Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Micah Saul: Hey, long time no talk.
Aengus Anderson: Yeah, I know. It’s been…at least five to ten minutes.
Saul: I know, crazy. I smoked an entire cigarette and had two glasses of water.
Anderson: This is really exciting. So. Tomorrow I get on my motorcycle and I ride to Santa Cruz.
Anderson: And I meet up with Jan Lundberg
Saul: This was one of the first interviews we locked down. It was actually number two, I believe, wasn’t it?
Anderson: It was pretty soon. I’d read an interview with him and I was really impressed. If you’re looking for someone who’s willing to sort of question your fundamental truths, Jan is a man who will do that. And I mean he will ask you to rip up the pavement on your block and rethink how you live your life.
Saul: So what are the themes that we want to be carrying forward here?
Anderson: Well, maybe one that we can carry from our conversation with Andrew Keen would be the idea of is this unique historical moment.
Saul: Oh, absolutely.
Anderson: And I think he can give us some interesting thoughts on peak oil. I think he’s willing to speculate on the idea of change and what it takes to trigger change in the same way that Reverend Fife was in the first episode.
Saul: I’d be interested, actually going along those lines also from from Reverend Fife, talking about the the notion of the empire. How do you govern this sort of thing without becoming totalitarian?
Anderson: Right. The tension between the environment and sort of [crosstalk] personal freedom.
Saul: Individual freedom.
Anderson: Yeah. That is a huge issue that I think we haven’t gotten into yet, and this is a good place to sort of embark on that.
Saul: To start there. Yeah.
Saul: Also the anthropocentric versus biocentric view.
Anderson: Yea. I think another thing that I would really like to get to is, because Jan’s position is so different, I mean it is truly like…the idea of depaving in this society is about as heretical—
Saul: It’s anathema.
Anderson: Yeah, as you can get. And so I want to talk to him in the same way that we talked to Peter [Warren] about sort of structurally how do you have the conversation.
Anderson: His views are so out there compared to the mainstream. How could he engage the mainstream? How can he make a difference, and how can he justify his opinions as being good?
Saul: I think that’s probably the place to finish, to go back to our common language. Why is this future good?
Jan Lundberg: I left UCLA to join the family business for a little while in 1972. I ended up staying for fourteen years to get some kind of an apprenticeship or graduate school-type education, and learned about the oil industry.
Anderson: And what was the family business?
Lundberg: Lundberg Survey, which is quoted on major media regarding oil and gasoline prices and supply issues. We predicted the second oil shock in 1979. This is sort of the high water mark of our prestige. And I left in 1986 after my father died. And I subsequently decided that I really didn’t want to be doing work where I paid people to do things that I myself found very unpleasant, like driving around to gas stations all day and collecting data. So I decided to get back into what I was doing in school before going into the family business, and that was environmental activism.
So I thought well if Lester Brown can start Worldwatch Institute and do something meaningful there, I’d better try to do something to use my knowledge to help the earth. And in all this time it seemed that there had to be alternatives to oil and the dominant car and truck transportation, that could be fixed by policy and some nonprofit lobbying grassroots organizing activism as we knew it.
But as it turned out, so much of the environmental movement was already technofix-oriented that the world that I came, from the 60s and 70s was already passé, and for the environmentalists, if you wanted a the respect of government agencies you were trying to influence or to get press attention, you had to be able to sit down at the table and be respected by your opposition and look like them with your suit and tie, and have your lawyers, and participate in compromise. But the first thing that I started thinking about after founding this group that I sort of patterned after Worldwatch was, why isn’t the US conserving energy, and how might the US begin to really conserve energy? And the answers did not lie in more lobbying or electing a better President. And it’s funny how when you leave an industry you can really get some perspective on it after that. One of the first things I learned is that there’s something called peak oil.
Anderson: Can you just define peak oil for me very quickly, for folks who don’t know?
