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The "Hirsch Memo"

You’ve heard of the Hirsch Report, now we’ve got the Hirsch memo.

Dr. Robert Hirsch is co-author of the famous "Hirsch Report" on peak oil commissioned by the Department of Energy in 2005. That 91-page report stated that, regardless of the date of peak oil, it would take about 20 years to prepare for it.

The Hirsch memo is a different matter entirely. It was sent out on Thursday, November 13, 2008 and is quite a bit shorter. It has thrown everyone for a loop, because it suggests that we keep "relatively quiet" about the subject of peak oil.

What? Whose side is he on?

In this memo, sent to prominent leaders of the "Peak Oil movement" (Matt Simmons, Colin Campbell, and Steve Andrews, among others -- we don't know precisely who), he says the following [the complete text can be found here.]:

The world is in the midst of the most severe financial crisis in most of our lifetimes. The economic damage that has already been wrought is considerable, and we have yet to see the bottom or the turnaround. Against this background, I suggest that the peak oil community minimize its efforts to awaken the world to the near-term dangers of world oil supply. . . . In the near term, keeping relatively quiet is likely the better part of valor. 

A quick survey of the internet shows that within the peak oil community — in contrast to the Hirsch report, which was widely applauded — the Hirsch memo has not had a lot of influence. Neil King, who reported this, said that this appeal "doesn’t seem to be winning much support." Joseph Romm said: "The WSJ blog reprints an incredibly dumb ‘You can't handle the truth!’ memo from uber-peaker Robert Hirsch. . . . That is both absurd and cowardly. . . . If Hirsch were a climate expert, would he urge ‘keeping relatively quiet’ about ‘the impending horrors’ of global warming because ‘the added trauma could be unthinkable’?"

I can understand these reactions, as they mirrored my own thoughts. The events of this fall (2008) are the perfectly predictable outcome of peak oil. Supply cannot keep up with demand, oil prices skyrocket, the economy goes into a recession, then the housing bubble bursts and banks start to fail, because their bets that the economy would expand forever have now encountered geological reality. The cheap oil resources just aren’t there, and the "house of cards" is collapsing. This whole situation has been discussed on TheOilDrum.com for months. And just when these predictions are coming true, is it time to keep our mouths shut?

But Hirsch is a smart guy, and so I am going to try to understand Hirsch’s logic. So I am going to ask two questions: (1) what is Dr. Hirsch afraid of will happen? (2) How likely is it that this will transpire?

What is Hirsch Afraid Will Happen?

What Hirsch is afraid of is detailed in two words: "trauma" (paragraph 2) and "damage" (paragraph 4). In paragraph two, he outlines the current situation: business and government is disoriented; those without jobs or houses are desperate; markets are in free fall. In paragraph four, he adds that while advancing the peak oil "cause" is possible, this in itself will inflict horrendous damage on the overall situation.

All right, I think that Dr. Hirsch could have explained himself a little better. But what he is afraid of is not impossible to discern. Let’s do a thought experiment: let’s imagine a major political victory for peak oil in the coming months. Unlikely, perhaps, but if we are not prepared for victory, then perhaps we should be putting the brakes on our advocacy of the dangers of peak oil, which is Hirsch’s point. How much trauma would such a victory inflict?

I call this the "Obama-declares-peak-oil" scenario. We (peak oil activists) criticize the IEA World Energy Outlook (which Hirsch references). Matt Simmons gets on national TV. The News Hour interviews Steve Andrews. Our points are telling and have great effect. Roscoe Bartlett is invited to the President-elect’s office.

Let’s suppose that President Obama gives his state of the union address and says, "Peak oil is coming soon, if it’s not already here. Our current crisis is caused by overconsumption and use of rapidly depleting fossil fuels. We’ve hit the limits to growth. The transition will take decades, and in the meantime our standard of living will decline. We have to face these realities. We must unite as a nation, blah, blah, blah."

