Sunday, August 01, 2010

What will it take to convince people about the dangers of peak oil?

As I watched the compelling interview of Michael Ruppert which was made into the movie Collapse, I found myself identifying with Ruppert's frustration that the public does not seem to understand the problem of peak oil and that it's hard to figure out what will convince it that peak oil is a serious problem.

I contrasted Ruppert's use of everyday analogies to illustrate the problem with the fact-and-figure laden presentations I've seen from Matt Simmons over the years and Simmons' book, Twilight in the Desert, a challenging tome of technical information that lifted the veil on Saudi Arabia's oil reserves. Each approach seeks out different audiences. Ruppert talked to a general audience through his now defunct newsletter. Simmons was typically addressing well-informed specialist audiences that were capable of following his technical explanations.

I applaud and have benefitted from the efforts of both to bring the realities of peak oil to a larger audience. It occasionally concerned me, however, that the two would engage in prognostications that time would likely debunk primarily because they put a near-term emphasis on them. At the time he was interviewed for Collapse Ruppert believed that the recent economic crash was the beginning of the unraveling of industrial civilization. Since then a partial revival, especially in Asia, has made that view seem at best premature. He may turn out to be right in the long run. But not today!

Simmons has been lecturing about the decrepit state of the oil and natural gas infrastructure. When I saw him at a conference in 2008, he was concerned that an oil crisis would quickly lead drivers to top off their tanks and draw down the levels of petroleum products in pipelines and other oil infrastructure below what he called the "minimum operating level." (PDF) Such a drawdown would, in his view, cripple the entire system and halt transportation of food and other critical commodities. Though he didn't exactly predict that such an event was imminent, he was clearly very concerned that it could happen at any time. As of this writing, it hasn't happened. That doesn't mean that it won't. Just not today!

Unfortunately, such failed predictions provide fodder to those who tell the public that erroneous predictions somehow invalidate the concept of peak oil as well as the writings and presentations of those who make such predictions. I myself have been too much obsessed with a possible natural gas cliff in North America. I had the good sense to use a question mark in the title of the piece cited. But I'm not sure that's much of a defense.

My professional experience is in the area of mass communications. Naturally, when I think about important public issues, I think about how to communicate about them to a broad public. Lately, however, I've been pondering a piece of advice Richard Heinberg often gives in his lectures. He tells his audiences that like an airplane passenger in a depressurization emergency who is instructed to put on his or her own oxygen mask before assisting others, those in the peak oil movement need to make their own peak oil preparations before assisting others. Partly this is a practical consideration. How can one be effective in assisting in the energy transition if one's own finances, livelihood, and basic needs such as housing, food and transportation are not reasonably robust?

But there is another important aspect to one's own preparation. Last week I was traveling in Canada and had a long conversation concerning peak oil with a couple staying at a bed and breakfast. Once they found out that I write frequently on the topic, they were interested in what I had to say. But they were also keenly interested in what I was doing to prepare.

I find myself these days especially attentive to people talking about their preparations for a post-peak oil world. I am partly learning and partly measuring myself against their level of preparation. If they are, in my evaluation, further along than I am, my focus is even more intense.

That has turned out to be an important clue for me about what it will take to convince the public about the dangers of peak oil. There is no more compelling testimony that peak oil is a critical issue than the time and treasure one is willing to put into preparing oneself for a post-peak oil world.


Pops said...

Here, here!

Make a plan and work it!

Guy R. McPherson said...

Thanks for this fine essay, Kurt. I have developed a comprehensive set of living arrangements, and I have offered to help others do the same, in my "what works" series at

John Andersen said...

I think wise readers and thinkers aren't turned off by predictions that don't turn out exactly as predicted.

Humans are far too impatient. If we looked at history more as the record of both humans and the natural world, we would see events certain to happen within two decades as essentially "just around the corner."

Our family study this summer of Pacific Northwest geological history has helped me to start seeing history in this broader context. Suddenly 7,000 years ago is not that far back, not when I'm learning about and looking a rocks that were formed 200 million years ago.

How to get people to take notice?

I'm not sure that's possible. They need to get there themselves. More than anything else, elders need to model a love of learning, respect for boundaries, respect for science, ethical living, etc. so the young will care about and preserve these things as well.

If they are raised to value these things, they will likely be able to connect the dots.

mattbg said...

There is the problem that the "problem" isn't obvious. Most people don't pay attention to serious news of any type, and peak oil doesn't even make it into serious news. The only indicator most people have is gas prices.

