New York Times on Peak Oil..and the Problem of History

You learn pretty quickly to adjust for what any mainstream media says about peak oil and anyone who does any kind of preparation. Consider the case of my friend Kathie Breault who has appeared in various newspaper and television accounts. Kathie is grandmother, a midwife and a permaculturist, and about the least "survivalist" person you can imagine. She knits stuff for her grandkids and teaches them to garden, rides her bike everywhere and is starting up a homebirth midwifery practice, helping women with little access to good health care give birth safely. And yet in an ABC Nightline interview she did, the headline read "Recession Apocalypse: Preparing for the End of the World" (nobody who brings babies into the world is preparing for its end, doofuses!) An article subheading read "some survivalists are stockpiling food and guns" - even thought Kathie isn't a survivalist and said explicitly she doesn't own a gun nor have any intention of buying one, and she was the only person being discussed. But hey, if you can't get the target to say what you want, make sure it gets in there anyway! One learns, as I said, to adjust the stories for reality.

The New York Times article about peak oil folk that appeared yesterday is actually pretty mild in that regard - it gets several things right. They mention Transition, the talk about community, despite giving Daniel Yergin a whole paragraph (and leaving out that Yergin admitted at one point that there probably was something to peak oil) they observe that this is something taken seriously by a bipartisan committee of Congress (and the Army, Navy and Marines, by the Department of Energy, by the EIA, by the IEA...but who is counting?) - although they imply that this is new, when the Peak Oil Caucus in the House is five years old.

They chose as their centerpiece a woman who I think I actually know a little (if she's who I think she is) and someone who isn't particularly threatening, or the stereotype of the survivalist, but they still can't resist the attempt to pigeonhole the story into a story of survivalism. The prominent mention of "doomers" and "Collapsitarian" and the claim that peak oil folk come "between the environmental movement and the bunkered survivalists" (on whose perverted scale...please!) reminds us that the idea that you all might have to get along with a great deal less energy is wacko. The idea that we might even want to is even more wacko - even though the article mentions the oil pouring into the gulf.

Transition, which specifically repudiates the idea that peak oil inevitably leads to "a population die-off" gets that in quotes right after their name. Again, let's remember, these people aren't normal. Trying to get your community to build food and economic security..that's just crazy talk!

There are two reasons I think it is so convenient for the mainstream media to use the language of survivalism and wackoidism around peak oil. Part of it, of course, is that this sells papers. Recognizing that most of what peak oil and other environmental advocates do as personal preparations are exactly what everyone did even in the developed world until very, very recently, and what most of humanity does now - ie, in times of surplus and abundance, have a moderate reserve in case times get tougher - isn't nearly as much fun as associating them with bunkers (has anyone even had a bunker since the 1970s, for cripes sake?)

Moreover, as long as you can pretend no one ever needs these preparations - that this is best associated with duck and cover and the 1970s - you can pretend that we are at the end of history, long past social shifts that lead to difficult times.

Of course this is complete nonsense. Think about the lives of anyone who lived through most of the 20th century - your parents or grandparents. Ask - did most of them get through without some extremely hard times? A depression, a war, civil unrest, extended job loss, loss of benefits, hunger, refugeeism? I think about my own grandparents and those of my husband let's see...nazis, ghetto, war refugee, poor new immigrants, great depression....hmmm. It is only my parents generation and my own that have been fortunate enough to live in times where nothing really bad has ever happened. I could, of course, assume that that state will go on forever, but history suggests otherwise.

But moreover, we have the deep problem of language, and the newspapers have it no less so - what I've described in the past as the "Klingons/Cylons" problem - that is, our culture has only two ways of speaking of the future - either like Star Trek we have a techno-optimist, unlimited progress future where the only troubles left to conquer are small or outside ourselves (ie, Klingons) or we have the complete destruction of the human race. This deep linguistic difficulty gets us into all sorts of trouble, because people immediately leap to the conclusion that "if it gets that bad it doesn't matter what we do."

With this in mind, the changes coming are described as "the end of the world." This false dualism serves to falsely move people into the techno-optimist camp, even when they don't really agree with it - because who would ever choose "the end of everything?" As long as our language erases the real center, the possibilities that history has long since shown us, the idea that everything might not get better, that we might be entering a period of declines and that this might be something other than another end-of-the-world fantasy is unavailable to us.

