An Open Appeal to Dan Hamburg and our Supervisors: How Peak Oil Can Save Our County

Transition Voice

[For our new county supervisor, Dan Hamburg, and our supervisors: This essay as written is an appeal to Obama. But since all politics is local, as you read it, please substitute yourselves for Obama, and the ideas herein as the orientation we need here in Mendocino County now: to bravely face our local future. Dan campaigned on this issue. His opponent promoted job creation in the predictable areas rather than facing a very different future. As we move into the new year, and Dan takes on his newly elected duties, what is needed most from our leadership is frank talk and innovative solutions. We’re counting on you, Dan, and our supervisors already in place, to help move us into our local future. Yes, balancing the budget is crucial, but we need to begin pulling out of this bogged-down morass and make meaningful plans. Please! -DS]

E. J. Dionne Jr.’s recent column in the Washington Post, “Can Obama Find His Morning in America?” notes an increasingly widespread domestic view that America is in decline. Dionne argues that such an infectious tumult could either cripple Obama or, alternatively, create an opportunity to right his presidency and recapture the confidence of the American people.

What Obama needs, says Dionne, is a morning in America moment. But what he lacks, Dionne believes, is a compelling narrative around which to rally the people and tap into their latent positive energy about American possibility.

I agree wholeheartedly.

That’s why when Obama (or any American president for that matter) fails to address the elephant in the room—peak oil— he also fails to grab the obvious way out of the morass currently depressing morale, hamstringing economic movement and feeding the partisan divide.

Peak oil to the rescue?

If, in politics, hope’s twin brother is a bogeyman of some sort, we’ve got it in spades with peak oil. It’s just the willingness to begin speaking about it that’s at issue. I don’t mean this cynically. It’s simply that a vague and undirected “hope for change” has much less to offer than one with an identifiable target to aim for or a predicament to address.

Fortunately, the International Energy Agency’s 2010 World Energy Outlook gives cover to any top-tier politician or candidate who wishes to bring the issue to the table. Effectively he or she can take the approach that, “It’s not my idea, it’s the IEA’s assessment.”

How could peak oil play the hero in breaking political gridlock while motivating American enthusiasm?

Well, nothing else is working, for one. So, what is there to lose with a Hail Mary pass?

Second, leveling with people after a long period of obfuscation and avoidance itself can help break long-festering tensions and restore trust.

Look at what’s been been said by every American president of the last nearly 40 years—the old “fossil fuels are running out and we need an energy independent solution” refrain. In response to which, what has been done?

Nothing. Nothing has been done.

I would call serial presidential commentary on declining fossil fuels “crying wolf” except that you and I both know that the wolf is now at the door. And the American people have certainly heard the story enough times that if the administration and Congress finally gets real, at least the news is not new.

Finally, exposing a true predicament while also offering a viable and optimistic strategy to address that predicament creates myriad opportunities for hope to morph into vision and vision into strategy.

The moment couldn’t be more ripe

Yes, we peak oil insiders may say it’s too late already. That infrastructure plans should have begun long before now. That the economic mess all but destroys any way to pay for solutions. But unless we’re ready to give up entirely, to resign ourselves to crippling pessimism while awaiting the blows of brutal decline, it’s our duty to keep the dialogue on possibility alive.

Grim though it is in many aspects, peak oil could offer that rallying point.

Energy experts and likely the administration both know that even if unconventional oil in tar sands, deep water and shale stave off a second peak in world oil production until 2030 or 2040, the truth is that the period of increasing reliance on unconventional resources will in no way mirror growth and development with conventional oil. The cost alone is so much greater. “Prohibitive” being the better word.

Ten dollar a gallon gas will not fuel an American rebound.

Then there are the oil recovery and refinement issues. Unconventional recovery creates a much bigger impact on global warming as well as polluting up close and in person in the form of devastating water impacts, among other issues.

We need a different way.

A deep breath, and then…

The US hit its oil peak in the 1970s, and its growth (economic) peak now. We need to tack in a different direction to recover an asymmetrical growth trajectory and inspire our people.

