Preface. It’s strange that we’re on the cusp of Peak Oil, and yet the only existential threat you ever hear about is Climate Change.
According to the latest International Energy Agency 2018 World Energy Outlook report, there will likely be oil shortages in 4-6 years because we haven’t found or drilled much, and fracking will peak around 2025.
Peak oil is very likely to strike within two decades and after that kill billions of people, while rising sea levels won’t happen for another 50-75 years. That will leave plenty of land and structures for the peak oil survivors to retreat to. And with fossils declining exponentially at 6% a year (which means after 5 years at 7%, 10 years at 8%, etc), we’ll be far from ever reaching the hothouse earth of scenario RCP 8.0. Geologists using realistic fossil reserves plugged into climate models calculate an RCP of 2.5 to 5.5, with an average of RCP 4.5.
Congress and the military, especially the military, are very much aware of the energy crisis. For example, here are a few posts from congressional house and senate hearings and the military. But the vast majority of leaders have said nothing, or even deny peak oil and other future calamaties. Why?
- Why don’t people do much to change how they live to prepare for limits to growth and peak everything?
- Telling others about peak oil and limits to growth
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report
Why do political, economic, and scientific leaders deny Peak Oil and Limits to Growth?
Yet business, political, scientific, and media leaders have not educated the public about the energy crisis or asked the public to do what they can to help the nation out.
1) Political and economic leaders actually believe economists who say that higher oil prices will result in more supplies. This is a core belief of capitalism. Energy and resources are nowhere to be found in neoclassical economics. Somehow money, which you can’t burn in your gas tank, is the fountain of endless growth, and implies an infinite planet, and when backed against a wall, economists say we’ll go to other planets and bring back stuff. Since that’s obviously not true, I suspect the goal is to justify looting the earth of as many valuables as possible.
2) As a German military peak oil study stated (BTC 2010),when investors realize Peak Oil is upon us, global stock markets will crash since it will be obvious that growth is no longer possible and investors will never get their money back.
A whistleblower at the IEA alleged that oil reserves had been overstated, and that the IEA had downplayed the lowering rates of production because it feared panic could spread on the financial markets if the figures were brought down further.
‘Politicians are terrified of mentioning peak oil,’ says Chris Skrebowski, director of Peak Oil Consulting and former editor of industry magazine Petroleum Review. ‘They are frightened of the social and financial reactions. Peak oil has been placed on the pile marked “too difficult” (Rowe).
Steven Chu, former Secretary of Energy and director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, “knows all about peak oil, but he can’t talk about it. If the government announced that peak oil was threatening our economy, Wall Street would crash. He just can’t say anything about it,” according to David Fridley, who used to work for him (Bland 2009).
3) Political (and religious) leaders gain votes, wealth, and power by telling people what they want to hear. Several politicians have told me privately that people like to hear good news and that politicians who bring bad news don’t get re-elected. “Don’t worry, be happy” is a vote getter. A sure -fire way to not get elected is discussing carrying capacity, exponential growth, die-off, extinction, or population control with the electorate. There’s only a minority of intelligent, college-educated people who are scientifically literate. And the issue isn’t a sound-bite. Convincing the minority would take hours, if not weeks of time about a topic too grim for most people to want to pay attention to.
4) As Richard Heinberg has pointed out, there’s a national survival interest in being the Last Nation Standing. He wrote: “I thought that world leaders would want to keep their nations from collapsing. They must be working hard to prevent currency collapse, financial system collapse, food system collapse, social collapse, environmental collapse, and the onset of general, overwhelming misery—right? But no, that’s not what the evidence suggests. Increasingly I am forced to conclude that the object of the game that world leaders are actually playing is not to avoid collapse; it’s simply to postpone it a while so as to be the last nation to go down, so yours can have the chance to pick the others’ carcasses before it meets the same fate.” February 2010. China or the U.S.: Which Will Be the Last Nation Standing?
5) It would be political suicide to bring up the real problem of Peak Oil and have no solution to offer besides conservation and consuming less.
Kjell Aleklett, professor of Professor of Physics at Uppsala University in Sweden, points out that one of the failures of democracy is that “It is very difficult for any politician to admit that something is wrong, and that we might need to do something about it. If they were to do this, another politician would come along and say, ‘There’s no problem; vote for me and we can carry on as we are’.”
The “solution” of both parties is Endless Growth, or “Shop Until You Drop” and “Drill, Baby, Drill” to get out of the current economic and energy crises. Capitalism ends when growth is no longer possible, all that our leaders can do is try to keep the gain going as long as possible, and not end while they’re in office. Since golden parachutes and astronomical pay regardless of performance typifies most corporations, there’s less at stake for CEO’s and other economic “leaders”.
There’s also the risk of creating a panic and social disorder if the situation were made utterly clear — that the carrying capacity of the United States is somewhere between 100 million (Pimentel) and 250 million (Smil) without fossil fuels, like the Onion’s parody “Scientists: One-Third Of The Human Race Has To Die For Civilization To Be Sustainable, So How Do We Want To Do This?”
There’s no solution to peak oil, except to consume less in all areas of life, limit immigration, and above all, encourage women to have zero or one child, which is not acceptable to political leaders or corporations, who depend on growth for their survival.
Meanwhile, too many problems are getting out of hand on a daily basis at local, state, and national levels. All that matters to politicians is the next election. So who’s going to work on a future problem with no solution? Jimmy Carter is perceived as having lost partly due to asking Americans to sacrifice for the future (i.e. put on a sweater).
I first became aware of the intersection of politics and peak oil at the Denver 2005 Association for the Study of Peak Oil conference. Denver Mayor Hickenlooper, now governor of Colorado, pointed out that one of his predecessors lost the mayoral election because he didn’t keep the snow plows running after a heavy snow storm. He worried about how he’d keep snow plows, garbage collection, and a host of other city services running as energy declined.
A Boulder city council member at this conference told us he had hundreds of issues and constituents to deal with on a daily basis, no way did he have time to spend on an issue beyond the next election.
Finally, Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, head of the peak oil caucus in the House of Representatives, told us that there was no solution, and he was angry that we’d blown 25 years even though the government knew peak was coming. His plan was to relentlessly reduce our energy demand by 5% per year, to stay under the depletion rate of declining oil. But he didn’t believe in efficiency as a solution, which doesn’t work due to Jevons paradox.
The only solution that would mitigate suffering is to mandate that women bear only one child. Fat chance of that ever happening when even birth control is controversial, and Catholics are outraged that all health care plans are now required to cover the cost of birth control pills. Congressman Bartlett, in a small group discussion after his talk, told us that population was the main problem, but that he and other politicians didn’t dare mention it. He said that exponential growth would undo any reduction in demand we could make, and gave this example: if we have 250 years left of reserves in coal, and we turn to coal to replace oil, increasing our use by 2% a year — a very modest rate of growth considering what a huge amount is needed to replace oil — then the reserve would only last 85 years. If we liquefy it, then it would only last 50 years, because it takes a lot of energy to do that.
