The origins of peak oil doomerism
People in the Peak Oil movement chafe at the label of doomer, but many of us do have an apocalyptic bent. Although plenty of Peak Oil commentary is sober analysis, a survey of the major websites and books quickly brings up apocalyptic titles like dieoff.org, oilcrash.com, The Death of the Oil Economy, The End of Suburbia, and The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight. Peak Oil writings are sprinkled with predictions that billions will die, civil order will collapse, and even that civilization will end. Scientists, too, aren’t immune. During geologist Ken Deffeyes’s Peak Oil presentations, he displays the words “war,” “famine,” “pestilence,” and “death”—the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The Right, the saying goes, has the Left Behind books, and the Left has Peak Oil. Both predict that the end is near.
After I published an article suggesting that Peak Oil may lead “merely” to widespread unemployment and hardship rather than collapse [Apocalypse, not, April 2006], hundreds wrote to tell me I was a naïve optimist and a cornucopian. A significant part of the Peak Oil community holds the rock-solid sentiment that the only future is one of chaos. While the end of the oil era possesses “death and taxes” certitude, plausible post-peak scenarios span a wide scope. So why is the most touted one the most extreme? Predictions of any stripe, a review will quickly show, are almost always wrong. The future rarely goes in the direction we expect. The certainty of coming doom held by so many made me wonder why we are drawn to societal collapse and our own extinction.
The point of this article is not to argue for or against a Peak Oil collapse—a futile debate that won’t end until we enter that future—or to discuss whether our civilization deserves to continue. Rather, it’s an exploration into why, given an impending crisis or major challenge, many people in our culture spiral so quickly and automatically toward an “end of the world” vision rather than imagining any of the countless other options.
My earliest hypothesis was that a person’s chosen energy future was based more on personality than on data: Given the same information, people I knew to be optimists generally envisioned a positive future, while pessimists descended into doomerism. But in this simplistic reasoning, I was leaving out a growing mass of critiques of civilization itself by authors such as Joseph Tainter, Derrick Jensen, and Daniel Quinn, and others esteemed by many Peak Oil adherents. While these writers argue that civilization is evil, unsustainable, and must collapse, they also posit that human beings deserve something better that can only arise after this culture dies. This death-and-rebirth thinking didn’t fit my “optimist versus pessimist” hypothesis. And seeing how vehemently and urgently people argue for doom-and-gloom—I’ve literally had my lapels grabbed—made me suspect that neither individual psyche nor the cold logic of pure reason was at work here.
I now believe that Peak Oil catastrophism is largely a manifestation of our primary cultural myth: that all things end with suffering, death, and then resurrection. Belief in apocalypse is programmed into western civilization. Given our heritage, “the end is nigh” is the nearly unavoidable personal and collective response to times of uncertainty and rapid change.
Apocalypticism is at the core of the Judeo-Christian social mythology, and it influences our beliefs far more deeply than we are conscious of. I can hear the objections: “I’m not religious—I’ve never even been to church.” But that’s like saying, “I never studied Greece, so ancient Greek culture hasn’t influenced me in any way.” Cultural beliefs are in the air we breathe. We are programmed by our knowledge of mortality and of the natural world, as well as by millennia of myth-telling, to believe that all things, from organisms to businesses to civilizations, progress from birth to a shuddering death and, often, a renewal in new form. As much as the Religious Right’s boast that America is a Christian nation makes liberals uncomfortable, there is some truth to it. From the Declaration of Independence’s “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” and the dollar’s “In God We Trust,” to once-pagan, Christian co-opted Easter egg hunts, Judeo-Christian beliefs saturate our culture. And the idea of apocalypse, that some time soon the End Times will be upon us and all will be transformed, is one of the most fundamental tenets of that system. A look at the history and particulars of apocalypticism will show the truth of that statement, and reveals that Peak Oil catastrophism conforms to our apocalyptic myth in such detail that it is difficult to deny its role.
The archetypal apocalypse story in the West is, of course, that of Jesus of Nazareth. Both his life’s story and his messianic prophecies of Judgment Day reflect oppression, death, and transformation, following the common arc of the apocalypse myth. This trajectory is echoed in the Peak Oil projection of increasing global despoliation and chaos, collapse, and the belief that “after Peak Oil, everything will change.” But this myth has also emerged hundreds of other times in our history. Jesus would have remained one of thousands of minor apocalyptic prophets, all predicting a similar end, if not for the brilliant public relations of Saul of Tarsus and other early Christians. And one of their tactics was to piggy-back onto already existing apocalypse stories.