A lot of people -- and they tend to be left-leaning types -- simply don't agree with the concept of supply and demand. They either don't understand it or feel comfortable ignoring it. Oil prices are high, they say, because big oil companies are conspiring against us. It usually really is just as simple as that: there is no peak oil problem -- prices are at sustained highs because of the world conspiring against me.

You still cannot talk about this even with educated people who pay attention to the world around them with any sense of urgency. There is an attitude that it's a problem just like Middle Eastern politics are a problem -- acknowledged with a serious nod over lattes but not really of personal concern and simply something that we are awaiting a science-based solution for. It's a problem, but that it's not something they should concern themselves with. Which really means that they don't believe it's a problem.

I think survivalists are on the wrong track. I think that, if things go bad, all efforts will be made to send resources to cities. Cities are where our problem solvers live and it's where the chaos will ensure. It's also often where the politicians live, and they will demand the problems before their own eyes are fixed first.

Personally, I think that peak oil is a problem, but I also think that we're all in this world together and if something goes wrong then we will all go down together. Until most people take the problem seriously, I won't. I don't think you can predict how things will unfold, and so I don't see much value in preparation.

The most I will do is make sure I live in a decent location where I can get by without a car as much as possible, and in a location that has provided past successes -- i.e. near rivers, near railway lines, and near supplies.

The canary in the coal mine will be personal transportation. That is the most wasteful use of energy and will be the first to suffer.

mattbg said...

Also, I agree with John about failed predictions.

You can't take Matthew Simmons seriously anymore unless you are also willing to accept his contention that the only way to fix the Deepwater Horizon leak is to launch an underwater nuclear explosion, or that the entire Gulf Coast should be evacuated because of the risk of an underwater gas bubble coming to the surface in the event of a hurricane and poisoning the coastal population.

I really like reading and listening to Kunstler, but how many times is he going to predict catastrophe just around the corner (usually by Memorial Day if he's writing in the spring, or by October if he's writing in the summer) before he starts to think twice?

"The Great Reset" is a book worth reading. It's not an excellent book, but it's good food for thought. It will at least remove the Ben Stein timbre from some peoples' voices and offer a glimpse of hope to some.

Suburban Guy said...

Simple. when the price at the pump reaches at least 4.50 again.

The powers that be know this and have been keeping the price at the pump artificially low for the last few years.

We will wake up from our consumer zombie haze one day and the price will be 6 bucks.

prepare for the riots.

Rice Farmer said...

With predictions it's often a matter of timing. For example, is industrial civilization going to crash? Of course. It's inevitable. All great civilizations and all empires have fallen. We can see industrial civilization falling apart before our eyes, and we can see the ponzi-scheme growth economy crumbling. People who talk about a recovery and a Jetsons-like future are just whistling Dixie.

If we just use common sense we can safely predict a lot of things, even if we can't say exactly when they'll happen. For example, I can predict with confidence right now that billions of people are going to starve/freeze to death as energy becomes too expensive to prop up industrial agriculture and heat so many homes. Maybe not this year or next year, but it'll happen.

I can also predict that civilian space programs and the budding "space tourism" industry will founder, and space development will become increasingly given over to military purposes. It's inevitable.

So we shouldn't get so hung up on when, but fix our gaze on what will inevitably happen, and make preparations accordingly.

Chris Harries + Carol Bristow said...

Have to agree with Rice Farmer. It's downright debilitating to try, year in and year out, to bring on the necessary response to climate and peak oil. Futility.

Much more sane to get one's own house in order first, but not as a futile, selfish self-survival strategy. We should try to be in the best possible position so that we can exercise leadership when rapid change starts to happen.

This is not a retreat from leadership, its a constructive form of leadership accepting the reality described in the essay.

In the meantime this global debate about the coming emergency is critically important in itself. Perhaps the best thing we can do right in the moment is to egg on the global conversation amongst those who do see the brick wall looming.

Kurt, you are doing that better than most of us.

OrwellianUK said...

Ruppert might be a bit premature, but not much - maybe a year or two. He was maybe a year premature with his prediction of the property bubble bursting. China's housing and financial bubbles are about to pop and at the rate that unemployment and foreclosures are rising in the US, we are set for another stumble down the ladder very shortly.

Energy and Money are intimately interconnected in our industrial civilisation, so the ill health of one severely restricts weakens the other. I have not seen any evidence of a 'revival' partial or otherwise - only governments including those in Asia attempting to restart the failed system of Infinite Growth by printing money and borrowing.

If there is a delay, then we should be grateful for a bit more time to prepare because that is all it is.