Language is important. Language is the primary way in which humans coordinate their vast enterprises and their daily tasks. And yet, despite this importance the peak oil movement has been fumbling around trying to figure out what to call its members. One thing is certain though. If we don’t label ourselves, someone will do it for us. So, I propose to examine some of the terms that are currently in use and suggest a label. I’m certainly open to other suggestions. But, in this piece I hope to do some preliminary pruning.
Some who criticize the peak oil movement have already created labels such as “peakist” and “doomer” to fit their agendas. The first label is awkward (perhaps intentionally so), and the second is clearly derogatory. Let’s take these terms in order:
Peakist. If you label an opponent something no one can understand, it creates confusion and difficulty. “Peakist” is an invented word which in isolation doesn’t really mean anything in any context. Can we really expect someone unfamiliar with peak oil to grasp the significance of “peakist” in a passing mention on television or radio? In addition, the word sounds like “pique” which means a feeling of irritation or resentment over having one’s pride injured, not a particularly positive association. “Peakist” appears to have originated with a Cambridge Energy Research Associates report entitled Why the Peak Oil Theory Falls Down: Myths, Legends, and the Future of Oil Resources. That’s hardly a friendly source. Why would members of the peak oil movement adopt a label given to them by the world’s foremost oil cornucopians in a sneering paper that attempts to debunk their views?
Doomer. This label is self-explanatory. No doubt there are some people in the peak oil movement who wear this label proudly. Their pessimistic turn of mind or their honest best guess tells them that the future of humankind is very grim indeed. But no one should believe that this label imparts much credibility to those who wear it by choice or who are labeled as such by others.
Now, let’s look at three other terms often used by members of the movement in an attempt to define themselves:
Peak oil advocate. This is a very strange formulation. Peak oil is not a program for which one can advocate. And, almost no one in the peak oil movement is saying we ought to do things which make peak oil arrive earlier. We are not advocating for a peak. The word “advocate,” because of its literal meaning, can make the term “peak oil advocate” start to seem synonymous with doomer, only worse. The so-called advocate will mistakenly be seen by some to be advocating for the doom which the doomers merely claim is inevitable.
Peak oiler. This label has an informal, friendly ring to it. But as an habitual designation, it hardly seems much better than “peak oil advocate.” For the casual listener, the term “peak oiler” is opaque. It sounds vaguely like someone associated with a now defunct professional football team. And, when we describe a person as oily, we don’t mean it as a compliment. “Peak oiler” fails because it isn’t really informative and because the word “oiler” has confusing and even unfavorable associations in the minds of many.
Peak oil believer. This label appears to get closer to the mark. But, it may come as a shock to many in the peak oil movement that much of what they believe is actually conventional wisdom. Nearly every credible scientist or energy analyst agrees that at some point world oil production will peak and then decline. The disagreement is over the timing and the severity of the consequences. The label “peak oil believer” in this context becomes misleading. First, those in the peak oil movement believe specifically that peak oil is not very far away, usually saying it will come no later than 2020. The term “peak oil believer,” however, doesn’t communicate this nuance. Second, the word “believer” makes the peak oil issue sound as if it were a matter of faith and one with cultish overtones to boot. There is no reason to classify peak oil with matters of faith. We have enough geological evidence and historical experience to conclude that there will be a peak in world oil production at some point. The burden ought to be on the cornucopians to explain their faith in continued abundance in the face of the current evidence. Of course, some of the harshest critics of the peak oil movement also accept that there will be a peak–just not very soon. And, these critics might reasonably be called “peak oil believers” as well. Therefore, on all counts, this label doesn’t really work.
So, what then shall we call ourselves as members of the peak oil movement? In some quarters I’ve been hearing the term “peak oil activist.” Perhaps it’s not a perfect term; many associate the term “activist” primarily with leftist political causes. But this term has advantages. It implies that there is something we can do about the problem of peak oil. It implies that there is something that needs to be done today about it. It implies that the person who takes on the label is engaged in doing what needs to be done. And, it implies that there is a movement behind this person, just as there is behind nearly every environmental or political activist.
“Peak oil activist” avoids the disadvantages of the other labels and has many positive connotations. For now, I’m voting for this one unless someone can show me something better.