Hemenway Strikes (Out) Again!

Sharon December 9th, 2006

On Running on Empty 2 and 3, I have been a fairly harsh critic of Toby Hemenway’s writing on peak oil (some of my criticisms have also been reprinted elsewhere). While I do like his book _Gaia’s Garden_ very much, I have found his analyses of the peak oil movement to be less impressive and helpful than his work on permaculture. For example, in his essay, “Apocalypse Not,” Hemenway made several significant errors in analysis, among them implying that demand destruction was an inevitability (Matthew Simmons has documented that it is not, at least in terms of gasoline), claiming that China was cash poor (in fact, China has very, very deep pockets indeed) and thus would be unable to compete for oil with us, and also using erroneous figures to say that world oil demand has grown only 0.75 percent annually in the last 25 years. In fact, the average annual growth has been 1.4%, and over the last decade it has been rougly 2%. Since much of his analysis is predicated on this figure, it undermines his arugments significantly.

Hemenway also goes on to claim, “Humanity has reached the stage, finally, where basic survival is not in doubt for many people.” (Hemenway, “Apocalypse Not” http://www.energybulletin.net/14695.html” I personally find the above statement, along with his consistent errors, to be frustrating, because it is so patently false. Not only does Hemenway ignore the reality that the struggle for survival is both urgent and present for an enormous percentage of the world’s population, but, as I wrote in my critique of his paper, “yes, in wealthy nations, the struggle for survival is over. It should be replaced with the struggle not to kill, enslave, poison and impoverish, ideally, but hasn’t been. But the fact that we have passed the struggle to survive on to others is no accident - it is a conscious choice on our part, and one that doesn’t bode well for our ability to transform ourselves. (Astyk http://groups.yahoo.com/group/RunningOnEmpty3/message/17329)” Hemenway’s figures about reductions in US oil consumption ignore, for example, the fact that we have moved much of our production offshore, and so many other nations “consume” the oil used to raise our food or produce consumer goods that arrive in our home.” Were we to consider the “shadow” oil we use, our consumption figures would rise dramatically. He claims to be debunking “errors and half truths” of peak oil catastrophism, but his own writting is riddled with both. The reality is that our struggle to survive is over because millions of other people have taken over that struggle for us - and we are deeply dependent upon the labor and wealth that they create for us.

In another essay, Hemenway wrote an explanation of his move out of a rural area and back an urban one, an advocated that others do the same. He recounts his that he made his move because he was unable to develop relationships or community with any of his neighbors in his rural area, and talked about how he knew he was back with his own sort of people when he spotted a Mercedes Benz with a leftist bumper sticker (Hemenway, http://www.patternliteracy.com/urban.html). I think that single statement may be the best possible indictment of the consistent limitations of Hemenway’s thinking - he simply cannot conceive the “view from below,” a less priveleged perspective which might lead to a darker viewpoint than his own.

So I approached Hemenway’s current article on the origins of peak oil apocalypticism (http://www.energybulletin.net/23386.html with some skepticism, particularly since he’s writing about a topic near and dear to my heart - the subject of the apocalyptic impulse, which was the focus of my uncompleted doctoral dissertation in English literature. And Hemenway has justified my every doubt - he’s written an extended attack on those who dare to criticize him, couched in the form of an analysis of the history of apocalyptic thought. It really is quite a creative way to discredit your critics, and for that, I’ll give him credit. It would be more creative if it were not essentially a duplication of or rehash of the arguments made in the essay _Imagine There’s No Oil: Scenes from a Liberal Apocalypse_ which appeared in the August 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine. He covers pretty much precisely the same ground, and makes very similar arguments, without citing the article. I assume Hemenway hasn’t read it, but he ought to, since it renders his essay to a large degree redundant.

Hemenway begins speaking of peak oil “doomers,” a group of people he does not define, but implies, that it is anyone who doesn’t share the vision he laid out in the article “Apocalypse Not.” And much of the article represents a (carefully phrased in terms of an objective analysis of the issue of “doomerism,” of course) dismissal of his critics and anyone who believes that peak oil might result in a radical alteration in our society. He manages to mention many of the major public figures in the peak oil movement (Kenneth Deffeyes, Richard Heinberg, Thom Hartmann, among others) marking them all out as “doomers.” He is quick to claim that he is not arguing about whether or not peak oil doomers are right or wrong (sure, he’s not), saying, “Again, my point here is not that Peak Oil doomerism is wrong. The apocalypts may, for the first time in thousands of predictions, be right.”

So let us begin by considering that last statement. It is true that the ranks of American Mercedes-owning leftists have not been pruned in recent history, (although some might argue that a brisk culling is in order), so perhaps we can justify Hemenway’s assumption that all doomer predictions are wrong. But then again, perhaps not. For example, early Zionist Jews who spun out tales about the possible destruction of the Jewry by antisemites, were, if anything, unimaginative compared to the scale of the eventual apocalypse that befell European Jews under Hitler. Boccacio, who predicted that much Italy would see corpses choking their rivers unburied lived to see it during the Black Death. The Lakota religious leader, Wovoka was probably accused of doomerism in his claim that if the Lakota could not spiritually remove white folks, it would end in the death of the Lakota people, but Wounded Knee suggests that he may have been more on-target than not. Cassandras are not always wrong, and it is not always a bad idea for Noah to build an ark.