Lundberg: It is the maximum of oil extraction for either a field or a nation or the world. The world hit maximum global oil extraction around 2005, and the implications of that include economic growth is over, population growth cannot be sustained infinitely. Apart from our trashing ecosystem which oughta be factored into, how sustainable things are.
Anderson: So even from a purely anthropocentric standpoint, with no concern for the ecosystem, we are still in trouble because we have passed the point of really great returns on our oil extraction.
Anderson: Okay. So when you have high oil prices, which translates into high food prices, when you have terrible droughts or mixed-up weather, all this is going to hit overpopulated areas and poor populations very hard. It has already begun, it is only going to accelerate. It takes decades for climate change built up in the pipeline to have a visible effect.
Anderson: To manifest in sort of…the actual atmosphere, or—
Lundberg: To actually bite us in the ass.
Anderson: Right. So within the foreseeable future, then, you see us having less and less energy yield per amount that we’re putting into extracting oil?
Lundberg: Oh, that that has been going on for some time. There is no renewable energy substitute for oil, on the scale. So what does that imply? That all the solar panels that you could possibly put up aren’t going to take care of the rusting and at-risk oil infrastructure.
Everything you see around you is a cheap oil infrastructure that was built when there was a huge advantage to producing oil. The net energy yield was as high as 100:1.
Anderson So, oil was essentially so plentiful—
Lundberg: Right. And easy to produce. For the amount of energy you put into something, there is a given energy back. If you don’t get a lot more back, there is no point in doing it. Now, you can subsidize it, as has been done with ethanol. There are many many subsidies now to oil that are needed to keep this going.
When it comes to the world, we’re not going to be getting more oil from Mars to keep up Earth’s oil extraction. So there may not be a gentle downslope mirroring the upslope. What is being extracted is harder to extract, a lower energy yield, it’s dirtier stuff, more hazards like drilling very deep or in arctic conditions. And so there’s an impossibility of continuation of a large consumer population for oil and all it brings.
When you consider geopolitical events impacting the oil supply, this is going to throw a monkey wrench into the distributive system. So it won’t matter how much is in the ground when it’s what’s in the oil market that’ll be the only thing that matters.
Anderson: It seems like you’re thinking about sort of holistic energy systems, and sort of the geopolitical consequences of what they’re doing, whereas I tend to think of like, if there’s oil there it will probably just be distributed and everything will be hunky dory, right?
Lundberg: Okay. Here’s why that is very unlikely. When I speak of geopolitical events, I’m talking about something like the Persian Gulf being bottled up long enough to put a crimp in the oil supply system so that when there is a cut-off of enough oil, say 10% (and for the second oil shock it was 9%)— When that happens again, and enough people can’t drive to their jobs, trucks not pulling into Safeway and Walmart, how long do you think people will just sit and wait for the government to come to the rescue, which hasn’t put in a rationing plan yet for gasoline? We’re not preparing whatsoever. This kind of geopolitical event can cause a final oil crisis.
One of the problems is that when a refinery doesn’t get enough throughput, it ceases to function well. It needs to have a certain level of capacity utilized. There are also other parts of the oil industry that are all related and have to function together. So this table is made of plastic, we’re buying fuels, agriculture is heavily dependent on the petroleum industry. All these areas leave us very vulnerable. And it’s not as if there will be a 10% drop in the reserves ultimately refined. The interruption in supply of refined product on the market, or crude oil about to go into the system: this is our vulnerability.
Anderson: So it’s not even really rooted in the reality of what’s physically there, it’s the distribution.
Lundberg: Well, it is in the sense that peak oil has brought about pressures involving higher prices, harder-to-get oil. Discoveries have peaked. So the overall trend is down. The public gets confused about some news of some big oil find. The average person thinks him or herself to be an oil expert because they happen to buy gasoline, and they figure they know what’s going on around the world that involves oil. But analyzing supply interruption and the implications of that and why there is no technofix waiting in the wings… These are subjects that require a lot of study and also taking one’s personal preferences out of the mix.
