Sleeping Beauty and Why You Should Think About Peak Oil (Even If It Seems Much Nicer Not To)

Sharon July 16th, 2008

Crunchy Chicken is talking about peak oil.  I can’t wait to see what she has to say – the truth is that we need more voices, particularly smart, funny, honest ones.   And she was kind enough to send some of her enormous readership over here – that was nice.  Now many of the people who read Crunchy may already read me.  But some don’t – and quite a few of the people who took her poll are pretty nervous about what they are going to learn if they do figure out what peak oil is.

So I thought it might be good to do a post not so much on what peak oil is (if you scroll down there’s some resources in the sidebar that can help there) but on why it is better to know what’s going on than it is to not, even when it is scary and overwhelming.  And it can be.  But there are a lot of resources out there to help you.  And the truth is that we need people to screw up their courage and look hard at difficult stuff – because the problems caused by Peak oil, and the related crises (yup, they all go together) of climate change and the financial collapse are not something any of us can afford to ignore.

My guess is that most people reading this have some investment in the future – maybe in their own personal future, maybe in the future of their children or grandchildren, or the children of someone they know and care about, maybe in their dedication to the good of humanity.  The truth is that you are needed, right now, to safeguard your own future, and the future of our posterity – that’s not campaign rhetoric, or storytelling – that’s simple truth.  If you don’t participate in creating a decent future, we won’t have one.  We need you, and you need you to take as hard edged a look as you can.

A lot of what you read about Climate Change, Peak Oil or economic crisis focuses on the future. Their goal is to motivate you to action by describing what may happen. I do some of that, but over the last year or so, more and more I’ve found myself replacing the future tense with the present, describing not what might happen, but what is. Unfortunately, the hard times I’m talking about do not lie in the conveniently distant future but have begun already. The only question is whether you or I have felt them yet. 

By this I mean to say that though we do not know the exact shape of the long-term crisis we face from energy depletion or environmental degradation, we miss the point if we focus only on models and hypotheses. Right now we are in the midst of an environmental disaster, at present experiencing the high personal costs of energy depletion, at present losing economic ground to policies designed to increase inequity. I know that many of the people who read this blog won’t necessarily see the makings of a crisis — yet. Others will already be caught up in the early stages of the problem, experiencing job losses, foreclosures or the struggle to keep afloat economically as prices rise. So while we  speak of the future, my case that the world is about to change, irrevocably and deeply, rests primarily on the painful fact that it already has begun to do so.

And is there really any doubt that this is true? Is it possible to imagine any other time in American history when we would have consented to see an entire major city laid waste, without ever rebuilding even its most basic infrastructure? Is it possible to imagine another time when we would have shrugged and accepted the knowledge that our basic infrastructure, things like highways, sewers and subways, are simply falling apart and that we have no intention of fixing them? Is it possible to imagine another time when we knew we were in danger of handing our children a future of hunger, poverty and drought, and sat around debating whether congress might want to consider raising fuel efficiency standards? Has there ever been a time in history when citizens felt so powerless to stop the forces that were driving them to disaster?
If, in the face of all the evidence, we find we doubt that things really are falling apart, we might listen to the respected voices issuing the same opinions. There are some out there — despite the overwhelming lack of responsiveness of our government. For example, in the summer of 2007, David Walker, comptroller general of the US General Accounting Office said,

The US government is on a “burning platform” of unsustainable [ad1] policies and practices with fiscal deficits, chronic healthcare underfunding, immigration and overseas military commitments threatening a crisis if action is not taken soon, the country’s top government inspector has warned … there were “striking similarities” between America’s current situation and the factors that brought down Rome, including “declining moral values and political civility at home, an over-confident and over-extended military in foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government.” (http://www.newstarget.com/020930.html)[ad2] 

Few of us have put all the pieces together, but when we failed to rebuild New Orleans, when we accepted that we can’t afford the tax base to keep bridges from falling on motorists and sewers from backing up, when we accepted that electric grid failure will kill people in the inevitable heat waves, we implicitly acknowledged what we have not yet faced up to consciously — that things have changed, and many of our problems are going to continue getting worse because we either lack the will or the money or the energy or the time to fix them

When I realized that everything was going to change, I was at first afraid. Because, I thought, if my government or public policy or other choices weren’t going to fix everything, what could I possibly do? What hope was there, if I had to take care of myself, if my community had to take care of itself?

