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Peak Oil Matters

A fresh perspective on the concept of peak oil and the challenges we face


Archive for March, 2012

There is a Greek proverb I wish every elected federal and state official would recite before starting any talks about our energy policies and challenges: ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.’

In other words, the strength of our nation is dependent upon leaders who are able to see beyond the country’s immediate needs. [1]


This is a continuation of my discussion about the emotional and psychological consequences of a changed lifestyle necessitated when the full effects of Peak Oil are realized, discussed in a study published late last year and well worth reading (academic elements aside). As I noted in the first part of this series, the authors are to be commended for shedding light on an important aspect of Peak Oil’s impact which to date has been given virtually no consideration.

[* Any quotes following are taken from this above-referenced study unless noted otherwise.]

When we are all dealing with the day-to-day impact of Peak Oil in its many manifestations—personal, civic, and commercial—the inconveniences in their many manifestations (and in some instances those consequences will be much more severe than mere inconveniences) will prompt far more than irritation or frustration. Those reactions are best left to the one-time changes to our daily routines and expectations.

When every day from here on in is different because the decline in availability of ready supplies of affordable, high-quality fossil fuels cuts a swath through every element of living which relies in any way upon that availability, we’ll stop being irritated fairly quickly. Anxieties, doubts, worries (take your pick) will all come to the fore—much more so if we have failed to plan. Multiply those predictable emotional and psychological responses by every adult member of your community likewise being impacted, and soon enough we’ll be dealing with community-wide, region-wide, state-wide, and national anxieties and fears that life as we’ve known it has changed.

We won’t wake up one Monday morning and come to this realization, but if we have not entertained plans long, long before the changes come into play, the slide down that slope won’t be much fun, either. Almost every single commercial establishment or professional service you rely upon in any manner depends on the same availability of ready supplies of affordable, high-quality fossil fuels as you do. No one will be left untouched.

What happens to life-as-we-know-it and Business-As-Usual when only 95% of fossil fuels are available? 87%? 75%? 61%? Who gets what? When? How much? How expensive? How often?

Coupled with the impact on our economy, politics, and cultural/society, the no-turning-back changes we’ll all be obliged to deal with will surely impose stresses and strains on even the strongest-willed among us. Citing various professional studies and authorities, the authors point out that group reactions and needs will be vital elements in how we all deal with those consequences and impacts on just about every facet of our day-to-day lives.

The [essential] connections and relationships … are the distribution of power within the group, the establishment and maintenance of communication networks, the emotional bonds among members, and the communal goals of the group … act as the “glue” that bonds group members to one another….[A] group’s success at maintaining this ‘glue’ is mediated by the variables of duration and intensity of stress….[G]roups exposed to unabated stress will eventually experience fatigue, the breakdown of essential linkages and finally collapse. [p. 2141]

The risks to our continued well-being are fairly open-ended. More information, communication, and planning are vitally important; but even the best of intentions and strategies offer no guarantee when so much of what we’ve been accustomed to or expect has been jolted by the reality that we’ve depended on an energy source which is simply not as readily available to us any longer.

The studies and their professional assessments and expertise suggest some rather profound responses and behaviors, and many are not conducive to upbeat outcomes.

Under conditions of extremely structured and consolidated power, low status persons are more reluctant to express their thoughts and opinions for fear of being found in opposition to high status individuals. Inability to communicate true opinions frequently leads to miscalculations in policy decisions and often makes the difference between continued societal unity and societal disintegration [citation/footnote]. [p. 2146]

The impact on communication is clear: truncated communication not only separates leaders from their populace, it limits information flow. The result is poor decision-making at a time when quick, adequate analyses of new information and circumstances coupled with clear, concise, uniform communication among all group members is essential. [p. 2150]

A group’s collective unconscious desire for direction and individual lethargy when faced with the gravity of a crisis situation, colludes to produce a perfect scenario for a political ‘power grab’ and leadership structuring. Under these conditions, democratic processes tend to fail, liberties are eroded, and power is centralized under a central power figure or group. History has a way of repeating itself. Unless constructive changes to current energy policy are formalized and implemented, the United States may experience continued restructuring of leadership and progressive centralization of political power. [p. 2146]

A group’s capacity to survive is dependent upon its skills in organizing its efforts. As a result, disorganized groups show signs of disintegration more readily than organized groups. The ability of a group to coalesce and maintain clarity of purpose is dependent upon its capacity to perform quick, adequate analyses of novel situations, provide clear and concise uniform communication among all group members and maintain the group goal of survival [citation/footnote]. Random trial-and-error behavior, resulting from a lack of clarity of purpose and insufficient information, is detrimental to the attainment of group goals. [p. 2147]

Among the more troubling conclusions drawn is the one which suggests that where no solution appears likely to a “crisis situation”, group effort to achieve a common end diminishes.

As each progressive solution fails, frustration mounts, and individual attempts at survival occur. Groups disintegrate when faced with a threatening situation and the solution involves individual competition. This pattern of evoked responses appears to be based in a simple rational model: if the likely solution to a crisis requires cooperative action, group integration increases. Group disintegration results when the crisis     situation appears to either have no solution or the optimum solution requires individual action….Society will remain intact only while there is a unified purpose that benefits the society as a whole. If the U.S. continues to dissipate its remaining energy on futile efforts to maintain a ‘business as usual’ mentality, then the American public will squander its remaining opportunities to work together with unified purpose; to prepare for the energy crisis at hand. [p. 2148]

What then?

Given the potential consequences across the entire landscape of our culture and industry, are we really willing to just leave this all to chance and/or hope? What possible assurances can we reasonably, rationally, realistically rely upon that unconventional resources, expected technologies, or alternative energies will allow any of us to seamlessly continue on with life as we know it? No one wants to give that any thought of course, but is ignoring the inevitable really our best approach?

Our continuing greatness as a nation has been tested before and it will surely be tested by the realities of Peak Oil. Our individual and collective contributions to confront and overcome the challenges imposed upon us will be invaluable assets, but the process must begin.

A society with a unified vision for resolving its “real” energy issues has the capacity to alter its projected energy path [citation/footnote]. Concentrated focus on a crisis situation retards social growth and can exacerbate existing calamities [citation/footnote]. A clear vision of a desired outcome leads to clarity of purpose among group members, a unified collective objective, and more coordinated pooled resources to achieve the desired outcome. Only through the application of unified purpose will the U.S., as a collective, be able to mediate its voracious use of energy and effectively utilize its remaining resources to wean itself from dependency on oil. [p. 2148]

The steps we need to take are fairly straightforward, summed up nicely by the authors:

The current challenge for the U.S. and other energy intensive, oil driven Western cultures is to develop a shared vision for an energy independent future that:
(1)  Acknowledges the biophysical constraints of reality,
(2)  Effectively envisions the true collective objective,
(3)  Clearly states goals, and
(4)  Establishes flexible and evolving methods of implementation [citation/footnote]….

In practical terms, a unified purpose would provide the U.S. with a social process to determine how to best use existing natural resources, employ sustainable practices, and plan for an ‘energy independent’ future. The actions we take today have the potential to exponentially affect the world of tomorrow. If steps are taken to avert the coming energy crisis and develop a low energy intensive society, we may still be able to avert many, and possibly all, of the above outcomes. [p. 2148-2149]

Optimist that I am, and firm believer in our collective abilities to rise to any challenge—even one of the magnitude of Peak Oil—I agree wholeheartedly with the authors’ concluding comments. But the objectives they set forth won’t happen by wishful thinking, denial, or delusions about the abundance of “massive” reserves just waiting to be drawn out from below our feet.

The capacity for the United States to alter its current and projected economic and energy course is dependent upon its leaders’ abilities to formulate and effectively communicate a clear vision and unified purpose in the energy field, establish clear renewable energy goals, commit to a rigorous energy-use reduction plan, prioritize energy research, and implement an energy policy that creates a viable energy future. The American populace will need to acknowledge the reality of biophysical constraints, and embrace a renewable, energy efficient ‘American way of life’. [p. 2150]



[Citation to referenced study:]; Lambert, Jessica G.; Lambert, Gail P. 2011. “Predicting the Psychological Response of the American People to Oil Depletion and Declining Energy Return on Investment (EROI).” Sustainability 3, no. 11: 2129-2156.

[1]; America, get real about the high cost of cheap gas by LZ Granderson – 05.17.11

NOTE: In an effort to provide another platform for at least some of the insightful and important work being done by many others hoping to make our planet and its citizens a bit safer, healthier, and better-informed about matters affecting us all, from time to time I’ll turn blog space here on Peak Oil Matters over to guests.

As the bio on his Deep Green blog offers:

Rex Weyler was a director of the original Greenpeace Foundation, the editor of the organisation’s first newsletter, and a co-founder of Greenpeace International in 1979.
He was a photographer and reporter on the early Greenpeace whale and seal campaigns, and has written one of the best and most comprehensive histories of the organisation, Greenpeace (Raincoast, 2004). His book, Blood of the Land, a history of the American Indian Movement, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Recently, Rex offered a terrific, informative, and to-the-point essay on the reality of Peak Oil. Given his reputation and stature in the environmental field, this work adds more than a bit of credibility and weight to important messages I and fellow Peak Oil proponents are trying to share. More information and education about what we face can only help.

