Randy White was a few minutes late to his Wednesday-night meeting in the basement cafeteria of the St. Francis church in Southeast Portland.
He dragged a seat up to the 40 or so addicts who sat in a circle of folding chairs on the Smurf-blue linoleum.
Over the past year or so, White, 29, has gotten serious about throwing off the trappings of his old lifestyle, the habits that drove him to use more and more of the stuff, but it hasn't been easy.
By his own admission, White is still hopelessly hooked. It's hard, he confides, when almost everyone you know—even your wife—is strung out, too.
Randy White is addicted to oil.
Then again, he would say, so are the rest of us. At least he's trying to do something about it.
"I'm the guy waving his arms saying, 'Hey, wake up! This is important!'" White says.
The meeting was the weekly gathering of a group called Portland Peak Oil, a ragtag assembly of greenies, neighborhood-association activists and business professionals who agree with George W. Bush on one thing—that "America is addicted to oil."
Anyone with half a brain knows it would behoove us to be less reliant on foreign oil. But Peak Oil proponents see an 800-pound gorilla barreling down on our laissez-faire energy attitudes.
The way Darwin believed we descended from monkeys and Joan of Arc that she was on a mission from God, White and his buddies think the age of affordable energy is rapidly nearing its end. Even voices from the other side of the petroleum divide are starting to back them up: Last year, Chevron CEO David O'Reilly announced, "The era of easy oil is over."
So what is White doing about it? He's transformed his own life while carrying the Peak Oil message to the masses. Along the way, his obsession has drawn skepticism from friends and loving tolerance from his conservative family. In fact, depending on how cynical you are, he's either a walking example of the futility of individual action or a model of the kind of behavior that should make the rest of us a wee bit ashamed.
Or maybe both.
Peakers think we've already tapped about half the oil the world will ever have to offer and that production will soon begin a long, irremediable decline. Meanwhile, global demand is expected to grow by 40 percent over the next 20 years, according to federal Energy Information Administration projections. This rift between supply and demand will send prices through the roof. And not just the price of filling up your car but the cost of almost everything, because of how much we rely on fossil fuels for building, manufacturing and shipping virtually every modern convenience.
The American way of life that Dick Cheney once called "non-negotiable," with its air-conditioned Hummers, suburban sprawl and Caesar salads trucked 3,000 miles, is in for a serious blow, Peak Oil proponents say.
Nobody's arguing that oil will last forever, but there is wide disagreement about when the peak might arrive and how market forces, new drilling technologies and alternative fuels will be able to help.
Portland Peak Oil started off as a casual group that met on the Internet and gathered over pizza. Little more than a year later, it has grown to have an active website (www.portlandpeakoil.org) with discussion threads, links to recent energy news and other resources. Its popularity pushed it to seek out the space at St. Francis, where 30 to 100 people attend the weekly meetings. Portland Peak Oil's February calendar has 17 events on it, including documentary screenings, "powerdown circles" to help people deal with emotional realities of this possible future, and organic-gardening classes.
And Portland isn't alone. Similar groups are popping up across the country.
White attends many of these events, but he is about more than talk.
Three years ago, White was a $90,000-a-year geek who sold software that helped Fortune 500 companies and government agencies keep track of hazardous chemicals.
In 2003, he moved to Portland from Anchorage, Alaska, with a plan to do computer consulting and play music.
A military brat who'd bopped all over the country, White stayed abreast of progressive politics. His band, Railer, toured in support of a federal bill that would increase accountability in electronic voting, and he once protested outside The Oregonian for not publishing the Downing Street Memo. But he was hardly a radical. He spent his spare time writing songs, playing Risk and drinking beer into the wee hours of many a weekend morning.
In other words, a fairly typical young Portlander.
That all ended in late 2004 when a friend handed him a DVD titled The End of Suburbia.
He went home that night and watched it on his jumbo JVC flat screen. The next 78 minutes changed his life, he says.
"It was like I had a 5,000-piece puzzle and it was the first time I got to see what the whole picture looked like," he says. "And it was a scary, scary picture."
The End of Suburbia is a documentary that wows not with production values but with serious (and seriously researched) interviews with some of the biggest names currently sounding the Peak Oil alarm: James Howard Kunstler, Michael Klare, Richard Heinberg, Matthew Simmons and Michael C. Ruppert.
Together they trace America's increasing dependence on oil and present the case that the peak is real and will dramatically reshape America as we know it. Kunstler goes so far as to suggest the suburbs will become the new slums when most people will no longer be able to afford to live 50 miles from where they work.
"It was the first time," says White, "I realized the future was going to a look a lot more like Mad Max than I, Robot."
It was also the first time he realized he might not always be able to just go to the supermarket and have food waiting for him. Oil became the card that could bring the whole house down.
"I've never been one to roll over and just accept defeat without fighting to the end," he says. "So I started thinking, 'What can I do to help society prepare for this?'"
