'Peak Oil,' Renewable Energy, and Human Choice

TAG LINES

peak-oil-22As the week of the ninth anniversary of the 'end of the world as we knew it' and the 117th Labor Day unfolds, more than ever we might agree that uncertainty rules everything, at least if we get deeper than the surface, as these posts that have generally addressed some aspect of renewable energy have made clear. In the conversations that matter the most, arguably nothing matters more than keeping in mind a certain skepticism and doubt.

I mention this because today's offering concerns the notion of Peak OIl, about which many thinkers have strong, or even unswerveable, opinions. Unfortunately, however, any recalcitrant defense of certainty in the Peak Oil debates is at best pretentious nonsense.

Readers may note that I profiled an expatriate journalist, Greg Palast, who proffers scathing criticisms of Peak Oil backers. Nevertheless, I am decidedly not saying that Greg Palast is pretentiously nonsensical or vice versa. As my article about his work states in straightforward fashion, he ends up criticizing the use of the concept while acknowledging the possible veracity of much Peak Oil data about the availability and accessibility of liquid fossil fuels.

debunk-site-22The boundary between a contention that certainty is possible and an acknowledgment that we cannot be sure often looks a little blurry. When a prominent Peak Oil debunker puts his position in this way, "DISCLAIMER FOR IDIOTS: This site officially accepts that oil is finite, and will peak someday," one may legitimately doubt that this person is open to discussion. But we cannot be sure.

And that's the practical implication of seeking the truth without being positive that its revelation is now manifest through something either that one has discerned, or that one believes wholeheartedly. One will, more or less eagerly, talk about it and continue, despite the omnipresent risk of the paralysis of analysis, the truth-seeking process.

For those interested, as I am, in the nerdy, geeky bowels of this issue, even a cursory review of ideas epistemological demonstrates that wrangling about certainty lies near the heart of discussions about the present-day philosophy and methodology of science. A recent discourse on this topic has suggested that an insistence on 'Truth' stems from "(A)n irrational fear of the unknown (which causes) 'Humans (to) believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown.'"

If this sort of ideation, grappling with how we can responsibly go about increasing and using our knowledge, resonates with a reader, he or she can find copious resources of explication online. For instance, here, here , and here offer satisfyingly complex access to more data and information about these 'ideas epistemological.'

My grandfather proffered another way of thinking about these issues. He differentiated various levels of untruth: "Lies, Damned lies, and Statistics." As a proponent of rationality, I constantly appreciate and invoke empirical aspects of the world.

And in all but a small proportion of the arm-wrestling about the propriety and utility of Peak Oil, the contenders hurl data at each other as if their charts and graphs, resplendent and power-pointed as they are, will subvert all opposition. But data are not reality; all the probabilities in existence about, say, the potential for economic meltdown or a doubling of oil prices, do not come close to an adequate description of what constitutes economic well-being or the determination of commodity prices.

The point of a critique of 'statistics' as a way of articulating being might sound like this:

"The chief defect of Empiricism is that it views experience passively, whereas in order to retain a consistent materialist understanding of experience it is necessary to recognise that it is the practical activity of people changing the world which is the condition and source of knowledge. Further, knowledge only arises in and through definite social relations, through which people produce the forms of activity under which experience can be grasped; but for Empricism, experience is not a social activity, but simply a passive, sensual process."

An especially pernicious perspective is likely to result when one conjoins a passive yet powerful capacity to depict life probabilistically with a sense of righteous rectitude. Anyone who has joined in an online debate of late has witnessed what I am speaking about. One side sees the other as 'wingnuts,' who in turn view their opposition as 'socialists, or worse.' And each states, unequivocally, 'I speak the truth, but you, sir, propagate prevarication and propaganda.'

Of course, the best result of such exchanges is a mildly humorous pointlessness. But a deeper, and I would hold, critical, failing of such pugilism is the misunderstanding of what a citizen's duty is today. One must find allies; one must increase knowledge; one must involve oneself and one's community in the struggle for democracy. And as already noted, uncertainty inevitably permeates all such labors.

To do any of this work necessitates an uncertain articulation of the issues at hand. Propaganda may be the only, and is definitely one, rational way to name such articulation. Thus, to conflate prevarication and propaganda is either a mistake or a falsehood. Put another way, seeing oneself as imbued with a God's-eye-view while shouting at one's enemies, 'liar, liar, pants on fire' will always yield, giving things the most optimistic spin, silly foolishness.