I’m delighted to offer Rex’s recent articlePeak oil is real and will stunt any economic recovery.” It’s a great read and I want to thank Rex for giving me permission to share it. Enjoy!

15 March 2012

During the last century, society squandered 500 million years of captured sunlight on drag races, traffic jams, private jets and overheated office buildings – warns campaign group

Oil company cheerleaders proclaiming huge supplies of oil are dead wrong. Peak oil is as real as rain, and it is here now. Not 2050. Not 2020. Now. Oil production has been flat since 2005. This is not by choice. The producers cannot increase production because new fields cannot keep pace with declining production from old fields. The plateau is the top of the global depletion curve. Furthermore, this end of energy growth only accounts for volume. Energy quality and net-energy are falling like stones as environmental devastation increases. Every producing oil field on earth is in decline, unless it is brand new, and peak discoveries are well behind us. Meanwhile, the aggregate decline rate appears to be about 5 per cent per year. To maintain world production, we would need to bring a new Saudi Arabia – equivalent to three billion barrels annually – into full production every three years. There exists on earth not one single promising field that remotely approaches those requirements.

oil production
(The oil plateau: The calm before the decline. Reference: The Oil Drum.)

When you read or hear about “10 billion barrels” of oil discovered somewhere, here is how to think about that – a third of that is probably not recoverable or entirely illusory. The recoverable portion will require a billion barrels of oil equivalent energy to produce; in the tar sands it would take three billion barrels. What is left, about five or six billion barrels, equates to about a two-month supply for humanity. Two months. We will not “run out of oil” because, simply, we will never get it all. What petroleum geologists point out is that all oil fields have a production curve, a peak and a decline. Therefore, the earth’s total supply has a peak and decline.

But that is not all, the volume decline includes a decline in quality and net energy. As oil fields reach old age, energy returned on energy invested plummets and production costs soar for a lower quality product. Over the last century, oil producers have high-graded earth’s energy storehouse, and the best net-energy reserves disappeared 70 years ago. Oil in its heyday – the 1930 and 1940s – produced 100:1 net-energy, a hundred barrels out for one barrel of energy invested. Today, oil fields range from 20:1 to 10:1. The United States average is 11:1. We are now digging into the 3:1 net-energy tar sands. Energy expert Howard Odum warned of the net energy curve in the 1970s and geologist Marion King Hubbert graphed the oil decline in the 1950s.

oil discovery and production
(Peak discoveries occurred 50 years ago. Reference: Exxon Mobile, from The Oil Drum.)

United States oil production peaked in 1970, exactly as Hubbert predicted. In this era, the US spent millions to topple governments in oil nations and install US-friendly dictators such as Shah Pahlavi in Iran. Lately, America has spent billions to fight its own creations – Saddam Hussein, the Taliban – to gain access to the oil fields. They now contemplate opening a front in Syria to go after Iranian oil, for which they lost control when the Iranians toppled their puppet Shah.

In 2010, the US Military Joint Forces Command predicted the end of “surplus oil production capacity” – their way of saying “peak oil” – and warned “the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10-million barrels per day”. They also predicted that this oil decline “would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds” and “such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and have serious economic impact on China and India”. This is the US military talking. When politicians tell you the next war is “not about the oil” – rest assured it is about the oil.

In 1912, as the British navy switched from coal to oil Winston Churchill said flatly: “You have got to find the oil – purchased regularly and cheaply in peace, and with absolute certainty in war.” In the end, the Second World War was about oil and won by oil. During the war, the US produced 880 million tons of oil, Russia 100 million tons, Japan five million tons, and Germany 30 million tons; and most of this by expensive coal-to-liquid technology. Germany entered North Africa to secure oil and entered Russia to reach the Caspian Baku oil fields. German minister for war production Albert Speer conceded in his post war interrogation: “The need for oil certainly was a prime motive.” They failed, and the German war machine literally ran out of gas – as Rommel abandoned his empty, fuel-gobbling tanks in the Libyan Desert. Prior to the 1990 Gulf War, US Defence Secretary Dick Cheney revealed: “We’re there because the fact of the matter is that part of the world controls the world supply of oil, and whoever controls the supply of oil would have a stranglehold on the world economy.” So there you have it. All this bloodshed is over dwindling oil reserves and the pipelines to deliver the black goop to refineries and markets.

Charles Hall, at the State University of New York, has calculated that it is not possible to run our complex civilisation on a net-energy below about 6:1 – because society needs that reserve energy to run its transportation, agriculture, health systems and so forth. The tar sands 3:1 net energy is simply pathetic. A salmon does better chasing herring. An Amish farmer gets 10:1 net energy with hand tools. I suspect most of the industry cheerleaders talking about “giant discoveries” and “energy gluts” know this. Still, they spin every new oil discovery as an arrival in the Promised Land, pump stock plays and promote their industry. In our world, that is legal. But it is not really honest. In April 2011, chief economist of the International Energy Agency Fatih Birol revealed what the industry knows: “We think that the crude oil production has already peaked, in 2006.”

And since the population is growing, peak oil per capita occurred in 1979. We have now reached the absolute peak. Without increasing energy sources, we cannot increase economic activity. We can print money and harvest the earth’s assets and make it look like growth – for a while – but the piper will be paid. Nature shall not be mocked. In 2008, when the economy appeared to be roaring and traders pitched mortgage-backed securities on unsuspecting clients, energy production had ceased growing. As a result, the oil price almost tripled from $50 per barrel to $147. This equated to a $3 trillion increase to the world’s annual energy bill, which sucked discretionary income from every other market and helped crash the global economy.

When the economy collapsed, oil prices fell. But as economies recover even slightly, the price will rise again since supply is restrained. Blaming the US President Barack Obama for rising energy prices is another con job. Blame nature. She just cannot make more of the stuff fast enough. During the last century, society burned the best half of recoverable hydrocarbons that represented 500 million years of captured sunlight; a one-time storehouse of high quality, concentrated energy. We squandered it on drag races, traffic jams, private jets and overheated office buildings. We burned this valuable asset and called it “income.” If you did that in your home, you would go bankrupt. Peak oil is real. The consequences – at best – will be a slowly scaled-down industrial civilisation. If we continue to ignore these facts, the consequences will be far worse. Nature just is not sentimental.

Rex Weyler is an executive member of the Vancouver Peak Oil campaign group

[First in a series]

Back in November, Naomi Klein offered a fascinating and thought-provoking essay in Nation magazine entitled “Capitalism vs. the Climate” in which she discussed the transformative changes needed if we are to successfully (not a guarantee) and thoroughly address the challenges of our warming planet. Her insights and observations can easily be adapted to the similar considerations and challenges Peak Oil will extend to us as well. Taken together, the confluence of these looming impositions on our once-cozy ways of life mandate responses far more expansive than a policy here or a tweak there. Ms. Klein offers us all a well-reasoned approach for both how and why.

Every Monday for the next seven weeks, I’ll take advantage of her arguably controversial yet well-reasoned assessments to elaborate and extend the thought process as it applies to Peak Oil. [A related recent post can be found here.]

[* Any quotes following are taken from Ms. Klein’s essay in Nation unless noted otherwise.]

The fact that the earth’s atmosphere cannot safely absorb the amount of carbon we are pumping into it is a symptom of a much larger crisis, one born of the central fiction on which our economic model is based: that nature is limitless, that we will always be able to find more of what we need, and that if something runs out it can be seamlessly replaced by another resource that we can endlessly extract. But it is not just the atmosphere that we have exploited beyond its capacity to recover—we are doing the same to the oceans, to freshwater, to topsoil and to biodiversity. The expansionist, extractive mindset, which has so long governed our relationship to nature, is what the climate crisis calls into question so fundamentally. The abundance of scientific research showing we have pushed nature beyond its limits does not just demand green products and market-based solutions; it demands a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal—and acutely sensitive to natural limits, including the limits of human intelligence.

Aside from delusion and denial, what would lead an otherwise intelligent person to just blithely assume that natural resources are limitless or that there won’t be drastic changes as the supplies start to slide down the other side of the slope? These changes, by the way, might be offering at least the hint of a suggestion that some planning would be a good idea … and well in advance to boot.

How can that same intelligence leave one thinking that the technological and industrial growth we both marvel at and use in stunning, creative ways, carries no impact on the surrounding environment? What kind of magical thinking leads one to believe that the cumulative effects of billions upon billions of automobile and commercial vehicle and airline trips over decades—each and every one adding a small or not-so-small measure of exhaust into the surrounding air, combined with the industrial and factory emissions spewing out in their own steady streams over those many decades from all four corners and in countlessly creative yet damaging ways—have done nothing at all to the atmosphere or environment?

