Monday, April 09, 2007

A peak by any other name is still a peak

Those who criticize peak oil theory or at least the conclusion that peak oil is nearby find themselves faced with a naming problem. If they believe that oil supplies are for all practical purposes infinite (an idea usually associated with the abiotic theory of oil), they are consigned to the category of people who are incapable of accepting the overwhelming evidence that no matter what oil's origins, it is, in any time frame that matters to humans, finite. They are not exactly cornucopians. Genuine cornucopians don't deny that hydrocarbons are limited in supply. Rather, they believe that humans will find ingenious new ways to power their economies through innovation and marketplace incentives and that they will do this in plenty of time. At the very least, the infinite supply theorists should not be classed among the reality-based community.

Of those who accept that oil is a finite resource, many believe a decline in supply won't occur for three decades or more. They use such words as "undulating plateau" or "no visible peak" (Michael Lynch) to describe their views. Perhaps the most ingenious formulation is that put forth by Daniel Yergin, long-time head of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, that the risks to oil supply lie above ground rather than below it. This implies a desire for a certain kind of unspecified foreign and domestic policy to solve the "above ground" problems. (These problems, of course, are problems primarily for oil importers, not oil exporters.) The problems include the following:
  1. The most promising areas for oil exploration are under the control of national oil companies that refuse to open them to large-scale prospecting and development by foreign-based firms.

  2. The chaos in oil-rich areas such as Nigeria and Iraq is preventing oil production from reaching its full capacity.

  3. Unreasonable restrictions on drilling in such areas as the water surrounding the United States and public lands owned by the government are delaying much needed discoveries.

  4. Industry is not investing enough in exploration, infrastructure and alternative energy.

Just how much violence, war or state coercion Yergin might be willing to accept to solve these problems is unclear, especially since Yergin styles himself as a free market advocate. But he may not qualify for inclusion in the reality-based community if he believes that rational problem-solving will somehow allow us to overcome all of the hurdles he enumerates.

The point is that Yergin is actually expanding the case for his opponents in the peak oil debate. Peak oil isn't just a product of geology. It will be the result of the interaction of geological reality, infrastructure, political and military decisions, economic cycles, and consumer behavior. Peak is about flows, and flows of oil may end up peaking for any number of reasons even if the underlying resource remains quite large. Yes, geology is not the only consideration. But, is a peak any less of a peak if it occurs for a multitude of reasons rather than one? Won't we will still have to deal with the resulting fallout?

From a larger perspective, the debate over the exact timing of peak oil really comes down to this: How much running room do we have before we go off a cliff? Given the damage that a cliff implies and given the uncertainty over how much running room we have, wouldn't it be wise to make serious efforts to prepare now instead of waiting to see just how close to the cliff we really are?


Johan said...

very well put

Step Back said...

The human brain is structured for excuse making --otherwise known as "rationalization".

No matter how bad the situation is, we (all of us) get the gears spinning and figure out how to "save face", how to preserve our ranking in the social pecking order and how to put on a happy face.

Witness what is happening in the Global Warming Denialist camp. Without admitting to so much they have stopped saying that it (GW) ain't happening. Instead, there is a new face-saving device: fault avoidance. It ain't "us". It's not our "fault". It's not anthropogenically correct (AC) to blame GW on us.

None of them have the mind frame to be honest and simply say, "I was wrong and I flat out admit it."

There is always a "rational" way to spin oneself out of facing the facts.

Johan said...

Undoubtedly true. People do tend to find excuses to save face.

But there may also be more to it.
Consider for example how difficult it is for the individual mind to think independently from "the norm" - what everybody else around you thinks is "normal" and "true".

Consider Medieval Europeans who burnt people at the stake because they aledgedly were "witches".

Consider how popular thought in the 1400's was that the world was "flat" (until one Genovese explorer proved otherwise)

Germans are generally very nice people, but look what happened in the 1940's - that wasn't what we nowadays consider "normal"...

Consider how people now think it would be normal to have increasing amounts of fossil fuel year after year - forever.

It is what you are being told all the time by smart economists and the general media. Why would you doubt it?