So it is perhaps not quite accurate to suggest that in thousands of predictions of human disaster, none of them have been right. In fact, quite a few have. Quite a number of peoples and populations have undergone dramatic, even apocalyptic changes, including the deaths of massive portions of their population, and in every case, some people who have used the available evidence to make predictions, even dark ones, have been right. So that contention doesn’t really hold up.

It might help to figure out what “doomerism” is. Is it the belief that the growth economy cannot and should not continue ? The belief that millions or even billions of people might die from hunger? The Olduvai Gorge hypothesis, in which we are reduced to a few primitives? Hemenway’s work offers very little suggestion for what he’s thinking as doomers, other than that doomers clearly disagree with him. Is doomsday a disaster only if it affects the whole planet equally, or could it fall unevenly on the shoulders of some? Because he offers no statistical grounds, I would only note doomers, who believe that millions or billions might starve have considerable evidence on their end. 24,000 people die each day worldwide, both from direct hunger and the illnesses related to the long term effects of starvation. That amounts to something less than 1 billion people per year. Die-off is not, in fact, (except in Hemenway’s upper middle class viewpoint) an imaginary thing that might happen someday, but a reality. The question is whether it will come to visit any individual community or nation. If, for example, one lived in South Africa and watched their families and communities decimated by AIDS and related illnesses, one might be forgiven for believing that in fact, the apocalypse has come calling.

The clearest guess at what Hemenway believes it is comes at the end of the article, where Hemenway refers to Richard Heinberg’s recent paper entitled _50 Million Farmers_, and says of Heinberg’s analysis, “He and others envision a future with far fewer people, many of them living rurally and raising most of their own food using permaculture and bio-intensive gardening. Some argue that post-peak, only those with primitive skills such as tanning and flint-knapping will survive. Suburban drones will die. So after the collapse, we follow the myth’s final trajectory into the survival of an elect, and a rebirth in the Garden and simpler times.” Hemenway is getting ahead of himself - Heinberg proposes a return to small scale agriculture as a means of staving off the danger of becoming far fewer people. Now to be fair to Hemenway, Heinberg is on record as believing that the sustainable population of the earth is only 1-2 billion, and that peak oil could potentially be disastrous, but the focus of this paper is the avoidance of hunger, famine and disaster. Heinberg is arguing that we might potentially avoid hunger and the death of billions by re-ruralization. This is not the pattern of apocalypse and happy ending that Hemenway documents over the course of his article, but a series of acts human beings can engage in to improve their society and reduce the danger of famine, for everyone, including the “suburban drones.” Hemenway seems unclear on the difference.

Now the question of the apocalyptic impulse is, indeed an interesting one, and I think a complicated one. We cannot simply say, as Hemenway does, “The path to “end of the world” thinking is well trod, most heavily so in times of oppression, uncertainty, and corruption. But perhaps some of us can recognize how familiar is this dark road, resist the natural urge to repeat the story once more, and remember that there are many routes into the future other than the one toward the lowest common denominator,” because Hemenway is retooling the question into a way of dismissing apocalypticism. But there is more to say about it than that we have a cultural predisposition to imagine a disaster and rebirth. Because, of course, we do, perhaps in part for the reasons Hemenway lists, but also because thus far in human history, when disaster has befallen us, we’ve eventually picked up the pieces and gone on to rebirth. That narrative is inscribed in human consciousness not just because of our religious leanings (as Hemenway suggests), but because that describes the collective historical experience of human beings throughout human history. Things fall apart, and we repair, and those who survived go on to experience joy and relief. Yes, that describes most stories of religious ending. It also describes the actual realities of most bad things that happen to people.

It might be more useful, I think, to ask why we approach the apocalypse with such a combination of fear and fascination. I think it may be because our fears and our fantasies are so tightly linked to one another that in one sense, our fantasies are our fears, and vice versa? Or perhaps because the root experience of counting is so central to the operation of our minds? We instinctively count other people, and calculated them in an immensely complex analysis that allows others to both be “too many” - that is a threat to our privacy, or our resources, or our sense of self; and “not enough;” that is, too few of our own group in the face of the impingement of another tribe, not enough of the right sex with the right availability, or enough to carry on the name. It is possible that we long for numerical reductions to approximately the same degree we are terrified of them. Or perhaps that we as a people associate smaller numbers with smaller and more manageable social systems (correctly, actually, as Heinberg’s paper documents). Or perhaps some combination of these reasons and others not yet proposed. But regardless, Hemenway’s analysis stops short of the useful.