We didn’t worry too much about these things back in 765 A.D., or 1393, or 1876, or the Roaring Twenties. But now, in a complex, technologically-advanced industrial and commercial world none of those generations could have envisioned at their most imaginative, we still shrug our shoulders and tell ourselves “all is well”? I remain wedded to the belief that we’re so much better than that. We just need to give ourselves permission to demonstrate it more assertively.

Facts—the kinds we have all used all of our lives to base all kinds of personal and financial and professional decisions from the insignificant to the magnificent—suddenly have limited application and utility when it comes to perhaps the two greatest challenges to mankind’s continuing prosperity we’ve ever confronted! Seriously? (If you are a betting man or woman, which odds do you prefer: the ones offering a much better than 50/50 chance of a particular outcome, or do 3% odds of a different outcome work better for you? 5%?)

Those facts tell us with some considerable degree of certainty that we have reached the limits of easy, accessible, high-quality energy resources which make … everything possible, just as a similar set of facts (which some 97% of those with far greater knowledge than most of us confirm with considerable certainty) tell us we have a warming planet with a broad array of drastic consequences. Not guaranteed, I agree.

But since when is Perfect, 100% Guarantee Every Time All The Time the standard we must now apply to climate change and fossil fuel depletion? Do business owners plan act using that standard? NFL head coaches? Surgeons? Electricians? Farmers? Politicians? Everyone for every decision? That’s about the best, most effective method of ensuring nothing is done at all. Hmmmm. I wonder who might benefit most from that strategy?

We have radio blowhards and nitwit politicians and perfect-hair media personalities insisting that this is indeed the measure we must utilize before accepting climate and energy facts, while assuring the masses this is all just nonsense anyhow … just a gigantic liberal conspiracy!

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t put too much stock in any of these loons offering a sound assessment about my medical condition, or financial strategies, the plumbing in my home, or which toothpaste to buy. Would you? Yet far too many of us place our future well-being in the hands of these same morons when they have no greater experience or expertise in these two vital matters than Homer Simpson! At the very least, this merits a serious “What The F*ck!?

Ten thousand or fifty thousand years ago, whether the planet warmed or not as part of some natural geological cycle is irrelevant to what is happening now for one simple reason: we weren’t there, then! Our industrial society wasn’t there, nor were there 7 billion other fellow travelers.

Should we march to a tune which suggests that those thousands-of-years-ago consequences on a barely-inhabited planet supporting an ultra-simplistic lifestyle from top to bottom are every bit as relevant and applicable to what will happen in the 21st Century? Wow!

And so too is it just as irrelevant what did or did not happen as was or was not predicted about oil supplies fifty or eighty years ago. This industrial, highly-advanced, technologically sophisticated, interconnected world with 7 plus billion people wasn’t impacting fossil fuel production back then as we all do now. There’s no rational comparison to be made!

And given that many billions of people are just now coming into their own industrially and technologically, just as their successful “models” have been for decades here in the United States, the demands to leapfrog their societies into something resembling our own calls for needed energy resources on a scale unimaginable even just a few decades ago. We’ve consumed a fair amount of them in those intervening years while warming our planet, and what’s left for us just isn’t as “good.” And now we have to meet not just our own demands, so too must the dwindling pool of resources be shared by billions more. The math just doesn’t work….Facts!

Ms. Klein offered answers to the one question too few of us ask of those who work so diligently to convince others to deny: Why are they doing that?

… [T]he real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system—one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work and radically reins in corporate power.

…[I]f you ask [certain groups of climate change deniers], climate change makes some kind of left-wing revolution virtually inevitable, which is precisely why they are so determined to deny its reality.

For example, among the segment of the US population that displays the strongest ‘hierarchical’ views, only 11 percent rate climate change as a ‘high risk,’ compared with 69 percent of the segment displaying the strongest ‘egalitarian’ views. Yale law professor Dan Kahan, the lead author on this study **, attributes this tight correlation between ‘worldview’ and acceptance of climate science to ‘cultural cognition.’ This refers to the process by which all of us—regardless of political leanings—filter new information in ways designed to protect our ‘preferred vision of the good society.’ As Kahan explained in Nature, ‘People find it disconcerting to believe that behaviour that they find noble is nevertheless detrimental to society, and behaviour that they find base is beneficial to it. Because accepting such a claim could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it.’ In other words, it is always easier to deny reality than to watch your worldview get shattered.

Where is the advantage in being “wrong” about what we must deal with so as to continue receipt of peer approval, if being wrong ultimately harms you and yours far more than will a display of courage and integrity to accept the truth and make needed changes?

Do we just meekly submit to a misguided notion that the well-off “deserve” whatever they’ve acquired regardless of the impact upon or consequences to society at large, and so until the rest of us poor slobs reach those same heights we just have to accept a skewed system which favors the 1% at everyone else’s continuing expense?

To me, the bigger question remains unchanged: What is the Goal? What is it that we are trying to achieve not just for 99%, but for 100% of us … beyond next week or next month? Should we continue to care about the process, or is the outcome genuinely more important not just today, but long term?

Under current conditions here and world-wide, do we really think that there is much opportunity for most of us? The odds are stacked against it: climate change, the damaging, long-lasting effects of this prolonged Great Recession, and Peak Oil make business-as-usual growth potentials all but inconceivable for the foreseeable future … at best!

So why not try to change the “systems” so that more of us benefit in more ways under the changed conditions and circumstances our great achievements have also produced—however unintended and “blameless” they may be?

Just getting started….

** Yale University’s Cultural Cognition Project, which found that political and cultural world views explain “individuals’ beliefs about global warming more powerfully than any other individual characteristic.” Ms. Klein then elaborates on those findings:

Those with strong ‘egalitarian’ and ‘communitarian’ worldviews (marked by an inclination toward collective action and social justice, concern about inequality and suspicion of corporate power) overwhelmingly accept the scientific consensus on climate change. On the other hand, those with strong ‘hierarchical’ and ‘individualistic’ worldviews (marked by opposition to government assistance for the poor and minorities, strong support for industry and a belief that we all get what we deserve) overwhelmingly reject the scientific consensus.

[NOTE: This part of a developing series (which began here) related to Peak Oil, but addressing the considerations and potential solutions from a different perspective than purely fact-based and/or he-said—she-said perspectives. With the caveat that I have NO professional expertise/training in psychology or its related fields, I’ll look at emotional and psychological “tricks” and traits we all use—Left, Right, and in-between—to bolster our beliefs and opinions as we do battle with our “opponents” in the increasingly polarized political forums which too-often dominate our culture.

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else-by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate   – Francis Bacon [courtesy of David McRaney]

As I observed in that first post of this Looking Left and Right series: ‘We all act much the same way, ideologies notwithstanding. Human nature, I suppose. The more important questions: might we benefit from a bit of introspection before doing more of the same….We obviously wouldn’t be making use of these psychological tricks of the trade if they didn’t provide us with benefits and gratifications. So is that it? Shrug our shoulders, admit that we are all guilty from time to time and then … nothing?
‘Might we consider the possibility of being ‘ ‘ better’ ’ than that? If we choose to solve what might appear at first blush to be overwhelming and even insoluble problems, we need more. We need more from our systems, more from our leaders, and more from ourselves.’
There is a great deal at stake for all us, and we might all be better served understanding not just what we do in asserting and defending our beliefs, policies, and opinions, but why. Appreciating that might make a world of difference … literally!]

In his excellent book, Collapse, scientist Jared Diamond looked at a number of societies that had seen their physical climates change. He tried to determine what made some cultures die out while others persevered. According to Diamond, it wasn’t the severity of the change, or its speed that was the determining factor. One important variable was the foresight of those societies’ leaders — their ability to properly diagnose the problem and adapt, to come up with proactive solutions to the problems they faced.
[Quoting Diamond]: ‘[O]ne always has to ask about people’s cultural response. Why is it that people failed to perceive the problems developing around them, or if they perceived them, why did they fail to solve the problems that would eventually do them in? Why did some peoples perceive and recognize their problems and others not?’ [1]

Good questions … ones we need to find answers for before too long. Now would be an excellent time to start.

More and more we respond by shutting out the assault of cognitive dissonance and retreating from any unwelcome input. We surround ourselves with news outlets, friends and even neighbors who carefully reinforce what we want to believe. We are building our own reality to support our chosen narrative. It doesn’t seem to be working out well on a personal level and it’s rotting our politics. [2]

Liberals! Right-Wingers! Environmentalists! Big Oil! Doomers! Deniers! On and on are the labels applied, each utterance displaying more contempt, disrespect, and enmity than the last. I’ve certainly done my part to contribute.

Is this the best we have to offer? The ideal problem-solving model to pass on to future generations (assuming we’ll still have many left)?

Economic woes have not yet run their course. Millions too-many of our fellow citizens have no job, no savings, and little hope for “better” anytime soon. Our planet is warming; oil supply has been on a precarious plateau for more than a handful of years now … facts bear that out; opinions and ideologies and hopes/expectations suggest otherwise.

