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14 Aug 2006

ASPO 5 – The Two Distinct Paradigms within the Peak Oil Movement.

pisaSo, rested and relaxed, it is back to blogging after a few weeks off. I have been staggered to note that the stats for **Transition Culture** have actually increased during this period when I haven’t actually been writing anything, not sure what the lesson is there… . Oh well. Anyway, my time away has given me plenty of blogging material, which I shall gradually work through in the coming weeks, which will include notes from the ASPO conference, interesting things from the Big Green Gathering, a new Meg Wheatley interview and various other bits and bobs. I wanted to start my reflections on the ASPO conference with my thoughts on the two very distinct paradigms in evidence there.

pisa2This was my first ASPO conference, and I had a fantastic time. For those of you who are thinking ‘ASwhat?’, ASPO is the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (but not called ASPOG, not so snappy I guess), set up by Colin Campbell to bring together the many brains focusing on oil depletion around the world.

There are now 20 ASPO branches around the world, and each year one of them undertakes to host this conference. Last year it was in Lisbon, next year it will be in Ireland, but this year it was in Pisa, Italy. ASPO Italia were the perfect hosts, and the conference brought together speakers from around the world to explore in detail many diverse aspects of the peak oil challenge.

The talks ranged from the inspirational to the incomprehensible, and from the visionary to the profoundly deluded. ASPO is a broad church, so as well as those modelling the peak there was some strong pro-nuclear speakers, some advocating a return to coal and the exploitation of the tar sands, to those advocating relocalisation (well, that was just me and Richard Heinberg actually) and renewables. I was struck deeply by the two distinct paradigms visible within the attendees, which I have to say, in my naivity, I was rather shocked by.

pisaThe first paradigm we might call the **’Business-as-Usual-at-all-costs’** paradigm. This argues that peak oil is simply a problem of energy supply, and that provided we can resolve that, everything will be fine. The second paradigm we might call the **’Cultural Evolution’** paradigm’, which argues that we cannot solve the problems peak oil presents with the same thinking that got us into the mess in the first place. I’d say that at ASPO 5, the balance was about 5:1 in favour of the former.

bauquisI guess I am more familiar with those within the peak oil movement who are looking beyond it into what the world might look like, but coming from a position of positive transition. Some of the speakers were, for me at least, quite terrifying. I will write about Bob Hirsch’s talk in a few days time, which left me completely gob smacked, but the one I want to mention as the best (should that be worst?!) example of the ‘Business-as-Usual’ paradigm, was **Pierre Rene Bauquis**, whose talk was called *”What future for hydrocarbons with the incoming peaks of oil and gas?”* A promising title, and the first part of the talk was a reasonable summary of the peak oil position, from someone who clearly knows his stuff.

He put peak as probably occuring around 2020, but then he launched into his ‘solution’ for the peak oil challenge. The solution is, apparently, nuclear power. By 2050, he argued as my jaw hit the floor, the world’s energy mix will be 60% nuclear, 30% oil and gas and 10% others. It would be entirely feasible to keep all the world’s transportation on the road, given that we build 3000 new nuclear power stations (I kid you not). This is entirely feasible he stated, there is absolutely no constraint on the resource, it is entirely sustainable in terms of climate change, and, he stated without even a trace of irony, it would be 5 times cheaper than solar energy! For heavens sake.

If I had children today, he continued, I would tell them to consider futures in the oil and gas industry, or in the nuclear industry. By 2050 he believed, fast breeder reactors would be the solution to all our troubles. Someone asked him about how all these reactors would cope in terms of climate change, given that this summer reactors in Spain, France and elsewhere have had to close down due to the unseasonal heat. This was no problem, he retorted, technology can overcome everything.

nukeNuclear waste, he added, “is largely a psychological problem”, possibly the single most patronising thing anyone has ever said to me since a woman in a letting agency I once rented a flat from, who, after refusing to return my deposit (standard practice it later turned out) which I had scrubbed and hoovered and polished and left looking infinitely cleaner than it was when I moved in, looked down her nose at me and remarked, “well, some of us just have different standards”.

It got better. As his astonishingly delusional rant drew to a close, he said, “people who say that renewables and conservation have a role to play in this, it’s just a dream, just a dream”. I must confess at this point to being pinned to my seat with a mixture of rage, incredulity and great affrontery. Renewables and conservation may be a dream, but they are a dream that can actually become a reality, rather than the nuclear nightmare Bauquis had just put forward.