While clean, renewable fuel alternatives (solar, wind, ocean, geothermal and biofuels) will never replace the magic of fossil fuels, they can begin taking up some of the slack (and provide future security) while creating not only jobs, but also hope, inspiration, challenge, promise, a vision. The same can be said for building infrastructure that saves energy, such as passenger rail.

Today President Obama is meeting with top CEOs in an effort to get business leaders to stop sitting on the $1.9 trillion in cash they have from ten years of the Bush tax cuts to business and use it to create jobs in the US.

In fact, the premise that business would create jobs with the Bush tax cuts is undercut by the sheer size of the pile of cash they’re already sitting on and hoarding while unemployment continues to rise.

Are we to believe that another two years of Bush tax cuts will spur business to get on board and begin a vigorous new commitment to domestic job creation? We can hope.

I’d like to go so far as to say we should demand that industry create new jobs. I’d like to hope that a loud enough critique of business by a more aware and vocal populace might help stem the leakage of American jobs to low-wage countries. Perhaps tax cuts could be tied to outcomes rather than just given as endless treats.

But when Obama meets with these CEOs he should forget about job creation in the predictable areas. Forget the same-old same-old cars-and-highways paradigm. It isn’t working and it has no real future in the wake of peak oil. Forget GM and Detroit unless they’re diversifying and going into new projects such as rail cars, hybrid vehicles, and solar and wind parts for other infrastructure. Forget expanding oil and gas. These are sunset industries.

Instead, Obama should focus on sunrise areas. Here’s my three-point plan:

  1. Call for a full throttle effort to prepare America for a world beyond cheap oil. Present it as competition with China, as Energy Secretary Steven Chu has dubbed it, “America’s Sputnik Moment.” Lay out in stark and unforgiving terms just what’s at stake if America grows any more inert. Call it a straight path to that spectral decline. By speaking boldly and directly about the implications of peak oil on American quality of life, the president can pose infrastructure renewal and build-out, particularly in rail, as a way to protect the home front. But the president must explicitly present all these improvements as a direct response to peak oil. He needs to tell the public that if we don’t undertake this project, we’re going to be twisting in the wind in 30 years. Guaranteed. Then he must use every ounce of the bully pulpit to drive it home. America dealt with the Civil War, and World Wars I and II, so we can deal with this, too. We have it in us. In fact, we almost need it.
  2. Work with industry to create domestic manufacturing jobs in both energy and transportation but also in textiles, steel and consumer products. Dealing with distributed power, conservation efforts and transportation will bolster national security and connect our transport networks on land in order to be poised for the time when distance costing money will mean the real end to significant global trade. In the post peak economy (long before 2030) distance will cost money and we’ll be so glad those folks are back to work and those goods are available here. Alternatively we could let ourselves become China’s bitch, grateful for 20-cents-an-hour jobs making the products for the growing appetite of middle-class consumers in Shanghai. It’s our choice.
  3. Create a vocal culture of encouragement surrounding relocalized economies, so that regional areas remain vibrant by making and exporting specialty local goods both abroad and within the US. Encourage local farming, smaller scale production, smaller scale clean energy production and local transit solutions. Follow the American people’s leadership on the desire to shop locally and lessen stress. Bring back Buy American! This isn’t protectionism. It’s survival. Revival.

Together, these three bold responses will create jobs, spur the right kind of growth, and lift the leaden eyes of a downcast population toward the vision of a new paradigm, one they sense and that more than a few long for. How are we going to pay for it? Let’s figure it out.

And what’s the alternative, besides the abyss? Should we embrace instead going full scale into dirtier oil, mountaintop removal in spades, more coal fired plants, and war, war, war? The other alternative is illusion, and with it, sure decline.

If not now, when?

Spit it out, already!

As long as the president is afraid to say the words peak oil, he’s got nothing to rally the nation around. Everything else we’ve heard so far from the White House or seen in the news is just too vague. But in contrast to something like global warming, an invisible and amorphous threat that’s all too easy to deny or ignore, everybody can understand that oil is a finite resource. Obama got close to this in his Gulf oil spill speech, but then dropped the ball. It’s time to pick it back up again and make a bee line for the basket.

