Monday, January 08, 2007

Yes, but...

Perhaps the most widely heard response to the peak oil argument is that the world has lots of oil left. To those who understand the peak oil problem, this is a non sequitur. The typical counterargument begins with "Yes, but..." followed by a lengthy disquisition on the difference between stocks and flows of a resource, the geology of oil wells, and the various types of oil.

Often what the listener thinks he or she hears is that the cornucopian thinkers are right. But, less often does the listener understand enough to take the problem seriously.

Herein lies a critical communications problem. Perhaps the most crucial argument to the peak oil debate--that there is a huge difference between how much of a resource is theoretically available on planet Earth and how rapidly we can extract it--is too difficult to explain the way we have been explaining it. Perhaps we need some new approaches for explaining this and other aspects of peak oil.

To start let's look at the obstacles we face. First, the public wants to believe that men (and it is mostly men) in nice suits with PhDs and expertise in the oil business know what they are talking about. And, it wants to believe that the government's experts wouldn't overlook something as important as oil supplies; and sure enough, those private and government experts predict that all will be well for at least three decades.

Second, most of the public believes that even if something is increasingly difficult to do--for instance, pull oil out of the Earth's crust--technology will find a way to overcome the difficulty.

Third, the public has been largely conditioned to believe that technology will find substitutes for oil, introduce them over time, and provide a more or less seamless transition to a new energy economy.

Fourth, most people want to believe all is well because that belief is the most convenient one for the lives they now lead. Most people do not regard change, especially radical change, as good.

Fifth, most people find that the vast majority of those around them seem unconcerned about peak oil. This is an extremely powerful influence. People will ask themselves, "If this is such a critical problem, why do so few people seem alarmed?" (What's missing in their thinking, of course, is that this lack of concern could be the result of so few people knowing anything about peak oil.)

Trying to make progress against these assumptions and the mindset that goes with them seems insuperable. But, those who grasp the peak oil problem usually feel that they must at least try.

Let's take each obstacle in turn. First, it's tempting to trash such "men in suits" as Daniel Yergin. I've done it myself. But turning what is arguably one the most critical issues we now face into a discussion of personalities and questionable motives may only confuse any newcomer to the issue. Peak oil and its ramifications are a highly complex story. It is difficult for most people to come to an informed opinion about that story quickly.

And, rather than attempt a comprehensive explanation of, say, stocks and flows as mentioned above, the aim I think at first should be to plant doubts about the "official story." Discuss a few key problems such as phantom, unverified reserves in the Middle East; rapid unforeseen declines in North Sea oil production; and falling new discoveries. This opens up avenues of inquiry for listeners. What those listeners subsequently discover on their own has much more impact than anything they are force-fed. Pressing the peak oil issue too hard will inevitably create resistance.

Second, it's hard to refute the notion that technology will solve our energy problems. Those who lived through the previous oil crises learned that oil crises pass and oil prices fall. New efficiencies supposedly solved those crises, and they will solve the next one. That bit of learning will someday turn out to be a poor guide. But most people tend to extrapolate the recent past into the future. Trying to make complex arguments about energy technologies that have failed to advance as predicted--fusion energy comes to mind--will probably only confuse a newcomer.

Third, the notion that the marketplace will allow substitutes for oil to emerge and provide a seamless transition to a new energy economy seems to be already validating itself in the form of ethanol and biodiesel production. Talk of hydrogen and liquid fuel from coal is everywhere in the news. I can find no shortcut to respond to the misleading media coverage surrounding these developments. Responding implies the enormous task of creating energy literacy among the public. Such concepts as net energy are as critical to public understanding as they are alien to the public mind. Explaining the implications of exponential growth is a must. Perhaps to start we can reduce these ideas to a couple of sentences: 1) It takes energy to get energy and 2) the economy cannot grow larger than the Earth. But we are still obliged to elaborate. When it comes to energy literacy, slogans, in my view, simply won't get it.

