Well, Earth Day has come and gone. I suppose some sort of ecologically relevant sermon is in order, and I may actually have just the ticket. I?ve been idly musing about the impending Peak Oil crisis, a crisis that may eventuate this year, or fifteen years from now, or perhaps never.
I won?t deny that such a thing is possible. Hell, it could even be probable, and this very year could be the year it happens. More knowledgeable men than I have spent decades acquiring expertise in these matters, and who am I to challenge them? On the other hand, equally erudite oil mages say that we have years, decades even, before the dark time arrives. As regards these dueling eminences, I can offer you no tie-breaking insight, only the humble observation that it?s hard to know where to place your trust. What I can offer you is certainty about one key fact, and the warm comfort to be derived from that certainty, the rock-ribbed and copper-bottomed key fact that James Howard Kunstler is a freaking loon. More on this later.
Let me be clear with you from the beginning that my contribution to the ongoing dialogue will be relatively fact-free. I?m working off of my intuition here, and it?s telling me that this is probably just another false alarm. I?m not a petroleum geologist. I have no hard evidence to back me up, no special experience in the trade. What I do have is my memory, and I vividly remember hearing the same things (and far worse) over thirty-five years ago. Back then I was worried. I was a gullible kid. But over the years I?ve learned my lessons, and these days I?m sleeping like a baby. Yes, just like a big old baby.
So I?m doing fine, but I do worry about today?s young people. Apparently, this Kunstler character is a popular speaker on college campuses.

Kunstler got a rock-star reception last week at Middlebury College, where he entertained a standing-room-only audience with provocative predications about where our unbridled consumption is likely to land us. An eloquent, funny speaker who is not afraid to use the f-word, Kunstler agreed to a follow-up email interview with Seven Days.

Students hear his message and it resonates with them. Small wonder. He?s glib, sarcastic, funny, and idealistic. Just like them. When I was a callow undergrad I could believe ?twelve impossible things before breakfast? and never spot their contradictions. I doubt that young people have changed all that much in the interim. Perhaps they also think (he being such a good talker and all) that he must be really, really smart.
Funny isn?t it, how so many people equate verbal facility with intelligence? Fluency in your native tongue is no guarantee that you?ll perceive reality any more accurately than the next citizen. Some of the smartest people I?ve met were downright laconic. Conversely, some of the best talkers were deeply, consistently idiotic. It took me awhile to figure that one out. Once you do, you?re a bit less vulnerable to the demagogic con jobs that seem so abundant these days, but it?s hard. Until you?ve actually been out in the world, making your own way, your mental immune system is weak and wobbly. At any rate, mine was.
Bad enough that he?s a mind parasite, feeding off of youthful ignorance and idealism. Worse, is that I actually agree with him, a little. The sad fact is that he and I share a few opinions about the American way of life. Yeah sure, it could stand some improvement. Hey, what couldn?t? But then, I also like America enough to excuse the flaws and blemishes. I get the feeling that he can’t.
Beyond even that, I despise his tactics. He?s attempting to influence public opinion through fear, conjuring up the good old scary dreams of yesteryear. Stampede the ignorant sheeple into right thought and right action, oh yeah. Anything that contradicts his argument is summarily rejected, with little or no consideration. His arrogant condescension toward lifestyles (the suburbs, automobiles) that he finds distasteful leaves little room for honest disagreement. He seems unwilling to give the other side a fair hearing. Most of which would be tolerable if he were obviously correct. But he isn?t correct.
He?s just another goofy zealot, longing for the social breakdown that will make his dreams come true. I hope he lives long enough for a rude awakening. Society might actually manage to cope and then where would he be? But even if luck falls his way and the bottom drops out on schedule, it won?t lead us to the small scale, appropriate-technology renaissance he envisions. Oh, no. Sadly for him, there will be a recovery. It may be preceded by a nasty, brutish interval of indeterminate duration, but a recovery there will be. None of our resource shortages are immutable. All of them have workable solutions, given enough time. New techniques will be developed and implemented. Unless you plan to force people, some will rush back to their old habits, given half a chance.
Those would be the same people who miss their big fine homes, their fast comfortable cars, and their freedom from small town conformity and big city crime. They will not lightly abandon their old lives and will work hard to get them back. Remember, after the thirties and forties came the fifties and sixties. From breadlines and soup kitchens to jumbo jets and chrome trimmed tailfins. Kunstler simply doesn?t address this seemingly obvious observation, which makes me think he?s deluding himself. Well, of course he is.
His Y2K essay is a perfect example. He really had himself convinced that it was all going down five years ago. This was the big one, baby! Do you think he was terribly disappointed when nothing bad happened? Did he have a sinking feeling when 01/01/2000 cycled through and all the machines kept working? That?s a fairly twisted outlook, to pin your hopes on a global calamity. It?s creepy and unseemly and I suppose it?s the thing that I like least about him. You can practically hear him licking his chops, as he describes all the Bad Things Coming. Making bank by scaring the children.
Predictions of calamity were a staple of my tender years. For our younger readers, hearing the siren song of apocalypse for the first time, it may come as a surprise, but the world has been coming to an end for quite some time now.
Allow me to dish up some nostalgia for you. I am indebted to Ron Bailey for collecting so many of these wonderful old squallings in one excellent essay. I’ve shamelessly swiped “the good parts” but please check out what else he had to say. It was written back in 2000 but holds up very well.