Almost immediately, White started making changes in his lifestyle.
He installed a wood-burning stove and new insulation in the 1,400 square-foot Southeast Portland home he shares with his wife, Michelle, and their two rescued cats. Around the yard he planted apple and cherry trees, lemongrass and strawberries. He started a compost heap and a small vegetable garden.
And he sold his 1998 Volkswagen Jetta and bought a Twist N' Go Milano scooter that gets 70 miles per gallon, effectively cutting the family's emissions in half.
He rides the scooter to work when he's not carpooling with Michelle, an OHSU nursing student. It sucks, he admits, during Portland's rainy winters. "Man, I loved that Jetta," he reminisces.
On a bookshelf in his dining room, White keeps five copies of a post-apocalyptic guidebook called When Technology Fails. The four extra copies are for barter in the event of a systemwide meltdown, White says. He's also stockpiling knowledge on vegetarian cooking, basic home repair, sustainable agriculture and cooperative communities.
And White has been slowly eliminating meat from his diet.
"I've been a meat-eater my whole life," he says. "But in preparing for Peak Oil I've realized that by eating beef I'm contributing to the deforestation of the South American rainforests." So far he's been unable to completely cut himself off, but he has "greatly reduced" his intake, he says, to the equivalent of a steak every two weeks.
But that wasn't enough. White quit his computer consulting gig last spring and got a job selling ads for a radio station. Not just any radio station, but KPOJ, Portland's liberal answer to Rush Limbaugh and Lars Larson. "I picked KPOJ because I started listening and heard the truth coming out over the airwaves," he says.
He tries to sell ads to local companies with environmentally sustainable business practices, but he admits it isn't always possible. His environmental attitudes and his job keeping the station on the air can be at odds sometimes.
"I'm trained to convince people to buy goods and services they don't really need," he says. "And it's like, 'Hey, by the way, thanks for helping to destroy the planet.' "
He says he currently earns a third of what he did before.
White has also found a creative outlet for his environmental passion in his music. As the singer for Railer, White goes by the name Randall Scott. ("Randy White sounded boring," he says. "I sound like the guy who used to play football for the Dallas Cowboys, not a wannabe rock star.")
A recent Railer song titled "Basic Allowance" samples a Jimmy Carter speech in which he calls America's reliance on foreign oil a "clear and present danger to our nation." White's lyrics refrain: "We're getting closer to one day/ one day left to find the energy to/ walk away from the things we make."
Not everyone in White's life is on board with his new anti-oil outlook.
Railer's bassist, Zev D-Clind, thinks White's passions are misplaced and not very likely to lead to much actual change.
"I just told him, 'You're wasting your time,'" D-Clind says. "You can bitch and moan all you want, but I'm here to rock. We should be playing music, not whining."
Both say it hasn't hurt the band, but White says it may have caused their friendship to cool a bit.
"That's the type of apathy that I really can't stand," White says.
The time and energy Peak Oil now takes up in White's life is time he could be spending with his wife.
"I just need to remember to stop and remember to enjoy life a lot more," he says. "This can be consuming. She definitely has to tell me, 'Stop, just stop. I get it. I understand. I'm not going to do anything about it. You go do something about it.'
"I'm still in my 20s," he says. "I need to remember that this needs to be a fun and romantic time, too."
Michelle was less hard on Randy than he was on himself.
She says she understands the severity of the Peak Oil issue, but lets Randy do the fretting for both of them.
"I have enough things to keep me busy without worrying about what may happen if the world falls apart," Michelle says. "I give him a hard time about it sometimes, but I don't think he's crazy or anything."
Yet she's also the first to admit her husband can get a bit carried away.
"He'll let the weight of the world overtake him," she says. "He was a software consultant when I met him. Now he's a total activist guy."
When Randy gets depressed or consumed or starts on another rant, both agree she helps him take a step back.
"So, what are you going to do about it?" is her usual refrain.
And the changes around the house haven't gone too far. Yet, she adds.
"I don't see it as him preparing for the apocalypse, per se," Michelle says. "I see it as a motivation to become more self-sufficient in general, which is admirable for anyone to try to do."
Randy's conservative-leaning family in Alaska sometimes joke about whether he's really related to the rest of the clan, his mom, Diane, says.
"If he starts talking about [Peak Oil] a little too much, we tell him to stop obsessing and relax," she says. "'Don't work yourself up into a lather,' we tell him. His brother lets it go in one ear and out the other."
Still, White's parents have installed a wood stove and started carpooling to work more at Randy's urging.
"He's changed our attitudes a little bit," his mom says. "But for us, everything we do is in moderation. When Randy's interested in something, he never does it less than 100 percent."
Even going to work for liberal KPOJ had its drawbacks, since it's owned by radio and outdoor advertising behemoth Clear Channel, which is often held up by lefties as the prime example of what's wrong with media consolidation. Clear Channel is also known for its generous support of Republican political campaigns.
