In a World Short Of Oil, Provisions Must Be MadeMr. Wissner of Middleville Stocks Up on Rice, Gold; No Faith in a 'Techno Fix'
Wall Street Journal; Page A1
January 26, 2008
By NEIL KING JR.
MIDDLEVILLE, Mich. -- It was around midnight one evening in November when Aaron Wissner shot up in bed, jolted awake by a fear: He wasn't fully ready for the day when the world starts running low on oil.
Yes, he had tripled the size of the garden in front of the tidy white-clapboard house he shares with his wife and infant son. He had stacked bags of rice in his new pantry, stashed gold valued at $8,000 in his safe-deposit box and doubled the size of the propane tank in his yard.
"But I felt panicky, like I needed more insurance," he says. So the 38-year-old middle-school computer teacher put on his jacket and drove to an all-night gas station, where he filled three, five-gallon jugs with gasoline.
"It was a feel-good moment," says his wife, Kimberly Sager. "But he slept better."
Mr. Wissner has had more than a few fretful nights since he became "peak-oil aware," as he calls it, about 30 months ago. In embracing the theory that the world's oil production is about to peak, Mr. Wissner has tossed himself into a movement that is gaining thousands of adherents, egged on by soaring oil prices, the rarity of big new oil finds and writings on the Internet.
There are now dozens of "relocalization" working groups scattered from Maine to Southern California pushing for people to spurn cars, buy local produce and work where they live. Mr. Wissner's own congressman, a Republican nuclear physicist named Vernon Ehlers, is part of the 13-member congressional Peak Oil Caucus formed in late 2005. City councils from Bloomington, Ind., to Portland, Ore., have passed peak-oil resolutions to gird for the looming crunch.
Many converts, like Houston oil banker Matthew Simmons, remain firm members of the suit-and-tie energy establishment. Others have gone "off-grid," cutting ties to the mainstream economy and growing yams in their garden as they wait for the coming chaos. Mr. Wissner and his wife fall somewhere in the middle -- alienated by a car-obsessed culture, but still part of it.
Ms. Sager remembers well her husband's conversion. She returned home one afternoon in August 2005, from her job as a software engineer for General Electric Aviation and found him at his computer, deep into a Web site he had found while researching gas prices called lifeaftertheoilcrash.net.
"He sat me down and said, 'Do you think this is a hoax?' " she recalls. "And there went the next two hours."
"Dear Reader," the Web site announced: "Civilization as we know it is coming to an end." Oil supplies are dwindling just as world demand soars. The result: oil prices "will skyrocket, oil dependent economies will crumble, and resource wars will explode." From there, Mr. Wissner plunged into a burgeoning literature arguing that soaring energy costs will put a halt to globalization and the American way of life. His forebodings -- of banks faltering, of food running out -- have turned him into a peak-oil proselytizer in this staid farm community just south of Grand Rapids.
The experience has been intense for his wife, too. While she shares his concerns, "there have been times," she says, "when he thinks of nothing else."
Three weeks after their first immersion, the couple drove to a peak-oil conference in Ohio, where lecturers showered them with statistics on demand curves and oil-field depletion rates. Then, at a conference in Denver, a man in a chicken suit called them crazies as he passed our fliers arguing that the world still has plenty of oil.
Mr. Wissner says he used to be a "techno-science lover" who believed that technology could solve everything. But he left Denver convinced that "no techno-fix was going to save us." Electric cars, biodiesel, nuclear power, wind and solar -- none of it will cushion the blow. "What I saw looming," Mr. Wissner later wrote, "was the very real possibility of the collapse of the global economy." The question was, what to do about it?
Mr. Wissner, with the earnestness of the math major he was, ticked off the steps he's taken to prepare: the insulated windows, the new drapes, the higher-efficiency light bulbs, the pantry, the garden, the gold.
