Peak Oil, Internet Research, and the Effects of Idealism on the Post-Idealist Psyche OR Why I Don’t Talk Much At Work

June 11, 2008

Over the past few days I’ve been stuck in my own head: barely following the conversations I start, trailing off my sentences, paying little or no attention to the people and events that surround me, etc.

Some who know me may say this is my natural condition. To paraphrase Lucille Bluth, I don’t care what you’re talking about and I won’t respond to it.

I’ve been obsessed with peak oil and its implications for the past week or so. I’ve spent hours, whole days even, reading articles and websites about what is in store for the industrial world in the coming years. I read until the sun came up. I took sleep breaks and then read some more. I read until I was late for work. Then I read more and showed up frazzled and out of touch (again, more so than usual) and barely able to keep up in the kitchen.

When I wasn’t reading, I fretted. I worried about my kids and if I would ever have them. I worried about their kids if I did and if they could. I worried about riots and wars and the expanded draft and green guerrillas and food shortages. Preservation of knowledge, re-learning of old skills like farming and woodworking and blacksmithing and simple printing, access to seeds and equipment. I worried about why George W. Bush’s Crawford estate is “off-the-grid” and green while Al Gore’s isn’t, and how if we all drove a Toyota Prius we could make the problem worse, and could be worse for the environment than a Hummer. Population die-offs, hospitals forced to shut down, senior citizens cut loose from expensive and energy-consuming health care. I convinced myself I would be locked up in a U.S. domestic detention center for even thinking about such things.

It might be a sort of guilty over-compensation, a pained look at time wasted, spent ignoring an issue I cared deeply about as I saw it undiscussed by my leaders – the people who were supposed to tell me what to do – and underreported by the media – the people who were supposed to tell them to tell me what to do.

Three years ago, I researched and wrote a story on peak oil for the magazine I was working for at the time, UB’s Generation. It ran on the cover of our first issue of the new school year in August 2005, but the journey really started for me at the end of the previous semester, during finals. For weeks, my father had been telling me about a guy who wrote incisive social commentary about national and local issues named James Howard Kunstler. He lived in my dad’s town, Saratoga Springs, NY.

Of course, I ignored my father; I was a media professional, for crying out loud (at $200 a month and six English elective credits), I didn’t need him pointing me in the direction of every yahoo in the Capital Region with a subscription to Harper’s and an AOL account. Then, while searching for Matt Taibbi articles to plagiarize, I happened on a Rolling Stone article by Kunstler called “The Long Emergency.”

The article is available here. Take twenty minutes and read it if you haven’t already.

I’ll wait.

As Emerson would say, I saw with new eyes.

It was the smartest thing I’d ever read. As a kid raised an hour’s march from the nearest gas station, I watched as this person I’d never heard of with no degree I knew of ripped apart everything I’d ever been told was dependable and permanent. The suburban environment was critically out of line with reality, beyond any criticism my faux-punk, post-adolescent white bread angst could have mustered. But even that had some merit. And it all made logical sense in ways none of the political or social commentary I’d read ever had before. It was like someone walking past a con artist’s mark and whispering, “There’s no shell, dumbass; take your money back.”

And so for the next seven months, I became what I’d thought I was all along: a professional journalist – though often my methodology tailed towards that of the obsessive psychotic. I read Kunstler’s book (twice) and two others on peak oil. I called Department of Energy clerks and had them send me statistics on energy production in the United States. I called professors, members of congress, industry reps, public transportation advocates. I requested a personal copy of that year’s energy bill (still waiting, DOE). I called Kunstler himself and asked him annoying questions about information I could have found elsewhere for an entire summer. I moved into my apartment in Buffalo a month before I had furniture so I could drive a hundred miles twice to and from Titusville, Pennsylvania, the town where Edwin Drake struck the first successful oil well in American history, where I attended the Titusville Oil Fest and called local Titusvillians to inquire as to the state of the local economy.

It would be the first cover story of the new year. It had to be perfect. I was possessed.

When I worked for NYPIRG that summer, I talked about peak oil on doorsteps when I was supposed to be talking about mercury poisoning. I talked about it in the car on the way to the neighborhoods we were bothering. I argued, drunkenly, endlessly about the non-importance of mercury poisoning vis-a-vis the peak oil issue with my co-workers, my friends, and anyone who would listen. I even took the ridiculous step of subscribing to a Google News Alert for the word “oil” – and I swear to you, I read every last nonsensical tidbit of Malaysian trade reporting that vacuum sucked into my inbox from start to finish.

Somewhere during the writing process, the New York Times Sunday magazine ran a cover story about the issue I’d thought no one else knew about but me.