But when I began looking for solutions that could be applied on the level of ordinary human lives, that involved changes in perspectives and pulling together, the reclamation of abandoned ideas and the restoration of strong communities, I began to feel hopeful, even excited. Because I realized that when large institutions cease to be powerful, sometimes that means that people start being powerful again.

And that’s the other reason you should look, even when your instinct is to look away, why you should learn even when it is hard, and frightening to learn these things – because simply learning that we’re in the midst of something very difficult is not the end point.  Learning about peak oil doesn’t stop with “we’re doomed.”  We’re not doomed – we’re facing very difficult times, and the way we face them will determine whether they are just hard, or disastrous for us.  There is an enormous amount of mitigation we can do – personally, on the community level and at the political level.  It probably won’t be enough for your life to stay the way you want it to be – I feel like I have to say this upfront.  We’ve been told enough lies – we need to know the truth, and the truth is that we waited far too long to fix the energy crisis.

But this is when I remind people of the story of Sleeping Beauty.  You see, a King and Queen wanted something desperately.  And finally, bounty was showered down upon them, gifts beyond their wildest dreams - a wonderful daughter, one they named Beauty.  And in their delight and joy, the forgot something important.  They forgot that with gifts come responsibilities – and when they were planning a vast celebration of their good fortune, they forgot to do the unpleasant responsibility of inviting the fairy no one liked very much to the Christening.

Well, the fairy, the embodiment of what we have left undone, what we neglected, she noticed that we’d left it undone.  And she came to the Christening, after almost all the fairies invited had given wonderful gifts,  and took from the King and Queen what mattered most to them – their posterity.  At just the moment that Beauty was coming into her full potential, at just the moment her parents were most proud, she would prick her finger on a spinning wheel, and die.

Well her parents began to keen their grief, and all the guests did too – it was so terribly unfair, they had never intended this consequence, it was all just a mistake.  The King, in denial, began to order all the spinning wheels in the kingdom burned, believing that he could control the situation – even one so obviously out of his control.

But over the cries of grief, up spoke one voice.  It was the very last fairy godmother, the one who had not yet given her gift.  She said, “I cannot break the curse, but I can soften it a little.  I can make it so that you don’t lose everything.  Instead of dying, Beauty will fall asleep for a 100 years.”

I think this story is remarkably analagous – we received this enormous bounty of fossil fuels, and while we did not mean or intend it, while we did not know what the consequences were, we face consequences for what we have left undone.  We can’t make the curse go away.

But each of us a little like that last Fairy Godmother – we can soften the curse a little, we can make it possible, if we have strength and courage, that we in this generation, we who are now adults, can take on the burden of changing our society and our lives, and give our children and grandchildren, if not a perfect happy ending, a great deal more hope.

How often do you get to be the Fairy Godmother?  How often do you get to do so much, for something most of us value so deeply?

That’s why you need to know.

31 Responses to “Sleeping Beauty and Why You Should Think About Peak Oil (Even If It Seems Much Nicer Not To)”

  1. Shane says:

    Beautiful analogy!

  2. Oh Sharon, that was a beautiful read and thought.

  3. karen says:

    You are so right. I am so grateful I have you to read.
    I was able to process my fear of the future I think partly because I had cancer and that short circuited my fear of dying. But I find myself getting so angry at other people who don’t want to hear bad stuff or look away, consciously, from the problems.
    It makes me so frustrated at humans because they can be so incredible… have such moments of beauty and insight and then be so stupid… disappointing…small. If we would only have the courage to look… Intelligent people that have such gifts can miss so much of the big picture.
    Well, I am doing my bit to soften the curse.

