Peak Oil's Unfortunate Association
By Jim Oelerich
Will Peak Oil be taken seriously before it comes out swinging, before it disrupts convenience at the gas pumps?
Tough to know. It's taken some hard hits. Matt Simmons, the investment banker turned oil reserve researcher has now been labeled by several authors to be.. a pessimist. That doesn't seem fair, but let's face it, unless there's a crisis, Peak Oil dialogue is just an irritation, the buzzing of a gnat about our heads. The buzz isn't from oil, though, not from the fact that reserves aren't what they're stated to be, not from the fact that demand is outpacing supply, not from the fact that Roscoe Bartlett has brought up Peak Oil to Congress in several special sessions to highlight the importance of the issue; no, the buzz is from the millions of invisible threads that attach Peak Oil to the devil itself, the very pesky and always pessimistic environmental movement. That's a shame, because even without the excess baggage, Peak Oil is a walk into the wind.
It's possible that Peak Oil can't be taken seriously because those of us who follow energy think of oil as oil. We write about its physical properties, what it can do, what it can't. Yet, we forget that there are social-hyperlinks to energy and that they're not all petroleum based, or unreasonable. We forget the history. The bad feelings. So, even before dialogue begins, minds start turning off, good minds too. The problem is we've all heard the arguments: “Come on…for the past thirty years the naysayers, the environmentalists, have been saying that we're going to run out of oil. And that hasn't happened, has it? In fact there's more oil in the world now than ever before! We'll find more! We always do!” That's the damaging and decade's old social link between oil and the environment. Sure, those earlier claims about resource depletion never materialized. We never ran out of oil. Yet, as a country we may have lost more than a prediction, for the political ill will engendered during those times might just be precluding us from seeing the reality of a truly honest event.
In striking contrast to the political hatred of most things environmental, we, the people, are all environmentalists. In fact, for the most part we'd rather not associate with anyone who isn't. Don't think so? Well, if you practice personal hygiene, you're an environmentalist. If you like to tidy up the house and yard, you're an environmentalist. If you like to vacation at a resort at the sea versus a more homely setting, chances are you're an environmentalist. If you prefer properly prepared food as opposed to a plate contaminated with Salmonella and Shigella, you're an environmentalist.
There's just no escaping the fact: we're all environmentalists. Where we split paths is in the political realm, where the "spin" twin dominates the definition and where the silent "Webster" twin loses its meaning. Think the stigma of a word is unimportant?
Consider the following: 1. MIT says that if we improve vehicle efficiency we can avert disaster. 2. Environmentalists say that if we improve vehicle efficiency we can avert disaster. Which of these is the more palatable? Which has more inherent value? We could attach a wire to these two sentences and generate enough current to light up a neighborhood! They're just not the same. The one is a positive, the other a negative. Personally, I'd go with MIT.
In another example, Not so Peak Oil?, an article which was recently published in the Resource Investor, Matthew Simmons is called a "petro-pessimist". No accolades for all the research he has done to substantiate his claims, his cautions about Peak Oil. He's a pessimist, an Econazi. Pigeonholed and characterized, for some there will be no need to hear what he has to say; no need to read his new book, Twilight in the Desert. Simmon's Peak Oil warnings must have strayed into the wrong yard, where the big dogs lie. Makes sense, why should the public believe a pessimist when there are petro-optimists out there patting us on the back for living large?
Unfortunately, this becomes politics when a well researched, yet dissenting opinion is summarily dismissed. Politically, it seems that the way to resolve Peak Oil is to ignore the problem or to continuously repeat the affirmation: “there is plenty of cheap oil…there is plenty of cheap oil”. Apparently, GM has not been repeating their affirmations because they've been trying awfully hard to unload their monster rides -- maybe they're not repeating them often enough. Unfortunately, no amount of denial or prejudice can replace truth, nor the necessity to adapt to it.
As Jared Diamond wrote in his book Collapse, one of the criteria that determines a civilization's ability to survive is its ability to change. We have that ability, absolutely. We just have to make it happen. Peak Oil, as an issue, would fair better associated to more believable company, like economists and Wall Street types, ultimately to free itself from the social hyperlinks that have held oil depletion hostage. In the end, we will have to face Peak Oil regardless of what happened in the past, regardless of who was saying what.
Matt Simmons is no pessimist; he's a whistleblower. And for that, we should all be grateful.
Jim Oelerich's fascination with energy's possibilities and concerns began in the early 80's while he was a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa.
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