Many green groups and other science-based analysts criticized President Obama's recent State of the Union speech for failing to mention the imminent catastrophe of climate change. Instead, the President focused on a "clean energy and jobs" message. Yet perhaps he did the best he could, given our current political reality and the extreme irrationality that infects our Tea Party nation.
Following the hideous violence in Arizona, it was a stroke of genius to call on Republicans and Democrats to sit together, pairing red and blue like a pair of those old-fashioned 3D glasses -- Obama's attempt to show us that America is much more than a two-dimensional conflict between political parties. But the State of the Union address, while considerably more three-dimensional than many I have heard, still fell far short of the reality we find ourselves in. That reality includes more than just the threat of climate change. It also encompasses the phenomenon known as "peak oil."
I don't know what it is about energy and our use of it that inspires so many euphemisms, but "peak oil" is a term rarely used in the mainstream, corporate media. You may hear about "energy security" or "commodity price super-cycles" but never peak oil. And yet most of us know that the world has either passed or is now approaching the maximum volume of oil we can pump from the ground -- aka peak oil. It's the secret everyone knows but that few will mention. And it is the reason that Obama's call for investment in clean energy jobs resonates even with hardcore climate deniers. Polls consistently show high levels of support for government investment in clean energy, even from Republicans. That's because, in our guts, we all know that fossil fuels can't last forever.
The stark reality that few have truly woken to is the high probability that we have already passed the peak of oil production and that it is all downhill from here. If this is a new idea to you, or even if you already have some familiarity with it, you will enjoy the new novel, Prelude, from peak oil analyst Kurt Cobb.
Prelude may be the first thriller novel explicitly about peak oil (numberless thrillers concern the nefarious machinations of international oil conglomerates -- ultimately those are stories about peak oil too). It follows a short period in the life and career of Cassie Young, an oil industry analyst based in Washington, DC. The opening scene places Cassie in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, on a fact-finding mission. This is a great place to start anyone's peak oil education. Touted as the next Saudi Arabia and America's future oil supply, the reality is that these hydrocarbons are dirty and exceedingly energy-intensive to extract.
Cassie's story is one of continuous stripping away of the veils that obscure our oil reality even from an oil industry professional. As Cassie uncovers more industry secrets, enigmas in her own heart become visible as well. Following her journey, the reader learns interesting things about the oil business and alarming truths about political power and oil. Cobb does a good job of the writing with snappy pacing and plotting; his descriptions giving immediacy to places and people. Despite her name, Cassie (Cassandra) is not cast as a prophet of doom. Her story is about learning the truth, not about what she does with it. Perhaps Cobb will pen a sequel. It would be interesting, but the message of the novel is that this is our story, too. What will we do with the knowledge that we are standing on an energy cliff?
Joseph Romm and other climate change bloggers are pressing hard on the Obama administration to talk more about climate change, to use the words in speeches. It is having an effect, as Romm reports that Obama did talk about climate change in a speech on clean energy last week.
We must do the same thing for the term peak oil, but it will be more challenging. Few politicians have ever uttered the words, other than Roscoe Bartlett, a truly maverick Republican congressman from Baltimore who started the congressional Peak Oil Caucus back in 2005.
Peak oil and climate change taken together are the lenses through which we can view reality with 20-20 vision. Our civilization is completely and utterly dependent on massive amounts of energy. Coping with climate change disruptions while replacing dirty fossil energy with clean, renewable energy and building a new, energy efficient infrastructure to meet our needs for housing and transportation will define every aspect of our future.
Peak oil: read about it, talk about it, Tweet about it, get out in the streets and meet about it. Rising food and fuel prices are a big reason for the revolution in Egypt. Soon it will be our turn. Today is just a prelude.