Elected officials pandering to the worst while the wealthy inject themselves and their money far too deeply into our politics now define too much of our democracy. Congress couldn’t issue a unanimous proclamation honoring each of their membership’s own mothers, yet we expect them to lead out of this long-developing mess without so much as mussing anyone’s hair. If Plan A doesn’t solve the problem, then let’s just be sure someone else has to pay or do or sacrifice under Plan B.

Is this the best we have to offer? Is our best/only hope more of the same?

ALL of our positions on issues arise in part out of a subconscious desire for social cohesion and safety. In other words, they are not purely a matter of free conscious will.
But we are not absolute slaves to these instincts. We do have will. We can reason. We are all responsible to some degree for our choices and behavior, responsible not only to ourselves, but to each other….[3]

But there are “obstacles” which prevent us from speaking with one another rather than at or past each other. Understanding these obstacles, respecting what they intend to provide, but then moving beyond them if they cannot serve greater purposes as we commit ourselves to finding meaningful, lasting solutions and plans to the challenges we face—climate change, economic growth, and energy supplies chief among them—is the task at hand, and for all of us….

Relying solely on others as our primary strategy has run its course. Too much is at stake to leave it all to those others who too often demonstrate that what motivates them is far different than the desires and needs we expect them to address.

So, let’s look at a few of the predominant obstacles for starters, and then delve more deeply into them—and how they influence us—as this series develops. [Bold/Underline mine]:

The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.
The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.…
Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens them instead. Over time, the backfire effect helps make you less skeptical of those things which allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.
Psychologists call stories like these narrative scripts, stories that tell you what you want to hear, stories which confirm your beliefs and give you permission to continue feeling as you already do. [4]

What’s going on? How can we have things so wrong, and be so sure that we’re right? Part of the answer lies in the way our brains are wired. Generally, people tend to seek consistency. There is a substantial body of psychological research showing that people tend to interpret information with an eye toward reinforcing their preexisting views. If we believe something about the world, we are more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms our beliefs, and actively dismiss information that doesn’t. This is known as ‘motivated reasoning.’ Whether or not the consistent information is accurate, we might accept it as fact, as confirmation of our beliefs. This makes us more confident in said beliefs, and even less likely to entertain facts that contradict them. [5]

There is some phenomenon—other than the paucity or inaccessibility of scientific information—that shapes the distribution of factual beliefs about, and the existence of political conflict over, law and public policy. What is it?
The answer, we propose, is a set of processes we call cultural cognition. Essentially, cultural commitments are prior to factual beliefs on highly charged political issues….culture is prior to facts in the cognitive sense that what citizens believe about the empirical consequences of those policies derives from their cultural worldviews. Based on a variety of overlapping psychological mechanisms, individuals accept or reject empirical claims about the consequences of controversial polices based on their vision of a good society….
The same psychological and social processes that induce individuals to form factual beliefs consistent with their cultural orientation will also prevent them from perceiving contrary empirical data to be credible. Cognitive-dissonance avoidance will steel individuals to resist empirical data that either threatens practices they revere or bolsters ones they despise, particularly when accepting such data would force them to disagree with individuals they respect….
One constraint on the disposition of individuals to accept empirical evidence that contradicts their culturally conditioned beliefs is the phenomenon of biased assimilation. This phenomenon refers to the tendency of individuals to condition their acceptance of new information as reliable based on its conformity to their prior beliefs….
Two additional mechanisms reinforce the tendency to see new information as unreliable when it challenges a culturally congenial belief. The first is naïve realism. This phenomenon refers to the disposition of individuals to view the factual beliefs that predominate in their own cultural group as the product of ‘objective’ assessment, and to attribute the contrary factual beliefs of their cultural and ideological adversaries to the biasing influence of their worldviews….the truth will be held up at the border precisely because it originates from an alien cultural destination. The second mechanism that     constrains societal transmission of truth—reactive devaluation—is the tendency of individuals who belong to a group to dismiss the persuasiveness of evidence proffered by their adversaries in settings of intergroup conflict. [6 – with citations]

So we all employ these “tactics” at times—unconsciously, so it seems. How’s it working for us so far?

Just getting started … much more to come.


[1]; How Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories May Pose a Genuine Threat to Humanity by Joshua Holland – 12.25.11
[2]; Where the Crazy May Be Coming From, by Chris Ladd – 09.16.11
[3]; The Heartland Institute and “Climate DenialGate” by David Ropeik – 02.16.12
[4]; The Backfire Effect by David McRaney – 06.10.11
[5]; How facts backfire: Researchers discover a surprising threat to democracy: our brains by Joe Keohane – 07.11.10
[6]; [link to PDF download]. Cultural Cognition and Public Policy by Dan M. Kahan, Yale University – Law School; Harvard Law School and Donald Barman – George Washington University – Law School; Cultural Cognition Project – Yale Law & Policy Review, Vol. 24, pp 147 – 169, Public Law Working Paper No. 87 – 2006

Yet another in the seemingly endless string of cherry-picked story lines attempting to put to rest the “theory” of Peak Oil has found its way onto the internet, completely unremarkable in the talking points offered, which I’ll get to. What was most striking was not so much the uniform lack of understanding on the part of all but a handful of commenters.

The blatant, racist stupidity of several caught me completely by surprise. I didn’t think that offensive nonsense had found its way into the Peak Oil conversation, but Racist Ignorance is alive and well in this arena, unfortunately. But any forum will do, I guess….And the relevance of that conversation to Peak Oil is … what?) In this day and age, that moronic tripe still flourishes … amazing! (And of course, the continuing nonsense about the fascist-socialist-Kenyan-Muslim President out to destroy America hasn’t abated any, judging by some of the other comments.) Ironic that those who lament and fear what this nation is coming to fail to appreciate the fact that the paranoid garbage they parrot is a primary cause and symptom. Each and all of us need to be better than this. We’ll need no less in the years to come.

I probably should not be as stunned (and dismayed) as I was, given the nonsense that passes for mush of the political discourse today, but it is striking to see how many people seem utterly incapable of stepping back and considering a bit of reality, even if it is at the expense of a carefully-tended, fear-based ideology. The commentary tarnished my optimism, but only temporarily. Best not to give that ignorance any more attention….

A sampling of what that article had to offer, beginning with the almost-obligatory snarky comment passing for relevance to the discussion [my bold/italic]:

‘With only 2% of the world’s oil reserves, we can’t just drill our way to lower gas prices,‘ [President Obama] said. ‘Not when we consume 20% of the world’s oil.’
The claim makes it appear as though the U.S. is an oil-barren nation, perpetually dependent on foreign oil and high prices unless we can cut our own use and develop alternative energy sources like algae.

Nice touch … bona fides duly established. But just in case there’s doubt, we start with the magic words [my bold/italic] from Page One of the Deniers’ Playbook [see this]:

[F]ar from being oil-poor, the country is awash in vast quantities — enough to meet all the country’s oil needs for hundreds of years.

And then more selective facts, without context or even a bit of accompanying, vital information to educate and inform. Only a handful of knowledgeable commenters bothered to discuss the claims and provide missing context, given that most of them were much too focused on slamming the aforementioned socialist-Muslim yadda, yadda, yadda. How does perpetuating ignorance and/or lack of understanding help in any way?

A sampling [my bold/italic]:

At least 86 billion barrels of oil in the Outer Continental Shelf yet to be discovered, according to the government’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

About 24 billion barrels in shale deposits in the lower 48 states, according to EIA.

Up to 2 billion barrels of oil in shale deposits in Alaska’s North Slope, says the U.S. Geological Survey.

Up to 12 billion barrels in ANWR, according to the USGS.

As much as 19 billion barrels in the Utah tar sands, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

Then, there’s the massive Green River Formation in Wyoming, which according to the USGS contains a stunning 1.4 trillion barrels of oil shale — a type of oil released from sedimentary rock after it’s heated.

When you include oil shale, the U.S. has 1.4 trillion barrels of technically recoverable oil, according to the Institute for Energy Research, enough to meet all U.S. oil needs for about the next 200 years, without any imports.

For starters, Chris Nelder recently offered a healthy dose of reality about shale.

Even those with no knowledge about oil production whatsoever might find some reasonable answers to these questions: How difficult might it be to find, extract, and then produce oil from near the North Pole? Think there might be an issue or two? Perhaps some weather concerns? Maybe just a bit more expensive? More difficult? Riskier? Might take a while, too.

As for “a type of oil released from sedimentary rock after it’s heated”: kerogen is not exactly the same thing as the oil we’ve all seen gushing from wells. Despite several decades of effort, it’s still not a commercially feasible enterprise. And the “after it’s heated” part is just a bit more complicated that the author bothers to explain. [See this, for example.] But inconvenient facts just get in the way….

Perhaps as remarkable as anything, however, was this statement by the author, which almost all of his commenters failed to mention or apparently even notice:

To be sure, energy companies couldn’t profitably recover all this oil — even at today’s prices — and what they could wouldn’t make it to market for years.

