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Saturday June 16, 2007

[This is a slightly longer version of an essay that first appeared in Business Week]
Eugene Linden
With global oil production basically stalled for the past two years, the controversial prediction that the world is fast approaching maximum oil output is looking a bit less controversial. At first blush, those concerned about global warming should be delighted if this is the case. After all, what better way to prod the move towards carbon-free, climate-friendly alternative energy? Actually, the U.S. is completely unprepared for peak oil, as it's called, and the wrenching adjustments it would entail could easily accelerate global warming as nations turned to coal for energy. Moreover, regardless of the implications for climate change, peak oil represents a mortal threat to the U.S. economy. Peak oil refers to the point at which world oil production plateaus before beginning to decline, as depletion of the world's remaining reserves offsets ever increased drilling. Some experts argue that we're already there, and that we will not likely exceed the 84.5 million barrels per day production peaks reached in 2005 and 2006. If so, global production will bump along near these levels for some years before beginning an inexorable decline. What would that mean? With alternative energy still far too small to grow fast enough to make up the difference, global economic growth would slow, stop, and then reverse; international tensions would soar as nations sought access to diminishing supplies, enriching and enabling autocratic rulers in the unstable oil states in the process; and, unless some other sources of energy could be ramped up with extreme haste, the world could plunge into a new Dark Age. Even as faltering economies burned less oil, carbon loading of the atmosphere might accelerate as nations turned to vastly dirtier coal. Hmm, given such unpleasant possibilities don't you think this issue would rank a little higher on the radar screen? Actually, it's dumbfounding that Peak Oil isn't a day-in, day-out obsession for the press and policy makers. Picking a date for peak oil is exceedingly complicated, involving uncertainties ranging from how much oil might be recovered from unconventional sources such as oil sands to determining whether secretive oil exporting nations are telling the truth about their reserves. Even if proponents are wrong that the peak has already arrived, however, there are enough disturbing omens out there - e.g. declining production in most of the world's great oil fields and no new super-giant fields to take up the slack - to merit an intense international effort to understand the issue. For those interested in a robust discussion of the details, I'd highly recommend visiting, where some of the best minds in the business ventilate all these issues. Regardless of whether peak oil has arrived globally, the stark reality is that it will arrive much sooner for the United States -- in the form of peak global oil exports. Since we import nearly two-thirds of the oil we consume each year, oil available for export is the figure Americans should be concerned about. Fast-rising domestic consumption in the oil exporting nations, and increasing demands by big importers like China, means a scramble to maintain supplies to the U.S. unless world production rises rapidly. Production isn't rising, however; it has stalled. Call it de facto Peak Oil or Peak Oil Lite, but it means is that the United States is entering a brave new world in which we have to scramble to maintain levels of existing imports, much less increase the amount of oil we bring in. We will know soon enough whether the extra capacity to raise production really exists. If not, it's too late to avoid significant pain. Basic math and the clock tell the story. Taken together all alternatives - geothermal, solar, wind, etc. -- produce only 3% of the energy supplied by oil. If oil demand rises by 2% while production remains flat, production of alternative energy would have to grow by 60% a year - more than twice as fast as the growth of wind power, the fastest growing alternative energy -- and all this incremental energy would somehow have to be delivered to transportation (which consumes most of the oil produced each year) just to stay even with the growth in demand. Nuclear and hydropower together produce ten times the power of wind, geothermal and solar power, of course, but even if nations put aside environmental concerns, it takes many years to build either nuclear plants or dams, and it's getting harder to find un-dammed rivers. There are many things that we in the U.S. should be doing right now. If a tax on oil makes sense from a climate change perspective, it makes double sense squared from the point of view of extending remaining oil supplies. Improving efficiency and scaling up alternative sources must be a priority, but, recognizing that nations will turn to cheap coal (in recent years 80% of global growth in coal use has come from China), major efforts should be directed towards de-fanging this fuel, which produces more carbon dioxide per ton than any other energy source. If the peakists are wrong, we'll still be better off with these actions, but if they are right, major efforts right now may be the only way to avert a new Dark Age in an overheated world. Unfortunately, our collective policy on peak oil seems to be cross our fingers and hope it's not true. It that worthy of a great civilization facing a threat to the energy source that propelled much of its prosperity and growth?

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Short Take

[Mild spoiler alert: the book is a fictionalized exploration of a girl who falls under the spell of a Manson-like cult. We all know how that story unfolded. In this Short Take I’ll be offering my reactions to the protagonist, Evie Boyd.]


