Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, June 11, 2005

An Interview with Matt Savinar

by Aric McBay (January 15 2005)

Matt Savinar is the author of The Oil Age is Over: What to Expect as the World Runs Out of Cheap Oil, 2005-2050. He was trained as a lawyer. He maintains a website with plenty of information and articles about Peak Oil at I interviewed him by email on January 15 2005.

Aric McBay: Could you summarize the current Peak Oil situation for us?

Matt Savinar: If the optimists are correct, we are ten to twenty years from the peak. If the realists are correct, we are peaking right now.

We have no scalable alternatives.

We have no plan on how to reform the banking system so that it does not require a constantly increasing supply of energy.

We have no political leaders who are willing to tell the public the truth.

In other words, it doesn't look good.

AM What does this mean for the prospects of industrial civilization? What level of technology will people be living at in fifty years?

MS Optimistically, the average westerner will be reduced to what you might consider a modern day third world level of existence. In that case, your best bet is to either be as self-sufficient as possible or extremely rich - top one percent or better. Everybody else is in deep trouble.

Pessimistically, nuclear war and radical climate change will eliminate all but a very small portion of the population.

AM What is your impression of the ability of industrial "renewables" like photovoltaics or electric windpower to prevent an industrial collapse?

MS People tend to think of alternatives to oil as somehow independent from oil. In reality, the alternatives to oil are more accurately described as "derivatives of oil". It takes massive amounts of oil and other scarce resources to locate and mine the raw materials (silver, copper, platinum, uranium, et cetera) necessary to build solar panels, windmills, and nuclear power plants. It takes more oil to construct these alternatives and even more oil to distribute them, maintain them, and adapt current infrastructure to run on them.

Each of the alternatives is besieged by numerous fundamental physical shortcomings that have, thus far, received little attention. I discuss this in greater detail on my website, - see the answer to the question "What about all the various alternatives to oil? Can't we find a replacement?"

Despite their individual shortcomings, it is still possible for the world economy to run on a basket of alternative sources of energy - so long as we immediately get all of the following:

1 A few dozen technological breakthroughs;

2 Unprecedented political will and bipartisan cooperation;

3 Tremendous international collaboration;

4 Massive amounts of investment capital;

5 Fundamental reforms to the structure of the international banking system;

6 No interference from the oil-and-gas industries;

7 About 25 to 50 years of general peace and prosperity to retrofit the world's $45 trillion dollar per year economy, including its transportation and telecommunications networks, manufacturing base, and agricultural systems to run on these new sources of energy;

If we get all of the above, we might be able to get the energy equivalent of three to five billion barrels of oil per year from alternative sources.

That's a tremendous amount of oil - about as much as the entire world used per year during World War II, but it's nowhere near enough to keep our currently mammoth-sized yet highly volatile global economic system going. The world currently requires over thirty billion barrels of oil per year to support economic growth. That requirement will only increase as time goes on due to population growth, debt servicing, and the industrialization of countries like China and India.

So even if the delusionally optimistic scenario described above is somehow miraculously manifested, we're still facing a full-blown meltdown of petrochemical civilization.

In short, hoping renewables will keep the age of entropy at bay is like hoping pissing in the Mississippi river will cause it to reverse course.

They're great for small scale things. We should be trying to upscale them as much as possible, but even in the best case scenario we still have to accept a future where energy is extremely expensive and extremely scarce.

AM Sometimes people tell me that "people have been predicting this for a long time, especially in the 1970s, and it hasn't happened. It's not going to happen now." Why is the situation different now? Is there anything that could prevent collapse?

MS The oil shocks of the 1970s were created by political events. In 1973, OPEC cut its production in retaliation for US support of Israel. In 1979, Iran cut its production in hopes of crippling "the great Satan". In both cases, the US was able to turn to other oil producing nations such as Venezuela to alleviate the crisis.

Once global production peaks, there won't be anybody to turn to. The crisis will just get worse and worse with each passing year.

The evidence of an imminent peak in global oil production is now overwhelming:

1 Ninety-nine percent of the world's oil comes from 44 oil producing nations. At least 24 of these nations are past their peak and now in terminal decline.