Fourth, the fact that people want to believe things that will allow them to continue living as they now live is perhaps the most difficult obstacle to overcome. This behavior is not based on evidence and can run completely contrary to the evidence. Besides this, catastrophic, world-changing discontinuities don't come along very often, at least not for everyone at once. My first suggestion is to be careful about definitive and exacting predictions. No one knows the future. To say this is to say also that the so-called experts, the "men in suits," don't know it either.

Here the opportunity is to talk about risks. We routinely insure against risks of all kinds, even ones that are very rare such as house fires. We do this because of the severity rather than the frequency of such events. Peak oil falls into this category because its consequences could be very severe. We don't know how severe and we don't know exactly when it will come. But, wouldn't it be a good idea to take out some insurance, just to be safe? This is a line of argument that can help people relate to something they already know and can help them see a response in the context of how they address risk in their everyday lives.

Fifth, the fact that few people are concerned about something doesn't mean it's not important. Critical issues are not the same as fashionable issues. Big problems almost always start out small or at least start out poorly understood. AIDS, when it first appeared in the United States, seemed like a problem largely confined to a small segment of the gay population. Before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, the issue of toxic substances in the environment was almost completely absent from public discussion.

Obviously, as the peak oil issue makes more headway in the mainstream media, the feeling that it can't really be important will start to fade. But, for now you might invite people into awareness of peak oil by admitting that very few people understand it. I'm sorry to say that people like to believe they are joining an exclusive club, and right now, those who understand the implications of peak oil constitute a club that remains far too exclusive.

None of this is meant to be the final word on what to say after you say, "Yes, but..." Rather, it is merely an attempt to suggest some possible approaches and to elicit comments on how to spread the word about peak oil effectively.

I eagerly await your feedback.


Anonymous said...

Welcome back. Great points in this posting, especially the argument in favor of INSURANCE. That should make sense to people, once you can convince them there's a need for it.

There was an article in The Independent the other day that I thought was a good introduction to Peak Oil.

Oil. The fast-vanishing drug the world can't yet live without

It looks as though commentaries such as the above linked article are slowly but surely appearing in the media. I don't know how mainstream The Independent is, but it's gotta reach more people than the internet's alternative media.

Keep up the fine work. I enjoy your postings on a regular basis!

-- manxkat

aaronjasonsilver said...

Is gay culture a healthy culture?

I believe that many of the issues facing gay culture has a lot to do with the perception that has been formed by the dominant heterosexual culture about gay culture in general. Being gay myself and having written a book on this topic, I had conversations with many “straight” people about what bothered them about gays. One very important issue was that there are a lot of generalities about all gay people based on the stereotypical behaviors they often see on T.V. Many of these include; being self-serving and superficial, partying all the time using drugs, and the over consumption of alcohol and the wearing of gender blurring clothing. There are members of particularly the urban gay culture that tend to be what I call the out and loud crowd, making there sexuality a big issue rather than treating their sexual orientation as a neutral issue rather than being obnoxious about it and purposely making a point to shove it into peoples faces. They are often seen as crass by many straight people. Many of the stereotypical behaviors concerning the gay culture I believe are true and I believe it is time that we, as gay people need to own up to many of these behaviors and start to question the culture as a whole and what the cultures priorities are. I know for a fact as being and out gay man for thirty years that much of gay culture very closely fit these stereotypes and don’t seem to have any direction in their lives and mainly look forward to the weekends so they can go clubbing. Of course this is a generalization but very common if we are to be honest with ourselves about the culture. I do however understand why many dysfunctional behaviors that can easily be found within the culture are based on childhood wounds because so many gay men were picked on in school, felt isolated and like outsiders. When they finally are out of school they usually seek out and find the safety and security of the gay community with its pre- established norms and ways of behaving that often are not considered to be healthy attitudes or behaviors, or do they promote healthy self-esteem in the new young men joining the gay culture in order to feel some sense of camaraderie for perhaps the first time in their lives. I believe if we all take a good long hard look at ourselves and try and imagine how foreign our culture must seem to the dominant culture. So often what we don’t understand we fear. Since they are our largest voting constituency I believe these stereotypes are getting in our way. We, as a culture can begin to change these stereotypes by behaving in an honorable and respectful manner when we are out in public. We need spokes people that don’t fit the stereotypes that make straight people feel even more alienated from us. I’m not at all saying that men that are more effeminate should start trying to act like something they are not. Male behavior as does female behavior runs on a scale from very effeminate to very masculine. Neither is right or wrong. They ought to be considered neutral issues. We do however need to be more honest with ourselves about the image we are sending to the world at large. This may be a helpful first step in changing impressions about who we are as a people. Thank you, Aaron Jason Silver