    I have not yet come to any conclusions about the human race. I do not like the idea that all we deserve is what we will get. I would like to think, even if we don’t end up with much, we deserved more.
    Karen

  4. Monica says:

    I truly appreciate this post. I’ve been lurking for the last few weeks, reading different posts here and there, a little at a time. There is so much information that I didn’t want to get overwhelmed. I’m trying to absorb all of it. I mentioned the words peak oil to my husband recently and he looked at me like I had grown another head. My friends and family already think I’m a bit different. I look forward to reading more in the future and making changes as I can.

  5. Meadowlark says:

    Monica, I mentioned the words “peak oil” to my city council and they had the same reaction. I even sent them links to the Transition Cities website. Lot of good that did.

    Thank you Sharon. This is the kind of post I can send on to those I care about since I never seem to have the right words.

  6. olympia says:

    Good post, Sharon.
    Monica- when I first brought up PO with my SO he thought I was deranged, too. The truth of it can take a while to sink in- but sink in it does, particularly when world events are confirming that truth. My SO, who first ridiculed my food stocking habits, is now suggesting ways we can stock more.
    For me, a click moment occurred recently when my 7-year-old niece, whom I’m close to, said, all nonchalant-like, “When I’m 20, there will be no oil and no food.” (Not sure where she got her timeline, but I fear she’s got it more right than I’d like.) Hearing her speak, I thought I’d do ANYTHING to protect this wonderful girl, her brothers, and all the other wonderful people out there from the ravages of Peak Oil.

  7. Jill says:

    I’m always so glad to read your blog! Informative, witty, honest, and encouraging. I love it!! I stumbled across your blog months ago after hearing whispers of ‘peak oil’ on other websites. When I started discussing it with my husband, he caught on right away. (smart man that he is…) Then we began to ask some friends and family if they ever heard the term and most of them think we’re nuts! They think we’re odd and pessimistic – but if that were true, we wouldn’t be trying to prepare and soften the blow of things to come for our children and families.

  8. David says:

    What an amazing post! Thanks, Sharon. I admire your ability to talk about the hard things and the easy things together. And I like the way you connect the dots that our minds often don’t like to see connected.

  9. Robyn M. says:

    Really great post, Sharon–thank you.

    On a good note (I suppose), I’ve been having the bizarre experience that when I bring up peak oil around new folks, they do *not* look at me like I’ve grown another head. Instead they nod, look concerned, and then ask me probing questions about what I’m doing to adjust my lifestyle now. I find myself often referring people to this website, and I hope they come! But especially in my neck of the woods, the winds do seem to be changing….

  10. Nice post – thanks for the info!

  11. al_bedo says:

    that was one of the most powerful & poignant essays i have read in a very long time – i am new to this so yes, i am a bit dismayed (afraid)…and yet after reading/feeling your thoughts i am more determined than ever to find a way through the coming storm for myself & the ones i love! brava, sharon!

  12. Ani says:

    I do think it is important for people to understand what is happening and why. I just know that many have preferred to bury their heads in the sand thus far. I remember trying to get some of my neighbors interested in PO a number of years ago- showed them “The End of Suburbia”, etc but most just didn’t want to hear it. I think that the combo of being immersed in their own lives with jobs, and kids and all the conflicting demands on our time that most people have surrounded themselves with, as well as the total lack of any media attention to this issue allowed them to write it off as a non-concern.

    I remember one friend/neighbor in particular who said to me that most people just weren’t as concerned with this stuff as I was- she basically dismissed it and my concerns. Now she is worrying about heating the house and the $$ to do so- when I reminded her of this conversation she just said well it wasn’t a big issue then- it is now. So I think that most people just won’t look at something until it is right in their face.

    I know that for my students the notion of PO means that they may face a different future than what they had imagined and feel was promised to them-this raises feelings of fear and anger over the situation which they don’t want to deal with.

