Return from Ohio Part II - Famous Folk

Sharon September 25th, 2006

My favorite moment at the whole conference was after I spoke, a woman I’d met earlier at the conference came up to me and said, “I had no idea you were *someone.*” I think that describes a lot of the experience for me - until sometime Sunday mid-morning, I was essentially travelling incognito among the famous (not Oprah famous, but definitely peak oil famous). Quite reasonably, no one but Pat had any idea who I was (and realistically, if you had any idea who I was that still wouldn’t tell you anything important). I have no book. I have a teeny website that went up last week and remains partly unreadable because of technical difficulties. I was there because Pat liked my writing style and took a chance on the possibility that I could speak too. And I’m tremendously grateful that he did. But I’m still not “someone” in the sense that the kind lady meant it. (BTW, if the people I’m writing about aren’t famous to you, here’s their info, so you can follow along)

But the serious someones were out in force. Let me start with the person who was the absolute highlight of the conference for me - Peter Bane. I think we were 20 minutes into the speakers dinner when it became clear to me that I had fallen deeply, passionately in love with Peter. Fortunately for Eric, Peter’s partner Keith (who is just as wonderful) and probably the gentleman himself, this was the kind of love that makes you want to get down and worship someone as a god, rather than anything more earthy. When Peter Bane speaks, you get TRUTH - capital letters truth. And unlike every single other person at the conference who, no matter how deeply committed they were to telling everyone about peak oil (and they were), was selling something - a worldview, books, a website, etc… (I do not exclude myself - I was selling a perspective). Peter wasn’t. He has things to sell - he and Keith do courses, which I can only imagine are amazing, and of course, he’s the editor of Permaculture Activist Magazine. But while he answered questions about his magazine and other enterprises readily enough, but there was no agenda, just wisdom that he was passing along as fast as it could flow out of him. I don’t really know how to describe what was different about Peter than everyone else there - and anyone who can put their finger on it better than I should definitely try - but it was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen. If you ever have a chance to hear him speak or take one of his classes, do.

Probably the biggest star of the event was Vicki Robin. Now I have to confess something. I went into this assuming that she would be a lightweight - I’ve read The Book, as it is called, and I thought it was very wise. But most of the representatives of the voluntary simplicity movement that I had met have been in it for purely personal reasons, and never really connected fully to the culture at large, and as far as I could tell, the impact of the movement on our culture of consumption didn’t seem perceptible. While I could understand why Pat might invite someone from a related movement who had millions of followers, while I liked *her* personally on sight, I wasn’t expecting all that much other than some good advice on frugality.

Boy, oh boy was I wrong. Vicki Robin is a smarter person’s Oprah, with a much better sense of humor (and I don’t think Oprah is either dumb or humorless, so that’s saying something). She was a terrific showwoman, but never anything but sincere. And she looked at us in the audience, read the audience, and gave it what it needed - not only a way to get out of an overpowering inertia, but also a good talking to about self-righteousness. Afterwards, she joked that I should kiss her feet - and I’d have been glad to. Because I’ve never seen 250ish people lose 10,000lbs off their shoulders in an hour before. After Vicki spoke, everyone straightened up, shook their heads and was ready to *go forward* - that sense that they could go on from where they were was of inestimable value, and she deserved all the foot kissing she wanted.

Now of course, like any peaker, the three people I was most excited to meet were Richard Heinberg, Julian Darley and especially David Orr. In a purely technical sense I met David Orr - I was introduced to him. But at the speakers dinner he was at the other table, and after that I never quite worked up the nerve to go chat him up. Which is really too bad because David Orr is one of the most wonderful and brilliant of all agrarian writers, really just a shadow below Wendell Berry.

That said, I really didn’t like his speech much. Despite its attempts to talk about the root of the problems we’re facing, I think it got bogged down in partisanisms and laying blame. Nothing he said was untrue, but it didn’t take me anywhere I needed to go, personally. But I was thrilled I got to hear him.

Richard Heinberg is a very, very polite man. We stayed across the hall from one another, and he managed very quickly when Pat Murphy introduced me to him, to lie and say he’d heard of me (Suuuuuurrre.) Later on, when I think he might actually have placed the face to the fact that I was on the stage too, he was kind enough to praise my talk and not run screaming away when I first lobbied him about putting education and agitprop more seriously on the agenda for peak oil (more about that later), and then asked him to consider taking off his shirt for a camera for my randomly generated idea of “The Men of Peak Oil Calendar” (which I still think is a good idea - more on that later too!) He is also a terrific violinist. Those are the only things I can say about him personally, since neither conversation lasted more than 3 minutes. As a speaker he was very good, very graceful, even unveiling something that was both very important and a little boring on some level (oil depletion protocols - we need to know this stuff, it is very important, he’s written a book about it and we should all read it, but 40 minutes of powerpoint, after 40 prior minutes of power point, all first thing in the morning was a bit long). This was not Heinberg’s fault so much as the structure of the conference’s. And it wasn’t the conference’s fault either, because we need this information - I think we just needed a step aerobics class in the middle or something to get everyone moving (yeah, right, like I would ever do that).