“Mine’s going to be better,” I told my editor and the magazine’s advisor, a staff writer for the Buffalo News.

When it was all over and I’d finished my first draft, I came up with… well, basically what you’d expect from a 22-year-old kid with poor organizational skills and a tendency to curse a lot. The lead was barely readable. I used a lot of phrases like “concrete wasteland” and “the psychic torture of the suburban mindfuck.” The reporting was there, but my emotions burned out any weight the story might have carried. It was the journalistic equivalent of a NoFX B-side.

Slowly, calmly, my professor teased me off the ledge, and I came out with a story that was better than anything I’d written up to that point and is still one of my better clips. No, it was not a better-reported or a better-written story than the one that ran in the Times Mag, but Peter Maass slow-pitched the importance of the story and mainstream media coverage of peak oil is about where it was three years ago, so I still think I’m the better (bitter?) journalist. It ran prominently with two sidebars and photos I’d taken in Titusville, I did a follow-up the next week, and… nothing happened.

No widespread revolution of energy policy. No agrarian right-sizing of the American landscape. I didn’t really expect all that much, I guess (would a Gold Circle have killed you, Columbia?), but what was most distressing was that the media didn’t even follow Maass’s lead and really sink their teeth into this one. I kept writing about it, though, with increasing shrillness and sloppier discipline, until finally I was out of college and out of a writing job. Things were happening on the peak oil front, but I wasn’t paying attention anymore. In all probability we reached the peak in 2005 and passed it some time last year, but no one in a position to influence the kinds of changes we needed was saying or doing anything about it.

So I gave up, in many ways. I canceled my Google Alerts (at one point I received e-mails whenever someone published a story with the terms “oil,” “iraq,” or “amtrak” in the headline or summary). I went from reading three newspapers a day to doing the crossword a few times a week and reading only The BEAST and Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone stuff. I read and began writing fiction exclusively. And then for awhile I stopped watching, reading, or thinking about anything having to do with global issues or American politics. Every time I picked up a newspaper I’d get depressed at the lack of a serious headline involving peak oil coverage or action. Or, worse, I’d see articles in quasi-alternative publications that touched on the relevant issues but missed the boat entirely or blog posts that no possible leader would give a shit about. It was all the presidential race and the candidates weren’t talking about peak oil and no journalist was asking them to. These people had to be smarter than me, so what the hell? If they didn’t care, neither would I. It was easier to jerk off and make food and focus on personal changes I could make to assure that I wasn’t doing too much to add to the rising price of fuel. Forget the rest; maybe it would work itself out. It wasn’t until I started this blog out of sheer desperation to save some modicum of what I used to call my “chops” that I began reading anything at all on a regular basis.

And so now I’m back in it. Everyone’s obviously more interested in at least appearing to be “green” and “sustainable,” but the situation seems to have gotten worse with time. And I can’t stop thinking about it.

But panicking is wrong. Over-analyzing the worst case scenarios is wrong. Bitter resentment of the people or generations that came before me or were in a better position to do something and didn’t is wrong. Thinking I can save the world from what’s coming is wrong. Those kinds of thoughts lead to paralysis and that’s the last thing anyone needs right now.

So I’m going to do what I can and I’m going to try not to freak out. I’m just one man, which means I can’t do everything, but I can do something. But I’ll need help. Everyone does. You do and you don’t even know it. Younger generations need help. Our children need help. And their children need help. They may not be alive yet, but they need it, now.

If you’re reading this and you didn’t know anything about peak oil (and you actually clicked the links instead of just wading through this sobby, self-centered pityfest), take a deep breath. Go to sites like Local Future and The Relocalization Network and YouTube “Richard Heinberg” and learn more and take heart and find a way to do something good to mitigate what appears to be a bleak future, but not one without hope and not one without benefits, though they’ll be hard to realize at first.

If you’re reading this and you did know about peak oil and everything that comes after, leave me a comment and let me know what you’re going to do about it.

And if you made it this far and you take nothing else away from this post, just don’t read the entire two pages of and try to have a good weekend. It just ain’t gonna happen.

Trust me.


3 Responses to “Peak Oil, Internet Research, and the Effects of Idealism on the Post-Idealist Psyche OR Why I Don’t Talk Much At Work”

  1. […] 11, 2008 Glad I got that last post out of my system. Momentary mental collapse, nothing out of the ordinary at […]

  2. […] thanks to our friend over at Master Caution I will tell you why the solution put forth by Mr. Florida is only part of the […]

  3. […] 30, 2008 I have a tendency to freak out about peak oil’s worst-case scenarios. It doesn’t happen all the time, but some days catch you on the wrong side of the sun, and my […]

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