Sunday, December 18, 2005

Peak Oil's Richard Pryor Problem

Comedian Richard Pryor, who passed away last week, was famous for saying, "Who you gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?" In a way, those who believe that a peak in world oil production is not far away (or possibly already here) are asking the American public the same question.

A somnolent and self-satisfied American citizenry awakens each day to a world with no gas lines, warm homes in winter (or cool homes in summer), an economy which appears to be gaining speed and a gasoline price which has dropped below where it had been before it spiked to record levels.

It is as if we in America were all on a great luxury liner, one brimming from bow to stern with food and entertainment 24 hours day. Our ship is cruising through calm tropical seas under clear blue skies. As part of the afternoon entertainment someone gets up on the stage and starts talking about a huge storm not far ahead. He says the storm is in an area where some ships have simply disappeared and others have been so damaged that they had to be abandoned. At first the crowd squirms uncomfortably at the thought. But after looking out the window they are relieved; the sea is calm and the sky is blue to horizon. They begin murmuring among themselves that this guy is truly crazy.

Is our hypothetical speaker not asking the audience to deny the evidence of their senses? Is he not asking them to believe him rather than their lying eyes?

So, we are left with indirect approaches and appeals to statistics--over which there is admittedly much disagreement. We have no photos of the ancient Maya as their society collapsed. And, even if we had them, it took more than a century for Mayan civilization to disappear under mounting ecological pressures. Could that have been captured in a Kodak moment? In Pompeii we can actually see tortured faces preserved by the hot spewing ash; those faces speak eloquently of a people unprepared for a sudden disaster. And, yet Pompeii was really an isolated event, not a worldwide cataclysm. Even if we somehow had a time machine and could bring back pictures from the future, would anyone know how to interpret them? Even if we could interpret them, would anyone believe them?

We are only now beginning to see the outline of a visual presentation that will be crucial to explaining the risks of peak oil to a television-addicted society. Robert Hirsch's fast declining depletion curves can at least be fitted with the emotions of the market crashes of 1929 or 1987. But, the lesson in both instances is that eventually recovery comes.

America has always been a sucker for the apocalytic story. But, those stories have almost always had religious overtones. Even technological tales of the end times are often filled with moralizing about our unwillingness to control technology. It simply isn't within the American narrative to say, "We ran out of everything and people died."

There are signs of the peak, of course, for those who can interpret them: The global contest for the Earth's remaining energy sources. The inability of Saudi Arabia to increase its oil output as promised, not just over a few months, but over a couple of years. The unexpected rise in oil prices and their resilience in the face of energy analysts' calls for $20 or $30 oil. The sudden and suspicious growth of oil reserves in the Middle East in the 1980s with no new major discoveries, reserves upon which predictions of a peak far into the future are predicated.

But all this assumes a coherent narrative on which to hang these facts. And, that is the thing which hasn't yet emerged in the public mind. Perhaps peak oil is just too contrarian for the ingrained cornucopian expectations of a sated American public. Perhaps its ramifications are just too complex to get across. More important than either of these, peak oil does not yet come with compelling pictures that can be beamed into every home on FOX and CNN.

In our society, talk is good, pictures are better, and narrative is critical. But, in the end, the play's the thing. Can we find a peak oil narrative with pictures and players compelling enough to awaken the public before it's too late?

1 comment:

Steve said...

Great post Kurt. Thanks for the link to Hirsch's piece in WorldOil.

> Can we find a peak oil narrative
> with pictures and players
> compelling enough to awaken the
> public before it's too late?

My remaining interest in this topic has to do with how people who seem to recognize the reality of the situation cope with it. See, I think the answer to your question is almost certainly "No".

I see little reason to doubt that it's already too late to avoid calamity. It seems to me that (for energetic and various other reasons) humanity has reached its limits, and that unless humanity is somehow able to take charge of its evolution we're bound to suffer a drastic correction.

Unfortunately, Smalley and (especially) Bartlett make more sense to me than Kurtzweil. So my challenge now is to cultivate serenity (and hope I'm wrong).

Cheers! Steve