Apocalypse myths predate Jesus by centuries. Ancient Greece, Persia, and Egypt are their primary birthplaces for the West. In Greek mythology, Zeus destroyed the world several times via flood, fire, and war. In one typical example, Zeus, seeing that humanity had become corrupt, ended the world by flood, sparing only two people to found a new race. And there it is: the basic pattern of apocalypse that’s been followed ever since. Humanity becomes wicked and is destroyed except for an elect, who go on to birth a new world.
Always a Social Context
Most people think of apocalyptic groups as religious sects. Religion and apocalypse are still tightly wedded, especially in the US, where a Gallup Poll reports 75% of the people believe in life after death. But as religion has been replaced with other organizing principles such as science and economics, so too have the reasons for apocalypse. Religious people express their doomsday belief through acts of their deities, but the common feature of apocalyptic belief is not religion. It is a social background of upheaval and anxiety. When times get uncertain, people in Judeo-Christian culture gravitate to the idea that there will be an end to the wickedness and misery through disaster and collapse.
An example is one of the first Western apocalypse stories with a known historical setting, Daniel’s prophetic dream of the world’s end in the biblical Book of Daniel. Here, political and social strife paints the background. This story was written about 165 BCE, during the height of a Jewish revolt. Jews had enjoyed several centuries of peaceful rule under first the Persians and then Ptolemy, but Palestine then fell under a Syrian-Greek tyrant. He trampled on civil and spiritual liberties, and forbade Jewish religious ceremony. The result was the Jewish Maccabean uprising. During this, Daniel dreamed of four beasts, each representing a successive ruler of Palestine, in which the final beast would “devour the earth . . . and break it in pieces.” This rapacious empire would then be overthrown, and only Israel would be saved. Nearly every subsequent example of apocalyptic belief occurs in a similar social context of upheaval, oppression, and alienation.
The hallucinatory Book of Revelation is the best-known apocalyptic text, but early Christians and Jews had many other books for solace in difficult times. The first-century books of Ezra and Baruch, excluded from the Bible, tell of a time of terrible hardship and injustice, symbolized by the wrath of a devouring eagle. The eagle was the well-known emblem of the Roman Empire, which held Christians and many Jews under brutal repression at the time these books were written. This empire, it was prophesied, would soon be destroyed by a mighty warrior, and all those who collaborated in the empire’s rule would die.
A later set of end-times texts, known as the Sibylline books, first appeared in the fourth century after the death of Emperor Constantine, when rule of the failing Roman Empire was contested by his two surviving sons, Constans and Constantius II. Constans, who favored the Nicene version of Christianity that is common today, was murdered by his brother. The Sibylline books mirror the fearful response of Catholics to this killing and reversal for their beliefs, and tell of a time of tyrants who oppress the poor and enrich the guilty. The books say a new leader will appear and destroy the heathens and their temples. A similar set of Sibylline books appeared when Syrian Christians suffered under Moslem rule in the seventh century. In all these cases, people hoped for the end of social disorder through catastrophe.
Countless other apocalyptic movements arose in similar contexts of confusion and oppression. In 13th century Germany, Frederick II was enmeshed in bitter conflict with the Pope, claiming that the Church was irredeemably corrupt. During this clash, Joachin of Fiore arose as a prophet to preach of approaching last days when the Church would be destroyed, choosing 1260 as the date of its collapse. Later, in the reign of the singularly ineffective Frederick III, when the gap between rich and poor grew enormous, and lawless nobles extorted the populace, the Bohemian Wirsburg brothers attracted thousands who believed the final days would come in 1467. Apocalyptic cults arise, it seems, in a context of oppression, uncertainly, and corruption. And in most cases, the subsequent destruction of the wicked was to be followed by floods, storms, and plagues that would decimate mankind, reminiscent of claims that global warming and ecosystem collapse will come on the heels of Peak Oil, as if one calamity isn’t enough.
Some may argue that the old apocalypts spoke of destruction brought by supernatural powers, while the end times we face now stem from scientifically proven sources such as ecological damage and resource depletion. But this, too, follows the trend of constant updating and modernization of the Last Days myths to suit the times. In biblical times the apocalypse was brought by a god. In the early centuries of the common era, human warrior-leaders were the destructive force,. In the late Middle Ages, during a major migration of peasant farm-workers toward urban centers caused by the rising textile industry, it was not a god or prophet, but the fury of the newly empowered laborers in the Jacquerie rebellion of 1356 and others that was predicted to bring down the nobility. The reasons for apocalypse are constantly evolving.