The following day at the end of Jeremy Leggett’s excellent presentation, Bauquis stood up and asked Leggett what he saw as being the role of nuclear power in a post peak world. Leggett paused and then said that as he was on an advisory board to the government on energy he had to be careful how he answered the question, but that he felt that anyone who felt that nuclear power had any role to play was, in his view, “utterly insane”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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


David Huck
14 Aug 9:25pm


Great report. Utterly insane is just it. I’m never sure which direction to take on the nuclear issue (be it cost, the actually non-renewable nature of uranium and technological hurdles with breedrs, etc., or simply the concerns of future generations), but the lack of attention paid to the truly horrendous waste that for now generally hangs out on site or is dumped in surreptitious ways is truly ridiculous.

Are we going to get a chance to hear of your discussions with Chris Johnstone and Stephen Rollnick (? or was it Miller?), anything fruitful come out of that? I’ve got my own thoughts on MI and social change applications, but I’d like to hear yours too.

David Huck
15 Aug 3:49am

You may also want to return to

to check up on how the MI with Peak Oil thread has gone. I think the general sense is relatively right on as expressed by the last one or two posts. If only that forum was representative of the entire world, it was really the most pleasant discussion of a somewhat emotionally charged issue I’ve ever witnessed (let alone participated in).

Ray Bane
15 Aug 4:13am

The trouble with Bauquis’ dream world solution to peak oil is that it gives false hope to those who are on the fence. His fantasy projections of a relatively easy technological shift to nuclear power that will allow us to continute business as usual fly in the face of reality. Unfortunately, there are many who will readily accept his vision, because it is so reassuring.

15 Aug 7:33am

Hi David,
Thanks for the comment. There will be a chance to see the materials from the meeting with Rollnick and Johnstone, Chris is editing them at the moment. They are transcribed, but, like many transcribed discussions, ramble a lot and the grammar is all over the place. They are also very long! So Chris is taking them into hand, and as soon as he has produced something more readable it will be made available here. We are also trying to pull from it a set of principles to underpin this work.
Thanks for the interest,

Mark Gerrard
15 Aug 10:19am

Good to have you back Rob – maybe the increased stats are from regular readers checking your site for your imminent return. Anyway, interesting (& disappointing) to read your impressions of ASPO5, I guess I expected a more informed level of debate. Bit like Tim Flannery (author of The Weather Makers) here in Oz, saying that nuclear is the answer to global warming. Maybe I idealise my heroes too much.

Chris Vernon
16 Aug 1:45pm

Excellent write up Rob. It was my first ASPO, I too found the pro-nuclear camp intriguing yet I think it is an inevitable consequence of who ASPO are. A large fraction of APSO are scientists aged over 60 whose pessimistic views on the oil developed in the 70’s. Nuclear was the obvious alternative to fossil fuels back then, when the problems we now understand just weren’t appreciated especially amongst scientists. Their pro-nuclear stance just hasn’t changed.

The second reason for a pro-nuclear position could be failure to recognise that we will have less net energy available in the future than today – if the terms of reference are to maintain business as usual energy consumption in the face of fossil fuel depletion then nuclear is (at a first and non-critical assessment) the only tool left in the box given that even the most optimistic forecasts for renewables don’t suggest they can fully substitute for fossil fuels on a joule for joule basis.

The problem is that a more comprehensive assessment of the nuclear solution highlights major problems you’ve covered here in the past. What appeared to be the last tool in the box is actually broken meaning that original task of maintaining business as usual energy consumption in the face of fossil fuel depletion is an impossible dream.

Only when we’ve recognised this impossibility can we really focus on moving forward within the realms of possibility.

17 Aug 1:54am

I came to the same conclusion when I coresponded recently with ASPO USA. There are two camps in Peak Oil awareness: relocalization and business as usual via scientific breakthrough. I think these two camps are defined by class interests unfortunately. The scientific breakthrough may be available to those who can pay for it and back up control of it with force.

So the peak oil aware will deal with this crisis in the same way humankind has always done. Pity.

