On Running on Empty 2 and 3, I have been a fairly harsh critic of Toby Hemenway's writing on peak oil (some of my criticisms have also been reprinted elsewhere). While I do like his book _Gaia's Garden_ very much, I have found his analyses of the peak oil movement to be less impressive and helpful than his work on permaculture. For example, in his essay, "Apocalypse Not," Hemenway made several significant errors in analysis, among them implying that demand destruction was an inevitability (Matthew Simmons has documented that it is not, at least in terms of gasoline), claiming that China was cash poor (in fact, China has very, very deep pockets indeed) and thus would be unable to compete for oil with us, and also using erroneous figures to say that world oil demand has grown only 0.75 percent annually in the last 25 years. In fact, the average annual growth has been 1.4%, and over the last decade it has been rougly 2%. Since much of his analysis is predicated on this figure, it undermines his arugments significantly.
Hemenway also goes on to claim, "Humanity has reached the stage, finally, where basic survival is not in doubt for many people." (Hemenway, "Apocalypse Not" http://www.energybulletin.net/14695.html" I personally find the above statement, along with his consistent errors, to be frustrating, because it is so patently false. Not only does Hemenway ignore the reality that the struggle for survival is both urgent and present for an enormous percentage of the world's population, but, as I wrote in my critique of his paper, "yes, in wealthy nations, the struggle for survival is over. It should be replaced with the struggle not to kill, enslave, poison and impoverish, ideally, but hasn't been. But the fact that we have passed the struggle to survive on to others is no accident - it is a conscious choice on our part, and one that doesn't bode well for our ability to transform ourselves. (Astyk http://groups.yahoo.com/group/RunningOnEmpty3/message/17329)" Hemenway's figures about reductions in US oil consumption ignore, for example, the fact that we have moved much of our production offshore, and so many other nations "consume" the oil used to raise our food or produce consumer goods that arrive in our home." Were we to consider the "shadow" oil we use, our consumption figures would rise dramatically. He claims to be debunking "errors and half truths" of peak oil catastrophism, but his own writting is riddled with both. The reality is that our struggle to survive is over because millions of other people have taken over that struggle for us - and we are deeply dependent upon the labor and wealth that they create for us.
In another essay, Hemenway wrote an explanation of his move out of a rural area and back an urban one, an advocated that others do the same. He recounts his that he made his move because he was unable to develop relationships or community with any of his neighbors in his rural area, and talked about how he knew he was back with his own sort of people when he spotted a Mercedes Benz with a leftist bumper sticker (Hemenway, http://www.patternliteracy.com/urban.html). I think that single statement may be the best possible indictment of the consistent limitations of Hemenway's thinking - he simply cannot conceive the "view from below," a less priveleged perspective which might lead to a darker viewpoint than his own.
So I approached Hemenway's current article on the origins of peak oil apocalypticism (http://www.energybulletin.net/23386.html with some skepticism, particularly since he's writing about a topic near and dear to my heart - the subject of the apocalyptic impulse, which was the focus of my uncompleted doctoral dissertation in English literature. And Hemenway has justified my every doubt - he's written an extended attack on those who dare to criticize him, couched in the form of an analysis of the history of apocalyptic thought. It really is quite a creative way to discredit your critics, and for that, I'll give him credit. It would be more creative if it were not essentially a duplication of or rehash of the arguments made in the essay _Imagine There's No Oil: Scenes from a Liberal Apocalypse_ which appeared in the August 2006 issue of Harper's Magazine. He covers pretty much precisely the same ground, and makes very similar arguments, without citing the article. I assume Hemenway hasn't read it, but he ought to, since it renders his essay to a large degree redundant.
Hemenway begins speaking of peak oil "doomers," a group of people he does not define, but implies, that it is anyone who doesn't share the vision he laid out in the article "Apocalypse Not." And much of the article represents a (carefully phrased in terms of an objective analysis of the issue of "doomerism," of course) dismissal of his critics and anyone who believes that peak oil might result in a radical alteration in our society. He manages to mention many of the major public figures in the peak oil movement (Kenneth Deffeyes, Richard Heinberg, Thom Hartmann, among others) marking them all out as "doomers." He is quick to claim that he is not arguing about whether or not peak oil doomers are right or wrong (sure, he's not), saying, "Again, my point here is not that Peak Oil doomerism is wrong. The apocalypts may, for the first time in thousands of predictions, be right."
So let us begin by considering that last statement. It is true that the ranks of American Mercedes-owning leftists have not been pruned in recent history, (although some might argue that a brisk culling is in order), so perhaps we can justify Hemenway's assumption that all doomer predictions are wrong. But then again, perhaps not. For example, early Zionist Jews who spun out tales about the possible destruction of the Jewry by antisemites, were, if anything, unimaginative compared to the scale of the eventual apocalypse that befell European Jews under Hitler. Boccacio, who predicted that much Italy would see corpses choking their rivers unburied lived to see it during the Black Death. The Lakota religious leader, Wovoka was probably accused of doomerism in his claim that if the Lakota could not spiritually remove white folks, it would end in the death of the Lakota people, but Wounded Knee suggests that he may have been more on-target than not. Cassandras are not always wrong, and it is not always a bad idea for Noah to build an ark.
So it is perhaps not quite accurate to suggest that in thousands of predictions of human disaster, none of them have been right. In fact, quite a few have. Quite a number of peoples and populations have undergone dramatic, even apocalyptic changes, including the deaths of massive portions of their population, and in every case, some people who have used the available evidence to make predictions, even dark ones, have been right. So that contention doesn't really hold up.
