Stuart Staniford is one of the highest quality contributors to The Oil Drum (TOD), which is itself in all probability the highest quality platform for discussion of the problem of Peak Oil and related issues. Long-time readers of this blog may recall my admiration of Stuart’s work from previous posts. This year Stuart has been researching the status of the oilfields in Saudi Arabia, most especially Ghawar, which is the largest oil-field in the world. His research has been published over several articles at TOD and recently managed to cross over into the mainstream media with an article in The Atlantic monthly (courtesy of James Hamilton, a Professor of Economics at the University of California, who also has an outstandingly good blog).
Stuart’s research suggests that Ghawar has begun to decline. What most persuaded me from his work was the development of a ‘counter-narrative’ describing the behaviour of the Saudi oil authorities over the last five years. Consider this chart, comparing Saudi production to the oil price, and read what Stuart says about it.
Now, whilst I would say I give great merit to Stuart’s arguments I am bereft of the technical expertise that would enable me to give an informed comment of whether he is in fact correct or not (and I should confess that there are parts of his posts – and others – at TOD which I skip over fairly swiftly). What I want to talk about in this post is something rather different, and to describe it I want to talk about a former Maths teacher of mine, and someone else who posts at TOD – Robert Rapier.
When I was in primary school I used to frequently get into trouble with my then Maths teacher because I never acquired the habit of ‘showing my working’. When I was working through tests, for example, I would simply write down the answers. This would get me marked down, even when the answers I provided were the correct ones. In part this was due to a policy decision to inhibit cheating, and to ensure that all children understood the process of how to achieve the right answer. In part, though, I now see that it was a way of fostering an engagement within a community of learning. Whilst working out long division and so on was not of great importance, the initiation into a community of shared learning really was – and it was that which I was failing to engage with. My choices not to show my working were really a declaration of intellectual independence – I’ve found the right answer so why do I need to show my working? Well, the answer to that, I now realise, is that it puts a total bar across conversation with peers – and that in itself can inhibit the learning process.
To flesh out that principle, consider Robert Rapier, another extremely able and persuasive contributor to The Oil Drum, who is not yet persuaded by Stuart’s arguments. In Robert’s view the Saudi authorities may well be choosing deliberately to hold potential production back, and there are various reasons that might explain this, either purely financial, or military-strategic, if they know something about US intentions towards Iran that are not more generally known (for example). My point is that Stuart has been open enough about his research and methodology – he has ‘shown his working’ – that someone like Robert can come along and say ‘actually, an alternative explanation is possible for this’. Time will tell which explanation is the correct one, and Robert himself has described the criteria to establish which perspective is true. (I should add that I could easily have entitled this post ‘The Holiness of Robert Rapier’ – but I enjoyed the sibilant assonance of the one I’ve chosen (grin)). It is precisely this ‘showing of working’ and enabling a further conversation in pursuit of the truth of a particular situation that I believe is holy – and explaining why is what this post is about.
Let’s bring in a rather useful phrase that I have learnt this year: wishcasting. I picked this up from Jeff Master’s Wunderblog, where it is used to describe the forecasting of a hurricane path which is over-influenced by the particular desires of the person doing the forecasting. Forecasting of a hurricane path is, of course, dependent upon an immense number of variables, and the inevitable uncertainty is what leaves room for different predictions. What makes wishcasting different from that normal range of prediction seems to be as much about the tone of voice as anything else – either an extravagant claim of certainty or else a distracting and relishing discussion of the potential havoc that might be caused by, eg, a second Katrina. TOD itself isn’t immune to wishcasting, it seems to me – especially when discussing the impact of hurricanes on the oil supply. Twice this year the discussion of potential storm damage has been exaggerated (I’m thinking of Cyclone Gonu and the Hurricane that travelled close to Cantarell). This may be because of the experience of Katrina – when the ‘worst’ did happen – but what strikes me is that the attitude that I seek to honour in both Stuart and Robert – best summed up in the phrase ‘I might be wrong’ – was markedly absent there. (NB I’m not quibbling with TOD giving coverage of those storms – I’m more remarking on the discussion in the comment threads).
Wishcasting, of course, is not a phenomenon unique to weather forecasts. It is merely one example of a very widespread human tendency to interpret evidence and information according to an already existing intellectual and emotional structure. In other words, wishcasting describes an analysis governed more by a desire for something to be true than a humble appraisal of what is true. It flags up something which is becoming more and more part of the mainstream of how we understand our intelligence, that is, our emotional make-up is cognitively relevant. I’ve often referred to the work of Antonio Damasio on this (see here) but the fundamental point is a simple one: our capacity for decision making and discernment in intellectual matters rests upon a prior emotional stance, or, to use Damasio’s own words, ‘it does not seem sensible to leave emotions and feelings out of any overall concept of mind’. In other words, in order to discern the truth about a situation – whether it be the Saudi Arabian oil reserve or anything else – it is not enough to gather together all the relevant material facts; it is also essential to be able to view them without bias. This is what Stuart (and Robert) seem to be able to do – and this is what I think is holy.
