Sunday, December 10, 2006

Peak Oil and a "doomster" lesson for environmentalists

I have been meaning to post on Peak Oil for a while given its link with the Natural Resource Economics part of my Environmental Economics course.

Personally I enjoy reading this stuff and I have to admit to being a part-time "doomster". I suspect economists, as self proclaimed "dismal scientists", are natural sooth-sayers of doom and destruction.

However, a recent article in Grist called poetically, "We're Doomed" meant addressing the relationship between so-called doomsters and the human condition. The article comments on an oil related post by Toby Hemenway at Energy Bulletin. Both articles are recommended reading.

The best websites to catch up on the latest "We are all doomed" peak oil stories and the associated scary and doom laden figures and diagrams are as follows. I have included by-lines when available.

The Oil Drum
"Discussions about energy and our future".

Peak Oil
"a community peak oil portal"
"Deal With Reality or Reality Will Deal With You"
"I apologise that the information is disturbing. But comfort yourself that you gain big advantages by learning about it early, and being able to prepare to live more simply on much less energy."
"In short, the transition to declining energy availability signals a transition in civilization as we know it."

Back to the Grist article John McGrath writes:
I honestly don't understand the enduring popularity of apocalypse porn. I don't believe there's any empirical evidence for the catastrophist interpretation of our various crises, as much as I am 100% convinced of the danger they represent. Crucially, you can't prove the certainty of any future, dark or light.

This paragraph is a comment on the energy bulletin article. This is a great piece of writing. Here are a few highlights:
Peak Oil writings are sprinkled with predictions that billions will die, civil order will collapse, and even that civilization will end. Scientists, too, aren't immune. During geologist Ken Deffeyee's Peak Oil presentations, he displays the words "war," "famine," "pestilence," and "death", the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The Right, the saying goes, has the Left Behind books, and the Left has Peak Oil. Both predict that the end is near.

After I published an article suggesting that Peak Oil may lead "merely" to widespread unemployment and hardship rather than collapse [Apocalypse, not, April 2006], hundreds wrote to tell me I was a naive optimist and a cornucopian. A significant part of the Peak Oil community holds the rock-solid sentiment that the only future is one of chaos. While the end of the oil era possesses "death and taxes" certitude, plausible post-peak scenarios span a wide scope. So why is the most touted one the most extreme? Predictions of any stripe, a review will quickly show, are almost always wrong. The future rarely goes in the direction we expect. The certainty of coming doom held by so many made me wonder why we are drawn to societal collapse and our own extinction.

The article goes on to examine the history of apocalyptic thinking:
The archetypal apocalypse story in the West is, of course, that of Jesus of Nazareth. Both his life's story and his messianic prophecies of Judgment Day reflect oppression, death, and transformation, following the common arc of the apocalypse myth. This trajectory is echoed in the Peak Oil projection of increasing global despoliation and chaos, collapse, and the belief that "after Peak Oil, everything will change." But this myth has also emerged hundreds of other times in our history. Jesus would have remained one of thousands of minor apocalyptic prophets, all predicting a similar end, if not for the brilliant public relations of Saul of Tarsus and other early Christians. And one of their tactics was to piggy-back onto already existing apocalypse stories.

Apocalypse myths predate Jesus by centuries. Ancient Greece, Persia, and Egypt are their primary birthplaces for the West. In Greek mythology, Zeus destroyed the world several times via flood, fire, and war. In one typical example, Zeus, seeing that humanity had become corrupt, ended the world by flood, sparing only two people to found a new race. And there it is: the basic pattern of apocalypse that's been followed ever since. Humanity becomes wicked and is destroyed except for an elect, who go on to birth a new world.

And in most cases, the subsequent destruction of the wicked was to be followed by floods, storms, and plagues that would decimate mankind, reminiscent of claims that global warming and ecosystem collapse will come on the heels of Peak Oil, as if one calamity isnÂ’t enough.

The doomer Peak Oil scenario also replicates the final phase of the apocalypse story: that of rebirth after the collapse. Richard Heinberg, in a speech to the E. F. Schumacher society, said that after the peak, we will return to a more agrarian way of life, when "we actually regain much of what we have lost." He and others envision a future with far fewer people, many of them living rurally and raising most of their own food using permaculture and bio-intensive gardening. Some argue that post-peak, only those with primitive skills such as tanning and flint-knapping will survive. Suburban drones will die. So after the collapse, we follow the myth's final trajectory into the survival of an elect, and a rebirth in the Garden and simpler times.

Again, my point here is not that Peak Oil doomerism is wrong. The apocalypts may, for the first time in thousands of predictions, be right. We face enormous crises and we have the tools to end civilization. But remember, as you feel yourself drawn to the apocalyptic story, that it is the natural place to go in uncertain and dangerous times. We are culturally programmed to do it. Whether we are describing first-century Christians who were threatened with death for their beliefs, 14th-century weavers whose jobs were being automated and outsourced out of existence, or oil addicts about to tumble down Hubbert's Curve, people who take the apocalyptic view often have good reason to believe they are in mortal danger. The source of the threat varies - an angry god, a brutal empire, a class struggle, or resource depletion - but the response has remained the same over the millennia. The path to "end of the world" thinking is well trod, most heavily so in times of oppression, uncertainty, and corruption. But perhaps some of us can recognize how familiar is this dark road, resist the natural urge to repeat the story once more, and remember that there are many routes into the future other than the one toward the lowest common denominator.

The Apocalypse, not article has a lot more economics and less doom and is another good read.

It is all about supply and demand really. So relax, economics will save us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"The apocalypts may, for the first time in thousands of predictions, be right."
"remember, as you feel yourself drawn to the apocalyptic story, that it is the natural place to go in uncertain and dangerous times."

Dear Ron, I have to wonder whether the demands of studying economics have impaired your education in history. The facts are the opposite of your quotes. People have a very strong natural tendency to reassuring business as usual wishfulthinking. Lone Cassandras have countless times been derided by the masses of conventional wisdom then proven right by the utter collapse of their whole societies (with Troy itself being just one instance).
See in BU library Toynbee "A study of History" chapter called "The illusion of immortality". While you still can. Cheers Robin