Readers might try on for size the definition that I have developed in order to help my students' comprehension in this regard.

"Propaganda: (n)--1. A partial truth advanced for a partial purpose; 2. a purportedly comprehensive but necessarily incomplete estimation of reality, developed by an individual or collective that has greater information or insight or access concerning an issue, in order to influence, persuade, or control the way that others less knowledgeable or active think about or respond to an issue."

Thinking about things in this fashion induces several salubrious outcomes. First, one can carry on a dialog with people who would otherwise just piss him off. Second, one does not underestimate one's opponents. Third, one does not overestimate one's own verisimilitude. Most important, to me at least, one must always remain aware of the distinction between faith and fact.

In regard to renewable energy, for example, one might consider the potential for electricity from photovoltaic sources as a fact; the potentially small or large cost of such electrification, on the other hand, must always stay a matter of faith, at least until such time as a critical mass of implementation has happened. Therefore, arguments about either the cost effectiveness or lack of competitiveness of PV electricity must appear now as propaganda.

The computer acronym that expresses much of what I am suggesting today is 'GIGO': garbage in, garbage out. To avoid inevitable garbage, thinkers must, first and foremost, identify the purposes of their intellectual engagement.

Having done this for readers in my own regard--extending democracy, strengthening communities, and more are at the root of what I write--I might pose a compound question about Peak Oil. 'How has the concept of Peak Oil become so prominent today, and how might a citizen understand and use the idea so as to increase community empowerment and effectuate both democracy and social justice.?'

INTRODUCTION

harpers-22In overseeing the massive topic area that underpins these essays--the intersection of human life with the exploitation of power sources, which touches on just about everything in existence, I recently, and randomly came across a tidbit from an 1893 Harper's Magazine. I say 'randomly' in that my archival search merely found this datum because someone had seen fit to include in the archival cache a poem that started on a page in which these lines appeared at the top.

Serendipity rivals uncertainty as a ruling force. Readers should consider these sentences closely. They speak to the underlying consequence of fossil fuel in our lives, whatever the import or lack of gravity of the notion of Peak Oil.

The "price of petroleum has been so much reduced that for several years it has not exceeded a dollar a barrel, (even as) the quantity has been so much increased that the aggregate value of the product has been fairly maintained. The greatest pecuniary return from the oil production was in 1877, when oil was worth $2.42 per barrel, and the product sold for $31,788,565 82. Since then, the price averaging a dollar a barrel, the value of the production has been about $20,000,000 a year. Petroleum has been a priceless gift to the American people, not only as a contribution to the public wealth, but it is a great, moral force as well. The cheap and excellent illuminator has made life in the country a different thing from what it was in the dark days of the past. Now every farm-house has its kerosene lamps that prolong the day of the house-wife, the farmer, and the artisan, making the home brighter and more enjoyable, and giving to children and parents additional hours of recreation, work, or menial culture in every day, so that it would be almost as great a privation to take from the country homes the lamp about which they gather as to deprive them of the bread they eat. I'he experiments in the distillation of oil from coal and shales in the years before the reign of petroleum began, proved that a good illuminating oil can be produced by distillation at a price not greater than double that for which kerosene is now sold. The materials from which oil can be distilled here exist in inexhaustible quantities, so that we may have an assurance that in all future time the place of petroleum will be, if not perfectly, fairly well supplied from other sources."

From these expressions of a 'halcyon dawn of all things civilized' through the crushing of the Ottoman Empire and concomitant conquest of every drop of Middle Eastern crude through the agonizing destruction of Nazi Germany in no small part resulting from heroic carnage from the air at Ploesti, Romania, through the rise of the post-war 'New World Order' colossus of the United States and its attendant international institutions, along with former imperialist allies and adversaries, oil has indeed played a central economic, political, and social role.

And now supplies seem, to say the least, a little scarcer than in the past, at the same time that the overwhelmingly central business problem of the 'oiligopoly' of the Rockefeller consortium and its offshoots has ever been one of maintaining price in the face of a glutted market. On the resolution of such supply-and-demand tensions, quite likely, will a deeper understanding of Peak Oil depend, though we will not parse all such contradictions today.

PEAK OIL OVERVIEW, HISTORY, CONTEXT

oil-rigs-22Arguably, the first step in trying to understand all of this--what, in a rich and robust contextual sense, Peak Oil ought to signify to us--should be a simple definition of the phrase. The idea, after all, is applicable to many situations involving energy use, growth, and dynamics generally inside of a finite system, or dealing with finite factors, from an inception to a completion.

