Review of Schneider-Mayerson “Peak Oil Apocalyptic Environmentalism and Libertarian Political Culture”

I just finished a great book about life in Russia called “Nothing is true and everything is possible, the surreal heart of the new Russia” by Peter Pomerantsev. He reveals how Soviet propaganda is propagated through TV shows whose goal is to keep people so entertained and unaware of the depth of corruption that they see no need to try to change the system. As I read it I couldn’t help thinking about the fact there are no wall street or banking executives in jail for their mortgage, student loan, insurance, and dozens of other white collar crime scams.  However bad things are here, they’re not as bad as the Soviet Union, but the point of the book is to show how vulnerable we are to falling to such depths, and it does appear we are heading that way.

Anyhow, it made me even more aware of the ways in which Matthew Schneider-Mayerson’s Phd thesis “Peak politics resource scarcity and libertarian political culture in the United States”, which was made into the book “Peak Oil Apocalyptic Environmentalism and Libertarian Political Culture” is flawed.

It does not criticize Peak oil scientifically, but instead uses uses damning language to imply the “labyrinthine subculture of peakists” are evangelical cult members and selfish individualist survivalists.

Before I start my critique, let me say that Schneider-Mayerson is not a “limits to growth” denier, understands why peak oilers believe what they do, and says many things I agree with.

It was interesting to see what an outsider made of the peak oil movement, but it will be a shame if this is a document future historians base their understanding on.

His strange critique of those with peak oil awareness appears to be driven by his perception that those with peak oil beliefs aren’t politically active enough, and not doing much to change things at the governmental level, and sees this as mainly because it is  an internet movement, but political movements need communities that see each other in person.

He thinks it is just another apocalyptic movement because he believes there are solutions to the oil crisis.

I skimmed the 301 pages because I’ve been part of the peak oil community since 2000 and upset that a Ted conference would cover this University of Chicago press book.

I also don’t like his use of the word “peakist”, which is a derogatory term, similar to the word “Darwinist” used by creationists to denigrate those who believe in evolution.

He describes “peakists” with political labels: 29% are liberal and 27% are very liberal with only 7% defining themselves as conservative.

Science is not political.  How people vote has nothing to do with scientific evidence and facts.  Spinning “climate change” belief as “democratic” is a propagandist way of deflecting attention away from scientific evidence and making it appear as though any evidence that exists is “liberal” rather than scientific.

In Chris Mooney’s book “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality”, he explains why liberals believe in scientific evidence and conservatives are less likely to do so. I can’t remember the exact number, but something like 85% of university science professors vote democratic, and the rest are mostly independents, because the essence of science is changing your beliefs as new evidence arises. Conservatives like fixed, unchanging ideas and on average do not do well at universities. If so-called peakists are mainly liberal, that may also reflect a higher scientific awareness of the earth’s problems than the average citizen. Whether they are liberal or not is irrelevant.

Peak oil smeared as a religious cult

“Peakists” are smeared with labels such as “Cassandra’s evangelism” or “peak oil Jeremiah James Howard Kunstler”.  He describes people who become “peak oil aware” as converted, as if it were a cult.  Or as having had “an ideological transformation”… and “Peak oil believers described their awareness of oil depletion and environmental crisis in terms that were strikingly similar to a religious conversion… Many believers found new occupations, purchased land, and sundered ties with friends and family.”

Peak oil just another one of many apocalyptic movements

The author states “While peakism may seem like an unusual belief-system to some readers, the peak oil movement does not seem quite as “fringe” when situated in the context of American apocalypticism.  In 1999, for example, 36% of Americans admitted to planning to “stock pile food and water” in preparation for the fallout of the “Y2K” computer bug, while a 2006 poll found that a quarter of Americans believed that Jesus Christ would return to the Earth the following year.  Connecting contemporary events to millennial prophecies is also not uncommon – in 2002, for example, one in four Americans claimed that the Bible had predicted the September 11th attacks. While peakism lacks a concept ion of the sacred or supernatural, it certainly has religious dimensions.

Peak oil beliefs come from watching too many apocalyptic movies

“Of all media platforms and genres, Hollywood disaster films exerted perhaps the strongest influence on peak oil believers.”