But of course, that too is deeply ahistorical. Times get difficult all the time - they are incredibly difficult for a substantial portion of the world's population right now. And for most of those people, it still matters a great deal what they do. We are not served by a language that says "oh, if the power goes out, if we can't get our regular supply of meat, if everything doesn't go our way" we have achieved the end of the world, and thus, we must make sure that no one things it is really possible.

Because of course, it keeps happening - almost all of us have seen a decline in standard of living - real wages have declined steadily since the late 1970s and a whole host of quality of life factors have been declining rapidly since. As long as we pretend that only survivalists in their bunkers need a store of food, we can lie to ourselves and ignore the fact that 37 millon people regularly have no idea if they will have meals in the US, and that a billion people go hungry regularly in the world, the most in human history. As long as we pretend that energy is effectively infinite, we need not make real changes.

That said, it isn't a bad article - its failings are the failings of our culture, not particularly the failings of the media. The problem is that we have yet to grasp that there is no exceptionalism from being part of history and all its painful realities.

More like this

There was a girl posting on CL -- she was 19, scared out of her mind, and looking for folks to help build a bunker. My first thought was "oh that was ME at 19!"

One of her comments was "my friends and family think I'm crazy for this" and I wanted to cheer for her actually going out to do what she thought she needed. I almost emailed her, but I figured a garden wouldn't help cover the bunker need.

The article was meh. I don't know if that's better or worse to be honest.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 07 Jun 2010 #permalink

I don't think that very many people who know something about history and seriously think about the future deny that there will be some hard times and difficult adjustments for even the wealthiest of countries. The people who deny those things are mainly those who don't think much about history or the future at all. I do think, however, that history gives a lot of cause for optimism as well as pessimism.

Boone Pickens' remark about America being the "Dumbest crowd that ever came down the pike" is more accurate each day we dump another $billion into imported oil. Add to that the loss of legacy habitat in progress, and the equivalent annual damage to other places we are simply not aware of. Oil company bosses like Hoffmeister are aware, and shame on the lot of them, for ignoring collateral damage in places without a voice.

Rather than adopting a bunker mentality, young generation activism should be looking at comprehensive linking of renewable energy methodologies as seen at websites like "Suntrain Transportation Corporation" and the "Post Carbon Institute".

We shipped off dirty jobs to China and made fortunes for a small percentage of the US population. China has now got the manufacturing know-how, physical plant, and ability to keep up with cutting edge R & D via hacking (See "Cyberwar" by Richard Clarke). No point in trying to close the barn door... We can, -this means you, boys & girls- see what China is doing with renewable energy generation and railways. Examine the massive railway expansion and extension in progress.

Even as China outbuilds the rest of the world in cars now, they have not forgotten the strategic mission; to achieve economic and military gravitas on a par with Russia and the Western Nations. Cars are not the end-all & be-all for Chinese readers of SunTzu. Too bad the President(s) of the United States have ignored the master of strategy. Had they read Sun Tzu for comprehension, we would be rebuilding the legacy railway footprint in America, not going ever deeper for oil.

By tahoevalleylines (not verified) on 07 Jun 2010 #permalink

Really, Sharon, you're being way too generous. This is the same kind of lousy reporting that characterized the housing bubble as a topic for fringe economists. It reminds me of the NYTimes business reporter who couldn't see (or report on) the housing bubble because his hot new wife just had to have that big house they couldn't afford.

It also reminds me of NPR coverage in Iraq. For some reason, anytime that Muktada alSadr guy plays along with what we want, he's an Imam. As soon as he questions the way the US wants things, he becomes a "RADICAL muslim cleric."

It's lousy, opinionated reporting either way. That's part of the reason I find myself spending more time reading good blogs and wasting less time with the NYTimes every year.

"It's lousy, opinionated reporting either way. That's part of the reason I find myself spending more time reading good blogs and wasting less time with the NYTimes every year."

But that's still a problem.

