3 Jan 2006
Robert Hirsch Tells It Like It Is…
One 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.”*
One 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.
It 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.