Sunday, June 10, 2007

The official story: A lesson in how to undermine it

It is now the official story in the United States that there is plenty of energy to be had in the world; it's just that energy that comes in the form of petroleum is mostly in the wrong hands, namely, OPEC-member regimes that hate us. So, now the quest is for an ever-elusive energy independence that currently involves massive subsidies to ethanol makers, soon-to-be-massive subsidies to would-be coal-to-liquids makers, imports of oil made from Canadian tar sands, oil shale, new nuclear power plants, liquified natural gas imports, and offshore drilling. There are also preposterous, but widely believed claims about the possibility of a hydrogen economy. (For a brief and intelligent explanation about why it is very unlikely to happen, read this.) The energy independence story appeals to a deeply held belief in American life: Good old American ingenuity can solve any problem.

For those concerned about world peak oil production (and peak natural gas and coal, for that matter), none of the above responses seem adequate or, in some cases, entirely ethical, especially with regard to environmental effects such as global warming. The problems with such responses have been detailed again and again on the web, in specialized publications, and in many places in the mainstream media. If this is the case, how come the peak oil story and the many warnings about such responses to our energy challenges aren't center stage in the American consciousness? There are plenty of reasons, but I propose to discuss what I think is a critical one: The peak oil movement has been focused mainly on selling a new narrative to the public without first dislodging the existing one. As long as people have faith in the existing official story about achieving American "energy independence" within the framework of a cornucopian future, it will be almost impossible to sell them on another story no matter how carefully constructed and supported.

Let me dwell for a few moments on the astonishing success of the so-called 911 truth movement. In discussing its success, I make no claims whatsoever about the validity of the movement's conclusions. I am simply interested here in understanding why it has succeeded in convincing more than one third of Americans that "federal officials assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East." In addition, 16 percent of those surveyed said that "it's 'very likely' or 'somewhat likely' that 'the collapse of the twin towers in New York was aided by explosives secretly planted in the two buildings.'" (Imagine, for a moment, where the peak oil movement would be if a third of all Americans felt that world peak oil production was, say, likely to happen within the next decade and likely to have very serious consequences.)

Given that very few of the 911 truth movement's contentions have been widely reported by mainstream sources--and when they are they are usually ridiculed--how can we account for this success? I don't believe all of it can be attributed to the power of the Internet. The peak oil movement also has a wide-ranging and intelligent Internet presence, but has not broken through in a similar way. I think we can account for the 911 truth movement's success by looking at the focus of its campaign.

That focus surprisingly has not been on replacing the official 911 story as exemplified by the 911 Commission Report, but rather on discrediting it. The strategy has been to raise as many questions as possible about the official version of events. In fact, alternative theories of the 911 attack range from careless neglect by the Bush Administration of warnings about possible terrorist threats all the way to active participation at the highest levels of the U. S. government in planning the attacks. No single narrative has been widely adopted by those who disbelieve the official story. What this shows is that a coherent alternative narrative is not needed in order to discredit an official account. All one needs is a relentless attack on the credibility of the official story.

By contrast, those in the peak oil movement generally start a conversation about oil depletion with an attempt to explain Hubbert's Peak. It is a laudable impulse to want to educate people with all the facts. But it is not necessarily the most efficient way to sway a mass audience. Keep in mind that many of those proposing the solutions outlined in the first paragraph of this piece do not dispute peak oil theory. When confronted with the Hubbert Curve, they will quite confidently respond, "Yeah, we know all about peak oil. And, the solutions are already being perfected: biofuels, coal-to-liquids, tar sands, oil shale, offshore drilling, imported LNG, electrically powered transport from new nuclear power and so on." The challenge isn't to convince people that we have a problem with oil. People know we have a problem with oil. The challenge is to convince them that we don't have the solutions, at least not ones that will allow us to go on living the way we are now.

Fortunately, the peak oil movement has a mountain of evidence with which to discredit the official story. Less fortunately, there is no single official government panel or report to focus on. About the closest thing we have in that regard is the U. S. Energy Information Administration reference case for peak oil which projects its occurrence in 2037. But, in reality, the official story is a disparate set of assumptions drawn from many areas including 1) the American historical experience (for example, winning World War II and resuming business as usual after the oil shocks of the 1970s); 2) the cornucopian ideological backlash led by people such as Julian Simon; 3) the relentless infiltration of neoclassical economics into popular discourse, particularly notions of substitutability; 4) continuing technological progress in many highly visible areas such as medicine and electronics; 5) the combination of the Gulf War, Iraq War and the 911 attacks which have brought into focus American dependence on oil imports; 6) the highly publicized boom in biofuels; and 7) the heavily hyped promise of hydrogen cars.

