Tuesday, September 5

Peak Oil

Being an environmental nerd (thus far mostly in theory - the practice is lacking, seeing as I spend a large portion of my time driving around LA), today's news of the oil deposit discovery down Mexico way got me thinking for a spell of black gold.

So far on Book-Loop it appears that the prevailing winds blow toward fiction. That's fine, but I am caught in a non-fiction spell that goes back 4 or 5 books or so and shows no obvious signs of letting up (the books at my bedside are What's the Matter with Kansas?, James Beard's Theory & Practice of Good Cooking, and The Joy of Sex, which I suppose you could consider fiction depending on the circumstances of the moment.

My question is, does anyone have any plans for non-fiction in the near future? If so, I would suggest a book on Peak Oil (which is exactly what it sounds like - the final peak in oil production. Ever.). I have not yet read a Peak Oil book, but I would like to. I was confronted most recently with the subject while reading an article in Harper's. Apparently, there is a lively Peak Oil community in the United States and I would assume around the globe. Peak Oil is not simply an inevitable event in the future, it is a movement of the present, populated by thinkers, crazies, scholars, business persons, and, well, anyone who has the ability to think critically about the consequences of a powerful, charging pattern of digging, pumping and burning that could competently serve as a shorthand for the recent history of human behavior.

This Harper's article included predictions, or rather meditations, of what life would become on an earth at Peak Oil, or on the immediate come-down. LTS mentioned thought experiments a while back. The thought experiment, or imagination experiment, of considering a realistic vision of an oil-dry planet is an intriguing exercise that probably is not undertaken enough outside the open discussion of a meeting of Peak Oilers. The scenarios are of course infinite, but some simple questions can be shocking if considered honestly.

What sort of war might we see over the last large deposit of oil on Earth? What might happen to our society if the price of gas rose to ten dollars per gallon over a period of ten years? The funny thing about thinking about this issue is that the only "what if?" in the scenario is the way in which the events of the peak and decline of oil production will occur. That they will occur is a plain fact.

Has short-sightedness always been a quality of the masses of humanity? I would think that the rapid pace of millennial (where are we, modern? Post-modern? I don't know these things) society would cause us to look ever farther into the distance since the consequences come at us faster and we will actually be around another 60 years or so to live more of them, supposedly. But, as a general observation, I feel that we are more short-sighted than ever in our hunger for progress.

4 comments:

Ben said...

Check out Tuesday's edition of Against the Grain

LTS said...

I, ahem, skimmed a book in the bookstore recently on peak oil which seemed strong on the science, at least, in case anyone is in the market.

The Empty Tank, was the book, Jeremy Leggett, a former Big Oil geologist, was the scientist and author (if I remember my facts correctly). There may be better books than that one, though. I'm hardly a science book reader, let alone reviewer.

Mainly, however, I want to express my strong approval of MJA's post and agree that it's an important issue and appreciate his bringing it to our attention.

As for humanity's short-sightedness, if you want to nod your head in unison with some books which touch on that, I would not hesitate to recommend some of the writings of the famous Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Of course, we hardly need a book on political economy or evolutionary psychology to tell us that people look out for themselves.

Actually, I would have to argue that human beings have become more far-sighted in the last hundred years, if only in a perverse way and if only because we have become comparatively wealthier and longer-lived. I take it as strong evidence for such an argument that we have people in their 20s already planning for their retirements--I have even known a few instances of estate planning!

Still, I think MJA touches on something much bigger than retirement planning when he speculates on whether we have, both individually and collectively, the capacity for even more farseeing attitudes and actions. And in fact, the question takes on greater urgency--because of the potential for more devastating reversals--as our society develops a greater over-estimation of its own farsightedness or, worse, an ever more unhealthy obsession with and zealous faith in the power of markets to 'save' us from economic forces (to say nothing of environmental ones!).

In a related point, you can expect a future post from me on the post-modern (why not?) myth-making of Michael Bay--because you really have to wonder whether our government has had the foresight to hangar two futuristic space shuttles in preparation for the human race's next asteroid-exploding adventure. Just to give a rather outlandish example of what MJA may or may not have been talking about.

MJA said...

Haha, what a terrific example of exactly what I was talking about. You are right that in concrete terms we have become more far-sighted: I opened my retirement account this week, coincidentally. But you sure articulated what I was thinking very well as our society's "greater over-estimation of its own farsightedness." Yes, our ancestors probably thought ahead by a few growing seasons perhaps, and we plan out many years in advance - a significant increase. But the growth is not in proportion to the growth of our society's ability to affect the world.

I should stress OUR society. A Native American (I don't know which tribe) saying insists that each decision we make should consider the effect on the next SEVEN generations (An environmentally conscious line of household products has co-opted this saying, you may have seen them in stores). That's a significant distance from the way we operate now.
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Now, I know non-fiction hasn't been popular here as of yet, but this was on my mind. I probably should have been more book-focused in my post. I'm curious though about everyone's non-fiction reading habits. Like I mentioned, I've been in a non-fiction rut for a while. It's not a bad rut at all, but I may need to break out of it. Nearly all of the books on my to-read list are non-fiction as well. I need a detective thriller to pull me out!

Ben said...

I've posted a little but about non-fiction, Mike. I wrote about traveling through the Congo and Burma. I talked breifly about Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers. Since Book-Loop's inception I've also read a book on Fellini and a book on Buñuel, plus chunks of Harold Bloom's Genius.

Now, typing all of that makes it quite obvious what type of non-fiction reading I have been enjoying of late. Fluff, mostly. I never ever read books about economics or politics or sociology--not since university at least. I generally leave those topics for my magazines to cover. This is not to say that I avoid these books, I think my habit exists mainly because I have so much fiction that I feel like I need to read that I opt for quicker, lighter non-fiction selections rather than dense sources of edification that will keep me away from the fiction for any significant period of time. I don't really like the trend, so I welcome recommendations of all varieties.

As for a detective thriller, check out some Geroge Pelecanos. Gritty D.C. cop stuff. I believe he also has some type of affiliation with the highly-acclaimed HBO series 'The Wire'--producer/writer, I think.

Since I have nothing of real importance to add to the oil/foresight discussion, I thought I might begin a list of good books that we've read about oil. I'll start:

Adventures of Tintin: Land of Black Gold

Add on.