2 The entire world - with the exception of the Middle East - peaked in 1997. The US peaked in 1970, Russia in 1987, the UK in 1999.

3 Global production of conventional oil has essentially plateaued since the year 2000.

As far as "doom-and-gloom" consider what widely respected Deutsche Bank had to say about Peak Oil in a recent report entitled "Energy Prospects After the Petroleum Age":

"The end-of-the-fossil-hydrocarbons scenario is not therefore a doom-and-gloom picture painted by pessimistic end-of-the world prophets, but a view of scarcity in the coming years and decades that must be taken seriously".

On a similar note, as noted earlier, the chief economist at Morgan Stanley recently predicted that we have a ninety percent chance of facing "Economic Armageddon", while investment banker and Bush-consultant Matt Simmons has stated "the only solution is to pray".

Given the credentials of those sounding the alarm the loudest, it is extremely unwise to causally dismiss this as just more "1970s doom-and-gloom".

AM How do infrastructure attacks play into this scenario? Over the past year, attacks on oil infrastructure of been increasingly common in places like Chechnya and Iraq. In the past year numerous small-scale attacks and bombings on electrical infrastructure have also been carried out by Separatist and Anti-Imperialist groups all over the world, including in rich countries like the US, Spain and Canada. On a recent tape Osama bin Laden called for attacks on the oil infrastructure of Saudi Arabia. Could these attacks trigger an industrial collapse much early than observers predict, if they become widespread enough?

MS They certainly could and probably will.

It's like somebody who is suffering from a disease like cancer who in addition to having to deal with the effect of the disease, the treatment, and all the medical bills, then gets bitten by a wild animal on the way to the doctor's office.

Now they have to deal with the blood loss, possibility of infection, and additional medical bills resulting from the animal attack.

AM Do you want to speculate here on what sort of time frame do you expect to see in terms of collapse? How much time do people have to get their stuff together?

MS I try not to think too much about how little time we have as it causes me a great deal of anxiety.

AM What are the most important things that people can do to prepare for collapse?

MS Probably deal with the emotional aspects first. You can't learn to grow food, install solar panels, et cetera ... if you're a nervous wreck.

Overwhelming anxiety is a natural response to understanding the ramifications of peak oil, but it is not a state of mind that allows one to effectively prepare for an energy constrained future.

AM The example of "Easter Island" is often used to discuss Peak Oil and ecological overshoot. As you know, the inhabitants of Easter Island created a complex, hierarchal society with a great emphasis on building monumental stone statues. However, when Europeans first arrived on the island in 1722, the the population had been reduced to a tiny fraction of its peak, and the island was barren. The inhabitants of Easter Island destroyed their own forests by using too much wood, and once the trees were gone the ecology collapsed and streams dried up, so they resorted to constant war over the dregs of food and wood that remained, and even extensive cannibalism for food. [See Clive Ponting's writings on the subject.] What can we do to minimize violence and warfare over remaining resources when industrial civilization crashes?

MS Try telling the average American that he may have to replace his car with a bicycle. The response you get will likely include:

1 Pontifications that "riding a bicycle instead of driving a car is the moral equivalent of letting the terrorists win";

2 Admonitions that "you would probably vote for Saddam Hussein if you could", and

3 Quite possibly threats of physical violence should you ever make such a suggestion to them again.

When dealing with populations and leaders who are as energy-illiterate and irrational as we are, I don't know what, if anything, can be done to prevent a descent into anarchy.

AM One of my great worries about industrial "renewables" is that they'll permit some degree of continuation of the actions of the US military in North America and abroad. It increasingly seems that they are hoping that this is the case - for example, with the military's creation of a hybrid Hummer, or the general recent enthusiasm for "renewables" within the "National Security" crowd. How likely do you think it is that the military will attempt to build and co-opt electricity producing wind and solar installations to power their policies of invasion and domination? What can we do about this?

MS I share your concerns. We did, after all, have atomic bombs before atomic energy.

I don't know if anything can be done to stop it.

