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Whither Peak Oil?

There’s a fascinating essay by Nate Hagens over at The Oil Drum about the future of peak oil analysis and the future of The Oil Drum. In it, Hagens argues that an oil peak will almost certainly turn out to be past us, given the lack of incentive for further investment (this is, of course, the same analysis as the IEA’s recent case), and that perhaps our preoccupation with it as a defining factor is a mistake:

“I would hypothesize that each of us participating in the online muckraking/analysis sphere spends time on their websites of choice for some of the following reasons: 1)to increase our own social capital (through either social recognition or through an increase in our own understanding of a complex situation which will then in turn improve ours and our families future), 2) because we are puzzle solvers (meaning it’s fun/meaningful to figure all this out, 3) because we want to make a difference to steer society away from making poor long term choices, and 4) being right. I would guess that all of TOD staff and most who hang out have done so for some combination of the above. My fear is that we, the analysts, are neither advocates, nor doers, generally speaking, which means we put stuff up continually in subtle hope that someone at a higher level will incorporate and implement it. To what end, we don’t know. My gut feel is that a plurality of TOD staff fall under the number 2) above, and that increases in social status and/or societal transformation due to our work are only externalities of our passion for puzzle solving. I suppose things could be worse…;-)

As usual, this essay represents my own musings, and is not reflective of the philosophy or objectives of anyone else on staff, but as one of the senior contributors to this site, I’ve begun to ask myself the purpose of a peak oil movement, in a post-peak environment where financial issues are likely to dominate for the forseeable future, objectives and beliefs about the future are increasingly disparate, and synthesis of information is only as good as ones understanding of the weakest link (ergo - there is TOO much information for most people if not everyone). Furthermore, our ability to plan and change for the long term diminishes in negative correlation with how badly real time events erode. As such, in my view the highest leverage lies in the integration and subsequent implementation of systems analysis. What is needed is a 2010 version of Limits to Growth that not only improves on the 1970s natural resource type model, but integrates two new layers: knowledge on human demand/neuroscience and the current status of our economic/financial system, into a holistic scientific project that can be used for serious and urgent global policy change. Perhaps a site like this could be a public forum to discuss and hone in on aspects of such a project. I don’t know. I must admit I’ve learned as much from the relatively uneducated on this site than from those with stellar resumes. In the end we’re all in this together.

Finally, I think ‘Peak Oil’ has eponymously outlived its usefulness. Too many now associate doom, gloom and fundamentalism when they hear those 2 words. Though doom and gloom may possibly be the end reality of Peak Oil, such an immediate emotive reaction can’t be productive among people of influence. As such, the energy community, and broader natural resource paradigm change movement probably needs to rebrand the whole discussion. Peak Oil is not only past, but it’s terminology is passe.”

This is rather fascinating to me, because several times in the last four years, I’ve suggested that an increasing irrelevance is the likely result of PO study groups and site’s focus on the quantitative analysis end of Peak Oil - it isn’t that that’s not valuable material, but focusing on the data, on the dates, on another 50 possible depletion scenarios isn’t really all that relevant. In 2007 I wrote:

“Peak Oil is Real Soon Now” was pretty much the theme of last year’s Boston ASPO conference, and I admit, I see no real evidence that it won’t be repeated at every ASPO meeting, until we can officially change it over to “Peak Oil Was Just a While Back.” Looking over the list of panels, virtually all of them focus on one of three things.

The first is whether peak oil was Yesterday, is Tomorrow or next Thursday. Now this sounds like very important work, and is important if you have millions invested in oil wells, run India, or run Shell. To anyone else, it is largely a matter of complete and utter irrelevance. The reality is that real people are already experiencing the costs of peak oil - for example, it is the end of cheap oil that has led to the biofuels boom and to my grocery bill going haywire. This is only going to get worse - because of peak oil and climate change. But whether it gets worse slightly faster or slower really isn’t the point - the point is that we’re not doing anything about it. I’m willing to bet, however, that most of the Very Important People speaking at ASPO don’t actually buy their own groceries, so maybe they haven’t noticed….