Bartlett was speaking about 250 years of coal reserves back in 2005. Now we know that the global energy from coal may have peaked last year, in 2011 (Patzek) or will soon in 2015 (Zittel). Other estimates range as far as 2029 to 2043. Heinberg and Fridley say that “we believe that it is unlikely that world energy supplies can continue to meet projected demand beyond 2020.” (Heinberg).
6) Everyone who understands the situation is hoping The Scientists Will Come up With Something. Including the Scientists.
And even many of the science-educated don’t have a clue — natural resources, ecology, and energy was not their field of study. I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s vacation on a rafting trip down the Tatshenshini-Alsek river in 2003, but on the last day of the trip I explained the situation to an astronomer, and he said in great shock, “But there has to be an alternative to oil!” It had never occurred to him that solar, wind, geothermal, and so on couldn’t replace oil. Which doesn’t shock me, it didn’t occur to me either in college because the alternate technology group and engineering students fooled around with wind, solar, and so on.
Scientists would like to win a Nobel prize and need funding. But researchers in energy resources know what’s at stake with climate change and peak oil and are as scared as the rest of us. U.C.Berkeley scientists are also aware of the negative environmental impacts of biofuels, and have chosen to concentrate on a politically feasible strategy of emphasizing lack of water to prevent large programs in this from being funded (Fingerman). They’re also working hard to prevent coal fired power plants from supplying electricity to California by recommending natural gas replacement plants instead, as well as expanding the grid, taxing carbon, energy efficiency, nuclear power, geothermal, wind, and so on — see http://rael.berkeley.edu/projects for what else some of UCB’s RAEL program is up to. Until a miracle happens, scientists and some enlightened policy makers are trying to extend the age of oil, reduce greenhouse gases, and so on. But with the downside of Hubbert’s curve so close, and the financial system liable to crash again soon given the debt and lack of reforms, I don’t know how long anyone can stretch things out.
7) The 1% can’t justify their wealth or the current economic system once the pie stops expanding and starts to shrink. The financial crisis will be a handy way to explain why people are getting poorer on the down side of peak oil too, delaying panic perhaps.
Other evidence that politicians know how serious the situation is, but aren’t saying anything, are Congressman Roscoe Bartlett’s youtube videos (Urban Danger). He’s the Chairman of the peak oil caucus in the House of Representatives, and he’s saying “get out of dodge” to those in the know. He’s educated all of the representatives in the House, but he says that peak oil “won’t be on their front burner until there’s an oil shock”.
8) Less than one percent of our elected leaders have degrees in science. They don’t have a clue — they studied law, economics, history, political science and other soft subjects, but know very little about ecology, laws of physics and thermodynamics, biodiversity, and so on. Nor do they have time to read since they’re so busy fund raising. The vast majority of political and economic leaders don’t have a clue.
9) Politicians and corporate leaders probably didn’t get as far as they did without being (techno) optimists, and really do believe the Scientists Will Come Up With Something. I fear that scientists are going to take a lot of the blame as things head South, even though there’s nothing they can do to change the laws of physics and thermodynamics.
Chris Nelder says that “We trust narratives that fit our emotions, associations and experiences, rather than actively assessing the evidence. This is why the peak-oil story gained currency in the press in 2008, when prices for oil and gasoline shot up — it fitted in with our experiences. When prices fell, the story faded. Similarly, extreme weather events such as hurricanes and tornadoes capture the public’s attention in a way that decades of warnings about global warming have failed to do”. (Nelder)
10) But most of them probably do know actually, at least that’s my impression from reading House and Senate hearings. They’re greatly concerned about energy security, and I bet it keeps some of them awake at night. Many of our leaders have known since the 1970s energy crises that there’s no comparable alternative energy ready to replace fossil fuels.
Here’s an excerpt from President Jimmy Carter’s speech in 1977 — why didn’t we listen to him? “Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly. It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century. We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren…. This difficult effort will be the “moral equivalent of war” — except that we will be uniting our efforts to build and not destroy…. The world has not prepared for the future. During the 1950s, people used twice as much oil as during the 1940s. During the 1960s, we used twice as much as during the 1950s. And in each of those decades, more oil was consumed than in all of mankind’s previous history…. Now we have a choice. But if we wait, we will live in fear of embargoes. We could endanger our freedom as a sovereign nation to act in foreign affairs. Within ten years we would not be able to import enough oil — from any country, at any acceptable price. We will not be ready to keep our transportation system running with smaller, more efficient cars and a better network of buses, trains and public transportation. We will feel mounting pressure to plunder the environment. We will have a crash program to build more nuclear plants, strip-mine and burn more coal, and drill more offshore wells than we will need if we begin to conserve now. Inflation will soar, production will go down, people will lose their jobs. Intense competition will build up among nations and among the different regions within our own country….”
To extend the oil age as long as possible, the USA went the military path rather than a “Manhattan Project” of research and building up grid infrastructure, railroads, sustainable agriculture, increasing home and car fuel efficiency, tax incentives to have fewer children, lower immigration levels, and other obvious actions. I believe that’s because Project Independence showed there were no replacements, as has every study commissioned since then.
The Presidents of the United States know about the Peak Oil and other resources. Representative Roscoe Barlett, mentioned above, formed a Peak Oil Caucus in the House of Representatives that educated congressional members. First secretary of energy James R. Schlesinger, Matt Simmons, Department of Energy 2005 “Peak Oil” study, Robert L. Hirsch, current science advisor John Holdren, and many other scientists have informed Presidents Bush and Obama about peak oil and the implications. Since they don’t have a solution and announcing the problem would bring on an instant Great Depression as the stock market crashed and people panicked — why on earth would they say anything? It’s like shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater.
Instead, we’ve spent trillions of dollars on defense and the military to keep the oil flowing, the Straits of Hormuz open, and invade oil-producing countries. Being so much further than Europe, China, and Russia from the Middle East, where there’s not only the most remaining oil, but the easiest oil to get out at the lowest cost ($20-22 OPEC vs $60-80 rest-of-world per barrel), is a huge disadvantage. I think the military route was chosen in the 70s to maintain our access to Middle East oil and prevent challenges from other nations. Plus everyone benefits by our policing the world and keeping the lid on a world war over energy resources, perhaps that’s why central banks keep lending us money.
Van Jones once said “People say that I am hard core about some of this stuff because I have been to Davos, and I’ve sat with Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Tony Blair, and Nancy Pelosi. I’ve sat with all these people who we think are in charge, and they don’t know what to do. Take that in: they don’t know what to do! You think you’re scared? You think you’re terrified? They have the Pentagon’s intelligence, they have every major corporation’s input; Shell Oil that has done this survey and study around the peak oil problem. You think we’ve got to get on the Internet and say, “Peak oil!” because the system doesn’t know about it? They know, and they don’t know what to do. And they are terrified that if they do anything they’ll loose their positions. So they keep juggling chickens and chainsaws and hope it works out just like most of us everyday at work.” (Van Jones)
11) If the public were convinced climate change were real and demanded alternative energy, it would become clear pretty quickly that we didn’t have any alternatives. Already Californians are seeing public television shows and newspaper articles about why it’s so difficult to build enough wind, solar, and so on to meet the mandated 33% renewable energy sources by 2020.