The problem is we have a pick-n-choose version of reality these days. Conservatives shop for news at Fox and AM talk. Librulz go to PBS and NPR. Tinfoilers go to Alex Jones and Coast2Coast. Doomers go to blogs like this, PCI, Oil Drum, Kunstler, etc... What this does is discourage true civic discourse. Debate merely takes the form of lobbing ASCII molotov cocktails at eachother in anonymous talkbacks like this.

So the second we retreat back to our "base" we are assuring that we'll only be preaching to the converted.

My biggest reaction to the NYT's article when I saw it was "I wonder what Sharon will have to say about this." I also wondered whether growing plants in your kitchen under lights is really a good post-peak strategy.

By Susan in NJ (not verified) on 07 Jun 2010 #permalink

My father told me this weekend that I, "Should take off the doom colored glasses." Because I told him I was putting aside some money to buy some gold/silver coins and that I wasn't sure I wanted to invest in the stock market for my retirement. He told me that our country would be growing and prosperous long after I am gone.
I have maybe 2 months worth of stored food, and I pay attention to how much we depend on utilities and I think about how we would live without them if we had to. I don't stockpile weapons or gas or own a bunker anywhere. But to my father I'm a doomer extremist.
He has 2 bachelors degrees, in Math and Software Engineering, but he can't even conceive of the thought that our economy might not always grow and that the transition to renewables might be something besides smooth.
We argued all weekend about it. Very weird to me.

Ed Straker: "The problem is we have a pick-n-choose version of reality these days. "

It is somehow incredibly difficult for us humans to fully realize- it has ALWAYS been this way. And I don't mean since a few years ago.

My younger son, after graduating from a fancy college, was finally seeing some political reality, warts, carbuncles, open oozing sores, and all. In some dismay he asked my opinion about all this hideousness; my reply was "It's been exactly the same since Babylon was two mud huts."

I'd amend that these days to "since Sumer was one mud hut and a tent."

And our educational system does NOT universally try to bury it. I remember teachers telling long detailed stories of corruption and lunacy- but it just bloody didn't sink in, somehow, that they were talking about ME - us - all of us, today.

Why do so many of our children finish their education fully believing that the world generally works in a fair and just fashion; and we're just finishing up with the process of creating universal wonderfulness? My disillusioned son, for example, was made familiar with the basic facts of Nazi Germany when he was 10. He was horrified. But- still it didn't reach immediate relevancy.

Seriously; this puzzles me; and simultaneously I suspect that understanding this may be critical to eventually moving past it. Into, you know, universal wonderfulness.

Skimming, I read "lobbing ASCII molotov cockatiels". Now there's an avatar image! ;)

Re the plants under lights - the article said she'd been "obsessing" for over a year, didn't say how long she'd actually been prepping. Hopefully she'll progress to "Food not Lawns" status in short order - assuming a HOA doesn't stand in her way.

Still giggling over those ASCII molotov cockatiels,

"It is only my parents generation and my own that have been fortunate enough to live in times where nothing really bad has ever happened."

Sure, so long as you weren't Mother Nature, Vietnamese, Cambodian, East Timorese, Chilean, Brazilian, Argentinian, Korean, Palestinian, Iraqi, and on and on and on ...

The inability to contemplate the results of flushing our toilets, tossing our trash, consuming most of the world's resources for absolutely wasteful uses, is what blinds us to those suffering for our benefit and ultimately the instruments of our own demise.

To be honest, I thought it was a pretty superficial and juvenile piece of reporting. I mean, it takes one peak oil-aware person, turns them into a caricature via selective reporting, goes to the reporter's (electronic) Rolodex and pulls out Yergin's name, throws in some all-too-predictable quotes from him, and then attempts to balance it all in a snappy, simplistic, closing paragraph or two. If this were still 2005 or 2006, I'd say YEA! But it's now five years later.

Given how far the whole oil decline mess has progressed in our world since then, I would expect more from New York's premier broadsheet.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 07 Jun 2010 #permalink

In terms of Americans' ability to see beyond their personal well-being and confidence in the ever-upward progression of America, North America's safe ride through the madness and destruction of World War II may have been one of the worst things to ever happen to us.