Anonymous said...

For people to understand the issue, Explain in terms of the ordinary experiences of everyday life and the EXTREME interdependcy therein. The best, simple and easy to understand examples will be (1) water coming to the house (2) sewage going out (3) food.

Tremendous amount of infrastructure is maintained to collect water, 'clean' it, pump it into house and then pump it out; the equipment and machinery needed to keep it running all the time, and the chemicals needed to 'clean' water and for 'sewage treatment'; and where do you get this equipment and chemicals; who manufactures them and where; how much energy is needed at each stage.

What happens if anywhere the chain is broken? (This is the concept of extreme interdependency). The entire water and sewage systems breaks down and the society (at least in the cities) stops functioning, the business, industry and commerce stops functioning.

Similar is the situation with food with the added complexity than processing of food in our plants requires tremendous amount of water.

I say, forget explaining the energy for car and planes; just talk about survival (i.e. water and food); once people understand that, then the rest will be easy. Forget about too much intellectualization; just give practical examples.

Currently, our society is push-button oriented. Just push the button and get water or food, without realizing the underlying processes and interdependencies. De-emphasize money (and insurance) and emphasize processes and everyday living experience (with and without energy or water or food).

Romesh Chander

Rod Campbell-Ross said...

Hi Kurt

I always enjoy your posts. They are thoughtful and clever.

I find that the peak oil story is very dfifficult to communicate and have largely given up. People just do not want to know. As you say, the story is too complex and people have lost their sense of self reliance. "They" must do something is always the answer.

It's like a South Pacific cargo cult mentality: something will come along. John Frumm will save us. Of course it is highly unlikely that anything will come along.

Also it is too late. This problem has been known about for more than a decade now. See the article below written by Craig Hatfield in 1997.

Yet nothing has been done, or is being done. Nothing will be done either for all the reasons you state in your article.

Craig Hatfield's article is posted here:

Romesh Chander said...

I am not trying to be nasty. This has to do with a long post regarding gay culture on issue of Peak Oil. Now could anybody tell me what has gay culture discussion to do with Peak Oil?. Discuss this issue somewhere else.

These kinds of posts just provide clutter and people lose interest.

Just stick to the subject.

Romesh Chander

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your insight.
I like the idea of suggesting the insurance angle. I live near the oldest inland town in SC. It survived fine long before the age of oil. It has not been altered too much in the intervening years, indeed it was forgotten for many. It would be a great place for community w/o petrol. I have tried and continue to try to get the city council to think about a "Plan B, C, D", not change anything, not spend any money, not jepordize any re-election chances, just think. No one can understand the need to waste(!) any energy on the possibility. I wonder if they have fire insurance for their houses...

Anonymous said...

Hi Kurt,

Great post - thanks! I'm a first time reader.

I like the insurance angle. I've been using it for some time and people seem to get it.

I work with senior citizens and with boomers planning for retirement. Seniors need more home energy than non-seniors. They spend more time at home and their metabolism changes over time make them more sensitive to heat and cold - smaller comfort range. Many people are not aware of the increased demand for home energy in retirement especially the 78 million boomers about to retire when peak "everything" starts to hit.

For the most part, seniors live on fixed incomes and they are very vulnerable to increases in energy costs. I try and explain that investing in renewable energy, energy eficiency and conservation will help insure against most of the inevitable energy price rises during their 15-20 year retirement.

