Sunday, September 16, 2007

Is peak oil a guy thing?

Whenever I am at gatherings involving peak oil, I am always struck by the imbalance between men and women. Three reasons for this come to mind:
  • The peak oil movement draws many of its members from the oil industry which is dominated by men.
  • Peak oil is a highly technical subject which attracts minds from the hard sciences, engineering, mathematics, and the high technology world, all of which continue to be dominated by males.
  • These first two reasons result in many peak oil groups seeming like clubs for men.

While these explanations are undeniably true, there may also be another factor at work. One leader in a peak oil group with whom I spoke recently said that his group found itself split largely along gender lines on one very important issue: How confrontational should the peak oil movement be?

For the men the answer was as confrontational as necessary. By this they meant speaking directly and forcefully at public meetings and gatherings about the need for an urgent response to an approaching peak. It meant dispelling notions that 1) the fixes would be easy and 2) once these fixes were complete, we would be able to return to business as usual. These men feel that their families and community are in grave danger, and it is their responsibility to warn others and to take the steps necessary to protect those families and the community. How could one disagree with that?

But, for the women this approach seemed unnecessarily harsh. Shouldn't the group be emphasizing the positive results of necessary changes? Shouldn't it try to be inclusive and friendly rather than critical or confrontational? In other words, shouldn't the group be trying to put an optimistic face on a necessary transition to make it attractive to as many people as possible in the community?

Strangely, the rift was almost entirely about tactics rather than goals. That rift is exemplified, in part, by two prominent annual peak oil gatherings: The ASPO-USA World Oil Conference and the U. S. Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions, both coming up in October. (Full disclosure: I am a member of both of the organizations behind these conferences.) Last year the ASPO-USA conference was dominated by men, both in the audience and onstage. But what is the mission of ASPO? It is to study and raise awareness of peak oil among policymakers and the public. In essence, it is the truth-telling or prophetic mission outlined by the men in the group I mentioned above. For some reason, many more men are attracted to this mission than women, at least in the peak oil movement.

At the Community Solutions conference last year the ratio of men to women was much more balanced. But as Pat Murphy, executive director of Community Service, Inc. which sponsors the event, explained during that conference, the organization was no longer trying to explain what peak oil is; it had moved on to the question of what concrete actions need to be taken. And so, the Community Solutions conference focused on concrete actions much more so than the ASPO conference. By contrast, ASPO sees itself as a forum for the discussion of peak oil rather than an advocate for specific responses.

So does this mean that men are talkers and women are doers? First, these examples tell us that there is probably a difference in the way most men and most women approach the peak oil issue. But women still show up at the ASPO conference, even onstage, and men show up at the Community Solutions conference in large numbers--still larger than women by my estimation. So, the differences in approach cannot be attributed entirely to gender. Second, talking is a form of doing. A successful post-peak oil transition means large numbers of people will have to be mobilized. That implies a fair amount of talking. But, it is hard to imagine the peak oil message breaking through the everyday cultural hubbub without some stridency. After all, that message is not about an optional lifestyle that one might choose to adopt. It is about necessity. Beyond this, if peak oil is imminent (and by that I mean within the next decade), it would seem almost irresponsible not to insist on the urgency of such a transition.

So, my answer to the question which is the title of this piece is no. By no means is peak oil a guy thing. Nor can it be. Yes, initially the movement appears to have attracted more men than women. But no serious person involved in the movement believes that it can or should stay that way. As the crisis deepens, those focused on spreading the word (whether in a "confrontational" manner or not) and those focused on inclusiveness and the implementation of responses will find that they need each other as much as the world needs to hear and see what both groups have to offer.


Anonymous said...

Even old pop-psychology books like "Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars" will take up the "emotive sharing" versus "problem solving" thing. If I recall correctly the author(s) thought that was a basic difference in world-view.

But. Even if that is true, we have to recognize the role "selling" a world-view plays in status building.

It is a male gambit for position to have a "cause" and to gather people to it. Not to mention, that it can be a good business model.

Compare it to me who sell investment strategies. Their strategies do not need to work, for the selling of them to work, and for the author to gain prestige and position.

Final note, in "Stumbling on Happiness" Gilbert spends a little time on the drive we have to sell our ideas.

Anonymous said...

BTW, I think it is fairly obvious that Peak Oil (in the strict sense of peaking production) will happen. I'm just, after reading The Black Swan, fairly agnostic about how and when.

In my agnostic state of mind I can kind of recognize that the Peak Oil niche-industry would be possible, with or without an immediate threat from Peak Oil.

All it takes is uncertainty, and some good salesmen.

yooper said...

Hello Kurt! Yes, I agree with your analogy. I might add, that above all, security is foremost on women's minds. Perhaps, this might explain, things. When resource depletion becomes an "unavoidable consenquence" perhaps then, may women become more attuned.

odograph, agnostic, about what? Peak Oil? Sure it will happen, it is a limited resource, in my mind's eye. Like you, I'm very agnostic about how it will happen and when...... Any ideas?

