I live under perhaps the most active volcano in the world? Kilauea on the Big Island of
Hawai?i. While watching lava cascade down the mountain peak, I think about the
predicted peak oil and the damage it might do. Its destruction could be far worse on
human communities than that of a mighty volcano, impacting not only a local area but
civilization itself. We live under a volcanic threat today, yet most people remain in denial
about the potential dangers.
Pele, the volcano goddess, has been adding more acres of lava land to this island for
years. According to geologists, experts in volcanoes and oil, slowly flowing crises face
humanity as our supply of non-renewable fossil fuels dwindles. Spectators gather, usually
safely, at the volcano?s base, but few people want to admit how disastrous peak oil could
be. With amazement we watch lava fountains, seething lakes of molten rock, and
incandescent rivers of slowly flowing lava. Yet my college students and friends often
scatter when I try to talk about the consequences of peak oil, unable to consider the
magnitude of the end of the oil age. Many might perish; desert cities like Phoenix, Las
Vega, and Los Angeles would be particularly vulnerable.
?Go, Pele, Go!? we have been known to shout at a rocky shore of the largest body of water
in our world, the Pacific Oceann, encouraging her beauteous power, even while
recognizing its destructiveness. Watching the red hot lava come down from the peak,
especially at twilight, and into the turquoise sea is awesome. Fire meets water and
produces steam, as the heat is absorbed and cooled. It?s all natural. The consequences
of peak oil will be human-made.
Scientists predict that another of the five volcanoes that dominate this island, Mauna Loa,
will also soon blow. ?There she goes,? some eagerly await to hear the words. She is the
largest mountain in the world, measured from her seabed base; her mass is massive. We
had an earthquake last night?woke me up?a sign that something beneath the surface is
happening. This is a steamy, rumbling place. One needs to read signals carefully and
respond, rather than remain in denial, about flowing lava or peaking oil. Otherwise, you
could get burned, in more ways than one.
I remember seeing and hearing oil wells in my childhood in Texas and California. Such a
vigorous sign of growth and industry. As the Iraq War worsens, my mind fills with images
of burning oil fields. Where are Noah, Paul Revere and the other prophets when we need
them? Perhaps 21st century prophets are speaking up, but not many people are listening,
Only certain kinds of people would voluntarily live here, especially in the Puna district
where I live—Pele?s home. Its risky. I have lots of lava holes on the land where I dwell.
You see many people with canes and wrist supports; some fell down or even into lava
tubes. Sometimes it feels as if industrial civilization is falling into a deep hole that it
continues to digging itself into. We try to keep the wounded off television, but they can be
We have lots of fire and water here, as well as substantial trade-winds. The limited, young
ground is less reliable, like the teenagers that I teach. Some of us call this place the ?Baby
Island,? since it is the youngest body of inhabited land in the world, something like only
one million years old. It?s a wild place here on this Pacific island, so remote from the rest
of the world. But maybe we are not as remote as some think, especially in the face of the
pending peak oil. I like natural wildness, but I do not look forward to human-caused
crises, catastrophes, and emergencies.
Hawai?i has become totally dependent upon transportation for its food and many goods.
This paradise may not be such a good place to be after peak oil. Our gasoline prices
have long been the highest in the nation, and already surpass $3 a gallon in some places,
climbing toward Europe?s more than $5 a gallon.
Going down a mountain peak can be fun, as can watching slow-moving lava. Coming
down the peak oil does not look as if it will be much fun, though the resulting post-
industrial age may be more sustainable than this consumptive society that we have built.
Oil was the basis of America?s domination of the 20th century. Geologists and other
scientists tell us that the oil will soon peak. What then? We should not expect peak oil to
be as glorious as this flow down the peak of Kilauea?quite the contrary. Erupting
volcanoes can create a natural emergency. Dwindling oil supplies will create human-
made emergencies, probably on a global scale, given industrial dependence on non-
renewable fossil fuels.
