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Column by George Sibley

Energy – October 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

WE’VE HAD SOME semi-heated discussions recently, over here in the Upper Gunnison valley, about the challenge of getting people to face up to “inconvenient realities.” One inconvenience is the double-jawed energy vise closing in on American society today — on one hand, the global build-up of greenhouse gases, which is delivering scientifically predicted results even faster than the scientists had predicted; and on the other hand, the growing inability of petroleum production to keep up with growing demands long-term, which is driving up the price of literally everything we depend on.

Again and again, there’s a piece of conventional wisdom that gets dropped authoritatively in these discussions, as though it were real wisdom: “Scare tactics just don’t work.” And “scare tactics” are conventionally defined as any effort to stimulate public thinking on circumstances that are going to necessitate changes. Basically, just bringing up the inconvenient realities of our times leads to accusations of using scare tactics.

For example, an organization I participate in recently held an “Energy Summit” to initiate the creation of local “Energy Action Plans” with the dual goals of 1) reducing the huge amount of money we send out of the valley for energy resources, and 2) reducing the contribution to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from using those imported resources — a buildup that is predicted to contribute to climate changes that will be very unfriendly to our resort and tourist economy. I fully support both goals. But — over my protest — we have decided to focus on the first goal of economic savings “because if we talk about greenhouse gases and responsibility to the planet we’ll just get into arguments about whether climate change is ‘real’ or not.” We’ll be accused of scare tactics, in other words.

I can live with that focus as a short-term strategy, but I can’t imagine it is going to work for the long-term effort this particular situation is going to demand of us all. We are presumably going to be trying to at least match the state’s “Climate Action Plan” goal of a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, and probably something along the lines of an 80 percent reduction by 2050 — the amount most scientists say we need to shoot for to avoid major climatic chaos globally. (If you weren’t aware that Colorado has a “Climate Action Plan,” you might want to check it out at link.

When we start talking about something that needs to be done by 2020, we are talking about the kind of public commitment that President Kennedy called for from the nation when he challenged us to put a man on the moon by 1970, an act that required not just a redirecting and focusing of public resources, but also the creation of a public will, both transcending conventional economic behavior. And when we talk about something that needs to be done by 2050, we are talking about an even larger project, on a multigenerational scale; today’s high school kids will be the grandparent generation by 2050. The only comparable American infrastructure effort here would be the Interstate Highway system — and that is probably a good comparison for what the transition to a sustainable and environmentally benign energy economy will demand in the way of both dollars and public will.

We have to move into something like that with a level of seriousness, vision and dedication that is not easy or natural for Americans, or maybe any humans — a level that almost certainly transcends our desire as economic individuals to just cut our energy bills. It basically requires the cultural evolution of a fundamentally changed attitude toward the planet we live on. Barack Obama is on the mark when he says (in his 8/28 acceptance speech) that challenges like this “will require a renewed sense of responsibility from each of us to recover what John F. Kennedy called our ‘intellectual and moral strength.'”

THE “FIRST OIL CRISES” in the 1970s showed the limits of depending on “rational economic behavior” to address long-term challenges. It showed that we will in fact make rational economic decisions for conservation and efficiency in the first flush of a crisis. But as soon as we get used to a modest doubling of gas prices, we slip back into old habits. And despite the warnings from respected figures like M. King Hubbert, who had already accurately predicted the peak and decline of production in the United States, and was predicting a global peak and decline relatively early in the 21st century, we rationalized that we could stop being “personally virtuous,” and go back to being short-term, live-for-today Americans. Imagine how far along we might be now, had we taken Hubbert, Jimmy Carter and other “voices in the wilderness” seriously in the late 1970s about the finitude of petroleum and the need to transcend “economic rationality” in order to launch the move toward alternatives.

But even today — what I hear is: “What, petroleum, finite? There he goes again! Scare tactics! Chicken Little running around saying the sky is falling!”

So I’m not going to waste my space here trying to persuade anyone about whether this energy vise really exists. Instead, I want to look at this phenomenon of unwillingness to confront inconvenient realities. This vise closing down on us is no longer just the jeremiads of a few voices crying in the wilderness; the scientific evidence today for greenhouse gas impacts on the climate is massive, and most petroleum company officials acknowledge that oil production is never again — never — going to grow as fast as demand.

SO IN THE FACE OF THAT, why are we spending so much time and intellectual energy in denying problems that we could otherwise be investing that time and energy in addressing?

The closest I can come to an explanation is through the observations of the European physician Elizabeth K├╝bler-Ross, on what she called “the Grief Cycle.” Communicating with patients who had been diagnosed with a serious medical situation, and with their families, she observed that they go through a cycle of responses in coming to terms with their situation (from the “” website):

Shock stage: Initial paralysis at hearing bad news.

Denial stage: Trying to avoid the inevitable.

Anger stage: Frustrated outpouring of bottled-up emotion.

Bargaining stage: Seeking in vain for a way out.

Depression stage: Final realization of the inevitable.

Testing stage: Seeking realistic solutions.

Acceptance stage: Finding a way forward that encompasses the hard reality.

So am I suggesting that America is in some kind of a grieving process? Well, someone give me a better explanation for the massive quantities of denial and anger boiling over in American society today. I see it in myself: the extravagant “carbon buttprint” I’ve piled up just this summer in traveling all over the place despite “knowing better”; the guilt I feel when I hop in the car to do something I could do on my bike “because I’m running a little late,” and the unfocused resentment such acts lead to; and all the other ways in which I’m failing to measure up to what I know I need to be doing instead. I’m basically, probably genetically, a Democrat which means I mostly get angry at myself; what’s really alarming is the growing American rage that projects our denial and anger outward on everyone from hard-working immigrants to Iraqis to anyone or anything that reminds us of our inconvenient realities.

So what is it we are grieving for? I think we are all in some stage of grieving for our beautiful lost America — the continent of low-hanging fruit, land of milk and honey. We are in shock and denial at the very idea that we have picked all the low-hanging fruit, drank up all the easy milk and honey. We know, deep down, that that is gone forever. And we get really angry at anyone who dares to say it out loud. Scare tactics! Chicken Little!

THIS HIGH-GRADING of a continent is the joker in the American deck. To be sure, Americans have always worked hard for what they received. But we have also been working with a rich continent that had a lot of low-hanging fruit. And we know we have squandered a lot of that wealth; to some extent, the squandering has become the national character. In the standard human imperial fashion, we’ve moved on from squandering our own wealth to buying, borrowing or just taking a lot of the rest of the wealth of the world. That early easy wealth has led a lot of us to think we have a god-given right to everything we want — and don’t owe anyone anything for any of it.

“America, we are a better country than this,” Obama said. “America, now is not the time for small plans.”

But we’re going to have to get past a lot of denial and anger before we’re ready to face up to that, and start rebuilding an honest society that fits within the limitations of our beautiful planet.

George Sibley writes from Gunnison, where he has attempted retirement from Western State College. *