    I do hope that more people become educated on what PO is and how it is playing a role in our economic situation- the alternative, that of an uneducated population, will be prone to scapegoating through their ignorance and placing the blame on others who are not responsible for this mess. It is also critical as a true understanding of our energy future would disuade people from believing the platitudes that all will recover in a few years- home prices, jobs, etc and gas prices will drop sharply etc. Understanding why this is happening will allow people to make better choices recognizing that energy constraints are permanent.

  13. My friend LaVonne has been keeping me updated on your work with regular forwards. However, this particular sentence: “…when large institutions cease to be powerful, sometimes that means that people start being powerful again.”, brought me running here in admiration of that brilliant summary of the real challenge. Industry has forced us into being passive abusers of energy in addition to revamping how we choose to be active users. The fact that we waste untold amounts of fossil fuels making petro-chem filled carpets, cosmetics, pesticides, mattresses, clothing etc., has also created an artificially induced health care crisis. Now, ill people compete to pay a core of medical providers for ongoing and ignorant attempts to undo the damage from absorbing these materials so incompatible with human biochemistry.

    The result is increased passivity of people too sick and tired to relinquish the new conveniences which, in turn, increases just from breathing that office air as they toil to earn their ‘bread’ (now largely indigestible from petrochemically induced depletion of biological resources fueling digestive health). We have relinquished our power without even noticing that we no longer have the option of refusing – our neighbors accept delivery on our behalf when they turn on the washing machine in communal laundry rooms (breath deeply of that fabric softener) and when they call in an exterminator whose localized treatment enters every other space in that dwelling as if it were invisible smoke from a forest blaze.

    We’ve set the world on fire even while we each hold our own fire extinguisher. All we have to do is say ‘no’, at once the easiest and hardest thing to do. Aristotle may have proven that contradictions don’t exist but human nature found a way to make even the principle of ‘A=A’ a nebulous part of reality. You see, humans have found a way to make money off of the human capacity to deny reality and make it socially necessary/desirable to do so through cultural standards.

    Guess the only new standard we need is how to recognize reality when we see it. Maybe we can start with actually exhibiting it, say on product labels specifying the forms in which all these petrochemical derivatives appear in our purchases?

    Thank you for your clear reminders written in a ‘reality-friendly’ manner.

    Barbara

    http://armchairactivist.us/2008/07/06/fragranced-products-truly-a-surprise-package/

  14. Lisa Z says:

    Ooh! I am happy to link this post on my own blog today. I hope you get lots more readers…http://zahnzone.blogspot.com/2008/07/must-read.html

    Lisa in MN

  15. Jane says:

    I’m fortunate enough to be part of a community of people here in central Ohio who do understand peak oil and are talking about it (at least among ourselves) and doing what we can to get our minds around a future that’s very different from the life we know now. Many of the people I know are taking steps to reduce our consumption, grow and preserve our own food, support our Ohio farmers through CSAs and farmer’s markets, and reduce our energy use and reliance on cars. Still there’s a sense that talking among ourselves is just “preaching to the choir” and that the people in the sprawling exurbs around us just aren’t interested in hearing about anything that might threaten their status quo.
    And so, as I read the dire economic news and see the inaction of our supposed leaders, I feel pretty depressed and discouraged about our future. So thank you, Sharon, for giving us the bad news, and then showing us that there is hope and reason for optimism, and that we can, by working together, make a real difference.

  16. [...] Sharon Astyk tells us why we should be paying attention, and thinking about peak oil and climate change in the present tense. So I thought it might be good to do a post not so much on what peak oil is (if you scroll down there’s some resources in the sidebar that can help there) but on why it is better to know what’s going on than it is to not, even when it is scary and overwhelming. And it can be. But there are a lot of resources out there to help you. And the truth is that we need people to screw up their courage and look hard at difficult stuff – because the problems caused by Peak oil, and the related crises (yup, they all go together) of climate change and the financial collapse are not something any of us can afford to ignore. [...]

