Monday, May 23, 2005

A Conversation with Denial

After almost a year of research and six months of badgering, the quest to open up the discussion of energy in planning beyond my very small circle of colleagues smacked headfirst into what appears to be an immobile object today. That object, also known as the planning director, flatly rejected all ideas of energy scarcity or even limits. Moreover any discussion of the issue by me or anyone else is from here on out not deemed to be relevant to any county planning matters.

In his opinion, there never was or will be an energy crisis.

Today was supposed to be my day to preview my “optimistic” take on energy issues and their likely impact on our county over the next thirty years. I rounded up every good source I could find and together with my presentation went to the prearranged meeting with the director and my immediate supervisor. It was not a good omen that the existing meeting was running late and the lunch hour looming in just five minutes. But it was into this setting I stepped into. The director, who has been with the county for more than 35 years, began first.

“I think the gloom and doom take on energy is unwarranted”

Not wanting to get baited into stammering out a thirty second peak oil spiel, I just responded “So how do you figure?”

“We’re not running out of energy. It’s not possible”

“But — “

“I am not going to worry about energy—it all flows to dollars.”

“Flows to dollars?”

“Yes, as long as there is money, there will be an energy supply”

Holy crap, it’s worse than I thought at this point. The director is apparently is a card carrying member of the School of Lynch. I have had colleagues that rejected the implications of Peak Oil, but to date none rejected the science or geological aspects.

“But the laws of thermodynamics ultimately dictate the —“

“I don’t care what the laws of energy say. Energy is all around us and will always be. There is abundant energy out there (motioning toward the cornfields to the south)”

“A growing body of scien —“

“Look, I am not going to worry about energy during the next thirty years, when farm lands will be irreversibly converted to non agricultural uses”

At this point I was about to smack my head. So freaking clueless… But the anti-energy venom continued.

“I have read too, and we have options. Take for example the Canadian Tar Sands. Up north in Canada they have these — ”

“Yes, the oil-sands operations. The problem is they do not make much effect to the overall situation”

My supervisor, who is Canadian, added that these operations have huge environmental implications

I was ready for this argument. I had downloaded an ASPO report that put the operation in perspective to the global oil situation (with charts). I whipped out the SynCrude production curve in perspective to Canadian Oil and World Oil production curves. I was not ready for the response.

“Look at this, there is no way the [SynCrude] production will offset the global production problems.”

“I don’t care about any production curves. There is energy everywhere, it all flows to dollars”

“It isn’t just oil, electricity is also a problem. The ISO is forecasting shortfalls as soon as this year and increasing from there”

“I do not care what the ISO has to say. We WILL BUILD MORE power plants” (anger level increasing)

“How? Our natural gas supplies are depleting rapidly”

“Look, there are no energy issues, we will just use ethanol”

“But how? It takes a lot of energy inputs to grow and raise the corn and natural gas to—”

This last comment set him off the deep end.


Yikes. I backed off after that last exchange. He didn’t look too pleased with me at this point. Remember now, this wasn’t even the formal meeting on energy. I asked at what time he would be able to discuss the matter in depth. I did not get any firm responses.

Even better yet, I was asked to close the door behind me as my supervisor and director discussed the matter after I left.

Later my supervisor mentioned to me that she told him that in all likelihood events would bear my point of view out. But for the mean time I would have to do a little cutting to my presentation.

Like lose the words “oil” and “depletion” and any discussion of those topics.

Hope is not completely lost. I still have one more afternoon to try again to get my whole discussion back on the commission agenda. If it does not go through, I will pull the presentation rather than talk about the only two “approved” topics—potential electrical shortfalls 2005-09 (without discussing their causes) and natural gas pipeline capacity constraints (without being able to discuss gas depletion).

It’s not like I am going to offer any “solutions.” I just want to inform the decision makers of potential pitfalls in the future. I got sucked into this damn mess when my former supervisor had me research the availability of key resources over the next thirty years.

If we cannot even discuss well documented scientific evidence that calls into question assumptions of our future, we really are fucked.


Anonymous julianj said...


Denial is everywhere. I was at a sustainability event last night and German Green (!) told me flat out she knew all about peak oil and it wouldn't be a problem for 40 or 50 years.

It wasn't worth arguing the point, like you stammering a 30 second PO presentation seemed useless and I changed the subject.

5/24/2005 3:53 AM  
Blogger J said...

I think you got your answer, but maybe missed it. It might be between the lines of what he told you. This phrase hit me like a ton of bricks:

“Look, I am not going to worry about energy during the next thirty years, when farm lands will be irreversibly converted to non agricultural uses”

I think your guy gave you his view right there. I am guessing he has already bought into the heavy oil solution(?) or else the ethanol solution. And by telling you energy comes when there is money, he is telling you that he is primarily interested in where the money is going. He is all about money - he truly believes it will solve all problems. What a world we have created!