One of my University of Hawai? at Hilo students introduced himself as being from (I thought
he said) Pompeii. An image of the Italian town destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius
rose in my mind. Residents had been warned by a 63 AD earthquake, but most of them
perished in the 79 eruption, refusing to leave and thus survive. My student is actually from
the small Micronesian island of Pondpei (check spelling). But his mention of his island
evoked my mythic imagination. We live in mythic times. The study of history is essential.
But seeing the larger picture requires myth?by which I mean the stories that a people
tells to describe itself and its culture.
During another dark time the prophet Noah fortified his life and talked to people about
changing their destructive ways. They ignored him. Noah built his ark, gathered his family
and welcomed a male and female of each animal species to join them. They survived,
perpetuated life, and rebuilt civilization after the devastating flood described in the ancient
stories of many cultures. Those who ignored Noah?s warning and continued their
?The British are coming!? Bostonian Paul Revere spread an alarm on horseback centuries
later to villages and farms, awakening the slumbering colonists to defend their new
civilization. Now some 230 years later, perhaps the appropriate warning would be
something like, ?The Americans are creating a global catastrophe!?
A civilization-destroying flood or the British Empire no longer threaten us, but denial about
potential dangers remain strong. According to four recent books and a growing number of
scientists and writers, America and those on its industrial highway may be heading into
contraction, turbulence, chaos, or even collapse.
The list of times that people were warned by credible sources about pending crises but
ignored them is long. It includes the Yellow Fever epidemic that wiped out half of
Memphis in the l870s while leaders assured people that it would not make it there from
New Orleans. In Columbia seismologists warned that a volcano would soon erupt in the
l980s. Few left; thousands perished.
On the other hand, history is full of prophecies that did not happen. For example, not
much occurred because of the Y2K scare at the end of the last millennium; most
computers kept going and technological society did not collapse. Biologist Paul Ehrlich?s
predictions in his 1968 ?The Population Bomb? did not explode. So people are
understandably skeptical about doom and gloom scenarios. But before quickly
dismissing the multiple threats that peak oil combined with environmental degradation
might present, perhaps it would be wise to consider the arguments in these books.
?The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century? by
James Howard Kunstler is the newest of the books reviewed here, published in May.
?Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed? by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author
of ?Guns, Germs, and Steel,? Jared Diamond, appeared earlier this year. Richard
Heinberg?s ?Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World,? 2004, followed
his ?The Party?s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies,? published originally
in 2003 and recently updated.
The ideas in these books are not all new or unique to these writers. Other prominent
authors?such as Bill McKibben and Daniel Quinn?have written about these matters for
years. These new books are newsworthy for various reasons: ?Collapse? had a huge
200,000-copy first printing by one of the world?s largest publishing houses? Viking/
Penguin/Putnam. ?Emergency? was excerpted in the widely-read ?Rolling Stone?
magazine and Kunstler continues to publish in popular magazines like ?Atlantic Monthly?
and ?Orion.? Kunstler appeared in the recent film ?The End of Suburbia,? as did Heinberg.
Heinberg has been speaking across America and recently has been on an international
speaking tour in Africa and Europe, where his ideas have been well-received.
The prophetic mantle of the vintner Noah and the silversmith Paul Revere
is one that 21st century author Kunstler seems to wear well. ?A rock-star
reception? is how a Vermont newspaper recently described Kunstler as
receiving at a local college, noting that he is an ?eloquent, funny speaker.?
Elsewhere he is described as ?quirky? and willing to use earthy slang words. Diamond is
a more removed academic who focuses on the environment and does not say much about
peak oil. Heinberg is an activist, as well as a college teacher, who champions changes
that need to be made for a more sustainable post-petroleum world. His ?Powerdown?
book is based on solid theory, practical, and solution-oriented.
PEAK OIL AND DENIAL
These messengers are getting their message out about peak oil and environmental
destruction to an expanding number of people. These ideas may finally reach a critical
mass. These prophetic voices are engendering substantial urgent discussion around the
world and even beginning to produce lifestyle changes. Americans have been reluctant
to listen to these 21st century prophets; Europeans and others have been more
?Carl Jung, one of the fathers of psychology, famously remarked that ?people cannot stand
too much reality,? Kunstler begins his new book. Kunstler?s first chapter is entitled
?Sleepwalking into the Future.? Perhaps it is time to wake up.
