Doom, Gloom and Ka-boom!

May 23, 2008

A few weeks ago I posted a quote from a Bill Mollison interview that included this paragraph:

I can easily teach people to be gardeners, and from them, once they know how to garden, you’ll get a philosopher. But I could never teach people to be philosophers – and if I did, you could never make a gardener out of them.

And now after bemoaning the diet of doom that we get in the peak oil universe I’ve rediscovered this essay by Toby Hemmenway, a permaculturist and philospher who is a great example of what Bill Mollison was talking about.

Toby has this to say about the most common response to a diet of doom:

One of the most common responses to the Peak Oil panic is, “We’re planning on moving to the country with our friends and producing everything we need.” Let me burst that bubble: Back-to-the-landers have been pursuing this dream for 40 years now, and I don’t know of a single homesteader or community that has achieved it.

Toby managed to inspire a bit of hate mail with this series of essay’s, probably as a result of this weird subconsious desire for renewal that exists from one end of our culture to the other.

I’m not a believer in the Peak Oil “end of the world” scenario, where decreasing oil production somehow mutates into the sudden, permanent shutoff of urban water supplies, and contented suburbanites are transformed overnight into looting gangs. Yes, fossil fuels surely will become much more expensive in the next decades, and scarce soon after. I don’t doubt that several tipping points will be broached along the way, with rapid and unexpected changes cascading through society. But civilization won’t end.

I also recently discovered this commennt heading Ran’s Crashwatch page:

When I started this page four years ago, everyone thought that industrial society would keep thriving forever, and I wanted to balance that with evidence that it’s going to crash. Now everyone thinks it’s going to crash, but I’m shocked at how many blows it has taken and how little has changed in daily life

And that’s with a crash that has a decidely engineered look to it. Perhaps then the environment will give us that ultimate catastrophic opportunity for renewal:

I’m no expert on this topic but I am beginning to wonder if we’re getting the real picture on how the environment will cope with it’s own collapse. I’m not a climate change denier in the technology-is-god sense, but any movement that has a member of the elite (Al Gore) leading the charge should immediately be put under the spotlight as far as I’m concerened -and the fact that a person usually gets censured for making such comments in public just makes me want to ask the questions even more.

My trust in our beliefs about the resilience of the planet took another hit when I read this article about jellyfish. I had been lead to believe that nothing could live in these oceanic dead zones that have begun appearing around the planet, (otherwise why call them ‘dead’ zones?), but then I discovered that jellyfish are thriving in them and fisherman who had previously been struggling to make a living are now ‘making easy money’ catching jellyfish for sale in places like Japan.

Naturally there’s plenty in the article that makes for sober reading but when I read about jellyfish thriving in what is referred to as a dead zone I couldn’t help feeling mislead by the information the environmental movement is giving us. What mis-information like this does is give an underlying message about the planet’s ability to cope with change that, logically, must also be wrong but which is slipped in at an almost subconscious level.

So exactly how much is our cultural gravitation toward doom misleading us? I’m certainly not making any predictions of my own but I am wondering if most of the predictions I’m reading are missing an important perspective – a perspective that can only be gained from outside our cultural beliefs about catastrophic endings.

Nothing is certain but I’m fairly confident that it’s the permaculturists who are the most grounded amongst us and that they are the ones, just as Bill Mollison promised, who have the best perspective on our future.


UPDATE: This is what happens when you don’t do proper research: I originally intended to merely post a link to remind people about Toby Hemmenway’s old essay but then all these other connections started popping up and so I prdocued the longer posting above. What I had forgotten however is that Toby has already written an essay covering this exact topic – in greater detail and with proper resaearch and stuff – it’s called Origins of Peak Oil Doomerism and is a much more thorough attempt to get to the bottom of the issue.



  1. I think it’s just a lazy tendency people have: when one perspective fails (everything’s getting better and better!), they immediately bounce to the opposite (everything’s getting worse…)

    It sounds as if they’ve had a real “turnaround” in their thinking, but it’s just a mechanical 180. No intelligence required.

    I think when we don’t have the oil to constantly ravage our environment, it will be back with a bang. But like a healthy ecosystem, that first bang will probably be a worldwide Weed Invasion. This is where the permaculturalists can intervene and aid in the create of win-win (for “the environment” and for us) edible landscapes.

  2. Yeah, and the weed invasion will be seen variously as a sign of the end times, divine punishment or at the very least a retrograde step for life on earth – rather than what it really is which is a very positive sign that the ecosystem is refusing to roll over and give up.

    One thing about people bouncing to the opposite view point is that if they keep thinking they tend to keep bouncing back and forth with less and less wild swings each time until they eventually zero in on where the truth is. I’ve seen this happening with anti civ thinking where we start off all charged up about how evil civilisation is and how it needs to come down and then we come back again and realise that it’s really hard for us now to surivive without civilisation and that we can’t go live in a jungle that easily and so we start looking to negotiate a kind of middle ground.

    The problem that I see with the peak oil predictions is that that process keeps getting derailed by our need for doom.

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