Sunday, September 23, 2007

Peak oil conspiracies

We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.
                 --Richard Hofstadter

Ancient peoples often imagined that any calamity natural or otherwise was the work of displeased gods. Today, we are more enlightened. When we suffer misfortunes such as rising energy prices, some of us immediately imagine small secretive groups in high places engaged in elaborate conspiracies.

In fact, it is a good thing to take a skeptical view of those in power. And, one does not have to invent motives of greed or a desire for domination in such people, but only read the headlines. However, it is a particular turn of mind that endows a tiny cabal with fantastical powers to control every major facet of world society. Historian Richard Hofstadter described this mind in his famous essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. It is a style, he admits, which is found elsewhere and which stretches back far in time. It is not limited to those with disturbed minds, but rather expresses itself broadly, especially in societies under stress. And, it is not confined to those who lack intelligence for many very bright people succumb to it. It continually finds new venues for manifesting itself. And so, with oil prices rising in recent years and now reaching all-time highs, one of those new venues is peak oil. (It's worth noting that few were puzzling over such grand oil-related conspiracies when oil hit $10 a barrel in 1999.)

Peak oil conspiracies as outlined on the Internet range from the collaboration of greedy oil companies seeking to maximize their profits to a grand conspiracy of the secret illuminati to impoverish the common people and possibly solve the overpopulation problem by starving much of the world of food and fuel. It is not my purpose here to refute such theories point by point, but rather to show how they fit into the historical pattern outlined by Hofstadter.

One of the characteristics of the modern-day paranoid style is that it believes society has been seized from average folk who must now mount a campaign to take it back "to prevent the final destructive act of subversion" as Hofstadter puts it. (Hofstadter was thinking of the contemporary right of 1964 when the essay appeared, but believed the formula could be applied to any such group.) To quote from The Myth of Peak Oil already cited above:

Publicly available CFR [presumably the Council on Foreign Relations] and Club of Rome strategy manuals from 30 years ago say that a global government needs to control the world population through neo-feudalism by creating artificial scarcity. Now that the social architects have de-industrialized the United States, they are going to blame our economic disintegration on lack of energy supplies.

So we are counseled that unnamed "social architects" have first deindustrialized the United States and now intend to starve the excess population using peak oil as a cover. (It is a puzzle why "global government" would feel it necessary to starve people if the world is awash in resources since this would crash the very economy that gives them and their supporters wealth and power; it's also a puzzle why they would wait 30 years to start doing it if it were really that necessary to their plan--but I promised not to try to parse the logic of such screeds, didn't I?)

Here is a more mild version from Peak Oil is Snake Oil!:

The oil and gas market as currently construed and managed is a manipulated and propagandized marketplace that has enriched the oil companies beyond the wildest dreams of Croesus while the rest of the nation absorbs the ancillary costs and is left to deal with their impact on our society.

I do not here intend to defend the world's oil companies. They are guilty of many misdeeds, and there is credible evidence that they have on occasion tried to use their market power to manipulate prices, especially in the refining market. The point I want to make is that the paranoid style in this case seems to have reverted to an older style described by Hofstadter in which vague, shadowy villains lurk in the background. Here all oil companies are lumped together leaving out the important distinctions between the gargantuan government-owned enterprises that are mostly part of OPEC and therefore explicitly seek to manipulate prices, the publicly traded international oil companies, and the small independents. The authors of The Myth of Peak Oil also refer to "the elite" (who seem to be associated with the CFR or the Club of Rome) as well as "the oil industry," but never go further than this in detailing who is included in the peak oil conspiracy business.

A third characteristic made clear from the examples above is that the danger does not come from without so much as within. It is the product not of an attack, but of a betrayal. The villains are not invading our country; they are already in place.

A fourth element of the supposed conspiracy is that many agents for the conspirators are hard at work. In this case these agents are planting stories about peak oil to keep the public supine while their money or even their lives are taken. The agents include nonprofit organizations such as the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas and other peak oil groups; the International Monetary Fund; vague "establishment-run fake left activist groups;" and even Rolling Stone Magazine for an article it published by James Howard Kunstler adapted from his book, The Long Emergency.