For example, last night I saw a PBS program on the obstacles to wind power in Marin county, on the other side of the Golden Gate bridge. Difficulties cited were lack of storage for electricity, NIMBYism, opposition from the Audubon society over bird kills, wind blows at night when least needed, the grid needs expansion, and most wind is not near enough to the grid to be connected to it. But there was no mention of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) or the scale of how many windmills you’d need to have. So you could be left with the impression that these problems with wind could be overcome.
I don’t see any signs of the general public losing optimism yet. I gave my “Peak Soil” talk to a group recently of very educated people, and to my great surprise realized they weren’t worried until my talk, partly because so they weren’t aware of the Hirsch 2005 “liquid fuels” crisis concept, nor the scale of what fossil fuels do for us. I felt really bad, I’ve never spoken to a group before that wasn’t aware of the problem. I wished I were a counselor as well. The only thing I could think of to console them was to say that running out of fossil fuels was a good thing — we will soon be forced by geological shortages and consequent political unrest to stop burning so much fossil fuel, which means better odds we and many other species won’t be driven extinct from climate change.
12) Since peak oil began in 2005 –we’ve been on a plateau since then — there’s less urgency to do something about climate change for many leaders, because they assume, or hope, that the remaining fossil fuels won’t trigger a runaway greenhouse. But it might – changes can be abrupt and non-linear. There’s are no carbon free alternative liquid fuels, let alone a liquid fuel we can burn in our existing combustion engines, which were designed to use very specific oil recipes (i.e. diesel #2). There’s no time left to build an electric transportation system, which would not work for reasons explained in my book “When Trains Stop running”. And since electricity generation from windmills, solar, nuclear, etc., depends on oil from mineral extraction to final delivery, these contraptions will not outlast the age of oil. Batteries are too expensive for all vehicles, and too large and heavy for trucks or locomotives, and require a revolutionary breakthrough that may never happen.
13) Some hope that denying climate change dill divert attention from the more immediate threat of peak oil. I’m guessing their motivation is to keep our oil-based nation going as long as possible by preventing a stock market crash, panic, social disorder, maintaining a military to protect us and intervene in the Middle East to keep the oil flowing as long as possible, and so on so that we’re the Last Nation Standing (#4)
14) Richard Heinberg writes “Peakists within the oil industry are usually technical staff (usually geologists, seldom economists, and never PR professionals) and are only free to speak out on the subject once they’ve retired. The industry has two big reasons to hate peak oil. First, company stock prices are tied to the value of booked oil reserves; if the public (and government regulators) were to become convinced that those reserves were problematic, the companies’ ability to raise money would be seriously compromised—and oil companies need to raise lots of money these days to find and produce ever-lower-quality resources. It’s thus in the interest of companies to maintain an impression of (at least potential) abundance.”
And as Gail Tverberg often points out in her blog ourfiniteworld.com, low oil prices prevent oil companies from drilling or even looking for more oil. So they definitely don’t want peakists driving their stock prices down by talking about this. Yet even when oil prices go high, it doesn’t last, and the economy collapses and drives oil prices low again. She believes that this is how peak oil collapse may play out — with low oil prices, not high prices as everyone expects (Tverberg 2018).
15) There’s plenty of misinformation out there, plenty of rosy, cornucopian “we’ve got plenty of oil” projections from all kinds of experts. Why wouldn’t you believe them? If I hadn’t joined peak oil forums, it’s unlikely I would have ever stumbled on the information to counter the Wall Street economic view of the world (see my book list and energy topics). People who understand the problem of limited resources are labeled “pessimists”, not realists. Daniel Yergin, of Cambridge Associates (CERA), is the poster boy for calming worries about energy supplies.
16) Tariel Morrigan, in “Peak Energy, Climate Change, and the Collapse of Global Civilization” puts the problem this way: “Announcing peak oil may be akin to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, except that the burning theater has no exits”. Morrigan says a government announcing peak oil threatens the economy, not only risking a market crash, but the panic that would follow would cause social and political unrest. What a moral dilemma – not warning people isn’t fair, but warning people will make an economic crash and social unrest happen sooner and does nothing to help to make a transition.
In addition, announcing peak oil will make many lose confidence in their government because they’ll feel they were deceived since this has been known since at least the 1950s when M. King Hubbert gave his famours peak oil presentation. The publc will feel that the government failed to protect them, or was incompetent, corrupt, and colluded with private interests (especially oil companies and the institutions involved with wide-scale economic fraud and recklessness).
17) A story must be positive or a problem must have a solution to be picked up by the media as an ongoing theme. This is even more true for getting a book published. Although this book appears to be quite doomer: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, it has a “happy” solution — we’ll just migrate to the Moon and Mars! Hello! The only method of propulsion we have to escape the planet is fossil fuels, and they don’t come anywhere near to getting us to the speed of light necessary to get to the closest star. Nor will a space elevator do that — even if it could be built, it’s absolutely ridiculous to think we could survive on the Moon or Mars. Biosphere II was a failure, and that was right here on Earth. The idea of abandoning Earth is absurd, sad — pure science-fiction. But you can’t get a book published about how we face extinction if you don’t offer some hope.
18) Sometimes I wonder if some of our smartest energy scientists, who know that fossil fuels can’t be replaced with alternative and/or renewable energy resources, are playing a long game. Perhaps they’re trying to steer society away from war and social unrest by promising the public that renewable energy can work, with the added carrot that they’ll be doing something good for the planet and their grandchildren by slowing or stopping climate change. They can’t ever be honest, or their long game won’t work.
If people knew that solar, wind, biomass, and so on wouldn’t work, they’d be very keen on building more coal or nuclear plants (also a disaster because we still have no way of getting rid of nuclear waste and there isn’t enough uranium left to do that), drilling for oil in the arctic (a disaster for salmon and other sea life after inevitable oil spills), and so on.
Most scientists see extinction from climate change as humanities biggest threat, especially burning coal or the dirty tar sands in Canada and heavy oils of Venezuela. Far better to throw societies remaining energy resources into distributed energy — at least that way, as the grid flutters and dies from lack of coal and natural gas, the wealthiest people who were able to buy both solar panels and batteries could still cook, heat, and cool their homes until they broke.
19) Why bother to tell people when they won’t believe you? James Howard Kunstler has an excellent book called “Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation” that goes into the Disneyesque, happy-ending mentality of the American public. Most people — even scientists — believe we can overcome any limits with our ingenuity and technical know-how. It is impossible for most people to accept, or even consider, that we might be limited by forces beyond our control, mainly limited fossil fuels and the impossibility of wind, solar, nuclear, and other low-net energy, high fossil-fuel dependent “solutions” to replace oil, coal, and natural gas.
