Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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3 Jan 2006

Robert Hirsch Tells It Like It Is…

OilOne of the leading figures in the peak oil community is **Robert Hirsch**. I have written about him previously at Transition Culture, his ‘Hirsch Report’ has been hailed by many as one of the most important pieces of research in this area. The report was asked to look at how far in advance it would take to prepare for the peak, rather than when the peak would be. The results shocked even Hirsch and his team. The scale and magnitude of the challenge they identified was such that Hirsch admits to feeling overwhelmed; it took a few months before he felt able to go out into the world and be constructive and positive about the challenge of oil peak. Hirsch has not given that many interviews (at least not many that I have come across..), so I was fascinated to see that David Room of **Global Public Media** has just posted an interview with Hirsch. It is fascinating, sobering and illuminating listening.

Hirsch talks about the now famous report that bears his name, and attempts to dispel the myth that the US Department of Energy tried to suppress it and that it only appeared because it was leaked. He talked about the scale of the challenge that peak oil presents us with, and you really get a clear sense of the profound effect this awareness has had on him.

>*”This problem is truly frightening. This problem is like nothing that I have ever seen in my lifetime, and the more you think about it and the more you look at the numbers, the more uneasy any observer gets. It’s so easy to sound alarmist, and I fear that part of what I’m saying may sound alarmist, but there simply is no question that the risks here are beyond anything that any of us have ever dealt with. And the risks to our economies and our civilization are enormous.”*

Wind2One of the first things he and his team looked at was the role of conservation, and concluded that even really deep cuts were still only a small part of dealing with the challenge. The thing he makes very clear is that peak oil is about liquid fuels. It is the transport network that needs rethinking, and the knock on effects of its inevitable contraction. We have to educate people, he says, that a windmill is different from a tractor; some things need liquid fuels, some things don’t, and there simply are no replacements.

The Hirsch Report’s central finding is that in order to make the transition to an economy beyond oil, a run in of 20 years minimum would be needed. Hirsch suggests the urgent need for a bridge economy to make the transition to a post carbon one. He talks of making petrol from coal, from natural gas, using enhanced oil recovery, but it was interesting that he didn’t once discuss actually reducing the amount of cars on the road, his focus was rather on making existing cars more energy efficient.

His assessment of the practicalities of making the transition was deeply sobering. We need, he believes, a crash programme of building a new infrastructure that will get us beyond liquid fuels. However, he argues, the world doesn’t really have the capacity to do crash programmes, it will require an unprecedented scaling up of factories and retraining of people. We will have to do things on a scale that has never been done before, he says.

I was interested in his belief that we will be drawn to using the last fossil fuels in order to power the transition, and that global warming will not be enough of an argument to stop that from happening. When the economy crashes and goes into hyper unemployment, economic issues will, he believes, take precedence over environmental ones, after all, he says, global warming is still an uncertainty (I’d have to beg to differ there…), your being thrown out of your house for defaulting on the mortgage because you lost your job is a certainty. I would argue that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive; he says that the situation is so severe that we have to do whatever it takes.

David Room asks him a question about localized economies, and what role relocalisation might play in all this. His response is disappointing, saying that by the end of the whole process that is what we would probably end up at, but he doesn’t seem to see it as an integral part of the process at this stage. His observation is that to redesign and retrofit existing settlements, be they suburbia or higher density cities, will take a lot of time, money and liquid fuels. It is not something that can be done overnight. Hirsch doesn’t say what we as communities might do about it, he seems to think that Governments and industry will have to do it all.

wind3It was very good for me to hear it from the horse’s mouth as it were. The Hirsch Report has had such a profound effect on the peak oil community it was good to hear from the man himself. He came across as calm, clear and hugely well informed, and as someone who does not particularly relish his job of telling people the bad news but doing it with purpose and kindness. My only point of difference with him is his belief that the drive will have to come from national government. It is clear to me at this stage how National Government has decided to deal with the peak oil problem. Nuclear power stations and political skullduggery to secure access to what is left. If we wait for them to initiate a programme of national powerdown it will be too late (if it isn’t already). It is down to us, as communities, individuals, local Governments, businesses, NGOs and all the other pieces of the jigsaw, to pull together and start to design what we want, and to begin its rapid implementation. Hirsch, although, he seems to be less up to speed with some of the more cutting edge thinking on what we can do about it, has given us a hugely important tool with which to impress upon people the gravity of where we find ourselves. This challenge is the big one.