A fifth element is what Hofstadter refers to as the renegade. These are people who have once been part of the conspiracy in some way but have now seen the light. A recent example is a piece entitled Confessions of an "ex" Peak Oil Believer. The author explains his turnabout as follows:

Peak Oil is not our problem. Politics is. Big Oil wants to sustain high oil prices. Dick Cheney and friends are all too willing to assist.

Such revelations give supposed "inside" confirmation of the conspiracy to a skeptical world. And, the conversions themselves provide examples of a path to redemption, an essential feature of conspiracy narratives.

The sixth element is the paranoid style's obsessive concern for evidence. Hofstadter describes it as follows:

One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed. Of course, there are highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow paranoids, as there are likely to be in any political tendency. But respectable paranoid literature not only starts from certain moral commitments that can indeed be justified but also carefully and all but obsessively accumulates "evidence." The difference between this "evidence" and that commonly employed by others is that it seems less a means of entering into normal political controversy than a means of warding off the profane intrusion of the secular political world. The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it.

Perhaps not all who engage in this style do so without expecting to change many minds. But these advocates do often marshal considerable selective evidence which on its face can sound quite convincing. What could be more convincing that peak oil is a fraud than the notion that the Earth is filled with endless amounts of oil deep down (so-called abiotic oil), that Russian scientists have proved this, and that this is the reason Russian President Vladimir Putin didn't want Russian oil companies to fall into Western hands. The West would have acquired technology and know-how that, if kept secret, will make Russia the world's pre-eminent oil power for a century to come.

I will add a seventh element of my own. The peak oil conspiracy theorists can only think in terms of the social world, not the natural world. In this regard they are cornucopians. Therefore, agency must come from the social world. Someone is responsible for what is happening, not something. It is simply not possible that the world is really nearing a peak in oil production. Someone is only making it appear so.

Hofstadter goes on to tell us:

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization.

Perhaps some in the peak oil movement believe we are faced with something similarly apocalyptic. But this apocalypticism is derived not from fears about a giant conspiracy, but rather from the evidence of geological constraints.

I have yet to see a plan of action spelled out by the peak oil conspiracy theorists. Hofstadter sheds some light on why. Those caught up in the paranoid style tend to live outside the give and take of the political process. They regard themselves as having been excluded from it and therefore powerless. I would add that from their position outside the political struggle they conjure up a politics that is merely a forum for conspiracy at the top and delusion among the masses. Since the process itself cannot be trusted, there is no real way to bring one's grievances into the political arena and seek some kind of resolution.

This, however, may be a saving grace. For all the irritation that the peak oil conspiracy theorists may cause those in the peak oil movement, I do not believe the vast majority of these conspiracy theorists will ever leave behind their passivity and actually do something. But unfortunately, they add to the dead weight of inertia that keeps many others from taking the peak oil threat seriously.


Big Gav said...

Nice post Kurt - its good to see someone with a measured take on this subject.

Anonymous said...

Ah, but to what extent does the refrain "oil companies (and oil exporting countries) are all lying (about true reserves)" itself resemble a conspiracy theory?

Anonymous said...

Oh, I forgot another one: "we invaded Iraq because the government knows about Peak Oil, but they aren't ready to admit it."

Anonymous said...

Mr Kurt - you should read Edward Tapamor at Resource he says many of the same items as your good self. Yes to peak oil, no to conspiracy ideas.


Lagos, Nigeria.

Kurt Cobb said...


I think you are confusing systemic incentives with accusations of conspiracy. Oil companies have systemic incentives to exaggerate their reserves because it boosts the stock price and therefore option compensation for executives. But publicly traded ones rarely do this because the fallout can be so severe when they are found out. Witness Shell. When it comes to the national oil companies, we know from the historical record that production quotas for OPEC were being linked to the size of reserves in member countries. This is yet another systemic incentive. There is no need for any secret conspiracy here, only action based on self-interest, something one can ascertain from publicly available information. So, I would say that what you describe doesn't really fit into Hofstadter's paranoid style. People who've looked at the reserve claims of OPEC members question those claims and point out that there is no independent verification of such claims. This just seems like good detective work to me. It does not amount to a claim that they are lying.

Matt Simmons has even suggested a way the question can be cleared up. Simply allow independent auditors access to Saudi and other OPEC fields. This is unlike the paranoid who almost never can tell you how to resolve the situation.

