Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Prospects in the Post-Petroleum World

Those in the know have been discussing the "oil crisis" for a year or more and I am just now coming to understand it. Maybe in another year the mainstream news will allow everyone else to know about it, just as they did with global warming. (The special on CNN Sunday night on global warming gave a decent report, but without any urgency about what we might do). I thought this was going to be a downer piece since I was investigating yet another global crisis, but it tapped a dormant vision that I realized I had long been seeking.

The all day workshop that inspired this article was called "Becoming Native: Living in Harmony with this Place: a gathering to envision life in a post petroleum world". The keynote speaker was Richard Heinberg, author of The Party's Over: War, Oil and the Fate of Industrial Societies. As a peace activist I was intensely interested in oil politics. When I read Richard Heinberg's book, I realized that the study of our relationship with oil was so clarifying that it made all my history classes seem like so much myth making. Schools should just teach the history of oil and be done with it.

I recognized many of the people who showed up at the workshop, held on a recent Saturday, at the Foundation for Global Community. There was the young Indian man who ran the Peace and Justice film series. He read my nametag. "Oh you're the professional organizer on Freecycle," he said. He had started the Palo Alto Freecycle group. And since I clean out quite a number of closets in my work organizing clients, I am one of the biggest contributors to Freecycle.

At the door, a tall man from my meditation group was greeting people. We chatted a bit, then my fellow, biointensive organic gardener, hailed me from the parking lot. There, too, was my Sparrow admirer from a recent peace rally who had ridden some 7 miles to attend the workshop on his bicycle. Along with a dozen or more bicycles it was an 8 Prius, one Insight, two electric car event. I plugged my Sparrow into the outdoor outlet of the building, pleased that today my electricity would come from the solar panels on top of the roof.

On KQED the other night, economists and experts discussed the "oil crisis". The experts were all playing down what me and my workshop participants would come to call peak oil. None of them used the term. They talked about how the American economy would "shrug off" this blip in what was at the moment a period of "tight supply" as if soon we would have "normal supply". Not to worry, eventually more discoveries of oil would increase supply again. Isn't that how it had always been?

Yes we do know that oil is a finite resource, but the question we pose is why worry since the glass is still half full and we have all that oil left to figure it out with renewable energy. Surely something else will be invented; look how computers changed our lives. But look again. It's not about us not having anymore, I learned, it's about us having a little bit less than last year and then a little more less and then a great deal more less, because it gets harder and harder to get the oil, like trying to lean into a barrel to scoop out the contents when you're too short to reach more than half way into it and it's all really thick and gooey down there, it's hard to push it into the narrow neck of your coke bottle. The pressure has gone down. The light and bubbly champagne oil is already taken. No more gushers raining down on James Dean in Giant.

What about discovering more? You think geologists haven't gone over every last inch of this rock? The rate of discovery has also gone down. We are about to bring into production the wells that were discovered in the 70's when discoveries peaked. Big brains meet every year to talk about when peak oil in world production will be. The exact date varies from geologist to geologist, but the spread is tightening, circling closer and closer in time to just around 2015.

The important thing about peak oil is that when it gets harder to produce as much oil as we are accustomed to having, the economy will stop growing. Period. Look forward to chronic recession. Our entire existence is built on an everlasting, ever growing economy and now it would have to stop. We simply would not have the cheap oil and cheap energy needed to do all of the energy intensive things we do.

When the speculative dot COM boom crashed and the market went into its cold harsh winter, I was filled with shame at my loss. Others who had been in the stock market comforted me by saying we couldn't have known what would happen. Ah, but some did. They got out in time. They were old hands at investing. They came from old money, or they were savvy business types who were not fooled by the cry of the new economy that this time it was different - the Internet was an ever expanding, super growth machine. I was not going to be taken by surprise again. I wanted to know what would happen.

At the Peace and Justice film series I saw The End of Suburbia, which sounded kind of campy. And it does have a certain wit as it points out that without cheap oil and natural gas (for natural gas was also peaking) the suburbs would become abandoned ghost towns. Finally the end of all those ugly big box, mall driven towns. It did comfort me a little that the density of my own neighborhood was just a little more manageable with a bicycle than most. The most illuminating interview was with Michael Simmons, CEO of the largest energy investment bank, who had been an expert advisor to the Cheney energy plan. How casually he confirmed that yes, energy would be getting harder to come by, and remember that blackout we had across a huge swath of north America and Canada? It happened at exactly peak hour at the end of a run of hot days and though the reason given for the grid going down was that a branch had fallen on a line somewhere, the truth was we were probably at the end of our capacity to generate any more electricity. Peak oil, peak gas, peak electricity generation all at once and our leaders not suggesting we do a thing about it apart from drill in the protected wildlands of Alaska.

