Sunday, February 07, 2010

Collapse: the movie

Given this blog's interest in doom, I felt duty-bound to see the recent documentary Collapse, which has gotten some attention in the mainstream media. I was not very favorably impressed.

First, stylistically it feels like a cheap knockoff of Errol Morris. It consists entirely of a single interview interspersed with clips from stock footage, and focused entirely on one man, the doomer (and blogger) Michael Ruppert. Even the music felt like second-rate Philip Glass, also a Morris signature. But whereas Morris usually manages to make the obsessions of his subjects come to life, the camera here renders Ruppert mainly pathetic.

And he doesn't seem that interesting -- he seems like a wholly ordinary member of the American crank stratum -- a lonely, isolated, autodidact who has figured out the Grand Scheme of the World. He's not that crazy -- no really wild theories, just the kind of guy who believes you need to stockpile gold bullion. His blog/newsletter is called "From the Wilderness" and you get the feeling that he is used to being an outsider. He's got a troubled personal life, he's the subject of some sexual harrasment lawsuits which he claims are part of a conspiracy to silence him...and maybe it is, who knows. That's the thing about this type of person, he's only slightly fringy, many of his theories are plausible or better, but he also has a tendency to exaggerate and distort, and winnowing the truth out is a time-consuming chore.

Ruppert's main claim is that Peak Oil and other trends will soon converge to produce a near-total collapse of civilization. There are, to be sure, enough troubling signs on the horizon to make this somewhat plausible. But Ruppert's take on this is panicky and not illuminating.

One of the thing that leads Ruppert astray is a sort of innumeracy, or unwillingness to think in any sort of quantitative terms. For instance, the factoid that there are seven gallons of oil in every automobile tire is repeated at least three times, as evidence to support that our civilization is doomed. A moment's thought would reveal that that is a trivial amount of petroleum in the lifecycle of an automobile -- about 2 tanks of gas. Now, there is obviously a much larger total amount of oil that goes into the construction of a car, and should be figured into its total oil cost -- but one has to produce a number for that, if only a guesstimate. In a similar vein, there is a total lack of any sense of scale or magnitude, exemplified by this quote: "what I see now is the end of a paradigm that is as cataclysmic as the asteroid event that killed almost all the life on Earth, and certainly the dinosaurs."

There seems to be an unstated assumption that Ruppert and other Peak Oil theorists use, which is that the oil is going to dry up and disappear all at once. Obviously that's nonsense. At worst, Peak Oil means that petroleum products will get progressively scarcer and thus more expensive. That can certainly have serious consequences, especially given the dependency of our food supply on petroleum. But it's not like the economy suddenly falls off a cliff. Oil getting expensive has an upside of sorts -- it will reduce consumption and thus reduce carbon emissions, and it makes alternative forms of energy more cost-effective.

So all civilizations collapse eventually and ours may be due, but I am not convinced by this particular chicken little. I paradoxically came out of the movie feeling actually less doomy -- it's not a very valid form of inference, but if I can see that some doomsayers are demonstrably and obviously talking nonsense, then it lessens my own tendencies in that direction. Maybe, just maybe, things will be OK. We are intellgent and adaptable and capable of revamping our systems to meet new conditions. The era of easy motoring may indeed vanish -- there are no known substitutes for petroleum that match its energy density -- but we can live without it. Alternative sources of energy can be brought online (nuclear included, and fusion seems to have taken a step forward recently). Humanity (some of us) will get through almost any conceivable future collapse scenario.

Some more background on Ruppert here.

1 comment:

jlredford said...

It seems to me that the main usage of oil that will be difficult to replace is in airplanes. Cars and trucks can be readily made more efficient, and if need be they can be electrified. Oil isn't used much for power generation, and gas has already replaced it for heating. The only alternative for planes, though, is ethanol (some Soviet fighters used it), and that probably means replacing every jet engine in the world. Maybe some kind of algae-derived biodiesel will save air passenger travel.