"If lining the pockets of a big media company is part of me doing what it takes to help people get the awareness they need, then it's worth it to me," White says.
There is a certain futility to White's efforts.
The wood stove cuts down on energy bills, but puts more carbon dioxide into the air and requires a steady supply of wood.
"If everyone in America did that, we'd run out of trees pretty quick," he concedes.
His garden consists of a small plot where a few spindly stalks of winter broccoli push up next to a patch of greens chewed to shreds by slugs.
"If I had to live off what I could grow here," he says, "it would last me exactly one meal. I don't know anything about farming."
If White were a junkie instead of an oil addict, it would be easy to see kicking the habit as a total success. But even if he got everyone he knew to live on a commune and wear homemade hemp clothing, the global oil market wouldn't miss them. It could even be argued that White could make more of a difference renting a couple of Hummers and driving around with his friends gathering signatures to put a penny tax on any product made from, made with or transported to market using oil.
That's where Portland Peak Oil comes in—theoretically. The group is getting the word out that the problem even exists, getting local politicians involved (and marshaling the grassroots to pressure them), and serving as a clearinghouse for conservation and sustainability information.
The group's recommendations for individuals are fairly generic: buy local food, boycott non-sustainable businesses, get to know your neighbors, build a library of basic survival knowledge, change spending habits, consider alternative energy sources like solar. Bus and bike whenever you can, and combine your car errands into one trip.
Most of their ideas mesh nicely with Portland's already green vibe.
Group members have also started gathering signatures on a petition to ask local leaders to look into the issue and, yes, form Portland's default position: a taskforce.
For many people, the idea of another local taskforce elicits a groan.
But Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder, who served on the governor's Global Warming Advisory Taskforce, has already drafted a letter asking Ted Kulongoski to address the Peak Oil issue in the same way as global warming.
"A credible, widely supported analysis of this challenge would help immensely in the public discussion of our region's future, as well as providing a factual foundation for our land-use and transportation modeling," Burkholder writes.
"We're in the midst of a 50-year land-use plan and a 20-year transportation plan. It's only prudent we look at issues like this one," he told WW.
Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman's office is also supportive—as long as a taskforce would come back with concrete recommendations.
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) says the calamitous scenarios painted by the Peak Oil crowd are "not beyond the scope of probability. Let's just say they're only near-fetched."
Peak Oil "is a way to tie the green consciousness together," Blumenauer told WW. "Cycling, land use, energy efficiency, mass transit—a lot of what our community prides itself on already. [Portland] is in a pretty good position for when the inevitable happens."
There's another, more personal motive behind White's efforts: the death last year of his older brother Christopher.
A career Air Force noncommissioned officer who served in various hot zones, Christopher committed suicide. But in Randy's eyes, his brother should be counted among the other casualties in the nation's fight to control strategic territory and resources in the Middle East—and is another reason to wean us from the oil mainline.
"I love my country, too. The people with the yellow 'Support Our Troops' magnets on their SUVs, they're the ones that really need to stop and think," White says. "They need to follow the path back to where we are now. Every drop of blood that's spilled over there comes back to them."
Some Peakers are more worried about mounting global destabilization and fighting over the remaining oil resources than the decline of oil itself.
In the end, White admits that if worse came to worse tomorrow and the gas pumps shut off, despite his best efforts, he'd probably be one of the pins knocked over.
"I still don't really know how to help myself when it really comes down to it. What would you do? I mean, what would you do?"
"Americans threw away their communities in order to save a few dollars on hair dryers and plastic food storage tubs, never stopping to reflect on what they were destroying." —James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency
"As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented." —energy analyst Robert Hirsch, February 2005 report for U.S. Department of Energy
"The United States—and the world—cannot afford to leave the Age of Oil before realistic substitutes are fully in place. It is important to remember that man left the Stone Age not because he ran out of stones—and we will not leave the Age of Oil because we will run out." —Red Cavaney, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, "Global Oil Production About to Peak? A Recurring Myth" in World Watch magazine
"The most intriguing thing about this raging debate over whether oil production will soon peak—and put an end to the go-go days of the petroleum age—is that it's occurring at all." —Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch Institute, "Over the Peak" in World Watch magazine
"We have only a dwindling amount of time to build lifeboats—that is, the needed alternative infrastructure. It has been clear for at least 30 years what characteristics this should have—organic, small-scale, local, convivial, cooperative, slower paced, human-oriented rather than machine-oriented, agrarian, diverse, democratic, culturally rich, and ecologically sustainable." —author and lecturer Richard Heinberg, closing address for a Peak Oil conference in 2004
To learn more, visit these websites:
Portland Peak Oil: www.portlandpeakoil.org
Life After the Oil Crash: www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net
Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas: www.peakoil.net
Post Carbon Institute: www.postcarbon.org
Surviving Peak Oil: www.survivingpeakoil.com