This makes it more difficult, but not impossible, to mount a campaign to discredit bogus solutions for addressing energy depletion. However, it is not necessary to demolish every single argument supporting a seamless transition to a cornucopian future. It is only necessary to begin by calling into question some of those arguments in order to start the process of undermining the official story. Questions lead to more questions which lead to openness to an alternative narrative about the future of society and the planet.

Again, fortunately, the peak oil movement does have a coherent alternative narrative about the direction society should go, and that narrative is complete with action plans. That narrative generally includes emphasis on efficiency; conservation; relocalization of nearly every aspect of our lives; genuinely sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar; public transportation; compact development; redevelopment of cities; small-scale, low-input agriculture; and many other specifics. Entire communities are moving ahead to implement these ideas in places such as Willits, California and Kinsale, Ireland.

By contrast the 911 truth movement does not appear to offer a coherent narrative or plan of action. Perhaps individual members of the movement are working to impeach President Bush or to encourage more official investigations or to create political change through elections. But, there appears to be neither a guiding template for action nor a clear description of what the world would look like if it were run the way those in the 911 truth movement would like it to be run.

I count it a huge plus that the peak oil movement has been able to outline a vision of a sustainable future and even more, begun to implement it. But my years doing advertising and public relations work tell me that the movement could do a lot better in advancing its cause. One of the unfortunate rules of thumb of the public relations business is this: If you're explaining, you're losing. Those in the peak oil movement are all too happy to provide endlessly detailed explanations about peak oil and responses to it. Kudos to those who have informed themselves so well and are good at articulating their knowledge.

But before most people will be able to hear the peak oil movement's narrative, they will have to develop doubts about the official story. Naturally, the peak oil movement will get some help from events. Recent high gasoline prices have caused people to seek explanations. But we cannot wait for events to do the work for us. As most of those familiar with peak oil already know, by the time peak arrives (and let's hope that those who think it already has are wrong), it will be too late to avoid very unpleasant consequences.

So, my suggestion is to focus on questioning the current official narrative of technological advancement, alternative fuels and new sources of oil that will supposedly lead to a seamless energy transition. It may somehow seem not quite right to tailor one's approach to fit a public that is confused by detailed explanations and often even suspicious of them. But my experience tells me that the peak oil movement will make much faster progress if it puts more emphasis on questioning those spouting the official story, thereby forcing them to come up with the detailed explanations. Those explanations will only reveal more flaws in their arguments which can lead to further questions. Such explanations will fatigue the public which has a short attention span and is inclined to put more emphasis on the questions than the answers. Pursuing this strategy means, of necessity, being ready with plenty of disquieting follow-up questions.

Once a large enough portion of the public begins to question the official narrative, I am confident that the peak oil movement will be able to present an alternative narrative that is clear, coherent, and principled enough to be accepted. But until the tipping point arrives, I think the entire movement would be well served by focusing a larger portion of its effort on propagating questions about the official story. To that end, I list 10 questions below that I think may be useful for this purpose, and I invite readers to list many more in the comments.


10 questions to challenge the official story
  1. How do you explain the sudden 50 to 100 percent gains in the oil reserves of many OPEC countries in the mid-1980s?

  2. How do we know the oil reserves claimed by many OPEC countries--over 60 percent of the world's reserves--are even there since those countries won't allow an independent audit?

  3. How many coal-to-liquids plants are there in the world today? Why so few?

  4. How many commercial oil shale plants are now producing oil in the world today? How many are planned?

  5. Does anybody know how much uranium is available using current technology and extraction techniques? If there are figures, who compiles them and how can we be sure they are reliable?

  6. Why have past oil price predictions by major forecasters including the U. S. government turned out to be so wrong? If they missed developments such as the tremendous growth in oil demand in China and India, isn't it possible that current optimistic forecasts by some forecasters about greater oil supply and lower prices in the future could be wrong?

  7. The United States now expends 1 unit of energy to get 39 units to run the non-energy economy. Can you explain how our society will function if we move to biofuels such as corn ethanol that would require us to expend at least 15 units of energy for every 9 delivered to the non-energy economy? (This assumes, of course, that we accept the U. S. Department of Energy's very generous estimate that corn ethanol has an energy profit ratio of 1.6 to 1. Lowering it to 1.2 to would mean we'd need 45 units of energy for every 9 delivered to the non-energy economy. Some researchers such as David Pimentel say the energy profit ratio is less than 1, making ethanol an energy sink.)

