Sunday, December 02, 2007

What should members of the peak oil movement call themselves?

Language is important. Language is the primary way in which humans coordinate their vast enterprises and their daily tasks. And yet, despite this importance the peak oil movement has been fumbling around trying to figure out what to call its members. One thing is certain though. If we don't label ourselves, someone will do it for us. So, I propose to examine some of the terms that are currently in use and suggest a label. I'm certainly open to other suggestions. But, in this piece I hope to do some preliminary pruning.

Some who criticize the peak oil movement have already created labels such as "peakist" and "doomer" to fit their agendas. The first label is awkward (perhaps intentionally so), and the second is clearly derogatory. Let's take these terms in order:

Peakist. If you label an opponent something no one can understand, it creates confusion and difficulty. "Peakist" is an invented word which in isolation doesn't really mean anything in any context. Can we really expect someone unfamiliar with peak oil to grasp the significance of "peakist" in a passing mention on television or radio? In addition, the word sounds like "pique" which means a feeling of irritation or resentment over having one's pride injured, not a particularly positive association. "Peakist" appears to have originated with a Cambridge Energy Research Associates report entitled Why the Peak Oil Theory Falls Down: Myths, Legends, and the Future of Oil Resources. That's hardly a friendly source. Why would members of the peak oil movement adopt a label given to them by the world's foremost oil cornucopians in a sneering paper that attempts to debunk their views?

Doomer. This label is self-explanatory. No doubt there are some people in the peak oil movement who wear this label proudly. Their pessimistic turn of mind or their honest best guess tells them that the future of humankind is very grim indeed. But no one should believe that this label imparts much credibility to those who wear it by choice or who are labeled as such by others.

Now, let's look at three other terms often used by members of the movement in an attempt to define themselves:

Peak oil advocate. This is a very strange formulation. Peak oil is not a program for which one can advocate. And, almost no one in the peak oil movement is saying we ought to do things which make peak oil arrive earlier. We are not advocating for a peak. The word "advocate," because of its literal meaning, can make the term "peak oil advocate" start to seem synonymous with doomer, only worse. The so-called advocate will mistakenly be seen by some to be advocating for the doom which the doomers merely claim is inevitable.

Peak oiler. This label has an informal, friendly ring to it. But as an habitual designation, it hardly seems much better than "peak oil advocate." For the casual listener, the term "peak oiler" is opaque. It sounds vaguely like someone associated with a now defunct professional football team. And, when we describe a person as oily, we don't mean it as a compliment. "Peak oiler" fails because it isn't really informative and because the word "oiler" has confusing and even unfavorable associations in the minds of many.

Peak oil believer. This label appears to get closer to the mark. But, it may come as a shock to many in the peak oil movement that much of what they believe is actually conventional wisdom. Nearly every credible scientist or energy analyst agrees that at some point world oil production will peak and then decline. The disagreement is over the timing and the severity of the consequences. The label "peak oil believer" in this context becomes misleading. First, those in the peak oil movement believe specifically that peak oil is not very far away, usually saying it will come no later than 2020. The term "peak oil believer," however, doesn't communicate this nuance. Second, the word "believer" makes the peak oil issue sound as if it were a matter of faith and one with cultish overtones to boot. There is no reason to classify peak oil with matters of faith. We have enough geological evidence and historical experience to conclude that there will be a peak in world oil production at some point. The burden ought to be on the cornucopians to explain their faith in continued abundance in the face of the current evidence. Of course, some of the harshest critics of the peak oil movement also accept that there will be a peak--just not very soon. And, these critics might reasonably be called "peak oil believers" as well. Therefore, on all counts, this label doesn't really work.

So, what then shall we call ourselves as members of the peak oil movement? In some quarters I've been hearing the term "peak oil activist." Perhaps it's not a perfect term; many associate the term "activist" primarily with leftist political causes. But this term has advantages. It implies that there is something we can do about the problem of peak oil. It implies that there is something that needs to be done today about it. It implies that the person who takes on the label is engaged in doing what needs to be done. And, it implies that there is a movement behind this person, just as there is behind nearly every environmental or political activist.