20) The IPCC has greatly exaggerated the amount of fossil fuels. Although they invite scientists from many fields, they don’t invite geologists. IPCC estimates of fossil fuel reserves are crazy, unjustified, and flat out wrong. That’s why their charts of CO2 continue to go up to the 21st century. And the IPCC never says what they assume fossil reserves are, but it can be backwards calculated by their projections, which is basically that we can burn all the reserves and the resources. Several geologists have published peer-reviewed papers that question these reserve figures (see posts here). Tad Patzek has looked at fossil reserves and concluded that at worst, only the lowest four IPCC projections might come to pass. It is a well-established fact that conventional oil, 90% of our oil, peaked in 2005 world-wide. Oil-based vehicles and equipment are essential for obtaining, delivering, and maintaining the vast energy infrastructure for coal and natural gas production, so peak oil also means peak coal and natural gas — and everything else since oil is the master resources that makes all goods possible.
So peak energy and resources are going to blind-side most people, we haven’t been preparing at all for the emergency looming within 20 or so years. And since climate change is locked in for hundreds of years, the survivors will be knocked flat again by sea-level rise, crazy weather reducing crop yields, heat waves and droughts.
I doubt the IPCC will ever change their fossil reserve figures because that would lessen the urgency of their message.
21) Politicians can’t get re-elected if they cause their constituents to suffer economic pain
Here are another six reasons from Robert L. Hirsch’s book “The Impending World Energy Mess” (and his slideshow):
22) Incompetence for all the reasons it exists (Hirsch)
23) Intellectual rigidity. People are so tied to history and their training they don’t see other technologies require different thinking (Hirsch)
24) Self-interest, often connected to a person’s job. If realities were publicly understood then a company or environmental organization might suffer, so self-interest leads to less than full disclosure and smoke screen lobbying (Hirsch)
25) Conspiracy among people and organizations to protect their common turf, which leads to all of them working to obscure inconvenient truths (Hirsch)
26) It’s not obvious that a civilization changing problem is at hand to decision makers or the public (Hirsch)
27) Decision makers want clarity, a clear path before taking action. When oil prices dropped, it was back again to “don’t worry”
28) The situation is unprecedented: The world has never faced a problem like the decline in world oil production. No action will be taken until the public is aware of the problem and can’t deny it. By then it will be too late to avoid serious consequences. (Hirsch)
29) Why the media doesn’t explain the situation to the public: Editors don’t understand it. The story is too complicated. The public is not interested, especially since it’s a bad news story. The public is confused by reported quantities of oil and gas in the ground: Resources are not Reserves which are not Supply; only a small percentage of reported Resources will ever be produced and added to our usable Supply.
Why aren’t contemporary ecologists and economists addressing resource and energy scarcity, as Charles A. S. Hall, in the 26 September 2013 journal Ecological Engineering, asked: Given the growing evidence that the interrelated problems of energy and resource scarcity will lead to grave problems for society, why is it that universities/science/funding agencies are generally ignoring these questions?
30) One possibility is that peak oil predictions were wrong. But the evidence shows that this is not the case. In fact, many of the earlier predictions have been shown to be correct with regard to peak oil (Brandt, 2007), peaking of global conventional oil production (Aleklett, 2012; Hallock et al., 2014), and many other resources (Heinberg, 2007), no substitutes for oil have been developed or even foreseeably might be developed on anything like the scale required, and most are very poor net energy performers. Renewable fuels remain less than 1% of world energy production, and most have low EROI (Hall and Day, 2009; Palmer, 2013).
31) Another possibility is that most were unaware of peak oil predictions. Although these predictions have had relatively little impact on public and private policy, their information has been widely disseminated over the past several decades in scientific articles, newspapers, magazines, and on the web. But universities, intellectual leaders, government, and media have largely ignored the constraintists’ information developed over the past half century.
32) Ecologists generally are no longer trained to think that resource constraints are important or within their purview and there is increasing academic fragmentation due to specialization. Our own graduate education was greatly influenced by broadly thinking ecologists who spoke loudly and often eloquently about global resource issues and the future of humanity and nature. There seem to be very few such leaders today, and there is little support from the current teachers of ecologists that these are even issues that their students should be considering. Ecologists, ideally the most integrative and interdisciplinary of scientists, have mostly taken up residence in biology departments so that ecology, which should be a broadly integrated science, is now mostly about biology. This is in part due to the present tenure system that discourages young faculty from taking on broad, systems oriented problems. Similar things can be said about our funding agencies that appear oblivious to issues such as peak oil, declining net yield of major fuels, and, more generally, the issues raised four decades ago that can be broadly characterized as “limits to growth”. Part of the reason is that these resource/population problems do not fit comfortably within any academic discipline
33) Lack of awareness. Publications on peak oil in “mainline” scientific journals are rare. Few people stumble upon the plethora of books that do exist which are directed toward a more general audience and explained resource, population, exponential growth implications, energy scarcity issues and other topics which make the crisis fully understandable, such as Kunstler, 2005; Heinberg, 2007; Deffeyes, 2005; Dilworth, 2009; Aleklett, 2012, and others. I used to haunt the book stores in Berkeley, especially Cody’s and Moe’s, but Walter Youngquist’s outstanding “Geodestinies” and dozens of other books in my booklist never appeared on the shelves, and are still rarely found in the few brick and mortar book stores left standing.
34) Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal, major owner of Facebook and other enterprises, encouraged the scientists at Stanford’s April 2015 Net Energy Conference not to be too optimistic or too pessimistic about the energy crisis and resource shortages, because at either extreme, people will not feel they need to, or can do anything. He recommended mild optimism or pessimism to motivate others. Surely many others have come to the same conclusion and refrained from fully explaining the actual situation to the public.
35) NOT ON MY WATCH. The goal of a politician is to keep Business As Usual going with whatever resources can be found. Since GROWTH is what matters to MARKET, there is no talk in the Congressional Record about conserving our supposed 100-year supply of natural gas and oil. Quite the opposite, the goal is to use it as quickly as possible. $95 billion dollars of new business are being planned according to Dow Chemical CEO Andrew N Liveris (2013-2-12. Natural gas resources S. Hrg. 113-1. United States Senate. 188 pages.) If this sort of exponential growth does occur, then a 100 year supply becomes 50 years, or perhaps 25 as transportation and utilities also increase their use of natural gas.
36) DRINKING THE KOOL-AID. Leaders represent the businesses of their state or city and have to keep their personal opinions to themselves. Some of them literally drink the Kool-aid, Governor Hickenlooper said “, I’m not sure how this happened, but the new frack fluid is made with food additives, and somehow we all took a swig of the new frack fluid, and it was not terribly tasty”. Senator Lisa Murkowski reported that “The really great thing was when someone dipped a graham cracker into the LNG and passed it around for the rest of us to eat. Senator Wyden waited for me to take the first bite to make sure I didn’t die. It was like a Thin Mint from the freezer. So I think we demystified some of the concerns about LNG” (Mufson). They are both leaders in energy-producing states and have to promote those industries. I find it especially ironic to hear Hickenlooper say what he does now in the Congressional record, because he was a host and speaker at the Association for the Study of Peak Oil conference in 2005 when he was Mayor of Denver.
