Waiting for the punchline

Has collapse jumped the shark? Is peak oil dead? Is the zombie apocalypse just a weird popular fantasy, or is there more to it? Energy analyst Chris Nelder goes in search of answers.
Written by Chris Nelder, Contributor

"Has collapse jumped the shark?"

That was the question I shot to Justin Ritchie on Sunday night after seeing The Simpsons' brilliant take on the collapse meme, in which Homer joins a small group of "preppers," stocks a doomsday bunker, and bugs out when the grid goes down, then has a crisis of conscience and steals a load of supplies to bring back to the huddled masses in town -- who, it turns out, survived a few days without power just fine and were going about their business as usual.

Ritchie and his fellow grad student friend Seth Moser-Katz produce the outstanding Extraenvironmentalist podcast, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the themes of peak oil, the end game of debt, environmental degradation, and the prospect of Collapse with a capital "C." With verve, high production values, and liberal doses of humor, the pair explore these subjects with top thinkers around the world in provocative ways. "Doom without the gloom," they call it. (In a super-wonky appearance, I discussed oil and gas and energy transition with them in Episode 47.)

Two of their recent episodes spoke to some of the questions I have been wrestling with lately.

In "Market Monsters," they discussed popular culture's vogue fascination with monsters and the zombie apocalypse. I nodded in agreement as the guests mused on how these archetypes reflect a growing, unconscious social unease about the hollowing-out of our financial system; the helpless, trapped feelings of cubicle workers; the slow crumbling of our social safety nets and infrastructure; and the generalized, just-under-the-surface fear that seems to be creeping into the hearts of regular folks everywhere, who nonetheless go on pretending in public that everything is fine.

In "Culture of Dying," author Stephen Jenkinson discusses what he has learned from decades of trying to help people come to grips with death -- their own, that of their loved ones, and of our culture more generally. Despite its obvious inevitability for each and every one of us -- life is, after all, a fatal condition -- Jenkinson explains how our Western cultures abhor death and lack the vocabulary and traditions to embrace it, learn from it, and use it as a vital teaching experience. Instead of caring for them at home as we used to until their final breaths, we now hide our aging elders away in "rest homes" and assisted-care facilities, lest the spectacle of bodily mortification harsh our mellows. We wave the pain of death away with euphemisms like "passing on" and "losing" someone, unable to say the word die, while constantly lionizing youth and youthfulness in every television show, commercial, and popular song. Getting a face, breast, and butt lift isn't the pathetic reach for immortality that it once was; now, it's virtually mandatory if you're a woman over 40 working in Hollywood. It's not socially acceptable to be sad anymore; we all feel compelled to put on a happy, optimistic face before we head out the door.

Yet, the myriad challenges bearing down on humanity now are terrifying. We very well should be sad about the disappearance of species, the death of coral reefs, the crashing global fish populations. We have every right to the sinking feeling that attends the destruction of ever-more-frequent and intense natural disasters, and we ought to fear the floods, hurricanes and wildfires that surely loom in our future. We damn well ought to be worried about what sort of world our children and grandchildren are going to inherit, and whether there will be any fuel left at all by the time a child born today reaches the age of 87 in the year 2100. It's not fun and it's certainly not cool to think or talk about these things, but they are real and serious questions and ignoring them doesn't make them go away. In fact, it makes them worse.

Jenkinson believes that we must learn to grieve and accept the experience of sadness in our lives, not only as a component of wisdom and mental health, but as a tool for facing the slow death of the culture that arose in the age of "Happy Motoring." The 20th Century vintage American Dream of getting a good education, holding a good job for 40 years, buying a nice house in the suburbs with a three-car garage, and retiring on a comfortable pension is dead, but we don't know how to mourn it. We can't let ourselves experience the sadness of giving up on that idea. And if we do, we dare not let anyone else see our tears.

A close reading of the data conjures a remorseless vision of collapse, or what I have called The Great Contraction. It's clear that global debt levels are unsustainable and will eventually collapse, despite Infinite QE and all the other attempts to put off the day of reckoning. It's obvious that no one has any idea where the primary energy will come from to power the world in 2050, let alone 2100. The environment is still being degraded at an alarming rate, climate change is knocking more loudly on our door every day, and we're nowhere near halting those trends, let alone healing the damage. We are in deep, deep shit, and on some level, everybody knows it.

Freud would have loved this moment in human history. Since we are unable to admit these dark fears and are unwilling to take the corrective actions they demand of us, we have these strange outbursts. Not just the zombie apocalypse visions of The Walking Dead and its ilk, but the panicked irrationality of the preppers so aptly lampooned by The Simpsons. Merely stocking up on guns and ammo is actually a counter-productive response: It won't produce a single tomato or a kilowatt-hour of energy. It wouldn't even safeguard your family for more than a few days or weeks, even in the event of an actual zombie apocalypse. But it will -- as we found out on that dark, dark day just before Christmas -- result every so often in classroom full of dead kids. Reportedly, Adam Lanza's mother was a prepper. That's why she had all those guns and taught her son to shoot.

Intention deficit disorder

We march closer to collapse every year, yet our responses to it are becoming more and more detached from reality.

Instead of putting the pedal to the metal on energy transition, we're telling ourselves unrealistic stories of incipient energy independence.

Instead of concentrating on how we can burn less fossil fuel to cut carbon emissions, we're pinning our hopes on crazy geoengineering schemes and carbon capture technologies which don't exist commercially and which will probably never work economically.