Despite his contrary claims, there is little doubt that Hemenway oversimplifies to get in a few good digs. For example, he says, “Rather, it’s an exploration into why, given an impending crisis or major challenge, many people in our culture spiral so quickly and automatically toward an “end of the world” vision rather than imagining any of the countless other options” Instead of granting those who disagree with him good faith that they have been led by their data, and that they are actually invested in a vision that is far from a cultural norm, Hemenway’s opponents are now “automatically” drawn towards an uncritical majority viewpoint by an irresistable cultural psychology. Hemenway, however, is nobly and wisely able to resist, and, according to him, so should the rest of us fear a path so well trodden. Apparently the psychological path of the person who thinks that things simply won’t get that bad because they haven’t before is more independent in some way I can’t identify.

I don’t consider myself a peak oil “doomer” in the sense that I believe massive casualties are an inevitable outcome of peak oil - I believe strongly in the capacity of human beings to change and rework their world. I do, however, believe that the world is simply more nuanced and the dangers are more complex than Hemenway seems able to acknowledge. I would suggest to him that it is at least as dangerous to apply the oversimple pattern of thought that leads one to believe that one’s personal perspective represents the perspective and realities of the world at large, and that is often not such a bad thing to take your critics seriously. Yet again, I think Hemenway takes the easy intellectual road, while chastizing others for doing the same.



15 Responses to “Hemenway Strikes (Out) Again!”

  1. Grahamon 11 Dec 2022 at 6:19 pm

    Great response, Sharon, I was also dissatisfied with Hemenway’s analyses and you have given insights I hadnt considered.
    Another aspect which i think has relevance for the other side of the debate- ie why most peopl DENY the darker implications of Peak Oil- is the abstracted psychoanalyses- What I mean is, the super-high energy world we live in has removed us from the reality of our dependence on natural resources to such a degree that when we point to something as mundane and REAL as resource depletion, rather than going out and measuring the level of oil in the wells themselves, people tend to make quite abstract arguments about psychological tendencies. This is a function of the “post-modern cultural chaos” that fossil energy has brought us to.

  2. Tobyon 11 Dec 2022 at 9:48 pm


    I’m delighted to see you found so much to comment on in my articles That’s much of the point of writing-to develop ideas and see if they stimulate others. “Apocalypse, Not” was indeed flawed. I tried to cover too many topics (peak oil doomers, Hubbert’s curve, demand destruction, and more) in far too few words and gave short shrift to nearly all. There were a couple of factual errors in it, too, although I’d like to see your reference for the 1.4% growth in oil consumption. Mine came from EIA numbers and are repeated by Richard Duncan: “Then, from 1979 to 1999, it slowed yet further to a glacial 0.75 %/year” at http://dieoff.org/page224.htm But you are right that demand has picked up recently.

    I’m not sure what you mean about Simmons and demand destruction. He’s written plenty about demand destruction beginning to show up. But remember that that gasoline (not just oil) is no more expensive in the US than it was, in constant dollars, than 1959. So we’ve not begun to see an much price influence, although SUV sales are down 30%. Price influences demand. Also, nowhere have I stated that China is poor. I wrote that they are going to have a hard time completing their process of industrialization in an era of expensive energy. I’m disappointed to see you engage in cheap straw man tactic.

    The principal misinterpretation of both my articles is that am advocating a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude about Peak OIl, even though I repeatedly have stated that I think we’re in serious trouble. You’re also mistaken in saying that I advocate that people leave the country for the city. Not at all. I said: don’t flee the city for the country; but instead build community where you live.

    Speaking of which, you also take a nasty swipe at my social skills saying that I was “unable to develop relationships or community with any of his neighbors.” I stated I got along well with all my neighbors, but found little common ground with many of them. Again: criticize what I write, not the bogey-man in your mind. I had many rural friends, but between having to travel constantly to teach permaculture. and being surrounded by an anti-enviro, pro-war, religious right community (the county voted 87% Bush and 92% anti-gay marriage), as well as feeling after 10 years we’d not only given it our best effort but also accomplished what we’d set out to do (learn to homestead, create new careers), it was time to reach a larger audience in a city. I miss the land and our many friends tremendously.

    Another error I made was failing to understand that some would interpret the “biodiesel Mercedes” reference in the ugliest way, marking me as a rich yuppie. That old beater cost $800, was converted by a local biodiesel co-op, and was owned by a woman who cleans houses for a living. All of the people I know who own biodiesel Mercedes are similarly low-income, and I thought the shorthand was commonly understood. I don’t hang around with rich lefties. I’m disappointed that you take the worst possible misinterpretation of my words. But demonizing the “enemy” is an old tactic.

    Sorry you were confused by my use of “doomer.” I thought that my mention of “the death of billions” and global collapse would define who I meant. I do foresee “radical alteration of our society” much as Heinberg and you do ( greatly increased localization, more small farms, and far too many other changes for less than a full article on the subject). Rebirth is the part of the apocalypse story even I hope for. The point of both articles was to ask that we not go running toward “we’re all gonna die” thinking. That mindset is what I mean by apocalypse, and I encounter it enough to know it is not a straw man.