I would very much recommend that you give it a listen. I found it fascinating. Here is a man who has focused his considerable experience and intellect on a problem and has been really shocked by his findings.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Joe W. Cullen
6 Jan 5:17am

Hirsch is a dreamer stuck in an illusion. How can a person be described as using his considerable intellect concerning this peak oil problem and think we can still maintain a fleet of petro guzzling vehicles? The governments response in retrospect as an overlay will fit nicely over the events of the recent Katrina/Rita disaster. Expect similar results. It will be in the future easier to deal with the dead rather than the living. Low entropy people don’t complain and high entropy people require large expenditures of energy for minimal maintainence. Guess where that will leave you? Here is the classical psychological avoidance of obvious problems in an Alice and Wonderland world where he hope nothing will change and all will be solved with sophomoric solutions. jwc

W.H. Rollinson
6 Jan 7:15pm

I was struck by Robert Hirsch’s humility and I’m not so sure that he himself wouldn’t admit to being a dreamer – albeit a dreamer awakening in a hurry. Like any one of us who has become aware of peak-oil’s implications, I suggest he is now locked on to a learning curve. It may be that he already recognizes that the idea of a ‘bridge’ economy on the ‘road to sustainability’ is a pragmatic approach unlikely to work even in the short term. Creating liquid fuels from coal (unconventional or otherwise) or methane is problematic: these are extremely energy-intensive, expensive and dirty operations, not to mention the difficulties in transporting and storing LNG. Are we ever likely to continue long investing more energy into processes whereby there is a net energy loss? If Mr. Hirsch really does believe that personal automobility in exurban sprawl is still a viable option in spite of conventional oil depletion, further research and consideration will no doubt bring him enlightenment. It is a huge paradigm shift, after all, for those who have never questioned the sustainability of an ever-expanding consumer economy.
Mr. Hirsch does recognize, indeed, laments that the vast majority of us do not make any kind of connection between our lifestyles and the energy required to support how we live. Surmounting this ignorance, as disheartening as it may be, is surely our biggest challenge in a society so cut off from reality. Mr. Hirsch is probably well aware that the scope of his inquiry has been constrained within the boundaries of our current industrial economic model and its resultant society. After all, he began this exercise naively hopeful for mitigation of peak-oil’s effects simply through tighter fuel efficiency standards and conservation measures, but readily allowed the data he formulated to open his eyes wider to harsh truths.
As much as any of us might wish it weren’t so, isn’t it likely that protection of the environment will not figure prominently, if at all, in the minds of a populace driven to despair? The history of our behaviour as a species doesn’t seem to offer a lot of hope that we won’t just scramble to burn what’s left of our carbon stores – in whatever form it is found – until we no longer can. But hope we must, and to know that this report is being studied by others with perhaps some degree of public influence is a small measure of progress. I for one am thankful for the urgency Mr. Hirsch expresses; any alarm bells we can set to ringing helps to raise awareness of the problem, and it is hoped will engender stirrings to action by people who might make a difference. When it comes to the crunch of contraction we want wise leaders (not necessarily political) with the strength of will and knowledge to champion righteousness on the complex and rough road ahead.
Mr. Hirsch strikes me as someone who will not allow emotion to overrule fact once the numbers have been crunched. We need respectable, believable messengers like him to keep on telling it ‘like it is’. I look forward to hearing from him again.


Mark Griffith
7 Jan 3:29am

I am constantly surprised at the naivity of those thay try their best to refute the notion of Peak Oil. First, the problem is not one of running out of oil. It is a condition where the world, in general, runs out of the ability to keep up with the demand. That point has already been reached. A short foray into the production reports of various oil producing states will show this (courtesy of BP).

To be able to meet the growing demand, oil producers must increase production capacity at rates they have been unable to sustain for decades. And it’s not just a matter of plugging in more well taps, or turning up the spigot. World demand is increasing at an exponential rate as the population increases. Even if production was able to keep up with demand, we would just run completely out that much sooner.

I am 53 years old. I think of the world that people of my age will be leaving for our children and grandchildren. Will it be one where they revert back to conditions and technologies of the 19th century? Or will be it one where advanced high-tech devices have replaced our need to suck the earth dry? I fear it will be the former. My grandchildren may hate me for what I’ve helped do to their world. I wouldn’t blame them.

I will most probably live to see the world run out of oil. I will certainly see the world grow more and more agitated as this most precious liquid grows increasingly expensive, and in short supply. In a world where we still fight and kill over religious ideologies, ethic origins, skin color, and such things, do you really think that we will somehow be able to all get along as the supply of what makes our world what it is slowly disappears?