Go ahead, if you must, and remain in denial a little longer about the growing scientific
evidence regarding the pending environmental disasters that could combine with peak oil
to create catastrophes. Some dismiss these analyses as mere ?doom and gloom.?
Diamond effectively devotes part of his final chapter to arguing against such ?One-liner
When I try to teach these facts to my students at the University of Hawai?i at Hilo and to
some friends, they respond with doubt, or quickly change the subject to something more
pleasant. ?Perilous optimism? is how Heinberg describes such a response. False optimism
in the face of overwhelming evidence of pending disaster?such as the Jews and others
had in the early stages of Nazism?has been deadly for millions of people.
?It has been very hard for Americans?lost in dark raptures of nonstop infotaiment,
recreational shopping and compulsive motoring?to make sense of the gathering forces
that will fundamentally alter the terms of everyday life in our technological society,?
Kunstler writes. The narcotics and privileges of modern life are numerous and effective to
dull us. Before you dismiss the ideas of Heinberg, Kunstler, and Diamond, at least read
American domination of the 20th century was based on oil. Oil production,
even according to geologists for the industry itself, is about to peak. The
exact date of oil peak is debatable, but many indicate that it may be sooner than
previously expected?perhaps even next year. We will continue to have oil, but less of it
will cause its price to soar. Gas prices have shot up before. The difference this time is that
they will not come down but keep going higher. ?This is going to be a permanent energy
crisis,? Kunstler contends. ?We will have to accommodate ourselves to fundamentally
The consequences of peak oil will be greatest in the United States, because of our
extreme dependence upon it to fuel our auto addiction. ?We are in for a rough ride through
uncharted territory,? writes Kunstler. ?America is about to go bankrupt,? predicts Heinberg.
Europe will not be as hard hit as the United States. ?They have cars but are not car-
dependent,? Kunstler commented in a Vermont newspaper. ?They did not destroy their
towns and cities. We did. They did not destroy their public transit. We did. They did not
destroy local agriculture. We did.?
The impact of declining petroleum resources will reach far beyond rising fuel costs. ?Oil
and (closely related) natural gas play a role in virtually all aspects of our lives,? writes Rob
Bolman in Eugene, Oregon?s daily newspaper. ?Almost all plastic products are made of
oil. Modern agriculture is little more than a system of turning oil into food as pesticides,
herbicides, agricultural machinery and food transport all depend on oil.?
A ?National Geographic? cover article in June of 2004 entitled ?The End of Cheap Oil? had
a two page photo with some of the hundreds of oil-based products in a typical suburban
home: shoes, toys, kitchen items, furniture, recreation items, etc. According to a recent
Gallup poll Americans think oil prices are the No. 1 economic problem facing the country.
But this does not deter many from buying gas-guzzling SUVs. Americans are more likely
to blame the problem on Arabs or ?terrorists,? rather than on our own growing depletion of
non-renewable fossil fuels.
What will happen when plagues such as war, overpopulation, deforestation, over-farming,
and environmental degradation collide as we approach the end of the oil age? Kunstler
details such matters in his chapter ?Nature Bites Back: Climate Change, Epidemic
Disease, Water Scarcity, Habitat Destruction, and the Dark Side of the Industrial Age.?
Commenting on just one of the consequences of the pending peak oil, Kunstler notes that
?The Iraq War has only been the overture to more desperate contests ahead.?
Geographer Diamond?s ?Collapse? is the most mainstream and scholarly of these four
books, though it is very readable. He offers 575 pages of research and analysis,
documented by substantial further readings, an index, and helpful illustrations. Diamond
provides a historical/cultural narrative of societies that have either squandered or savored
their natural and human resources, drawing parallels across centuries and continents. On
the downside he examines the Polynesian culture of Easter Island, the American
civilizations of the Anasazi and Maya and the doomed Viking colony of Greenland. His
success stories include Japan and Iceland.
