Saturday, August 05, 2006

Apocalypse always: Is the peak oil movement really just another apocalyptic cult?

Whenever the world's scientists release yet one more piece of evidence pointing to ecological catastrophe in climate or resource depletion, some of those who are historically minded like to say it has ever been thus. For instance, peak oil nemesis Daniel Yergin loves to repeat the idea that "[t]his is not he first time the world has 'run out of oil.' It's more like the fifth." When it comes to global warming, the few remaining skeptics are fond of saying that scientists were predicting a new ice age as recently as the 1970s. More recently, the author of an article in Harper's Magazine entitled "Imagine There's No Oil: Scenes from a Liberal Apocalypse," a piece otherwise sympathetic in its coverage of the peak oil movement, drew parallels between those concerned about an imminent peak in world oil production and apocalyptic cults of the past.

Even though the peak oil movement does share a common bond with those cults in its obsession with dates, perhaps the most compelling comparisons are between the dramatic end-of-the-world scenarios of past cults and the dramatic end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it scenarios of some peak oil adherents.

Still, at its core the peak oil movement is decidedly different from an apocalyptic cult. I am often asked if I believe in peak oil as if it were an article of faith rather than a question of evidence. I respond that I take the possibility seriously because the accumulated evidence demonstrates that oil wells, oil fields and oil-producing countries have and continue to peak and decline in their production. I add that there is no compelling evidence that world oil production will not do the same at some point.

In fact, undergirding the peak oil thesis now are both a large body of scientific evidence and a great number of experts, some of them drawn from the oil industry itself. The basis of this movement then cannot be fairly compared to such movements as the Millerites and the Shakers which at their core relied on revelation, not science. By contrast, accepting peak oil theory doesn't require personal revelation or mere belief, only an evaluation of the publicly available evidence. That's why even peak oil's supposed detractors such as Daniel Yergin can acknowledge that oil is finite and that someday its production will cease to rise and ultimately decline.

Perhaps the one thing which is holding back the peak oil idea from wider acceptance is that some of the data needed to create definitive scenarios for peak are simply not available. Much of the world's oil remains controlled by state oil companies that have no obligation to submit to an audit. The other problem is that oil is not easy to measure because it is underground and because its recovery is dependent on myriad factors that include technology, geology, geography and market prices. This contrasts with climate studies in which no government or corporation can hide the atmosphere or the oceans from eager researchers who want to do measurements. This difference may explain why concern about global warming has been embraced by nearly every informed person on the planet, while the concept of peak oil remains relatively obscure and often dismissed even by many in the environmental movement.

Another distinction between the usual run of apocalyptic cults and the peak oil movement is its diversity. It contains not just end-of-civilization doomsayers, but many who believe that a transition to a sustainable and prosperous society is eminently doable (albeit with considerable effort) and some who believe that the transition to alternative fuels will be brought about by the marketplace. And, while the above-mentioned Harper's article styles peak oil as a "liberal apocalypse," two of the peak oil movement's most prominent spokespersons are Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, a self-described "very conservative Republican," and energy investment banker Matthew Simmons, an advisor to the Bush presidential campaign in 2000.

The label "apocalyptic" is most often intended to be derisory. But even if it applies, those who use it this way may miss something very important about some apocalyptic movements. These movements sometimes spawn great creativity that has ongoing benefits for society at large. For example, even though the Shakers in America never numbered more than perhaps 6,000, their contributions to American society are astonishingly broad and enduring. Their art and architecture continue to inspire designers today. Their craftsmanship, particularly in furniture, commands high prices for original pieces and has led to many reproductions that are still being manufactured today. Inventions such as the flat broom, the circular saw, and the idea of printed packaging used in the sale of seeds are attributed to the Shakers. And, Shaker music lives on, perhaps most notably in the song "Simple Gifts," which has been adapted and arranged again and again.

