Robert Rapier was one of the great pleasures of ASPO-USA’s recent conference – his presentation was one of the best and as a long-time admirer of his work, it was a pleasure to finally meet him personally. I also like his current piece on the most common misconceptions about peak oil. Like him, I don’t like the term peak oil at all – because I think it fixates us on precisely the wrong things – the downslope matters more than the peak. I particularly like this point:
Misconception 2: Peak Oil Beliefs are Homogeneous
The beliefs among people who are concerned about resource depletion cover a wide span. There are those who believe that a peak is imminent, followed by a catastrophic decline. Included in this group are people who have vocally and (to this point) wrongly predicted dates and catastrophic consequences as a result of peak oil. These are the real targets of those who claim that peak oil is nonsense. What they really mean – but perhaps don’t say due to misconceptions about peak oil beliefs – is that the idea of imminent, catastrophic decline is nonsense. But that isn’t the same thing as arguing that peak oil is nonsense.
But there are also people who believe peak oil will inevitably lead to cleaner environments, closer communities, and healthier food. Then there are those who believe that peak oil will lead to a dirtier environment as we become more desperate for energy and turn to more oil sands and coal to replace declining oil supplies. There are people who believe peak oil will be a minor inconvenience because there are plenty of sources capable of replacing oil. And there are those who believe certain elements of all of the above.
I think this point is basically right in the sense that the views of those who recognize that the material history of peak oil is correct differ widely. I’m not sure I’d be as harsh as Rapier is about those who believe in rapid collapse – we do know that such things are quite possible over an apparently short period of time, consider, for example, the Soviet Union (in reality the “collapse” process took quite a while, but it seemed very fast) – food shortages, male lifespans kicking back to the 50s, lack of access to goods, rapid rises in infant mortality – all these things are pretty nasty.
There are clearly people who wildly overstate dangers and imagine a scenario which everyone is plunged at the same time into the same crisis. On the other hand, we know that societies do collapse into very serious chaos from time to time, and that that is a historically verifiable potential outcome. it just isn’t an inevitable one, and UNIVERSAL collapse – where everyone has the same experience – is not something that there is historical precedent for.
Rapier’s central point, that believing that peaks happen but that that doesn’t tell you anything useful about what the person who predicts the peak believes, however, is important. Rapier is right on that the association of peak oil with other ideas can be what shapes people’s opinion. I’ve heard plenty of “peak oilers are climate deniers” (Some are, most aren’t), “peak oilers are crunchy liberal environmentalists” (Some are, some aren’t), “peak oilers are all doomers” (ibid) and a whole host of things that don’t describe the movement. The most you can say is that all of us agree oil is finite, it tracks a particular pattern of rise and fall, and that we depend on oil for a lot of stuff. None of which, frankly, most people would actually disagree with if they understood that.