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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
November 20, 2008