TSP: For those who sincerely want to know more and do more, how do we go about muddling through
the media, sorting through the conflicting reports, wading through the politics to stay informed about energy and our environment?
Of course, there is also your blog, Resource Insights … can you tell us more about what you write in this blog? Is it just about the environment
or do you take on other topics, too?
Nothing gets done in society without energy, even if it’s just the energy in your body. That means energy issues touch
nearly every facet of our lives: food production, transportation, housing, manufacturing, even recreation since many recreational
activities involve petroleum-powered boats, motorcycles, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles or even energy-intensive athletic
As a result, my writing about energy takes me into
practically every facet of modern life. I’ve written quite a bit about modern farming which has only been made possible
by fossil fuels and will need to change dramatically as fossil fuel supplies decline. I write occasionally about finance because,
as I see it, money is nothing more than the right to command energy to do what you want it to do, whether in the form of a
machine or in the form of a person. Without adequate energy supplies, you could have all the money in the world and it would
be worthless because, as I said, nothing gets done without energy.
And, not so incidentally, one of the reasons for
our current ongoing financial difficulties is that the world no longer has access to cheap energy to subsidize economic growth,
growth that is absolutely essential for the modern economy to service the enormous amounts of debt in the system.
Once you understand that humans and human society
and the entire planet are really all essentially energy systems, an inscrutably complex world becomes quite a bit more comprehensible.
Energy flows are what makes these seemingly separate things hang together.
It’s hard sometimes not to lose hope. Is there any reason for hope in your perspective?
Genuine hope comes from action, not from some writer or speaker. I can’t give you hope directly. You can only build
hope yourself in concert with others by taking action to address the major challenges of our age. Thomas Berry, the great
theologian and cultural historian, called upon us humans to become a benign presence on the Earth in his book The Great Work. With all the empty distractions we have created for ourselves, I think that by comparison the
“great work” will be invigorating for all who choose to embrace it. It will offer meaning and hope in the face
of the tumult of the enormous transition we are already experiencing.
Can you tell us a little more about how you live your life in accordance with your beliefs and findings?
Thirteen years ago my wife and I went down to one car. We’ve never regretted it. We live near a bus line and use
the bus frequently. I bicycle during all four seasons to do the vast majority of my errands. As a result, I get my exercise
while doing errands and actually end up saving time that would otherwise be spent exercising separately, for instance, at
a health club. We compartmentalize our lives so much these days that we don’t see that our fitness used to come from
just living, just doing daily activities.
In summer we never use air conditioning. First,
it’s just healthier to breathe fresh air and to sweat a bit in the summer. Second, we find that although we suffer somewhat
during summer’s first heat wave, after that we are almost never overheated—even on the hottest days—because
we’ve allowed our bodies to adjust to summer temperatures.
In winter we ascribe to the principle of warm the
body first, then the room, and only then the house. Americans somehow think it is their God-given right to run around in shorts
and a T-shirt in their homes in the middle of winter.
It seems trite to say that we put on several layers
of clothes to start the day. Then, we use space heat only for the rooms we are in, if needed. Even in the depths of winter,
we tend to turn the furnace on only once a day and leave it on just until we get the chill off.
One of the most energy-intensive systems in our
society is our food system. This is because we transport food sometimes thousands of miles from where it’s produced
to our dinner tables. This is a terrible waste of energy. To reduce this waste, we have developed relationships with local
farmers who use organic techniques and get much of our food from them. We also grow some of our food in a shared garden. In
addition, organic growing saves energy because it depends less on petroleum and does not allow the use of petrochemicals in
the form of pesticides and herbicides.
When you eat lots of fresh produce, you also don’t
incur the enormous energy costs embedded in food packaging. As for meat, we strive to purchase only meat from pastured animals
raised locally. It’s expensive, and we eat much less meat than we used to. On the other hand, the quality and taste
are exceptional. While meat production is energy-intensive, it is less so for the meat we buy. Just by buying the best locally
raised pastured meats and eating them less often than you used to eat conventionally produced meats, you’ll reduce your
energy footprint considerably.
All this means that we cook a lot and rarely eat
out. That’s probably one of the biggest changes in my life, and it’s turned out to be rewarding and healthy. I’m
a much better cook, and I feel better as well.
When I travel, I always try to travel by train if
I can since this is by far the most efficient form of long-distance transportation. Of course, trains don’t go everywhere,
and so sharing car rides is an alternative. When I’m in a big city, I always use public transportation and rarely even
take a cab. Occasionally, I fly if that’s the only practical way to get somewhere in the time allotted. Unfortunately, much of the U.S. transportation system is arranged to force you to fly on many long distance trips.
If we had a train system like that in Europe, I would never set foot on a plane except for transoceanic flights.
Back to Prelude, your novel. It was published in 2010, so you’ve had some
time now to observe public response and gather some feedback. What are you finding? Are people interested in applying this
to real life or are they reading the book as science fiction?