But if we are looking at what oil really provides to society, and what keeps us going for essential services and goods, then our life support system is in jeopardy. We are not preparing for peak oil. We are not reorganizing ourselves for a degraded ecosystem. So we are heading headlong into collapse, and this is something that is not being discussed. It is taboo to imagine that the whole growth scheme somehow comes to an end or that there is something like peak oil that doesn’t translate into some transition of renewable energy to make possible a green consumer society with this level of population.
Anderson: So it seems like there is a fundamental issue in the economic model, which depends on constant growth to be seen as healthy. Is that fair?
Lundberg: You can express it that way. The economic model is an expression of our culture. So the reason we’re called Culture Change is that we don’t believe that you can fix the economic model or that you can fix the politics. Because if the culture is very much tolerant of greed and of paving over the best farmland, driving species extinct… This only gives rise to very foolish policies, an economy that may grow in the short term, and that may have some people at the top benefiting fabulously, but has no future. There are blanket assertions about progress and American ingenuity. But some things come to an end. And just because the Roman Empire took centuries to fall doesn’t mean it will take a long time for us to have the same experience. Because there’s never been a time like this where we have this huge population with that one substance being basically key to our survival.
Anderson: In some of the other conversations I’ve had, I’ve spoken to people who are kind of a more futuristic bent, but I think a real subtext of what they’re interested in is the idea that technology can get us out of some binds that we’re in currently. And for a lot of people who I think think about oil, there’s the notion that well, we’ll get to this point, we’ll have a shortage, and the economy will make it so lucrative for an inventor to figure out something that sort of solves this for us, be it fracking or something else entirely that we haven’t dreamt up yes, we’ll get out of this okay. What do you think the likelihood is that we have that sort of unexpected solution?
Lundberg: Nil. And these people are indulging in magical thinking. They’re getting their own insecurities and hopes and dreams mixed up with an objective analysis with what is going on. It’s as if they pay no mind to the fact that the web of life is being slashed apart as we speak. Are we not part of it?
So when these concerns are brushed aside, one wishes that there will be an answer to peak oil and climate change, and that with positive attempts and projects and happy thinking we will manifest a consciousness shift that will somehow solve these scary issues so there won’t be resource problems. This is a very common strain in thinking of educated people who mean very well. And I don’t like to put down the potential of positive thinking. Because after all, our thoughts are real and have an impact. But looking objectively at what is happening to resources hitting their limits, we’re going to hit some really rough spots in the road and have to lift ourselves up from the rubble once the dust clears, to create a truly sustainable culture. It will be possible it will be a successful new phase in humanity’s time on earth. And the reason I’m so optimistic is that if I’m wrong there won’t be anybody around to say.
Lundberg: We have we have to get ourselves together.
Anderson: Because there’s no option?
Lundberg: That’s right.
Anderson: I think that’s the perfect transition point to… Here’s a moment where we’ve discussed the present and a crisis that we’re facing. What do we want the future to look like?
Lundberg: In our own history and experience, we have the alternative at hand. The victory gardens in World War II were about depaving and about food not lawns. If you want to really simplify where we have to get to and how we deal with the present system as long as it is still dominant, it might be to simply boycott petroleum, emancipate ourselves from external complex systems as much as possible. And that means making our food supply local. It means improving our skills that are basic for survival instead of relying on distant experts or people who are so specialized they know nothing about anything else.
Anderson: Is this a model that scalable to the population we currently have?
Lundberg: It’s been going on since time immemorial. Basically, tribal societies that took care of each other, and they happen to revere nature and take of—
Anderson: Right. I’m just thinking, because those times on the planet, the planet was carrying significantly fewer people. Is that something we can still do with this number of people?
Lundberg: No. There are too many people to go back to the land. So, to look at the unpleasant aspects of what we have to deal with, there will be a decrease in population.
Anderson: Are you optimistic about human nature, in that do you think if a crisis like that happened… I mean, when I think about this it seems like it could go two ways, right? We could pull together, or we can break apart.