In this scenario, the "trauma" that this would create can easily be imagined. What, realistically, would happen if this were Obama’s first state of the union speech? We can’t honestly predict precisely what would happen, except to say that it would be chaos. Obama might as well make James Kunstler his Secretary of State. If the markets were in free fall before, their fall would be accelerated. Democrats would be stunned and scrambling, Republicans would be outraged. Obama would need a clear plan to to remedy the problem of peak oil — but what would it be?

Ah. There’s the problem. There’s no real plan on the table to deal with peak oil. Obama needs to be able to say to a shocked nation, "now here’s my plan to guide us through these difficult times." What would it be? Quick! What is it?

Some plans for Obama

The underlying problem here is that no one, not Transition Towns, not ASPO-USA, not James Kunstler or anyone else, really has a plan. Some individuals have some strong ideas on this or that, but if you asked the peak oil community to formulate a coordinated approach, it is not something that you would find ready agreement on, and certainly not well formed enough agreement to just plop it on Obama’s desk and say, "here’s what you need to do."

In this respect, peak oil really is different from global warming. There are lots of proposals for reducing carbon and methane emissions and considerable consensus in the scientific community over at least some of them. We can get started right away, there’s quite a bit of "low-hanging fruit," we have a variety of choices to pick from, the worst effects won’t hit us for several decades, and to a certain extent we can make up for lost ground later. But peak oil is different — many of the proposals to deal with peak oil will actually make global warming worse, the restraints and timing are dictated by Mother Nature, there’s no consensus over the general approach, and we’ll start feeling the effects during Obama’s first term. In fact, in a sense we’re pretty much feeling them right now. Peak oil will hit faster, harder, and sooner than global warming.

So what’s a President to do? Continuing our thought-experiment, here are three possibilities which I will put into our President-elect’s mouth, perhaps as he is delivering the state of the union address sometime next year.

1. Maybe the Hirsch Report recommendations themselves? But these recommendations suggest significant development of enhanced oil recovery, tar sands, gas-to-liquids, and coal-to-liquids, to replace declining oil supplies. These recommendations would be dead on arrival because of global warming concerns. The scariest thing about the Hirsch report recommendations is that most of them — while they would address oil depletion problems — make global warming worse, a lot worse. Plus, if anyone actually implemented them, you’d be sending billions and trillions of dollars into a dying fossil-fuel infrastructure.

If you exclude the recommendations that make global warming dramatically worse, well, then you really have a problem: you’ve rejected the bulk of the Hirsch report mitigation options. It might take longer than 20 years to prepare for peak oil, or it might not be possible at all.

2. How about the environmentalist’s dream plan? This is what I would support: adopt Al Gore’s proposal for a 100% renewable energy electric grid in 10 years; phase out most coal over the next 10 years and the rest by 2030; then go one step further and propose that this new renewable-electricity grid be expanded to include most transportation which would be shifted to electricity and rail; a guaranteed annual income to make sure no one goes hungry or cold; a civilian national service to support agriculture, energy, and housing; wage and price controls; and take over the banks. (Oops, we’ve already done that.)

And in case private enterprise can’t handle this (and it almost certainly can’t), we’d draft everyone necessary into this national service — up to age 65, and that includes me — to make all of this happen. We’ll have a steep progressive income tax and a huge increase in government spending. Onward, comrades!

I’m sure the stock market would love that. And it’s pretty clear what the political and social reaction would be. Such a plan, while it might in theory deal with peak oil and global warming, would also be dead on arrival.  It would not so much encounter serious opposition than it would just put people, both political leaders and ordinary folk, into a state of total shock. Even the Republican climate-deniers, I think, would be at a loss for rhetoric. They would wonder why Obama had spent his political capital on something that so clearly wouldn’t fly.