As regards Iraq, it seems strange that you should say that the government doesn't want to admit that there will be a peak in world oil production since the EIA has published scenarios for the peak which are available on the web. And the DOE published the Hirsch report which, of course, is a discussion of mitigation strategies for peak. Of course, the EIA does not predict a nearby peak, but certainly the concept of peak oil is well-known among government policymakers and it not being kept from the public. (The public may be disinterested or incredulous, but that is a separate issue.)

Whether this administration invaded Iraq because of peak oil is probably not knowable. One would have to be able to read minds. We do, however, have the stated motives for the invasion: weapons of mass destruction, evil dictator, etc. But we also have the Carter Doctrine which this administration has not repudiated. I think it is a reasonable inference that oil had a major influence on the decision to go to war with Iraq though, of course, we would have to be mind readers to be absolutely sure.

Anonymous said...

I think it is a clash of cultures, and the "accepted truths" in each.

Peak oilers know the oil companies (and the Saudis) are lying, because that is the only explanation that dovetails with their world-view.

Certainly an average Joe, one less wedded to a philosophy might be suspicious of all "interested parties" and vested interests.

Anonymous said...

BTW, to be clear I'm repeating claims of "they're lying" that I've heard repeated at the Peak Oil sites, in their various comment sections.

It's true, as you say, that people have raised some real questions of uncertainty.

But the thing to watch for is the assumption that uncertainty equals low reserves (or "they're lying").

I think Taleb would have us leave the uncertainty as an uncertainty.

Anonymous said...

Kurt Cobb, you're an idiot.

Anonymous said...

Oh no, watch out. Someone called Kurt an idiot! I imagine it must be one of those conspricy theorists who can't stand painful doses of reality and doesn't have the vocabulary to explain the frustration at being so eliquently called 'an idiot'.

Disagree with him, maybe... Call him an idiot? Obviously he isn't one.

Anonymous said...

I think Taleb would have us leave the uncertainty as an uncertainty.

Oh! Yeah! I see that the little bastard odograph is still at work trying to confuse the issue.
Especially with his favorite bogus "counterintrepretation" of Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan : a black swan is actually a very improbable event that you cannot rely on and is most often highly detrimental, it is NOT a reason to put one's hope in miracles.

Anonymous said...

Peak oil has many faces.
Mexico a country depended on oil, and not just for the energy, but for its money (40% goes to run the goverment) is facing a decline on its production and that is not a conspiracy is a reality. The outcome of this energy decline will hit soo hard Mexico, that this country will be the mirrow for the rest of the world, especialy third world countries.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that either Kurt or I put our faith in miracles.

The question is really whether you can let uncertainty stand, as uncertainty ... without lashing out, for instance, in irrational anger.

(uncertainty favors neither the optimist nor the pessimist. it says they both should limit the certainty of their remarks.)

yooper said...

"Peak oil conspiracies"? Many, many years ago, my instructors hammered again, again and yet again, "What difference does it make "how" it happened? It happened, that is that. How could "conspiracies" play in the matter at hand, in the long run? In other words, so what?

On one hand, if you're trying to convience people, of resource depletion is real, ok, Kurt, I see your agruement. Perhaps, this is not the site for me, I'm way beyond this...

Thanks, yooper.

yooper said...

Now, on the other hand Kurt, if you want to talk about relocation, I may have some deffident ideas about this......Kalmazzo, no, Concord, yes!

guitarbuddy said...

Oh, so we're now supposed to believe that this current Bush administration, with it's long family ties to oil, intelligence, and the military-industrial complex really invaded Iraq just because they wanted to bring democracy to an oppressed country? Please. I'll keep some of my paranoid conspiracies, thank you very much.

Kurt Cobb said...


I am by no means asking people to accept what the Bush Administration or any administration says on its face. Being skeptical of the paranoid style is not the same as being gullible. The Bush ties, junior and senior, to the oil industry and the military and intelligence communities are well-documented. No one needs to make up any facts there. One is certainly allowed to draw inferences, and as you will read above in my previous comment, there is every reason to believe that the Iraq war is in part about oil, especially if we consider the Carter Doctrine that the free flow of Middle East oil is a vital national interest of the United States and that it will respond with all means necessary to defend that flow. One does not need to engage in the paranoid style to arrive at such a conclusion.