Lundber: Well, breaking apart can be good if it’s political, and we have bioregional economies, plural, using their own ecosystems and being linked by sale transport. Now, that’s a breaking apart that can be healthy.
Now, what we don’t want to break apart is what’s left of community, or the ecosystem to break apart any further.
Anderson: And that’s more what I was thinking of, some sort of crisis causing people to basically not work together when they need to work together.
Lundber: Well, there there will be both impulses. There will be the survival of, “How much water do I have? Oh, there’s no water coming out of the tap. What do I do?” Maybe I’ll take it by force, commit violence.
Lundberg: There will be other people out there more desperate. Some have guns, some do not.
Anderson: It’s very Hobbesian.
Lundberg: Well, that’s an aspect of it, but to limit our humanity with that kind of short-term scenario I think is unnecessary. Because people will have to come together, especially those who have survived A culling of the mass of the surplus humanity. You can say that someone is a doom and gloomer who brings up these issues, who does not see a lot of hope for being able to minimize all the pain.
I am optimistic about the long term. There are important reasons to emphasize the positive and show people alternatives. So if you have the models of sustainability, the tools of sustainability in place, and information is available for people to implement this, that may be the best this so-called movement can accomplish before the crisis really hits its height.
Anderson: That sort of thinking is is frightening to confront, especially if you feel like you might be one of those surplus people who’s going to get culled in the crisis. It’s hard to find long-term solace in the notion that things will eventually equalize.
Lundberg: Right, but our time as earthlings is brief. To discuss mortality and to discuss limits is very unpleasant or scary for people.
Anderson: So, it seems like a big theme that we’re talking about here, that kind of underlies a lot of our conversation, is a shift from sort of an individualistic world to one that is focused a little bit on the community.
Lundberg: Very much so. And that is our big salvation. The answer to almost all our problems, individually and collectively, is having community. Look at Manhattan, look at Wall Street. There are twenty-five million people in that metropolitan area. Where are they getting their food from? When the supermarket shelves are stripped after a few days of significant oil supply shortfall, what are people going to do to share and to get local food production going? How fast can a depaving happen?
So how do we get to the point where we are happily operating on a community basis, and the culture is integrated for co-survival and mutual aid?
Anderson: Can a society that leans towards the individualist makes decisions that would avert a crisis like this? In a way, I mean this is sort of the economics model. Can enough people come to the decision that, “Oh, we need to do these things or we’ll face a crisis,” or is that something that we have to actually restructure society to work in a different way that thinks more collectively?
Lundberg: The latter. We will have to go through the pain of seeing the failure of this model. It’s too late for changing the oil infrastructure. This was confirmed by a peak oil study done for the US Energy Department known as The Hirsch Report. It found that without adequate preparation of decades before peak oil hits, you have a problem that will escape the ability of government and industry to properly plan for it.
Anderson: It seems like in order to address these, in order to have that sort of collective thinking, there has to be a sacrifice of certain elements of individual liberty. Is there a tension there?
Lundberg: When you speak of liberty, is this the freedom to go shopping to satisfy everything we want?
Lundberg: Okay. [Both laugh] There are some of us in this little world apart from the mainstream that takes pride in simple living…
Anderson: I’m just thinking in a society where you have all sorts of different people, and a lot of people have extreme individualism as a value, where they feel that they should be able to do anything as long as it doesn’t have direct negative ramifications on someone else—
Lundberg: These people are going to have a rude awakening. What we’ve seen so far in terms of crisis and insoluble problems, this is the calm before the storm. There is so far for us to fall as a culture and civilization that has depended on expansion, unlimited resources, population growth as a way to keep up a cheap labor supply… You can only go so far with this model. And the trouble we have in public discourse is, is there another answer waiting out there to make all the problems go away and deliver us from any unpleasant lifestyle change?
We don’t really have an energy crisis, we have a culture crisis. Very little will change while there is ample petroleum and cash. You can have organizations, movements, excellent political candidates. But until people have to work together for their common survival, they will continue to dream of their castle in the sky, or owning an island and not having to be responsible to everybody else, including all other species.
