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Apocalypse always: Is the peak oil movement really just another apocalyptic cult?

Whenever the world's scientists release yet one more piece of evidence pointing to ecological catastrophe in climate or resource depletion, some of those who are historically minded like to say it has ever been thus. For instance, peak oil nemesis Daniel Yergin loves to repeat the idea that "[t]his is not he first time the world has 'run out of oil.' It's more like the fifth." When it comes to global warming, the few remaining skeptics are fond of saying that scientists were predicting a new ice age as recently as the 1970s. More recently, the author of an article in Harper's Magazine entitled "Imagine There's No Oil: Scenes from a Liberal Apocalypse," a piece otherwise sympathetic in its coverage of the peak oil movement, drew parallels between those concerned about an imminent peak in world oil production and apocalyptic cults of the past.

Even though the peak oil movement does share a common bond with those cults in its obsession with dates, perhaps the most compelling comparisons are between the dramatic end-of-the-world scenarios of past cults and the dramatic end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it scenarios of some peak oil adherents.

Still, at its core the peak oil movement is decidedly different from an apocalyptic cult. I am often asked if I believe in peak oil as if it were an article of faith rather than a question of evidence. I respond that I take the possibility seriously because the accumulated evidence demonstrates that oil wells, oil fields and oil-producing countries have and continue to peak and decline in their production. I add that there is no compelling evidence that world oil production will not do the same at some point.

In fact, undergirding the peak oil thesis now are both a large body of scientific evidence and a great number of experts, some of them drawn from the oil industry itself. The basis of this movement then cannot be fairly compared to such movements as the Millerites and the Shakers which at their core relied on revelation, not science. By contrast, accepting peak oil theory doesn't require personal revelation or mere belief, only an evaluation of the publicly available evidence. That's why even peak oil's supposed detractors such as Daniel Yergin can acknowledge that oil is finite and that someday its production will cease to rise and ultimately decline.

Perhaps the one thing which is holding back the peak oil idea from wider acceptance is that some of the data needed to create definitive scenarios for peak are simply not available. Much of the world's oil remains controlled by state oil companies that have no obligation to submit to an audit. The other problem is that oil is not easy to measure because it is underground and because its recovery is dependent on myriad factors that include technology, geology, geography and market prices. This contrasts with climate studies in which no government or corporation can hide the atmosphere or the oceans from eager researchers who want to do measurements. This difference may explain why concern about global warming has been embraced by nearly every informed person on the planet, while the concept of peak oil remains relatively obscure and often dismissed even by many in the environmental movement.

Another distinction between the usual run of apocalyptic cults and the peak oil movement is its diversity. It contains not just end-of-civilization doomsayers, but many who believe that a transition to a sustainable and prosperous society is eminently doable (albeit with considerable effort) and some who believe that the transition to alternative fuels will be brought about by the marketplace. And, while the above-mentioned Harper's article styles peak oil as a "liberal apocalypse," two of the peak oil movement's most prominent spokespersons are Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, a self-described "very conservative Republican," and energy investment banker Matthew Simmons, an advisor to the Bush presidential campaign in 2000.

The label "apocalyptic" is most often intended to be derisory. But even if it applies, those who use it this way may miss something very important about some apocalyptic movements. These movements sometimes spawn great creativity that has ongoing benefits for society at large. For example, even though the Shakers in America never numbered more than perhaps 6,000, their contributions to American society are astonishingly broad and enduring. Their art and architecture continue to inspire designers today. Their craftsmanship, particularly in furniture, commands high prices for original pieces and has led to many reproductions that are still being manufactured today. Inventions such as the flat broom, the circular saw, and the idea of printed packaging used in the sale of seeds are attributed to the Shakers. And, Shaker music lives on, perhaps most notably in the song "Simple Gifts," which has been adapted and arranged again and again.

Even if peak oil production turns out to be decades away, the contributions of the peak oil movement are already manifold. The people involved are forcing a re-evaluation not only of the idea of energy and its sources, but of the very way in which we live. They are creating dialogue on basic questions about what constitutes a good life--questions about excessive consumption, unhealthy lifestyles, and pathological social, political and economic arrangements born of fossil-fuel dependence. Above all, they are sounding the alarm about the unsustainability of our current way of life. And, they are offering concrete solutions to move us toward sustainability in a wide range of areas that are inextricably linked to energy including food production, water resources and climate.

Can those who mock the peak oil movement as apocalyptic honestly say that it's too early to start moving toward sustainability? Do they really think we will be better off if we wait and risk being too late?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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