37) Above all, the crazy irrationality of both the public and the Republican leaders they elect as is well-documented in Chris Mooney’s 2012 book: “The Republican Brain. The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality”. Of course Democrats get things wrong too, but the way conservative brains are wired to want certainty and closure so are both less likely to seek out new information or change their beliefs when they encounter ideas contrary to what they’ve already decided to believe in, the many Republicans who believe in a literal translation of the Bible which thus excludes scientific evidence from consideration, and so on, which is explained at length in Mooney’s introduction and my review of his book.
38) Political leaders want more certainty about peak oil before acting on it. Robert Hirsch testified at a Congressional Hearing titled “Understanding the Peak Oil Theory” in 2005, where he said:
The era of plentiful, low-cost petroleum is approaching an end. Oil is the lifeblood of modern civilization. It fuels most transportation worldwide and is a feedstock for pharmaceuticals, agriculture, plastics and a myriad of other products used in everyday life. The earth has been generous in yielding copious quantities of oil to fuel world economic growth for over a century, but that period of plenty is changing. The world has never confronted a problem like Peak Oil. Oil peaking represents a liquid fuels problem, not an energy crisis in the sense that that term has been used. Motor vehicles, aircrafts, trucks, and ships have no ready alternative to liquid fuels, certainly not the large existing capital stock. And that capital stock has lifetimes measured in decades. Solar, wind, and nuclear power produce electricity not liquid fuels; their widespread use in transportation is at least 30 to 50 years away.
We would all like to believe that the optimists are right about peak oil, but the risks, again the risks of them being wrong, are beyond anything that we have experienced, the risks of error are beyond imagination.
Risk minimization mandates the massive implementation of mitigation well before the onset of the problem. Since we do not know when peaking is going to occur, that makes a tough problem for you folks as decision makers because if you are going to start 20 years ahead of something that is indeterminate, you have a tough time making the arguments. Mustering support is going to be difficult.
Before embarking on a massive multi-trillion dollar oil-mitigation program 20 years ahead of time to build liquefied coal plants, increase oil sand production, and other measures Hirsch recommends in his 2005 report for the Department of Energy, Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, mitigation, & risk management, Congress wants to be damn sure that peak is 20 years or less away. If they start too soon, a huge amount of money, energy, and time would be wasted.
Although many of the scientists at the hearing are saying peak may have happened and at best is very likely to peak within the next 15 years, techno-optimist Mr. Ellis of Cambridge Energy Research Associates testifies at this hearing that “CERA does not recognize a peak in oil capacity until at least 2030.”
So Congress has done very little since then, and now there are “experts” testifying before Congress that the U.S. has 100 years of energy independence in both oil and gas.
And since this 2005 hearing, none of the peak oil geologists have been invited back.
Perhaps Congressional leaders worry too much about how they’ll be perceived by historians in the future, and by only inviting techno-optimists to testify after this hearing, they will have plausible deniability that they knew world oil production would peak so soon (House).
39) People are so clever we’ll invent new technology to cope with shortages. This is the favorite argument of the “No limits to growth” politicians (who have to promise endless growth to get elected) and economists. When it comes to energy, it’s often pointed out that we’ve invented fracking, tar sands, biodiesel, and ethanol. What they don’t know is that all of these were invented a long time ago. Ethanol in ancient Egypt if not earlier (Otera 1993), Fracking was already being done late in the 19th century (Francis 2006), directional drilling in the 1930s and horizontal drilling in the 1960s (Hashash 2011). Tar sands were already under way in 1967 (Pitts 2012).
40) If we run out of something we’ll substitute something else. Substitution has problems as well. Even when possible, it’s usually not easy and often more energy intensive. If we had to use something other than copper in electrical conducting apparatus aluminum could replace it – but aluminum is brittle, oxidizes easily, doesn’t conduct electricity as well, thin aluminum wires can catch on fire if heated, and aluminum production needs four times as energy as copper. Using titanium for chromium also requires more energy.
41) Scientists are too focused on their narrow field of interest by necessity, but that means that they are unable to make the wider interconnections between their area and other fields to see how much energy and resource depletion impact politics and economies of different societies. Our education system needs to teach generalized systems (Ahmed 2017).
42) Media ownership is dominated by fossil fuel-centric interests which has led to consistently inaccurate reporting on energy issues and their relationships with economic, food, and climate crises, as well as many conflicts, especially in the Middle East. The media usually neglects to point out that the increasing conflict and instability world-wide is caused by fossil energy decline and the inevitable transition to a post-carbon future toward an inevitable post-carbon future. (Ahmed 2017).
43) Almost all the news about energy comes from press releases about breakthroughs and are written by non-science writers, who always make it sound like now, at last, we have the improvement to save civilization. They do not write about the hurdles that remain, or the downside of the breakthrough – yes the energy density is greater, but the battery is more likely to explode or has a lesser number of charges, the solar panel will have a shorter lifespan, and so on.
44) “Admitting peak oil will also have geopolitical consequences. Oil producing nations might lose geopolitical power, if the international community realizes that they will no longer be reliable suppliers due to declining production rates. Private investment might also decline as investors look elsewhere to make their investments. Nations with resources may become targets of new political and economic alliances and/or resource competition and wars. Considering that a rapid reduction in the global population may occur in response to oil and energy scarcity and economic decline post-peak oil, a public warning about peak oil may cause a general panic as individuals, communities, and nations react to protect and secure their lives, livelihoods, and resources against a potential dieoff event and upheaval.”
“it is clear that there is insufficient time to mitigate and prepare for peak oil and economic decline. Even if a government or industry surprised the world and released previously undisclosed new energy resources and/or technologies overnight, it would likely take years or decades and trillions of dollars to implement it on a commercial scale and to change the global energy infrastructure and economy. Therefore, it seems that a peak oil shock will be unavoidable and will come without much public warning.”(Morrigan 2010).
45) The oil industry certainly doesn’t want peak oil to be known. According to Richard Heinberg “The industry has two big reasons to hate peak oil. First, company stock prices are tied to the value of booked oil reserves; if the public (and government regulators) were to become convinced that those reserves were problematic, the companies’ ability to raise money would be seriously compromised—and oil companies need to raise lots of money these days to find and produce ever-lower-quality resources. It’s thus in the interest of companies to maintain an impression of (at least potential) abundance.”
46) Richard Heinberg: “Some policy wonks buy “it’s all about energy” but are jittery about “renewables are the future” and won’t go anywhere near “growth is over.” A few of these folks like to think of themselves as environmentalists (sometimes calling themselves “bright green”)—including the Breakthrough Institute and writers like Stewart Brand and Mark Lynas. A majority of government officials are effectively in the same camp, viewing nuclear power, natural gas, carbon capture and storage (“clean coal”), and further technological innovation as pathways to solving the climate crisis without any need to curtail economic growth.