  17. Hummingbird says:

    Wonderful post. I can’t believe there are still people afraid to look at what is happening, but a visit to CC’s blog shows me this is so. (By the way, I’m suffering from technology overload today, CC’s site crashes my dial-up system and now the Oil Drum is totally weird–some upgrade my computer can’r handle, I guess. I hope they are not going to make themselves unusable to low-tech folks like me.)

    Anyway, Sharon you can reach such people who need to think the unthinkable without scaring them to death.

  18. Hummingbird says:

    Oil Drum is back, should any of you want to go there. It has very good information for the hard-science minded.

  19. [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » Sleeping Beauty and Why You Should Think About Peak Oil (Even I… So I thought it might be good to do a post not so much on what peak oil is (if you scroll down there’s some resources in the sidebar that can help there) but on why it is better to know what’s going on than it is to not, even when it is scary and overwhelming. And it can be. But there are a lot of resources out there to help you. And the truth is that we need people to screw up their courage and look hard at difficult stuff – because the problems caused by Peak oil, and the related crises (yup, they all go together) of climate change and the financial collapse are not something any of us can afford to ignore. [...]

  20. Hausfrau says:

    Thank You, Sharon. A post to bring tears to our eyes and steel to our resolve.

    I think your point is the essence of the work that we are trying to do right now – softening the curse. Maybe in my first 25 years I used up oil just like everybody else – but now that I’ve woken up (in part thanks to you) – I’m trying to soften the blow of the curse that will be falling on my son.

    It’s posts like this that can keep us going when we are tired of wearing hats indoors in the winter, line-drying clothes, or cooking with the Sun Oven (well actually I never get tired of that) – when it just seems easier not to, to just go with the flow of what “everyone else” is doing.

  21. Susan in NJ says:

    Great analogy Sharon, and nice work on writing an important post that conveys the peril without being scary in a paralyzing way.

  22. Susan Albert says:

    Sharon, I’ve just borrowed several sentences from this splendid post to post on my blog, with a link back. Very fine work. I read you every day, and my admiration just keeps growing. We need voices like yours, encouraging even as they are truthful and realistic. So looking forward to your book!

  23. Denise in TN says:

    Thank you Sharon for this.. I really needed it today

  24. Verde says:

    My small voice to say thank you. I felt as if I’v just been told a comforting story in a scary place. Fairy tales are, after all more about teaching and guiding (warning) and offering solutions than they are about magic wands and fairies.

  25. Theresa says:

    Thank you Sharon. That post gave me goosebumps and made me cry at the same time. The people are becoming powerful again – thanks for that reminder! Now I’m off to link to this on my own blog…

  26. Sharon, thanks for another wonderful post. You write very clearly and bring in rich metaphors for us to consider in this rag-tag farflung tribe of people wanting to focus on what is right in front of us. I apologize in advance for the length of this post which I’m sure most people will ignore.

    Reading “Sleeping Beauty”, I was reminded of an interesting encounter I had yesterday. I was on the street heading to my hair stylist’s for my subseasonal (in this case Lughnaghsadh) haircut, when I was waylaid by 3 Christian college students hawking, of all things, Christian cookbooks. They had other obviously right-wing apocalyptical crap as well, and wanted me to take their screedy pamphlet with the authoritarian Jeebus on the cover, but they were kind and the info in one book about healing foods was pretty decent. They were asking for $40-50 donations for the cookbooks, which is exorbitant for me right now. They were doing this for some strange scholarship thing that I didn’t understand, but I didn’t want to spend lots of time with these kids so I listened respectfully but I shared a little of my own story about having lost 100 pounds and having learned that my body is always telling me things like “Turnips. Eat turnips in your next meal” or “salmon yum–go someplace where needed.” (And yes, my body/fetch does communicate like Bam-Bam Rubble.)

    Well, they were most impressed and asked how I had come to accomplish this amazing feat, and I told them about Compulsive Eaters Anonymous HOW, and that it was about a personal relationship with powers (e.g., Hekate, Shango, Kali) greater than myself that could restore me to sanity and proceeded with a couple of other 12-step spiritual elements that would at least help them to understand that where addiction is concerned, while I might not necessarily come from the exact same place as them in terms of spirituality–and I did say I was pagan–that it was a miraculous occurrence that was unfolding in my life to this very day.