Even if peak oil production turns out to be decades away, the contributions of the peak oil movement are already manifold. The people involved are forcing a re-evaluation not only of the idea of energy and its sources, but of the very way in which we live. They are creating dialogue on basic questions about what constitutes a good life--questions about excessive consumption, unhealthy lifestyles, and pathological social, political and economic arrangements born of fossil-fuel dependence. Above all, they are sounding the alarm about the unsustainability of our current way of life. And, they are offering concrete solutions to move us toward sustainability in a wide range of areas that are inextricably linked to energy including food production, water resources and climate.

Can those who mock the peak oil movement as apocalyptic honestly say that it's too early to start moving toward sustainability? Do they really think we will be better off if we wait and risk being too late?


Anonymous said...

Excellent essay. I enjoyed one of your previous pieces too -- "Why It's Hard to Debate a Cornucopian" -- and that bit by Bertrand Russell really stuck in my brain cells.

I'm one of those late-bloomers to Peak Oil, and am assuming the worst so that I can have a better life ahead. And, even though I'm relatively alone here in suburbia in my awareness and in my sense of urgency to prepare and change my way of living, I'm inspired by what I read on-line about the wonderful people working towards sustainability. And, you know what I've discovered? I'm really enjoying all the hard work I'm putting into my new vegetable garden and mini-orchard in the backyard. Life is so much more fulfilling when one is back in touch with the earth. Thank you for helping keep the flame alit.

Anonymous said...

I think you should distinguish between two things: whether the doomsday predictions of a group are correct is a matter quite separate from whether they (we) are acting like a classical doomsday cult.
Unfortunately, it's easy to find signs of similarity. The Duncan school of doomers, for instance, are historicist and deterministic, nothing we can do will matter. Predictions are often very, very specific, such as totoneila's EarthMarines(tm). Some doomers have very anti-democratic and even totalitarian ideas, and there is a lot of contempt for the uninformed masses, the fat guys who will starve to death during the anticipated "dieoff" and so on.

For the record, I believe oil will peak within ten years. But I also think that posing as prophets is the stupidest thing we do, and that some of the more spectacular doomers are already doing more harm than good.

Anonymous said...

Harald. I think you're confusing believing that peak oil will lead to dieoff and the end of democracy, with desiring such an outcome.

It is sad, that it is not possible to have a rational discussion of the likely outcomes of prolonged energy shortage without getting branded as a faschist and a cultist.

Personally I see no way whatsoever we can maintain a population of some 6.5 billion without the petrochemical industry providing us with stuff like artificial fertilicer, insect poison, diesel and plastic, I also do not think you can have an election at the same time people are starving, and I don't even want to get into what people who have not will be prepared to do to those who have.

But do I want this to happen, no.

Anonymous said...

"I think you're confusing believing that peak oil will lead to dieoff and the end of democracy, with desiring such an outcome."

No. Some posters at TOD for instance are quite clear that democracy is inherently incapable of solving our problem (and we should therefore ditch it). Many argue that the "dieoff" is a good thing because it's the only way forward, evolution of man has been stopped and needs to be started again, and so on.

It's simply not true that people don't desire such an outcome. Some say quite explicitly that they do.

Of the ones who claim that they are sorry about it... well, some of them nonetheless look very much like revenge fantasies to me. And the belief in historical destiny blurs the division anyway... it's like "I don't like this either, but it's a historical necessity, trying to do something about it would just make it worse in the long run, so perhaps we should just learn to like it".

An example of the latter would be totoneila's EarthMarine ideas. He is (or was) convinced that "the elite" would themselves retreat into caves and high altitude blimps, set up "ark" communities guided by fanatical, inhumane "earthmarines" which would hunt down and kill any "detritovores" and "survivalists" who came near. Then he went on to suggest (with a heavy heart, according to himself) that when this comes to pass, a person should join the "earthmarines" if he wants to survive.

If someone suggests that totalitarianism, fascism or mass murder is the best course of action I'm not very interested in hearing how he feels about it. It doesn't really matter.

PeakEngineer said...

This is a really good article. You draw an important distinction between end-times cults and a collection of professionals given to careful scientific analysis. Every group has its extremists, and the Peak Oil community is no exception. As acceptance of Peak Oil becomes more mainstream, I think the doomer cultists might move a little more to the sidelines and allow the pragmatic majority the chance to offer the limited solutions we have available.