Peak Oil News: Defining the Argument over Peak Oil

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Defining the Argument over Peak Oil


Steven Lagavulin

Of late, the issue of oil depletion has begun to percolate up, both in my own awareness and seemingly also to a slight degree in the larger social awareness. In my view, this is largely because the general assessment of the "Peak Oil" period has gone from being "a decade or so away" to something somewhat more immediate. So what I'd like to address now is what I view as the two emerging "warring camps" that seem to be forming around this issue--such "camps" essentially reflecting only slightly different points of view or attitudes in respect to how the transitional era of oil depletion will play itself out.

The two camps, as I would label them, are the "Hope for the Best" (HftB) camp and the "Prepare for the Worst" (PftW) camp.

These "camps" are ideological in nature, and really only represent tendencies already inherent in all of us--tendencies generally resulting from a whole lifetime of factors which have shaped our particular "World View". In addition, and perhaps its needless to say, these two "camps" are by no means exclusive, and both points of view may exist in each of fact, one may find oneself "shifting camps" over the course of months or even minutes....

So what I'd like to do now is to examine the central features and arguments describing both, and then, as a personal exercise, to outline some views in regard to what I feel is my personal "opposing camp", in an effort to present a more rounded argument for my own inherent point of view.

The "Hope for the Best" View

The central feature of the Hope for the Best camp is a generally positive attitude toward future events. This stems from the confidence that humankind--or at least "their society"--is roughly capable of making the transition away from a fossil-fuel-centric way of life without undue devastation or strife. They believe in the power of individual creativity and ingenuity to pave the way or to provide "answers" to our problems as they come up. They tend to accept that alternative energy sources of some sort will become available.

The positive manifestation of the HftB camp lies in those people who wish to work for change. The negative manifestation lies in those people who cling to a passive "blind faith".

The strength of the HftB camp is their practical work ethic, and their confident spirit. Their foible is their ignorance to "the larger picture" (for example, the precarious nature of complex, inter-related systems; or the conspiratorial, anti-democratic nature of the powerful, elite class).

An important aspect on which this view is predicated is the belief that the coming transition will happen in a relatively smooth, slow, gradual or otherwise "manageable" manner; giving us adequate time to prepare and respond.

The "Prepare for the Worst" View

These are the so-called "doom and gloom"-ers. The central feature of the Prepare for the Worst camp seems to be a belief that what is happening is essentially "out of our hands". The PftW view holds that the problems underpinning the coming crisis are so fundamental and of so large a scale that there is simply no time or possibility to "turn the tanker around". Some PftW's even communicate a mood of "anticipation" about the coming crisis, but this shouldn't be confused with the HftB attitude of confidence or hope, as it is not indicative of any desire to work for a beneficial change.

The positive manifestation of the PftW camp lies in those who wish to "sound the alarm", to wake others up to what is happening, and to educate and prepare them. The negative manifestation lies in those who wish to run for the hills and fend for themselves.

Their strength is their more realistic assessment of human nature and the delicate interrelation of systems and events. Their foible is their "reactionary" tendency (for example, they tend to become more emotionally identified with the situation, and frequently project the course of events to their worst possible conclusions and in the shortest amount of time).

An important aspect on which this view is predicated is the feeling or sense that the crisis simply cannot happen "smoothly" or slowly--that there is too much potential for one or more "triggering events" to occur which would throw us all headlong into the deep end of the pool.

My purpose in describing these only relatively differing viewpoints is simply to try to help readers to recognize the subjective predjudices and "blind-spots" that we all bring with us when we try to comprehend and communicate issues of this magnitude. Because my personal experience is showing me that a lot of important discussion and communication in this field is breaking down, as people begin to confine the conversation to the comfort of their preferred "camps".

I mentioned earlier that the tendency toward accepting either outlook stems from our inherent "World View", developed in a generally mechanical way over the course of our lives. It should therefore perhaps be noted that, because our "World View" is so fundamentally integrated into our general Being, we tend to cling to this view as if it were religious dogma, comparing all new impressions to it to "see how they fit", and oftentimes discarding those impression which do not readily "find a corresponding place" in it. For this reason, it is always a useful exercise, when one is trying to ponder a situation of some importance, to purposefully embrace the opposing viewpoint for a time--in a sincere and interested effort--in order to temper or transform our more conventional, established outlook.