We can’t turn a finite resource into an infinite one, however much wishful thinking we apply to it. And however much business and other interested parties try to deny the reality of peak oil in order to achieve their own interests— short term personal profits, the long arc of American success be damned—there is no more time to waste.

Every driver understands the price at the gas pumps. Those prices are rising, and with it, so are food prices. The jobless are crying out for relief. All that pain needs an explanation. Peak oil is not a hard story to tell. And moreover, it’s as true as the sunrise this morning.

Once Obama uses that bully pulpit to his advantage, lays out the case on peak oil, and invokes competition with China for conservation and clean energy solutions as crucial to reviving our national purpose and drive, he’ll get somewhere. Then he must not let up.

And who doesn’t love the prospect of solar panels? Who doesn’t love the romance of the train, especially while surfing YouTube and reading your email, free from the burden of driving?

Look, ten years of green marketing has laid the groundwork. The people are ready. Now if the leader steps out in front and rides the tail wind, we’ll maybe get somewhere.

The detractors can yell from the sidelines all they want. But the people will be relieved that at last America is not pussyfooting around any more. Fear of the diagnosis is the only thing in our way. First you cry, then you get on with it.

It’s standard political messaging, President Obama. You start the conversation, you own it. Don’t get stuck playing defense; make the other side respond to your bold initiatives. Then, they’re playing on your quadrant and you’re on top.

We can talk illegal immigrants and anchor babies in 2012. Or we can talk jobs now.

And a sunrise.

“There are more ideas on earth than intellectuals imagine. And these ideas are more active, stronger, more resistant, more passionate than ”politicians” think. We have to be there at the birth of ideas, the bursting outward of their force: not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggles carried on around ideas, for or against them.” – Michel Foucault


I am going to do my best to not be unkind here. I am just going to ask how we can expect “leaders” to cope effectively with the sorts of challenges we anticipate? And, by the way, leadership implies an organized follower-ship which is nowhere in evidence. I don’t mean either to denigrate the work of people working in the localize and transition movements. More power to you. I hope you achieve maximum effect for your efforts. But political leadership, positions in the formal political structure, like country supervisors, is a different issue.

Effective leaders generally have an organization to lead. There is no inclusive organization of the populace anywhere in the US. The labor unions were the last effort at bottom up organization, and they are essentially destroyed, not to rise again. In fact no effort has been spared since WWI to suppress popular political organization of any kind. During and after WWI efforts at effective organization by the people themselves were ruthlessly suppressed. Organizers of various stripes, such as the IWW leadership, were hunted down like vermin, jailed and assassinated. The nexus of power that carried out this pogrom against justice is still running the country (into the ground).

Right now we are in a period of suspended animation, like Wile E. Coyote running off the cliff and pausing to look down. We are in for a very long trip to the bottom with no one to depend on but our neighbors. We are on the verge of a Katrina moment for the country as a whole.

The most I expect of Dan is to do the best he can in an impossible situation. To ask more is to fail to understand the larger picture of government in the US. I tend to argue that we don’t have a real government at all, just a grand confidence game that is busy looting our future,having already looted the present. As many have characterized it, we live in a giant Kleptocracy.

Government is mostly about spending money and County Government everywhere, but perhaps especially Mendocino, is broke. The State and the Feds have stolen just about everything for their criminal backers. Lying as we are, disorganized and contentious with each other over trivial issues, we are a helpless population. It need not stay that way, but putting a lot of effort in selling some particular prescription for survival, no matter how genuine and clever, is not going to address the fundamental issue of a depoliticized population. As long as we remain depoliticized no program will help us.

I do agree that the various shocks coming down the pike will shake things loose, and oil price leaps will be a big one for sure. We may well succeed in building a more just and sustainable society out of the ashes, and innovative thinkers will be essential for this task. But for the meantime, under conditions of political oppression, it is reasonable to expect that the gangsters and their military friends will confiscate what is left of the dwindling supply of oil leaving very little in the public market. We are likely to find ourselves thrown on our own resources to survive as billions of people around the world do today with out money or ANY of the things that it buys.