AM The longer the current industrial system is in place the more human and ecological communities it will destroy, particularly in unindustrialized countries. We depend on the communities of life for our long term survival and well-being. That means that in the long term, the sooner global deindustrialization happens the better. And yet, were civilization to collapse now it would cause some degree of violence as well, particularly for people in industrialized countries (who are more dependent on it). How do we balance the need for collapse to happen soon with fears of the violence that may happen during collapse?

MS The longer I'm aware of these issues, the less I tend to think about such big picture issues as there is little I can do to effect the speed of the collapse outside of make my own preparations.

AM I often think of the children who will be born after industrial collapse. What would you want to tell them about the events of our time? Are there any warnings that you would give them?

MS I think the initial generations (say 25 to 50 years from now) will be quite angry with us for squandering so much. They will see, for instance, that the richest person in town has access to all the food and water he wants while everybody else scrounges and struggles to survive. When they realize that everybody in the town used to live as the rich man did, you can see why they will be quite upset with generations who lived between 1850 and 2025 for squandering such wealth on useless crap and wasteful living.

250 plus years from now, they will likely tell stories and myths about us as nobody will have had access to the energy necessary to operate machinery for generations. Somebody might find the blue prints for an SUV or an IPOD and attempt to build one from wood. When it fails to work as the ancient texts described, they will be clueless as to why. The survivors of Easter Island had no clue how the statues got built. Even to this day, we don't know how the islanders did it as we can barely duplicate their efforts even when aided by heavy machinery. The same is true for the pyramids in Egypt.

As far as what I would tell them, that is hard to say as they won't have the same cultural reference points you and I have, all of which are the product of petroleum culture. I would have to put the message in terms they are likely to understand which are likely to be what we might consider "primitive" by today's standards. When you think about it, the word primitive as it is typically used really means "energy-poor" which our descendants most certainly will be.

Our descendants may read about the "Markets" and think they were our gods. The gods of transport were Ford, GM, Toyota, while the gods of information were IBM, Apple, Dell, et al ... These gods belonged to these larger gods called the "S & P 500" and "Nasdaq". The gods produced these magical machines called "cars" and "computers" and "radios" and so on ... Every morning, the people would go the machines produced by the gods to find out if the gods were happy or angry with the people. They would then turn to their shamans and gurus, such as Alan Greenspan, in hopes that the shamans and gurus would figure out how to make the gods happy again. Sometimes a god would fall from grace and wouldn't be able to associate with the other gods. This is what happened, for instance, to the god called "Enron" and his disciples, Ken Lay and Ken Fastow. Other times, a god's personal representative would be installed into positions of power among the people. The god called "Halliburton" was known for this practice.

The men in the society loved the god named "Pfizer" who would give the men a form of manna called "Viagra". They men also loved the gods named "Coors", "NFL", and "Hooters". Some of women in the society were obsessed with gods named "Gucci" and "Revlon".

Then there were some gods who were very powerful but very secretive and mysterious. The god named the "Carlyle Group" was one such god. The "Saudi Bin Laden Group" was another. We still have some ancient texts about the "Carlyle" and "Saudi-Bin Laden" gods. It is believed these were originally the work of the philosopher "Moore".

The gods fed on this stuff called "Brent Crude". When the people were no longer able to provide the gods with their food, the gods became very angry and began to abandon the people. The first gods to abandon the people were the gods of flight, such as the gods named "Delta" and "American" and "TWA". As the supply of crude dwindled, more and more of the gods abandoned the people. The people begun to fight for whatever crude was left.

In one particularly destructive battle, some of the people connected to the "Bin Laden" stole the machines of the gods of flight and used them to attack the temples of the gods of finance, commerce, and warfare. This ultimately plunged the world into a series of battles called "terror wars".

Some people thought the wind or the sun or maybe even plants would provide a replacement for the crude, but by the time they realized this was just a fantasy, it was too late.

Copyright 2003-2004, redistribution for for-profit uses prohibited without permission.

NOTE: The original HTML version of this interview contains links to several other useful items related to the content herein. See

Bill Totten


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