In this light, I'd like to give myself the task of envisioning and outlining a few possible scenarios in which I could acceptably imagine events unfolding in the kind of gradual, "manageable" transition which I presently do not believe will actually happen. Hopefully in this way, I'll open my blinders a little bit when the next person says to me "oh don't be so negative...things will work out just fine, they always do...".

Scenario #1: Cold Water on the Oil Fire

In response to some shocking and undeniable revelation, popular uprisings spring up in America against the central Bush administration figures. Impeachment/Criminal proceedings are rushed through, and riding the sudden shift in political winds against the neo-con agenda, the newly selected President determines to recoup America's goodwill on the world stage via a liberal, open-minded policy platform. As this finds response with the popular "pulse" worldwide, many other world leaders eagerly follow the lead. A long, but sincere, process to "untangle" U.S. interference in foreign affairs begins. A mood of "fiscal constraint" seizes Washington, slowing the fall in U.S. Debt and the Dollar. Consumption becomes "taboo"--a "vulgar" fashion of the last century--and resource conservation, environmentalism, and alternative energies become forefront "trends" in both political, corporate/media, and personal/social affairs. Mother Jones magazine's subscriber base outstrips that of People, and a new hit TV program called The Simple Life airs--but one which has nothing whatsoever to do with Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie....

Scenario #2: Six of One, Half-Dozen of the Other...

The long-overdue economic crash finally unfolds in earnest (pick your favorite of a dozen specific catalysts), and quickly reverberates throughout the world's economies. As the months pass, individual and industrial activity slows or stops altogether, and with it goes the demand for many critical resources (not to mention jobs). Oil exporters begin to lower prices to try to spur market demand, but no-one is building, travelling, manufacturing, etc....however, this does help to keep public transportation costs down. Life is miserable for most, but ad hoc local economies spring up wherever they can. The great migration of peoples begins: cities like Phoenix are all but abandoned, while modern-era "Hoovervilles" spring up around cities on the Mississippi and elsewhere which are supported by arable farmland, barge-traffic, hydro-electric energy and the like. Some folks practice sustainable living, but most just do whatever it takes to get through each day. Oil continues to flow, but generally only for critical uses. Only the most low-tech of the alternative energies and green-systems thrive. Popular revolt somehow manages to thwart neo-con plans to declare "Homeland Emergency" and thereby cancel elections indefinitely (among other things), and the militarist neo-cons are expelled from office. Incoming leaders direct America's sights toward domestic healing, as they reign-in expensive foreign ventures. However, ideals of freedom and democracy are strewn by the wayside, as desperate times call for increasingly desperate actions. The "End of Oil" is nominally delayed for several decades as the Long Depression settles in. But it feels as if it's here.

Scenario #3: Oil Sands

Oil rises to a high enough price that extraction from oil sands, like those in Alberta, becomes practical. It's an environmental mess, but hey...what isn't these days? Or perhaps as I noted in a January story, Troy Hurtubise's FSA 333 is finally proven and adopted by the oil industry. This buys North America, at least, a significant number of years--and more importantly it lessens the need for killing foreign citizens, so the risk of igniting a Global Oil War diminishes. "Peak Oil" quickly falls by the wayside as just another crackpot reactionist theory--like Y2K--and society once again drowses off into sleep. Cutting-edge technologies like robotics, biotechnology, nano-technology, military technology and such are able to develop, taking Humankind's power even farther beyond it's maturity-level. The Dollar collapses, but is quickly rescued by the new "Electronibuck", which promises to raise the Central Banksters "monetary intervention and control" capabilities to vastly more refined levels, making economic "vicissitudes" a thing of the past....

So while none of these scenarios is intended to be an accurate prediction of any kind--and certainly there are many "holes" to these illustrations, and other "side effects" that I haven't tried to take into account--the general task has been helpful to me in opening up new lines of thought. But I'll leave off for now trying to "pin-down" any specific conclusions, and simply let the reader take from this task what you will.


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