The Modern Doomsday
America is perhaps the most apocalypse-believing nation on Earth. It was so from the beginning, even before the stormy death-rebirth cycle of the American Revolution. After Christopher Columbus’s third journey to the New World, he began signing his letters “Christ-carrier” and wrote that the world would end in 1650.
America’s apocalyptic tendencies peak in hard times. In the 1830s, the rise of the anti-slavery movement coincided with a resurgence of doomsday sects and prophets. William Miller, an abolitionist minister with 50,000 followers and perhaps a million more sympathetic to his message, predicted that Judgement Day would arrive on October 14, 1844. After that date, his movement collapsed. But the abolitionists and their foes, as their acts became more violent, continued to invoke end-times rhetoric in their arguments. Slavery was seen, with good reason, as having the potential to destroy the nation.
In recent centuries, people’s lives have become less occupied by piety and the church, and more oriented toward technology and economics. So too have the causes and results of the apocalypse. In the 16th century, astrology was the favored method of predicting the future, marking early stirrings of the scientific view. The newly improved methods of planetary observation were conscripted by catastrophists. In the 1530s, French astrologer Pierre Turrel used four different methods to calculate final dates of 1537, 1544, 1801, and 1814. Astrologer Richard Harvey marked the end as 1583, during a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.
The newly refined sciences were enlisted to prove the end was near. In 1578, physician Helisaeus Roeslin of Alsace used observations of a nova visible in 1572 to foretell a final date of 1654. In 1688, John Napier, inventor of the logarithm, made his first doomsday calculation based on a mathematical analysis of the Book of Revelation. The 19th-century astronomer Charles Piazzi Smith used the dimensions of the Great Pyramid to prove that the world would end between 1892 and 1911. The date December 17, 1919 was chosen by meteorologist Allbert Porta, when six planets would enter conjunction, creating a magnetic force that would, this scientist wrote, “pierce the sun, cause great explosions of flaming gas, and eventually engulf the Earth.” The result was not world’s end, but panic and waves of suicide on that date. David Berg, leader of the Family of Love, predicted that Comet Kohoutek would destroy the planet in 1974. A few of the dozens of other “scientifically verified” causes of world’s end were a planetary alignment in 1982, comet Schoemaker-Levy 9’s 1994 collision with Jupiter, and of course, Y2k. As science has replaced God as our source of certainty and faith, so have our myriad predictions of apocalypse become more rationally defensible.
The doomer Peak Oil scenario also replicates the final phase of the apocalypse story: that of rebirth after the collapse. Richard Heinberg, in a speech to the E. F. Schumacher society, said that after the peak, we will return to a more agrarian way of life, when “we actually regain much of what we have lost.” He and others envision a future with far fewer people, many of them living rurally and raising most of their own food using permaculture and bio-intensive gardening. Some argue that post-peak, only those with primitive skills such as tanning and flint-knapping will survive. Suburban drones will die. So after the collapse, we follow the myth’s final trajectory into the survival of an elect, and a rebirth in the Garden and simpler times.
Again, my point here is not that Peak Oil doomerism is wrong. The apocalypts may, for the first time in thousands of predictions, be right. We face enormous crises and we have the tools to end civilization. But remember, as you feel yourself drawn to the apocalyptic story, that it is the natural place to go in uncertain and dangerous times. We are culturally programmed to do it. Whether we are describing first-century Christians who were threatened with death for their beliefs, 14th-century weavers whose jobs were being automated and outsourced out of existence, or oil addicts about to tumble down Hubbert’s Curve, people who take the apocalyptic view often have good reason to believe they are in mortal danger. The source of the threat varies—an angry god, a brutal empire, a class struggle, or resource depletion—but the response has remained the same over the millennia. The path to “end of the world” thinking is well trod, most heavily so in times of oppression, uncertainty, and corruption. But perhaps some of us can recognize how familiar is this dark road, resist the natural urge to repeat the story once more, and remember that there are many routes into the future other than the one toward the lowest common denominator.
Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium. Oxford University Press, 1970
Gallup, George Jr., and Jim Castelli. The People’s Religion: American Faith in the 90s. Macmillan, 1989.
Strozier, Charles. Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America. Beacon Press, 1994.
Weber, Eugen. Apocalypses. Harvard University Press, 1999.
Copyright 2006 by Toby Hemenway
Toby Hemenway is the author of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, and offers design workshops this winter in Belize and other locations. Visit him at patternliteracy.com
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