Sustainable living, energy and homes will help mitigate much of the risk associated with energy price spikes in retirement. One time investments in solar panels (25 year warranty, 40 year life), solar hot water systems (20 year life), reflective metal roofs (40 year life), and an electric car (will probably last their entire retirement) will help them avoid many of the risks and rising costs associated with fossil fuels in their retirement.

Making these investments will help insure that they have fairly fixed energy expenditures in retirement. The options are to put more money into the volatile financial markets in the hope of making enough money to pay their rising energy bills or to take money from other parts of their budget to pay their energy bills. Both of these approaches are risky!

People really seem to relate to risk and like the renewable energy, conservation, energy efficiency approach to insurance.

Keep up the good work,


Alantex said...

Very perceptive and readable essay, as usual.

Another reason people are difficult to convince is that fact that, for the most part, our "leaders" (especially at the national level) have studiously avoided saying anything about impending energy shortages. High fuel prices are a sort of "third rail" in politics. No politician these days wants to be the bearer of bad news (unless it can be solved with military force).

There's plenty of evidence that BushCo is trying to head off future fuel shortages/high prices by locking up Iraq's oil for Western use and keeping the Saudis on our side for the same reason.

As long as our "leaders" provide no leadership on this subject, most people will feel free to ignore it or deny it.

stepback said...


I've been studying Peak Oil and the question about "why their eyes glaze over" for quite a while.

Welcome to the club.

I respectfully suggest that you make a classic mistake here.

You assume you are establishing communications with "rational" beings --your fellow humanoids. The evidence is overwhelming that "they" are not rational. Much of their cognition operates in the emotional realm, not in the neo cortex.

Asking them to think "critically", asking them to analogize to insurance policies is a waste of time.

There are only a few groups of people who know how to implant ideas into the minds of your fellow "rational" species mates.

Those few reside on Madison Avenue and on K Street.

As for a talking point counter to the "Reserves" argument: I have an uncle in Nigeria. He has vast "reserves" of money in a bank there. You can tap into his "reserves" just as suredly as the oil optimists can tap into the fictious "reserves" of our unseen underground banks. Please send your money to the following PO Box ... or just give me the cash and I'll see that he gets it. :-)

Big Gav said...

Hi Kurt,

Another interesting post - hope you had a good holiday.

Such concepts as net energy are as critical to public understanding as they are alien to the public mind. Explaining the implications of exponential growth is a must. Perhaps to start we can reduce these ideas to a couple of sentences: 1) It takes energy to get energy and 2) the economy cannot grow larger than the Earth. But we are still obliged to elaborate. When it comes to energy literacy, slogans, in my view, simply won't get it.

Net energy is a key topic but it is rather abstract unfortunately and thus difficult to get across to people (and the data related to EROEI for various energy sources is very rubbery, as per usual for peak oil related topics).

I think the best tool (at least for explaining the concept as it relates to peak oil) is a graph that shows net oil production (ie. total production and a line showing usable production as well - total - oil consumed producing the oil).

Mobjectivist once posted a graph like this and it really does say a thousand words.

With regards to exponential growth, I think its important to note that exponential growth can lead to salvation as well as to collapse - the exponential growth we are seeing in alternatives (especially wind and solar) is an encouraging sign.

Finally, with regards to "the economy cannot grow larger than the Earth", I wonder if this would be better expressed in terms of limits on extraction and pollution (ie. the classic limits to growth). Its not the economy that is limited, it is these fundamental limits imposed by a finite world. An economy based on sustainable, cradle-to-cradle style industries and, more importantly in the long run, services, doesn't really have any limits (if you'll forgive me for being so cornucopian about it - but I think thats the reality of the situation).

Whether or not we make the effort to change our ways in time is the key question to me.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but ... one problem you have is explaining to the average person the following: if peak oil is such a terribly important and immediate problem, then why is 85% of the U.S. offshore closed to oil exploration and development ? The problem of running out of oil must not be so critical, or these areas would be opened up.
How do you expect people to take running out of oil as a really serious problem, when the U.S. doesn't even allow drilling on most of its own offshore areas ?