Thanks, yooper

Hanley Tucks said...

Women are absent in peak oil groups because the idea that some day, stuff will run out and we'll have to make do is news only to men.

In our various cultures where women run the household, the idea of finite resources is in the "Duh" category.

Anonymous said...

Great article! I think your on track, in my circle of friends, women seem very aware of the mad unbridled gluttony of the world right now. Both men and women are waking up to the fact that we will burn the planet of we let ourselves....

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

I have been reflecting on the gender imbalances in peak oil circles for a while now, and I have concluded that it's not due to genders being from different planets (that argument really bugs the crap out of me). I am a woman, I am both a talker and a doer, I speak to people on a daily basis about the threats facing us, I am preparing my family and trying hard to prepare my community for hard times ahead.

I think the issue can be further clarified by viewing it as an issue of public vs. private spheres. Being a speaker at an event such as conferences given by ASPO or the Community Solution is a public act. Even showing up as someone in the audience is a public act. Speaking one-on-one to people about peak oil, as I do, is a private act and thus much less visible. When I think about it, my actions are largely in the private, "invisible" sphere. I have never been to a peak oil conference, much as I would like to attend-- I can't afford the travel, lodging, conference fees, etc (remember women still have lower financial means than men on the whole); plus I have a 5-month-old baby who would be none too happy about all the travel, hanging out in a strange place, all that. It would also be frustrating for me to scoop her up and run out the door every time she cries so as not to disturb others, because if I were there I would have gone to great lengths to make it happen and I would be depressed about missing half the talks. Also I'm not convinced that I wouldn't get snarky comments about my breastfeeding.

Also, it would be hard for me to take time off from work. Even though I work part-time (the baby comes with me to work- yes I am a supreme multi-tasker) I am badly needed at my small non-profit where I provide administrative and logistical support. And guess which gender usually fills administrative support roles at work, and aren't necessarily encouraged or paid to attend conferences.

I think it is a big mistake to assume that there aren't a lot of women out there worried about peak oil, reading and studying about it, talking to people they know, preparing diligently, and otherwise completely engaged in the issue. The women are here, just much less involved in the public sphere than the private. This is not unique to peak oil; I've seen it happen many times with other issues. Might I even (gasp) suggest that it could have something to do with institutionalized sexism? Women are taught all their lives to avoid the public sphere, and there are significant barriers still in place that tend to make women invisible or unheard (for example, lack of financial resources). Or how about the perception that a man making a strongly-worded speech is bold, but a woman making the same speech is so easily viewed as strident, shrill, "unfeminine"? And do NOT tell me these issues don't exist anymore, that they were vanquished sometime in the 70s. I don't think so. A woman putting her neck out like that is subject to ten times more scrutiny, ridicule, personal attacks, than a man. Despite my attempts to couch peak oil issues in the most rational of terms, to encourage people to apply their critical thinking skills as I have while managing the inevitable psychological reactions of denial, panic, depression, etc-- STILL I have people accusing me of being at the whims of my hormones, just another "hysterical" woman. Every day, even though I know I'm an intelligent, thinking person, even though I have looked at the arguments from many different angles and keep reaching the same conclusions, STILL I have to question myself, am I just crazy? Are those people right? I suspect it's much easier to accuse women of being crazy, and for women to doubt themselves and their own intelligence.

And of course, since I just had a baby a few months ago, obviously I must have left my brain back at the hospital.

Step Back said...

I suspect this is one of those "Fooled by the Randomness" situations.

The real dividing line, IMO, is between people who sweat the technical details and those who don't.

The Peak-Oil awareness groups are predominated by engineers, scientists, in other words-- people who sweat over the technical details. (Matthew Simmons, an investment banker is probably the odd ball out.)

People who don't sweat over the tech-geek details like to leave it to others, leave it to The Market to take care of such things.

A larger proportion of women than men fall into the Don't Sweat category which is why fewer of them bother with Peak Oil (even if they had been alerted to its existence).

Anonymous said...

Jennifer makes some excellent points. So excellent that I can only add one thing - speaking up on peak oil is really sticking your neck out. Even the most staid and respectable peak-oilers from industry backgrounds get accused of being shrill and hysterical - how much worse would it be if they were also female? So women in peak-oil circles expose themselves to a double dose of social opprobrium...

Anonymous said...

Jennifer hit the nail on the head. The majority of women are just plain too damned busy with their families, with the day-to-day running of households balanced with full-time jobs, and preparing for the future, to run around spouting off at conferences. These conferences are useful and ultimately necessary to widen the audience for Peak Oil, but they do smack just a little of self-congratulation and preaching-to-the-choir. We can all talk about this all day long, but what are we going to DO about it?
Where the rubber truly meets the road, (pun intended) is here, on the ground, in the real world of daily life. Don't think for a minute there aren't just as many women as men, if not more even, out here doing what they can to prepare for this coming economic shock, and this includes talking about it with those that we know. If each woman were able to influence just one other person in their lives, we might hit critical mass sooner: this is at the heart of the female "strategy."
And believe it or not, on top of this, some of us are even engineers. Including me.

