In conjunction with the recent ASPO annual conference in Washington, two articles (here and here) were offered on the subject of getting the Peak Oil message out, and what some of the strategies might be, given that, as the article by Molly Davis suggested: “… almost all of the messaging experts say the movement’s narrative has failed to influence policymakers — or even the major environmental groups.”

Certainly the level of bipartisan political hostility—as we were reminded of in that piece—contributes to the messaging problems. Others advised that finding an “enemy” might be the most effective strategy. The accepted target was the fossil fuel industry. One rationale offered is that facts alone are not enough (true, sad to say), and by demonizing an easily-demonized entity, the peak oil movement may find more sympathetic listeners. I can’t argue with the rationale, but I wonder if the convenience and expediency of targeting the usual bad-guy is the best choice.

I’d like to offer a different enemy—one also easy enough to aim at for a variety of reasons, but critical to those of us who carry legitimate concerns about what life will be like in the years to come as declining oil production becomes apparent. Explaining that we may not really start to feel the pinch of declining oil production for a few—or more—years down the road is a message that needs to be brought home more vividly and urgently. “Peak Oil” won’t show up in the headlines next week, but that provides us with all the motivation we need to help others understand why now it must become a cause célèbre long before its impact begins.

The extremist right-wing is an easy target for those of us who value things like integrity and facts and reality. My favorite blogger, Steve Benen, offered a piece on this topic (here) yesterday, and after I’d completed my first draft of this post, I came across Ron Chusid’s post offering his own take on the same theme.

In his piece, Chusid quoted Michael Hirschorn’s article in The Atlantic:

“Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said (or is famously reputed to have said) that we may each be entitled to our own set of opinions, but we are not entitled to our own set of facts. In a time when mainstream news organizations have already ceded a substantial chunk of their opinion-shaping influence to Web-based partisans on the left and right, does each side now feel entitled to its own facts as well? And thanks to the emergence of social media as the increasingly dominant mode of information dissemination, are we nearing a time when truth itself will become just another commodity to be bought and sold on the social-media markets?…More far-reachingly, how does society function (as it has since the Enlightenment gave primacy to the link between reason and provable fact) when there is no commonly accepted set of facts and assumptions to drive discourse? [1]

Why not go after those for whom facts are mere inconveniences to be disregarded when they conflict with a narrow-minded and clearly self-serving agenda? At the risk of starting a cat fight where truth may too quickly become a casualty, why don’t we more forcefully challenge those who deny peak oil (and global warming) and who do so for reasons that generally ignore reality in favor of narrowly-defined interests? Those motivations will ultimately do nothing but promote more eventual harm by denying the truths to those who clearly need them the most.

What causes me more despair than perhaps anything is not the stupidity exhibited by politicians who clearly have forsaken integrity (remember when that mattered?) and truth in order to pander to the least enlightened among us. That groveling for short-term gratification in November is endemic in our political system. The dysfunctions exhibited regularly as indicative of the political norm are certainly discouraging enough. (How does Georgia Senator Richard Shelby, for example, manage a straight face when placing a hold on a Fed Reserve nominee because the man is “not qualified” … when the Nobel Committee has seen fit to award that nominee this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics? If it didn’t affect all of us, this kind of disgraceful nuttiness would just be laughable. Hypocrisy is now high art.)

The shamelessness of politicians is now sadly all-too-routine, but the fact that there are so many among us who manage not much more than a shrug is perhaps even more disheartening.

A recent online opinion published on a notorious right wing website (my first—and I hope last—exposure to that particular mainstay of barefaced nonsense) demonstrated what has now become the usual level of factually challenged, paranoid-laden, and depressingly shortsighted commentary about the energy crisis. I then forced myself (a distinctly unpleasant experience, I might add) to read through several dozen comments in support of the author’s inane pseudo-factual tripe about electric cars and fossil fuel resources. The narrow-mindedness those contributors likewise exhibited in marching lock step with the author, replete with their own brand of paranoia; snarky, self-righteous drivel; and an utter disregard for anything even in the vicinity of truth or rational thought, is breathtaking in its scope! I know all too well this wasn’t an isolated incident.

I won’t dignify the commentary or increase traffic to the site by providing the link here (I’ll do so upon request so you can read it yourself), but that pseudo-factual essay suggested (as have others who don’t really understand the problem, and don’t understand that they don’t understand) that we should just expand our oil “imports from friendly nations” as a solution to the problems of reliance on oil from nations whose politics and policies we oppose.

Just like that!? So … what needs to be done? A phone call … will that take care of it? (Gee, why didn’t we think of that sooner?) So what if these friendly nations have to break their agreements with other nations? We’re Americans … we’re entitled to get what we want! A wave of the wand and presto! More imports!