3. "We don't know." O. K., here’s the third Obama scenario. He gives his speech to the nation, and then, with more or less subtlety, just says "we need to figure out what to do here," making it more or less explicit that none of the alternatives are completely satisfactory. We’re going to appoint a committee! Republicans and Democrats together! Well, that makes Obama look sort of silly, too, but for different reasons. It implies that here’s the greatest problem of our time and I just got elected President and I have just now decided that we need to do something, only I don’t know what.

None of the Obama-declares-peak-oil scenarios really make sense. They would cause trauma to the nation. Instead of positive leadership to unite America, we would have leadership which essentially throws the country into a state of existential chaos. So in that sense, Hirsch is right: an overt political victory for peak oil advocacy would mean immense damage to the nation.

We could imagine an overt victory for peak oil advocates in ways that do not need Obama, e. g. a sudden awareness of peak oil sweeps through Congress, but this would encounter the same problem that the Obama-declares-peak-oil scenario did. The country just isn’t prepared for this. These scenarios, too, might possibly occur, but they would put the nation into a state of shock, and then there would be a chaotic reaction to it that would put the economy and the nation into an even deeper state of turmoil.

Of course, some would say that it is highly unlikely that we are able to inflict such a "trauma" on the nation. Obama gave no evidence during the campaign of even being aware of peak oil. And as far as Congress, or any other political or social leaders, recognizing the urgency of peak oil, that seems a complete fantasy. There’s no leadership in the country as a whole on this issue.

Does Hirsch know something we don’t? Perhaps there is more awareness of peak oil at the highest levels of government than we think. Maybe Bill Clinton (and by extension probably Hillary) knows about it and is concerned about it. Maybe a lot of leaders know about it. They aren’t saying anything because, basically, they don’t know what to say. They don’t have a plan, and neither do we.

So put yourself in Obama’s place. You’re the President, and you know everything that TheOilDrum.com knows. What would you do? Go on TV and tell everybody that because of oil depletion, the economy is toast? As a practical matter, even if you believed this to be the case, you probably wouldn’t do this. You’d say to yourself, "a plan, a plan, we need a plan!" You’d quietly gather the experts. You’d investigate. You’d sound out Congress. In short: you’d remain "relatively quiet" about the issue. Which is exactly Hirsch’s point.

My Kingdom for a Plan

The lack of a plan is a more serious obstacle to peak oil awareness than most people realize. Look at the community of peak oil activists, what have they come up with so far? The brightest star so far is the "Transition Town" movement. However, "Transition Town" hardly claims to have a carefully detailed plan which it is even now vigorously pressing in the halls of Congress. To the contrary, they have invited us to consider the questions — "how do we increase resilience of our communities? How do we drastically reduce carbon emissions?" "Transition towns" are not about detailed blueprints, it is about exploring questions.

And what are some of the solutions they’re talking about? Permaculture. Growing your own food. Car sharing. Neighborhoods. Riding your bicycle. These are certainly elements of a plan, but they do not constitute a plan. I know, and you know, that all of these things are important, but they aren’t the whole approach, and you aren’t going to be able to sell such things to the country on the skimpy premise as that this will "solve the problem." The results, politically speaking, would be almost certainly bad in a chaotic way. 

But in the midst of chaos, politics becomes unpredictable.  The chaos of the Weimar Republic in Germany was what made Hitler at first possible, then plausible, and finally necessary for Germany’s survival.

Why No Plan?

There are various reasons for this lack of a plan, all of them good.

For one thing, this "problem" does not really have a "solution": we are not, in fact, going to restore the good old days, whatever you imagine those days to be. (Unless, perhaps, you think of the eighteenth century as the "good old days.")  We need to talk in terms of an "approach" to oil depletion, not a "solution."  

For another thing, this is a vast and complex topic. There is a whole realm of questions over which we do not even have controversy within the peak oil community. For example, how will we raise money to finance the conversion of our infrastructure to a renewable-energy basis, however we conceive it? People can pay to insulate their own houses, I suppose, assuming that they still have houses and they still have jobs or some sort of income.  We could tax the rich, but the way things are going there aren’t going to be very many rich people left pretty soon — even sooner if Obama goes on TV and tells everyone that the economy is toast.  