The Wissners have yet to replace their old cars, a 1993 four-cylinder Ford Mustang and a 1999 Pontiac Grand Prix, both of which get less than 25 miles per gallon. Mr. Wissner plans to ditch the Mustang, a remnant of his pre-peak oil days, but is loath to pay for a hybrid. "The more you spend, the bigger your carbon footprint," he says, adding that he heard it takes 75 barrels of oil to build a new car. He's in the market for a small used car.
Weeks after the holidays, an artificial Christmas tree still glittered in the living room of their three-level house, perched on a rise among a string of similar houses a few miles from Middleville. His wife, bouncing their six-month-old son Michael in her lap, allowed that what they've done so far isn't enough. "It's still window dressing, really," she says.
Mr. Wissner has thrown most of his energy into giving lectures on peak oil in and around Middleville, complete with handouts and PowerPoint slides.
On a recent chilly Saturday evening, more than 60 people packed into Middleville's EMS Building for a film and talk hosted by Mr. Wissner. Some drove hours to be there. As Ms. Sager set out plates of home-baked cookies and cups of coffee, her husband arranged his library of recommended peak-oil books and videos, with titles like "Collapse," "The Long Emergency" and "Crude Awakening."
José Blanco, a jolly retired furniture salesman, was one of many in attendance who said they've become peak-oil converts thanks to Mr. Wissner's talks. Mr. Wissner makes no money from his activism, though when he speaks he takes up a collection to cover his expenses. Mr. Blanco is now helping him organize an international peak-oil conference in Grand Rapids later this year. By then, Mr. Blanco hopes to have to retrofit his 1997 Mercedes-Benz diesel to run on vegetable oil. "Then I'll just pull in to a McDonald's and fill up for free," he says.
Mr. Wissner occasionally tosses some lessons on oil into his computer teachings at Wayland Union Middle School. One recent morning, with a snowstorm swirling outside, he showed the class a video clip, "Our Oil Addiction." Then he asked what would happen if oil grew so scarce that gas prices soared to $10 a gallon or more? Hands shot up. "We'd ride horses," said one boy. "We'd pick all our crops by hand and ride bikes," offered a second. One kid in back earned some laughs when he tossed out, "We've all got plenty of gas."
At home, the big question now is whether to take the plunge, sell the house, and move to their dream plot in the woods. There would have to be good water nearby, and reliable wind for power. Sunlight would be important, and good soil for crops. "I want a house that can cool and heat itself without using any fuel or electricity whatsoever," Mr. Wissner says.
In the dining room, their son gurgled and cooed as Ms. Sager spooned baby food into his open mouth. "We're not there yet," she said. "It's easy to forget that growing your own food is a lot of work."
Write to Neil King Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org
Links to Original Article
NOTES to FOLLOW the STORY - January 27, 2008
This article in the Wall Street Journal was about me, Aaron Wissner, author of this web site. What follows are my various comments, thoughts, and observations on this single snapshot into my life and the issue of peak oil.
The "Lead in"
Several have asked about the first few paragraphs of the article.
Apparently, the location on the front page of the WSJ where this story ran is reserved for "offbeat" type stories. The frequent readers know this, so it only makes sense that my midnight errand was the first part of the article. Not only did it capture the attention of the readers, but also, without that little "offbeat" moment, how would Neil have written the story so the WSJ editors would give it space on the front page?
The fretful evening coincided with a run up in oil prices not long after the ASPO-USA conference. Since I know that oil is worth over a whole lot more than most people imagine, I definitely got worried that the market would do something rash and let the price spin uncontrollably upwards. October and November are the two months that worry me most, particularly given the timing of past stock market events.
For those who think I'm "nuts" or "off my rocker" to go to the store at midnight, let me share a reflection: A couple times a year, I find myself getting up at night to search for an odd sound, or to make sure the doors are all locked, or the windows all closed, or the lights all off, or because I can't sleep, thinking about a big upcoming event, like the first day of school or a big talk. If I can do something to ease my mind, to rest better, then I normally do that.
The "Rebadge" of the Article
On the day of publication, according to the WSJ online site, the story was in the top 10 for most read, and also for most emailed.