The far right all-too-consistently tosses out these oh-so-helpful hints without bothering to discuss all the (or even any) facts which, in the real world we inhabit, make their suggestions ludicrously impossible to fulfill. Of course, we run the risk of getting bogged down in he said/she-said arguments that quickly devolve into the lowest forms of “debate”, but why let those types of offerings go unchallenged? They feed on themselves, and it is tiresome and time-consuming to have to rebut all the nonsense. But if we don’t, uninformed readers and listeners have no reason to at least consider the possibility that there may indeed be other facts out there that should at least be examined in order to make informed assessments, rather than accepting the words of the few. More information is rarely a bad thing, and giving everyone the opportunity to examine the facts and engage in rational discourse as a means of seeking common ground makes for a healthier and more productive society.

Seems like a decent enough concept….

This same author also helpfully urges us to just boost our domestic production, conveniently neglecting to offer even one fact as to how that’s to be accomplished in a nation that reached peak forty years ago! The strategy of “just utter it and hope no one asks” has been very effective, but it’s hard to find legitimate defenses for that approach if one genuinely cares about the well-being of our fellow travelers.

This writer also cites the U.S. Geological Survey estimate that the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska has “10.4 billion barrels of oil.” Wheeee! We just found about 16 months worth of oil, just like that! (And of course we’ll hoard it all for ourselves, right? I didn’t catch any suggestion that it would go to market.) And what … two, maybe three weeks of drilling on a tiny plot of land oughtta take care of that, correct? Curious that the facts regarding the costs and efforts and time and consequences of drilling in ANWR somehow didn’t make it into the article. (Space restrictions really suck, don’t they?) Disingenuosly (I’m trying to be kind here), he then mentions that this “will replace imports from Saudi Arabia for 20 years” … conveniently omitting the fact that Saudi is just one of our suppliers—and not our leading provider, by the way, so not-so-subtly painting the Saudis as one of our bogeymen may not be quite as effective as he’d hoped. (Damn those facts!)

Using his math—unchallenged—that means in his world we get about 500 million barrels of Saudi oil per year, or about a month’s worth, give or take. (Rounded up, we currently use about 20 million barrels per day here in the U.S. The rest of the math is easy.)

“Saudi Arabia sends 360,934,000 barrels of oil per year (989,000 barrels per day), 20 percent of its total oil exports, to the United States, according to the EIA.”[2]

But what’s a 150 billion barrel exaggeration/40% overstatement of facts among friends, right? It makes the story better, and isn’t that all that really matters? Why worry about the veracity of the narrative when you don’t really care about the present and future plight of your readers and listeners?

As for other suggestions? He did offer that Canada and Mexico could help out by exporting more to the U.S. … the same Canada whose tar sand production shows no indication of reaching a level anywhere near enough to satisfy just our own demands let alone worldwide increasing demand anytime this century; and the same Mexico whose production levels from its largest oil field, Cantarell, has fallen off the cliff in the last few years.

“Pemex says it is getting Cantarell under control, noting that the field’s decline has stabilised at 12 per cent per year – a number many analysts find difficult to believe.
“Cantarell’s production peaked seven years ago at 2.2m barrels a day. Today the field struggles to produce a quarter of that.”[3]

And, oh, by the way:

“Canada reigns as the United States’ leading oil supplier, exporting some 707,316,000 barrels of oil per year (1,938,000 barrels per day) —a whopping 99 percent of its annual oil exports, according to the EIA” [4]

I’m guessing there’s not a lot of room for Canada to do much more than 99%, but why let reality get in the way of some pretty good nonsense. Tweak a few numbers, and our wonderful neighbors to the north should be able to get us somewhere around … what … maybe 162% of their exports? That’s a good number! (If you’re going to make stuff up, try not to go too far over the top.)

Those suggestions oughtta work out just dandy! Thanks!

And just to round out the nonsense (all in one paragraph, mind you) this same writer also informs us that the “continental US has 163 billion barrels of unproven reserves.” Unproven? Why not 163 kajillion barrels; that’s unproven too! He’s relying on “unproven” reserves to bolster his argument? Seriously? Are any of his readers paying any attention at all? Yikes!

The fears of many who feel woefully out of touch and helpless in the face of the current economic crisis (and certainly not without good reason) make it easy to latch onto these “facts” without once taking a deep breath to consider the validity or logic behind the utterances—especially when they’re extended by those in seeming positions of authority or knowledge (and who coincidentally share—and play to—their same intense dislike for government and liberals and assorted other popular bogeymen). To what end?

What is this nonsense designed to accomplish? How does this help us in any way? It would be so helpful if integrity still counted for something when dealing with issues that require a broad consensus (and understanding) for resolution. How can we effectively help enlighten and prepare others who do not have the means or opportunities to learn the truth, especially when one side seems so intent on obliterating it? Where’s the honor in that? So I’ll ask again: How does this help?

How can we as a society hope to properly address the challenges we’ll face when the lack of knowledge in a sizeable portion of our society is so rampant and is so consistently encouraged by a not-insignificant segment of public officials and their sycophant media counterparts?