    I study complex adaptive systems for a living, and human culture is the epitome of one. I firmly believe that the end of the very brief oil age is not going to be enough to cause the death of billions. Sure, population will shrink, but as a biologist I know that most population drops are not caused by sudden die-off, but by reductions in birth rate caused by resource scarcity. World birth rates are dropping precipitously; less quickly in poor nations than in rich, but the global average is down. If the world reached Europe’s current birth rate of 1.4 per woman-and we’re headed toward it-we’d be down to 2 billion people in 80 years or less with no catastrophe. Just as you say, humans are remarkably adaptive-it is our signature trait-and I suspect most of us will make it through the oil age. That’s why I teach permaculture, to help put the tools in place to survive.

    I spend a fair amount of time in the 3rd World, so your assumption that I have only a narrow, rich American point of view isn’t warranted. There is, of course, a huge amount of poverty, (although to the Western eye, subsistence farming often looks like poverty and is usually not). But starvation rates in most of the world are well below what they were in the 1960s. Population in the developing world is growing, which makes it hard to argue that basic survival is doubtful. A happy life and freedom from misery is, indeed, in doubt. What I should have written, however, was that much of the West’s consumption binge, I believe, is driven by ancient drives for survival that are now misplaced into consuming (just as we binge on fat and sugar in part because they were once so rare).

    I don’t claim my doomer origin article is original. Many have made similar points. I just wanted to work it through in my own way. I’ve seen the same argument at Peak Oil Debunked, and Jason Godesky has written a beautiful article that makes similar points, though I didn’t know it, at http://anthropik.com/2005/10/the-eschatology-of-the-left/ . I think it’s not a weakness when more than one person expresses an idea; maybe even a good sign.

    And yes, local apocalypes have, of course, occurred. I mentioned a few of them. But I thought it was clear that I was challenging the mindset of those who believe that Peak Oil means global collapse and die-off, and not denying that very bad things happen to groups of people.

    Sharon, I think we actually share far more common ground than you suggest. I realize that in taking on the doomer mindset, I am touching some very sensitive areas even in people with whom I have much in common, open myself up to being pigeon-holed as an elitist and cornucopian, and have triggered some unecessary opposition. The fact that you did not just say “Hemenway’s a jerk” and dismiss my articles, but instead have taken your valuable time to critique them in a useful way (and revisit one in detail more than a year later while ostensibly critiquing a new piece!), is something I am grateful for. There’s much more I could write about your critiques, both pro and con, but I’ve used up enough pixels and time as it is.

  3. Tobyon 11 Dec 2022 at 11:41 pm

    One more thing: you wrote “24,000 people die each day worldwide, both from direct hunger and the illnesses related to the long term effects of starvation. That amounts to something less than 1 billion people per year.”

    Yes, a lot less. That’s 8,796,000 per year. You’re off by more than 100-fold. We’re a little ways from “billions of deaths.” I know this will sound callous, but the FAO includes diarrhea deaths from bad water (5400/day), digestive illnesses (5300/day) deaths of non-vaccinated children (1200/day) and others that are a bit of a stretch to be called starvation-related. All done in a good cause, but a more accurate number they use is 12,000/day. Appalling and unnecessary in a world awash with food (for now).

  4. jewishfarmeron 12 Dec 2022 at 1:12 am

    Hi Toby -

    Thank you for taking the time to respond, and I also wish to acknowledge that in many ways your response is perhaps more gracious than I would have expected, given the degree to which I have attacked your article. I give you a great deal of credit for that, and appreciate your taking the time to respond point-by-point. I’m also delighted to meet you, despite my critiques - I do, in fact, admire your book very much, and have given it as a gift several times.

    Perhaps I was being obtuse in my failure to understand who you are calling “doomers” but I genuinely found (and find) it a little hard to imagine. I know the faction you refer to - they are real. Matt Savinar and Jay Hanson have a not-insignificant impact. But I do think that Heinberg, for example, falls in a different category, as does Thom Hartmann, for example, no? You explicitly used Heinberg’s call for sustainable agriculture (which, as you will note from the next post down, I’m awfully fond of ;-), as an argument that he is calling for the apocalypse. I think that makes the question of who is a doomer one that I was understandably confused by. I appreciate the clarification, though.

    As for my figures on demand growth - a friend of mine pointed this out to me, and I did a little math following his analysis (thanks Tony from NZ). In 1981, the average demand was 60.944 mbd, and 0.75 would get us only to 73.461. In fact, world oil consumption rates have doubled in 25 years, which is actually shown on the graphy you cited. But, as you point out, there is always the problem of relying on other people’s statistics. I might in other circumstances spend time on arguing which deaths are attributable to hunger, but for the purposes of brevity, I’ll conceed. However, you are absolutely correct about my mathematical error. I have written 10 million in the past, and I don’t know where I got “something less than a billion.”

    Re:China - you are correct, you did not say that China itself was poor. But your claim that low-per capita income means that China’s demand will price itself out of the market seems to me to be based on the implication that they have less money to spend on oil than we do, which is not the case, as, among others, Matthew Simmons has pointed out. China is sitting on a very, very large pile of currency - much bigger than anything we have (since a lot of it is our currency). Since the focus of your _Apocalypse Not_ article is how unlikely that the darker predictions about oil availability will come true, this seems like an not-irrelevant point, rather than a straw man.