See … that’s kinda the whole problem with being “awash” in “vast” quantities….A bazillion barrels of anything buried underground, or in the Arctic, or otherwise not extracted by conventional means will stay right there if there’s no profit to be made. High prices might of course make some companies willing to go for it, but what wasn’t mentioned is the fact that high costs on their end means higher prices for us consumers (even the ignorant, racist ones). That’s not a good thing, and thus not especially helpful.

Telling someone that within walking distance of their home are millions and millions of dollars in local banks is all fine and well. But if that someone can’t get any of it, the amounts stop being impressive fairly quickly. Vast quantities of inferior, unconventional oil tucked away for many more decades is not any different. Impressive totals, but mostly useless to us. Those kinds of added facts would be ever-so-helpful to the many who clearly do not yet appreciate the challenges of Peak Oil.

And not making it “to market for years” … that’s kinda problematic, too. See, shocking as it is, conventional fields—the ones we’ve been tapping into for decades now—are depleting. Every day. They’re not limitless. Worldwide demand is increasing. More of those conventional crude supplies are also being kept by the producers to satisfy demands in their own countries. More for them, less for us. Easy math!

As I and others in the know point out day after day: the United States uses in the neighborhood of 18 million barrels of oil per day, about half of which we still import. Getting all of these inferior, unconventional supplies (and shale, tar sands, etc. are most definitely not the same as conventional crude) to a point where they will meet just our demands, let alone contribute to world supply, is decades away at best, if ever. And all the while, worldwide demand is still increasing and existing fields are still depleting.

These magical supplies Mr. Merline speaks of are harder to get to (thus more expensive); they require more refining (thus more expensive); their rate of production is much less than the ever-dwindling supplies of conventional crude; the energy efficiency quality is not the same; and in general, much more time, effort, expense, and risk is required to produce what’s left. This is good news?

[I am neither a psychologist nor owner of a degree in that field. I do not play one on television, and so my layman’s interpretations which follow should be read with that understanding….]

The human mind is a fascinating piece of machinery….

One issue about which I have come across almost no discussion is neatly summed up by a fascinating study I found late in 2011. The authors are to be commended for shedding light on a very real, very important aspect of Peak Oil’s impact which to date has been given virtually no consideration. [That paper was part of a special series on EROI—Energy Return on Investment—by MPDI, a publisher of peer-reviewed, open access journals. Link to the twenty-one EROI articles is here.]

[* Any quotes following are taken from this above-referenced study unless noted otherwise.]

The authors begin with several important observations:

No one knows for sure what the psychological or sociological ramifications of declining oil availability will be, but it is important to begin evaluating and preparing for the social aspects of what might be a very different future. [p. 2131]

It appears clear that the impending energy crisis will create technological issues and political problems. What is far less clear is the impact on societal processes and more generally on the psychological well being of citizens. [p. 2130]

My only comment to those statements is to suggest we’d be foolish to ignore the possibility of and potential for emotional and/or psychological consequences when the impact of Peak Oil is being felt by all of us—personally, culturally, and commercially. As I and many others in the Peak Oil community have urged, almost no aspect of our individual or community lives (local, regional, and national) will escape the effects of declining oil production and what that means for all of us who rely on a ready supply of fossil fuels every single day. That world will be a very different place….

A consistent theme of this blog has been to try and impress upon readers the absolutely mandatory requirement that planning at all levels of government and in all aspects of daily living at home and in commerce must begin. The breadth of fossil fuel’s importance to all we do and have may unfortunately only be fully appreciated when restrictions of one sort or another come into play. If that’s when most of us first start paying attention, we’re in a world of trouble … literally!

Americans will need to acknowledge the reality of biophysical constraints if they are to adapt to the coming energy crisis. [p. 2129]

No one can accurately predict how depletion of the crude oil fields we’ve all relied upon for decades and/or declining exports—each poorly substituted for by inferior energy quality unconventional sources (tar sands, shale oil) or far more expensive and not-so-readily available supplies from deep waters or other inhospitable locales—will play out as industries attempt to cope with less supply trying to keep up with increasing worldwide demand. How will our own lives will be impacted when filling up our vehicles with gas from our friendly neighborhood gas station is no longer the unthinking, automatic option we’ve all come to expect?

And when that is happening—perhaps in only some locations at first, or perhaps instead to all of us on some as yet unknown schedule—the trips to work (assuming declining supplies haven’t shuttered those doors), or to visit friends across town, or family in the next state, or your children’s pediatrician two towns over, or grocery shopping at the supermarket a bit more than two miles away, etc., etc., etc.—how calmly and rationally might we expect our fellow citizens to just accept all of this and adapt overnight?

If you rely on fossil fuels in any manner (and unless you are one of the castaways on Gilligan’s Island, that would be … everyone!), the ever-dwindling supplies of quality, affordable, always-available fossil fuels over the course of a decade or two in the not-so-distant future are going to whack you and me and everyone else upside the head. No one will be immune from the consequences. Whatever satisfactions denial has afforded some to that point will prove to be a monumental regret if nothing has been done between now and then.

… [T]he most likely scenario is that Americans (and others) will not be happy about any reduction in their lifestyle as measured by traditional economic criteria. Many researchers believe that Western societies will probably experience significant social-psychological disruption and even societal disintegration. [p. 2130]

Ever the optimist that I am, I’m inclined to believe/hope that not being happy is a more likely outcome than societal disintegration (although “not being happy” will be by far the best outcome, and that’s a very polite spin on an experience likely to provoke far more than a wee bit of disappointment). But no planning at all invites some fairly horrendous consequences when several billion people, stunned leaders, and impotent businesses find out that our late 20th and early 21st century civilization has been turned upside down and inside out, with no viable last-minute solutions to return us all back to”normal.” Normal will have left the building long before.

If energy is as important for civilization and our economy as we believe, and if and as traditional liquid fossil fuel energy supplies decrease in quality and quantity while the human population continues to grow, we are forced to ask: ‘How will individuals and small groups within a population accustomed to an increasing and seemingly unending supply of cheap and abundant oil react when faced with a future of declining oil availability?’ [p. 2131]

Denial is deemed pathological if there is an unwavering rejection of a highly undesirable fact about a present situation in the face of evidence that is clearly perceived and generally regarded by others as “unquestionable” [citation]. The resulting impaired judgment appears to be the handiwork of conscious suppression coupled with unconscious repression colluding to create and maintain a ‘pseudo-optimistic’ attitude….We ask, ‘What will happen when reality sets in, when the world’s oil production peak is finally conclusively verified and we start the slide back down the energy curve? Will we futilely attempt to hold fast to our comforting delusions’? [p. 2133]

Good question! I’m not optimistic—at this moment—that there are any answers worth mentioning. That’s not a good start.

… [F]or groups to survive, they must have, at a minimum, a unified sense of direction or path that, if followed, will assure survival and stable patterns of interdependencies and ‘linkages’. [p. 2141]

How does that work if our political leaders aren’t being honest with us and industry is doing its damnedest to paper over the truth with its odd assortment of half-truths, disingenuous, cherry-picked misrepresentations, and outright denial and nonsense?

More to come….

Citation to referenced study:; Lambert, Jessica G.; Lambert, Gail P. 2011. “Predicting the Psychological Response of the American People to Oil Depletion and Declining Energy Return on Investment (EROI).” Sustainability 3, no. 11: 2129-2156.

[NOTE: This part of a developing series (which began here) related to Peak Oil, but addressing the considerations and potential solutions from a different perspective than purely fact-based and/or he-said—she-said perspectives. With the caveat that I have NO professional expertise/training in psychology or its related fields, I’ll look at emotional and psychological “tricks” and traits we all use—Left, Right, and in-between—to bolster our beliefs and opinions as we do battle with our “opponents” in the increasingly polarized political forums which too-often dominate our culture.

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else-by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate   – Francis Bacon [courtesy of David McRaney]

As I observed in that first post of this Looking Left and Right series: ‘We all act much the same way, ideologies notwithstanding. Human nature, I suppose. The more important questions: might we benefit from a bit of introspection before doing more of the same….We obviously wouldn’t be making use of these psychological tricks of the trade if they didn’t provide us with benefits and gratifications. So is that it? Shrug our shoulders, admit that we are all guilty from time to time and then … nothing?
‘Might we consider the possibility of being ‘ ‘ better’ ’ than that? If we choose to solve what might appear at first blush to be overwhelming and even insoluble problems, we need more. We need more from our systems, more from our leaders, and more from ourselves.’
There is a great deal at stake for all us, and we might all be better served understanding not just what we do in asserting and defending our beliefs, policies, and opinions, but why. Appreciating that might make a world of difference … literally!]

Some food for thought….

The deniers did not decide that climate change is a left-wing conspiracy by uncovering some covert socialist plot. They arrived at this analysis by taking a hard look at what it would take to lower global emissions as drastically and as rapidly as climate science demands. They have concluded that this can be done only by radically reordering our economic and political systems in ways antithetical to their ‘free market’ belief system. [1]

We all make choices all the time. The great majority of them tend to be rather inconsequential in the bigger picture, but no choice is consequence-free. If  “radically reordering our economic and political systems” will prove mandatory in order not just to protect us from the serious consequences of climate change (and the effects of declining supplies of energy resources as Peak Oil clearly infers) then what decisions will be made?