Anderson: If we dive beneath the conversation we’ve been having here and we talk about the underlying sense of good, for some people I’ve spoken to, the idea of the good has been personal freedom. The more choices you have, that is good. Everyone is essentially fulfilling themselves through their own individual agency. What’s the sense of good that underlies the conversation we’ve been having?
Lundberg: A liberation from materialism. Things are probably at the root of what you described as this freedom to do one’s own thing and be an individual. Take away the material things, how free are those people? They’re really not. They bought into a slave system where they have to work work work to buy stuff. If you are are doing what you really believe in and are free to do it and your time is your own, those are big ifs. So the average worker or successful person or very wealthy person really doesn’t have that kind of freedom. They don’t have community. Oops. They don’t have a clean ecosystem. Oops. They’re vulnerable to petrocollapse. Ooh.
Anderson: So we have inhabit a world of all these different people with all these different ideas. We have a future that we’re all going to be living and together. Are we talking about that now?
Lundberg: Very few people are talking about that. It’s politically incorrect to bring up negative stuff like population growth, climate change… None of this is being questioned or discussed by the mainstream. On the other hand, more and more people have a basic distrust of the system that was supposed to take care of them and allow them to have the American Dream. I guess the the conversation to me is it boils down to, do people want to talk about real stuff?
Anderson: How do we bring these different people together? Are we doomed to have these different—like the technofix people talking to each other, and environmental activists talking to each other, or can we have a bigger conversation where we get lots of different parties around the table to talk about the future?
Lundberg: Usually there will be a crying need for that to be satisfied. I don’t think this conversation is going to happen with all parties being equally represented. We can compromise to a point, we can work within this system as long as it is functioning, but when the system itself is lethal and its days are numbered why should we put a lot of stock in a bad compromise? Not that either side is all right or all wrong. But whatever’s workable and has a long term future ought to be the priority.
Anderson: I really wonder how many people will be at the table. How many people will never want to have that conversation? And at the end of the day if they volitionally choose to pursue a lifestyle up to the very end, to what extent is that something we should respect, as a cultural difference?
Lundberg: Their right to do that, you mean?
Lundberg: Well. You have to draw the line to say that no, freedom does not include driving other species extinct. Sorry. What is the only model we have of sustainability? It is the thousands and thousands of years of indigenous traditional ways. If that isn’t being considered, we’re missing something and that we may not make it as a species.
Anderson: Is this a type of environmental fundamentalism?
Lundberg: Oh, you can call that fundamentalism, you can call it a limited spiritual moral position. But if Mother Earth is all we have, it is valid to revere the Earth. And some people don’t want to hear “no.” A child does not want to hear, “No, you can’t.” But sometimes that’s the real situation. No, the child can’t run into the freeway and play. There are some things that the adult has to say, “Sorry, that’s it.”
So for the numbers of individualistic humans out there who want to have no restriction on their enjoyment of our home, then they are sociopathic and they are cutting their own throat if they are indeed part of this ecosystem, and may need to know their neighbors tomorrow. Without that basic human togetherness that has allowed us to get here in the first place, if we don’t uphold that and strengthen those connections, then the individual has no future.
Micah Saul: Damn.
Aengus Anderson: Yeah, how about that? So, we got a lot of heavy stuff head on. What struck you?
Saul: First and foremost, one of the things I was really hoping to get from him from the second that we first added him to our list was, we’re going to have a lot of doomsayers in this project, I think. Jan Lundberg had the numbers, had the stats, had run the models.
Micah Saul: He was able to point at the systems and say, “Hey look at this. We’re jacked.”
Aengus Anderson: That impressed me. He had such a holistic understanding, and I think he did a very good job of tying them all together in a way that’s compelling. I think was also interesting that he sees activism as so…not that effective, until we hit a crisis point.