Wayne said...

Stuff like this makes me think we may be doomed . . . this just in from the BBC:

Chrysler questions climate change
By Steve Schifferes
Economics reporter, BBC News, Detroit Motor Show

Many US firms are predicting that demand for bigger cars will pick up

Chrysler's chief economist Van Jolissaint has launched a fierce attack on "quasi-hysterical Europeans" and their "Chicken Little" attitudes to global warming.

His attack is in sharp contrast to the green image that the US car companies have been trying to promote at this year's Detroit Motor Show.

Mr Jolissaint was speaking at a private breakfast where the chief economists of the "Big Three" US car firms presented their forecasts for auto industry sales this year.

Most of the audience - which was mainly made up of parts suppliers - seemed to nod in agreement with Mr Jolissaint.

Neither Ford's chief economist Ellen Hughes-Cromwick, nor General Motors' chief economist Mustafa Mohatarem, who were on the panel with Mr Jolissaint, questioned his assertion.

Uncertain magnitude

Mr Jolissant, who was recently appointed the chief economist for the German-US DaimlerChrysler Group, said that since he started spending more time at the company's corporate headquarters in Stuttgart he had been shocked by the absurdity of European attitudes towards global warming.

In response to a question from the floor, he said that global warming was a far-off risk whose magnitude was uncertain.

Anonymous said...

A psychologist, or someone with a Madison Avenue background, would probably tell you that messages that elicit a visceral response are more likely to make a lasting impact than a rational explanation will.

Also, repetition helps. Repetition of a central theme with slight variations-to keep people's interest up-is even better. And it helps to keep it simple, with visual aids--ordinary images that people can readily connect with. Cheesy as it may seem, occasional forays into symbolism might help, if you can tolerate being manipulative--oil wells wilting; a band confidently marching toward a cliff; pickpockets trying to make a living by picking each other's pockets; the Spendthrift Poet Hounded by Creditors in Bowler Hats-(O.K, maybe if oil had peaked a century ago...)

I know it sounds nutty, but if you're trying to connect with the broad mass of people, using familiar imagery can help, especially if it is used in striking ways. The familiar in an unfamiliar context.

Kurt, while I imagine that you are too intelligent, rational, decent and deliberate to be comfortable with such an approach, you might be able to team up with some creative type who has no such impediments. Maybe you could even scrape the bottom of the barrel and find a psychologist (another nice image).

I'd like to be more specific, but I try to leave intelligence and creativity to others.

Anonymous said...

I'm betting the answers lie in understanding and adapting to the underlying psychological mechanisms built into our ancient brains:

Better framing?

COMMUNICATING CLIMATE CHANGE: Revkin Describes an "Invisible Middle" of Scientists Concerned Over 'Pandora's Box' Claims of Pending Catastrophe from Framing Science blog.

Compensating for or appealing to our built-in biases?

Epidemics are 98% Below Average from the Overcoming Bias blog.

Robin Hanson's paper "Why Health Is Not Special: Errors in Evolved Bioethics Intuitions" provides an interesting perspective. (pdf)

scott said...

It's hard to stay emotionally and intellectually present to a concept which is economically threatening to the core.

Derrick Jenson, in "Endgame" I think, asserts that the value of a slave before emancipation was something in the order of $50,000 current dollars per slave. Slavery was essential in order to maintain their lifestyles. Perhaps slave owners faced a similar twisted fear of giving up their lifestyles as we car owners face in these times. I know it's wrong--horrific even--but I keep on driving (and buying). I find myself joking and cajoling my peak oil converted friends with over-the-top phrases like, "you're a bad person".

My point is, even some of us who are actively learning about peak oil have trouble letting it really sink in. The fear, guilt, and rage can be overwhelming.

So, my tactic is to teach in baby steps, be gentle even when it seems urgent. And also to plant ideas only in fertile soil--receptive minds. I choose to focus on things that energize me, rather than drain me, and sometimes that means passing over someone who really doesn't want to know, and saving my rants for humans who are more like sponges and less like brick walls.