Sunday, June 18, 2006

Is Peak Oil a Penis Thing?

Most of the major figures in the peak oil movement are men, and white men at that. That's not an indictment of some very smart people who are doing their best to let people know what's coming, but it is an observation that requires some analysis. Because every disaster strikes the most vulnerable people in society first and hardest, and in many cases, women and people of color stand to bear the brunt of some disturbing changes, and yet they mostly aren't being told this by people who look like them, or with whom they can easily identify. Peak oil gets chat in _Fortune_ and on NPR, but not on hip hop stations, or in _Good Housekeeping_. And while I might be hoping for too much to expect _Cosmo_ to do a feature keeping your lips moist after all the petroleum based glosses are gone, some of this has to do with medium.

Visit a peak oil website and look around. A lot of the articles are by petroleum geologists, and a lot of them are about arcane (to ordinary people) things like extraction rates and tar sands. This makes perfect sense - the first calls to action came from the people who were best equipped to evaluate how much fossil fuel there is in the ground (although honestly, no one really knows exactly - we can only give estimates). And petroleum geologists, no matter how wonderful and smart, tend to focus on the arcane. They, and a lot of the people who follow this (including me, oddly enough, despite my creds as a humanities scholar who is supposed to fear numbers, but doesn't) are interested in the details of how many million gallons of seawater are being pumped in the Ghawar, and whether the date of the peak is 2005 or 2010. And they write with that stuff in mind. While there are certainly increasing numbers of female petroleum geologists, it is a field that is weighted towards men, and they tend to talk to one another like overeducated white guys talk to one another - debating the details. Matt Savinar, author a good book on peak oil and a useful website wrote an article recently about this (And I'm not just mentioning this because my name is in there along with a lot of semi-famous petroleum geologists - although it is, and Matt very sweetly suggests that I'm too gentle and nurturing to toot my own horn or butt heads too hard on these subjects. Those of you who know me should try really hard not to choke to death as you laugh about the idea that I'm too gentle and nurturing for anything ;-)), in which he suggests that mostly peak oil scholars do this to look good to girls, which is why there aren't many women involved ;-).

But here's the thing - you can spend a lot of time on the math of peak oil if that's your sort of thing, but it isn't really necessary. The one figure you do need to understand is the concept of EROEI - Energy Returned Over Energy Input. All that means is that you have to get a certain amount of energy back over and above what you have to use to get the energy. That's why things like biodiesel aren't going to save us - they use more energy to make than they provide (ok, not the only reason - the other one is that if we grow fuel instead of food, we all get skinny and cranky). We all took 7th grade earth science - everyone, that is, every person in the whole world with two brain cells to rub together knows that we're going to have used up half the oil in the ground someday - we all know this is a finite resource. There isn't really any debate on that subject. The US Geological Survey says about 20 years. My husband's college environmental physics textbook (written by a guy who works for Shell, no less) says 20 years from 1997. Some people say we've already peaked. Some people say 2010.

The only other thing you really need to know is that regardless of when it happens - today or last week or 15 years from now, we're in trouble if we don't fix our culture NOW. The DOE report that came out last year suggested that we *might* be able to avoid major economic problems and fuel shortages if we work like crazy for 20 years, devoting most of our energy and resources as a nation to it. But we're not, and even the USGS numbers suggest that we're just at the 20 year mark right now.

So peak oil isn't really about the hard science. Oh, it is still fascinating to watch people like Ken Deffeyes (who probably rightly makes some fun of humanitites trained people like me who don't much care about the details) try and date peak oil to the day. But all of us know peak oil is coming - that only takes common sense. And we have the information to know that we have to fix this problem right now, today, with all the power and energy we have. And the reality is, that we might not have enough time. This is not a subject that requires a rocket scientist (even though I'm married to one - he's not as useful as you'd think ;-)) - ordinary people can look easily at the data that others, who went before us, have so helpfully compiled. And the reality is that petroleum geologists and environmental physicists and economists aren't any better than you and I at answering the big question - where do we go from here? How do we protect ourselves, our country, our communities?

So the next question is what do we do. And that's not just a question for petroleum geologists, but for ordinary people - for bus drivers and farmers, engineers and music teachers, carpenters and homemakers, long haul truckers and ministers, women and men, white people, black people, Asians, members of every ethnicity and community and culture we've got. Because every single one of us is going to feel peak oil. We don't have to sit around and argue about how long before hydrogen fuel cells are ready - we just have to know the simple things - the future for our kids and grandkids is less bright than for our own. Maybe we can make it just as good if we really get down to it today. More likely, it is too late, and we're like the weakest fairy godmothers at the baptism - we can't take the curse away, we can just soften it a little. But everything we do to soften it is a victory for ourselves, for our kids, our grandkids, our world, our culture. Everything. We need real, democratic input, but for that, we need peak oil to have the same face as the rest of us, and be spoken of in the languages of all the people, not just white guys with Ph.ds (please don't mistake me - I'm damned grateful to all of them, and am not belittling their contribution at all).

Matt Savinar suggested that we women aren't going to get girls out of being a peak oil activist, so there's less incentive for us to make ourselves famous, to get down and dirty in the peak oil fights (check it out here ) But he's not quite correct - me, I'm just as ambitious for peak oil fame as he is. But for different reasons. My kids *lives* depend on me getting the word out, and getting the world to change. Not to mention the fact that changing diapers and doing laundry get dull now and again, and discussing this stuff does exercise the brain. I'm working on getting a little bit famous myself - Eric and I are writing a book and looking for a publisher, and I'm going to be a speaker at a national peak oil conference in Ohio this fall. I admit, it isn't the immediate gratification of getting male admirers (my husband would definitely object, though) - but the long term isn't that long when you have kids. I'd like to be famous because people think I'm smart and have a lot of good stuff to say - but I'll settle for making a lot of noise and praying that someone pays attention, and that we begin to make changes.

It is time to have women and minorities stand up and speak out about peak oil. To speak out about its potential effects for our communities, and to speak out about the future. Our lives and our kids lives depend on it. So write those emails. Write those books. Post those messages. Start those websites. Start marching and talking and yelling at playdate and the bar and on the radio. Make some noise. There are people out there who need to hear.



Anonymous said...

Very good. I've read McKibben's and Kunstler's books and suddenly asked myself, where are the other voices? Where are the non-American, non-middle-class, non-white male voices? What are people in Norway, India, Bolivia, and Japan thinking about this? Thanks for broaching the subject.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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