If we want lots of wind power and electrified rail, who’s going to build this and how are you going to pay for it? There isn’t any particular controversy over this question, because no one’s really put forward a suggestion. My suggestion, mentioned above: a national service draft to get the job done. This, of course, is not what the "Transition Town" movement is talking about; they are focusing on local solutions. But do we not need to raise money somehow? How are we going to pay to build bicycles or insulate homes?  And does anyone have a better idea?

Third, the country really hasn’t come to grips with the idea of a permanent decline in material standard of living. Even "Transition Towns" does not baldly state what I feel we must confront: we have encountered the limits to growth, and our material standard of living will in fact decline. This isn’t the end of the world, or the end of civilization; and in fact the world we’re going to build will be significantly better than the one we’re in now. But that involves a complete shift of vision, one which the public (and even many environmentalists) just aren’t ready to face.

Fourth, there is great diversity within the peak oil community. A thousand flowers are blooming, as they should, but the peak oil community itself is not agreed on many of the particulars of an approach. There are some "touchy" issues, such as immigration and nuclear power, which we need to straightforwardly address. And there are other issues which just haven’t been addressed at all.

Fifth, we have not seen a clear bottom to this crisis yet. No one — not Obama, not Transition Towns, not James Kunstler — knows where the immediate future (the next year) is headed. The stock market keeps falling, the auto industry is about to fail. I’m not the economic expert here, but I don’t see a clear bottom. The country, which has just bankrupted itself on a foolish imperialistic war, has just taken on a huge additional $700 billion debt to bail out its equally foolish banks.

This could all be a false alarm. We may have already hit bottom. It could have been last week, or next week.  But who can say with confidence that it is otherwise? Suppose that this winter and spring, the Chinese economy at first falters and then sputters to a halt? Suppose the Chinese decide that, in fact, the U. S. really isn’t such a good risk right now, and decide not to finance our debt? Suppose that by the summer of 2009, the banks, the auto companies, and the economy have just fallen apart? Or alternatively, that the government starts printing money to pay itself back and inflation goes to 10%, 20%, or 30% per year? Or more? Remember that just a year before the collapse of the Soviet Union, no one saw it coming.

So What Should We Do?

First of all, if you’re not Matt Simmons or somebody like that, I don’t think Hirsch’s advice to "keep relatively quiet" really affects us. My influence is sufficiently limited that no matter what I say and how loudly I say it, it’s still "relatively quiet." It doesn’t even apply to most (or even all) of the Transition movement, which is operating at a pretty low profile and at a local level to begin with.

In fact, the reason that these scenarios inflict so much "trauma" is that the nation is not ready to hear about "limits."  So how do we get the nation ready?  One practical thing we can do, which is basically most of what the Transition movement and ASPO-USA and others are doing, is to prepare people for exactly this reality.  It needs to reach spiritual communities, political discussions at the grass-roots level, and other community groups.

If Dr. Hirsch is guilty of something, it’s for taking the influence of the peak oil community too seriously. He evidently thinks there is a danger of throwing our weight around at some level and it causing some damage to the national psyche. Does he know something we don’t? Does the influence of "peak oil" ideas extend further than it appears? I can’t say. But it’s time that we take seriously the possibility that those in positions of responsibility will start taking us seriously. What do we say if they ask us, "well, what are we supposed to do?"

If we want to be taken seriously, we need to have answers that command respect within the peak oil community and the transition community, and that address questions national leaders are likely to have. It is not just a practical question of getting anyone to pay attention to your whining complaints about peak oil in the middle of such financial chaos. If we don't have some sort of answers to the questions we're raising about peak oil, when we finally are taken seriously, there's a chance that we will simply make a bad situation even worse.

Keith Akers
November 20, 2008