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Let's play "Peak Oil Shock Me"

An increasingly popular parlor game among peak oil activists is to see who can serve up the most shocking morsel of peak oil news at any one sitting. There are now plenty of morsels to choose from on an almost daily basis. Here are some recent samples:

Persistent new highs in the oil price of late only add to the end-times quality of the game.

Of course, there is a desire among the participants to be validated in their belief that peak oil is a major concern that needs our attention now. Otherwise, what would be the purpose of all that effort and worry concerning peak oil awareness and preparation? There is also the desire to discover THE revelation that will finally shock the rest of the seemingly zombified planet into realizing the seriousness of our predicament. And, there is always hope that even if today's news was not enough, another round of "Peak Oil Shock Me" tomorrow will finally yield the Holy Grail of peak oil awareness, namely, a piece of peak oil news so horrifying that it simply cannot be ignored by the population at large.

Played for the purposes of education, entertainment, solace, or even a kind of morbid comic relief, the game itself is harmless. But when played in an earnest quest to find that Holy Grail of peak oil awareness, it courts a two-fold danger. First, we peak oil activists have a way of putting off even our friends with the latest bad news. It's not that bad news should be ignored. But if the purpose of the peak oil movement is to spread awareness and ultimately spur action, then telling uninformed people news which radically challenges their worldview may cause them simply to tune us out. In this regard, the worse the news is, the less likely people are to want to hear what we have to say or to believe it if they do listen. Second, the preoccupation with that "breakthrough" piece of news misses the point. Peak oil is a complex phenomenon with ramifications that are difficult to see. The way news is nowadays conveyed, one can hardly expect people to understand that complexity without considerable background--background which is almost never offered up in either the print or electronic media. By focusing on finding a "breakthrough" piece of news, we take energy away from the more difficult but necessary task of public education.

Certainly, many peak oil activists wonder if anything will cause the public to wake up. The vast majority of those activists--by my admittedly small and informal poll--appears to believe that an extreme crisis will have to arrive before the public finally "gets it." Accordingly, many of those I talk with have become deeply pessimistic about the prospects for making any substantial society-wide preparations before peak oil arrives. Indeed, many believe peak has already arrived and that therefore it is too late to prepare. All we can do now is cope.

But we cannot assume that even an extreme crisis will be interpreted within the context of peak. In fact, we can already see that the usual bogeymen are being trotted out: price-gouging oil companies, speculators, Arab oil producers who hate us, and government policy that blocks new drilling. There is also the belief among the public--who are heavily influenced by the priesthood of professional economists--that the high oil prices of today will resolve themselves the same way they have in the past, i.e., by going a lot lower.

Undermining what I call the official story is going to take persistent and intelligent effort on the part of the peak oil movement. And, this effort will require constant vigilance as new conspiratorial explanations and cornucopian stratagems (such as the hedge that above ground risks are more important than below ground risks) are deployed to defend the current paradigm.

In the meantime, I'm all in favor of a few rounds of "Peak Oil Shock Me," especially when it's used as an icebreaker among peak oil activists. But don't mistake this game for genuine preparation in dealing with the as yet uninformed public. That task requires an entirely different approach.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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