"Peak oil activist" avoids the disadvantages of the other labels and has many positive connotations. For now, I'm voting for this one unless someone can show me something better.


VtDoc said...

How about Peakan? "We're nuts about the future of energy."

But seriously, I think a better term would contain a more explicit encapsulation of the fact that available petroleum energy is about the actually start a decline. To those who don't know about the issue, use of the word "Peak" can sound as if it is a positive development.

Of course, I can't think of a term to offer...

Marcus said...

Hi Kurt,

'Peakist' does not offend me - I think it is a succinct label, but if you would like to soften it, how about 'peaknik'?

Anonymous said...

How about "Oil scarcity initiativist"? That avoids the use of the charged term "activist", and uses a standard economic concept, scarcity, which few will claim does not apply to oil. "Initiativism" suggests that we are those who take the initiative in responding, and not simply passive observers. "Maven" could also apply, but might be a little presumptuous.


Doug said...

Whatever you prefer to call us, we will all be scavengers in the near future.

odograph said...

I believe a peak (or plateau) in oil production is pretty assured. The date of that peak (or the start and end of the plateau) are still up in the air, of course.

Just the same, I am not willing to define myself in terms of the Peak Oil movement. Maybe for the reason above, and maybe because I think folks like Doug are coming to own the term. I mean, remember the Time Magazine summary ... "a motley crew of survivalists, despisers of capitalism, a few billionaire investors and a lot of perfectly respectable geologists."

Since I am not a billionaire nor a geologist, maybe I should steer clear ;-)

More seriously, I notice that the Peak Oil movement continues to define itself in opposition to the "mainstream." I've observed this in other technical and non-technical domains. It is a built-in guarantee that a movement can never win. Whatever the mainstream does is not enough, the movement moves, and is outside again.

The recent Google solar initiative is a excellent example of the mainstream moving. It was a huge move, not predicted by the Peak Oil community, and yet it does nothing to change the Peak Oil ideal that the mainstream is static and in denial.

Maybe at this point I'm a Mainstreamer. I remake my energy footprint. I lobby for change. I embrace those around me who do the same.

I don't hold myself apart.

Anonymous said...

Part of the Set America Free Israeli propaganda machine.

stylecounciler said...

The only thing that you can straight up honestly call someone who believes in a theory...


with a small "t".

Dave Lankshear said...

What about peaknik?

I wonder if the labels are difficult to arrive at because there is no consensus in the peak oil movement over what peak oil means, let alone what we are to collectively do about it.

Peakniks seem to be on the optimistic "Powerdown may be achievable" spectrum, and tend to campaign for awareness and do their best to inform government and their fellow citizens. It has a nice activism ring to it, playing on the term "peacenik" from the Cold War.

Then there's being a "Depletionist" which is broader than peak oil, and can also refer to thinking more broadly about "peak everything" issues and sustainability in general.

Sometimes I just tell people I'm a Greenie worried about how we are going to eat as we run out of oil. People need sound bytes, and most peak oil language loses the average John Doe in 10 seconds. I just say "I've been listening to a growing group of geologists talking about how there's going to be less and less oil produced, and the price will skyrocket — maybe even leading to rationing. When is society going to talk about this and start adjusting our farming and transport? We eat oil... etc"

(When "Peak" geology language dominates the first 15 seconds, it puts most people off.)

Sadly, many in the peak oil movement deserve the label "Doomer". Some even wear it with pride. I mean, other than setting up a survivalist bunker or Waco-style armed village, what else would a real doomer bother to do? There's no point telling your neighbour, because he'll just become informed and maybe better prepared than you. Campaigning might create competition. These "Apocalyptic outsiders" smother activism, and shout down anyone that wants to actually DO anything about peak oil. If you have any in your peak oil group, I'd advise asking them to leave. They can ruin group morale and destroy any task focussed discussion, wanting to sit around congratulating themselves on their clever perceptions about the end of the world. What a waste of time.