There are 35 pages (182-217) of this drivel about apocalyptic books and movies influencing those with peak oil awareness, rather than scientific evidence from peer-reviewed journals such as energy policy and the obvious fact that there are limits to growth on a finite planet.

Furthermore, of all the possible videos explaining peak oil, he picks the stupidest most outrageous one possible: “Oily Cassandra” in her 2007 YouTube video “Porn. Peak Oil. Enjoy”, where half of the screen is a woman dancing erotically. Not videos of Richard Heinberg, Gail Tverberg, Nate Hagens, Kurt Cobb, Colin Campbell, and so on.

Environmentalists smart, peakists simple

“Whereas most environmentalists now see resource scarcity as tightly bound to economic and social issues that are highly variable, peakists tend to hold fast to a simplistic version of the limits-to-growth environmental paradigm where economic and social issues are at the mercy of ecological limits.”

Where’s the science?

There is a notable absence of science and the scientists within the peak oil sphere. His thesis spends a lot of time on James Howard Kuntler and someone I have never heard of, “Peak Shrink” Kathy McMahon.  Where are Charles A.S. Hall Colin Campbell, Walter Youngquist, Kjell Aleklett, Tad Patzek, David Pimentel, Ken Deffeyes, and so on?

He accuses peakists of selfish individual survivalism, not activism

He condemns the peak oil movement for being individualist in preparation rather than a collective movement like Occupy rather than composed of dedicated environmental activists.

But what about House Representative Roscoe Bartlett and the Peak Oil caucus he formed there?

What about Denver Mayor Hickenlooper (now governor of Colorado) who was a keynote speaker at the first Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) 2005 conference in Denver?  One of the sessions was led by members of the Boulder City council about why it was so hard for them to take action on peak oil issues.

What about San Francisco, Portland, Oakland, and many other cities with Peak oil task forces?

What about all the peak oil meetup groups?

He does mention Transition towns, and how ineffective they have been in most cities in the U.S., which is a fair criticism.  But just as an obscure ecology club in Argentina was the seed of a local currency used across the country when their economic system collapsed in 2001, Transition towns and other groups will help the rest of their community cope when times get harder.

Also a great deal of peak oil activism is “hidden” — taking place in the local food movement, bicycling advocates, and many other groups that are “peak oil aware” but deliberately choose not to mention this because it frightens people and/or isn’t their core mission. Also, these other activists think that batteries, wind, solar, nuclear, wave, tidal, and other mainly electrical solutions could save us, but don’t think this will happen in time to prevent a hard landing due to existing political and economic business interests.

He also ignores the fact that Heinberg, many scientists, and many peak oil activists have written and met with thousands of political leaders from city councilmen to state and national political leaders, not just in the U.S., but around the world. Matt Simmons met with former president George W. Bush. High-level European Union politicians have spoken at the peak oil conferences in Europe.  The Australian parliament had meetings all over Australia to get the input of their citizens on how to cope with peak oil.

He seems to be totally unaware of the reasons why political, economic, and scientific leaders deny peak oil and aren’t doing anything about it despite being aware of the problem (as I describe in .

Also, we have all tried to convince others via blogs, conversations, and so on, to little effect.  This is too depressing a movement to ever catch on.  Most of the people who came to the Oakland meetup that began in 2004 never returned.

He is misguided in thinking that there is no activism.  Nate Hagens recently organized a conference at Stanford on Net Energy, which Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu spoke at.

ABOVE ALL, THERE IS NO SOLUTION.  This is why there is not a movement.  We are way over carrying capacity and there is no substitute for diesel for trucks, trains, or ships, which can not be electrified or run on batteries (see my upcoming book from Springer “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”). Without trucks, civilization collapses in less than a month.

The problem is that making preparations to shift to back to a 14th century agricultural society are simply not possible because no one but a segment of peak oilers believe this. Do you really think any politician is going to fund a program to breed more oxen, or shift from industrial to organic agriculture?  Of course not. They believe that fusion, solar, wind, nuclear, hydrogen and so on will save us.  And why not?  They have law degrees and know little about systems ecology, energy, physics, and other scientific matters.