Doug said...

Women don't want to think about abstract issues such as "peak oil" when they are busy raising children and all that it entails such as taking them to soccer games and shopping malls.

Anonymous said...

Um, Doug, have you bothered to read some of the previous comments? Or maybe comments from women who obviously ARE thinking about "abstract issues" are not enough to convince you that, in fact, women are capable of abstract thought?!

Or perhaps you are too caught up in your abstractions that you are failing to think about peak oil's consequences, which are very much based in concrete reality?

By the way, to equate all mothers with being vapid, consumerist, soccer-obsessed ninnies is silly. Go on, let the stereotype slither away, you'll feel better acknowledging that there are all kinds of mothers, including ones who actually care about peak oil, dislike competitive sports, and shun malls (like me). I want my baby to grow up with self-esteem and a belief that "wealth" is not found in objects you can buy. But mostly I just want her to be able to grow up.

Hanley Tucks said...

Good smackdown, Jennifer :)

I say again: The finiteness of resources is obvious to women because in our culture they're often responsible for making best use of resources (household budget, etc). The finiteness of resources is less obvious to men, who are busy stuffing about speaking abstractly.

People don't go on and on about what's obvious to them. Nobody runs around yelling at the top of their voice that the sun will rise tomorrow and the world is round. The noisy people are those who are feeling doubt, or who have experienced a recent revelation.

Abha said...

NOOOOOOO. It is not "a guy thing." I am female and I am very interested in Peak OIL from the angles of the scientific, social, and political aspects. You are not giving women CREDIT here!

I think people who are interested in facing reality are the ones who are paying attention to the dual issues of peak oil and global warming--it is not at all about gender.

Anonymous said...

In my first comment I put "Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars" in the "pop-psychology" bucket. That means I don't take it too seriously.

But seriously, books like "The Red Queen - Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature" by Matt Ridley take a more nuanced view.

(Though that wasn't really my focus. I wanted to look at why men "sell" peak oil, and if the reasons are always "peak oil." Remember your "Black Swan" there Kurt. People often sell beyond rational prediction.)

Anonymous said...

BTW, those of you who don't know me from other blogs may not know that I drive a Prius, I've replaced my refrigerator, washer, dryer, and oven with higher efficiency models.

I recognize the risk in peak oil, and encourage everyone (individuals and governments) to make reasonable preparations.

I just part ways with doom prophets, who basically "script" a future in violation of all we know about uncertainty and risk. Indeed they too often fall into traps that we know exist in the human psyche when it comes to dealing with uncertain risks.

So drive a Prius, maybe get yourself a bicycle and enjoy the ride. Be prepared and happy. Don't obsess about things that are ultimately unknown.

yooper said...

Kurt, I've been studying resource depletion for over 35 years. A question that comes to me, now and then, from just as many women as men is, "Why must you tell me, I'm going to die?

Could you please answer this for me?

Thanks, yooper.

Kurt Cobb said...

Yooper, please clarify. Of course, we're all going to die sometime. I would say that the message from those concerned about sustainability is more along the lines of: A difficult transition lies ahead and we need to get started.

yooper said...

Ok, Kurt. I will clarify: What we see now, is but a dull image in the mirror."

yooper said...

I'm sorry Kurt, perhaps that was a very unfair question to ask of you...However, if you're bold enough to write of such things, better know what you're talking about......

First and foremost, I very much like your postings! This is "where" it happens to both men and women. Anyone that can read, period. Your site, maybe the first awareness to many, so I must respect this. Sorry odograph!

Natural resource depletion, "peak oil" and the like, is a subject that has been competented for over 50 years.

For anyone, that might want to look what this "deindustrialization" may look like can go to the "Archdruid Report", by John Michael Greer, who I suspect has also been "educated" along these lines, also.

Kurt, I really like your site! I've read almost all your archieves. I'd like to meet you in person perhaps, this early Novemember, when I'm down you're way.

Thanks, yooper.

yooper said...

Perhaps a peak into what I might view how things could unfold might be found on this site: http./www.

To suggest that this will be difficult transition is putting it mildly.

Under this sceniaro, it's being suggested,(under the best case sceniaro), that the average excess average death rate will be 100 million each year for the next 75 years.

Furthermore, the excess deaths are expected to reach 50 million before 2012, by 2017, 150 million, peak at 200 million in 2027, and then tapper.

By 2020 and extending to 2042, 150 million excess deaths will occur each year. That is the population of this country dieing every other year, or for 11 years.........

Anonymous said...

yooper, have you read The Black Swan (by Nassim Nicholas Taleb)?

I wonder how your views would change, or differently, how you would explain your views to someone who has read that bood?