that new technology will be developed, because so much effort is going into it- although we could still justifiably ask for more resources for research and development. New ways of getting gas by fracturing shale deposits, and new developments in nuclear, new forms of storage for renewable sources- as well still as improved methods of oil extraction and more efficient ways of using energy are just some of the ways that we will overcome the present challenges.

Most likely, the new technologies that will emerge in the future will be a great surprise to us, but one thing is sure: we are clearly going to try everything we can to innovate and adapt to our changing circumstances. This is after all what we excel at as human beings.

Graham Strouts
Derryduff Mor
Feb 23rd 2011


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