Harvard biologist George Wald estimated that “civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.”

“We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation,” wrote Washington University biologist Barry Commoner in the Earth Day issue of the scholarly journal Environment.

“We have about five more years at the outside to do something,” ecologist Kenneth Watt declared to a Swarthmore College audience on April 19, 1970.

Dubbed “ecology’s angry lobbyist” by Life magazine, the gloomy Ehrlich was quoted everywhere. “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make,” he confidently declared in an interview with then-radical journalist Peter Collier in the April 1970 Mademoiselle. “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”

“By…[1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s.”

Ehrlich sketched out his most alarmist scenario for the Earth Day issue of The Progressive, assuring readers that between 1980 and 1989, some 4 billion people, including 65 million Americans, would perish in the “Great Die-Off.”

Peter Gunter, a professor at North Texas State University, wrote, “Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions….By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine”.

In January 1970, Life reported, “Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support…the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution…by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half….”

Ecologist Kenneth Watt told Time that, “At the present rate of nitrogen buildup, it’s only a matter of time before light will be filtered out of the atmosphere and none of our land will be usable.”

Barry Commoner cited a National Research Council report that had estimated “that by 1980 the oxygen demand due to municipal wastes will equal the oxygen content of the total flow of all the U.S. river systems in the summer months.” Translation: Decaying organic pollutants would use up all of the oxygen in America’s rivers, causing freshwater fish to suffocate.

In his “Eco-Catastrophe!” scenario, Ehrlich put a finer point on these fears by envisioning a 1973 Department of Health, Education, and Welfare study which would find “that Americans born since 1946…now had a life expectancy of only 49 years, and predicted that if current patterns continued this expectancy would reach 42 years by 1980, when it might level out.”

Keying off of Rachel Carson’s claims about the dangers of synthetic chemicals in Silent Spring (1962), Look claimed that many scientists believed that residual DDT would lead to an increase in liver and other cancers.

“We are prospecting for the very last of our resources and using up the nonrenewable things many times faster than we are finding new ones,” warned Sierra Club director Martin Litton in Time’s February 2, 1970, special “environmental report.”

Harrison Brown, a scientist at the National Academy of Sciences, published a chart in Scientific American that looked at metal reserves and estimated the humanity would totally run out of copper shortly after 2000. Lead, zinc, tin, gold, and silver would be gone before 1990.

Kenneth Watt was less equivocal in his Swarthmore speech about Earth’s temperature. “The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years,” he declared. “If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.”