    I was in error in not clarifying what I meant about Matthew Simmons and demand destruction. At ASPO this year, Simmons discussed the ways in which in Australia, Norway and even Kenya, $7 per gallon gasoline has not resulted in demand destruction - the costs are coming out of other things, because the need to drive is so deeply built into the culture. My apologies for not being clear.

    I’m sorry if you feel I misjudged your assessment of your many friendships in rural areas. I was relying on your statements, such as ” Although we were busy in
    regional life in the beginning, eventually I found I preferred to drive the hour to see
    friends in progressive-minded Eugene than fight the pro-logging
    consciousness that permeated our county. Over the years my few
    local friends fell away as I became more drawn to the mind-set of those in Eugene” I’m sorry if I didn’t take “my few local friends fell away” as meaning “I have many friends” in the area, but I don’t think it is just me. Perhaps this is a “bogey-man” - I would call it a reasonable interpretation of the language you use.

    I should clarify that I have some sympathy with this - my husband and I are leftist Jews in a conservative, white, Christian area of upstate NY (it isn’t Alabama, but it isn’t Manhattan, either). I do understand it can be difficult to create common ground with people different from you. And I am not quibbling with your choice to move back to Portland.

    But I do think that when someone has nothing nice to say about his neighbors, sometimes the problem is not just with the neighbors. In the article you mention, all of your neighbors are described as beer binging, hunting, right wing extremists. Perhaps you lived in a particularly awful place, I don’t know. But the implication, that no one had children, no one cared about families, or valued their place and their community seems statistically unlikely to me. You yourself went on to say “But legions starve
    because we have not learned to tolerate and support one another.” Is it really so impossible that some of the failures of tolerence run both ways? Because that’s the impression I gathered, perhaps mistakenly, from your article. I saw no one described with affection or even warmth, no mention of “many” friends, just a description of what a terrible burden it was to live among those very different from you.

    I guess I’m guilty of taking the “worst possible” interpretation of the term “Mercedes-Benz” - perhaps you were not aware that a Mercedes is generally a luxury vehicle. Fair enough.

    I agree with you about the fall in birthrates - if we do it right. I feel very strongly about this - although I don’t have your knowledge of permaculture, I have been involved with a group of people attempting to create a permaculture of family, along with a set of policy initiatives that would create the necessary circumstances for women to have fewer children - good education, good access to birth control, prenatal care and early medical care, high cultural status for women, not living in a permanent state of war. If anyone here is interested in joining, I’d be grateful - particularly if you are, Toby, since you are eminently more qualified to help create the permaculture of anything than I am ;-). The group is postcarbon family at http://www.yahoogroups.com.

    I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree about the third world - I think a world where the urban slum population is growing into the largest segment of human population, even if they aren’t actually starving, is not one where basic survival is assured. Also, I understand that much of the fall in starvation rates is in part due to population fall in Africa due to AIDS - not because we’re doing better at feeding the world.

    I certainly do, however, agree with you about what drives our consumption. I think that is both right and wise.

    In the end, I agree with you on some points and disagree (sometimes strongly) on others, but I do respect your point of view. I think, as you say, we do have more common ground than I credit us with, and I appreciate the correction. I mentioned your prior articles in part because I did wish to be clear that I have a history of disagreeing strongly with your work - in fact it goes back to your original 1994 article about your move to the city. I mentioned it, and some of my specific critiques because I think your articles, no matter how much time you’ve spent in the third world (me too), seem to have a consistent “view from above” perspective that takes America as the norm. Whether that is your true perspective or merely something I derive incorrectly from your work, I offer it up as an observation, at least, that you do sometimes seem to come off that way. I also mentioned my history so it would be evident that I feel very strongly about your work, and that I can’t be trusted to view it without prejudice ;-). While I don’t think I viewed it with the degree of prejudice you accuse me of, clearly that part was true.

    I don’t, however, think I was “ostensibly” doing anything - I was attempting (as you did) to place this particular work in context with your prior work. I know you disagree with me on that context, but you yourself place your work in relationship to prior essays of your own. I think that makes the prior essays relevant, no?

    I appreciate your taking the time to answer and correct me - quite seriously. And I admire the graciousness of your reply.



  5. Tobyon 12 Dec 2022 at 4:43 pm


    Thank you for your gracious and thoughtful reply. Indeed, I did first draft a far more unkind response to your “attack.” Then I took a deep breath and deleted it, and I’m glad of that. You make some very good points and I thank you for clarifying some of your data. Again, we are largely in agreement. A few random points: though China is sitting on a pile of money, much of it is in debt notes (a lot from the US Treasury) and these, as they know, are not very liquid. They cannot be turned into cash without dire effects on the world economy (China can hold that gun to our heads). They have recently lost several bidding wars against smaller nations for multinational companies they wanted to buy, thus are not competing well in that market. But in time they will be an awesome force.

    The bit on demand destruction is fascinating. I notice in Belize that $5/gallon gas does not seem to reduce driving much either. I do think we are not far from 70mpg cars, although the developing world may well eat up any savings from that.