….if ASPO has just one chance to pull people together to talk about peak oil, the date is far less urgent a subject than “where do we go from here?” It isn’t that there isn’t anything to talk about, it isn’t that people still aren’t debating peak oil. It is that the focus of the discussion has moved on from when to what to do, and ASPO hasn’t caught up.

This is not only bad for the public discourse, but IMHO, it isn’t very good for ASPO, either. Because they risk being rendered obsolete by their own data. ASPO has done the important work of establishing dates and reserves, but shortly, if their own estimates are right, when peak oil is will be an established, documentable fact - if it isn’t already. And while ASPO will then have the satisfaction of being right, it will also have the problem of being irrelevant, if it hasn’t taken a lead on the next step - where do we go from here?”

ASPO and the The Oil Drum are much the same - the speakers list tends to be taken heavily from TOD, the institutional elements are similar - and they have the same set of presumptions - that peak oil would be a defining and readily visible moment, in which their expertise would be needed, and that whatever changes would be made, ultimately, they would be driven by technical analysis. Not everyone believed it, but the whole point of setting up a think tank, one that served mostly affluent elites, and that focused on articulating the problem, rather than moving on to the solutions, was this theory that if technical people just got it right enough everyone would listen. Unfortunately, that would be a first.

And lo and behold, what’s pretty much happened is this - peak oil, instead of being the big, shiny thing that everyone can pin their future disaster concerns upon happened - and was buried in the financial mess - and is simply part and parcel of a larger collective crisis that includes our overextension financially, ecologically and biologically. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean it isn’t actually a defining factor - I continue to think not only does peak oil matter a great deal (for example, almost all our mitigation strategies for our crisis assume we have plenty of energy to work with), but I think that the reason our world economic crisis wasn’t just a crisis of the developed world - the reason that it struck so deeply all over the world is because of the food crisis, which was itself an energy crisis. The UN estimates that 60% of the rise in world food prices that gave us a great deal of political instability, more hungry people than ever before and helped grind the poor world economies to a halt came from biofuel growth - which boomed in response to rising energy prices, and was an attempt to compensate for rising oil consumption and declining ability to pump more. I’ve written about this in more detail in my essay “Peeling the Onion”

What’s funny is that the people who got it right - the ones who described what would actually most likely occur, seem to have been not the technical specialists, but the non-technical analysts who presented the material to the general public. Richard Heinberg warned everyone in pretty much every book he wrote that what we could expect would not be consistent price signals, but “extreme volatility” - prices rising and collapsing, with complex results playing out in the financial arena. Jim Kunstler may have gotten a bunch of things wrong (still no Pirates in Seattle) in _The Long Emergency_, but his refusal to single peak oil out as a sole root cause was absolutely on target - it was just one of several urgent factors that are driving us forward. In his analysis of how collapse proceeds, Dmitry Orlov observed that only rarely do we correctly articulate the causes of collapse - instead, it takes on a life of its own.

I’ve noticed that there is a tendency for people who come at this through the numbers and data to listen to those who offer big-picture analysis, to praise them for their analysis, but honestly, not to really, seriously believe what they say. That is, I think there’s a tendency to assume that there will be time at least for their pet projects, that the most important part of our crisis won’t be the messy, fuzzy parts that are hard to analyze - the finances, the politics, the human reactions - but the tidy bits that can be neatly graphed. And thus, there’s shock when it turns out that the system is messy.

Over the years, I’ve watched one trend that particularly disturbs me - the tendency of some (not all) technical analysts to emphasize the importance of peak oil over any other factor - there seemed to be a sense that they had to advocate for their crisis, over say, climate change or the financial mess or political instability. This one, they would cry, defines everything. And of course, when one is trying to get the media and funding sources to pay attention to harsh realities, that’s probably reasonable - but then the forest gets lost for the trees. Pet solutions get the same treatment - the answer is wind! No, the answer is X plan! No, there’s no plan at all - we’re all totally, utterly doomed!

