Sunday, November 04, 2007

Let's play "Peak Oil Shock Me"

An increasingly popular parlor game among peak oil activists is to see who can serve up the most shocking morsel of peak oil news at any one sitting. There are now plenty of morsels to choose from on an almost daily basis. Here are some recent samples:

Persistent new highs in the oil price of late only add to the end-times quality of the game.

Of course, there is a desire among the participants to be validated in their belief that peak oil is a major concern that needs our attention now. Otherwise, what would be the purpose of all that effort and worry concerning peak oil awareness and preparation? There is also the desire to discover THE revelation that will finally shock the rest of the seemingly zombified planet into realizing the seriousness of our predicament. And, there is always hope that even if today's news was not enough, another round of "Peak Oil Shock Me" tomorrow will finally yield the Holy Grail of peak oil awareness, namely, a piece of peak oil news so horrifying that it simply cannot be ignored by the population at large.

Played for the purposes of education, entertainment, solace, or even a kind of morbid comic relief, the game itself is harmless. But when played in an earnest quest to find that Holy Grail of peak oil awareness, it courts a two-fold danger. First, we peak oil activists have a way of putting off even our friends with the latest bad news. It's not that bad news should be ignored. But if the purpose of the peak oil movement is to spread awareness and ultimately spur action, then telling uninformed people news which radically challenges their worldview may cause them simply to tune us out. In this regard, the worse the news is, the less likely people are to want to hear what we have to say or to believe it if they do listen. Second, the preoccupation with that "breakthrough" piece of news misses the point. Peak oil is a complex phenomenon with ramifications that are difficult to see. The way news is nowadays conveyed, one can hardly expect people to understand that complexity without considerable background--background which is almost never offered up in either the print or electronic media. By focusing on finding a "breakthrough" piece of news, we take energy away from the more difficult but necessary task of public education.

Certainly, many peak oil activists wonder if anything will cause the public to wake up. The vast majority of those activists--by my admittedly small and informal poll--appears to believe that an extreme crisis will have to arrive before the public finally "gets it." Accordingly, many of those I talk with have become deeply pessimistic about the prospects for making any substantial society-wide preparations before peak oil arrives. Indeed, many believe peak has already arrived and that therefore it is too late to prepare. All we can do now is cope.

But we cannot assume that even an extreme crisis will be interpreted within the context of peak. In fact, we can already see that the usual bogeymen are being trotted out: price-gouging oil companies, speculators, Arab oil producers who hate us, and government policy that blocks new drilling. There is also the belief among the public--who are heavily influenced by the priesthood of professional economists--that the high oil prices of today will resolve themselves the same way they have in the past, i.e., by going a lot lower.

Undermining what I call the official story is going to take persistent and intelligent effort on the part of the peak oil movement. And, this effort will require constant vigilance as new conspiratorial explanations and cornucopian stratagems (such as the hedge that above ground risks are more important than below ground risks) are deployed to defend the current paradigm.

In the meantime, I'm all in favor of a few rounds of "Peak Oil Shock Me," especially when it's used as an icebreaker among peak oil activists. But don't mistake this game for genuine preparation in dealing with the as yet uninformed public. That task requires an entirely different approach.


odograph said...

"The vast majority of those activists--by my admittedly small and informal poll--appears to believe that an extreme crisis will have to arrive before the public finally 'gets it.'"

It seems to me that we are in the midst of an international mobilization to get off oil. Sure, it may seem slow (electric car evolution) or misguided (corn ethanol), but I think you have to squint pretty hard to "not see it."

So what does that mean?

I'd worry that those activists themselves have a dynamic, holding themselves apart from the mainstream.

In worst case, they might not accept mainstream actions (or beliefs) until the mainstream returns the favor ... by accepting every plank of that particular activist's peak oil platform.

Anyway, I think peak oil is a real concern, but sadly bound to our human MegaDisasters fascination.

Jennifer H. said...

Thanks for this insightful article, Kurt. I often find my fellow peak oil activists awash in information without tools to coordinate how they pass on that information. As a librarian, I think a lot about how people use, evaluate, and indeed avoid information, so this topic is dear to my heart, all the more so since I am focusing on genuinely effective strategies for confronting the Great Turning.