If even 2 or 3 American cities had been carpet-bombed by Axis forces, if Axis troops had invaded and occupied even a couple of the United States before being driven out, if even a few tens of thousands of Americans had been driven from their homes and sent fleeing in columns of suffering refugees, if American agriculture had somehow been disrupted and millions of Americans had suffered real food shortages instead of having to tolerate a little rationing, if even one vital industrial city (think Detroit) had been reduced to rubble by a nuclear bomb,... If these things, or even just 2 or 3 of them had happened to Americans, then we might not be so absurdly overconfident. We might have a little more humility when it comes to the likelihood of hard times. And we might be a little less ready to inflict war on other countries.

Why do so many of our children finish their education fully believing that the world generally works in a fair and just fashion; and we're just finishing up with the process of creating universal wonderfulness? My disillusioned son, for example, was made familiar with the basic facts of Nazi Germany when he was 10. He was horrified. But- still it didn't reach immediate relevancy.

Part of it might have to do with one's own personal life. I think that if a person grows up in a supportive environment with a relatively good standard of living, even the worst disasters of history often seem remote and irrelevant to their own life. The opposite is true as well - if a person grows up in poverty and is hurt by forces beyond their control, reading about how the economy or technology as a whole is getting better and better is going to seem distant and irrelevant. At this point in history, there are plenty of reasons to be either optimistic or pessimistic. On the one hand, an improved standard of living and advanced technology is available to a larger percentage of the world's population than at any previous point in human history, and science and technology have never seemed more promising. On the other hand, the majority of the world's population still has a very hard life and has only reaped a few of the available benefits of scientific knowledge and technological development, and humans in general are facing unprecedented problems in terms of resource depletion and environmental change. Which is more significant? Nobody knows for certain, but my guess is that for a lot of people, their own life experience is one of the significant influences on their tendency to take an optimistic or pessimistic view.

Of course it's far from the only influence.

Ok, our grandparents went through world war 2, the depression etc, but there was never a real threat of outright energy shortage, just the prospect of losing the ability to take as much oil as you wanted, which was what ww2 was really about, distribution of energy around the worlds major nations. The U.S and, to a lesser extent, the U.K came out on top and here we are about 65 years later, bloated and spent out.

apart from geological limits, has anyone noticed how the worlds emerging nations, Russia, China and co are all making moves that will bypass or supplant western influence? We can see israel being surrounded by its enemies, who now include turkey, Brazil helping Iran and backing argentina when the spat over the falklands flared up in february. The rest of the world has clearly had enough of western imperialism too. Time for a change, for everyones sake.

I don't think the emerging nations will engage in an open conflict (unless we start it first) but they are clearly looking to push out the west from the energy picture. everywhere you look, resources are being tied up by these countries, and the west is simply being shown up in terms of strategy and agility. We are sitting here debating whether peak oil is real, and the rest of the world is acting with rapidity to adjust.

Looking at the big picture, if we are going to be forced out of the resource grab, and don't have the money to outbid or wage war on competitors, the only option left is to tap into industrial hemp, use it to build a new economy, pay down our debts, repair relations with the rest of the world and most importantly, ensure domestic prosperity. In my opinion, Hemp should never have been suppressed and demonised, its actually impoverished us beyond measure.

Its just a shift in attitude, thats all we need.

Actually, I assumed that the lights in the kitchen were for started seeds - the timing would probably work pretty well (it usually is a few weeks or a month before a piece runs) and if she referred to them as started plants, an idiot reporter might well think she's gardening in her kitchen. Of course, maybe not.

Sean, that's of course part of my point - even the developed world hasn't always been secure, and the rest of it hasn't at all.

I guess my observation that this isn't that awful comes from having seen some truly butt-horrid ones ;-).