    I can’t blame you (and others) for seeing my first urban/rural sustainability article as anti-rural (I have not read your review, and may not, to spare my blood pressure). I grew up in rural Illinois and had assumed rural values still held, but most of the people I met in Douglas County were refugees from (mostly poor) suburbs and urban areas, and brought their striving suburban ways with them to the country. The yeoman farmer mentality looks dead to me. Though our first 7-8 years in Douglas County were wonderful, we felt very isolated by the end of our time there. So arriving in Portland was a great relief, and my article was written while still in a “Thank Heaven!” state of mind. Thus the article overplays the loneliness we felt, and too starkly paints my county as nothing but bigoted bumpkins. It is a strongly right wing county, and although some of my neighbors were very kind, we did truly have a meth-dealing felon (suspected of murdering his burned-to-death wife) next door and three gun-happy (beyond just hunting, I mean) fundamentalists down the road. Greens in Douglas County still received death threats into the 1990s.There was a small Green community, but it was a 30-90 minute drive to see any of them. That was when I began to realize that my ecological footprint was far larger in the country than it had been in the city.

    Sure, I know Mercedes is a luxury car, but biodiesel Mercedes and Volvos seem to be the staff car of most impoverished Peak Oilers on the West Coast. I erroneously assumed the latter image would overpower the former.

    And I do agree that the third world is a wreck. There is an appalling article on Lagos, Nigeria, in the latest but one New Yorker, and I think the cities I have seen are in similar shape. I am guilty of minimizing their plight, in part for the sake of argument, in part because I see mostly rural areas, and they are not as sick as the cities.

    I will look at the postcarbon family group. Thanks again for your willingness to find more common ground than differences between us. Peace to you, as well.


  6. mattsavinaron 13 Dec 2022 at 8:02 am

    Nice series of bitchslaps, Sharon!

    Hey Toby, how are you going to write an article about “doomers” and not mention LATOC, the #1 Peak Oil doom site on the net? Come on now. You want to dance with the doomers or not?

    I’d criticize your article but as it seems Sharon just ripped you a new one large enough to plant a container garden in, now I don’t have to.

    I will say one thing: as far as “doomerism” being wrong, have you ever heard the phrase “follow the money.” How much money is being spent on bringing about the apocalypse as fast as possible? literally, trillions. Only billions are being on spent on everything you can call “solutions.” Pull your head out your ass and do the math!


    Matt Savinar

  7. Tobyon 13 Dec 2022 at 5:46 pm

    I can’t say Sharon “ripped me a new one,” Matt. I’d say she mostly poked around in the old one she made a while back, and gently nibbled at me regarding the latest article. Those were pretty mild points she made. Good ones, I’ll agree. I had considered adding some things very similar to those about our fascination with apocalypse, but the article was long enough, and I didn’t want to be guilty of covering too much ground the way I did in “Apocalypse, Not.”

    Though I thought I defined “doomer” in the first paragraph of my article as someone who believes Peak Oil will result in the deaths of billions and global collapse, Matt’s ugly comments suggest that there is one that is more useful, although it’s more general and will include more people. Sharon suggests that some people are driven to believe in doom largely by a careful look at the data. But the data on Peak Oil’s consequences are so numerous and complex that there is utterly no consensus on how to interpret them. It’s orders of magnitude worse than predicting the effects of greenhouse gases, and that took decades and thousands of years of computer time to arrive at. No such volume of work has been done on the more complex problem of Peak Oil’s impact on the most adaptive ecology on the planet, so I’d say it’s premature to conclude that we’re going to see either global collapse or the dawn of a new green age. That’s why I suspect the vituperation toward moderates like me is grounded more in belief than in a hard look at the data. The data at this point will tell you anything you want. We scientists have a saying: if you torture the data long enough, they will confess.

    So I would define a doomer as someone who looks at the evidence related to Peak Oil and counts only the negative side, ignoring or dismissing the positive (a cornucopian being the opposite). (A true doomer, like Matt, also resorts to violent language to demean anyone who disagrees. If Matt and his gloating are representative of the quality of visitor typical of this site, this will be my last visit here.)

    An example of doomer thinking then is the argument made by many that to get a true accounting of US oil use, we must add the oil used to make our imports. That’s an excellent point—we do outsource a lot of oil use-but it’s only half the truth. The other half is that we must then also subtract all the oil used to make the US’s exports. So let’s do that. The trade deficit is the difference between imports and exports, and although we don’t know how much oil is used to make all those imports and exports, the dollar amount will give us a rough idea. The trade deficit was $725 billion in 2005, and GDP was $11.725 trillion. That means the trade deficit was 6.2% of the GDP. In other words, we outsourced about 6.2% of our oil use—we need to add 6.2% to our 2005 oil consumption figure. That’s a fair amount, but it’s very different from saying “we must add all the oil used to make imports to our oil use,” since adding only imports would more than double the percent added.