Next in the film series was a couple of documentaries about what Cuba did when it lost the support of the Soviet Union and their oil. They imported a passel of bicycles from China and converted their bus factories to make bicycles. Once the Cubans learned how to use them properly (by adding new road signs, bike paths, rider safety education) the bicycle developed a new solidarity among the people; they talked to each other more, helped each other out, rode to the beach en masse. I was fond of bicycles and this scenario warmed the cockles of my heart.

Then a film on how their entire chemical driven agriculture had to turn overnight to organic methods since most of the chemicals and fertilizers were Soviet made (and derived from petrochemicals). And their 75,000 tractors were replaced by oxen. It took practice to drive a team of oxen. Old people with the old skills trained the young. Scientists who studied organic farming methods and were once marginalized were now in demand. Large numbers of the population went to work on farms and got healthier and were better paid. They spoke of how they changed the farming methods from a monoculture to the natural pest management systems familiar to me as an organic gardener. An old man talked of how he thought he would be tired doing this work, but he hadn't felt better. The land sustained him. Best of all was the worm-composting foreman. There was a job description I could fill. Ten thousand tons of worms he bred on a little plot of land. "Now with less, more is being done" was the motto of the post-petroleum Cubans.

To be sure they were a poor people. The look of the towns was very third world and reminded me of Thailand in the early 60's. My cousin would have been the first to leave had this happened in Thailand, just as the wealthy (and the Mafia) had left Cuba when all this came down. Those who remained had no choice, but to make do.

The thing about peak oil is that we are not prepared. We have solutions galore, but not enough of them will be implemented in time and when we do need them we will not have the cheap energy to build them fast enough to accommodate our "not negotiable" uncompromising lifestyle. We will be caught short. It would take 30 years or so to build enough renewables to replace our existing capacity.

So how would we in California envision the post petroleum world? The Saturday workshop that was the culmination of my post petroleum study, was different than the usual solutions oriented positiveness of most workshops. Those who attended were thinner on the whole, had that lean look of lifelong effort, maybe from all that bicycle riding and low fat, sugar free eating. No dessert was served with the all-organic, local farms lunch catered by a local cafe. There was something else too, an acceptance that the world was well past salvation that gave me an odd sense of relief. Now finally we could stop trying to save the world with that dire urgency that if we just recycled everything and changed every light bulb to compact fluorescents and called our congressman every week, we could get it together to prevent disaster.

For this community, that window was gone. This was the message of the keynote speaker. He did not urge us to contact our leaders. The oil men in the White house were obviously aware of the consequences of peak oil, but they were intent on going the route he described as "last man standing" through the use of military force. This would be a very expensive solution, creating a world where only the rich would be able to afford what most of us were enjoying in abundance now, like travel, imported goods, large cars, exotic foods and security.
Since a survivalist, food hoarding, bunker mentality was not in any way appealing, what we could do was build our local community network, Heinberg suggested; become sustainable through the use of our local resources and people, develop skills to grow our own food, make our own shoes I added. (Shoes may be one of those things no longer made in the United States). We were also to save what we could of the natural world and the knowledge accumulated by civilization and entertain ourselves with local musicians since those high production, energy intensive movies and CDs would not be so forthcoming. Being a musician himself, this seemed to be a fitting revenge on the commercial packaging of the entertainment industry.

To inject a lighter mood into the day, we heard from an older woman, from Valley of Heart's Delight, who remembered her grandparents not having a car and being none the worse for it. In fact she looked forward to the end of our consumptive madness and our restless moving about the planet. Finally we could stay put and appreciate a sense of place. We spent the rest of the day in round table discussions sharing ideas - local currency, soup groups, neighborhood tool libraries, co-housing, electric car conversions, shuttle buses and community gardens. The message was we were not going to be able to do it by ourselves; we would have to form cooperatives, work together.

It was with a strange satisfaction that I left the day feeling that my definition of success was going to be realized. No longer would it be a growth motivated, money centered, philosophy of abundance that prevailed. This was not going to be a question of individual greatness and largesse, brought on by an ever improving life, if only I could frame my vision in an upbeat, make-your-own-reality, cosmic love fest, fueled by endlessly positive self-talk and post-it note affirmations.