His world view is totally distorted, and you will not be able to move him. He believes money is always the answer, not understanding that the current money system caused our resource depletion problem in the first place. All you can do is hope his genes get left behind...

On the other hand - there is no reason you cannot go out on your own and drum up local support. YOU can be the guy who empowers some concerned citizen by way of enlightening them. Let them bring the issue forward - and you stay in the deep background. I might recommend a stay-at-home Mom for this. Once you open their eyes, their "Momma Bear" instinct takes over and they can be really strong when it is their children at risk. And it is...

5/24/2005 9:39 AM  
Anonymous Sparkylab said...

Not to be too cynical, but did you honestly expect him to react differently? His worldview will not allow anything to contradict an assumed future similar(and better) to what he has experienced over his tenure as a planner. He won't (and can't) follow your argument or the evidence - the implications are too dire. Rather like a literal creationist's increasingly elaborate expanations when confronted with more and more physical evidence (God put the dinosaur bones there to test our faith etc, etc).

I very much admire your tenacity in the face of this hostility, though.

My situation is not too far from your own, in that I work for a largish environmental consultancy in SoCal. The majority of our jobs concern larger infrastructure and commercial projects ( - freeways, airports, malls, casinos... the list goes on) as well as municipal planning documents like you are associated with.

I've tentatively brought near future - PO/energy issues up with my superiors. Essentially, they either; rank it somewhere between the Kennedy asassination and Roswell/Area 51 on the believability scale. Another conspiracy theory. Or, more curiously, given the exacerbated set of consequences any sort of turbulent transitional period would entail for a retired/senior citizen - a few have privately confided to me (ie - after a few beers)that it really does not concern them anyway because 'they will have retired by then'.

I shudder to think what sort of situation would have to occur to shake them from this trance. By that point though, as you know, it will be far too late to effectively plan to ameliorate the majority of the impacts.

Damned if you do - damned if you don't. I'm not that proud of it but, to be honest, I am comfortable with the latter. By any measure, given your current approach, at least you will be able to say, loudly, boldly - I f**kin' told you so, a**hole.

Best of luck.

5/24/2005 3:37 PM  
Blogger monkeygrinder said...

Hey - good luck! Don't worry to much if this gets tabled now.

Stay polite.

Be firm, but if you get shot down, that is politics.

After quarter four this year, people may remember that polite, insistant energy planner who was on point back in May...

5/24/2005 7:57 PM  
Anonymous Southsider said...

I'm less patient than others. It sounds to me like you are working for a moron and unless you want to slip into a deep funk you should get out.

You're intelligent and articulate. Find someplace where you can have real impact.

5/24/2005 10:08 PM  
Blogger monkeygrinder said...


It takes time to fight city hall. You can't just hop from job to job in search of a "good" boss like a gen X web designer.

So if this episode helps Unplanner build some internal credibility, that is actually a huge positive, which will be wasted if (s)he bips off in search of greener pastures.

5/25/2005 1:47 AM  
Anonymous Southsider said...


There's such a thing as slow progress, and then there's banging your head against a brick wall.

Since I'm not Gen-X, and I've never been a dot.commer, I can't recommend a job-hopping approach. But I have worked in organizations whose approach to planning is "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." I got out, and am glad I did.

Neither of us knows how bad it is at UNplanner's workplace, but there is no reason to waste time casting pearls before swine, since time is -- for those of us who get Peak Oil -- in short supply.

Whether UNplanner stays or leaves, her/his experience will not be wasted.

5/25/2005 9:13 AM  
Blogger Prof. Goose said...

amen to monkeygrinder. all you can do is provide evidence and attempt to be persuasive. People just can't handle this stuff unless they're open to ideas and have the capacity to digest the complex picture. even after q4, people will still expect a solution that doesn't affect them...

yeah, right.

5/25/2005 12:56 PM  
Blogger UNplanner said...

The atmosphere at work is not bad or hostile, it is just not receptive to change. Of any kind. The only significant changes our county has take were in result to litigation or court ordered judgments.

That does make things very difficult to introduce new ideas that turn assumptions on their head.

Dropping this idea flat out would most likely benefit me the more than formal pursuit. Getting with the program is the safe option.

Going over his head may likely not accomplish much either. I might get a sympathetic ear but not much more. The reason is clear as day:

The County WILL NOT CHANGE DIRECTIONS at this date. WE have too much riding on our current course of action and do not want to have to toss out our strategy and start anew.

I was literally told we can't plan for energy until it BECOMES a CRISIS.

With that in mind, I will be trying a two pronged approach: Make/form preperatory groups outside of work and develop an alternate (break in case of emergency plan) and/or consider relocation. Family concerns due keep us in the San Joaquin Valley but we are not chained here.

In any case, something is better than nothing

5/26/2005 1:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I would document your concerns and ideas on the subject. A letter to the editor or memo. Then, when the crisis hits and all the department heads and politicians say we never saw it coming, you can pull that out. Could be your ticket into elected office at that time. Then you can really make things happen.