Other environment-friendly folks buy “it’s all about energy” and “renewables are the future” but still remain allergic to the notion that “growth is over.” They say we can transition to 100% renewable power with no sacrifice in terms of economic growth, comfort, or convenience. Stanford professor Mark Jacobson3 and Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute are leaders of this chorus. Theirs is a reassuring message, but if it doesn’t happen to be factually true (and there are many energy experts who argue persuasively that it isn’t), then it’s of limited helpfulness because it fails to recommend the kinds or degrees of change in energy usage that are essential to a successful transition.
The general public tends to listen to one or another of these groups, all of which agree that the climate and energy challenge of the 21st century can be met without sacrificing economic growth. This widespread aversion to the “growth is over” conclusion is entirely understandable: during the last century, the economies of industrial nations were engineered to require continual growth in order to produce jobs, returns on investments, and increasing tax revenues to fund government services.”
“Anyone who questions whether growth can continue is deeply subversive. Nearly everyone has an incentive to ignore or avoid it. It’s not only objectionable to economic conservatives; it is also abhorrent to many progressives who believe economies must continue to grow so that the working class can get a larger piece of the proverbial pie, and the “underdeveloped” world can improve standards of living. But ignoring uncomfortable facts seldom makes them go away. Often it just makes matters worse. ”
OTHER EXPERTS OPINIONS ON WHY TOO LITTLE ACTION IS TAKING PLACE
James Schlesinger First Secretary of Energy, 1977-1979, Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, US Secretary of Defense, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Below is from “James Schlesinger on peak oil In a candid 2012 interview, America’s first Secretary of Energy spoke about looming oil supply problems” by Mason Inman and Nov 1, 2010 Dr. James Schlesinger: “The Peak Oil Debate is Over” at ASPO-USA Conference.
Q: What is your hope with giving speeches in which you try to warn people? Do you think that even if there’s not a big shift, at least it will help a little bit?
Maybe, but they tend to brush it off. I don’t know whether you saw the speech I gave to the National Academy of Sciences. It was some years ago. I brought this all up, and basically they kind of shrugged it off. You know, that’s the National Academy of Sciences. That’s not the generality of American voters. I also gave a talk to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in which I raised all this, and did not get a very good response.
And I think the reason for that is complex. It’s not because they’re sucking up to the American public’s views on this. It’s because the industry really does not want to publicize the fact that oil production is not going to be available in the future the way it has been in the past. Even if we don’t have a peak, we have a plateau at some point. And a plateau, with the Chinese and Indians using more and more oil, and other developing nations using more oil, there will be less oil for the developed nations. So, the consequence is that you’re going to have to get by with less, even if you have a plateau.
Q: So what do you think is the answer to that? Does it require a grassroots effort to get the politicians to change?
Well, if the public changed, the politicians would change. The problem is the public. The public does not want to hear about this—because this is an acknowledgement that prices are going to go up, and that they’re going to have more problems running their automobiles than they want…. The political process is very sensitive to telling the people what they want to hear, right? The political order responds to what the public believes today, not to what it may come to believe tomorrow. It is also resistant to any action that inflicts pain, or sacrifice, or those who vote. The payoff in politics comes from reassurance. Jimmy Carter was kind of an exception to that, if I may say so—and few politicians want to emulate him. But he kept trying to say things that were true. I was an optimist in the ‘70s…. I’m a child of the World War II. And I had this nonsensical belief that if the American President called on people to react, they would. That was true in World War II—but we had the help of the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor to get public attention…. Anyway, it turned out that the public was less responsive to the President [Carter] than I had anticipated. Well, you can do that if you’re Winston Churchill, you know. And Winston Churchill was very unpopular in Britain, right until the outbreak of the war, when what he had been saying came true…. It’s particularly tough in this country, because the Americans pride themselves on optimism, which means that you don’t really wish to acknowledge unpleasant prospective news.
one must remember one of the sagest of political comments, from Senator Russell Long, who basically represented the Louisiana oil interests. He once said: “The first duty of a politician is to get elected. And his second duty is to get reelected. And remember that, in the case of President, you’re dealing with four years or possibly eight years of term. Maybe it will come after the election of my successor, but it’s not going to be a problem for me….
Q: Do you have much hope that Americans might plan ahead for these problems you’ve been warning about the past several years?
No, nothing’s going to happen until reality hits them between the eyes like a two-by-four.
On why journalists don’t cover Peak Oil: Well, one has to remember that the American boy has been raised on his love of the automobile, and, you know, tinkering with a car was a preoccupation of young American males. And what this is saying is, “Hey, that was great fun while it lasted, but it’s not going to last forever, and you’ll have to learn to do something else than tinkering with automobiles.” And that’s bad news. That doesn’t bring in votes.
Peter Maas in the NYT on why oil companies aren’t eager to talk about peak oil:
34) In the political and corporate realms of the oil world, there are few incentives to be forthright. Executives of major oil companies have been reluctant to raise alarms; the mere mention of scarce supplies could alienate the governments that hand out lucrative exploration contracts and also send a message to investors that oil companies, though wildly profitable at the moment, have a Malthusian long-term future. Peter Maass. The Breaking Point. Aug 21, 2005 The New York Times.
Not on My Watch
35) Since there’s nothing that can be done, and it’s both hard and expensive to keep up with the growing number of wars over oil, infrastructure falling apart, still massive unemployment and thousands of other problems, the goal now, and perhaps always has been, is just keeping it all duct-taped together while you’re in office.
Geologist Dr. Richard G. Miller’s explanation:
36) Policy makers are only in there for the short haul. Policy makers answer to politicians and politicians answer to the electorate, and the electorate votes its pocketbook. Politicians have to say whatever’s going to keep them in power, to get them re-elected; only when re-elected can they “do something useful” for the country. To be re-elected, they have to grow the economy. In the UK today that’s why whenever there’s a conflict between the Dept. of the Environment and the Treasury, the Treasury wins. That’s also why the government wants to go fracking in the UK. They will do anything to try to reduce the price of energy because that will help the economy to grow. All of which means they cannot acknowledge the longer term problems.
The Chinese are more rational. They get peak oil and they get climate change. But they also get that they have to finish hooking up their far-flung populations to electricity supplies and to create a bit more personal mobility. Without that they have civil unrest, with people still flooding in from the countryside where they might become useless and uncontrollable. So their bigger problem for now is also growing their economy.
It’s just a mess. Bottom line: we don’t have a shortage of resources, we have a longage of people and a serious longage of their expectations.
The worst case scenario is that we keep desperately trying to find and produce more oil such that it brings us to a sharp peak. If we get a sharp peak, we would get civil unrest and collapse, maybe in the space of a couple of years because that’s how quickly it could be. A loss of 5+% of global supply in two years would just be awful. But if we have a long slow decline in production with slowly rising prices—a bit like being in a war situation—none of the price change points would be sufficient to cause riots in the streets. So, that’s what I hope.
