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For a prophet of doom, Michael Ruppert looked remarkably cheery last week surveying the vegetable plots and chicken coop in his large sloping backyard in the Graton hills.

Nearly a year after moving to Sonoma County, the Southern California transplant says he's so delighted by his new environs he has to pinch himself.

But even in the sunny glow of a warm February afternoon, Ruppert's mind is never far from the catastrophe he sees looming.

"A tsunami is coming," he said. "Those of us who built on high ground hope we built high enough."

Ruppert, an author and former L.A. police officer, is a prominent "peak oil" advocate who takes familiar notions of finite fossil fuels and gives them a sinister urgency.

Not only did world petroleum production max out about six years ago, he said, it's now on an irreversible decline for which no amount of "clean coal," atomic energy, alternative fuels or new fields can compensate.

"In order to order to offset the decline, we would have to find three or four new Saudi Arabias," he said, cigarette in hand. "There is nothing that will offset the decline."

Ruppert is hardly Sonoma County's only peak oil theorist. The county is home to several chapters of Transition US, a group focused on preparing for the consequences of peak production, as well as to the Post Carbon Institute, a leading think tank in the field.

But Ruppert is unusually bleak in his predictions. He's not worried about $4 a gallon gasoline. He's worried about a societal collapse so imminent he sees little point in paying off debts.

"I would be making minimum monthly payments on credit cards now because the whole system is coming down in pretty short order," he offers.

That may sound like the ravings of a crank, as some believe he is. But Ruppert makes for a persuasive messenger.

His projections formed the heart of the critically lauded 2009 documentary "Collapse," in which he is sole star and commentator.

"I don't know when I've seen a thriller more frightening," Roger Ebert wrote in his review. "I couldn't tear my eyes from the screen."

Even when you doubt his conclusions, Ruppert's arguments poke discomfittingly at your beliefs.

Hybrids, to take a commonly supposed savior for declining oil, are no cure, he said. Each tire takes approximately 7 gallons of oil, not to mention the endless gallons of oil in the plastic, paints, lubricants, foams and other ingredients of a modern car, which is largely designed to travel on oil-based roads.

And it's not just vehicles that depend on oil, he says. So does the world's population and economy, which have exploded since humans harnessed petroleum.

The world's food supply is fed by petro-fertilizers, protected by petro-pesticides and harvested and trucked by petro-engines, he says.

With declining oil, food production can't sustain nor can populations or economies, he says. The debt straddling countries like Greece and Japan can only be repaid through economic growth requiring energy in amounts no longer available to them, he said.

"It is not physically possible to pay all the debt that is out there," he said.

His grim outlook helps explains his arrival in the west county, where he has a well for water and lives near farmers and ranchers who grow and raise their own food.

Ruppert's own beds of kale, broccoli, onions and other vegetable are no hobby, they're preparation.

"This is my lifeboat," he said.

The west county's people and culture fit him like a glove, he said. But even among groups concerned with similar matters, his focus on imminent collapse sets him apart from others striving to manage decline from peak production.

"Michael has proved to be very prescient, and he's a friend and peer of the Post Carbon Institute," said Tod Brilliant, spokesman for the Santa Rosa-based group.

"At the same time we feel there's still work that can be done, and we're optimistic we can help create appropriate responses that will lead to a resilient future," Brilliant added.

But Ruppert says he knows he's far from alone. In a world of spiking gas prices, global unrest and sputtering economies, people no longer think he's crazy.

"People aren't calling me a lunatic any more," he said. "People get it. I am no longer a voice crying in the wilderness."

You can reach Staff WriterSam Scott at 521-5431 or at sam.scott@pressdemocrat.com.