The Girls offers as bleak a view of the amorality of American youth as I have ever encountered. In a review of my first book, I was called “Intolerably apocalyptic,” but I can’t hold a candle to Ms. Cline. The book is a novelistic attempt to try and understand how some of the privileged young women of the late 1960s could commit unspeakable acts while under the sway of a Manson-like psychopath. 

 Thus we meet Evie Boyd, a fourteen year-old growing up amid relative affluence in Petaluma California. She’s directionless, with no apparent passions, self-conscious about her looks, emotionally needy, alienated from her parents (who get divorced), but possessed of a tough inner core and a rebellious streak. She’s enthralled when she encounters Suzanne, a wild, charismatic 19 year-old who seems to be a composite of Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houton, and Evie is honored when Suzanne pays her some attention. Events bring her to the cult’s squalid ranch, and for some weeks, Evie maintains a dual life, throwing herself into the life of the cult, while returning home enough not to galvanize her mother, who is pre-occupied with a rebound relationship with Frank, an entrepreneur who comes across as a hustler with a heart of gold.

Evie is so smitten by Suzanne that she doesn’t notice as the cult spirals down from talk of love and freedom to episodes of paranoia, back-biting and revenge. Along the way, Evie has her first sexual adventures, and enters sufficiently into the spirit of the cult that she brings them to the house of the family next door (which they descrate), even though she has known the family all her life and has no score to settle. Later, Evie talks her way into joining Suzanne as she and others set off to inflict mayhem on a Dennis Wilson-like figure, but Suzanne kicks her out of the car before they begin a horrific rampage.

Did Suzanne do this to protect Evie from what she knew was about to happen, or because she felt that Evie wasn’t a murderer and would become a liability? That’s left unanswered, but the bloodbath that Evie missed is so depraved – including the slashing apart of a toddler – that no human with a soul could find that earlier gesture redemptive … except for our Evie, who still feels the tug of Suzanne’s power, even after she learns every gory detail of Suzanne’s actions.

It’s several months between the time of the murders and when the cult is finally caught. During this time, Evie keeps her mouth shut about what happens and meekly allows herself to be shipped off to boarding school to resume her comfortable existence, though as a wreck, not a spirited teenager.

That’s when I decided Evie was a worthless human being. Sure, she was terrified that the cult would come after her, and there’s some honor on not squealing, but Evie had to know that the cult would likely kill again, and that made her an enabler of whatever they did subsequently.

The book interweaves the present and the past and so we learn how these events haunted Evie’s life. But there’s no redemptive moment, no act where she summons the courage to do the right thing, or rises above her own self-absorption. Even in the present, when the psychopath-in-the-making son of a friend and his underage, impressionable girlfriend crash at her digs, she can only summon a half-hearted (and failed) attempt to save the girl from following the path that so grievously sidetracked her own life.

All the men in the book are either pathetic or pigs of various shapes and forms – except for a premed student named Tom, who sees the cult for what it is, but who Evie rejects as a dork. Towards the end of the book, Evie ticks off a long list of subsequent experiences with awful men that could summon in her the hatred to commit horrendous crimes, seeming to imply that with the right mix of events, she too might have become a Suzanne, and, by implication, so could enormous numbers of other young women.

My first reaction was to call “Bullshit!” Were all young women potential Suzannes, we would have seen endless repeats of the Manson horrors in the nearly 50 years since the events. Instead, those murders still stand as a touchstone of horror because nothing since has eclipsed their mindless violence.

The Manson cult was at the far far end of the normal curve during truly abnormal times. In just the two years leading up to the murders, we had the huge escalation of a senseless war, the explosion of the anti-war movement and counter-culture, a breakdown of generational trust, my generation’s first experiences with powerful, mind-altering drugs, and a sexual revolution. In a country of more than 200 million people, that roiling stew of disruptive forces bubbled to the surface about 20 broken souls, deranged by drugs and in the thrall of a false prophet.

On reflection, however, maybe Ms. Clein was making a different point. All we have to think of are the teenage executioners of Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the child soldiers of Africa to recognize that the capacity for evil lies latent in the young. And, while in fiction we want our protagonists to find redemption or transcend their flaws perhaps Evie’s failure to rise to the occasion was making the point that a civilization that keeps our murderous impulses in check is not innate, but something external that has to be actively inculcated and supported. That’s something to keep in mind amid the current insanity of gun violence, and as more dark clouds gather on the horizon.

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