Do we preserve the great god of political ideology and free-market capitalism in present form at all costs—consequences be damned—or might we all be better served by adaptation to the inevitable changes these forces of Nature will impose upon us regardless of the passion we hold for our ideologies and beliefs? If slamming headfirst into the wall because one has no intention of changing course seems wise, then we know what your decision will be.

It’s all fine and well to honor the beliefs and convictions each of us holds. But if those ideologies and beliefs are intended to best serve our needs long-term, then wisdom’s role is to alert us to the possibilities of change and an attendant need to adapt so as to carry on.

It’s perfectly “acceptable” if you choose to doubt mankind’s role in—or even the very fact of—global warming. It is a free country, after all. But to go so far in the face of mounting, factual evidence that climate changes are already taking place and fossil fuel supplies are now on a different trajectory that you completely disregard the need to consider at least some adaptations is to practice delusion and denial on a scale beyond all bounds of human behavior!

Who is to “blame” for the climate changes now taking place, or believing it is just the normal way of Earth’s geological history, are in the end irrelevant! These changes, in this day and age, will produce consequences on an order of magnitude we may not be capable of understanding. Your ideology will not save you from the effects of a warming planet, and it will not supply you with unlimited and affordable fossil fuels even close to forever.

I cannot imagine anyone now supporting the validity of Global Warming and Peak Oil who takes any delight whatsoever in the knowledge that they are “right” and that the deniers are wrong—foolishly so. [Sen. James Inhofe’s recent, incredibly idiotic denial is among the more laughable—”leadership”?!]

One reason alone is sufficient for our inability to gloat and take solace in the correctness of our beliefs: what happens to all of us—hemp-wearing, long-haired leftist radicals all the way across the spectrum to tinfoil-hat-wearing right-wingers—will be decidedly unpleasant if we do not begin the process of change and adaptation. (Not that there’s any guarantee of unending joy and prosperity if we do; but the odds are a lot better!)

Personal responsibility as a defining feature of our nation’s character also encompasses the need to demonstrate integrity and honesty and courage. We do so by accepting unpleasant truths, and then dealing with them to the best of our collective abilities regardless of the ideologies we cling to in an abstract environment where outcomes never matter.

If the choice is to preserve and protect the free-market, the only viable way to do so beyond the short-term is to recognize and understand why the concept itself will have to adapt to needed changes.* This will not be the failure of conservative economic ideology nor failure of its practitioners. It will instead be the inevitable (if unintended and unanticipated) outcome of our ingenuity and the inherent characteristics of free-market philosophy.

Our progress and growth has produced the wonder of our greatest technological advances … and the unending depletion of the energy resources which made all of that possible, while simultaneously impacting the environment and atmosphere in unintended but unpleasant ways. This is not an issue of fault or liability. Optimist that I am, I believe that nearly 100% of inventors and industrialists and business owners of all stripes did not intentionally choose an option for growth guaranteed to cause the most environmental or atmospheric harm or waste the most natural resources. Sometimes, outcomes are just outcomes.

So too in a globalized economy far more advanced and interconnected than we could possibly have foreseen decades earlier must we understand and accept that that path leads to certain destinations both unforeseen and unintended—all the good notwithstanding. The ever-increasing and destructive income inequality and distressed economic conditions we find ourselves struggling to escape from have further diminished the opportunities for others to get a foot in the door of success and prosperity. That may not have been the case a decade or two earlier, but the complexity of world economics makes us inextricably bound to one another, and that is not a guarantee that all is well with everyone all the time.

Individualists, at their core, are protectors of choice. Free-market competition is the preferred economic ecosystem because it preserves unencumbered freedom. Their idol, best-selling author Ayn Rand, was famous for a philosophy that condemned moral obligation, fearing that the logical outcome was a dictatorial nanny-state; as such, individualists have a deep-seated fear of government, which almost by definition, coerces citizens into collective action for the greater good. [2]

Asking the 1% to make contributions to the culture which provided them the means to attain their great wealth and success should not automatically be viewed from the tint of ideological frames as punishment, nor is it a blind handout to the lazy. We just need to recognize that conditions (including our own assessments and hopes for the future) have changed dramatically and in many cases have been diminished far beyond our worst fears. If we are to truly maximize all the resources of this nation—which, by the way, we do in fact happen to love just as deeply as do the red-blooded patriots on the Right—changes have to be made in the basic structure of our economic and political systems.*

By all means we should allow the “deserving” to continue on. But unless you are one of the 99% who just happens to believe that all is well as long as the 1% is cared for—regardless of the impact policies and practices have on you and your family—then asking the 1% to shoulder a bit more of the burden in an increasingly complex global economy should not be viewed as the destruction of all that makes us exceptional. In this intricate global economy, maximizing all of our best resources and those of every citizen capable and willing to offer a contribution is what will continue to define us as the pre-eminent nation in a world far different than the one of generations past.

Insisting that we continue to do what we’ve always done across the landscape of political, personal, and economic opportunities is a sure sign that we lack the vision and capacity to adapt and evolve. Letting the world pass us by because of a stubborn insistence that we must not change our ways is an option, I guess, but no one is going to slow down or reverse course to appease the thoughts and wishes of days gone by—thoughts and wishes having almost no place in the 2012 world we live in.

Should that lack of vision be our legacy in this new century?

How much better do we choose to be?

(* An upcoming seven-part series will be discussing this issue in greater detail.)


[1]; Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein – 11.09.11
[2]; How To Make Skeptics Believe Obama’s Birth Certificate Is Authentic by Gregory Ferenstein – 04.27.11

Whether or not Peak Oil is true cannot possibly be in doubt. Within anything other than a geological frame of time, oil is a finite substance. When it is burned, it is gone. Without stretching our brains very far, it is easy to conclude that anything that is finite and consumed will someday be gone.
Peak Oil, then, is really an observation, not a theory. [1]

If only! What most four-year olds would agree is not much more than minimal common sense continues to confound some, who just cannot bring themselves to accepts facts and a reality contrary to a carefully-crafted storyline where facts are inconvenient at best.

The latest foray into the fact- and stats- and context-free world of denying the obvious comes here, courtesy of a Canadian economist (whose basic premise about the invalidity of Peak Oil seems tempered by the many troublesome production facts contained in her essay). What follows are assessments and observations she offered in leading to her conclusion:

[O]il production in the U.S. is surging….This new energy boom is the result of technological developments that have made the release of oil from shale rock not only feasible, but very profitable at oil prices around $100 or more a barrel….
Shale gas has been big energy news for several years as hydraulic fracturing has unlocked huge reserves of natural gas….
[N]ew fracking technologies and horizontal drilling has led to the biggest oil boom in many years….
The beneficiaries of this shale oil and gas boom are many and diversified both by region and by sector. With an estimated 3,000 new wells slated to be drilled in the next year, it is positive for job creation. Already, the depressed housing industry is stepping up production to house the growing number of oil workers and their families….
Combined with the increasing availability and low price of natural gas, rising domestic oil production is providing a boon to U.S. construction and industrial production. The price of land in these regions has skyrocketed and many small landowners have pocketed huge leasing windfalls….Demand for sand, used in the fracking process, has also surged …  sand mines are multiplying rapidly. Boom towns are sprouting up….Retailers, as well, benefit, as do bankers….
Manufacturing plants are returning to the U.S. to take advantage of cheap natural gas and relatively low unit labour costs, spurring major investments in petrochemical and steel production….Households are also benefiting from lower bills for heating and electricity….There is a growing demand for gas-powered electricity….The U.S. trade balance is also supported by these developments.

And not one single statistic, fact, (or context) to substantiate any of this! I suppose it’s possible to be even more vague, but this is a pretty good effort as is. “[O]il production in the U.S. is surging;” “hydraulic fracturing has unlocked huge reserves;” “The beneficiaries of this shale oil and gas boom are many and diversified;” “the depressed housing industry is stepping up production to house the growing number of oil workers,” etc., etc., etc.


Lots and lots of Happy Talk—unquantifiable, context-free buzzwords from the official Denier’s Playbook—but what does any of that actually mean? How do we plan effectively, as we must, to add others to the ranks of “many and diversified beneficiaries”? [And just as a for-instance, how “many and diversified” are we talking about? Nine? Sixty-four? Three hundred and two? But hey, “demand for sand” is surging, and all of this “is positive for job creation”!]

And all of that fact-free Happy Talk apparently leads quite obviously to this conclusion: “This unexpected boom in oil supply puts to rest the so-called ‘Peak Oil’ debate, where adherents to this theory argued that the supply of oil is fixed and dwindling, as traditional oil wells dry up.” Yikes!

[As for the one-pseudo-factual comment above, the: “estimated 3,000 new wells slated to be drilled in the next year”, Chris Martenson offers this sobering fact: “Typical wells in the Bakken come in at an average 200 barrels of oil per day and decline about 70-75 per cent in the first year before flattening out at 30-40 barrels per day.”]