It might help to figure out what "doomerism" is. Is it the belief that the growth economy cannot and should not continue ? The belief that millions or even billions of people might die from hunger? The Olduvai Gorge hypothesis, in which we are reduced to a few primitives? Hemenway's work offers very little suggestion for what he's thinking as doomers, other than that doomers clearly disagree with him. Is doomsday a disaster only if it affects the whole planet equally, or could it fall unevenly on the shoulders of some? Because he offers no statistical grounds, I would only note doomers, who believe that millions or billions might starve have considerable evidence on their end. 24,000 people die each day worldwide, both from direct hunger and the illnesses related to the long term effects of starvation. That amounts to something less than 1 billion people per year. Die-off is not, in fact, (except in Hemenway's upper middle class viewpoint) an imaginary thing that might happen someday, but a reality. The question is whether it will come to visit any individual community or nation. If, for example, one lived in South Africa and watched their families and communities decimated by AIDS and related illnesses, one might be forgiven for believing that in fact, the apocalypse has come calling.
The clearest guess at what Hemenway believes it is comes at the end of the article, where Hemenway refers to Richard Heinberg's recent paper entitled _50 Million Farmers_, and says of Heinberg's analysis, "He and others envision a future with far fewer people, many of them living rurally and raising most of their own food using permaculture and bio-intensive gardening. Some argue that post-peak, only those with primitive skills such as tanning and flint-knapping will survive. Suburban drones will die. So after the collapse, we follow the myth’s final trajectory into the survival of an elect, and a rebirth in the Garden and simpler times." Hemenway is getting ahead of himself - Heinberg proposes a return to small scale agriculture as a means of staving off the danger of becoming far fewer people. Now to be fair to Hemenway, Heinberg is on record as believing that the sustainable population of the earth is only 1-2 billion, and that peak oil could potentially be disastrous, but the focus of this paper is the avoidance of hunger, famine and disaster. Heinberg is arguing that we might potentially avoid hunger and the death of billions by re-ruralization. This is not the pattern of apocalypse and happy ending that Hemenway documents over the course of his article, but a series of acts human beings can engage in to improve their society and reduce the danger of famine, for everyone, including the "suburban drones." Hemenway seems unclear on the difference.
Now the question of the apocalyptic impulse is, indeed an interesting one, and I think a complicated one. We cannot simply say, as Hemenway does, "The path to “end of the world” thinking is well trod, most heavily so in times of oppression, uncertainty, and corruption. But perhaps some of us can recognize how familiar is this dark road, resist the natural urge to repeat the story once more, and remember that there are many routes into the future other than the one toward the lowest common denominator," because Hemenway is retooling the question into a way of dismissing apocalypticism. But there is more to say about it than that we have a cultural predisposition to imagine a disaster and rebirth. Because, of course, we do, perhaps in part for the reasons Hemenway lists, but also because thus far in human history, when disaster has befallen us, we've eventually picked up the pieces and gone on to rebirth. That narrative is inscribed in human consciousness not just because of our religious leanings (as Hemenway suggests), but because that describes the collective historical experience of human beings throughout human history. Things fall apart, and we repair, and those who survived go on to experience joy and relief. Yes, that describes most stories of religious ending. It also describes the actual realities of most bad things that happen to people.
It might be more useful, I think, to ask why we approach the apocalypse with such a combination of fear and fascination. I think it may be because our fears and our fantasies are so tightly linked to one another that in one sense, our fantasies are our fears, and vice versa? Or perhaps because the root experience of counting is so central to the operation of our minds? We instinctively count other people, and calculated them in an immensely complex analysis that allows others to both be "too many" - that is a threat to our privacy, or our resources, or our sense of self; and "not enough;" that is, too few of our own group in the face of the impingement of another tribe, not enough of the right sex with the right availability, or enough to carry on the name. It is possible that we long for numerical reductions to approximately the same degree we are terrified of them. Or perhaps that we as a people associate smaller numbers with smaller and more manageable social systems (correctly, actually, as Heinberg's paper documents). Or perhaps some combination of these reasons and others not yet proposed. But regardless, Hemenway's analysis stops short of the useful.
Despite his contrary claims, there is little doubt that Hemenway oversimplifies to get in a few good digs. For example, he says, "Rather, it’s an exploration into why, given an impending crisis or major challenge, many people in our culture spiral so quickly and automatically toward an “end of the world” vision rather than imagining any of the countless other options" Instead of granting those who disagree with him good faith that they have been led by their data, and that they are actually invested in a vision that is far from a cultural norm, Hemenway's opponents are now "automatically" drawn towards an uncritical majority viewpoint by an irresistable cultural psychology. Hemenway, however, is nobly and wisely able to resist, and, according to him, so should the rest of us fear a path so well trodden. Apparently the psychological path of the person who thinks that things simply won't get that bad because they haven't before is more independent in some way I can't identify.
I don't consider myself a peak oil "doomer" in the sense that I believe massive casualties are an inevitable outcome of peak oil - I believe strongly in the capacity of human beings to change and rework their world. I do, however, believe that the world is simply more nuanced and the dangers are more complex than Hemenway seems able to acknowledge. I would suggest to him that it is at least as dangerous to apply the oversimple pattern of thought that leads one to believe that one's personal perspective represents the perspective and realities of the world at large, and that is often not such a bad thing to take your critics seriously. Yet again, I think Hemenway takes the easy intellectual road, while chastizing others for doing the same.