Instead of trying to halt our crashing ocean populations and restore our soils, we're peddling fantasies of artificial vertical farms, floating cities, and massive aquaculture systems, without having the slightest clue where the energy to run them might come from.

Instead of reining in our out-of-control banks and their derivative weapons of mass destruction, and making those who gambled with the entire economy do the perp-walk, we're handing them trillions of freshly-printed dollars at an effective interest rate of zero.

Instead of using its cash to finance rooftop solar across the country, Google is writing a blank check to Ray Kurzweil to pursue his nutty Singularity vision.

And instead of doing the real work of prepping -- like figuring out how to produce our own food and renewable energy, decarbonizing our economies, using and consuming less, and knitting together functionally useful communities -- we're sitting alone in our living rooms, watching apocalypse porn like Doomsday Preppers, or laughing at the whole phenomena along with The Simpsons.

Perhaps collapse really has jumped the shark.

The reality we're constructing is about as real as the faked-up reality shows we love to watch. While the real world around us groans and crumbles, a single media organization is sending 90 people to cover the latest in gadgets no one really needs at the CES show in Las Vegas this week.

The sad parade

Meanwhile, the pundits of peak oil, collapse, climate change, and all the rest of our knot of looming catastrophes seem to have fallen into a kind of lassitude. Not because their terrifying visions are any less real or fearsome than they were a few years ago, but because they haven't fully come to pass just yet. After five or ten years of waiting for the punchline, they've grown tired, their clenched jaws and steeled spines aching to relax. Like someone who's been through several years of chemotherapy and radiation in a futile attempt to kill off a terminal cancer, they're beginning to wish for the End to just hurry up and come, already.

Over the decade that I have been a student of these subjects, I've gotten to know many of these people personally. They could hardly be more different than the way that they have been caricatured in the media, and by those with vested interests in the status quo who want to put the peak oil and collapse stories down. Far from being wild-eyed conspiracists, or misanthropes who just hate society and want to see it fail, or hoaxers, or crazed environmentalists, or any of the other nasty labels slung at them, I have found them generally to be quiet, studious, scientifically-minded people who, for whatever reason, latched on to a study of data and eventually realized the terrible implications of it. They don't want society to collapse any more than the next person; indeed, most of them have suffered enormously to prevent it and get their messages out against a tide of well-funded propaganda, to an audience of poor students who mostly don't want to hear it. Theirs is a Sisyphean endeavor. They have all sacrificed friends, marriages, jobs, and family relations in their quests for the truth.

Crucially, they have also come to terms with their grief. It seems that most of us who have walked this path took about seven years to get through the five stages of grief Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, before finally arriving at Acceptance. Now they look on collapse with a cool resignation, and perhaps a bit of impatience, which should not be confused with eagerness (although it often is).

Our culture at large, however, is still in the beginning stages of the process. One need look no further than the last election (or the comments sections of my columns) to see Denial and Anger on full display.

The cleantech and climate activist communities are slightly ahead of the public, and generally taste of Bargaining, with a few notes of Depression.

It will be a few more years yet before the public catches up, because they are poor students who don't pay attention in class. They will only get the joke when the punchline is finally delivered and the room erupts in groans, and they look up from their Angry Birds game to ask somebody what just happened.

Whatever. It's a tough room. I knew that from the first time I appeared on television to talk about peak oil and had one of Wall Street's beige-blandish analysts call me a "peak freak," and blather on about the 12 trillion barrels of oil in the ground that will never be recovered, while I was trying to explain why only a little more than one trillion barrels of it will be recovered.

As I explained in my end-of-year post, I think we'll be kept in suspense for at least another year, and probably two or slightly more, before we see the terminal decline of global oil supply beginning to happen. It will be another year or two after that before the public and politicians catch on, as fuel prices reach truly painful levels. And it will be some years after that before the global economy responds with the denouement of the debt crisis.

By 2020, I'm reasonably confident that the world will recognize that it's on a downslope, that the climate is truly spinning out of control, and that the ghost of economic growth cannot be resurrected from the grave by Ben Bernanke or any other spiritist. But unlike some of my fellow witnesses to the collapse, I don't think it will be sudden or short, although I do think it will be punctuated by a few sharp drops. The "collapse" could take a century to play out, which is why I prefer the term "contraction."

When the slow collapse does come, no one will thank the worrywarts who warned them about it.

Until then, we'll be treated to headlines like "Oil production highest since 1994" every month in the U.S. until the tight oil boom peaks and fades around 2016-2018. For those who can still see collapse through that fog, the next few years are going to feel even more like living in an alternate universe than the last three years have. We'll have to suffer through the mad ravings of people like Alex Jones, the propaganda of the political-industrial complex, and the complicity of the media. But just as night follows day, we'll finally witness the sad spectacle of the public slowly comprehending its reality, and then experiencing its grief. . . and we'll recognize that the Occupy and Tea Party movements were mere preludes.

Eventually though, the 200-year-long joke of humanity's use of fossil fuels will be fully told. Maybe we're being spoilsports by blurting out the punchline before its time. Maybe it's better to party hearty for now and let everybody else enjoy the telling. Sure, the toll and the grief could be lessened if we had a little foresight and took action earlier, but maybe that's not the objective here. Maybe it makes a better story, and a wiser species in the end, if we enter the jaws of collapse blind and ungirded, decorated in silks and gold, full of hubris, shaking our fists as we declare our triumph to the heavens.

Photo: "what i love in autumn" (Eddi van W./Flickr)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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