Oil, the American Goddess

I’ve given several talks during the last couple weeks. And I’m spending way too much time preparing for, and then arguing with, the provost. My primary points during each of these exchanges, from the Department of Defense workshop to the discussion in juvey hall, have focused on peak oil and runaway greenhouse. It never ceases to amaze me how deep is the denial of increasingly obvious facts. The audience doesn’t seem to matter much: We all worship the same gawd, after all. Her name is Oil.

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, which explains, at least in part, my sloth in posting a new entry. General indolence explains the rest.
Let’s start with the Department of Defense (DoD) workshop, at which I was asked to provide an overview of changing fire regimes in the American Southwest and implications for DoD installations. Fire regimes are changing, and are expected to change quite rapidly in the near future as a result of global and regional changes in climate. And our ability to “manage” wildlands, if we ever had any, will evaporate when oil becomes too expensive to refine into gasoline for pumper trucks and aircraft filled with fire retardant. And then there’s the whole problem of the federal, state, and local governments simply becoming completely impotent. As I’ve written before, peak oil and runaway greenhouse inform every aspect of life on Earth. Nowhere is this more evident than in this particular empire, created and sustained by cheap fossil fuels. We were told to ignore peak oil during the breakout sessions. Seems that’s our favorite way to deal with tough issues: denial.
Then there’s the provost, with whom I’ve had a long-running fight about academic freedom. The most recent manifestation of our conversation involves an opinion piece I wrote for the local daily and his ludicrous response, which has done much to chill academic freedom on the campus of this so-called university. Our most recent engagement, attended by the committee on conciliation, included his typical bully-and-bluster approach, intermixed with his attempt at a charm offensive. Oddly, I’m not easily charmed by this 70-something, overweight caricature of a human being. And I merely laugh off his attempts to play bully, which really throws him off his game. He’s so accustomed to having his way, because of our top-down, militaristic “university” system, that he becomes confused when I make fun of his bullying tactics. Never mind that my point about the world oil peak is supported by Hubbert’s model and readily available data. He stills thinks oil is expensive solely as a result of aboveground factors. Good for him, I say. Ignorance is bliss, and I’m happy he’s blissful. For one thing, it ensures he’ll be trying to survive in Tucson long after the trucks stop bringing high-fructose corn syrup to his favorite grocery store. In other words, he’ll likely die from denial.
Fast forward one day to my weekly appearance in juvey hall, where I was this week’s speaker. How appropriate to have me featured during Halloween week. The teenaged girls in juvey hall figured out the implications of peak oil right away. But they think the Christian God will save them, which is not surprising considering they are nearly all Latinas from Catholic families. They’ve been raised on a steady diet of abuse, neglect, and the “Virgin” Mary. It causes me great pain to know many of these good kids will likely die from denial.
Fast forward one more day to my keynote address at the Next Generation Home Course, which preceded the Tucson Innovative Home Tour. I started with the usual good news, bad news.
The good news: We’ve passed the world oil peak, and the U.S. economy will implode within a decade, probably less. This will give myriad cultures and species a fighting chance to survive a few more years. It might even allow a few individuals of our own species to squeeze through the bottleneck of runaway greenhouse, and therefore prevent the extinction of humanity.
The bad news: I don’t think so. I suspect we’ve passed the global-change tipping point, and we’ll be extinct at our own hand by the end of this century.
All in all, my presentation was quite a barrel of laughs.
The response at the latter event was fairly typical. Some people are convinced hydrogen will save us. Others are certain we’ll be clever enough to come up with technological advances as yet unseen (i.e., the Technomessiah will save us). Quite a few think we’ll be able to power down with the tranquility of Buddhist monks (I hope so, but I’m not willing to bet my life on it). A few were depressed, and started making plans to move back to the upper Midwest, which is where an inordinate number of Tucsonans came from. And a very, very few actually agreed with me about the good news. They’re already making plans to move to country.
It was another fine couple of weeks. I was able to visit many people, from all walks of life and every imaginable socioeconomic group. I observed the full spectrum of responses to the dire trouble we face. I became even more convinced I’m ready to abandon academia. I love the students, and the classes I teach. But administrators spend all their time trying to interfere with good teaching and good teachers, to the detriment of both. The collapse of large universities, which lost their collective way long ago, will be no great loss.
I’m not suggesting I’m ready for the collapse of the empire. My mud hut isn’t ready, and my skills as a gardener could stand a few more years of development. But it is what it is, and my 401(k) and 403(b) are small prices to pay for saving the species (others, and ours). It’s time for a strong dose of courage. Any idea where I can find me some?

Comments 4

  • I don’t think you need any more courage. You have a lot of it. Just sit back, read a good book, and let things unfold. I’m quite sure many things will go better, some will go as anticipated and some will get worse. But the sun will rise over the horizon for another 100 million years, or was it 500 million?

  • I’m with Terje. There’s no point in charging over the trenches with a sabre in your teeth.
    Reconcile, reconcile, RECONCILE. Take the high road, but don’t look down.

  • I noticed you mentioned the young girls in juvie hall. There is a book you might recommend to those members of your young audience who read:
    Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler presents a future societal collapse from the point of view of a teenaged girl who loses home and family piece by piece, yet retains hope through an invented (and interestingly nontheistic) religion.

  • Anyone who denies the truth of the fuel dilemmas and price hiking reasons is either in denial or simple believes “the government wouldn’t lie to us”… How naive!
    The fire regimes are not just changing out doors, they are changing with the work places too. One of the latest rules to come up in discussion (according to the local papers) was fire and safety in the work place.
    With fire being a threatening issue in all workplaces there has been much expenditure on Fire Retardant and fire drill exercises. Let’s hope everyone stays safe.
    With your talk in Juvey Hall, what was the point if the place was full of people who had no intention of escaping their invisible tunnel vision?
    Attention to the response by Terje D… I think this is the type of ignorance that Guy was writing about. When the day comes you may just be one of those who will wish listened…with the rest of the world. If you took the three seconds to look at history Terje you would realize the environment has only been suffering so much since the industrial revolution hence the past 500 million years being ok :)