Rice Farmer said...

I don't think "peak" is a good term to use. We're on a plateau, with supply and demand fluctuating. It doesn't make much sense to keep looking for "the peak" in a situation like that. It's symbolic at best. Why not think of something entirely different, which does not use "peak"?

Peter said...

I like the term "Energy Realist"

But I mostl like the term "Texas Licensed Professional Geoscientist", which I am... but you can't use that one!

Chris said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your logic regarding the link between Peak Oil and the language used to describe its adherents: if the insights from Peak Oil theory will ever serve as a motivating force for social change then it needs a solid name. But I will go one step further and argue that a new name is simply the tip of the iceberg. What is really needed, if the Peak Oil movement is going to gain mass credibility and be a fulcrum for change is, in the parlance of the corporate world, a complete rebranding. While this term sounds innocent enough the implications of rebranding can be staggering. What is rebranding? Why does Peak Oil need it? And how can it happen?

A large part of branding (and this is really what Kurt was referring to by the different titles that Peak Oil adherents have been called—we have been branded as Peakist, for instance) is about image construction and credibility. If the image we have of a person or organization is poor why should we believe their message? For instance the credibility of a news anchor man or woman on the nightly news would seriously be compromised if they presented the news in blue jeans and a t-shirt, in a dialect that deviated from the typical dialect of the viewers and spoke their sentences in stuttering fragments. In reality, and actuality, the news delivered does not depend on the messenger who delivers it; but the perception of the viewers will be greatly influenced by the image they have of the individuals who deliver the news. This is as close to a psychological law that probably exists. It is more likely that a person will believe an incredulous story from one who appears competent, well-dressed and cordial and less likely that a person will believe a person who has a fringe or alarmist image, even if they speak an eternal truth.

So why does the Peak Oil movement need rebranding? There are at least two powerful reasons. First our image sucks. Even for those of us who are Peak Oil adherents what is the perception that our friends and family have of us? And on a larger level what is the perception of leading figures of the Peak Oil movement? The image is this: we are generally considered eccentrics, fringe-thinkers, non-qualified individuals, extremists, alarmists, etc. If this is the image that we are starting from why on Earth would anyone take our message seriously? The second reason a rebranding is necessary is because our message, like our image, sucks. Who wants to hear that we are running out of oil? It is one thing to have a positive image and present news that people want to hear. But it is quite another when there is an initial negative image of the news deliverer and the message is one that people do not want to hear.

The deck is obviously stacked against us Peak Oil adherents. Can these problems realistically and positively be addressed? A name change is in order for sure; but if the rebranding stops there it will be minimally effective, at best. One potential method for addressing the systemic problems in disseminating the knowledge and insights of Peak Oil theory is to formally institutionalize Peak Oil. Peak Oil began as a grassroots movement as individuals with knowledge and interest in the topic just began writing and posting information on the internet. Indeed it was probably only because of the internet that this movement has gained as much of a following as it has. But I think it fallacious to assume that the system that has got us thus far is going to take us to the next level. A simple thought experiment demonstrates how fragmented, and uninstitutionalized, Peak Oil really is. Suppose you were a reporter for a cable TV station and you wanted to do a segment on Peak Oil. Who is the definitive organization or website to go to for this information? There are several good ones out there but, at the end of the day, there is not much that separates the good sources from sources that might have discrediting information. And if information is not centrally disseminated then it is very easy for someone reporting on Peak Oil to find negative and positive statements about its study. A single, definitive in-group (Peak Oil theorists) needs to be created and if you don’t belong to that group then you are not a Peak Oil adherent. As long as various factions disseminate Peak Oil related information we are really at cross-purposes. What needs to happen, I believe, is that either one existing organization, or one created exclusively for the holding, dissemination and application of Peak Oil information, has to be given actual and psychological credence by members of all other groups. This means that some of the better grassroots movements need to concede their stake and merge so as to create one definitive institution that the majority of the people who adhere to Peak Oil say, “Yes, listen to that group.” Or “Go to this place” But if everyone, with no institutionalized credentials wants to be an expert, then those looking to discredit can always play one Peak Oil individual off of another. But the moment we centralize and institutionalize Peak Oil it can start to build a stable image which is critical to creating a respected image that has value and that should be listened to. If this degree of centralization can be achieved naming that organization, and what Peak Oil theory should be called, becomes critical. In the meantime coming up with different names will only result in semantic changes but not socially effective outcomes.

