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Peak Oil Matters

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


Tag: Belief

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

[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.