Perhaps the most widely heard response to the peak oil argument is that the world has lots of oil left. To those who understand the peak oil problem, this is a non sequitur. The typical counterargument begins with “Yes, but…” followed by a lengthy disquisition on the difference between stocks and flows of a resource, the geology of oil wells, and the various types of oil.
Often what the listener thinks he or she hears is that the cornucopian thinkers are right. But, less often does the listener understand enough to take the problem seriously.
Herein lies a critical communications problem. Perhaps the most crucial argument to the peak oil debate–that there is a huge difference between how much of a resource is theoretically available on planet Earth and how rapidly we can extract it–is too difficult to explain the way we have been explaining it. Perhaps we need some new approaches for explaining this and other aspects of peak oil.
To start let’s look at the obstacles we face. First, the public wants to believe that men (and it is mostly men) in nice suits with PhDs and expertise in the oil business know what they are talking about. And, it wants to believe that the government’s experts wouldn’t overlook something as important as oil supplies; and sure enough, those private and government experts predict that all will be well for at least three decades.
Second, most of the public believes that even if something is increasingly difficult to do–for instance, pull oil out of the Earth’s crust–technology will find a way to overcome the difficulty.
Third, the public has been largely conditioned to believe that technology will find substitutes for oil, introduce them over time, and provide a more or less seamless transition to a new energy economy.
Fourth, most people want to believe all is well because that belief is the most convenient one for the lives they now lead. Most people do not regard change, especially radical change, as good.
Fifth, most people find that the vast majority of those around them seem unconcerned about peak oil. This is an extremely powerful influence. People will ask themselves, “If this is such a critical problem, why do so few people seem alarmed?” (What’s missing in their thinking, of course, is that this lack of concern could be the result of so few people knowing anything about peak oil.)
Trying to make progress against these assumptions and the mindset that goes with them seems insuperable. But, those who grasp the peak oil problem usually feel that they must at least try.
Let’s take each obstacle in turn. First, it’s tempting to trash such “men in suits” as Daniel Yergin. I’ve done it myself. But turning what is arguably one the most critical issues we now face into a discussion of personalities and questionable motives may only confuse any newcomer to the issue. Peak oil and its ramifications are a highly complex story. It is difficult for most people to come to an informed opinion about that story quickly.
And, rather than attempt a comprehensive explanation of, say, stocks and flows as mentioned above, the aim I think at first should be to plant doubts about the “official story.” Discuss a few key problems such as phantom, unverified reserves in the Middle East; rapid unforeseen declines in North Sea oil production; and falling new discoveries. This opens up avenues of inquiry for listeners. What those listeners subsequently discover on their own has much more impact than anything they are force-fed. Pressing the peak oil issue too hard will inevitably create resistance.
Second, it’s hard to refute the notion that technology will solve our energy problems. Those who lived through the previous oil crises learned that oil crises pass and oil prices fall. New efficiencies supposedly solved those crises, and they will solve the next one. That bit of learning will someday turn out to be a poor guide. But most people tend to extrapolate the recent past into the future. Trying to make complex arguments about energy technologies that have failed to advance as predicted–fusion energy comes to mind–will probably only confuse a newcomer.
Third, the notion that the marketplace will allow substitutes for oil to emerge and provide a seamless transition to a new energy economy seems to be already validating itself in the form of ethanol and biodiesel production. Talk of hydrogen and liquid fuel from coal is everywhere in the news. I can find no shortcut to respond to the misleading media coverage surrounding these developments. Responding implies the enormous task of creating energy literacy among the public. Such concepts as net energy are as critical to public understanding as they are alien to the public mind. Explaining the implications of exponential growth is a must. Perhaps to start we can reduce these ideas to a couple of sentences: 1) It takes energy to get energy and 2) the economy cannot grow larger than the Earth. But we are still obliged to elaborate. When it comes to energy literary, slogans, in my view, simply won’t get it.
Fourth, the fact that people want to believe things that will allow them to continue living as they now live is perhaps the most difficult obstacle to overcome. This behavior is not based on evidence and can run completely contrary to the evidence. Besides this, catastrophic, world-changing discontinuities don’t come along very often, at least not for everyone at once. My first suggestion is to be careful about definitive and exacting predictions. No one knows the future. To say this is to say also that the so-called experts, the “men in suits,” don’t know it either.
Here the opportunity is to talk about risks. We routinely insure against risks of all kinds, even ones that are very rare such as house fires. We do this because of the severity rather than the frequency of such events. Peak oil falls into this category because its consequences could be very severe. We don’t know how severe and we don’t know exactly when it will come. But, wouldn’t it be a good idea to take out some insurance, just to be safe? This is a line of argument that can help people relate to something they already know and can help them see a response in the context of how they address risk in their everyday lives.
Fifth, the fact that few people are concerned about something doesn’t mean it’s not important. Critical issues are not the same as fashionable issues. Big problems almost always start out small or at least start out poorly understood. AIDS, when it first appeared in the United States, seemed like a problem largely confined to a small segment of the gay population. Before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, the issue of toxic substances in the environment was almost completely absent from public discussion.
Obviously, as the peak oil issue makes more headway in the mainstream media, the feeling that it can’t really be important will start to fade. But, for now you might invite people into awareness of peak oil by admitting that very few people understand it. I’m sorry to say that people like to believe they are joining an exclusive club, and right now, those who understand the implications of peak oil constitute a club that remains far too exclusive.
None of this is meant to be the final word on what to say after you say, “Yes, but…” Rather, it is merely an attempt to suggest some possible approaches and to elicit comments on how to spread the word about peak oil effectively.
I eagerly await your feedback.