In a note opposite the title page I tell people that even though they are about to read a book of fiction, peak oil is
anything but. I wanted to make sure readers understood that going in. What has been happening in the first year is that people
who are peak-oil aware are using the book to enlighten their spouses, relatives, friends and co-workers, often by lending
out copies of Prelude or giving them as gifts. That’s exactly what I had
envisioned when I wrote the book.
I find that women readers typically get this book
right away. That’s because it’s really about relationships. The main relationship, however, is not what you think.
It’s the relationship between the main character and oil. As that relationship changes, so does her relationship to
everyone around her. That’s something that all of us involved in the peak oil movement have experienced.
For male readers, who tend to be less interested
in the relationship aspects of the story, I urge sticking with the book up through chapter six. If they do, they typically
find the action quickens enough to keep them reading to the end.
You published Prelude yourself. Was this because of resistance among traditional
publishers or some other reason?
As it turns out, Prelude is not my first novel; it is my second. The first
one, which I finished 10 years ago, had an immigration theme and was set in northern California. After exactly 75 rejections
from agents and publishers, I put that manuscript away. It had taken more than a year just to get all the responses from agents,
some of them trickling in nine months after the initial query.
Peak oil is an urgent issue. I thought it was better
to proceed with publishing Prelude myself. Even if I had been able to attract an
agent and a publisher, it still would probably have taken two years just to get the book out. By then we might already be
at peak! I’d be writing history instead of prophecy. Who would find the warning in the book compelling or useful then?
Though my choice to self-publish comes with considerable
challenges, the path has been easier for me than for many others. I’ve been a newspaper reporter, an advertising copywriter
and a media consultant for political campaigns. I already know a lot about how to promote things, and I still have friends
in the ad business that I’ve hired to assist me and who’ve been enormously helpful. In addition, I have a widely
read blog, and so I had a built-in reading audience before I even finished the book.
The Internet has really made self-publishing and
promotion so much easier than it used to be. Prelude is available pretty much anywhere
in the world and as an e-book on every device I know of. This would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Now, it’s
actually possible to do it yourself with a little focus and hard work. In addition, the stigma associated with self-publishing
has been disappearing as some successful writers have ditched their agents and publishers and gone direct. By and large, they
are making better money and reaching broader audiences. The e-book in particular has spawned a number of e-book millionaires
who’ve never had an agent or a publisher. It’s a new world.
The increasing importance of the Internet has made
itself known to me in other ways as well. A guest post I did on the book for a prominent
energy investing site led directly to a cable television interview in Europe. I did the interview via Skype.
But perhaps the most promising development came
only a month after the book was published. A former Hollywood sound editor sent me a message through Facebook telling me he
wanted to see Prelude made into a film. This editor now runs a cinema program at
a California university, but still maintains contacts in the industry with major producers. He’s also written several
scripts and now has an arrangement with me to produce a script on spec for the consideration of any producer who options the
movie rights. The previously mentioned television interview also resulted in the book making it into the hands of yet another
major film producer who is friends with the television show’s producer.
These contacts have been promising enough that I’ve
engaged an entertainment lawyer. I’m not exactly holding my breath. On the other hand, an offer could emerge at any
time, and so I thought I’d better be ready.
If I had focused on getting an agent to take on
Prelude, I’d probably still be sifting through rejection letters at this
You chose to make your main character a woman, Cassie. As a woman, I really appreciate that, by the way—we don’t
read about nearly enough female characters who are strong in the sciences and in business [see book review of Base Ten by Maryann Lesert.] What went into making that choice?
You’ll probably be mildly disappointed that the choice was as much a marketing decision as it was an aesthetic one.
First of all, I think readers find it more interesting to read about characters who are contrary to type. It’s the GI
Jane phenomenon. There are more surprises and complications for a woman in a man’s world which the oil industry and
the consulting business both tend to be.
Second, it turns out that 80 percent of America’s
fiction readers are women. Of course, a good chunk of that number can be explained by the romance-filled bookshelves in nearly
every grocery store. But even so, women are far more likely to read other types of fiction than men. This is a vast audience,
and I’ve tried to write a story that is engaging for women readers.
There’s actually a third reason to reach women
readers. Women tend to make most of the decisions for the household. If anyone is going to expand the discussion of peak oil
in the world, it is women—women who want to keep their families safe and well nourished, who want the best for their
children and their spouses. If they come to believe that peak oil threatens that, they’ll
do something about it.
My favorite example is Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
When I was growing up, drunk driving was a bit of a joke. One very successful comedian, Foster Brooks, actually made a living
doing a drunk act. Within 10 years after MADD started its work, states were throwing people in jail for drunk driving and
Foster Brooks had stopped doing his “lovable lush” act.
Could the women of the world change attitudes so
completely about peak oil? I hope so.
You’ve said that we are actually rich in oil, just not in “cheap oil.” Please explain.