Dave Lankshear said...

I thoroughly agree Chris, which is why I have almost given up promoting "peak oil" and have instead started raving about the Simultaneous Policy global voting movement.

Simpol backs the Oil Depletion Protocol. It achieved amazing adoption amongst the Green Senators in Western Australia's recent Federal election, but is still to really make headway into the Eastern States.

Put basically, Simpol is the only realistic way I've seen to make my own national vote count towards international causes. They target the most marginal seats with the most desperate candidates, ask them to sign the Simpol pledge with the promise of Simpol Adopters (citizens like you and I) who have promised to vote for any Simpol candidates... within reason... and there's NO RISK TO THE POLITICIAN! All they have to do is pledge to simultaneously support Simpol policies when the rest of the world is ready to "Powerdown" with them. It addresses corporate power, global warming, peak oil, 3rd world poverty, biodiversity and all manner of other good causes.

So it becomes a whole lot easier to "sell" peak oil if you don't even have to mention it! I did a poster advertising Simpol recently, but it was all about saving the whales and global warming, and did not even mention peak oil! But because Simpol also support the Oil Depletion Protocol, I don't care if my friends become Simpol Adopters to save the whales or alleviate 3rd world poverty. I don't care WHY they do it.. they don't even have to know ANYTHING about peak oil! Yet by using their vote for global issues, they can help solve a problem they know nothing about.

It's simply brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Kurt Cobb raises an interesting point and as the other comments indicate, there isn't a formulation that doesn't sound awkward or unnatural. Richard Heinberg calls himself a peak oil educator. For myself, I often talk about my own activities as working on a 'post-carbon' lifestyle, or in terms of sustainability. "Conservationist" is also a word that comes to mind.
This is a discussion worth having, especially if people can come up with something that sounds uncontrived and emphasizes the affirmative.

Doug W.

Step Back said...

"Prophets of the Petroleum Production Plummet" (Pot P^3)

While this alliteration may appear to be self-deprecating, its purpose is to "frame" the other guys as:

Protagonists of the Perpetual Petroleum Producing Machine or "Perpetualists" for short.

It's more important to put the Perpetualists in a box than to frame ourselves.

Who is more believable, a Perpetualist or the other guys?

odograph said...

Chris said:

"First our image sucks. Even for those of us who are Peak Oil adherents what is the perception that our friends and family have of us? And on a larger level what is the perception of leading figures of the Peak Oil movement? The image is this: we are generally considered eccentrics, fringe-thinkers, non-qualified individuals, extremists, alarmists, etc."

Well, as I've observed in the past, the peak oil movement is loathe to draw any lines between what is reasonable peak oil concern, and what is plain nuts.

At the same time, as I've said above, the movement always draws itself in opposition to the mainstream.

So you tell me, how is that going to work out in the long run?

Anonymous said...

I see two points emerging from the discussion above.

First, peakists resist what Kevin Phillips called "petro-imperialism." Mostly because of environmental and humanitarian concerns, peakists reject domestic and foreign policies focused on expanding our dwindling oil supply.

Second, peakists are, in large measure, proactive environmentalists. Therefore, they support any and all efforts to promote and expand renewable energy use.

These two points are where peakists will find their name and movement's direction.

Rob said...

Hi Kurt,

I always struggle with this when at a party I get asked "so what do you do?" My favoured term is one generated by Albert Bates, he of the Post Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook fame, where he calls himself a "post-petroleumologist". That's what I see myself as.