Ah, the good old days! Back then, people really knew how to panic. Kids today have had to scrimp and make do with the pale and tepid pressings left over from Earth Day?s glory years. Those were fiery times, filled with passion, brimming with confident lunatic certainty. Apocalypse Ho!
After a good dosing with the above quotes, striving for optimism seems almost tasteless doesn?t it? Nevertheless, we shall venture the attempt. But in honor of Earth Day, let?s do it in a relaxed, scattershot manner. We can check out a few things of an Earth Day type nature. Like wind power.
Just between you and me, I love wind turbines. When I drive to Palm Springs, I always feel my spirits lift, watching the wind machines merrily spinning. I think they?re adorably cute. I gather that places me in a minority. Apparently, most people think they?re ugly as sin. Some folks even get a little nauseous from the whirly motions. Well, if you thought they were ugly before, get an eyeful of these babies.
They remind me of old-fashioned tv antennas, or (speaking strictly hypothetically) Klingon erotic toys. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. To the contrary, for a zero-pollution kilowatt or six, I?m willing to overlook a great deal. Think of these wind turbines as the plain jane wall-flowers at the alternate-energy barn dance. You know, the ones with personality? I wonder if that Kunstler yoinker would find them aesthetically objectionable. Wouldn?t that just red-line the old irony meter? Super efficient, appropriate scale wind power that looks at home in the worst parts of New Jersey.
What impresses me here is the sheer ingenuity involved. Something like that windmill would never occur to me in a million years, but it and things like it are popping up all over. Of course most of them will never amount to much, but a few of them will, and even that tiny fraction will make all the difference. I came of age in a time when ?progress? was deemed by many to be illusory, or outright evil. I very much prefer the naive optimism of my earliest childhood. Buying into hopelessness gets you nothing.
Let me throw you a few more items of a generally positive nature?
A spiffy new fuel-cell motorbike from England The power plant is detachable. For easy upgrades, maybe?
A Scandinavian concept ship that will never be built. Intended for glum chiding, it?s still pretty cool. Sails that function as solar cell arrays. Sweet.
A German kite-ship. I wonder what they do when the wind dies too quickly?
Toshiba?s fast new lithium-ion battery. Eighty percent recharge in sixty seconds.
Homebrew desktop fusion generators. Here?s how to build your own. My favorite two lines would have to be?

You will need to borrow, buy, or build some vacuum equipment, obtain a small supply of deuterium, and figure out some instruments so you can tell if it is working…

The real danger is in the potentially lethal high voltages used, and some lesser concerns for safe handling of compressed flammable gas…

Kids, don’t try this at home.
Via Randall Parker, a demonstration in favor of nuclear power. Strange days indeed.

One person, a local resident who was a Quaker, was looking at our materials with a concerned expression. I asked him if I could answer any questions, and he proceeded to tell me the concerns he had, which sounded like they were straight from the anti-nuclear material. We conversed about each one of his concerns. At first he seemed skeptical, but with every exchange, he became more and more interested. At the end of our conversation, he seemed genuinely thankful for having talked to us. He shook my hand and asked if he could contact me if he had more questions, to which I gladly assented.

Plug-in hybrids. The best of both worlds, with growing corporate interest. With gas prices so high, we may all want one.
Hopeful maglev guys. They never give up, do they? Europe has them too.
Cheaper access to orbit (pdf) through progress in solid state lasers. Last year’s ISBEP looked like fun. They all did.
Africa and cornucopia are two concepts that seldom travel together. Yet the author of this last article does in fact juxtapose them. Caught my eye, it did?

When I visited the villages in the district of Iringa, eight hours by road from Dar es Salaam, the capital, I could hardly believe my eyes. When I worked here as an agricultural extension agent 40 years ago, there used to be in the market place just a few heaps of vegetables. Now there was a cornucopia of produce – zucchini and pineapples, eggplant and guavas, fresh peas being podded and a truckload of fresh cabbages being unloaded.
Where once you could only buy maize, now there were sacks of rice from local paddies and Nile perch from Lake Victoria. There was sunflower oil, brought in from the fields that dazzle the countryside with their yellow flowers among the green maize. And everywhere tomatoes – enormous baskets of them, with a local sauce factory consuming the surplus. All this is quite new, as are the cell phones that reach 90 percent of the villages in Iringa district, enabling traders and farmers to cut out the middlemen and find the best price on their own.

The author freely acknowledges that the situation he describes is anecdotal, fragile, and could easily head south in practically no time. Noted and appreciated, sir. We know that bad things happen all the time. Which makes it all the more important to remember that there are gains as well as losses. People really can make things better. It?s important that we believe that.

“I’m scared,” confessed Paul Ehrlich in the 1970 Earth Day issue of Look. “I have a 14 year old daughter whom I love very much. I know a lot of young people, and their world is being destroyed. My world is being destroyed. I’m 37 and I’d kind of like to live to be 67 in a reasonably pleasant world, and not die in some kind of holocaust in the next decade.”