The story is even being "rebadged", retitled and re-blurbed as follows...
Preparing for the Worst Oil ShockInteresting how an article can be headlined one way to attract print readers, and another way to attract online readers...
Troubled by the theory that the world's oil production is about to peak, thousands of people are spurning cars, buying local produce and working from their homes as they gird for the looming crunch.
From the WSJ Online Home Page, Jan. 27, 2008
Am I a "Doomer"
Not so much, although I think that things like the great depression and hyperinflation and stagflation and etc. have happened before (or so I've read and been told my whole life).
As Neil points out in the article...
Mr. Wissner has thrown most of his energy into giving lectures on peak oil...In fact, last week I sent in the "Articles of Incorporation" for a brand new nonprofit to do exactly this. The name is "Local Future", meaning that the global economy will be losing importance, as local economies become essential in individuals day to day lives. Visit the site "Local Future" and see what we're up to in Middleville.
Just to clarify, a "safe-deposit box" is a small metal locked box, amongst many other small metal locked boxes, all locked together inside a big thick bank vault, at an even bigger alarm and guard protected bank; and, in this case, the bank is miles from my house.
We have no gold at home, although I do have some old junk in the garage I'd like to get rid of. ;-)
For more on buying gold, read "Gold!!! A Store of Value in the Peak Oil Era?"
Others Discussing this Article
For some other interesting discussion on the article, try:
* The Oil Drum -- http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3553/2958
* Peak Oil.com -- http://www.peakoil.com/fortopic35923.htm
And, of course, if you want to hear from some people who vehamently deny (for whatever reason) that oil is a finite, limited, non-renewable resource, beyond all logic and all scienctific peer reviewed science... try these links:
10 p.m. - Jan. 27 - Here are two others I just found. Lot's of comments, some of them are actually quite insightful.
What a wonderful, amazing, mixed up world we live in, no? ;-)
THE VIDEO and a CLARIFICATION on PEAK AND PLATEAU
This story was accompanied by an dot drawing of me, as well as a 3 minute video about peak oil. Here is the caption under the video:
Aaron Wissner, a Grand Rapids, Mich., middle-school computer instructor, is part of a growing community of so-called peakniks, who are convinced that peak oil production is nigh and that there will be difficult consequences.The video came out quite well. It shows our big garden, oversized propane tank, and stocked shelves in the pantry. We recorded about 40-minutes of Q&A. I'm glad the editor chose the quotes he did, as they really get to some essential points about peak oil.
A few people have mentioned to me that the online video focuses on my short-term insurance preparedness, like the pantry or the propane tank. These are really just feel good measures; they probably won't be necessary, and if they are, they probably won't be enough.
If you would like to see some really interesting videos about peak oil, from my perspective, start at YouTube here...
My Peak Oil Videos -- http://www.youtube.com/newcultureI recommend the "10 minute summary", "oil elasticity", and "peak oil for sure".
In retrospect, on the WSJ video, I would have said one thing differently: Rather than 10-20 years to know that peak oil is in the past, we probably will only need 2-5 years.
Matthew Simmons, on a TV interview for one of the news networks, said we'd probably know two years after the peak. The actual realization will probably depend on the speed of the decline.
In either case, we are probably already at peak oil, although it is playing out as a plateau. We've been stuck at 84.5 million barrels per day of production for over three years; thus the steadily increasing price of oil, gasoline, food, etc.
One must do a 12-month "moving average" of both global production and global prices to really see the trends, but they are stark and unmistakable. Once the plateau ceiling was hit, I believe back in 2005, the oil prices involuntarily and unexpectedly began to rise. The evidence is in the remarkable period of minimum volatility in the oil pricing, as the paradigm of steadily priced oil changed to one of ever increasing priced oil.
This plateau in production isn't really all that surprising. Individual fields don't peak, they plateau.
A big question now is: How long can we maintain 84.5 million barrels per day? Another month? Until summer? Another year or two?