A few thoughts:
- Those activists who claim that it is too late to do anything, so they will sit back and do nothing, are forfeiting their power to live with integrity, in my opinion. We don't know yet if we're too late, and even if we are, it does not reduce the moral mandate to act with integrity. That includes making a good-faith effort to inform those we know about peak oil in a way that they can take it in.

- In my experience, informing people about peak oil takes great patience and a certain degree of (learned) skill. It requires attunement to another's stage of awareness. It requires deep listening. It requires compassion and assertiveness. It requires framing issues so they can be understood and absorbed. As any reader of your blog knows, coming to terms with peak oil is both cognitive and emotional, and it is wise to consider the impact at these levels. Even if we ourselves learned of peak oil in a way that offered little cognitive-emotional support (I know that it was my tenacity as a researcher, commitment to critical thinking, and hard-won emotional resilience that pulled me and continues to pull me through, not originally any other person) we have a responsibility to support those we inform. It is not enough to say, "I muddled through the fear and grief on my own, I muddled through the facts and information on my own, let others do the same." Others may not have the ability to do so on their own.

- My own approach to offering peak oil information is mostly what I think of as the "chipping away" approach. That is, I no longer expect that one exposure to the information is sufficient, no matter how eloquently or shockingly presented. I believe in steady, incremental exposure over time, in those who display small signs of readiness. For those who refuse to listen or resort to ridiculing me, I cease to try to convince them. I think my energy is put to better use talking with those who are at least slightly ready.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your comments Kurt. It is quite likely that what the post peak oil period will feel like is grinding and growing poverty. I'm not waiting around for a sudden shock to the economic system or to human consciousness.

Kit Stolz said...

Fascinating post. I buy the logic of your statement that "In this regard, the worse the news is, the less likely people are to want to hear what we have to say or to believe it if they do listen."

But I wonder if you have any further information or research that backs up the logic with observational experience. If not, that's okay, it still makes sense. But an example would be useful, I think.

Kurt Cobb said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comments. They are certainly helpful to others who have experienced the same frustrations and difficulties.


My logic is backed up only by my experience and that of others. Certainly, some people are susceptible to the shocking news coming out of the peak oil movement. Otherwise, there would be no movement. But if this susceptibility were widely disbursed among the population, I wouldn't even be discussing the topic. Peak oil would be on everyone's lips. Alas, the power of denial is great.

odograph said...

"Alas, the power of denial is great."

OK Kurt. This past September we had news that the DOE was dropping seventeen million dollars on five battery companies, spreading their bets:

DOE to Provide $17.2M for Five PHEV Battery Development Projects; Focus on 10- and 40-Mile Electric Range

This seems to me a perfect example of what I explained above, "those activists themselves have a dynamic, holding themselves apart from the mainstream."

Explain to me how an unprecedented scramble for electric car technology is at the same time "denial?"

... or is it, sadly, "denial" of another sort? Is it that activists must reject the mainstream, to maintain their rebel position?

Ken said...

Odograph, I don't think I'd call 12.7M in grants an indicator of an unprecedented rush. Given the scale of the issue a B instead of M would indicate real recognition and urgency. Most vehicle manufacturers are spending much more promoting their existing guzzlers than they put into developing EV's. I'd be surprised if any major manufacturer spends more on EV development than on developing their next ICE and probably complain at having any fuel efficiency standards imposed on them. I'm not sure they really "see it" or see EV's as more than a niche market - at best it's a hedge, in case, not a major push.

odograph said...

The thing is Ken, that's not the only data point. I think that one is significant, because if the DOE were in less of a hurry, they'd be more 'targeted,' chosing a researcher or two.

But we've got all these things going on at once.

Peak oilers, a year or two ago, talked about the mainstream 'not getting it' and 'driving the SUV off the cliff.'

Since then we've had astonishing news, things like Toyota saying that their full product line would become hybrids.

Peak oilers did not predict that, but somehow now the pretend not to see it, and treat it as 'business as usual.'

Now, hybrids are not good enough, and are heading for the cliff.

What about the next improvement? The next evolution in the energy world?

Do we accept it as a changed mainstream, one that is 'adapting' over time to a new energy environment, or do we keep playing the game?

The game is to pretend a static world, with no change, that is in 'denial.'