  8. If we have to use other energy sources to extract hydrogen to fuel a hydrogen economy, why not just use those other energy sources directly? Wouldn't that be more efficient?

  9. Even if world peak oil production is many years away, why wouldn't it be a good idea to start getting ready now? (This question is often useful if paired with question 10.)

  10. Haven't you heard of the Hirsch Report commissioned by the U. S. Department of Energy which calls for a crash program to get ready for peak oil?

Please note that in posing these questions I am not trying to be internally consistent; that is, I'm not trying to make a case for a coherent alternative path. I am merely trying to get people to ask questions about the official story so as to open them up to an alternative narrative. I look forward to readers' suggestions for additional questions.


Anonymous said...

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Unknown said...

Great article. Thanks. You suggestion to question the official line is excellent. I've been one of the primary organizers and managers of the American Energy Security Study. Management Information Services, Inc., that did much of the work on the referenced Hirsch Report, played a leading role in the AES study. Our study focused on the definition of the problem, and on solutions. Perhaps we should have spent more time planting seeds of doubt. Thanks again and best.

Jim Mayer
A. J. Mayer International
an operating unit of Live Free, Inc.
6672 Baltimore Pike
Littlestown, PA 17340
Tel: 717-359-0693 (direct line) <> Cell: 410-259-9247 <> Fax: 717-359-0220 said...

Saw this article on EnergyBulletin. I wholeheartedly second Jamesmayer. Excellent comparison with 911 Truth.

As a peak oil pessimist, I certainly hope I'm wrong, and that alternative fuels can be developed & scaled quickly enough (I sincerely wish Ronny the best of luck).

Hesperides Organica said...

Brilliant piece!

Perhaps, the first question might be:

"The EIA states that peak oil will occur by 2037. But what if they are wrong and it is happening now? Might this be the reason that the price of oil has more than doubled?"

Second question:

"How many years are required to prepare for a smooth transition to peak oil according the US Dept of Energy's report on peak oil published in Feb. 2005 also called the Hirsch Report?"

Colin Wright said...

That narrative generally includes emphasis on efficiency; conservation; relocalization of nearly every aspect of our lives; genuinely sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar; public transportation; compact development; redevelopment of cities; small-scale, low-input agriculture; and many other specifics

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Colin Wright said...

I've been a long-time admirer of your writing. Intriguing piece. Here's a "seed" that comes to mind:

Why are we still in Iraq, if not for WMD's?

One minor suggestion. I love this laundry list you give: "That narrative generally includes emphasis on efficiency; conservation; relocalization of nearly every aspect of our lives; genuinely sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar; public transportation; compact development; redevelopment of cities; small-scale, low-input agriculture; and many other specifics"

But I would try to add "low-input maunfacturing, after reading the perspective of Jon Rynn. Worth a look at, I think.

Anonymous said...

One of the important things about the "9/11 truth movement" is that people were already primed to distrust the US security services. There are probably more people who think that the CIA shot JFK than there are people who even know what the EIA is. The well was already poisoned well in advance.

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Robin P Clarke said...
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Robin P Clarke said...

I'd be more inclined to start off as follows:

1. Would you agree that politicians just about always choose the short-term easy options in preference to the long-term better options?
2. Would you agree that after decades of that short-termism, some rather interesting negatives would be expected to arise?
3. Would you expect today's politicians to honestly tell you if some worrying things were now about to happen as a result?
4. Would you agree that the editors of TV and the rest of mass media get a lot of their income from big business advertisers?
5. Doesn't this suggest that their job security depends on keeping those advertisers happy?
6. So would you expect them to tell you something that those big businesses want you to remain ignorant about?
7. [etc]

wikilover said...

The link for the Hirsch Report appears broken (at least at this instant in time), here's an alternative:

Anonymous said...

I agree with Kurt Cobb's premise that lecturing people fails whereas asking targetted questions makes them think.

But the comparison with 911 is miles out apart from that. The 911 "truthers" have a very simple alternative which everyone grasps without it needing to be stated: "the 911 attack was a hoax to justify counter-terrorism and or an illegal war".
By contrast there is not a self-raising equivalent along the lines of "the assertions of no energy crisis are a hoax to ...[errm?]...". There aren't even any remotely prominent assertions of no energy crisis to be challenged. And it's far from obvious what motive there would be for false assertions. So it's no wonder they aren't disbelieved. They aren't even on the agenda.
Robin P Clarke