In the Transition movement, a journalist once called us "Transition townies" which we hated and which thankfully never caught on. I prefer "Transitionistas", which someone coined recently.

I hate "doomer". "Peakist" is pretty crap too. "Post-petroleumologist" is a term which I guess is better for those of us looking at the down side of the peak and how to navigate that, rather than those still analysing what the top of the mountain will look like.

All the best, and thanks for your insightful site.
Rob Hopkins,

Dave Lankshear said...

Thanks Rob... but maybe that "Townies" thing is not so bad? (If we choose a more appropriate name). Maybe focussing on the attractive goals we are heading towards instead of the negative aspects of peak oil will give us a more positive meme and help this knowledge spread faster?

I sometimes call myself a "Conservationist" or a "New Urbanist" , and it doesn't really matter as long as the ensuing conversation explains the urgency of peak oil the very attractive solutions.

Eric Oemig said...

I use, "peak oil realist"... but I also like "peak flow realist". I also liked the fellow's suggestion, "Energy Realist".

When talking about the threats of peak oil, I tend to focus more on the point of intersection where demand permanently exceeds supply capacity.

From an economic impact, this point is more interesting and can happen before or after peak oil.


For further thought, blending these: Peak minerals, end of cheap oil, diminishing output, peak flow rate -> "dimishing oil output converging with increasing cost of production" -> "economy of energy analyst?" :)

Mike Grenville said...

I vote for Peaknik.

It has the ring of a peacenik in it which gives it a positive flavour and also suggests someone doing something about the situation. said...

Dave Lankshear- You've been hanging with the wrong Doomers. The ones I know are funny, very active in their communities, and willing to help make it a better place, exactly BECAUSE the hour is so late. The last post on even has a happy holiday song written by a Doomer. If you don't laugh, you are taking yourself WAY too seriously. Yourself, not the situation.

I think the comment about trying to reach the mainstream media is an accurate one. It won't happen. It isn't financially viable to slow the train down, and no one yet has a way for corporations to make more money slowing it down than allowing it to rumble at its current pace.

Chris- Our image does suck, precisely because the message is such a bummer, Man. 200 species a day. That sucks. High energy prices. That's a drag. No big fish in the sea. Give me a break. I need some GOOD new. Let's print neat new tee-shirts out of Hemp and print the more positive news, there.

I think we should all reject the effort to give a "label" to us, (except the ones we give to ourselves) because that implies we either "join" or we "don't join."

I'm on the de-centralization team that prefers to be called "helpful neighbor," or "farmer." When we all start adopting labels like that, we don't have to worry whether we are accepted by the mainstream, or fit the label agreed upon by a rag-tag international bunch of realists. We won't be so gloomy, either.

I don't have to call myself anything when I speak to students. I just slip in the line: "In the post-fossil fuel era..." and that's usually enough.

Hey, what about that label others suggested: "Realists."

Peak Aware said...

I personally use "Peak Oil Aware".

nimeni said...

I think it is a bad idea to give us any name at all: If "we" call us "peakists" or the like this sounds like an ideology or like a political movement - just like the Jehovah's Witnesses (the religious group that thinks "the end of the world is near"). So no wonder that often "peak oil" is regarded as the weird idea of a few freaks instead of what it is: the scientific reality of hydrocarbon extraction, with the only question being seriously discussed is not *if* the peak happens but only *when* it happens.
So i suggest that rather use a "no name" approach, just telling the facts. This is what for example authors in the Financial Times and Financial Times Deutschland do, which never address "peak oil" as such but give quite clear information. One example:

Cangrande said...

As for "peakists" being a label attributed to "us" by the "enemy":

Remember that during the Dutch rebellion against the Spaniards the latter called the rebels "Geuses".
The Dutch indepence fighters adopted the name and it became a word of pride for them.

Remembering this, I do not have any problem calling myself a "peakist". (Rather, my problem is to find an adequate and easy to remember German word for this.)