A post at The Oil Drum had this to say:

The power of peak oil as an external force, a geologically driven catalyst, to act as a wedge to force sustainability and conservation on a world hell bent on exponential growth and energy consumption is what caught my imagination and gave me a sense of hope several years ago when I first investigated this issue.

I’ve got more to say under the fold.

I have to confess that after years of at times obsessed immersion into this subject that lead me down investigative pathways of economics, geopolitics, religion, human group psychology etc. I have lost much of this initial hope that the transformative powers of peak oil, global warming or other environmental stresses are very likely to act on or threaten the status quo for a long time to come.

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There are two things I want to say about this, one trivial and personal, the other political.

The first is that, like this author, I’ve obsessed about peak oil at times, with much of the same immersion — politics, economics, psychology. I’ve been amazed and amused at where it’s led me, and I’ve had a ball because it’s played to my natural tendency to learn as much as I can about as much as I can.

But I’ve also had the exact opposite reaction of this author: Rather than lose hope, I’ve become more hopeful.

But — and this is the second point — I never, ever expected peak oil, or the consciousness thereof, to drive a massive change in society to a more sustainable form of living. Not on its own, anyway. Peak oil, when it materializes, will be a profound systemic stress that is going to undermine the standard of living for everyone in the most petroleum-dependent states. How do people react when their lifestyles are threatened? Obviously it depends immensely on their situation, but you can throw reason out the window. We might prefer to mock exurbanites with SUVs — indeed, I’ve done some of the mocking (with a dollop of vitriol) — but when peak oil begins to make their lives unsustainable, their personal and political choices may very well end up in line with, say, Newt Gingrich instead of Al Gore.

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I don’t want to re-tread Dave’s excellent work on Fear and Environmentalism, but the green movement cannot expect fear to do our work for us. The one quote schoolchildren around the world know from Franklin Delano Roosevelt is, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Other, nerdier, schoolchildren (like me) might be more familiar with Frank Herbert’s “fear is the mind-killer,” but the point is the same.

Peak oil in particular carries a seduction for a certain critic of modern life — and here I think most prominently of James Kunstler, though he’s not alone. Faced with the conclusion that current modes of living are unsustainable, we’re given additional ammunition to say “See? I was right!” Kunstler, for his part, was viciously criticizing suburban living long before he learned about peak oil, and his enlightenment seems to have done nothing but sharpen his disdain. Having built his cart for years, he was overjoyed to finally discover the horse.

That, fundamentally, is my problem with proclaiming that peak oil, the climate crisis, or any other time of pronounced stress will finally “wake people up.” We’re taking our pre-existing beliefs and fitting data around it. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is exactly the thinking that led to the Iraq War.

A time of crisis — whatever the cause — is not a time for anyone, much less those in power, to proclaim that they know what’s happening and they know how to fix it. Assuming the leadership hasn’t changed, this kind of proclamation should elicit only one response: Where were you yesterday?

I’m not so arrogant to believe that I know how to “fix” global warming, or peak oil, or even that I know what form those solutions will take. I have ideas, as does pretty much everyone these days. A time of crisis is the time for us to abandon our preconceptions — abandon the false comfort of our own knowledge — and come together to discover the solutions.

And we needn’t be surprised or upset if our first try turns out to be wrong. To go back to Roosevelt, speaking during the worst years of the Depression:

The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach. We need enthusiasm, imagination and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely. We need to correct, by drastic means if necessary, the faults in our economic system from which we now suffer. We need the courage of the young. Yours is not the task of making your way in the world, but the task of remaking the world which you will find before you. May every one of us be granted the courage, the faith and the vision to give the best that is in us to that remaking!

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