So, Dan was the right man for the office, not because I expect him to create miracles, but simply because he is honest and really does care about others. Such a person can be expected to do what little he can to help us. It is ungenerous to expect more unless we are willing to organize as a citizenry on an inclusive basis, to address problems ourselves and come up with our own solutions in the messy way that groups of people do that. Right now we can not organize because the propaganda machine has succeeded in dividing us so finely by belief that we can not talk to each other meaningfully. If we are to save ourselves there can be no taking of sides. No arguing about our pet ideologies. No “our organization has the answers” when we haven’t even gotten together as a community to seek answers yet. No sorting ourselves out by religion, color, sexual preference. No habitual factionalism. It will be all of us, or at least the vast majority of us, acting together out of mutual respect and without reference to rank, that will achieve success. Dan has taken a seat at the head of the lifeboat with lots of people drilling holes in the bottom. When the crash comes there will be little incentive for the hole drillers to continue. If we succeed in coming together as a community before the crash we stand a better chance of rowing in the same direction and surviving.

There are techniques useful to a community to organize in this way. Many historical examples exist and might be useful as templates. But we would do well to examine the methods of oppressed people in South America. Right now they are the examples we would best emulate. The people united will never be defeated.

    I find Herb’s remarks annoying and frustrating. First I don’t have any idea who he is. Why the anonymity? Then, I watch his hand-wringing paragraph after paragraph and wonder when he is going to say something we might chew upon. He says he wants to be kind but does not explain why a little well-directed unkindness might not be just the tonic we need. Then he assures us that w must not expect the impossible, leaving us to guess what the hell that means to him. He does not want us to misunderstand our current situation and if we are to save ourselves there can be no taking of sides. Why the hell not? Is someone is misusing our oil resources, should we not demand he stop? Then he goes into some business about our ‘military friends’ stealing our oil. If I were Dan Hamburg and had managed to cut all the way through this verbose crap, I would resolve never to bother reading the Comments page again. Life is too short!

Time after time we are told green energy sources (solar, water, wind, biofuels, hydrogen) are going to save us, our lifestyles from peak oil. Time after time it is pointed out that each of these produce little more and often not as much energy as is required for manufacture and maintenance of plant and delivery equipment. Each depends critically on fossil fuels and are environmentally expensive, as is true of all high tech equipment. Of course, those corporations who are attempting to market them won’t tell you this. The technology for burning garbage and so generating electricity cleanly has been highly developed by, say, Denmark and is much simpler than those others proposed above, but this also requires natural gas.
Hydrogen fusion does theoretically provide a way, but a means to control it seems to be perpetually escaping. Aw, but, peak oil is only one non-renewable resource problem we are facing. Other are peak metals of various kinds, peak plant fertilizers, and peak fresh water. None of these have “green” fixes.
All of these have solutions, in fact a common solution: that we greatly simplify our lives and reduce our needs, especially of high tech including autos, and that we diligently recycle nearly everything – I mean all of us. Even this is only a short term solution unless we as assiduously reduce our population. Still, what chance is there that these will happen by rational choice? Still, shouldn’t those of us who are aware try?

Try and forgive me, Linsey. I was abrupt. I’ve heard these stories of how green energy is going to save us and time after time they were effectively countered. The corporate media, of course, is only selling the pro stance and it admittedly takes a lot of diligence and technical background to dig out and understand the cons. I may be wrong. If so, please tell me where.
You are placing a lot on Dan’s shoulders. The county is broke and blood is all over the floor. Even in the best of times, the supervisors have very little power. As it is, they are among the most disliked people in the county. When Dan told me he was running, I asked why he would want to do that given the situation and didn’t get a satisfactory answer. It is surely not for the honor. He is a human being with pimples like the rest of us, not a god. I’m sure he will do what he thinks is best, but for his sake don’t expect him to be a savior.

Considering how car & truck dependent (as one small example) we are up here in Mendotopia, someone better do something. It’s a long walk into town from almost anywhere.

If we don’t change course soon, we’re likely to wind where we’re headed.

I am getting around pretty well on eighty miles per gallon in my three wheeled truck. We can’t import these things but we could make according to our designs in an auto repair shop.