My definition of success was the downwardly, mobile "slacker" vision that I had started out with. The resistance to material wealth and professional accomplishments, the self-absorbed pursuit of all manner of practical non-money making skills, the cultivation of long conversations with other equally unambitious friends. The longing for the simpler times of my childhood when the unreliable third world electrical grid went down and my extended family of aunts came outside to sit in the dark and talk to me. It was an awake-to-the-moment, off routine, no TV, intimacy that was somehow magical. This, if we could get through the dark times of loss and chaos, was something to look forward to.

Posted concurrently at Energy Bulletin

Monday, March 21, 2005

Girls of Grass Valley Just Want to Have Fun

So how do two exhaustively informed, save-the-world, eco-justice-peace activists take a vacation? We book a weekend with our girls in Grass Valley. Our friendship with Diane and Ellen, having survived a three week tour of Italy, now transcends idiosyncrasies and rests on a deeper appreciation and interest in each others' well being. Catherine and I took a couple of days off and drove up for a four-day stay at their classic miner's cabin home in Grass Valley. I called it my reading vacation although it was just as likely to be an eating vacation. Diane had taken over the guest room with projects so we were to stay in the dungeon. What else to call a windowless basement room made of large mortared rocks? She had decorated it in her shabby chic romantic style with a Victorian nude on the wall and Mardi gras masks she got in Venice. Most of the time, though, we would spend in their mint ice cream colored kitchen with its red accents and black and white checked floor. It was here that we would eat and dish while the three dogs scrambled around our legs for toys and favors.

Diane had such an eye for decorating that she was able to visualize the house fully transformed even when it was a burned out shell, which it was when they bought it. The bathroom had been amply enlarged to fit a claw tub and exuded a spacious luxury, while the tiny dining room it opened out into was now further accessorized by the addition of a yellow tiki bar placed at an angle to the lavender walls. She pointed out her most recent addition - a 50's style television. "I want to take the insides out, put a black and white monitor in there and run "I love Lucy" episodes." she told us. " Wouldn't that be fun?" I didn't know, my priorities had been so long out of touch with what was "fun". I did know that Diane had the makings of a career in decorating. During our last visit we had both encouraged her to hang out a shingle and try her luck. She had indeed landed a prospect after putting an ad in the paper. The prospect loved visiting her house and now wanted Diane to give her an estimate on decorating her entire house. I coached her not to set her price too low.

Then it was Diane's turn to give me a tutorial. She had just sold her first item on e-Bay - a dish set that she got for $9 at a garage sale, sold for $400 to a woman who already loved that particular pattern. She offered to show me how to set up an auction. I sat on a bar stool looking over her shoulder as she hunt and pecked out a headline that was practically a foreign language. "So, so 80's costume jewelry, rockabilly, bo ho."

"Bo ho as in bohemian?" I asked.

"Yes, I can sell anything if I call it rockabilly bo ho."

The item in question was a stylized lion's head medallion on a colorful beaded necklace. She then typed a little story about how she had worn this piece with her jumpsuit. "I looked hot and you will too!" she finished. "You go girl," I said catching on. The picture she had taken didn't look quite right, so I was soon persuaded to take my shirt off and model it wearing a dark red shawl that was draped over the hall mirror. Just at that moment the camera ran out of batteries and we broke for dinner. Over spare ribs, Chinese chicken salad, muffins, chicken breasts, asparagus, potatoes and ice cream, which Ellen had picked up on the way home from work, we discussed current events.

"I didn't use to be political," Diane said, "but now I'm reading Molly Ivin's book and she wrote about the same damn things happening in the 70's. This stuff has been going on forever."

"I know, try going back to the 1850's. It was even worse then," I added.

"I think I was better off not knowing," Diane lamented. It was a sentiment expressed by many of my friends who had not before been interested in politics. What to do now that they knew the truth of our countries destructive policies?

But for now I was on vacation. I didn't even pick up the book I was currently reading on the history of our culture's hate crimes. Instead I delved into the four books I had brought to improve my computer skills. I was hot to set up a website.

I didn't think I needed a website, because my clients did not come to me through the internet; they found me in the yellow pages or were referred to me by their friends or better yet their therapist. Recently one had lost my number and was trying to Google me. Of the four pages brought up by my name, no entry easily accessed my contact information, yet all the obscure lesbian journals and anthologies I had ever written for were all listed.

Unlike a visual artist whose work would more likely enhance their day job, my writing was not easily shared with my clients. I wanted to distract them from my self-expression by building a website for my business that would appear at the top of the Google page. That was the plan. On the way to learning how to build websites, I discovered the Blogosphere and my writer's ego again won out. (Such is the Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde story of my life).