Miller joined BP as a geochemist in 1985. He’s studied peak oil for BP since 1991. Most recently, Dr. Miller co-authored The Future of Oil Supply, which was published by The Royal Society, in a thematic issue of Philosophical Transactions entirely devoted to future world oil supply.
Nate Hagens, on why scientists don’t speak out (march 15, 2014 private communication):
A very famous ecologist Nate spoke with recently told him that his colleagues were afraid to speak about important issues like climate change because they feared being ostracized or losing status. The ecologist called his (very famous) university ‘little more than a well-painted whore’, given how the professors only focus on what they get funding for — funding that comes from government or corporations who are growth oriented and Business-As-Usual. [my comment: I assume this means talking about “Limits to Growth” is likely to lead to no funding].
Nate Hagens on why extremely wealthy people think alternative energy resources can replace fossil fuels:
After the meeting with the ecologist, Nate went to a fundraiser where the attendees were worth tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. Nate said the president of a top 5 environmental organization spoke there on behalf of climate urgency. He said we have the technology and ability to entirely cease coal fired electricity and oil production within 5-10 years, and replace them with renewables at a 1-2% higher cost. He suggested that billionaires could get together and raise $50 billion, the current market cap of United States coal companies, and shut the plants down (Kramer).
Nate summarizes why scientists, the rich, and famous are unable to see the coming energy crisis:
- EVERYONE believes in their own world view.
- The more power/influence one has, the less likely ones views will change. Ever.
- Very few people can think in systems terms. They are experts in their one area.
- People defer to the most respected, influential person in the room — a natural ape instinct. And since the people at the top are techno-optimists who think fossil fuels can be replaced with renewables at little cost, everyone below blindly believes likewise.
We need government plans or strategies at all levels to let the air out of the tires of civilization as slowly as possible to prevent panic and sudden discontinuities.
Given history, I can’t imagine the 1% giving up their wealth (especially land, 85% of which is concentrated among 3% of owners). I’m sure they’re hoping the current system maintains its legitimacy as long as possible, even as the vast majority of us sink into 3rd world poverty beyond what we can imagine, and then are too poor and hungry to do anything but find our next meal.
Until there are oil shocks and governments at all levels are forced to “do something”, it’s up to those of us aware of what’s going on to gain skills that will be useful in the future, work to build community locally, and live more simply. Towns or regions that already have or know how to implement a local currency fast will be able to cope better with discontinuities in oil supplies and financial crashes than areas that don’t.
The best possible solution is de-industrialization, starting with Heinberg’s 50 million farmers, while also limiting immigration, instituting high taxes and other disincentives to encourage people to not have more than one child so we can get under the maximum carrying capacity as soon as possible.
Hirsch recommended preparing for peak 20 years ahead of time, and we didn’t do that. So many of the essential preparations need to be at a local, state, and federal level, they can’t be done at an individual level. Denial and inaction now are likely to lead to millions of unnecessary deaths in the future. Actions such as upgrading infrastructure essential to life, like water delivery and treatment systems (up to 100 years old in much of America and rusting apart), sewage treatment, bridges, and so on. After peak, oil will be scarce and devoted to growing and delivering food, with the remaining energy trickling down to other essential services — probably not enough to build new infrastructure, or even maintain what we have.
I wish it were possible for scientists and other leaders to explain what’s going on to the public, but I think scientists know it wouldn’t do any good given American’s low scientific literacy, and leaders see the vast majority of the public as big blubbering spoiled babies, like the spaceship characters on floating chairs in Wall-E, who expect, no demand, happy Hollywood endings.
Robert Hirsch’s May 16, 2012 Why oil companies deny peak oil
If you want an article to send to a denier you know, it would be hard to do better than Donald Prothero’s “How We Know Global Warming is Real and Human Caused“.
Aleklett, Kjell. 10 June 2013. Peak oil: preparing for the extinction of ‘petroleum man’. scienceomega.com
Bland, A. 2009. Cheer Up, It’s Going to Get Worse. Bohemian.com.
BTC. November 2010. Armed Forces, Capabilities and Technologies in the 21st Century Environmental Dimensions of Security. Sub-study 1. PEAK OIL Security policy implications of scarce resources. Bundeswehr Transformation Centre, Future Analysis Branch.
Fingerman, Kevin. 2010. Accounting for the water impacts of ethanol production. Environmental Research Letters.
Francis, D. December 28, 2006. Torpedo Tales. E&P magazine.
Hashash, Y., et al. 2011. Evaluation of horizontal directional drilling. Civil Engineering studies, Illinois center for transportation series no.11-095.
Heinberg, R and Fridley, D. 18 Nov 2010. The end of cheap coal. New forecasts suggest that coal reserves will run out faster than many believe. Energy policies relying on cheap coal have no future. Nature, vol 468, pp 367-69.
Heinberg, R. 2015. Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels. New Society Publishers.
Hirsch, Robert L. 2010. “The Impending World Energy Mess. What it is and what it means to YOU!” with co-authors Roger H. Bezdek & Robert Wendling (forward by Dr. James R. Schlesinger, 1st U.S. Secretary of Energy)
Hirsch, Robert L. July 10, 2012 slide show “Peak Oil Guru Robert Hirsch Gives A Dire Outlook For The Future”.
House. December 7, 2005. Understanding the Peak Oil theory. House of Representatives hearing. Subcommittee on Energy & Air Quality. Serial No. 109-41. 95 pages.
Kramer, Felix. March 11, 2014. Deal of the century: buy out the US coal industry for $50bn What if Bloomberg, Branson and Grantham came together to buy out the coal industry, close and clean up the mines, retrain workers and accelerate the expansion of renewable energy? TheGuardian.com
Morrigan, T. 2010. Peak energy, climate change, and the collapse of global civilization. University of California, Santa Barbara.
Mufson, S. Feb 9, 2013. Q&A: Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska on her ‘20/20’ vision for energy policy. Washington Post
Nelder, Chris. 20 Jun 2013. Positive energy To change attitudes towards energy scarcity and climate change, focus on transitions and solutions, not danger and loss. Nature. Vol 498, pp 293-5.
Otera, J. 1993. Transesterification. Chemical Reviews 93 no. e: 1449-70
Patzek, t. W. & Croft, G. D. 2010. A global coal production forecast with multi-Hubbert cycle analysis. Energy 35, 3109–3122.
Pimentel, D. et al. 1991. Land, Energy, and Water. The Constraints Governing Ideal U.S. Population Size. Negative Population Growth.
Pitts, G. August 25, 2012. The man who saw gold in Alberta’s oil sands. Globe and Mail, Toronto.
Rowe, Mark. July 2010. When will the oil flow slow? Oil is becoming more difficult to obtain, and research suggests that it won’t be long before we’re unable to meet global demand. Geographical magazine.
Smil, V. 2000. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production. MIT Press.