An inconvenient reminder or two: the U.S. currently uses somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 million barrels of oil each and every day; our own production is currently in the neighborhood of 50%-60% of the peak we last touched more than forty years ago; and depending on the source one relies upon, we still import 8 – 10 million barrels per day despite these magnificent efforts in the Bakken and elsewhere; (and by the way, conventional oil fields are being depleted day after day, so getting back to “even” must happen first before we can start counting on unconventional, inferior quality, more-expensive-to-produce oil from the tar sands and shale). Facts suck!

Empty pronouncements aren’t especially helpful to the tens of millions who don’t have access to the facts and the realities of energy supply and production. How is this tactic helpful to them? When the reality of Peak Oil intrudes on their happy lives, and it turns out that the “might possibly could potentially if only” promises turn out to be just as empty in practice as they are now in theory, what happens then?

In fact, we will become more vulnerable over the long run, because the renewed embrace of fossil fuels will induce us to postpone the inevitable transition to a postcarbon economy. Sooner or later, the economic, environmental and climate consequences of intensive fossil fuel use will force everyone on the planet to abandon reliance on these fuels in favor of climate-friendly renewables. This is not a matter of if but of when. The longer we wait, the more costly and traumatic the transition will be, and the greater the likelihood that our economy will fall behind those of other countries that undertake the transition sooner. By extending our dependence on fossil fuels, therefore, the current oil and gas revival is not an advantage but, as Obama said in 2008, a threat to national security. [2]

The Canadian economist then goes on to describe the reality that “infrastructure has not kept up with supply;”  “Getting the oil to the refineries is a problem and currently, refineries in the U.S. do not have the capacity to handle all of this oil;” and because “of the infrastructure problems, an increasing volume of crude oil is now transported by railway and tanker trucks, boosting employment and activity in these industries, but the costs are far higher than pipeline transport;” and then, of course “With this boom, there are a growing number of concerns. The environmental impacts, though uncertain, are troubling. Potential pollutants entering the air and water supply are of great concern. Drilling is disrupting communities, damaging roads, and increasing costs to local governments. Some are worried about the effect of drilling on earthquakes….In some regions, like parts of Texas, there are already water shortages exacerbated by the huge volumes of water needed for hydraulic fracking.”

Nope! Not seeing any problems there!

But, hey, as Bob Lutz was so helpful in pointing out, we have a “scenario of abundance” coming from the Bakken shale oil fields and Canadian tar sands. Not much in the way of explaining anything about production rates, depletion of existing fields, costs, quality, and assorted other nit-picking facts some of us rely on, but when you have a scenario of abundance, and “so much greasy, oily and gassy stuff under the surface, it seems” well … who needs facts, Right? Mr. Lutz, proud as well of his climate change-denying credentials, even relied on a “senior oil economist” in his assessment that “‘Peak Oil’ [is now] exposed as yet another Chicken-Little fallacy.”

Good to know! (And all of us fact-reliant Peak Oil proponents have been concerned all this time….Geez!)

Just when I was ready to join the reality-free world, Chris Martenson had to go and offer just a small dose of concern to those for whom reality [and the future] matters:

The only problem here is, what if that view of the future is wrong? Then what?

Worth the risk?


[1]; Dangerous Ideas by Chris Martenson – 02.22.12


Ponder what it means that half of all the oil ever burned has been burned over the past 22 years and wonder about where the supplies will come from to fund the next 22 years. [1]

Thanks to Adam Smith and those who followed him, especially the current neoclassical economic theologians, we have seen such an increase in the world’s wealth and sheer numbers that it is hard to imagine life before the industrial revolution, with its shift from mostly human and animal muscle power to the energy dense fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas. It is also hard to imagine that humanity could someday slide back into another age of scarcer and more expensive energy, but that is a possibility that cannot be excluded from our thinking. [2]

Obligatory disclaimer: We’re not running out of oil; at least not for many decades to come. If that were the only issue Peak Oil focused on, further discussions would be pointless.

But it’s not the only issue….

As difficult as it is to accept, life as we’ve known it and long expected/taken for granted will all too soon no longer be the same. Why?

Industrial civilisation’s entire economy is based on a finite resource we treat as infinite….
Our current global economy is based on continual growth, and that growth depends on cheap energy. [3]

Oil which was previously too expensive to exploit becomes economic with a rising oil price. To the uncritical observer, it might seem as if there is nothing to worry about in the oil market.
Unfortunately, there is something to worry about, at least if we want a healthy economy. The new oil reserves we’re now exploiting are not only more expensive to develop, but they also take much longer between the time the first well is drilled and the when the first oil is produced. That means it takes longer for oil supply to respond to changes in price….
If what we care about are the effects on the economy, it does not matter how much oil is in the ground. Over the last ten years, we have see a structural change in the oil market which will continue to have far-reaching effects on the economy even if we manage to increase the amount of oil produced….[4]

Worldwide, the average EROI* [defined in most cases as Energy Returned On Investment, or EROEI: Energy Returned on Energy Invested, with minor variations – my comment] of oil is down to 20:1 from its original value of 100:1 eighty years ago. This means that our oil-fueled economy simply has less capacity to generate wealth than it did back then, because an increasing share of the energy that used to be dedicated to producing goods and services is being plowed back into securing energy.
Even more troubling than oil’s 20:1 global average is the figure for new oil, just 5 to 1. It takes a lot of energy to drill five miles under the ocean and pump crude back to a refinery, or to cook tar sands to extract a usable fuel. The energy wellspring at the heart of our economy no longer gushes a torrent of wealth; it’s a smaller, much-diminished stream. [5]

* Back in November, in the course of offering some commentary on an article denying the validity of Peak Oil and EROI/EROEI specifically, I quoted from a terrific Jim Quinn article (here) in which Jim explained the concept as follows: “EROEI is the ratio of the amount of usable energy acquired from a particular energy resource to the amount of energy expended to obtain that energy resource. When the EROEI of a resource is less than or equal to one, that energy source becomes an ‘energy sink’, and can no longer be used as a primary source of energy. Once it requires 1.1 barrels of oil to obtain a barrel of oil, the gig is up.”

I then added my own observation: “More effort; more costs; more time; more difficulties in general; less inclination for countries to give up all they have left; increasing demand; less supply day-by-day simply because we’re taking out something that isn’t being replenished … all those factors add up to investing more to get less. That’s not good math.”

For all the misplaced optimism in the Magic Technology Fairy riding to the rescue as a result of the wonder of “human ingenuity” and the vast-massive-planets-full of unconventional fossil fuel just waiting for someone to stop by and extract it all, we cannot and will not go back to the means and methods of growth and prosperity we’ve long enjoyed. No one is falling off the cliff tomorrow or “soon”, but the path has been carved out for us.

As Dahr Jamail also noted (from one of the articles referenced above): “Oil touches nearly every single aspect of the lives of those in the industrialised world. Most of our food, clothing, electronics, hygiene products and transportation simply would not exist without this resource.”

I’ve argued consistently that this potentially unpleasant recognition of our dependence on this finite resource and the undertakings necessary to adapt do not equate to failure or decline or defeat unless that is what we choose by neglect or fear or passivity. We have choices….

Not just our “leaders”, but each of us with any concerns about our own future prospects, to say nothing for those in generations to follow, need to start asking and answering some fundamental questions. To state but one: Where and what are the best opportunities for growth and prosperity going forward, given the eventual displacement of abundant fossil fuel resources at the ready?

“Sacrifice” in some measure is the only way to move forward and sustain ourselves. Any insistence on the same business-as-usual models will eventually doom us. In many cases, we are going to have to create industrial, commercial, cultural, and transportations systems entirely anew (or at the very least re-build extensively). Relying on current conditions, false hopes, practices and customs of the past, or just tinkering only along the edges simply won’t work. Just because we won’t necessarily be confronting these realities next month or next year or in three years is not an excuse to postpone the thinking and planning needed.

Eric Zencey added this sobering thought to the quote above: “Everything our economy accomplishes, including health care, government, schools, roads, defense, repairing our aging infrastructure and re-engineering our built environment to handle the changed weather that oil use has given us, is going to have to be financed from a much-diminished EROI.”

Also not good math. We do have choices….

Crisis, or opportunity?


[1]; Commentary: Oil and the economy by Chris Martenson – 10.24.11 [Original article: ]
[2]; The Faustian Bargain that Modern Economists Never Mention by Dr. Gary Peters – 01.09.12
[3]; Oil: In Perpetuity No More by Dahr Jamail – 02.22.12
[4]; The End of Elastic Oil by Tom Konrad – 01.26.12
[5]; The new austerity and the EROI squeeze by Eric Zencey – 07.18.11 [Published by The Daly News on Mon, 07/18/2011 – 08:00; Original article: ]

In a recent column discussing the inane transportation bill proposed by the House, Isaiah J. Poole noted this charming piece of legislative integrity—admittedly, no doubt used by both parties since forever: “A more bipartisan Senate bill, which is not nearly as ambitious as the White House would prefer but nonetheless has its blessing, was being hung up over Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s demand for an amendment denying aid to Egypt over the government’s detention of some America citizens and Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt’s amendment that would permit employers to deny coverage for health services that run counter to the employer’s ‘religious beliefs and moral convictions.’”