Once the decline in supply sets in, things are going to change rapidly. If going from 1.5% annual increase in oil production to 0% increase in production (plateau) forced a 40% annual increase in costs; then what is the annual oil price increase going to become, once a 2.5% (or more) annual oil production decline sets in?
If you haven't noticed, in interviews, Matthew Simmons doesn't name the top price, but only says things like, "oil is the cheapest liquid around, available for only 15 cents per cup!". He tends to just repeat back the top price the interviewer is willing to propose. This isn't bad in any way, he probably does this because oil is really priced so far below its value, that almost no one would be able to understand or accept its actual worth. The underlying problem here is that the market has abysmally imperfect information, and due to this ignorance, prices will ALWAYS be lower than they should be, even after they achieve the minimal prices of $300, $500 or pick-a-number per barrel.
EXTENDED REFLECTION - January 26, 2008
Neil King contacted me in early December about coming to Michigan to do this story. He flew in on Saturday, January 12th and stayed through Monday, January 14th. During that time, he spent about sixteen hours with me, talking about peak oil, participating in the event, listening to a presentation, visiting the classroom, etc. While he was here, he watched "The End of Suburbia", "A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash", and "What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire".
So, is Mr. Aaron Wissner happy with this peak oil story?
The story was good overall, mostly accurate, and what wasn't perfect was probably just due to the brevity of the visit, and the shortness (1,200 words) of the article.
Here are some clarifications:
* I was born in 1970 and haven't had my birthday yet, which makes me 37.
* I don't think we have bags of rice. If we do, there are two bags, probably the 25 pound size. We do have a bit of other food though, including a couple big bags of sugar and flour, some pasta, and lots of my favorite breakfast cereal. The video (linked above) shows the pantry, so if you are curious, take a look at that.
* I might point out that Bush and Gore both have "off-grid" homes. The yams comment reminds me of a video I just watched on YouTube this week called "A Post Oil Man". If you are willing to see a little peak oil humor, try it, although if you aren't already well on your way to understanding the entire peak oil issue, this video might look more nuts than anything else. Just keep in mind that global economic collapse is a probability, but NOT a certainty.
* I was quite happy that Kimberly read the "Life After the Oil Crash" web site, and drew the same conclusion as I did. It would have been quite dismal to try to think about peak oil all on my own.
* I'm not sure what "peak-oil proselytizer" means, but if it is that I'm trying to share the information with others, then that would be accurate.
* Yes, peak oil is on my mind a lot. I once read that men think of sex several times a minute. I don't think about peak oil that much, but several times an hour is not uncommon. By now, it is basically just a part of me. Everything I do is informed by the uncertainties of a post peak oil future.
* The Denver conference wasn't dominated by the chicken guy, in fact I don't think I would have known about him, had not a conference participant mentioned him. The conference was good, "The Denver World Oil Conference" sponsored by ASPO-USA. Matt Simmons, Julian Darley, Roscoe Bartlett, Richard Heinberg, etc. were just some of the big names. The one thing I knew for sure after that conference was that hydrogen, tar sands, oil shale, and ethanol were not going to be able to make up for the coming decline in oil production.
* Electric cars have to get the energy from somewhere... Most electricity in the USA is generated from burning coal... Doesn't sound very clean to me, particularly when taking into account the difficulty of recycling these batteries. I do think the Toyota Prius and G.M. Volt are very clever, but that doesn't make them green.
* This week, Kimberly added some new weather strips around the door between our house and garage, and a little strip along the bottom of both exterior doors. No more cold air draft coming in. Now if the furnace ignitor would just stop burning out, I'd be happy.
* All of the energy efficiency measures in the house are really just "window dressing". If the peak oil doomsday disaster scenarios come to pass, and I do not expect they will, then making our house 25% more efficient will be meaningless. But, while we're on the topic, I figure one can think of it like this... You have house insurance, right? Would you keep it after the mortgage was paid off, even though the probability of a claim is quite low? If so, then you are in the same boat as me. I figure a bad crash is about a 1 in 6 possibility. That means there is a 5 in 6 chance that there isn't a bad crash. Still, a 1 in 6 chance of badness is high enough that to avoid preparing is downright foolish. I think of it like having fire insurance. Most people's houses never catch on fire; but if it did, it would be so catastrophic, that not to be insured is practically unthinkable.
