February 15, 2009


Meet the doomsayers of our time: For millennia, doomsayers have been predicting the end of the world as we know it. These days, theory dovetails with fact: oil is disappearing. Should we be listening? (Cathal Kelly, 2/15/09, Toronto Star)

In the jargon of his peers, Paul is a 'doomer.' Those who don't share his concerns are 'sheeple.' And sheeple don't rank in Paul's world.

The high priests of the doomer set include the acerbic critic of suburbia, James Howard Kunstler, and Matt Savinar, founder of LifeAfterTheOilCrash.net. They envision the Peak Oil aftermath as something out of Mad Max. Chronic oil shortage will dovetail with urban violence, ecological degradation and financial chaos to create a series of cascading catastrophes. They expect the 21st century to look a lot like the 18th. Scary scenario: primitive. Really scary scenario: primitive and dangerous.

Others see the oil dip coming, but cautiously hope that we will roll with the blow, rather than be floored by it. The disappearance of cheap, ready oil will get us out of our cars and refocus us on a less materialistic local economy. Toronto political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon captured the spirit of that group in the title of his last book, The Upside of Down.

Paul will concede there is a small chance that might happen. He holds his thumb and index finger in front of his eye and carefully measures out a half-millimetre worth of chance.

"Maybe," Paul said, humouring me. "But I don't think so."

Paul has been interested in the outdoors and survivalism all of his adult life. He began hunting as a young man. During the early '80s, he and a group of four friends began taking regular excursions deep into the bush, teaching themselves how to live off the land.

"We were getting ready to disappear into the backwoods. Because of the nuclear stuff," Paul said.

War didn't break out. Paul's friends got married and had kids. He still keeps in touch with some. At least one thinks he's "crazy" now. Paul feels just as sorry for him.

The situation has changed, but Paul still has a plan. Recently, he bought a 38-foot steel-hulled sailboat. He's in the process of outfitting it – water filtration system, satellite navigation, food stores, including stuff he cans himself in his townhouse.

When things start going wrong, he'll hit the water. He'll hug the eastern seaboard all the way down to the Panama Canal (which will presumably still be in working order). Then he will pop into the Pacific and sail back up to Costa Rica. Once there, he'll find an isolated shore and start over.

"I don't think we're going to see the end of the year without something major," Paul warned. Then he leaned over and said consolingly, "You're in the first stage. Denial."

The escape over water is a familiar trope of the doomer ethos. The other is the so-called `doomstead' – an isolated farm that can be stocked, self-sustaining and easily defended.

Calan Boyle, 27, lives with his parents and two younger brothers on a 50-acre plot a short drive from downtown Hamilton. He is not as publicity-shy as Paul, but thinks twice about giving his address.

"You never know," Boyle said.

Boyle has been following Peak Oil developments for five years. What he's read has convinced him that he and his family may have to use the farm as a bunker in the near future.

Robin M. Mills's Myth of the Oil Crisis is an especially authoritative and delicious demolition of Peak Oil nonsense , not that obliterating Malthusian bunk is particularly difficult.

The Decline of the Petro-Czar: Plunging oil prices have created an unexpected diplomatic bright spot in the global recession by weakening unfriendly regimes (Rana Foroohar, 2/14/09, NEWSWEEK)

What a difference a half a year makes. Last summer, when oil prices hit an all-time high of $147 a barrel, so did the hubris of the petro-czars. Vladimir Putin sent Russian tanks rolling into Georgia, laying bare his ambition to restore Russian dominion over the lands of the old Soviet empire. In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was busy bashing the dollar, which he had declared "worthless," and transferring Iran's reserve wealth into euros. Meanwhile, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was in Russia meeting with Putin to negotiate arms deals.

The rise of these leaders was the dark side of an otherwise golden era of growth in the global economy. A prospering world was thirsty for oil, and had little choice but to buy heavily from them. Not now. With the world economy collapsing in recession, and falling demand driving the price of oil down to $37 per barrel, the trio of Putin, Chávez and Ahmadinejad are losing their strength. The empires that they built on oil are proving rickety, vulnerable to inflation and joblessness, and now mounting political unrest is jeopardizing their personal power. "High oil prices and oil wealth reshaped geopolitics in recent years," says energy expert Daniel Yergin. "Now we're seeing the reversal of all that."

The decline of the petro-czars is an unexpected bright spot in a grim global recession.

Unexpected only by the Realists.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 15, 2009 7:44 PM
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