Talk is cheap. Start learning how to conserve, and then get along without oil. You’ll be needing those skills sooner than you think.

Mark Griffith

Ted Nashland
8 Jan 3:25am

In his report, Dr. Hirsch researched 3 scenarios of mitigation: one in which global mitigation efforts are not undertaken until global production of oil has peaked; one in which mitigation is conducted 10 years in advance of the peak; and a third scenario of mitigation conducted 20 years prior to peak. The last scenario is extremely far fetched to anyone who’s actually informed about the current state of the world’s oil production. For an excellent in-depth critique of the optimists’ dates for peak oil (largely based on flawed USGS, EIA, and IEA reports) visit As to whether the peak may not arrive until February of 2015(10 years after the Hirsch report), that is also highly questionable with a growing China (and India) that last year doubled the average growth rate of oil consumption from 1.8-3.6%. As well, any one familiar with Matthew Simmons’ Twilight in the Desert book, will know that its highly questionable at this point as to whether the Saudis can increase oil production to make up for increased worldwide demand and the decline of past peak oil fields. Most likely our world will see a peak in global production of oil within 5 years. With this being the case, the US will be in for an extremely harsh wakeup call, as only the crash mitigation program will be implemented. Even if the peak is somehow 10 years off, I do not currently see much momentum or consensus among our leaders to actually begin taking the hard but necessary steps to wean our nation off of its fossil fuel dependency. This may in part be due to the influence of economists and the oil industry, as well as the fact that no one wants to be the bearer of shockingly bad news. The American public also at fault for being amazingly ignorant regarding the way our society works. I’m 21 years old and yet continually amazed at the lack of knowledge my friends, professors, and family members have concerning the enormous role energy plays in supporting our modern way of life. I’m doing the best I can to educate others, since the crisis will begin in the prime of my life with my generation being the first to really confront this momentous historical shift.

Eugene Duran
10 Jan 9:56pm

Hirsch has been awakened, as many of the rest of us are, to the far reaching implications ‘Peak Oil’ represents. There are no silver bullets offering easy solutions to our dilemas. We overpopulated, we created a structure whose strategy was to use energy with out the thought that it may someday no longer be cheap or even there. Overshoot is an understatement. What will make it particularly problematic in this country is that we have not concentrated our people into energy efficient communities but insted have dispersed the masses out to Suburbia as Jim Kunstler has exposed. Creating a dependance on cars so evident that the city of New York is brought to it’s knees by it’s own transit workers. We have however, concentrated our food supply such that it will make it even more problematic to re-localize the growing of our food, especially for the mega-cities that have concentrated our work sites in a manner that will force us to maintain this losing scenario. Mitigation, ha. Any politicians making significant efforts toward sustainability? Token at best. Until a crisis hits us we will remain in our fantasy worlds. When the crisis hits it will be all we can do to stay alive. We should have listened to Carter back in the 70’s when real mitigation was possible. Since we all think our lifestyles are non-negotiable then we are all to blame. I will do all I can to power-down knowing that I will probably be one of the casualties of the comming crash. I simply am not welthy enough to alter my course. I will try nonetheless. How can I do otherwise? We are all ignorant of our energy usage. We are not all versed in the laws of thermodynamics. We get in our car, fill them with gas and go. We plug our gadgets into the socket and expect electricity. We eat food and re-supply from the grocery store as needed. One thing has significantly changed in my life. I no longer take energy for granted. I tresure every morsel of food. I tresure every gallon of gas. I treasure every KWH of electricity that cost me cents. I wish I had been awakened much sooner. Yet haven’t we all been told this since we were little?

Bill Pfeiffer
11 Jan 12:00am

After studying the oil depletion/Peak Oil issue for a couple of years, and reading about the Hirsch report (albeit incomplete), I become increasingly aware that the last post has not only practical merit but spiritual merit as well. Our collective greed is somehow a result of deep inner emptiness/unfullfillment that causes us to consume/consume/consume, not just oil and gas but everything! How important to be grateful for what we have… most if all being alive. We do not know what the future will bring, but all the trends point to catastrophe for many, if not most, humans… but we are not the only ones here (duh) so we may have to learn the hard way that we cannot separate ourselves from the biosphere as hard as we may try. My prayer is that learning directly the laws of thermodynamics may help a transition BACK into an Earth-honoring society( not Neolithic but Neoecologic). Homo industrialus has forgotten where he comes from. To the 25 year old above, google Elisabeth Sahtouris and Joanna Macy.
You are going to need be strong, strong, strong.
Thank you and all folks above. We need to tell it like it is. Denial is not a river in Egypt!