Or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the recession, readable in 5 minutes if you don’t bother with the links and the videos.
Oil, oil, oil. It seems like it’s all I ever heard growing up in “The Oil Capital of Europe.” Oil this and oil that, translating into golden this and BMW that. For me at least, amidst the clamour and avarice surrounding North Sea Oil overlaid with the unquenchable desire to learn kickflips, the biochemical process of photosynthesis got drowned out. It’s a gap in the jigsaw I’m now attempting to fill by attending a free community college biology class. FREE! Who says California’s education budget has gone completely down the bog.
Everything we do relies on photosynthesis! The sunlight that fell on the Earth 300M years ago allowed the growth and development of algae and zooplankton that, it’s fairly safe to assume, lived and died. The carbon-rich remnants of this ancient life slowly accumulated in the beds of swamps and on the ocean floor. This process cycled on through the ages resulting in the oil we now siphon out, refine and use to great effect.
Gazing out from any major freeway overpass it’s bizarre to imagine each shining chariot passing below us as being pulled along at 80 mph by a thundering team of 40 or as many as 400 horses. Rush hour would be bedlam and the amount of horse shit? I mean, can they shit on the gallop? Either way, the fact we’ve managed to squeeze 400 of them into combustion engines with a capacity of less than 4 liters is pretty nuts. Especially considering you’d probably struggle to fit more than just 3 or 4 prize stallion penises in a 4 liter jar, let alone 400 entire horses. (see 2:24 in the following)
Placing equestrian genitalia aside for a moment we find a man relevant to both the amount of oil we’re using and the amount of energy we get from it, M. King Hubbert.
He was born in 1903 and worked as a researcher for a little oil company called Shell from the 40s through to the 60s. His well cited biography is summed up nicely on Wikipedia. He developed a mathematical model that allowed us to accurately predict the production cycle of a given oil field, province or region. He calculated that US domestic oil production would peak in the early 1970s and in 1956 he presented his findings to the American Petroleum Institute. In the early 1970s, when US domestic oil production peaked and went into terminal decline, the seriousness of Hubbert’s production models solidified. He calculated that global oil production would peak around the year 1995 with a possible 10 year positive shift depending on OPEC policies. The economic implications of a global decline in petroleum were, and still are, a tad concerning. Here’s a clip of Hubbert calmly explaining his curve.
In 1977 President Jimmy Carter made a speech in which he expressed the social and economic dangers of US domestic, and global, oil depletion. He made a plea for the introduction of efficiency measures. Some people listened and the conservation movement of that time may have helped shift Hubbert’s Peak slightly further into the early 21st century. At this point it’s worth noting that “peak production” is just that. It is not the end it’s just the effective, noticeable, beginning of the end.
Where Jimmy Carter urged, in the spirit of Benjamin Franklin, frugality as the path to retaining American “freedom”, Ronald Reagan and the neo-conservatives that followed took a different approach; import at low prices. “Oh this isn’t enough for your oil? Well we’re holding this thermal detonator (a.k.a. Patriot Missile) so we suggest you make it enough.” To visualize the quantity of oil we’re going through in the early stages of the 21st century we can (thanks to the exacting work of writer/speaker/educator Richard Heinberg) imagine an olympic sized swimming pool being completely drained of this one-time-only shimmering black bonanza, every 15 seconds, constantly. If that doesn’t sound like very much then think again, and try to imagine the plug hole.
I’ve always had a fascination with oil. I can’t recall exactly where I first heard the term Peak-Oil but the idea that hydrocarbon fuels are a finite resource that will one day run out certainly forms the basis of the Mad Max films.
These films have some potential as prophecy. Humans lived socially and civilly (despite the odd war or murder) for millions of years before the discovery of oil but never in such vast numbers, in such density. It’s this rug-from-beneath-feet effect of spiking oil prices in a serious depletion scenario that generates angst among those observing current trends from this point of view. A few years ago I was introduced to the idea of Peak-Oil in a decent book called The End of Oil by Paul Roberts. But it’s implications were not hammered home until I sat in a theatre on Sunset Blvd in LA and watched chain-smoking, painfully straight-talking malthusian catastrophist and ex-LAPD cop turned investigative economist Michael Ruppert talk resource depletion in Chris Smith’s 2010 documentary “Collapse.”
As the credits rolled the wife and I made our way outside, eyes readjusting to the radiant green of the Starbucks sign and the Chevron logo glowing beyond the procession of multi-coloured Hummers cruising Sunset, piloted by rich suburban white kids basing fools with thugged-out rap. This was more unnerving than it used to be. Over the course of the next few weeks I slowly and quietly freaked out.
I dealt with this freak out by reading as much as I could about the subject. I found my way to The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience by Rob Hopkins which optimistically discusses post-carbon lifestyles and introduced me to the agricultural system known as permaculture. Next thing you know there’s an introduction to permaculture class at the local botanical gardens and I’m signing up for it determined to be at least partially prepared for the coming apocalypse.