Julian Darley preceded Richard Heinberg. In a personal sense, I would say that Julian Darley seems like one of the most over-extended people in human history. Despite that, he’s very nice. Much, much, much nicer than I could be if I had as many balls in the air as he did, and as many people who want to add more balls. And he handled his over-extension astonishingly well - not only are all these balls in the air, but he’s juggling with both hands and feet.

I managed to irritate him during the first 2 minutes of our acquaintance during the speaker’s dinner (he was late after a bad day, trying desperately to stuff down his first meal of the day before the keynote address, and I was caught up in a prior discussion, and accidentally
baited him a little at a bad moment - my fault, not his). The very first thing he said to me, having caught my statement that I have four kids was “Have you Read a Book Called _Maybe One_?” (Yes, I’d read it - for those not in the know it is Bill McKibben’s account of why he and others should only have one child, and it is quite good. As you know if you read the blog, I’m not trying to pretend the population issue doesn’t exist or that I’m not culpable - much more on that later, too). I think this may be a new personal record - I’ve never before ticked off a famous person enough to have them be rude to me in under 2 minutes (please note the modifier “famous” here - I’ve ticked off regular folk in under 2 *seconds* ;-). His was definitely the most obvious “And who are you and why should I be polite to you” moment. I’m actually kind of glad it worked out that way, because it is a much funnier story this way.

But I did have a chance to both watch Julian Darley speak and to talk to him several other times, and I was impressed by his genuine commitment to live as sustainably as possible given his job(s), by his really astonishing range of knowledge about nearly everything, and about the fact that he may be the only person that I’ve seen in the peak oil movement who fully gets how mainstream this is about to be, and how many ways this is going to have to play out. He’s quite astonishing, and he handles 50 new proposals every 20 minutes with grace and style. The talk was again, a bit too much crammed into a little. I think the problem is that it is a fairly new thing for peak oil speakers not to have to explain the problem to their audience - for so long Heinberg and Darley have been speaking to people who are only just getting it, and all of a sudden, there’s a critical mass of people who understand and are ready for the next move. And to both Heinberg and Darley’s credit, they are ready with next moves - the Oil Depletion protocol Heinberg has worked out with Colin Campbell, the smart jitney program he and Pat Murphy put together, and all the thousands of projects Julian Darley is juggling between Global Public Media, Post-Carbon Institute and the relocalization project are exactly what is needed, on both grassroots and policy levels. They are keeping ahead of the curve on what they have to offer (think about how rare that is - if they were rock and roll musicians, they’d be Paul Simon and Madonna, not the Beach Boys, playing the same stuff at the state fair). But I think they are still trying to explain peak oil a bit too much. On another note, I regret, since I didn’t get to talk to Darley again after my talk, I have nothing to report on his willingness or unwillingness to strip at least partially naked for the cause ;-).

I admired Richard Olson from afar, which was a great pity, because he was a terrific speaker and the things he is doing at Berea College are astounding - and like Jeff Christian, they aren’t building houses for the priveleged, but bringing sustainability to the poor. I think that big old economic issue - how do we get down away from the relatively educated and priveleged - is going to be a huge deal, and Richard Olson is doing it right now (along with his wife who I did chat with briefly). I never even shook hands with Jeff Christian - he was there and he wasn’t, and we passed in the night. Pity that.

Bob Brecha was my fellow non-celebrity, and I’m so grateful he was there. He’s local, and we got to see the strawbale house he built, which was amazing. He’s a good guy, fun to argue with, and he gave a really nice, solid presentation - at least the 1/2 of it I saw. I ducked out to drink tea with my old grad school friends who were in town, and missed some of it. I got the sense at the end, as I came back, that 3 engineer/scientist types talking about building in a row may have been a mistake in terms of excitement levels, but that’s hardly his fault. He should be more famous in the peak oil movement than he is - a lot more. I think after his talk, he was.

As for me, I think it went fairly well. It was clear early on that Peter Bane and I were going to be saying some of the same things. As Peter spoke, it became clear that my talk was essentially a faint subset of his, and had to go in the trash. So while he talked I scribbled this sad little outline, and got up and ranted for a while. And people clapped, and said it was good. So I guess I got my five minutes of being somebody. Fortunately, my ego did not overflow, because when I came home, Simon told me, “Your job is to take care of *me*” - ie, I’m somebody already, and let’s not forget precisely who - the one who cooks lunch.

Next post - Pat, Megan, Faith and why you should go next year.


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