The peak oil arguments have great scientific justification — it is not an apocalyptic fantasy!  Although oil is the master resource that makes all others possible, peak everything — topsoil, aquifers, forests, phosphorous, coal, natural gas, and consequent resource wars mean we cannot continue business as usual for much longer. Again: this is a scientific, not a political or apocalyptic point of view.

Throughout this book he slams the movement in both big and in smaller ways, even though he holds environmental beliefs himself, as in this description of the ASPO 2009 conference: “Like other subcultures, peakists expressed and advertised their identities through commercially produced and distributed goods.  Next to us, Smiley Oil, a conference sponsor, was busy demonstrating its educational pea k oil video game, Energy Worlds.  Its logo was sinister but somehow appropriate to its referent, a cartoonish drop of black gold with a white Cheshire grin.  A young woman sold ASPO mugs alongside shirts that proclaimed “I [heart] Peak Oil,” and a much wider variety of items could be found online, including bumper stickers, flags, and baby bibs.”

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6 Responses to Review of Schneider-Mayerson “Peak Oil Apocalyptic Environmentalism and Libertarian Political Culture”

  1. Dean Price says:

    ABOVE ALL, THERE IS NO SOLUTION. This is why there is not a movement. We are way over carrying capacity and there is no substitute for diesel for trucks, trains, or ships, which can not be electrified or run on batteries (see my upcoming book from Springer “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”). Without trucks, civilization collapses in less than a month.

    What about Biodiesel? It will power any diesel engine. And can be grown on farms throughout US.

    • energyskeptic says:

      There’s not enough plants to make the required amount of biodiesel, which is only 1% of diesel fuel by volume now. It is very energy expensive to deliver because it is too corrosive to travel in oil pipelines, so rail (5 times) and trucks (20 times) more expensive have to deliver it (and ethanol). Adding additional biodiesel dispensers at the 160,000 gas stations can cost $100,000 or more for the new tanks, and 99% of these service stations are owned by Ma & Pa operations who earn more from junk food than fuel. Most importantly, most engine warranties don’t allow for more than B5 to B20, or the warranty is voided, so the essential transportation (rail and trucks) won’t touch it. There is too much more information to put into a comment, I recommend you read my article “Peak Soil: Why Biofuels are Not Sustainable and a Threat to America’s National Security.”

  2. John Strohl says:

    The biggest argument against reading the book is his dismissive, disrespectful, and flippant characterization of “the Peak movement” in past tense in the abstract of his dissertation. My time is a precious commodity, and I don’t have a lot of it to read through biased nonsense, so I set my filters pretty high, and this is one that get’s a thumbs down from me. Thanks for the titles that let me track down the dissertation @ I appreciated your thoughtful review.

  3. Oelsen says:

    Biodiesel is not a solution and can be proven quite simply with the total acreage * solar insolation compared to the energy it takes to propel a decent variety of trucks and cars. Usually I let scientifically inclined do the maths themselves and usually they respond with “but… how can that be”. Then they let all eat a plant based diet. Then they let nobody take vacations. Etc. And then they ignore the subject altogether.

    Re: the book; this is one of the rare books where the content is probably 100% true, but it completely misses the point, almost being a smokescreen. The West (TM) has a big ailment: Binary thinking. That seemingly contradictory statements can be true at the same time is not a valid way to argue and thus to find out truth or meaning. I can have cold feet and a hot head at the same time – and be totally well and sound. Or not. The same with the big system we inhabit.

    Yes, there will be a hydrogen economy, yes, there will be solar systems. But also everything the peak oil “movement” worked out. There are different time scales involved, but also the sheer number of humans doing daily business. Right now there are humans owning the better half of countries, while others die of hunger. Those two qualities of life will worsen, over a long time. Just an example.

  4. Mike carrick says:

    As a founder of one of those meet up groups, I too am stung by the nasty assertion that we were “selfish individualist survivalists”. while there were some doomsday prepper types, most were driven by concern for their families, and by extension their communities. The seeds of this movement have been scattered to various winds. but that’s a GOOD thing.

    and yes – many of us left “the movement” after two to three years of learning that the situation is intractable. now I live every moment, and suck the marrow from what bones are tossed my way as I try to power down my lifestyle.

    as to Phd’s and their theses …
    I just have to laugh ! a lot of those will go up the chimney as fuel some day. The theses, not the professors, that is.