17 Aug 2:24am

This is why I think that waiting around for the political class to do somthing about energy crisis is a recipe for disaster: they would choose to hoard and fend off rather than to help transform the world into a less energy-wasteful one for the masses. We can see the cavalier attitude toward commoners right now in the oil industry’s ‘third world war’ in the middle east.

If you are going to relocalize you have to do it without the help of political leaders and the corporate class. You have to do it through small-scale community activism. ASPO is not the answer. It is already 4/5ths compromised.

Joe Z
17 Aug 2:55pm

Nuclear technology is known by its spectacular accomplishments: obliterating 2 cities in Japan, turning Chernobil onto a ghost town, and scaring the crap out of anyone older than 30 (cold war, Three Mile Island, etc.) It quietly produces a fair amount of electricity, but nuclear technology will not be able to overcome its legacy of bad PR to the point where people will accept new reactors near them… Until it becomes difficult to keep the lights on and homes heated. But by that point, on the serious downslope of available fossil fuels, I think that it will become impossible for us to muster the effort to actually build the power plants. And that probably will be a good thing because once built, I doubt that we could afford the effort to maintain and decommission them, which would be even worse.

Paul D
17 Aug 6:43pm

Speak for yourself Joe. When one compares the number of deaths from coal electrical production (Can you say BLACK LUNG) to nuclear, nuclear is orders of magnitude safer. Second, radioactive material isn’t conjured out of thin air, it is harvested from Mother Earth. As radiocative decay is accelerated through fission, nuclear plants lead to a large net decrease in radioactivity on earth (next year this will of course be a terrible thing). There is a safety difficulty from concentrating radioactive material but it is not that difficult to protect onesef. Consider submariners who spend a lifetime within three hundred feet of an active reactor. While it could never be done politically, the best way to dispose of nuclear waste (less radioactive then the harvested fuel remember) would be to disperse it in the ground at the same site you gathered it from. Incidentally, if one considers the trace U235 present in many seams of coal coupled with the incredible amounts of coal burned in a typical coal fired generation plant, the atmospheric release of U235 radioactivity is greater from a coal plant than a nuclear plant.

Besides common myths and misperceptions nuclear has two large drawbacks, 1) Its possible role in making atomic weapons easier to produce and 2) radioactive material is also a finite resource. But let’s skip the cartoon take on nuclear power, its likely saved thousands of lives and the French countryside still looks nice from what I hear.

Chris Vernon
17 Aug 9:42pm

Paul: As radiocative decay is accelerated through fission, nuclear plants lead to a large net decrease in radioactivity on earth…

This is a curious argument.

nuclear waste (less radioactive then the harvested fuel remember)

And this point really isn’t correct. Sure over a billion years slightly less ionising radiation will come from 1 kg of spent fuel compared to 1kg of fresh fuel… But the problem is that that slightly reduced total is vastly shifted into the first few thousand years.

Fresh fuel rods can be handled pretty safely, spent fuel is seriously deadly.

Peter S.Hunt
22 Aug 7:09pm

Conservation and Conversion? Both have critical roles to play but when it come to nuclear why is it that we all seem to be stuck on “hot fision”? The officeof Naval Research has had real, quantifiable success with the cold fusion model using duterium/paladium cells.

The sonofusion folk down at Oak ridge success plus Tom Claytor at Los Alamos, and SRI in Palo Alto. The field, although an anathma to the “silver backs of physics”, is quite active. Check out for a steady stream of updates.( this site run is by Edmund Storms of Los Alamos)

Now this is not a likely silver bullet but it is a non polluting ( no to limited hot ash) alternative that we all seem to be afraid to admit much less support. Not bright in our current circumstances

J Reed
23 Aug 10:28pm

The virulently anti-nuclear group seems to be blind to what faces us on climate change basis. It is dramatically worse than the problems associated with nuclear power plants. Those are quite manageable really.

Chernobyl is the best illustration. Mortality has been much lower than expected.

Look, I’m in my early 30s and a self identified green. I don’t work in the energy industry. But I have looked at the various arguments very closely.

It boils down to this: we’re in terribly tight fix civilizationally and our energy needs are going to be met largely by coal — and nuclear, if there’s a political will. The effects associated with coal are far more dangerous in my informed opinion.

This dogmatic “shock” at the ASPO remarks is both discouraging and misguided. Lovelock is quite right, friends.