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The Denial of Peak Oil

Part 1
June 20, 2005

When you teach people about how to learn about/research complex problems, they are usually instructed to follow some version of this process:

(1) identify the process through which social problems are constructed,
(2) identify existence of the social problem,
(3) identify core causes of the social problem,
(4) identify structural solutions to the social problem, and
(5) identify individual actions that contribute to structural solutions.

I guess that's what we here at TOD (and the rest of the PO blogosphere for that matter) are trying to do.

The catch is that this social problem hits really close to home. One of the "core causes of this problem," at least as I see it, is a lack of public awareness or even perhaps mass denial of the coming peak oil phenomenon.

Americans are at various stages of awareness and acceptance of our addiction to oil. Viewed from afar, the range of public attitudes seems remarkably similar to the five stages of grief famously described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, or acceptance. (the Kubler-Ross ideas were initially recorded here by Bob Burnett)

For many of you who have been following this topic prior to or even during the existence of this blog, you’re likely past the point of the initial denial. However, many people are not likely to want to discuss peak oil, or cannot, once they actually hear the peak oil evidence.

Also, as I have discussed before, many people may not want to think about the problem, or may not have the capacity to think about peak oil, because it's just too big. (Believe me, there are some days where it's tough to think about this.)

My first exposure to “peak oil” was on a long overnight drive, flipping through the stations, I stumbled across Matt Savinar on Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM show. Some topics on Art's show are at least interesting enough to keep me awake, so I listened.

I’ll never forget my reaction. “Hooey!” I said. “It can’t be that bad.”

About a week later, I remembered the show and went over to Savinar’s site while bored and read some more.

“Hooey!” “It really can’t be THAT bad.” "If this were true, someone would do something about it."

Then, interestingly, I didn’t hear about or think about a darned thing related to the topic for a while afterwards.

One day, about a month later after reading Savinar, my subconscious must have digested it all. I started thinking about it again. I got angry. I started writing about it on my blog, and I was pissed off.

The process is, of course, different for everyone.

Now it’s a few months later. I’m still not sure whether I am in the bargaining phase or the acceptance phase to be honest. Perhaps I am depressed! But at least I am trying to inform and discuss here at TOD and in my real life.

(This is but part one of a series of posts I am going to be doing on the psychology of threatening situations as it applies to peak oil. I think it's important to understand how the human animal deals with tough information. It's very instructive and important to understand, especially when you're trying to talk to people you care about.)

Part 2
July 20, 2005

In his book, States of Denial, Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, Stanley Cohen argues that the capacity to deny a level of awareness is the normal state of affairs for people in an information-saturated society.

Cohen argues that ‘far from being pushed into accepting reality, people have to be dragged out of reality.’ As I have stated many times, I believe that's what this community needs to do: giving people a nudge, but in a gentle fashion edified by empirical evidence.

According to Cohen’s definition, denial involves a fundamental paradox – that in order to deny something it is necessary at some level to recognize its existence and its moral implications. It is, he says, a state of simultaneously ‘knowing and not-knowing’ something.

This description is well suited to the current social response to peak oil...

The ‘knowledge’ of the problem of peak oil is pretty well-established at all levels of society; the general public (a large percentage of Americans call dependence on foreign oil a serious problem in polls); the scientists (many organizations and scientists from different disciplines attempting to bring attention to the topic); corporations (oil companies, etc.); the financial sector (reports warning of rising demand from China); the many heads of government (regular pious speeches calling for alternative energy sources and a slackening of dependence on foreign oil).

One problem is the integration of all of this information, data, and philosophy. There's a lot of folks coming at this problem from a lot of different perspectives. Those of us in the peak oil community have a leg up on them, we have begun that integration, but even we disagree on the course of the future.

Yet, at another level, our society clearly refuses to recognize the implications of that knowledge. Policymakers surely see the road ahead with oil, but they have not deemed it rational to steer away from the upcoming severe downhill grade with any alacrity.

Individuals, including my friends and family, after they understand the problem, can express grave concern, and then just as quickly block it out, buy a new SUV, turn up the air conditioning, or fly across the world for a holiday without a thought.

Cohen’s analysis of the social responses to human rights abuses finds that the mechanisms of denial are extremely complex and varied. The circumstances that create any historical event are unique and it is unwise to make direct comparisons. However, following Cohen we can draw out certain consistent psychological processes that are highly pertinent to what’s coming with peak oil.

Firstly, we can expect widespread denial when the enormity and nature of the problem are so unprecedented that people have no cultural mechanisms for accepting them. In Beyond Judgment, Primo Levi, seeking to explain the refusal of many European Jews to recognize their impending extermination, quotes an old German adage: ‘Things whose existence is not morally possible cannot exist.’

In the case of peak oil, then, we can intellectually accept the evidence of peak oil, but we find it extremely hard to accept individual or collective responsibility for a problem of such enormity. Indeed, the most powerful evidence of our denial is the failure to even recognize that there is a moral dimension with identifiable perpetrators and victims of the crisis. We know who is at fault here, we see what they are trying to do, and we lack the efficacy and the will to do anything about it.

