As the long somnolent American public began to wake up in large numbers to the dangers of global warming in the past year, those in the peak oil movement looked on in amazement. The first reaction for many might have been, “It’s about time!” The second reaction might have been, “What are we doing wrong? Peak oil should be right up there with global warming in the list of dangers that humanity faces.”
Global warming has reached the so-called tipping point. That doesn’t mean it’s clear sailing from here. The next step–what to do about it–is sure to include one bruising battle after another. But peak oil remains unknown to the vast majority of the public. For why this is so, Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book, The Tipping Point, may offer some insight.
For those who haven’t read the book, Gladwell is studying the anatomy of the “social epidemic.” How do ideas, fashions, new modes of behavior, and other social changes spread in society? He uses the medical epidemiological model as a starting point. Ideas and fashions spread like communicable diseases from one person to another. In short, he analyzes how word-of-mouth can create social change.
Gladwell puts the main movers in this process into three categories: connectors, mavens and salesmen. Connectors are people with large Rolodexes, but who also have worked or volunteered in many different settings. They often bring people together at parties from various walks of life and are constantly referring people to one another. Not surprisingly, they tend to be extroverts.
Mavens are experts. But, their recognized expertise doesn’t necessarily stem from their formal training. Simply stated, they are people found in every community that others look to for advice on a particular topic. Gladwell profiles a Texas business school professor whose maven status comes not from his job, but from his intense interest in anything one might buy. As Gladwell points out, if the professor were a plumber instead, he could acquire the same expertise. This professor knows, for example, how to get the best deals for hotels; why a certain American car provides the same ride and features for far less than a German one; exactly what time of the month to go to the car dealer to buy that car; and what kind of TV to buy and why based on an exhaustive review before buying his own.
One critical trait for mavens, Gladwell says, is that they have an intense desire to be of service to others. This is what makes them important players in spreading new ideas and fashions. But, the mavens are not persuaders. That job falls to the final category, salesmen.
What salesmen (and saleswomen) do, of course, is self-explanatory. Why some are far better at it than others remains something of a mystery. Gladwell discusses research suggesting that so-called cultural microrhythms–the small movements and gestures we make when we encounter and talk with other people–are extremely important. Great salespeople apparently have very compelling microrhythms.
What is obvious from this classification system is that the peak oil movement lacks enough connectors and salespeople. Many of those concerned about peak oil come from technical backgrounds: physics, geology, engineering and computer science. Others may not have formal training in these areas, but have proved adept at assimilating technical information and communicating it. In other words, the peak oil movement has an embarrassment of mavens. This is a great plus, but not enough.
In order for peak oil understanding to reach the tipping point, the world’s connectors need to bring people from the movement into contact with people outside of it and in walks of life far afield from those I’ve already mentioned. More lawyers; more doctors; more school administrators and teachers; more airline pilots and bus drivers; more ministers and therapists; more theater professors and piano teachers; and more shoe salesmen, hairdressers and dentists need to understand the basics of peak oil.
Of course, every movement needs its salespeople, and it isn’t hard to identify great salespeople in any community. Some of them have probably sold you something. But, many of them are not actually in the sales profession. What distinguishes them is that they are very good at persuading their fellow citizens to act.
There are other hurdles which Gladwell points to such as making one’s message “sticky.” And, there are challenges with the peak oil message itself; that message implies a considerable amount of change, change that may not seem positive to many people. But any reframing of the peak oil message will matter only if the right kind of people can be recruited into the service of the peak oil movement in the first place. Finding more connectors and salespeople in our communities and helping them understand what is at stake seems like an important first step.