Tverberg, G. 2018. Low Oil Prices: An Indication of Major Problems Ahead? ourfiniteworld.com https://ourfiniteworld.com/2018/11/28/low-oil-prices-an-indication-of-major-problems-ahead/
Urban Danger. Congressman Roscoe Bartlett youtube videos:
- Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGE1omIaRMI
- Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBiTrQuZuUQ&feature=related
- Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGJHwzsPdpY&feature=related
Van Jones. 2 Sep 2007. Van Jones: Spiritually Fulfilling, Ecologically Sustainable AND Socially Just? Pachamama Alliance Awakening the Dreamer Global Community Gathering.
Zittel, W. & schindler, J. energy Watch Group, Paper no. 1/07 (2007); available at http:// go.nature.com/jngfsa
APPENDIX: Additional writing on this topic
Feb 16, 2006 Why the US Political System Is Unable to React to Peak Oil: Institutions Posted by Prof. Goose at theoildrum.com
I’ve been thinking a lot since the open thread Tuesday about political change in the United States, as well as they Deffeyes date set a couple of posts down. Many of us would argue that the evidence is there, “why isn’t the government reacting?”
I thought I would bring some pieces of the political puzzle together into a post on why I believe the US, at least at the federal level, will be overly slow to react to the problems of peak oil in both the short and long term. This is the first piece in a series of a few, the first has to do with the institutions of American government. More of my argument under the fold…
I think it is safe to say that we can assume politicians are self-interested actors, wishing to keep their job and doing whatever they can, most of the time within reason, to keep it.
These politicians, once holding power, play the political game inside a set of institutions. These institutions are basically sets of rules and norms that produce public policy, the outputs of government.
It is important to understand that only those politicians in “safe” districts (where the MoC (Member of Congress) gets a large percentage (usually defined as over 55%) of the vote (an increasingly common occurence with the use of GIS tools to draw lines come redistricting time) with no ambitions for higher office take real political risks and try to change the system (e.g., Roscoe Bartlett, but this is even more true of safe members of the party out of power).
The institutions (and the rules governing the “game” of politics) of the United States incentivize this behavior, because they were designed from the founding of the country to be deliberative and slow, if not glacial; they were designed do all they can to perpetuate the status quo. I think understanding the American government’s response to peak oil or any crisis requires an understanding of the theory behind the institutions, an analysis of why they are they way they are and what it will take for them to actually change.
Remember that the US does not have a “social” (like many in Europe) democracy, we have a “liberal” democracy. Part of why this distinction exists has to do with institutions (two party/separation of powers/presidential system) that are set up to not be at all reactive but overly slow to change and deliberative.
Separation of powers is an important component that you have heard of many times, I am sure. What it means is that power in America is distributed across many actors or sets of actors, and those actors often hold responsibilities and interests set in opposition by the rules of the game. The president’s roles and constituencies in our politics are quite different from those of Congress or the courts; even though we can say that the Republican Party has basic control of the three branches of government, they do not march in lockstep; this will especially be the case if there are electoral gains made by the Democrats in 2006.
Take Britain for example, which has a “responsible party” socially democratic government with a different set of rules and institutions. The Labour Party holds power there. The prime minister, Tony Blair, (caveat: there’s more to this story, but this is the simple explanation.) was elected by his party to be the prime minister of parliament, not by the populace like in our system.
The party’s ability to be “responsible” (staying on the same page legislatively) is even more important in the British case; for instance, if the Labour Party ever actually loses an important (called a “party” vote) parliamentary vote, then elections would usually not be far behind. This can happen in many parliamentary systems quite quickly.
Still the point is that executive and legislative power are more consolidated in Britain than in the US, meaning that there is more incentive for the sides to maintain “responsibility” and stay on the same partisan page.
Let’s say we lived in a parliamentary/social democracy here in the US, pretending the rules of the game were different. Let’s also imagine that tne party is in control of (responsible for) government and policy and it screws up. With recent salient circumstances in the US, we could see how new elections could have been called countless numbers of times over the past few years and a change of leadership would have resulted. Instead, here in the US, we have a predictable election cycle that allows for manipulation of resources and “the game,” which allows those in office to maintain office; we call this the “incumbency” advantage. (Let’s also be clear, this is not an anti-Bush rant, the same thing could have happened in 1978 or 1994, where power would have changed hand completely between the party in power and the out-party…the point is that change could/should have happened and did not).
Also, over 93% of incumbents in the House win reelection with a little lower proportion in the Senate, meaning new people with new ideas rarely make into the legislature, let alone hold positions of power.
here’s wikis on presidential and parliamentary systems for contrast:
The other part of the equation that people need to understand is that our two party system is part of the problem and is likely to never change. For the most part, that too is constructed because of the way our institutions are set up, because many of our elections only have one winner (as opposed to a parliamentary system, where if you get a percentage of the vote, you are assured representation), therefore it incentivizes third, fourth, and fifth place actors, if they want power, to work with the loser of the election…over time that sorts itself out into the ideologically coherent, but polarized party system that we have presently. Here’s a wiki with more on why we have a two party system… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_party_system
Uncommon, unconventional ideas and ideologies remain non-influential, so policies and governments do not change rapidly. (Others dispute whether such innate conservatism provides advantages. While smaller parties find this exceptionally frustrating, proponents of the two-party system suggest that it enhances stability while eventually allowing for ideas that gain favor to become politically influential.)
(These systems all turn out this way because of Duverger’s Law (my field’s only “law”…and it ain’t really a law: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duverger%27s_law)
In my courses, I often describe the social democracy/parliamentary system as an ideological speedboat, it can react, zigging and zagging back and forth quickly, but it can also flip over and kill you.
I describe the our presidential/two party/first past the post system as a very very large cruise ship. It is overly stable.
However, I think we also all have heard of the event/seen the movie where the crewman saw the iceberg, threw the wheel hard over, and the ship didn’t turn in time.
Simply put, both systems have weaknesses, but one is more responsive than the other.
In better words, my point is that those same institutions that have maintained the stability of the United States over the times of plenty are exactly the institutions that will keep us from reacting, as a country, in time to avoid most catastrophes. The federal systems are not designed to be proactive, as at the founding of the country, that’s not what they wanted. At least that’s my feel for it.
This is why most of the efforts to react to peak oil are occurring at local levels of government (e.g., relocalization movements, etc.) or from the grass roots. However, those groups rarely have the power to shift resources or incentivize behaviors to the scale that the federal government could, if it would just react.
We need to reorganize our political culture at the federal level; but in order to do that, we would need a new Constitution, a new set of rules, but that would require a public outcry or political instability heretofore unseen in the US, as well as a lot of time to implement.
As I said somewhere else already today, I didn’t see anyone outside with a sandwich board today clamoring for change…so obviously, we ain’t there yet.
In my next post on this, I will discuss another set of actors, the linkages between the mass politic and these institutions that further clog the system of change and maintain the status quo.
“Peak oil” is very much a “bad-news” story. Voters tend to punish those who first bring them the bad news. So, wait for some other politician to open his/her mouth first.
Also, as with global warming, doubt persists, manufactured or otherwise. Most people will avoid a hard task if they are uncertain of the benefit. Self-interested actors need only promote uncertainty to stall action.