Secondly, we diffuse our responsibility. Cohen writes at length of the ‘passive bystander effect’ whereby violent crimes can be committed in a crowded street without anyone intervening. Individuals wait for someone else to act and subsume their personal responsibility in the collective responsibility of the group. One notable feature of the bystander effect is that the larger the number of actors the lower the likelihood that any individual person feels capable of taking unilateral action. In times of war and repression, entire communities can become incapacitated. In the case of peak oil we are both bystanders and perpetrators, an internal dissonance that can only intensify our denial and our lack of efficacy in changing the situation.

Psychoanalytic theory contains valuable pointers to the ways that people may try to resolve these internal conflicts; angrily denying the problem outright (psychotic denial), seeking scapegoats (acting out), indulging in deliberately wasteful behavior (reaction formation), projecting their anxiety onto some unrelated but containable problem (displacement), or trying to shut out all information (suppression). As the impacts of oil's peak intensifies we can therefore anticipate that people will willingly collude in creating collective mechanisms of denial along these lines.

It seems likely from many observations of the human condition, however, that suppression will dominate. In South Africa, many white bystanders who intellectually opposed apartheid adopted a passive opposition. They retreated into private life, cut themselves off from the news media, refused to talk politics with friends, and adopted an intense immersion in private diversions such as sport, holidays and families. In Brazil in the 1970s a special term, ‘innerism,’ was coined for the disavowal of the political. Who are the South African whites in the peak oil scenario, eh? Is there a new innerism developing?

Part 3
July 28, 2005

We can also draw on historical experience to anticipate which denial defenses we will adopt when, as will surely happen, we are confronted by our grandchildren demanding to know why we did so little when we knew so much.

We can expect to see denial of knowledge (‘I didn’t know’), denial of our agency (‘I didn’t do it’), denial of personal power (‘I couldn’t do anything’, ‘no one else did anything’), and blaming of others (‘it was the people with the big cars, the Americans, the corporations’). Since Americans are already increasingly reviled around the world, our consumption and resources would seem to be the first target of more sensible regimes to remove or downgrade, would it not?

For activists everywhere, it would appear crucial that an understanding of denial informs campaign strategy. As Cohen says, ‘the distinctions [between different forms of denial] may be irrelevant to the hapless victim, but they do make a difference to educational or political attempts to overcome bystander passivity.’

Most importantly, one conclusion from all of this is that denial cannot simply be countered with information. Indeed, there is plentiful historical evidence that increased information may even intensify the denial. The significance of this cannot be over emphasized.

How many times have I thought about how the peak oil community consists of living relics of Enlightenment faith in the power of knowledge: ‘If only people knew, they would act.’

To this end we dedicate most of their resources to the production of reports or the placement of articles and opinions in the media. As a strategy, so far, it is not working. Opinion polls do not reveal a high level of awareness of “peak oil” itself, but people do know there’s a problem with foreign dependence. There are virtually no signs of any change in behavior. Indeed there are plentiful signs of reactive denial in the demands for cheaper fuel and alternate forms of energy.

A second conclusion is that the lack of visible public response is part of the self-justifying loop that creates the passive bystander effect. ‘Surely,’ people reason, ‘if it really is that serious, someone would be doing something.’ I see little evidence that anyone in wider society is paying any attention, though that may be changing. Are we going to be like the global warming movement, where we have vastly greater information with scarcely any more public action? The bystander loop has only tightened.

People will never spontaneously take action themselves unless they receive social support and the validation of others. Governments in turn will continue to procrastinate until sufficient numbers of people demand a response. To avert further problems will require a degree of social consensus and collective determination normally only seen in war time, and that will require mobilization across all classes and sectors of society.

For all these reasons, the creation of a large and vocal peak oil movement must be an immediate and overarching campaign objective. People will not accept the reality of the problem unless they see that others are engaging in activities that reflect its seriousness. This means they need to be confronted by emotionally charged activities: debate, protest, and meaningful, visible alternatives.

Simply asking people to change their lightbulbs, plant a tree, or send in a donation, however desirable in themselves, will not build a social movement. These activities alone, although valuable, will persuade few to a different form of action that will be viewed, after a while, as irrational...everyone else is doing it, why can't I?

Anyone concerned about this issue faces a unique historical opportunity to break the cycle of denial, and join the handful of people who have already decided to stop being passive bystanders. The last century was marked by self-deception and mass denial.

There is no need for the 21st Century to follow suit.

(NB: this post is adapted and paraphrased (and in some places downright appropriated) from an article by George Marshall in the Ecologist. It originally contained a very interesting take integrating Cohen and a topic similar in many ways to peak oil: global warming (the original post can be found here),

I adapted and modified Marshall's excellent review of Cohen’s book to the peak oil scenario. I have read Cohen’s book a couple of times and this review is quite on point in many places, hence my approach. Any differences between the author's original post and mine are purely my doing.)

Editorial Notes: "Prof. Goose" is the pseudonym for a professor of the social sciences at a large state university. He is one of the two guiding spirits behind The Oil Drum, a prominent blog devoted to Peak Oil. Parts one, two and three of this series can be found here (1), here (2) and here (3). For comments on the series, see the original parts two and three. -BA

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