What really does fit the paranoid style are claims that an unnamed elite are busy implementing plans for the mass starvation of the human race. People may be starving due to incompetence, drought, bad agricultural trade policy, plant disease and war (where one of the tactics can be to starve your enemy), but there is no evidence that a small group of unspecified people are using the peak oil issue to guide such a policy worldwide, that they could if they wanted to, or that they would if they could.

Anonymous said...

Kurt, I agree with a lot of this last comment, but I think too many people give the Bush administration a "Carter Doctrine" pass on the Iraq invasion.

It's important to remember exactly what that Doctrine was:

"Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."

The key words for me are "any outside force." Bush (or the old Neocon group) went way beyond that. In fact it threw out those constraints. The invasion was not in response to any outside force.

Anonymous said...

Actually the Carter Doctrine struck an interesting balance. It told others (in those days the Soviets) that we would fight for that region. At the same time it told the nations in that region that we were respecting their sovereignty.

Anonymous said...

BTW, as a subtext are you saying that peak oil as a driver of the war is not in the 'paranoid style?'

check this out

Anonymous said...

I feel like I should add a summary. Sorry if my comments go on and on.

We could roughly divide people into those who believe peak oil is soon, and those who think it is later. Amongst those people, on both sides, one can find threads of irrational and paranoid thought.

Your (Kurt) original essay did a good job of identifying irrational/paranoid threads that exist in the "peak later" side. You certainly did not imply that all of the "peak later" folks were buying into conspiracies.

If my first two comments I just threw out some threads of conspiracy that I had seen in the "peak soon" side. This certainly is not to say that all "peak soon" folks are into irrational conspiracies either.

These conspiracies exist on both sides, and cloud the view for everyone.

The thing that holds my interest, I think, is the way the uncertainty holds people's attention, and the (sometimes strange) ways they seek to resolve it.

(case in point, the war might be in some degree about "oil" but it is highly uncertain how much it was about "peak oil.")

Kurt Cobb said...


I would say it is not a particularly paranoid inference to say that Bush Administration officials are aware of peak oil (though we have no public statements explicitly on this point) and that this may have been a consideration in their decision to go to war with Iraq. We cannot know this for sure so we must label it as an inference.

I do think that the paranoid style is in evidence in those who say that peak oil is a false theory (and as a theory it is indeed subject to falsification) but then go on to say that this false theory is being used by a tiny unidentified cabal as an excuse to starve billions in an attempt to control population.

As regards the Carter Doctrine, I never said that the doctrine justified the war. I only said it is the explicit policy of the United States and that the Bush Administration didn't really need to restate it. I must say it puzzles me that they deny the war has anything to do with oil. It is the policy of the United States to intervene militarily in the Middle East when it believes oil supplies are threatened. One could certainly argue that oil supplies were not being threatened, and I would agree with you. However, I have no doubt that someone could mount an argument that the U. S. needed to be pre-emptive about that threat before it materialized. I don't agree with that argument, but surely that must have been part of the thinking of this administration.

Anonymous said...

FWIW, I made an old post on Bacevich’s The New American Militarism, and its chapter, 'blood for oil.'

On the rest ... identifying paranoid conspiracies on the 'no peak' side doesn't disprove them on the 'peak soon' side.

I mean, to really tackle to what extent the 'peak oil movement' falls to conspiracy, we'd have to look at their accepted truths (like "they're lying") and see to what degree they are supported by actual data.

... and not an assumption based on missing data.

Anonymous said...

You state that these paranoids feel excluded from the political process, but to some extent they are, witness the last election, and it is clear that Bush stole it, and what does the media do? They remain silent. Why? People feel excluded because they are lied too, the major media outlets can focus on what they want too, and too often they are afraid to bite the hand that feeds them, not paranoid, just simple economics without a conscience. History is full of examples, and those in power usually manage to retain that power through deception, manipulation, and murder. Too many act like psychotics...truly.
As for the statement that there is no viable plan put forward by these "deviants", many, many want alternate energy to take a great role in providing power. If you look at the subsidies given to oil, and put some of that into alternate energy, it could be a great start.