There is probaby such a thing as "collective insanity".

Another way to look at it, is that the challenge is so big. The implications of oil declining is so devastating for the existing infrastructure. Very new choices would have to be made. New technologies developed. We may even need to live and do business in different ways.
But it is so profound a change, and a positive alternative future vision is not clear for most people.

So this thing about oil declining just looks painful with no solution in sight. You would kind of expect people to want to deny it, wouldn't you?

alfredlondon said...


I think the following may be of interest to you - from my website

"Insanity in individuals is something rare - but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule."

Friedrich Nietzsche
German philosopher (1844 - 1900)

FlyintheOnintment said...

I found your "Mast Migration" post quite relevant--an insight. This last post, unfortunately, struck me as less than half-hearted.

Insight, so it's been said, is what separates up from other Primates. Otherwise, we are just conditioned animals, despite the complexity. Everyday that resembles the previous only serves to reinforce the expectation that tomorrow will be the same. Unfortunately, the fact that traditional expectations are no longer being met has not altered Societal expectations about the future.

Endless hours spent idling in the mind numbing sameness that is Modernity probably doesn't match the ideal of "The American Dream" that most people carry around, imprinted, in their head. Naturally, our growing angst is unloaded on the most convenient person that comes along. Or maybe, we try to alleviate it by plugging into the t.v., internet, or our i pod and cell-phone and indulging in infantile fetishes.

There is a broad range of conditioned expectations about the future, the cornucopians, being only but one. We could devise a continuum of differing adaptations ranging from Cornucopians on one end, and Islamic Jihadist on the other. The are all conditioned responses to a highly technical, centralized, simplified, and globalized environment. Variability in genetic endowment, environmental conditions, and random events creates a wide range of adaptations that vary in degrees of success.

Cornucopians, just like Jihadist, will not gain insight. I imagine that an euphoric feeling is associated with their future expectations. Reality-based arguments can not penetrate infantile, fantastical expectations about the future. Try rationalizing with a child, or even and overly emotional adult; it doesn't work. Most people must learn by experience.

Deconstruction of the Cornucopians latest mouthpiece, while excellently done, doesn't address the problem. The problem is that most people perceive Yergin's through a conditioned perspective: there is plenty of oil, but somebody or something is preventing me from using it; alternatively, technology will replace oil with an abundant and sustainable alternative. Despite the most complex and intelligent explanations, lifestyle change, otherwise known as adaptation, is not necessary. The perspective is inverted: their lifestyle is NOT the cause of the environmental conditions that now threaten them. In that case, they cannot understand or hear arguments from an opposite perspective. They become defensive, and take an antagonistically opposed position.

If Society, in mass, does not change course, the current environmental pressures will escalate until one pressure, or multiple, force a change upon society. Clearly, Kurt Cobb, you are intuitively informed, as your ability to discern the ramifications of current events testifies. Experience tells me: the compassionate fool punishes himself in the favor of others.

Step Back said...

What you've said in many words is that our society is like a Giant Mastodon Herd, moving relentlessly towards the tar pit. They ignore the chirpings of the fluttering blue birds who annoy them with warnings of an upcoming fall from grace. Oh the humanity!

Johan said...


Yesterday there was a TV program about more and more people actually denouncing Charles Darwin's work as a faulty theory; and returning to a more fundamental interpretation of the Bible : the world is 6000 years old and dinosaurs were on Noah's Ark before they died out...

50-75% of Americans were said to support this view, if you can believe that.
Even the Vatican is more liberal in the interpretation of the Bible...
Is this a wrong picture of Americans that we get in Europe? Surely, this can't be true...

But if it is, this may yet be another example of the point I believe you are trying to make : most people find it too difficult to be rational, and to live in this complex modern world. They need a simple model of the world, and a more glorious sense of purpose in life.

The end of the age of Enlightenment?

Kevembuangga said...

Fly : Experience tells me: the compassionate fool punishes himself in the favor of others.

Very likely.
Any idea about what else to do?
(Preferably one that will not just add yet another "Mad Max player" on stage)