Culture  A voice crying in the wilderness

New documentary profiles peak oil prophet

The tag line of Chris Smith’s documentary Collapse tells us that every great civilization has experienced a downfall. And it’s true: Rome, the USSR, the British Empire, even the kingdom of the dinosaurs eventually collapsed. Michael Ruppert, radical thinker or conspiracy theorist, depending on who you ask, predicts that the industrial world is on the brink of just such a collapse. Nearly the entire film consists of Ruppert, chain smoking on a lone chair in an empty warehouse, explaining why he thinks that the end of the world as we know it is very near. 
Ruppert left his job as a Los Angeles police officer in the late 1970s after having blown the whistle on a CIA drug smuggling scandal. Deeply disappointed by the lack of effective response, he turned to investigative journalism instead, and in 1998 started the blog “From the Wilderness.” The blog’s objective is to cover controversial and otherwise unreported news, often linked to the theory of peak oil and its consequences. Simply stated, the peak oil movement argues that we are at or past the point of maximum global petroleum extraction, and that from now on, the extraction rate will only decline, until the world’s oil fields are finally depleted. This is very bad news. The decline will be much faster than the climb, and our society is extremely dependent on petroleum. It functions not only as fuel, but also as a fundamental component of the plastic materials with which things like bottles or tires are produced. The objects that aren’t made of petroleum were manufactured and transported with the aid of petroleum poweredvehicles. Even something apparently immaterial like the Internet is dependent on oil for the building and fuelling of servers. Because of petroleum’s omnipresence, the world economy is tightly linked to the world’s oil supplies, and, peak oil activists claim, the depletion of them is the fundamental cause of economic crises like the one that started in 2008.

Without oil, the world would effectively stop functioning and chaos would ensue; most people agree on this much. However, the peak oil theory is not endorsed by all (although the loudest voices rejecting it completely are major oil companies whose livelihood depends on the continued belief in the sustainability of a petroleum-based society), and even among the supporters, not everyone believes that the turning point is as close as Ruppert and his colleagues claim. Even more controversially, Ruppert says that most of the world’s governments are aware of peak oil and its urgency and are keeping their populations ignorant – either because they want to stave off panic, or because they have too much to profit from the status quo.

It is difficult to assess with certainty the veracity of Ruppert’s predictions, in part due to the denialist or apathetic approaches most commentators take to the issue. Either we are told that global warming is a sham, that the recession is over and that things are going back to normal – no need to worry, keep driving your SUV with an Evian in hand – or, perhaps more commonly, media solicits attention through alarmist but insubstantive reporting on melting ice caps and housing foreclosures, without getting to the root of the problem which binds these events together. Mainstream media’s alleged concerns over the precarious state of the world don’t really take us anywhere, as evidenced by the miserable failure of the Copenhagen talks, despite scores of media attention. Sure, we are aware that something is happening, but it seems as though the status quo is bad, but tenable; the problem, if it exists, becomes trivialized and it looks as though we could go on living like this forever. Is there anyone who gains from this sensationalist but impotent reporting? Not to sound conspiratorial or anything, but it does seem like the only clear effect of mainstream greenwashing is that more newspapers get sold.

Ruppert may seem like a doomster, but his stance is not motivated by profit. And if we really do think that the environmental and financial crises are worrying, perhaps we should start listening to people like him when they tell us to connect the dots, pointing toward rapidly decreasing oil reserves. Perhaps, as they advocate, radical action must be taken. At least they don’t try to convince us that consumption, whether it is buying a reusable coffee mug or an environmentally friendly car, will save the world.