Sunday, February 19, 2012

How you can tell that the peak oil debate is (almost) over

Protestations in the mainstream media that we need not worry about a peak in the rate of world oil production anytime soon are suddenly coming fast and furious. As a result, I was reminded both of Shakespeare and Gandhi.

"The media doth protest too much," I thought (with apologies to Queen Gertrude in Hamlet). As for Gandhi, a quote commonly attributed to him may shed light on where we are in the peak oil debate: "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win."

So, it appears that we are now in stage three of a four-stage process. This may not be so farfetched as it seems. I can remember when I first began writing regularly about peak oil in 2004. The main problem was that the media was simply ignoring the issue. It just didn't fit any category which the vast majority of reporters recognized.

That was followed by a period of ridicule from oil industry representatives, economists, and a few writers in the trade press, but almost no one in the mainstream media. "Pshaw, pshaw," they seemed to say in chorus, "no sensible person would take the idea of a near-term peak in world oil production seriously." (Never mind that these people mostly misunderstood the problem of peak oil as being one related to the size of the remaining resource rather than the rate of extraction.)

Now we have come to the point where there are open attacks in the mainstream media. Yes, there have been attacks before, mostly in the trade press and on specialized sites and blogs on the Internet. It was more internecine conflict within the industry, narrow professional circles, and the activist community. But that doesn't really count as a public brawl when your true audience is the mass of nonspecialists. Now, we have the equivalent of that with the publication of a major piece in Nature, a respected scientific journal, but one that mere mortals are able to read. The piece in question has the reactionary forces in full attack mode.

An op-ed in The National, an English-language publication in Abu Dhabi, set the bar very low when it comes to facts and logic. Bloomberg Businessweek emitted a piece entitled "Everything You Know About Peak Oil Is Wrong" on the same day the Nature piece appeared--almost as if the writer knew it was coming. The Bloomberg piece trots out mostly tired, irrelevant arguments and a few that are relevant but factually wrong. Gail Tverberg does a good job of critiquing this very sloppy piece. Chris Nelder at Smartplanet takes on the Bloomberg piece as well as a number of poorly argued responses to the Nature article.

But the latest counterattack actually began last fall with Daniel Yergin, the smooth-talking and smooth-writing oil optimist that peak oil activists love to hate. Yergin felt compelled to push back in The Wall Street Journal at peak oil ideas in the course of promoting his new book. Thanks, Mr. Yergin, for bringing up the subject.

Many readers will no doubt be acquainted with the saying: "There is no such thing as bad publicity." This corresponds perfectly with Gandhi's phase three of a struggle. The opposition is now forced by obvious circumstances--i.e., no increase in oil supplies despite years of record prices--to explain away something that peak oil theory explains perfectly.

It may be disheartening to see so much disinformation in the media spewed by people who ought to know better. But it is ever so delicious to contemplate the desperation hiding behind their fretful posturing and incantation. I can almost hear them say, "It can't be so, it can't be simply mustn't!" They seem to believe that if they say "Bakken, Brazil, offshore, tar sands, technology" enough times in a row, it will make $100-a-barrel oil go away. But that incantation will not make the data go away, and so we must keep pointing out that the trend remains flat despite all of those things.

Perhaps the surest sign that the peak oil message is now in fighting form is that the former president of Shell Oil, John Hofmeister, agreed to a debate last week with one of the foremost scientific voices in the peak oil camp. It may be that Hofmeister is just a good, fair-minded citizen who thinks the issue should be aired. But the fact that he chose to give his imprimatur to the notion that peak oil needs to be debated speaks volumes.

Rock-star investors such as T. Boone Pickens and Richard Rainwater have long since put their imprimatur on peak oil. Major banks such as Australia's Macquarie Bank and Germany's Deutsche Bank (PDF) are also embracing the near-term peak thesis. And, embarrassing government leaks like this recent one in Australia and this one from the British government last year demonstrate that behind the scenes government planners and politicians are gravely concerned.

Does that mean that peak oil activists have reached their goal of informing the public and policymakers about the risks and opportunities posed by peak oil? Of course not. This is where the hard work begins because the debate has now been elevated to the national and international stage. And, that means we can look forward to a continuous clash that is increasingly in the public eye.

Now is also the opportune time for a well-financed, coordinated communications strategy (which I proposed here in 2008) that can take advantage of a new media environment more open to the idea of resource constraints.

Far from being discouraged by the rash of peak oil denunciations in the media lately, I am invigorated by it. Remember: we're now on offense; they're on defense. The opposition has to explain why oil production has been flat since 2005 despite high prices. And, the twisted logic and demonstrably false assertions they offer will provide ever better opportunities to trump them again and again.