It turns out there’s a whole movement dedicated to just this type of preparation called the Transition movement which I pay attention to but am yet to actively participate in. One of the best twitter accounts I follow is the transition group in High Wycombe in England @TTWycombe. There’re lots of informative resources at the Post Carbon Institute and The Association for the Study of Peak Oil to name just 2. So I’d lost my wedding ring when I attended that permaculture class and I accidentally happened to sit next to an attractive girl who, I think it’s fair to say, was immediately intensely attracted to me. She would probably deny it, as they so often do, but she’d be lying, she wanted a piece. Being a married man I’m contractually obliged to neutralise this type of chemistry, which is well and good, but what can’t be neutralised so easily is what we can call the inflated-ego-effect. I explained this scenario to fellow married dude and understanding friend Kenny Anderson one day when we were out skating.
“It’s just reassuring to think that there’re other girls out there that would be down, you know?” I said, wistfully gazing off into an alternate universe in the clouds somewhere.
“You see!” Kenny said, grinning, “You’ve still got it.”
And whether that’s true or not it’s an encouraging thing to believe, even just for a day. Let’s take a moment now to reflect on what was almost a great wee skate clothing brand.
We are feeling the effects of a sputtering world economy. Commodity prices (tied to the rising price of fueling the associated production and distribution apparatus) are increasing, while productivity is remaining flat or is in decline; and skateboarding, unless we delude ourselves, is a luxury. It exists because human’s have learned to exploit the vast stores of ancient sunlight contained in fossil fuels (400 horses worth). Energy we’ve used to increase agricultural production to levels unimaginable to farmers living prior to the industrial-revolution. Levels which have sustained an unprecedented growth in human population.
The short story is that with fossil fuels we have been able to do a lot more work for a lot less muscle-power. With the basic need for plentiful food taken care of we’ve been freed to engage in creative endeavors. Whether this was the thinking behind Powell-Peralta’s Future Primitive concept for their 2nd great skate video, released at the end of Ronald Reagan’s 1st term, well, only Stacy knows.
Of course, humans, have always been quick-witted, industrious, creative creatures, whether painting on cave walls or writing Much Ado About Nothing but with the sunlight of the Carboniferous Period to fuel our vital industries (the production and transport of food, the transport of products and raw materials and the construction of shelter) it’s arguable that (since those great prophets of industry; Rockerfeller and Ford) we are creative like never before. Why are we creative? To express our emotions? Or because boredom makes for an excruciating experience of life? We need to be engaged in activity or the creeping pain of our atrophying brains drives us insane or at least to crime or self-abuse, “Idle hands are the devil’s playground,” my Granny would say. When the farming work of a hundred hands is achieved by a single man on a single machine what do all the unemployed farm hands do? They develop industrial wood production techniques, manufacture urethane, expand metropolitan areas, start ad agencies, plan obsolescence and invent skateboarding.
So if skateboarding exists to fill the boredom vacuum that our clever use of hydrocarbons has generated, what might happen to skateboarding on the far side of Hubbert’s famous curve? The broader question is what might happen to the luxury of leisure time? There have been many pictures painted and where they vary is in the level of grim foreboding they contain. A book that conjures a broader, more deep breathing vision is The Long Descent by John Michael Greer. Putting pre-conceived notions of druid-revivalism aside we find in The Long Descent a sober, meditative analysis of the current state of industrial civilization, practical approaches to living in times of diminishing resources presented in a rational manner, as well as reasonable speculations as to the state of the planet our grand-children might inherit.
Skateboarding has great importance to a great many people. It can offer a zen-like transcendence from the often frustrating mental, to the silent-minded, pre-linguistic, purely instinctual; or it can serve as the hole into which we hurl our adolescent rage. At it’s core I feel like it’s a reasonably decent aspect of the capitalist machine. There are people cashing in who care not, they see only a market to exploit, but for the skateboarders embroiled in the business of selling skateboarding (not just tee-shirts) there is a deep and genuine desire to share and encourage a healthy experience of life, while attempting to pay the bills of course. In an economic climate that shows all the symptoms of having no more room to grow and not enough resources to sustain it’s size, everyone, sooner or later, feels the over-crowding effects. Operating in the economic system that this post, with it’s crude analogies, so loosely describes, the pool of pros and ams who can expect to put food on the table by skateboarding might necessarily shrink as a function of the declining revenue the industry can generate in a shrinking economy. This thought is based on the observation that what seemed like solid brands are dissolving their skate programs, (Elwood, Quicksilver, éS shoes) but whether that’s happening at some unprecedented level we’d need to look a little more methodically than this blog post bothers to. Whatever the case I should say that I feel optimistic the industry can adapt to the tighter pool in a positive manner.
Whether we’re heading for a thrilling, violent Mad Max dystopia or a peaceful, fulfilling, local, organic utopia there’s a shit load of oil still waiting to be burned and skateboarding will continue in one form or another for some years yet. I hope it will retain the social antagonism which drew me to it in the first place, but regardless, it’s importance to those caught by its spell will endure. In the meantime, as we watch what unfolds for humanity in general, we can smile widely and get on with burying our heads in the business of figuring out how skateboarding fits in this tight new age of decline. Good luck out there.