Monday, August 31, 2009

Anthropological Field Guide to Common Peak Oil Debate Participants

This post was inspired by the now infamous Michael Lynch piece in the New York Times.

Rather than a point-by-point scientific rebuttal of every point in his op-ed (which is hard because it's relatively "content-free"), I decided to answer the more pressing question: "Who the heck is this idiot and what's his angle?" To help, I compiled a field guide to the types you're likely to encounter while reading about Peak Oil.

(Spectrum is from total denial to extreme paranoia)

Abiotic Oilers: Related to creation scientists, these folks believe that oil is not a "fossil fuel" but is generated deep in the earth by mysterious geological processes. No really. There's plenty of oil, we just have to put on our tin foil hats, drill deep down into our Flat Earth, past the underground cities of reptile aliens who control our secret Zionist world government, down into the petroleum-rich "Creamy Nougat Center" of the planet.

FUD Peddlers: Snazzy professional deniers on the payroll of the PR/consulting firms in the high-stakes "denial racket". Given enough money, a good haircut and well tailored suit, these guys can wedge a crowbar of doubt between the links of even the most obvious chain of causality: cancer and cigarettes, processed food and obesity, carbon emissions and climate change, finite oil reserves and oil depletion, gravity and falling down, etc.

BAUers: Peak oil? Never heard of it. Go away, I'm watching American Idol and microwaving a Hot Pocket, in the back seat of my Hummer. Unfortunately, this group is also known as "Nearly Everyone You've Ever Met in Your Life."

Drill Baby Drillers: These folks get that our dependence on foreign oil is a problem, but haven't yet gotten that we depend on oil because... um, we don't have that much NON-foreign oil. (The U.S. only has 3% the world's proven oil reserves, and it's sure not for lack of looking.) Like the old aphorism says "Wish in one well, and piss in the other. See which one fills up first."

Not Yetters: Of course the world will reach peak oil... decades from now. Plus, we have 400 years of coal. Often Oil Company CEOs or OPEC oil ministers. (For example Shell CEO recently reassured the world press that we have 40 years of oil left -- when did 40 years become the foreseeable future!!!)

Government Softpedalers: It is vital for our national security that we strive for energy independence. But not THAT vital. Certainly not important enough to switch party affiliations or anything. Please go back to worrying about your job and health insurance.

Free-Market Cornucopians: If the world demands energy, the free market will find a way to supply it. Likewise, if three hungry economists are locked in a bank vault, the free market will provide them a sandwich. (Of course, this turns out to be true if the first two economists decide the third would look good between a couple slices of bread -- see "Doomers, Cannibalism" below.)

Techno-Utopians: The world's oil production will peak (or has peaked) but it's no big deal because we'll just run our "hyper cars" on organic bat spit or cold fusion or nanotechnology or hemp seed oil...

Peak Oil Liters: Of course I don't believe in that lunatic Peak Oil theory (because then I'd be ostracized as a weirdo). I just believe that over time, oil will get more and more difficult to extract... so we won't be able to pump quite as much as we used to... and therefore energy will be really expensive... and it will have far reaching economic effects on our society. (Dude, that's Peak Oil in a nutshell!) Like the many "postfeminists" women I have met who vehemently shirk the feminist label because they don't want to seem extreme or strident, but certainly want to be treated as equals, and can't really name any substantive disagreements they have with the central tenets of feminism.

Just the Facts Ma'am'ers: In this camp I would include the originals like King Hubbert, Colin Campbell, and Matthew Simmons. They noticed and spoke up about the geological facts, without drawing a lot of far-out sociological inferences. (And really, I think that's the strongest critique I have of "peak oil theory". The geological science seems rock solid (groan, sorry), but does that mean that X, Y, or Z will happen in N decades from an economic/political/historical perspective?)

Mainstream Gentle Nudgers: Well spoken, reasonable sounding guys like Jeff Rubin, who has done a lot to promulgate the view that due to peak oil, everything in your life will change without standing wild eyed on a soapbox screaming "OH MY GOD, EVERYTHING IN YOUR LIFE WILL CHANGE!!!!"

Locavore Mafia
(a.k.a. Bike-Lane Fundamentalists):
Peak oil is here, and will fundamentally shift our civilization. But that's good, because our civilization sucks and the SUV-driving earth rapers out there deserve to suffer for their eco-sins! Once the global economy collapses, finally we'll be able to get a decent salad!

Long Emergency Preppers
(a.k.a. Kunstlerians/Orlovians):
Things are going to get crazy!!! We could see the collapse of nation states, and certainly things will be different and harder than we've ever seen in our lifetimes. Time to start stocking up on canned food and learning to scavenge wild foods.

Neo-Malthusians: Ditto. Oh yeah, we've also massively overshot the non-petroleum carrying capacity of the Earth, and are headed for a massive die-off. Time to get your swine-flu vaccine.

Doomers: We are so completely screwed that it’s not even worth planting a community garden. We are headed for the neo-neolithic ages, so better get ready to fight tooth and nail for a good cave. Complete collapse of the grid will be followed shortly by roving hordes of cannibal former-suburbanites.