5/26/2005 11:57 AM  
Anonymous Southsider said...

I remain in the minority, but I still have not changed my view. UNplanner, reread your words: The county "is just not receptive to change. Of any kind." "Getting with the program is the safe option." "Something is better than nothing." Sounds to me like a life of quiet desperation.

You obviously want to make an impact, as your blog demonstrates. As you yourself argue, there is very little chance for you to make an impact where you are. You can wait around for a crisis to hit in which case you get to say "I told you so," or you can go someplace where your passion and intelligence will be appreciated.

5/26/2005 1:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, dinosaurs still roam the earth!

As an utility planning engineer, peak oil was brought-up in my organization a year ago in a one-hour session with all senior management. Most striking comments were, "well, I expected it would eventually happen", "I really expected it sooner", and "this has really ruined my Monday".

However, even with this knowledge an organization that effects planning for 2 million people still has great difficulty in translating anything into action. Mandates, politicians, and inertia are massive.

I think that the best approach is to treat peak-oil and peak-gas not as milestone events, but translate them into a risk-based analytical approach. Afterall, politicians and managers hate risks. So, price volatility and risk management are great way to bury peak-oil adaptation from those that live in Never-neverland.

Otherwise, the situation becomes one of awareness and paralysis.

5/27/2005 3:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a psychiatric nurse, and I worked in a drug/alcohol de-tox unit for very many years. The above exchange does have a very dark, Monty Pythonesque humour about it AND also reminds me (very much), of some of the endless conversations I had with clients/patients who DIDN'T have a problem . . .

5/27/2005 6:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, indeed, he must live in two states, and one of them's denial... He has eyes, but refuses to see.

But, in some sense, he is correct. Money, or some form of it (wealth), will be able to buy energy. It's just going to be more and more expensive for a long, long, time. Money is actually of form of energy in some sense.

However, what good are massively expensive freeways that fewer and fewer will be able to afford to drive upon? As peak progresses, the obviousness of the unparalled waste of resources and futility of current design plans will rain down upon your supervisor and the department. Document your encounter even further I say, because it will be evidence of his gross negligence, professional incompentence, and failure to...well, plan.

If you set it up right, document it, leave, and then who knows, maybe in less 3-5 years, you'll be coming back to take over his job because you WILL be proven right. At that time, there will be no planning that does not take into consideration energy needs. Progressive planners such as yourself will be the hot ticket. So document, and bide your time. If you get tired of it before then, just call a press conference, accuse your supervisor and the department of refusing to plan for what is obviously coming, quit, and claim whistleblower status :)

And I also agree with some earlier comments. Sitting back on what you really believe is not going to help effect the change that needs to happen. I commend you heartily for this blog, and for trying to bring up peak oil and related matters. But, really, if YOU don't have the courage as someone in your position, who will? What if no one stood up to speak their mind?

5/27/2005 9:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I may not be clear on your concerns -- is it 'reporting peak-oil to management', or 'acting upon the information'?

When peak-oil was brought forward to the managers (not the politicians) of my employer, there was no desire of management to hide from the facts.

While there is something very odd about having your managers state, "I thought it would have happened sooner", it might also be that they at least understand the concept of "Limits to Growth", and are professional enough to acknowledge opinions and data which might actually be useful to their work.

So what has changed where I work? Very little! It seems most managers are successful bureaucrats becasue they are good at working within the inertia of the system (perhaps a cruel shot, but there is a knack to working within any system).

If you had been successful in raising the awareness and getting buy-in, can real change be put against the inertia? Or is it information and paralysis?

In my Province, we have a government keen to spend billions of dollars on highway upgrades. Yet the Premier and his deputies are aware about peak-oil, and peak-gas. Similarly with the federal government in Ottawa.

Doesn't the inertia keep the status quo of Never-neverland happy? Or at least allow them to believe that growth can be infinite?

So how might one effect change within the system? One technique being applied to address climate change impacts is to treat it as the base case in the assumptions, the plans, and ultimately let it direct the financial decisions via the techncial analyses. Perhaps peak-oil can be addressed in a similar way.

Ultimately as professionals, there is an ethical responsibility to provide diligent advice to the decision makers (managers and politicians). Engineers and planners are advisors and should be expected to defend their advice. Is going beyond this taking on a new role?


5/27/2005 11:57 PM  
Blogger UNplanner said...

I am still weighing my options and haven't really ruled anything out. I do enjoy reading these comments and value the diverse range of opinions expressed on this site.

I have not given up on anything at this point; only taken a pause and a step back to reevaluate my strategies

5/28/2005 12:43 AM  
Anonymous mole said...

We will always choose short-term pleasure over long-term pain. There is nothing meaningful any one person can do to deal with Peak Oil. I suggest we sit back and enjoy every moment we have left before this mess we've created crashes and burns. Even if nothing good comes out of it eventually - I think this planet deserves to be saved by the demise of our civilisation.

5/28/2005 7:34 AM  

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