Consider the Buddhist teachings about desire, particularly the idea that right action flows out of the right view and the right mind. In other words it is precisely the refinement of desire that leads to a right discernment. I quote this Buddhist perspective simply because I am much more familiar with the Christian equivalent (for obvious reasons) but I didn’t want to be seen as parti pris in this matter. Having said that – this is how I would interpret this matter in terms of the Christian tradition – and why this post has the title it has.
To begin with I would like to explain what the Christian understanding terms ‘idolatry’, which is at the heart of the Western religious forms (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). An idol is anything placed in the position of God and worshipped as a God. What this means is that – given that God is above all other things – nothing else is to be worshipped. Worshipping is essentially about conferring value upon something – and it doesn’t have to be a physical object, it can just as easily be an idea or an institution – so what is really at stake when discussing idolatry is giving the correct value to something. Idolatry occurs when something is given more value than it deserves (if something is given less value than it deserves then that is the by-product of some other thing being treated as an idol; it’s an effect of idolatry rather than being idolatrous itself). So the Christian understanding of idolatry is all about the refinement of desire – learning to value things properly. This is the spiritual tradition in nuce – this is what the desert fathers were engaged with, this is what monastic discipline is all about, this is what Augustine is talking about when he says (to God) ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee’.
The spiritual tradition moves forward by the development of virtues, ie particular habits which form a specific attitude of mind and heart, which then bears fruit in right conduct. This is why the cultivation of virtues is what religious traditions tend to look like on the outside, ie lots of emphasis upon obedience and discipline, and lots of what might look like utterly boring and pointless exercises – like zazen. What is at stake is quietening down and eventual submission of the will, ie the seat of desires of our ego – and the fruit of that quietening is the right understanding of the world. One of the foremost virtues in the Christian sphere is that of humility, and it’s worth spending a moment considering what humility actually means. It’s often misinterpreted to mean self-abasement, which often ends up being intensely self-destructive, but really it is about being properly earthed in the truth (ie in the humus). So it is about having a correct appreciation of one’s own merits and faults; a settled assessment of one’s true station in life. Humility is really about ego-abasement, where the ego is understood as that craving for celebrity and social recognition or affirmation; it is the ego that cannot admit to mistakes, and which is therefore heavily embedded in the games of certainty that so often get played out in internet fora (see here for some related comments).
It seems to me that this sort of humility is what has characterised the research carried out by Stuart (and some others) on the issue of Peak Oil – that is why I call him ‘holy’ (I should add, this is why I think there is something holy at the heart of the scientific method, even if science itself remains inevitably partial). I’ve got no idea if this applies to his wider life or not, but that’s not all that relevant. I’m not saying he’s perfect in every respect (that’s reserved to one human life alone) – what I am saying is that in his research he has consistently displayed this spiritual virtue of humility, and this makes him, and his work, holy.
Which brings me to some remarks that I want to make in conclusion. One of the great divides in Peak Oil discussion is between the ‘doomers‘ and the rest (rather like the battles between ‘fundamentalists’ and the rest in religious spheres). In contrast to Stuart it seems to me that the doomer perspective is a clear example of wishcasting, of, in Christian terms, idolatry. The doomer perspective seems most characterised by an insistence that the future must take a particular shape, one constrained by the laws of physics and envisioning a necessary decline in human population as the inevitable corollary of the decline in available energy. The desires here might be a juvenile wish to see big explosions, or, more likely, a deeply rooted hatred for the present order and a wish to see it destroyed (I think to some extent I share both those motives – which is why I often find myself thinking within a doomer framework). Yet what is not encompassed by the doomer perspective is the sense that the future is not written; that there is much that cannot yet be known; and that human nature is not a closed system but one which is open to change – often extremely rapid change. I have no doubt that our present industrial system has only a very short shelf-life left – what I am not persuaded of is that human civilisation is about to come to an abrupt end. In other words I choose to practice the Christian virtue of hope – not as a vague sentiment; not as a denial of publicly available truths; but as the commitment to another spiritual perspective, built upon that humble attention to the truth exemplified in Stuart’s work, but which remains open to where God is leading us. This is what it means to pray about Peak Oil: to cleave fast to the truth, and to abide in hope.
(Those who are interested in exploring some of these matters further might wish to explore my talks: “Let us be human”).