Don’t get me wrong, this does not characterize all the analysis that has come out of TOD or ASPO - there’s been some extremely good and clear material, some of which I’ve found very valuable - Jeffrey Brown’s Export Land Model, Gail the Actuary’s analyses, etc…. And I can’t overstate my debt to the people who put ASPO together to do the figures initially and raise awareness of a profound and real problem - there is no real doubt that peak oil either will or has happened. All we have to do is look around at the history of US oil to prove that sooner or later (sooner, actually) we peak, and after that, there are serious constraints on supply. World oil peaks may be controversial, but their reality is undeniable.

But as I said two years ago, the problem is not when exactly - we were never going to be able to raise the red flag on that day anyway. The problem is what to do now - and what to do now has always been a complex question that had to fully take into account other factors - climate change, money, politics, and the fact that there has never yet been a revolution or radical change led by technical specialists ;-).

Nate’s conclusion is that the tech folk simply aren’t suited to the next relevant steps - that the analysis seems to be what matters mostly to them. I rather hope that that’s not the case - I’d hate to see those brilliant intellects go offline when there’s so much useful work to do.

Now peak oil has always been a poor and inadequate terminology - one uses it because it is useful, because word’s are often poor and inadequate, but the reality was that oil was never a solo problem - sure, oil is nice and liquid, but given no other ecological problems, we could deal with an oil peak. The problem was always that our other resources are stretched too, and that whether we hit the actual peak or not, we live in a world where resource use is so tight that there’s little leeway for rapidly repurposing one major fuel source to cover the loss of another.

But saying that “peak oil’s day is over” (which may or may not be true) doesn’t really help us any more than saying that peak oil is going to crash civilization. Neither thing is accurate - instead, our collective crisis is upon us - we aren’t speculating about the future any more, we are talking about the present. Whichever aspect is most urgent at the moment isn’t really the issue. The issue is still, as it was two and three and five years ago - where do we go from here. For that, we need to know the realities, we need a basic grounding in data. But we also need to be able to think about politics and money, human emotion and human response - and we need to remember that the answers will not be neat or easy ones.

In _The Limits to Growth:The 30 Year Update_ we get, I think, a deeply coherent description of our present difficulty - one done by people with both technical skills and the ability to grasp the deep complexity of our situation, and in some small way, to describe and model it:

“The most common criticisms of the original World3 model were that it underestimated the power of technology and that it did not represent adequately the adaptive resilience of the free market. It is true that we did not include in the original World3 model technological prgress at rates that would automatically solve all problems associated wtith exponential growth in the human ecological footprint….[But] in several scenarios we test accellerated technological advance and possible future technical leaps beyond these ‘normal’ improvements. What if materials are almost entirely recycled? What if land yield doubles again and yet again? What if emissions are reduced at 4% per year over the coming century?

Even with such assumptions, the model world tends to overshoot its limits. Even iwth teh most effective technologies and the greatest economic resilience that we believe is possible, if these are the only changes, the model tends to generate scenarios of collapse.” (TLTG:TTYU p. 204-5)

They go on to observe that in the end, what brings down the system is never a single factor - it isn’t oil, or money, or pollution or climate change. It is this:

“….the more successfully society puts off its limits throughe conomic and technical adaptations, the more likely it is to run into several of them at the same time. In most World3 runs, including many we have not shown here, the world system does not totally run out of land or food or resources or pollution absorption capability. What it runs out of is the ability to cope.” (TLTG:TTYU 223)

It is, and has always been this problem of competing crisis, of the inability of systems (us) to deal with two many things hitting us at once that put us most deeply in danger - peak oil alone can be adapted to. Climate change alone might be addressable. Our precarious financial situation alone might have been soluble - but together they are beyond our capacity to address in terms of “solutions” as we mean them. Focusing on energy to the exclusion of other issues - focusing on numbers instead of the moral and political, narrative and social elements has never been enough.

Now we all do what we can, and if that’s what TOD and ASPO can do, well, I’m grateful they did it. But again, it is all hands on deck, folks - and I’m not convinced that just because people are happiest discussing the technical difficulties, they can’t also bear a good other chunk of the load - enough are doing so already that the future of the study of peak oil in its context - not in competition with our other problems, but in its intersections with them - and our response to it - could be extremely bright.

Editorial Notes: Yes, I know that I already posted Sharon once today, but I had to post this response to Nate's Oil Drum essay. -KS

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