    Well, they asked me if I helped anyone along this path, and I said I sponsor people, but that this is something you can’t push on people till they’re ready. And the way I got ready was that I got the gift of desperation. I see that in relation to these affairs of crisis unfolding, I’m opening my eyes, and I’m making lots of mistakes and yes, continuing with some of the same dysfunctional behaviors because in some fashion, I myself am only “willing to be willing.” Yesterday, I had to unfortunately put my groceries on a credit card. I just got a raise, and I still have to do this, because I made a mistake around my Saturn return of getting student loans to go to grad school in playwriting, thinking “Sure, I’ll make lots of money and pay these back, no sweat.” $45,000 later, I’m still paying to Moloch, Citigroup Subsidiary, and prices are going up, and I am now taking a mood-altering drug to “cope.”

    Reading your post, and being in this spiritual process, I realize I’m becoming willing to have the Gods & Goddesses transform these character complexes that keep me stuck. And then to humbly turn my will over to co-creating powers to manifest some new and fragile and hopefully eventually resilient arrangement with other like-minded shamans-in-training (thank you Paul Levy) that will in turn inspire others?

    I don’t know. In watching and listening to different people spouting off their faith in the myths of science and technology, I smile and nod, and don’t say anything because I know they’re not ready. Ever since I was little I was skeptical of the nationalist-drunks that I grew up around in Colorado, just like I’m aloof around all sorts of people with belief-toxins skittering through their grey matter. They haven’t hit that wall, they haven’t hit their first bottom with all this mishagoss like I did. I’ve had several–trying to fix my family, then booze, then food, now debt and scarcity-consciousness. And they’re already berating themselves much more harshly than I ever could. I know–when the finger points at me, the 3 fingers hidden in that pose point back to them. Childish, I know, but children have lots o’ wisdom, at least according to Steiner, Montessori and the folks at the Sudbury School.

    I recently read Charles Eisenstein’s “Ascent of Humanity” (which can be downloaded from his website or purchased in paperback if you’d rather), and I like that he talked about not deriding the tech-science story/program or the revelation/God will get you for that program which is where we came from, but seeing the current paradigm as the womb at that stage in the pregnancy wherein the baby-to-be-born comes to feel it is becoming inhospitable to its needs and starts to want something different, just as the womb starts to prepare itself for birth. In 12-Step parlance we will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it, but reframe it as something we went through that has a treasure trove of information to relate to other sufferers.

    I guess, long-story-short (I hate it when people say that, but here’s the “money” paragraph), I see my current Work as embodying a spirit of play and curiosity to see the possibilities in the crises emerging all around us, and to widen some of the cracks where I can, where I see that a vital possibility of fertile abundance might be possible. We’re all going to need a sense of humor and an openness to grace to get through each day. “This too shall pass.”

  27. kestrel says:

    That was simply beautiful beyond words. And truer words were never spoken.

  28. [...] near and dear to her heart. In today’s blog post she mentioned another blog: Sharon Astyk, Casaubon’s Book. The subtitle: Sharon Astyk’s Ruminations on an Ambiguous Future. From Sharon’s site I [...]

  29. Sam says:

    Very nice weaving! Sleeping Beauties we all are – here’s to the coming awakening. The blog I very occasionally keep (http://www.coolenergyinc.com/wordpress) is a bit more acerbic and politico-science take on the climate and energy nexus. I appreciate your accessibility and your teaching. I will read more and forward on.

    Best, Sam

  30. P.Price says:

    This may be the best post EVER on peak oil–realistic and accessible. Wow.

  31. [...] and let people imagine what the first temblors of change would feel like. People played for the reasons that Sharon Astyk puts forth in her excellent blog, Casaubon’s Book, and emerged from the game better able to understand [...]

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