    So I’d say a doomer is someone who, to wreck the old song’s lyrics, will “accentuate the negative, eliminate the positive, and demonize mister in between (that would be me).” A doomer is someone who says, quoting one letter in my inbox, “the contribution of renewables and nuclear are insubstantial and always will be, and you can forget about ever using methane hydrates and deuterium from the ocean,” [the latter two contain thousands of times the energy of oil]. Maybe he is right. But only a fool would be certain. So I return to my old refrain: Stop being so certain of the future, and practice something like permaculture, which will prepare for the future in a responsible way no matter what arrives.

  8. mattsavinaron 13 Dec 2022 at 8:17 pm


    Clearly, you have not read Sharon’s critiques of your previous articles. She really did rip you a few new ones.

    As far as being certain about the future: I am certain that a society spending trillions on war and consumerism but only billions on everything that could be called an alternative has made it’s decision about where it’s heading. You may as well be saying, “don’t be so certain about the future, the war in iraq might turn out for the good of all concerned.”

    The reality is (as the saying goes) the future is just too ugly to look at. Hence, individuals such as yourself who have establishsed a social niche around the idea that we can make things better simply have to delete, deny, or rationalize out of existence cold hard facts like the fact we’re spending (literally) trillions destroying the planet as fast as possible.

    A piece of advice as a fellow author and PO commentator: you come off as a humorless snob. Really, get over yourself will you? A sense of humor about oneself is a tremendous asset. You should look into investing in one.

    As an example: had you responded to my post with a bit of humor it would have been much effective then your childish threat to take your ball and go home. That is so seventh gradish, I can’t believe a man of your stature and years would resort to it. If you had read my post with the least bit of comic sense could have cracked a good one-liner or two at my expense.

    If Sharon thinks I’m hurting the quality of her blog she will come on here and rip me a new one (as she did you) and do so with a touch of humor/class.

  9. mattsavinaron 13 Dec 2022 at 8:32 pm


    Also, I would like to invite you to discuss these matters, or anything else related to PO, over at my forum: http://www.latocforum.com As far as “takin’ it to the doomers”, there would be no better place for you to practice your craft then my forum, it’s doom-central. We’ve got subforums for food production, animal husbandry, and all sorts of other stuff. Don’t worry though, if you do decide to post, I’ll ask my 2 female moderators to make sure nobody uses bad language in your presence. ;)

  10. jewishfarmeron 14 Dec 2022 at 2:46 am

    Wow, Matt, there’s just something about your presence that is so soothing and comforting. You make everything better just by being here.

    Toby, Matt really, really wants to show me how big his dick is, so that I’ll like him more. And since I can’t see it through the internet (That’s not a suggestion, Matt!), he has to *be* the biggest dick. It can be oddly endearing at times, but also very annoying.


  11. Tobyon 14 Dec 2022 at 5:25 pm


    I’m honored to have attracted your, uh, attention. When are you gonna put Gaia’s Garden on your web site? (maybe when I stop writing stuff like my latest, but the book is a tool for LATOC.) Sorry I came off as humorless. I thought my image of Sharon poking around in the new one she ripped me, or my rewrite of “Accentuate the Positive” were not entirely devoid of humor. And you misunderstood: I wrote that her earlier critique of “Apocalypse, Not” certainly was sphincter inducing, but I don’t think her review of “Origins” was. I do apologize for not mentioning LATOC, but oilcrash and die-off are shorter and punchier than spelling out your acronym. LATOC sounds like rebirth, too, so it should go in a later part of the article. But it’s sure doomer enough to qualify! I’ll hang out at LATOC forums—thanks for the invitation. And thanks for the feedback about humorlessness; I’m working on it. When I read a flame like your first post, I retreat to a formal frostiness. It’s an old WASP defense, and I’m told it’s very intimidating in person. You’re right, though: it reads like I’m a tiresome prig.

    If I squint hard sideways at your first post, I can sort of see that you meant some of it to be funny. It’s obvious from LATOC that you have a great sense of humor—you’re a master at both elements of the comic: originality and unexpectedness. However, I didn’t see those in “ bitch slap,” “tear you a new one,” and “get your head out your ass.” Just shopworn insults, so I’m sorry if I missed the joke. I’ll work on lightening up. When you’re watching your pet ox get gored, it’s hard to remember to laugh.

    Part of why I didn’t think Sharon tore me a new one in her latest is that her points about the Origins article were useful criticism, unlike the stuff about “Apocalypse, Not.” The latter was mostly a rehashing of the distortions and personal dissing that I usually ignore (at my own peril—I should learn from Kerry ignoring the Swiftboat trash). I think part of the disparity is that I am a scientist, and you, for example, are a lawyer. We’ve got a Venus and Mars thing happening. In law, the point is to win your case. Discredit the witness, play to the jury, truth be damned, just win by hook, crook or sledgehammer. In science, ad hominem attacks and misinterpreting your opponent’s argument just mean your case is so weak you can’t win on its merits. That’s why congress is so bamboozled on Global Warming: they (mostly lawyers) couldn’t parse a scientific argument if it froze them in the ass. Neither can the public. So Exxon-Mobil just keeps the spin on while we watch glaciers calve.