Civilizations that ignored environmental signals went into decline, whereas those that
attended to those signals were prospered. Given globalization? which Diamond
describes as ?the strongest reason both for pessimism and for optimism?—he warns that
the next collapse could be global rather than merely regional.
PEOPLE ARE TALKING AROUND THE WORLD
Throughout Europe and elsewhere America?s difficulties in Iraq, with the
falling dollar, and other economic and political problems are widely
discussed. Whereas many Americans are still in denial, others have been already
planning for America?s contraction and its world-wide implications.
These four books and other documentation have stimulated many online and in-person
discussions about these matter. ?I chose not to put blinders on,? states Stephanie Bath of
Hawaiian Acres on the Big Island. ?Even if this whole issue is not a reality, the principles of
conservation and alternative energy can only be a positive thing for us and future
generations. I can teach my children solid principles, use the car as if it were my last tank
of gas, solarize, minimize, plant a garden. When someone is ready to change, when they
want to, I will share the little things that we as a family have done.?
?We are having a picnic on the railroad tracks and the train is in sight. Please pass the
potato salad,? is how Gerald Trumbule of Denver describes our historic moment with so
many people unwilling to consider the urgency of the numerous threats.
?The suburban development machine has transformed the outskirts of Santa Rosa, CA,?
notes its resident Russell Sutter, a therapist. ?This has resulted in a landscape with the
originality and authenticity of a discarded gum wrapper. It replicates the same dead,
soulless neighborhood corners, strip malls with pizza shacks, and corporate big box
stores with an efficiency of an assembly line. What happens to the soul of a country that
creates thousands of places that no one can care about?? Sutter later adds in an email,
?The American Dream is in for a great contraction.?
?How many times have we heard very convincing predictions of imminent collapse,? writes
skeptical 60 year old David Holmstrom from Boston.
?Hasn?t happened yet, and ain?t gonna happen in our lifetimes. It will
continue to be a slow process, not dramatic enough to waken our
?emergency? response.? Holmstrom, however, is pessimistic ?about our
children?s lifetimes.? His primary concerns for them are global epidemic
disease, famine, and ?running out of fresh water?or wars over water use.?
Heinberg was recently lecturing in South Africa, where the May 4 ?Cape
Times? newspaper reported him as saying, ?It?s too late to maintain a
?business as usual? attitude. What is required is to manage the change
that peak oil will bring in a way that causes the fewest casualties.? In South
Africa and elsewhere in his international lecturing, as well as in his recent
book, Heinberg outlines four options for America:
1. Compete for remaining resources through wars.
2. Wishful thinking that the market or science will come to the rescue.
3. Acknowledge that we are in the early stages of disintegration and seek
to preserve the most worthwhile culture achievements.
4. ?Powerdown? by reducing energy use drastically through conservation,
economic sacrifice and population reduction. Heinberg describes this in his book as ?the
path of self-limitation, cooperation, and sharing.?
Heinberg is scheduled to speak in Lisbon, Portugal, at the Fourth Annual
Workshop of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil May 19-20, 2005. In an
abstract of his comments there published in his monthly Museletter
(http://www.museletter.com) he comments, ?If the 20th century saw America?s economic and
geopolitical ascendancy, the 21st will almost certainly see its decline,? Heinberg
concluded in Portugal. China is predicted by many to be the next dominant power. ?Within
years, the average American will have less opportunity, purchasing power, and mobility.
Food will cost more and consumer choices will be severely constrained. Life expectancy
may decline markedly and America?s cities will likely fall into decay.?
?American life will have to be reconstructed along the lines of traditional towns, villages,
and cities,? Kunstler adds. ?We are going to have to live a lot more locally.,? he continues,
?Say goodbye to Phoenix and Las Vegas.? Desert cities without water will be hit hard, as
will Hawai?i, which is so dependent upon cheap transportation. Wal-Mart and similar
corporations will not fare well.
