We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.
                 –Richard Hofstadter

Ancient peoples often imagined that any calamity natural or otherwise was the work of displeased gods. Today, we are more enlightened. When we suffer misfortunes such as rising energy prices, some of us immediately imagine small secretive groups in high places engaged in elaborate conspiracies.

In fact, it is a good thing to take a skeptical view of those in power. And, one does not have to invent motives of greed or a desire for domination in such people, but only read the headlines. However, it is a particular turn of mind that endows a tiny cabal with fantastical powers to control every major facet of world society. Historian Richard Hofstadter described this mind in his famous essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. It is a style, he admits, which is found elsewhere and which stretches back far in time. It is not limited to those with disturbed minds, but rather expresses itself broadly, especially in societies under stress. And, it is not confined to those who lack intelligence for many very bright people succumb to it. It continually finds new venues for manifesting itself. And so, with oil prices rising in recent years and now reaching all-time highs, one of those new venues is peak oil. (It’s worth noting that few were puzzling over such grand oil-related conspiracies when oil hit $10 a barrel in 1999.)

Peak oil conspiracies as outlined on the Internet range from the collaboration of greedy oil companies seeking to maximize their profits to a grand conspiracy of the secret illuminati to impoverish the common people and possibly solve the overpopulation problem by starving much of the world of food and fuel. It is not my purpose here to refute such theories point by point, but rather to show how they fit into the historical pattern outlined by Hofstadter.

One of the characteristics of the modern-day paranoid style is that it believes society has been seized from average folk who must now mount a campaign to take it back “to prevent the final destructive act of subversion” as Hofstadter puts it. (Hofstadter was thinking of the contemporary right of 1964 when the essay appeared, but believed the formula could be applied to any such group.) To quote from The Myth of Peak Oil already cited above:

Publicly available CFR [presumably the Council on Foreign Relations] and Club of Rome strategy manuals from 30 years ago say that a global government needs to control the world population through neo-feudalism by creating artificial scarcity. Now that the social architects have de-industrialized the United States, they are going to blame our economic disintegration on lack of energy supplies.

So we are counseled that unnamed “social architects” have first deindustrialized the United States and now intend to starve the excess population using peak oil as a cover. (It is a puzzle why “global government” would feel it necessary to starve people if the world is awash in resources since this would crash the very economy that gives them and their supporters wealth and power; it’s also a puzzle why they would wait 30 years to start doing it if it were really that necessary to their plan–but I promised not to try to parse the logic of such screeds, didn’t I?)

Here is a more mild version from Peak Oil is Snake Oil!:

The oil and gas market as currently construed and managed is a manipulated and propagandized marketplace that has enriched the oil companies beyond the wildest dreams of Croesus while the rest of the nation absorbs the ancillary costs and is left to deal with their impact on our society.

I do not here intend to defend the world’s oil companies. They are guilty of many misdeeds, and there is credible evidence that they have on occasion tried to use their market power to manipulate prices, especially in the refining market. The point I want to make is that the paranoid style in this case seems to have reverted to an older style described by Hofstadter in which vague, shadowy villains lurk in the background. Here all oil companies are lumped together leaving out the important distinctions between the gargantuan government-owned enterprises that are mostly part of OPEC and therefore explicitly seek to manipulate prices, the publicly traded international oil companies, and the small independents. The authors of The Myth of Peak Oil also refer to “the elite” (who seem to be associated with the CFR or the Club of Rome) as well as “the oil industry,” but never go further than this in detailing who is included in the peak oil conspiracy business.

A third characteristic made clear from the examples above is that the danger does not come from without so much as within. It is the product not of an attack, but of a betrayal. The villains are not invading our country; they are already in place.

A fourth element of the supposed conspiracy is that many agents for the conspirators are hard at work. In this case these agents are planting stories about peak oil to keep the public supine while their money or even their lives are taken. The agents include nonprofit organizations such as the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas and other peak oil groups; the International Monetary Fund; vague “establishment-run fake left activist groups;” and even Rolling Stone Magazine for an article it published by James Howard Kunstler adapted from his book, The Long Emergency.

A fifth element is what Hofstadter refers to as the renegade. These are people who have once been part of the conspiracy in some way but have now seen the light. A recent example is a piece entitled Confessions of an “ex” Peak Oil Believer. The author explains his turnabout as follows:

Peak Oil is not our problem. Politics is. Big Oil wants to sustain high oil prices. Dick Cheney and friends are all too willing to assist.

Such revelations give supposed “inside” confirmation of the conspiracy to a skeptical world. And, the conversions themselves provide examples of a path to redemption, an essential feature of conspiracy narratives.

The sixth element is the paranoid style’s obsessive concern for evidence. Hofstadter describes it as follows:

One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed. Of course, there are highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow paranoids, as there are likely to be in any political tendency. But respectable paranoid literature not only starts from certain moral commitments that can indeed be justified but also carefully and all but obsessively accumulates “evidence.” The difference between this “evidence” and that commonly employed by others is that it seems less a means of entering into normal political controversy than a means of warding off the profane intrusion of the secular political world. The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it.

Perhaps not all who engage in this style do so without expecting to change many minds. But these advocates do often marshal considerable selective evidence which on its face can sound quite convincing. What could be more convincing that peak oil is a fraud than the notion that the Earth is filled with endless amounts of oil deep down (so-called abiotic oil), that Russian scientists have proved this, and that this is the reason Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t want Russian oil companies to fall into Western hands. The West would have acquired technology and know-how that, if kept secret, will make Russia the world’s pre-eminent oil power for a century to come.

I will add a seventh element of my own. The peak oil conspiracy theorists can only think in terms of the social world, not the natural world. In this regard they are cornucopians. Therefore, agency must come from the social world. Someone is responsible for what is happening, not something. It is simply not possible that the world is really nearing a peak in oil production. Someone is only making it appear so.

Hofstadter goes on to tell us:

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization.

Perhaps some in the peak oil movement believe we are faced with something similarly apocalyptic. But this apocalypticism is derived not from fears about a giant conspiracy, but rather from the evidence of geological constraints.

I have yet to see a plan of action spelled out by the peak oil conspiracy theorists. Hofstadter sheds some light on why. Those caught up in the paranoid style tend to live outside the give and take of the political process. They regard themselves as having been excluded from it and therefore powerless. I would add that from their position outside the political struggle they conjure up a politics that is merely a forum for conspiracy at the top and delusion among the masses. Since the process itself cannot be trusted, there is no real way to bring one’s grievances into the political arena and seek some kind of resolution.

This, however, may be a saving grace. For all the irritation that the peak oil conspiracy theorists may cause those in the peak oil movement, I do not believe the vast majority of these conspiracy theorists will ever leave behind their passivity and actually do something. But unfortunately, they add to the dead weight of inertia that keeps many others from taking the peak oil threat seriously.