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Is peak oil a guy thing?

Whenever I am at gatherings involving peak oil, I am always struck by the imbalance between men and women. Three reasons for this come to mind:

  • The peak oil movement draws many of its members from the oil industry which is dominated by men.
  • Peak oil is a highly technical subject which attracts minds from the hard sciences, engineering, mathematics, and the high technology world, all of which continue to be dominated by males.
  • These first two reasons result in many peak oil groups seeming like clubs for men.

While these explanations are undeniably true, there may also be another factor at work. One leader in a peak oil group with whom I spoke recently said that his group found itself split largely along gender lines on one very important issue: How confrontational should the peak oil movement be?

For the men the answer was as confrontational as necessary. By this they meant speaking directly and forcefully at public meetings and gatherings about the need for an urgent response to an approaching peak. It meant dispelling notions that 1) the fixes would be easy and 2) once these fixes were complete, we would be able to return to business as usual. These men feel that their families and community are in grave danger, and it is their responsibility to warn others and to take the steps necessary to protect those families and the community. How could one disagree with that?

But, for the women this approach seemed unnecessarily harsh. Shouldn't the group be emphasizing the positive results of necessary changes? Shouldn't it try to be inclusive and friendly rather than critical or confrontational? In other words, shouldn't the group be trying to put an optimistic face on a necessary transition to make it attractive to as many people as possible in the community?

Strangely, the rift was almost entirely about tactics rather than goals. That rift is exemplified, in part, by two prominent annual peak oil gatherings: The ASPO-USA World Oil Conference and the U. S. Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions, both coming up in October. (Full disclosure: I am a member of both of the organizations behind these conferences.) Last year the ASPO-USA conference was dominated by men, both in the audience and onstage. But what is the mission of ASPO? It is to study and raise awareness of peak oil among policymakers and the public. In essence, it is the truth-telling or prophetic mission outlined by the men in the group I mentioned above. For some reason, many more men are attracted to this mission than women, at least in the peak oil movement.

At the Community Solutions conference last year the ratio of men to women was much more balanced. But as Pat Murphy, executive director of Community Service, Inc. which sponsors the event, explained during that conference, the organization was no longer trying to explain what peak oil is; it had moved on to the question of what concrete actions need to be taken. And so, the Community Solutions conference focused on concrete actions much more so than the ASPO conference. By contrast, ASPO sees itself as a forum for the discussion of peak oil rather than an advocate for specific responses.

So does this mean that men are talkers and women are doers? First, these examples tell us that there is probably a difference in the way most men and most women approach the peak oil issue. But women still show up at the ASPO conference, even onstage, and men show up at the Community Solutions conference in large numbers--still larger than women by my estimation. So, the differences in approach cannot be attributed entirely to gender. Second, talking is a form of doing. A successful post-peak oil transition means large numbers of people will have to be mobilized. That implies a fair amount of talking. But, it is hard to imagine the peak oil message breaking through the everyday cultural hubbub without some stridency. After all, that message is not about an optional lifestyle that one might choose to adopt. It is about necessity. Beyond this, if peak oil is imminent (and by that I mean within the next decade), it would seem almost irresponsible not to insist on the urgency of such a transition.

So, my answer to the question which is the title of this piece is no. By no means is peak oil a guy thing. Nor can it be. Yes, initially the movement appears to have attracted more men than women. But no serious person involved in the movement believes that it can or should stay that way. As the crisis deepens, those focused on spreading the word (whether in a "confrontational" manner or not) and those focused on inclusiveness and the implementation of responses will find that they need each other as much as the world needs to hear and see what both groups have to offer.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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