The relevance of these two stunts to transportation funding will—no doubt—be revealed to all of us at the appropriate time. Our tax dollars hard at work….

When does it start to get better?

As I noted in two prior posts about this legislation (here and here), the philosophy/ideology behind the bill’s intent to eliminate assured financing (insufficient though it is) for mass transit in favor of more money for roads is what’s most troubling. I keep hoping that at some point, some legislator from the GOP will have the balls to accept reality and propose legislation that will actually mean something long-term and for our collective well-being.

I’ve admitted before and will say again, I pretend no expertise in transportation legislation or its funding. I come to these discussions with concerns about the strategies employed in light of what I believe is an even more serious and long-lasting problem for all of us: inadequate energy resources to provide us all with business-as-usual lifestyles—current economic conditions aside. The failure to incorporate public transportation on a much broader scale than Congress seems capable of understanding creates a serious deficiency in our ability to adapt in the future to a society with less energy resources at our disposal—if continued growth is a goal.

Typical arguments include the following:

[T]ransit has firmly secured its place in the federal budget and has acquired a large and vocal constituency in Congress which can be counted upon to defend its interests….
Restoring the Highway Trust Fund to its original mission of being a source of funds solely for the federal-aid highway program would accomplish several things. First, the program would no longer need to rely on speculative royalties from future oil and gas leases, as currently proposed in the House bill. Second, the Trust Fund would not need to be periodically propped up with contributions from the General Fund. Third, the principle of the highway program paid for with user fees would be maintained. Lastly, the House bill would return the federal-aid highway program to its original roots. It would restore the program’s lost sense of purpose and focus Trust Fund resources on what they always were meant to do—preserve and renew the nation’s prized asset, its interstate highway system. [1]

A few comments are in order.

As to the first point about transit’s defenders in Congress, a wonderful sound bite which means absolutely nothing in this Congress with its Tea Party-dominated inability to think, plan, or legislate beyond next week. “Defend” transit all you want, but if no one is paying any attention, it loses some of its vigor and impact.

“[T]he program would no longer need to rely on speculative royalties…” It never had to! That’s like retirement planning via the lottery. It’s an idiotic proposal to begin with, duly lambasted by many with far more understanding than I possess, and merits exactly no discussion or consideration.

As for eliminating the “need to be periodically propped up with contributions from the General Fund,” the House could actually … you know, legislate intelligently and put together a plan, even if, GASP! it contained ideas from the left. What a concept!

“[T]he principle of the highway program [being] paid for with user fees would be maintained.” Really? “Principle” sounds good; reality tells a different story.

Long before this legislation was drafted, Tanya Snyder discussed the Republican Party’s expected antics when Congress would eventually get around to … you know … do what we pay them to do—legislate!

You’ve heard it a thousand times from the highway lobby: Roads pay for themselves through ‘user fees’ — a.k.a. gas taxes and tolls — whereas transit is a drain on the taxpayer. They use this argument to push for new roads, instead of transit, as fiscally prudent investments.
The myth of the self-financed road meets its match today in the form of a new report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group: Do Roads Pay For Themselves? (link) The answer is a resounding ‘no.’ All told, the authors calculate that road construction has sucked $600 billion out of America’s public purse since the dawn of the interstate system. [2]

Quoting Dan Smith of U.S. PIRG, Ms. Snyder noted that: “Road advocates use these myths about the gas tax being this user fee and that highways pay for themselves to get preferential treatment, and to get a larger chunk of the dedicated fund.”

Paying a toll is a user fee; paying the gas tax when you fill your tank is not a user fee. Not very complicated, but you’ll find almost no one on the Right who dares explain that simple fact. As the above-referenced report makes clear, highways do not pay for themselves—period! Great talking point offered to the uninformed, but not true … if that kind of stuff matters—which, for some of us, it does.

And Mr. Orski’s final point, that this legislation will “restore the program’s lost sense of purpose and focus Trust Fund resources on what they always were meant to do— preserve and renew the nation’s prized asset, its interstate highway system.” Hate to break the news to those on the Right so desperate to return to Mayberry RFD, but this is 2012. Times have changed.

More changes are in the offing, and the GOP’s determination to keep us locked into a fossil-fuel dependent transportation system at the expense of our future well-being may not be such a good thing, great sound bites notwithstanding. And as Ms. Snyder made clear in the article I cited above, the gas tax/Highway Trust Fund—created during the Hoover Administration—was not intended solely for highways. Only during the 17 year period during which the interstate state was being built were federal gas tax revenues directed exclusively to roads. “Since 1973, the gas tax has been used for a variety of transportation programs and has even been used, on occasion, to pay down the deficit.” Facts….

And of course, no GOP-inspired legislation these days can be marketed without a snarky, irrelevant, and misleading statement or two, Right?

The new infrastructure bill no longer obligates states to spend highway funding on non-highway activities, such as museums or landscaping. But spending for mass transit appears to continue, even though there are better uses for the funds. States now spend 20 percent of their Highway Trust Fund allocation on mass transit, yet only two percent of passenger miles are used by mass transit.…
Just as users of roads should pay all of their costs, such as construction and maintenance, so should users of mass transit. If individual states want to subsidize mass transit, they should do it out of their own revenues. With Uncle Sam broke, the Federal government should not be subsidizing expensive mass transit systems. [3]

Just wondering how much of the funding states are obligated to use on “museums or landscaping?” All of it? Half? A third? Ten percent? Five? Perhaps less? A wild guess on my part, but I’m betting that “museums or landscaping” aren’t a primary focus, but we wouldn’t want to clue in the uninformed about that, now would we? And the lame “passenger mile” standard used by the Right is addressed nicely by Eric Jaffe here as well as in the report cited above, but I’ll admit it is a popular sound bite: “20 percent … for two percent” usage sure does sound unfair! But why add context if that ruins the point?

“Uncle Sam” is not “broke”, but it is another Page One sound bite from the Right’s playbook,  which does induce an appropriate measure of fear in the electorate. Nice strategy, huh? [Kinda like “Cheerful” Newt Gingrich’s uplifting comment in Debate # 4367 held in Arizona two weeks ago: “But everybody needs to understand — and by the way, we live in an age when we have to genuinely worry about nuclear weapons going off in our own cities. So everybody who serves in the fire department, in the police department, not just the first responders, but our National Guard, whoever is going to respond, all of us are more at risk today, men and women, boys and girls, than at any time in the history of this country.”]

Writing on the “we’re broke” theme, commenting on Speaker of the House John Boehner’s identical comment last year, E. J. Dionne offered this:

Bloomberg News looked at Boehner’s statement and declared simply: ‘It’s wrong.’ As Bloomberg’s David J. Lynch wrote: ‘The U.S. today is able to borrow at historically low interest rates, paying 0.68 percent on a two-year note that it had to offer at 5.1 percent before the financial crisis began in 2007. Financial products that pay off if Uncle Sam defaults aren’t attracting unusual investor demand. And tax revenue as a percentage of the economy is at a 60-year low, meaning if the government needs to raise cash and can summon the political will, it could do so.’
Precisely. A phony metaphor is being used to hijack the nation’s political conversation and skew public policies to benefit better-off Americans and hurt most others.

And this*:

America’s Tea Party has a simple fiscal message: The United States is broke. This is factually incorrect—U.S. government securities remain one of the safest investments in the world—but the claim serves the purpose of dramatizing the federal budget and creating a great deal of hysteria around America’s current debt levels. This then produces the fervent belief that government spending must be cut radically—and now. [4]

So I’ll ask the same question raised in the first post discussing this legislation: “How much money, time, effort, and resources can we be expected to waste by devoting all of those assets to highways and roadways used by gasoline-chugging vehicles … highways and roadways and vehicles whose usage and very existence will be challenged in decades to come when the availability of affordable, efficient, and plentiful fossil fuels is no longer routinely assured to the masses?”

Or this, from last week’s related post: “[W]hat transportation options will be available to us if we continue to allow shortsighted, narrow-minded ideologies dictate how we plan and prepare for our collective future?

* as his Wikipedia bio notes, Simon Johnson, author of the quote, “is the ‘Ronald A. Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management[1] and a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.[2] He has held a wide variety of academic and policy-related positions, including Professor of Economics at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.[3] From March 2007 through the end of August 2008, he was Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund” so really … what would he know about American being “broke”?


[1]; Now We’re Getting Political by Fawn Johnson – 02.06.12; Response from Ken Orski: In Defense of the House Highway Bill
[2]; Actually, Highway Builders, Roads Don’t Pay For Themselves by Tanya Snyder – 01.04.11
[3] Now We’re Getting Political by Fawn Johnson – 02.06.12; Response from Diana Furchtgott-Roth: How to Improve the Highway Bill
[4]; The Tea Party’s Circular Logic – Its revolt undermines the private sector more than it reins in “big government” by Simon Johnson – 08.16.11