Peak oil: it’s only an idea

I haven’t yet followed up on my third post about peak oil, the concept that initially led us to open Cycle 9.  In a nutshell, that concept is that after world oil production peaks, oil will become more scarce and thus much more costly, impacting the US and world economy in a myriad of ways.  If one reads sites like the oil drum, it is easy to get the notion that these impacts will be very negative.  Like to the point of collapsing civilization.  Those ideas are amplified in books like James Howard Kunstler’s “The Long Emergency”.

For example, there has been recent discussion on The Oil Drum (TOD) about effects on the electric grid by Hurricane Gustav.  With hundreds of thousands of people still without power after that hurricane, it is clear that the regional grid took a big hit.  The TOD folks were postulating that as oil becomes more scarce, repairing things like the grid will become more and more challenging/costly.  The conclusion of some posters was that in future disasters when the grid gets shut down, parts of it might never get repaired.  And so we will begin the slow slide into anarchy/etc.
I was thinking about this and had (what seems like) a crucial revelation.  Peak oil is all about a physical substance – oil.  I agree with TOD folks that it is a crucial substance in our current economy. But it is only a substance.  And there is something far more powerful than substances: ideas.  Seem obvious? No need to read the rest of this post.  But in case you want to read on, I will make the case that ideas are more important than physical realities like the amount of oil we have.
I’ll back up a bit.  A good way of explaining this is to mention the unfortunate events of Sep 11th as a parable.  The event itself was a physical occurrence: planes crashing into the Twin Towers, the subsequent collapse of the towers, and the very unfortunate death of almost 3,000 people.  That’s a lot of people dying in a single event.  But, if we compare that to traffic fatalities, more than that number of people die each month from an activity that is common – driving a car.  So from a pure physical reality standpoint (the numbers dead), driving cars has more human impact every month of every year than Al Queda had hijacking planes once back in 2001.
If that strikes you as “besides the point”, then you are already onto the point I’m about to make.  The unique thing about Sep 11th was not the number of people dead, it was the unique ramifications of that event upon our psyche.  It was the idea that we are vulnerable, that we have enemies, that we can be attacked on our soil, and that it can come out of nowhere on a bright sunny morning.  That idea was a powerful one – enough to cause significant structural changes in how security is done in the USA – witness the resulting department of homeland security (who is probably reading this because I’ve used some flagged terms for their computer systems! DHS – please, read on and enjoy!).
Let’s consider another example.  What is a city?  Wikipedia says: “A city is an urban area with a large population and a particular administrative, legal, or historical status”.  “Large population” is one of the key elements.  Why is the large population there?  Because of the buildings?  Well, no.  It is because of the idea.  New Orleans, the city, is just an idea.  It remained a city after Katrina, not because some buildings were left standing, but because people decided to go back and to live there.  But, some people never came back – their idea of the city was destroyed by that hurricane. Now, even though it is still called New Orleans, physically it is quite different.  Now let’s imagine that Gustav had been much more damaging – re flooding New Orleans.  Would people have given up on the idea of the city, or come back again to rebuild?  I do not know the answer, but I do know that the future physical reality, i.e. whether buildings got rebuilt, is dependent on the idea of whether it is worth rebuilding.  The idea of New Orleans shared by people is more important than the physical reality of the city.
To further illustrate that point – after a disaster, if one person returns to a city, it is still not a city.  If a hundred people return, it is probably not a city.  If a thousand people return, it might start acting like a city.  Somewhere in there is a critical point where enough people show up to maintain the physical “infrastructure” that we associate with cities – merchants, gas stations, etc.  Less people than that, and it really can’t be considered a city by most people.  What defines that critical number of people?  There is no objective physical reality that defines it – just the idea of a “critical mass” that is enough so that it is self sustaining amongst its participants.  The critical mass depends on many factors, the most important of which are people’s thinking – their ideas about that place being a city.  If enough people have that idea – then it becomes a city.  If they don’t, then it is not.  The idea is the foundation – not the physical reality like the buildings.
I think that we, as a culture, focus way too much on physical reality, believing that it is preeminant and will determine our fate.  That may be true to some extent for individuals – but I believe much less so for societies.  Societies – states and countries – are nothing more and nothing less than ideas.  Just like cities.  The United States is an idea, not a landmass.  Our borders have greatly changed since our country was created – but we still go by the same name.  That’s because we share (kind of) a common idea of what this country is – or we let politicians and celebrities define it for us. Either way, it is all just ideas, not something physically concrete.
I will be exploring this further in a book I am working on.  But in the meantime, let’s get back to the “Peak Oil” idea.
The thing that concerns peak oil folks is not the advent of the world peak in oil production itself.  Well, actually most claim that is what worries them.  But in reading all the blogs and stories about “what might happen” after peak oil – it is not actually about the oil itself, it is about our response to the scarcity of oil.  Our response is the confluence of the physical reality of limited oil, with whatever ideas we hold as a society.  Some, such as Kunstler, think this confluence will lead to increasing chaos and collapse in many parts of the USA and elsewhere.  For example, from his book:

The prospect for disorder in the southeastern states is especially high, given the extremes of religiosity, hyper-individualism, and cultural disinhibition regarding violence.