Saul: So, actually that just made me think of something else. He didn’t talk about, we’re going to hit peak oil. Lundberg was the first person I have ever heard say, “Oh yeah. No no. We’ve hit peak oil.”
Anderson: His assertions are very strong. I think…you know, we’ve we’ve already talked to some interviewees previously who have a lot of faith that technology or the markets or innovation will solve things, and that technology doesn’t exist yet or those resources haven’t been discovered yet or we don’t know that they’re valuable yet—
Micah Saul: Oh, and Lundberg was so dismissive of that very notion.
Aengus Anderson: Yeah, and it seems like those are really interesting because that’s something that I don’t think you can necessarily empirically prove. That’ll have a lot to—
Saul: It’s faith.
Anderson: Yeah. And there’s a sense of human nature, and a sense of history that goes into it, but at the end of the day no one has any idea what the probability is for us to develop that silver bullet that solves this problem.
Micah Saul: Right.
Aengus Anderson: And yet, Lundberg isn’t a pessimist.
Saul: And he believes that after the scariness, things will return to some sort of equilibrium.
Anderson: The problem I have with that is that we look to the past as a model, but we can’t quite go back. Well, for one because so little is actually known about that sort of deep, unrecorded past. We don’t know if those models were sustainable. There are things in archaeology which would indicate that people hunted animals to extinction in very primitive states. I’m not sure I buy the idea that going back gives us a model of sustainability per se. Or maybe I shouldn’t say going back, but going forward into a way that is much more materially stripped-down and is also…well, stripped down in terms of population.
Micah Saul: Oh. Yeah.
Aengus Anderson: And that’s actually something I think we should address.
Saul: Yeah. The culling.
Anderson: Yeah. It’s hard to go through this and not hear that phrase. What does that mean? Does it mean we have six billion people die off, and is that something that happens through people not reproducing? Is it something that happens through social strife. Does it happen through disease. Does it happen through war?
Saul: Doesn’t happen through…yeah.
Anderson: I’m not comfortable feeling good about that because, why do I have the feeling that I’ll be one of the ones culled?
Anderson: So I don’t really like that model.
Anderson: I want to have a shot at something, because I’m not a good survivalist. And I think it would be interesting to put Lundberg and Fife in a room together. Can you talk about the idea of culling of population so comfortably if you believe that there’s a sanctity to human life, that life is made in God’s image, right?
Saul: Right. Along those lines, he’s one of our first that we can really say this is a biocentric view as opposed to anthropocentric view, right. We are merely a part of the larger system.
Anderson: Can anthropocentrists, say someone like Dr. More, have a conversation with biocentrists like Jan Lundberg?
Saul: They’d have plenty to talk about. I don’t get the feeling they’d be able to talk about it. There’s a certain surety that most environmentalists have and that most futurists have that would get in the way of being able to make any sort of compromises.
Anderson: It seems like Jan would feel that you cannot have ways of being that ultimately come at the expense of other life forms. Is that fundamentalism? When many other people disagree with your every underlying assumption?
Saul: You understand why I’m having such a hard time answering that, because it’s hard to describe your own personal beliefs as a fundamentalist belief.
Anderson: Yeah. Though Dr. More said in his case he felt a lot of people who were fundamentalists never came under that name.
Saul: Yeah. Of course. He also seemed very against the idea that anything he was saying could possibly be considered a fundamentalism.
Anderson: What if the biocentric people are right? What if compromising a little and letting individualism trump the collective leads to collapse?
Saul: Then here comes collapse. We talked earlier on about what to what to call the project, and I proposed The Cassandra Project.
Anderson: Can we change the name mid-project?
Saul: No, I mean I think honestly that’s a scary thought.
Anderson: Well, let’s leave it there.
Anderson: On that cheery note…
Saul: Hopefully we’ll talk to you next time.
Anderson: But if the crisis hits, I want to know where you’re storing your canned foods.
That was Jan Lundberg recorded May 18, 2012 in Santa Cruz, California.
Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at findtheconversation.com
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.