How do we reach those who clearly need a greater understanding? Peak Oil is not a progressive or liberal agenda. It’s about the facts on and in the ground—facts that affect (and benefit) all of us now, even Tea Partiers and the right-wing machine that works so hard and effectively to cloud the truth. Peak Oil’s impact will also just as surely and adversely affect ardent deniers when the consequences of declining oil production and a warming Earth begin to make their inevitable appearance. By then it will be much too late….

How do we convince the currently un-/ill-informed to empower themselves, to learn that there is in fact other evidence about peak oil that is not (surprise!) about conspiracies, or liberal evil, or an alien, black, Muslim-loving, Socialist-leaning, apologist Martian President? That evidence is what it is: the disturbing truth about our fossil fuel resources and the declining production coupled with increasing demand which will in the years to come make our lives a lot more challenging than we’re prepared to acknowledge or deal with. That’s not pleasant for peak oil proponents either!

What can we do and say to help them understand that peak oil and the climate crisis are not figments of their imaginations easily scorned, but real-life conditions based on real-life facts in a real-life world that will have real-life consequences in their own real lives … much sooner than they’ll be prepared for? We’re all in this, and one’s political leanings or thoughts about government and all the rest will not matter. Peak Oil is not going to single out the fear-mongering, sky-is-falling, loony liberals and preserve the rest!

What help can these citizens expect then from their so-called leaders who so artfully disseminated their fact-free nonsense at a time when genuine leadership and integrity were most needed? Conducting themselves in this manner in crystal-clear reliance on their hope and belief that their followers simply lack the ability or inclination to ferret out the truths for themselves is beyond appalling! And we let it happen! What kind of a nation do we choose to be?

How do you look at a broad swath of an industrial or urban landscape in these times (knowing that there are literally tens of millions of identical scenes playing out across our planet) and honestly believe that the products and production spewing smoke and carbon and exhaust and pollutants into the air—all flowing from our genuinely magnificent innovations and creativity and skill and dedication—have no effect on our atmosphere—cumulatively or otherwise? What kind of delusions are needed to honestly believe that our astonishing levels of progress do not simultaneously carry with them the risks so obvious to so many others among us? What kind of denial mechanisms do these people have in place that allow them to just simply ignore the truth and facts and irrefutable evidence?

Why is the decline of oil production so hard to imagine when we’ve all been exposed to shortages of one kind or another along the way, especially when in this case we are dealing with a finite resource being used with greater demand than ever before? Take a look at those same urban/industrial vistas and ask yourself how can we possibly continue to supply ourselves with enough fossil fuels to keep it all going effortlessly and endlessly—especially when so many millions more seek to emulate our lifestyles in years to come?

How deep must one’s fears and sense of helplessness be that they allow themselves to be manipulated by those who prey on those same fears in order to exploit them for their own selfish gains? How can we help those so clearly in need of truths about our future find their better selves, in the process enabling them to offer their own needed contributions to the dialogue we must continue to engage in?

More worrisome still: How difficult will it be for these people to adjust to declining supplies of energy and the consequences of our warming planet when the people they rely on most have been at best disingenuous, but more truthfully complicit in the slow and steady damage to our society and civilization by exploiting the lack of understanding across the citizenry for their own economic or political gain? These are the people revered as patriots and leaders? How can we expect them to be of any help at all?

Now is the time when citizens need to understand what is at stake. Once we’re up to our eyeballs in declining production and its myriad impacts it’s way, way too late to only then start becoming aware and wonder what to do.

The “What’s The Matter With Kansas Syndrome” has to be among the most disturbingly fascinating themes of modern society. Tens of millions of followers routinely elect officials or hang on the words of those who so clearly do not have their best interests at heart! It’s almost comical in its brazenness now. And come November, we’re likely to see even more demonstrations of this phenomenon. That so many allow themselves to be persuaded of “facts” that are so clearly detrimental to their self-interests, and that they are so unwilling to take time to exercise their own independent gift of thought and reason as we all move closer to cliffs of our own making is amazing! I just wish it were happening in some other place at some other time in history, rather than on my dime!

So what do we do? What kind of nation do we honestly choose to be?

How do we get the message across to so many who are blindly heading for the cliffs?

Sources:

[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/11/truth-lies-here/8246; Truth Lies Here: How can Americans talk to one another—let alone engage in political debate—when the Web allows every side to invent its own facts? By Michael Hirschorn

[2] http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/100726/top-7-us-oil-importers; Top 7 suppliers of oil to the US. Really big oil: Where does the US get its crude? Here’s what you need to know. By News Desk — GlobalPost Editors, Published: July 28, 2010

[3] http://money.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=1033627; Mexico’s Pemex wrestles with oil decline By Carola Hoyos in Campeche, Mexico , Financial Times, 29 Mar 2010

[4] http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/100726/top-7-us-oil-importers; Top 7 suppliers of oil to the US.