He has an idea about the south, and what might happen, but is that idea the reality? Not even close. The logic is flawed that somehow because the south is more religious, or more “individual”, that we would react to peak oil more violently is a very tenuous argument.  Besides, I’ve actually encountered much less individualism here than when I lived in the Western US – and I sometimes lament the lack of individuality here.

It is certainly possible that the confluence of the physical event, peak oil, with our ideas may lead to disaster.  Right now, there are unfortunately a whole lot of people who think we can just go on living the same way, driving Hummers and Suburbans at will.  That we have a God-given right to power those cars.  The advent of physical peak oil will be very hard on such folks.  Will they resort to violence? anarchy?  The problem is, it’s very hard to predict.  Social movements are all about ideas.  Right now, it is still somewhat of a status symbol to own and drive a big car.  But what if that changes?  What if it is no longer seen as an appropriate thing for people to do?  Just the mere idea that something is socially unacceptable can have huge ramifications on physical reality of the actions people take.  Sure, there are always laggards who cling to old ways of doing things.  And it is possible that some people, finding themselves unable to afford gas for their car (or unable to even get it if they could afford it) – might resort to violence and mayhem.  And others might respond in kind with violence and mayhem.  If that happens, then the doomsday scenarios of the “die off” peak oil crowd may play out.  But there might also be people (a lot of them) who decide that responding to peak oil with violence and mayhem is not appropriate.  That people responding that way will be chastised, put in jail, or worse.
The whole idea of predicting our responses – the confluence of reality with our ideas – is impossible.  Because ideas can bend so readily.  For example, I have the idea that bikes are a great way to replace a lot of car trips.  That idea is spreading.  If that idea became truly “popular”, it would have a huge impact on the amount of oil we use.  My bike gets the equivalent of 2000 MPG (more when I charge it by solar).  Imagine if 1/2 of the population biked instead of drove every day?  That would suddenly take a whole lot of wind out of the sails of some very rich middle eastern oil exporting countries.  Just that one idea: ride a bike.
The peak oil crowd always targets the idea that there are no viable replacements for our current way of life.  For example, electric cars will be difficult to deploy rapidly enough and with enough power/range to replace gasoline cars.  So, if people have the idea that they have to have a car that can drive long distances, well, a peak oil future might be a grim one.  On the other hand, if people have the idea that, hey, instead of rushing everywhere in a car, it might be fun to take an extended bike tour on an electric assist bike, or take a leisure train ride, then the “need” to have a car might diminish or vanish.  If there is no need to have that car, well, then problem solved.  “But,” some people complain, “the US is not set up for biking or taking the train.”  To which I would respond: “You haven’t been paying attention.”  I took the train several times this summer, and it was sold out every time.  I bike to work every day from a location that is not in-town.
Many people do live an impractical distance from where they work.  That is because, perhaps, they had the idea of some idyllic living situation in the country, or suburb.  But that idea can change, too.  If it suddenly becomes more cost effective and socially popular to live in the city (which I think is already happening), people will move back into cities.  And probably sell their car in many cases.
The other ideas-related fallacy of peak oil is that all our major roads will deteriorate because they are unmaintainable.  According to them, this will lead to all sorts of problems, because then power lines won’t be maintained, water infrastructure will fail, goods won’t be able to be shipped, etc.
While I once bought into that notion, now I think it’s kind of silly.  For example, in N.C., we have ~4,300 of miles of paved roads.  Many of them used to be gravel, but in the rush to build “modern” roads, more and more got paved over.  Let’s say that it becomes super-expensive or difficult to maintain roads in the future.  Will we just keep trying to maintain all those roads equally?  Or will we decide: the main arterial roads are important for commerce and infrastructure, so let’s focus on maintaining those, and let the minor roads revert back to gravel or dirt?  It all depends on the ideas that we hold.  But it seems to me that most people would place a priority on maintaining the major arterial roads that allow our food to be shipped.  In fact, there are countries like this – Costa Rica has one main arterial road, a two-lane (not even four lane) highway. In some places it has been narrowed to one lane due to landslides and the like.  But, that doesn’t stop people – there is plenty of traffic that uses it for transporting goods and people cross-country. Most of the other roads are dirt, or potholed pavement.  Does their society collapse due to lack of well-maintained superhighways? No.
Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse, examines why some societies have collapsed over time – starting with Easter Islanders.  One can pin the Easter Isle collapse upon lack of resources/deforestation.  But, the key thing thing missing in a purely resource-based analysis is: why did the island become deforested?  It was because of an idea.  The idea was that to please the gods, they had to build more stone statues. And so they kept doing more and more of that until the physical resources were so far gone that the society couldn’t sustain itself.  The “collapse” itself is an ideas-based phenomenon.  That’s probably why the subtitle of Diamond’s book was “How societies choose to fail or succeed.” At Easter island, it seems unlikely that everyone just suddenly died off from starvation.  More likely, a lot of people got off the island as things got worse, taking boats to other islands where things were better.  What really died there was the idea that it was a livable place to be – nothing more.  That society chose to fail. Or, turning it around, the idea of their society was not sustained.
Are we bound to make that same mistake with peak oil?  A lot of people seem to think so.  They think we will keep building cars and highways and airplanes until we are so far gone that there is no return from the brink.  We will have wasted all our energy doing those things, rather than doing things that help us survive – like assuring the production and distribution of food.
That’s where I now diverge with the peak oil people.  I think there is a high likelihood that in many places (not all), people’s ideas will appropriately bend to new circumstances, and life will carry on (in modified form).  That when oil becomes scarce, we will prioritize food production over water skiing.  That we will prioritize medicine over hot rods.  Simple concepts like those would buy us a lot of time to find other ways to power our societies.
One other concept that is important here – particularly in America, we are taught ideas such as the rule of law and fairness.  That is one of the reasons we have such a stable business environment – because, unlike many countries, you don’t have to pay off a bunch of henchmen to open a store.  When people defy this expectation, they are generally chastised and/or punished (excepting our current president, who has done a lot to damage our ideals).
Will everyone just throw those ideals out the window when times get rough?  That’s not generally what happened during any other crisis in our country’s history.  There were strikes and some riots during the great depression, but the country did not fall into anarchy.  Nor did it during the civil war, etc.  While things have become considerably more “individualistic” in the past 20 years, I believe that is just a response to us having so many resources available to us, that we didn’t learn the value (idea) of working together – because we didn’t have to.  But I do think we can learn to do that again, when it becomes necessary.
To be clear: I’m not saying that dealing with oil shortages would/will be easy.  It won’t. In places, food may be scarce (and people will quickly re-learn gardening).  Even where it isn’t, it will be hard for many people to change, to accept new circumstances.  It will be difficult for some to accept that they can’t just go start up the car on a whim and drive across town to the mall.  But, maybe people’s ideas of what is important could change, too.  Maybe it will become more important to people to grow a garden, to visit the neighbors, to take a walk, to read a book.  All things that require miniscule energy inputs.  If our ideas are right, we don’t have to despair if hard times come upon us.
So, I think that the key to surviving a “peak oil” event (as with any event) is having the right ideas about how to survive it.  Those ideas don’t necessarily involve doing more of the same thing we are doing now.  It may involve more bikes and less cars.  It may involve slowing down.  It may involve growing more food in the garden.  It may involve dealing with potholes on the road.  It may even involve frequent power outages (so we’ll have to get more candles).
It is clear that the physical reality of oil supply limitations is coming our way, sooner or later.  If we have the idea that we can just keep doing more of the same, it may be very hard.  But if we change our ideas about what is necessary and useful in life, it could be a non-event.

3 thoughts

  1. I like your positive possibility outlook–thank you! it has been my experience that we humans are very resilient and resourceful when we decide to be, and my belief that the human family has incredible potential for creative “ideas” that can become simple reality. the roots of true community are not lost, and the daily presentation of these simple alternatives can have a huge impact. forward ho!

  2. Thanks for a most articulate and thought provoking article! Point well taken that civilization, or life as we know it, and all of man’s greatest technological achievements have their foundation in concepts, ideas – thought. I’m interested in hearing more about the book you are about to publish (as mentioned in this article 🙂

    I’m also interesting in ‘electrifying’ my bike – look for a seperate email from me regarding soome products on your website… Thanks!

  3. Thanks for the great comments!

    Regarding the book, it is a project I am just getting off the ground. Starting a bike shop to promote these kinds of alternatives has not been easy on my available time. It will be exploring deeply into what is the basis of reality as we perceive it… that’s about all I can say until I make further progress.

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