In a World Short Of Oil, Provisions Must Be Made

Mr. Wissner of Middleville Stocks Up on Rice, Gold; No Faith in a ‘Techno Fix’

“…upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity…”
—Luke 21:25

MIDDLEVILLE, Mich. — It was around midnight one evening in November when Aaron Wissner shot up in bed, jolted awake by a fear: He wasn’t fully ready for the day when the world starts running low on oil.

Yes, he had tripled the size of the garden in front of the tidy white-clapboard house he shares with his wife and infant son. He had stacked bags of rice in his new pantry, stashed gold valued at $8,000 in his safe-deposit box and doubled the size of the propane tank in his yard.

“But I felt panicky, like I needed more insurance,” he says. So the 38-year-old middle-school computer teacher put on his jacket and drove to an all-night gas station, where he filled three, five-gallon jugs with gasoline.

“It was a feel-good moment,” says his wife, Kimberly Sager. “But he slept better.”

Mr. Wissner has had more than a few fretful nights since he became “peak-oil aware,” as he calls it, about 30 months ago. In embracing the theory that the world’s oil production is about to peak, Mr. Wissner has tossed himself into a movement that is gaining thousands of adherents, egged on by soaring oil prices, the rarity of big new oil finds and writings on the Internet.

There are now dozens of “relocalization” working groups scattered from Maine to Southern California pushing for people to spurn cars, buy local produce and work where they live. Mr. Wissner’s own congressman, a Republican nuclear physicist named Vernon Ehlers, is part of the 13-member congressional Peak Oil Caucus formed in late 2005. City councils from Bloomington, Ind., to Portland, Ore., have passed peak-oil resolutions to gird for the looming crunch.

Many converts, like Houston oil banker Matthew Simmons, remain firm members of the suit-and-tie energy establishment. Others have gone “off-grid,” cutting ties to the mainstream economy and growing yams in their garden as they wait for the coming chaos. Mr. Wissner and his wife fall somewhere in the middle — alienated by a car-obsessed culture, but still part of it.

Ms. Sager remembers well her husband’s conversion. She returned home one afternoon in August 2005, from her job as a software engineer for General Electric Aviation and found him at his computer, deep into a Web site he had found while researching gas prices called

“He sat me down and said, ‘Do you think this is a hoax?’ ” she recalls. “And there went the next two hours.”

“Dear Reader,” the Web site announced: “Civilization as we know it is coming to an end.” Oil supplies are dwindling just as world demand soars. The result: oil prices “will skyrocket, oil dependent economies will crumble, and resource wars will explode.” From there, Mr. Wissner plunged into a burgeoning literature arguing that soaring energy costs will put a halt to globalization and the American way of life. His forebodings — of banks faltering, of food running out — have turned him into a peak-oil proselytizer in this staid farm community just south of Grand Rapids.

The experience has been intense for his wife, too. While she shares his concerns, “there have been times,” she says, “when he thinks of nothing else.”

Three weeks after their first immersion, the couple drove to a peak-oil conference in Ohio, where lecturers showered them with statistics on demand curves and oil-field depletion rates. Then, at a conference in Denver, a man in a chicken suit called them crazies as he passed our fliers arguing that the world still has plenty of oil.

Mr. Wissner says he used to be a “techno-science lover” who believed that technology could solve everything. But he left Denver convinced that “no techno-fix was going to save us.” Electric cars, biodiesel, nuclear power, wind and solar — none of it will cushion the blow. “What I saw looming,” Mr. Wissner later wrote, “was the very real possibility of the collapse of the global economy.” The question was, what to do about it?

Mr. Wissner, with the earnestness of the math major he was, ticked off the steps he’s taken to prepare: the insulated windows, the new drapes, the higher-efficiency light bulbs, the pantry, the garden, the gold.

The Wissners have yet to replace their old cars, a 1993 four-cylinder Ford Mustang and a 1999 Pontiac Grand Prix, both of which get less than 25 miles per gallon. Mr. Wissner plans to ditch the Mustang, a remnant of his pre-peak oil days, but is loath to pay for a hybrid. “The more you spend, the bigger your carbon footprint,” he says, adding that he heard it takes 75 barrels of oil to build a new car. He’s in the market for a small used car.

Weeks after the holidays, an artificial Christmas tree still glittered in the living room of their three-level house, perched on a rise among a string of similar houses a few miles from Middleville. His wife, bouncing their six-month-old son Michael in her lap, allowed that what they’ve done so far isn’t enough. “It’s still window dressing, really,” she says.

Ms. Wissner has thrown most of his energy into giving lectures on peak oil in and around Middleville, complete with handouts and PowerPoint slides.

On a recent chilly Saturday evening, more than 60 people packed into Middleville’s EMS Building for a film and talk hosted by Mr. Wissner. Some drove hours to be there. As Ms. Sager set out plates of home-baked cookies and cups of coffee, her husband arranged his library of recommended peak-oil books and videos, with titles like “Collapse,” “The Long Emergency” and “Crude Awakening.”

José Blanco, a jolly retired furniture salesman, was one of many in attendance who said they’ve become peak-oil converts thanks to Mr. Wissner’s talks. Mr. Wissner makes no money from his activism, though when he speaks he takes up a collection to cover his expenses. Mr. Blanco is now helping him organize an international peak-oil conference in Grand Rapids later this year. By then, Mr. Blanco hopes to have to retrofit his 1997 Mercedes-Benz diesel to run on vegetable oil. “Then I’ll just pull in to a McDonald’s and fill up for free,” he says.

Mr. Wissner occasionally tosses some lessons on oil into his computer teachings at Wayland Union Middle School. One recent morning, with a snowstorm swirling outside, he showed the class a video clip, “Our Oil Addiction.” Then he asked what would happen if oil grew so scarce that gas prices soared to $10 a gallon or more? Hands shot up. “We’d ride horses,” said one boy. “We’d pick all our crops by hand and ride bikes,” offered a second. One kid in back earned some laughs when he tossed out, “We’ve all got plenty of gas.”

At home, the big question now is whether to take the plunge, sell the house, and move to their dream plot in the woods. There would have to be good water nearby, and reliable wind for power. Sunlight would be important, and good soil for crops. “I want a house that can cool and heat itself without using any fuel or electricity whatsoever,” Mr. Wissner says.

In the dining room, their son gurgled and cooed as Ms. Sager spooned baby food into his open mouth. “We’re not there yet,” she said. “It’s easy to forget that growing your own food is a lot of work.”

  1. Ernie Gregoire, 27 January, 2008

    A better bet would be to make sure of your eternal accomodations,
    “Smoking, or Non?”

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