* The cars probably both get about 25 mpg. I know I was getting 28-29 with the Mustang at one point. I'm glad Neil included the "carbon footprint" concept. The more money we spend, the more we contribute to oil depletion and global warming. Period. No complex math required. The 75 barrels used to get a brand new car to the showroom probably accounts for in all inputs, including the mining of the raw materials, energy, etc. I don't recall the source on this, although TheOilDrum.com could probably off that answer in a few seconds. A somewhat high fuel economy used car is probably the best way to go. After all, no additional energy has to go in to making a used car... the car is already here.
* We live in a 2-story house... actually a 1-story with a finished basement. The bi-level mid-stair landing makes it feel a bit like three. Somewhere around 2,000 sq. ft. on 1.7 acres of land.
* The film in Middleville was "What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire". Good film, interesting to watch and discuss. Ties together global warming, peak oil, overpopulation, biodiversity loss, sustainability, cultural stories and momentum/inertia, and really puts things in perspective.
* I think Jose's son writes "AutoBlogGreen", so Jose is probably getting help from his son on the biodiesel car. Keep in mind, there isn't enough biodiesel for everyone in the country to convert. It's just a nice way to use the vegetable oil after the fast food places toss it out.
* The best quote from the classroom discussion actually had to deal with a boy whose dad and grand-dad are both farmers. He said that with the current increase in fuel prices, they were already running in the red. If prices continue to rise, they'd probably have to stop farming... which means to me that the only ones who will be able to afford to do farming will be people with other jobs, and large agribusiness corporations. Too bad, we need our small family farmers.
* If you search this valuesystem.livejournal.com web site, you'll find my concept for the zero-energy home. It's novel, and has not been tried (to my knowledge), but it sure is an exciting... Just imagine, a home that maintains it's own comfortable internal temperature year round, without any use of fuel, and minimal human intervention! Definitely possible, but probably quite tricky to build.
* I'm hoping that even in the worst case scenarios we will still have specialists. I don't mind the idea of being a full time farmer, but I think I would much prefer being a teacher, or store manager, or etc. Then again, maybe I just need to get my hands in the dirt a lot more. This summer, I suspect we'll be quite busy with the garden, and our new heritage seeds.
* Whoever did the "peaknik" caption on the video, which I think was not Neil, could have tried something else. I don't know what a "peaknik" is, but it sounds derogatory, something like "beatnik". I am "peak oil aware", and I'm glad Neil used that term.
* Kimberly points out a couple more things: she is the gardener, and is responsible for designing and enlargening the garden; she would have taken down the Christmas tree by now, had I not insisted on keeping it up until March (it'll probably be down this weekend - update - it is down now); many of the books, particularly the ones on high-efficiency home design and permaculture gardening are from her collection.
Overall, I think Neil, Mr. King, did a really good job. As I see it, the point or purpose of the story was to impress the readers that "normal" people out there are learning about peak oil and adapting their lives to an uncertain energy future. I think this story does that, so to me, it serves its purpose and should help to raise awareness of peak oil as a critical issues to which we all must attend.
RELATED ARTICLES by AARON WISSNER
If you read this entire page, and want to read some more, I invite you to try:
- How Peak Oil Changed My Life - Written in prep for Neil's visit
- Peak Oil and the Vision in the Mirror - My favorite deep reflection on the future.
- Mr. Peak Oil Aaron Wissner - A tongue-in-cheek look at my peak oil efforts.
- Value System: Gas Prices, Money, Peak Oil and the Future - The whole shebang, including all of my articles, with all of the nitty gritty technical detail that both right-brained and left-brained folks might enjoy.
Comments are always always read and appreciated (except for the "ad hominems", of course). No "LiveJournal" account is required. :-) Thanks for reading!