    In science, someone who shows you a weak spot in your spiel is doing you a big favor: you then modify your hypothesis to include it, or discard the old idea. In the courtroom, though, changing your story dooms your case.

    I keep forgetting that on the web we’re dealing with the court of public opinion. It’s Fox News hour. I laugh when someone writes “Hemenway sets up 5 phony reasons he claims doomers must believe in,” and then the guy argues against each one of those reasons, proving that, indeed, without those reasons he’s farting into the wind. But the yokels buy that stuff—unbelievable! (Insert lengthy “death of intelligent discourse” rant here.)

    It boils down to: I think the cornucopians are just fools. They begin from nut-case premises, so their conclusions are a comedy routine. Doomers have an accurate set of premises: we are going to run out of oil, the supply/demand gap is no joke, and on and on. But truthful premises don’t automatically lead you to a truthful set of conclusions, and I think a lot of Peakers forget that.

    Forgive me if I insert a dull soapbox speech. Complex adaptive systems like the Earth and the economy are unpredictable because they are loosely linked and non-linear. It’s the butterfly effect: reducing inputs does not lead automatically to loss of function or even change of state. Civilization is a very strong attractor, in the complexity-theory sense, and it might take more than the demand/supply gap to knock us out of it. I’d like to see humanity move away from civilization, and maybe Peak Oil combined with global warming plus idiotic leadership and everything else will be enough to do it, but I’m not holding my breath (I was a doomer from 1968 until about 2003, and still blue in the face from holding my breath for 35 years). When I read Peak Oil news, like LATOC, I am sure the end is nigh. But left alone for a few hours, my doubts return, over and over. So I’m either profoundly stupid or relentlessly oriented toward alternatives.

    I just came across this quote:

    “Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve”. — Karl Popper

    I suppose this wasn’t too funny, either. And way too long. Well, like I said, I’ll work on it.

  12. jewishfarmeron 14 Dec 2022 at 11:46 pm

    You know, Toby, I really do admire some of your work, and I have been very impressed by your graciousness and willingness to take the high road. But you are starting to tick me off a little.

    Yet again, in your account, I (and everyone else) am engaging in ad hominemn attacks that you liken to Fox News and The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, while you are nobly taking the (scientific) high road.

    Well, I’m married to a physicist, and I’m fairly sure that the scientific high road does not include the characterization of everyone who disagrees with you as in the grips of a (culturally) religious pathology, while describing yourself as a neutral scientist. Your article was an extended (and creative - I was impressed with its level of covert malice) hatchet job on the doomer contingent, and hardly a disinterested work of scholarship.

    You may not like my criticisms of _Apocalypse Not_, but they were not ad hominem. The failure to misread your graph as you did, the legitimate disagreement about the role of China and having heard Matthew Simmons say something you didn’t do not constitute ad hominem attacks. Neither, going back, does my failure to read the fact that you’d lost your “few” friends as “many.”

    If we want to bring up training and forms of discourse (which you are using as a form of ad hominem attack on Matt), I was once trained as a literary critic. That is, I was trained to evaluate the body of someone’s work. You may not be pleased by my assessment, and you are free to disagree with it here and elsewhere, but there is nothing illegitimate in demonstrating that you have a history of precisely the same things that you attack others for - errors in thinking and quick leaps to judgement.

    I will say, you aren’t the only one. I do it too. But as you say, in both the sciences and in all of academia, granting other people good faith is a presumption. Your “everyone else engages in ad hominem attack, but I’m just offering a cool and objective analysis” is a load of crap, to put it in the scholarly terms of my field.

    That said, I do think you’ve been awfully accomodating, and I like some of your work a great deal. You have been very graceful in this, and I hope we run into one another one of these days. But since this is my blog, there are some kinds of bullshit name calling I’m not going to leave without responding to.

    Ok, I’m headed out of town and won’t be here. You all feel free to keep posturing.


  13. Tobyon 15 Dec 2022 at 12:07 am

    Sharon, I agree I’ve been a little thin-skinned and have gone at you (and Matt) as though you were a composite of everyone who didn’t like my articles. My apologies. I’m done now, I think. And, BTW, I loved your 100 million farmer article. If we stick to farming and gardening topics, we’ll have a great friendship.

  14. mattsavinaron 15 Dec 2022 at 5:35 am


    Observe and learn. Sharon’s post at 3:46 is an example of what I call intellectually “laying the literary smack down on your monkey ass.” (For the humorily-challenged, that’s a figure of speech. I don’t actually mean to imply Toby is a chimpanzee. I’ve never met him. He may be a guerrilla or bonobo for all I know.)

    Anyway, Sharon: as far as dick size goes, we’ve had this discussion before - I believe over at Aaron’s blog. You know how I feel: you don’t need a big dick when you have a great sense of humor and some intelligence.

    At least that’s what an old girlfiend or two told me!



  15. jewishfarmeron 17 Dec 2022 at 2:12 pm

    Matt, all girlfriends tell their boyfriends that, and of course, that makes it extra true.

    Toby, I think we will get along just fine in the end.


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