Ok, I'm about to pick on ASPO again. I can't help it. First there was my reaction to the conference schedule, which looks exactly like last year's conference schedule, and (here I suspect I can save some people the cost of a flight to Houston) can be summed up as "Peak Oil is Real Soon Now." Then there was the conference theme, "A Time to React?" in the ASPO Europe Conference. (Note: I mistakenly wrote that this applied to ASPO-USA at first - my error). With a question mark on the end??!? Are these people out of their minds? I tried so hard not to pick on them any more - after all, we're on the same side. But that question mark pushed me over the edge...
Note: Some people have assumed that since I'm speaking at the Community Solutions Conference that I'm in someway trying to represent their approach as comparatively better, or that I'm criticizing ASPO because I'm speaking at Community Solutions, doing a "my conference is better than yours" - something that never occurred to me until a poster mentioned it. That's absolutely not the case. First of all, anyone who works at Community Solutions will tell you that I'm at least as much of a pain in the ass to them as I am to ASPO. I do agree with some of the things Community Solutions does, and not others, and you can count on me to say so loudly when I think they are wrong too. For example, I wasn't too pleased to see Pat Murphy, Richard Heinberg and Julian Darley up on stage last year having an all-guy's chat about what we should do about population, and I've said so publically several times. Secondly, this is my blog, and I speak only and always for myself, never as a representative of any group. I think the leaders of all such groups are duly grateful that they aren't responsible for me ;-). It was never my intention to plug one conference by dissing another, and it still isn't.
"Peak Oil is Real Soon Now" was pretty much the theme of last year's Boston ASPO conference, and I admit, I see no real evidence that it won't be repeated at every ASPO meeting, until we can officially change it over to "Peak Oil Was Just a While Back." http://www.aspo-usa.com/aspousa3/matrix.cfm. Looking over the list of panels, virtually all of them focus on one of three things.
The first is whether peak oil was Yesterday, is Tomorrow or next Thursday. Now this sounds like very important work, and is important if you have millions invested in oil wells, run India, or run Shell. To anyone else, it is largely a matter of complete and utter irrelevance. The reality is that real people are already experiencing the costs of peak oil - for example, it is the end of cheap oil that has led to the biofuels boom and to my grocery bill going haywire. This is only going to get worse - because of peak oil and climate change. But whether it gets worse slightly faster or slower really isn't the point - the point is that we're not doing anything about it. I'm willing to bet, however, that most of the Very Important People speaking at ASPO don't actually buy their own groceries, so maybe they haven't noticed.
The problem here is that ASPO hasn't noticed that peak oil has gone mainstream (that question mark again), and is still under the impression that the very important work that petroleum geologists have done in recognizing that peak oil was near, and warning the world is work that should still be at the center of things. And I don't mean to say here that their work is unimportant - but if ASPO has just one chance to pull people together to talk about peak oil, the date is far less urgent a subject than "where do we go from here?" It isn't that there isn't anything to talk about, it isn't that people still aren't debating peak oil. It is that the focus of the discussion has moved on from when to what to do, and ASPO hasn't caught up.
This is not only bad for the public discourse, but IMHO, it isn't very good for ASPO, either. Because they risk being rendered obsolete by their own data. ASPO has done the important work of establishing dates and reserves, but shortly, if their own estimates are right, when peak oil is will be an established, documentable fact - if it isn't already. And while ASPO will then have the satisfaction of being right, it will also have the problem of being irrelevant, if it hasn't taken a lead on the next step - where do we go from here?
As a purely practical matter, the Hirsch report demonstrates that we're well behind the ball - close to twenty years behind. Given that truth, that we cannot expect an orderly adaptation, one would think that the major study center for peak oil would be figuring out how we could triage and adapt the most urgent areas first. Unfortunately, that's not true. If ASPO wants to remain even remotely relevant, it needs to shift its focus, and lose the question mark - it is long past time to react. I understand that ASPO wishes to speak to the powerful and elite, and scaring them is bad for business. But telling the truth, even when unpalatable, is, I think, more important than looking friendly.
The second thing ASPO focuses on is making sure that rich people get to stay rich in a volatile market. If you have a few million dollars to invest in oil wildcatting, ASPO is the place to go. If you want to know which big businesses will boom in solar technology and biofuels, check out ASPO! If you don't wish to endure the tragedy of seeing your hedge fund decline, ASPO is there to help. If, however, you don't have large investments and are already just getting by, tough patooties. If you are wondering how to shift to a non-debt based economy, or resolve the consumption paradox, or even promote conservation, ASPO is not your friend.
Unless, of course, you have an exciting new technology to pimp. That's the other thing that ASPO will do - they'll tell you about the latest innovations in hybrid cars, light rail and nuclear power plants. If you are shopping for a high tech solution for your neighborhood, there's a good chance that they've got something coming your way. I was assured by an ASPO board member that there won't be any repeats of the Raytheon weapons designer who got up to sell his wife's new oil extraction techniques (and I'm sure would take a few orders for tasers on the side) or the "environmentalist" wind farm guy who builds filthy diesel plants in poor neighborhoods, both of whom starred at last year's ASPO, but there's a heavy "investor recruitment" element in which corporations sell their new toys.
Is it all bad? No, I'll give them credit for at least mentioning climate change and health care this year. And I honestly think that most of the people who run ASPO mean well. Their data analysis is terrific, and for people who are too lazy to read the papers on the internet and need to see middle aged men read them aloud to believe, there's value. But the reality is that ASPO has found its niche - and it is in saying "we're important, because we can tell you when...and we won't scare you by saying anything significant has to change." They are engaged in what James Kunstler has described as the notion that all we have to do is worry about keeping the cars on the road. And because most of them have access to an enormous amount of information that says otherwise, I find this particularly troubling. These are people who have read the data, and know that we're too close to peak oil for an easy, smooth transition - and yet, they are still selling one, or at least they were at last year's conference, and I don't see any evidence that that's changed.
There's not a single mention of food or agriculture at ASPO that I can find, not a single mention of housing. No mention of povery abatement, the third world, ecology, justice or conservation. Not a single mention of education or health care, children or families. No mention of the people who are already experiencing the consequence of peak oil - the poor who are being priced out of energy in the third world, and the American poor who are suffering from high food and transportation prices. No mention of capitalism, and growth. No link to a single political figure who deals with health, welfare, education or the environment - even though we all know that the first effects of peak oil will be economic.
There's no mention of the Oil Depletion Protocolo or any plan to get nations to adopt it or any other strategy for managing resources. At least ASPO Europe through Colin Campbell can boast of a real and meaningful policy plan that might make a difference, if we could get it applied. Where is such a plan from American peakists? I will give them points for upping the number of women speakers from 1 in 10 to 1 in 8. But ASPO, as far as I can tell, is still focused more on looking good to powerful people than telling the truth about peak oil, or than offering meaningful solutions.
And I still can't get over that question mark. What on earth is there a question about?