A blog, short for web log, is the self-publishing domain of writers and many more just terrible would-be writers as well as non-writers who just want to share some information. The first blog I looked at was put up by a fellow Sparrow owner wanting to share their adventures with the car. For the internet surfer, a blog is still a website, accessed in much the same way as other websites, but the archiving format gives the reader the equivalent of finding a diary open to the last entry. This ongoing living commentary is the appeal for readers who bookmark the site and keep coming back for the next installment.

My high-tech readers had been urging me to have a blog so they could find my articles if they got lost in the e-mail queue. Lost? I hadn't thought of that. Once I looked into blogging, the possibilities exploded in my mind like a freshly opened Christmas present. I could hardly sleep. I was virtually tearing around the room in my excitement as I prepared to play with this new toy. It would be a way to organize my articles, store them and show them to new readers. I could post pictures, link to other sites and be seen by strangers, possibly even be discovered, say if I happened to witness the next tsunami or sit next to a shoe bomber. I opened an account at host to 100,000 mostly free blogs. I modeled my blog after the blogs of professional writers who used their name as the name of their site.

"Help me find a nickname," I asked my friends at breakfast after perusing the photo site on Diane's computer.

Since cannot also host pictures, my photos would be stored online at The site catered to Mac users, which may account for the creative bent of the photos. You could see the pictures as they were being uploaded. It was better than surfing 500 cable channels. Dressed up bull dogs, gay boyfriends, girls in Singapore, a man in his hospital bed, art shots, travel shots, stunning nature photography, Sponge Bob and a jar of marmite go to Ecuador. I loved the slice of life of it, the spontaneity of it. It was like being in a glass bottom boat only the fish had names. Every photo had a user name attached to it. Funny names, mysterious names, creative names and wacky ones.

"How about Amanda Bangkok," I asked my friends.

"That sounds like a hooker," said Diane. Oops, yes, so it did.

"Amanda Noo," I tried out adding my Thai name. No response.

"You need a name that goes with what you're trying to sell," said Diane who was still thinking of e-Bay.

Diane's e-Bay name was Phoebelina, named after one of her dogs. I thought through animal names looking for creatures that did service to the earth and were sorely underrated. Of course - the earthworm.

"How about Earthworm?" I announced.

"That could work." said Diane assessing its uniqueness.

That morning one of Diane's auctions ended - an antique baby doll sold for $100, the same price she had bought it for. No bids yet for the Stetson in its original box. That evening she would have a friend come over to be photographed wearing a vintage dress that she would also e-Bay. "Anastasia loves lesbians," she said intriguingly. She didn't tell us that she was also looking for a lesbian lover, though she was already married to a sweet and accommodating man and they had two children between them. Diane called her "our little minxie".

The vision of this young woman, pale from lack of sun and dressed all in black, with dyed black, straight hair was hardly what we had come to expect in the redneck/hippie dichotomy of Grass Valley. Anastasia was trouble. We could see that as soon as she started relating her adventures in the neighborhood bar. Then she addressed Catherine and me as "darlin'" and winked at us when she asked us where the action was in San Carlos. "Well, Trader Joes is quite the happening place," I offered.

As I tried to assess her age and her history, I was taken back to my trawling-for- trouble, black-leather-jacket days of my youth. She was delectable. Once upon a time, I would have spent the entire evening and into the wee hours unraveling the mysteries of such a creature. Now, when I hear aging political activists talk about how so few young people are passionate about politics and social justice, I think - just give them a few years.

The little minxie posed for pictures. Her husband came to join us. He too was dressed all in black. He didn't seem to mind his wife flirting at all, had in fact, Diane told us later, bought his wife a lap dance recently. In the end it was he who showed us all, the remarkable tattoo on her back before she took the dress off. As he traced the outline of the tattoo across her shoulders to just below the waistband of her black tights, he told us that it was a rendering of a piece of jewelry worn by the actress Sarah Bernhardt. It was a stylized dragonfly with spaces where the precious stones had been set. Anastasia turned artfully to give us a glimpse of the nipple rings on her breasts. Of course, she would have nipple rings.

"Are you going to kiss the Goth girl," Catherine asked me when we went shopping by ourselves the next day.

"Only if it would amuse you," I replied.

Kissing women, especially straight ones, was once my most compelling obsession. I thrilled to the chase, the intense friendship, the slow approach, the crossing of the line with the kiss that changed everything.

What thrilled me these days was the dawning of an idea, the waking up to truth, the realization that things were not what we had been told. Perhaps the brain feels the same way about a kiss as it does an idea.

Earthworm. Get yours at