I have always maintained that when you are in a public dogfight in the media, if you are explaining, you are losing. The peak oil movement now needs to focus on planting doubt about the official cornucopian story. And, the best way to do that is continuously to poke holes in the arguments of the optimists, arguments that can be shown to be ridiculous by combining simple logic with the data that is publicly available.


Mary Logan said...

You make good points, Kurt. I enjoyed going back and reading your 2009 article at The Oil Drum on establishing consensus, and your Four Principles for PR.

Diffusion of change often follows a bell curve of some sort, typically, often with some sort of tipping point thrown in. In this case, however, we're talking about global change in world views, with physical energetic limits coming into play to a world in overshoot. We are at the precipice, and an oil shock would be all it takes to get the herd of slower adopters moving.

Allowing the deniers to frame the problem and the questions is part of the problem. Since we are at the tipping point, it is time to start from assumptions of the need for economic contraction. Start the conversations by making explicit the assumption that diminishing resources for a still-growing system mandates a completely different way of living. A simple cartoon like the one below can make the point very quickly and succinctly.

As you said, keep it short. But I would add, don't take it to the media. Make them come to you. At this point, the media will be late adopters, way behind the eight ball. Let 'em catch up. There is enough science out there that we can get on with adaptation, and they need to just come around to it when they see fit. IMO, the reason that the peak oil community falls into the trap of arguing peak oil endlessly with people like Yergin is that the peak oil folks haven't quite dealt with their own grieving.

We have framed the problem space, and we need to work on solutions. It is way past time to move on, for both camps--actually it is 4 decades past time. We don't need to go back and keep reframing the problem space on someone else's argument?

Robin Datta said...

There may have been the need to debate the geocentrists so as to promote the heliocentric view; even today there are remote tribes that think that the sun goes around the earth, and that mode of thinking has even left its mark on language: we say the sun "rises" or "sets". 

However, the crocodile of reality will chomp down soon enough on those in de Nile. Perhaps raising the alarm may enable a few to escape, and that may be sufficient motivation to shout oneself hoarse. Other than such altruism, there is no need for a debate. 

Rita Strakosha said...

I have opened a site on peak oil and the approach I use is to teach people how to live without oil, energy, consumer goods. That is, how to be self-sufficient in a post-oil world. So, even those who do not believe in peak oil can begin to adapt to the new reality. It is difficult to find detailed information on life without oil and in one place. Most people do not know what they need to do.

Mary Logan said...

@Rita, Wendell Berry said:

"It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey."


"We are going to have to gather up the fragments of knowledge and responsibilities that have been turned over to governments, corporations, and specialists, and put those fragments back together again in our own minds and in our families and household and neighborhoods."

The reunification has to happen in our own minds first, cognitively, but more importantly, emotionally? We are so removed from being People of Nature . . . .

Kim Gyr said...

I wonder whether the surest signs that Peak Oil is about to hit are the huge increase in the anti-democratic moves that the Republican Party has been associated with, from voting ID requirements and calling the President's nationality into question to being close to those who have literally stolen vast sums both from European countries (Iceland, Greece, Portugal, etc.) and from the American people (the Savings and Loan Scandal, Property Bubble, Crash of 2008/Derivatives, etc.), to say nothing of the wars in Iraq, and now potentially Iran!

There have always been crooks in American finance and politics, but it seems that the pace of thievery has recently greatly accelerated. Why, if not for the fact that CEOs have far greater knowledge of the future of petroleum than we do?

Peak Oil has been described in Europe at least for the past 30 years, because that is where I first learned about it. Please view my projects for an eternity without petroleum and coal at
If the components of our genes can be described as having survived all the generations since the beginning of life on this planet until now, had we not better protect them, in the form of children to be born in the Years 12,012 and 1,002,012 by building the world's first 100% sustainable global infrastructure illustrated on my website?

Thank you for all that you are doing!

Mr. Kim Gyr
Director, Green Millennium

Kim Gyr said...

I am a simple product designer, and history shows that you can also make people change in an instant by making something attractive, even if is smaller, for the same money - view our movement to notebook computers and tablets, cell phones and hybrid cars.
So, all that I have tried to do with my Linear Cities is to demonstrate how much healthier people will be, how much better the food will be, and how quickly we must build them if we want our kids to survive!

Dr. Morbius said...

Unfortunately the part that goes "then you win" what?

Jonathan Clanton said...

I think Kim is right. When Republicans try to pass laws which make sure that only registered voters can vote, they demonstrate clearly that the peak oil debate is almost over.

Although Yergin himself is not a Republican, and Leonardo Maugeri is not even a US citizen, it is clear that political motives are driving the denial machine.