We used a probably 1950's Shell Oil movie in class. It had a graph of oil usage over time which went up and up and then crashed. Interesting that an oil company would make a movie showing peak oil and post peak oil.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 08 Jun 2010 #permalink

Re idiot reporters - we had someone doing a piece on a local urban farm, who explained that because they are organic, they do not use artificial fertilizers; instead they keep bees to fertilize the plants. *sigh*

I have some experience in the media business. Publications like the New York Times have almost no choice but to marginalize Peak Oil and Re-localization efforts. Think about their business model for a moment. Circulation numbers are just a means to set advertising rates. I doubt there is a paper on the planet that makes a profit just from subscriptions. Senior editors tend to be smart people. The kind of article you and I want to see in a major paper, may make for sensational reading and temporarily pull in readers, but thatâs not the whole story to an editor. Just a moments reflection on Peak Oil will have them realizing that a realistically balanced story on these subjects, let alone an alarmist one, would essentially be telling their readers to stop being global consumers living in debt and pay no attention to the advertisers messages the paper is full of. Indeed, they may have real fears that their advertisers may actually pull their ads in protest of such a message. What car company is going to run ads in a paper that is telling itâs readers that they are waisting their time and money purchasing a new SUV. Any editor worth their salt would tell their journalists to rewrite it into just such an article we see from NYT, or not run it at all. I wouldnât be surprised if every media outlet you can think of has a file drawer full of Peak Oil stories that will never see the light of day.

"This false dualism serves to falsely move people into the techno-optimist camp, even when they don't really agree with it - because who would ever choose 'the end of everything?'"

I think we need to start emphasizing the wisdom of the Boy Scout (and other Scout and Guide) motto: Be Prepared. Can't think of anything more American than that (recognizing, of course, the international nature of the scouting movement.)

I mostly agree with jimmie, except for "I don't think the emerging nations will engage in an open conflict (unless we start it first) but they are clearly looking to push out the west from the energy picture. everywhere you look, resources are being tied up by these countries, and the west is simply being shown up in terms of strategy and agility." The developed nations all use the market system economy. So do China and India and the smaller players. They really don't want to "push out the west from the energy picture", cause they all need the huge consuming developed nations to sell their goods to. I agree with most that oil will always be freely sold to all comers, at the supply/demand set price. The EU should start threatening to sell our bonds if we don't start taxing oil the way the rest do, but that's a tricky game, too.(We still produce 32% of our own oil, yet we are the nation warring in the Middle East)

Interesting you mention the Department of Energy and the military. I know someone who works for EPA who was recently sent to a Department of Energy conference about encouraging individual communities to develop ways to meet their own power needs. They are starting the program on various reservations because DOE sees them as the most likely to embrace this model. Apparently the Department of Defense is also encouraging the community-based energy model. (Back door way of admitting the smart grid isn't ever going to happen?) I don't know the details of what they were recommending communities invest in, but the model for generating buy-in outside the reservations was interesting. The idea is to start out with things like insulation and window replacement without mentioning peak oil or infrastructure failure - make it about reducing energy bills. Then slowly work up to the big ideas. I'm not sure how far you could get with this in a lot of communities, but at least DOE seems to be aware that most people are not easily able to process AND act on this information.

By Scholastica (not verified) on 08 Jun 2010 #permalink

A very wise man, James Burke, once described the mentality of western man as he views the resources before him - "There is always more where that came from". For the US, it was Manifest Destiny to move west to get "more". For our oil needs, it is now 'Manifest Destiny' to move offshore or to the Artic, to drill and and be damned, because we collectively believe we "deserve" to have this oil. This disaster has pulled back the curtain just a enough to give a little light on our societal mirror, and we don't like what we see. Admitting addiction is difficult for an individual, impossible for a society.

Any discussion about oil prices over the next decade must include an attempt to quantify emerging economy demand as an important driver at the margin. Here is a simple thought experiment using Chinese demand to give some idea of the magnitude of the supply issues we face:
-China moves from 3 bbls/person/year to the South Korean per capita consumption level of 17 bbls/person/year
-Transition takes 30 years
-No peak in global production

In next 10 years we must find 44 million BOPD. If you superimpose peak production on top of this demand profile using the following parameters oil prices would increase approximately 250% in real terms over next 10 years:
-Oil demand elasticity of -0.3
-Current production 84 million BOPD, current price US$ 80
-Peak production 100 million BOPD
-Post peak decline rate of 3-4%

If you want to try the model for yourself using your own assumptions it can be found at:…

By posconvex (not verified) on 04 Jul 2010 #permalink