Hawai?i will be one of the first and hardest hit places by oil peak. We
currently import over 90% of our food. As recently as the l930s, according
to local farmer Nancy Redfeather, Hawai?i produced the majority of its food.
But the onslaught of colonialism with its plantation mono-crops for
exportation?like sugar and pineapple?destroyed a genuine local agriculture.
Some people—including prominent environmentalists such as Amory Lovins of the Rocky
Mountain Institute and Jeremy Rifkin in the book ?The Hydrogen Economy?—point to
alternative fuels to solve the petroleum shortage. ?No combination of alternative fuels will
allow us to run American life the way we have been used to running it,? Kunstler contends.
?The widely touted ?hydrogen economy? is a particularly cruel hoax.?
?Hydrogen is not a source of energy, just a way of storing it,? writes Heinberg. It takes
more energy (supplied by oil) to produce the hydrogen than you can get out of it. Heinberg
dispels various alternatives in his chapter ?Waiting for the Magic Elixir: False Hopes,
Wishful Thinking, and Denial.?
Suburbs, cars, and roads receive a strong indictment by Kunstler. ?We poured our national
wealth into the construction of a living arrangement that has no future?and the future is
now here. The infrastructure of suburbia can be described as the greatest misallocation of
resources in the history of the world.? He adds that we ?let our towns and cities rot away
and replaced them with suburbia, which had the additional side effect of trashing a lot of
the best farmland in America.? As he peers into the future, Kunstler forsees that ?the
automobile will be a diminished presence in our lives. Our roads will surely suffer.?
REASONS FOR HOPE
Though all three authors look our serious problems straight in the face, they each also
offer credible things that can be done to at least minimize damage and then re-organize
civilization along more sustainable lines. Though there is much to lament, there are also
reasons for hope and actions that can be taken. For example, on May 1 the Natural
Museum of Los Angeles opened the thought-provoking exhibition ?Collapse?? that draws
on Diamond?s book. It will stay open until January of 2006, contributing to the growing
world-wide discussions of the ideas in these and other pending books on related subjects.
?Reasons for Hope? is the final section in Diamond?s book. He writes how our problems,
though serious, are not insoluble. He feels that we can learn from the mistakes of
previous civilizations, make painful decisions about values, and engage in long-term
thinking and planning. Kunstler predicts that ?our lives will become profoundly and
intensely local. Daily life will be far less about mobility and much more about staying
where you are.?
At the well-attended First US Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions earlier
this year in Yellow Spring, Ohio, Heinberg maintained that ?it is a time to be hopeful. It is a
good time to cherish one another and embrace the young with our experiences and
vision?It is a scary time to be alive, but it is a wonderful time to be alive.?
The activist Heinberg described the following characteristics that alternative
infrastructures should have to survive difficulties: ?organic, small-scale, local, convivial,
cooperative, slower paced, human-oriented rather than machine-oriented, agrarian,
diverse, democratic, culturally rich, and ecologically sustainable.? He suggested that
people ?grow more of your own food, conserve energy, become active in your local
community, learn useful arts and skills, stock up on hand tools. We must plant the seeds
for what can and will survive.?
?Prepare for a different America, perhaps a better America,? Kunstler concluded a recent
talk in New York. ?And prepare to be good neighbors.?
If what Kunstler, Heinberg, Diamond and others are saying is accurate, it
will create major changes in the way we all live. Early American?s responded promptly to
Paul Revere?s alarm, survived, and prospered. The people of Noah?s time, however,
continued their destructive ways and perished. The choice is ours.
(Dr. Shepherd Bliss teaches at the University of Hawai?i at Hilo, writes for
the Hawai?i Island Journal, and has contributed to 18 books on diverse subjects. His long essay “America on the Warpath: A Nation’s Soul at Risk” appeared in the book “Shattered Illusions: Analyzing the War on Terrorism,” published by Amal Press
( www.amalpress.com ), a Muslim publishing house in England.)