Peak Oil is a point in time. That time--whether one calculates it as a second, day, year, or decade is just a formatting choice, separates the process of extracting oil from the earth into two equal parts. The first half includes the period in which half the available supply of oil has been sucked up, burned off, or otherwise removed from the ground. The second half defines the time during which people locate, dig out, and use up earth's remaining petroleum.

Peak Oil is thus also a bifurcation of a production process. This splitting is expressible as a function, in math terms, of rates of extraction over time. Thus, as the snarky debunker above noted, Peak Oil is a fact unless people stop using it before gobbling up half, or unless we all disappear.

Here's a Jimbo's Nerdy Dictionary definition. "Peak Oil (N-Phr.)--1. The point in the process of oil production when half of the oil on earth is gone or used up; 2. In practical terms, an amorphous point at which, given all sorts of exogenous factors, an observer or participant estimates that people have depleted a large portion of earth's oil, roughly a half that is recoverable at 'reasonable,' 'acceptable,' or bearable cost."

Someone like me, or like a JustMeans reader, might at first nod, or shrug, depending on one's 'N.Q.' ( Nerdiness Quotient), and say "And your point is???" On the other hand, given the trillions of dollars and billions of automobiles and so on at stake if people can't find oil fairly easily, we might also acknowledge a frisson of tension that would inevitably accompany conversation on the topic.

As a way of recognizing this, a reader might imagine a story-telling premise. "The hero discovers that his life is half over." Or, "The heroine learns that she has used up half of the oxygen in the mine that she is trying to escape." Anytime someone says, "Your time's half up (or 'your stuff's half gone)," the 'half empty' palpitation is at least equally likely as the 'half full' grin; thus, leaving aside obvious social and political concerns about economic justice and so forth, the Peak Oil brouhaha is natural, probably unavoidable.

Before seeking to understand the current day snarling snake-pit that the Peak Oil discussion has become, we would do well to look at the initiation of the idea that oil's diminution was on the horizon. The assessment that I offer in this regard will necessarily be, at the absolute outside, highly provisional. Obviously, to tell this story with anything even vaguely resembling complete complexity would require monumental resources and tons of time. Neither are available, so this severely limits the effort here.

SOME DETAILS--PERSONAL, PROFESSIONAL, AND OPERATIONAL--ABOUT HUBBERT'S LABORS

hubbert_marion_22Nonetheless, Marion King Hubbert did give a speech, entitled "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels," which despite its title represents a culturally agreed-upon initiation of Peak Oil Contemplation. At the time, the incident made a 'lot of waves,' about which we will learn a bit more below.

Over time, world events--such as OPEC's formation, wars and rumors of wars, oil-shocks and rumors of oil-shocks, and the persistent oil-firm priority of keeping prices and profits high--unfolded that amplified the vibrations, so to speak, of those original waves. And, in the way that folks and institutions are wont to fashion a narrative, 'Peak Oil' became a 'phenom' that sprang, so to speak, from 'Hubbert's peak.' This portion of this piece gives readers a chance to put Peak Oil into at least a minimally rich frame of reference.

Definitely central in any interrelated compilation of both Hubbert's 1956 paean to a nuclear future, and the present Peak Oil controversy that has an organic link to that seminal text, is an assessment of Hubbert's work leading up to his March presentation at the American Petroleum Institute meeting, just a stone's throw from the Alamo in San Antonio. For one thing, he had not suddenly come up with the ideas underlying this paper.

On the contrary, since 1948, at the latest, he had been putting forth the idea that humanity faced an inevitable and thus foreseeable crisis, in which population increase, decreased available energy resources, and the laws of nature would not yield pleasant results. These themes, which he continued to advance and hone until his death at 86, in 1989, must have been a key component of how he viewed the universe.

sci-mag-22In a 1949 article in Science Magazine, he presented significant chunks of his 1956 paper, minus the material on nukes and some of the technical calculus and statistics with which he supported his later iteration. Again and again over the years, related and similar ideas appeared repeatedly--in papers that he wrote, courses that he taught, scientific agendas on which he toiled.

Furthermore, he had, immediately prior to the invitation to make a presentation at API "on the overall world energy picture," added to his melange of geological work at Shell Development. This new assignment, as he stated in one of his interviews, meant that "(i)n the summer, I believe it was, spring and summer of 1955, I had began service and had a couple of preliminary meetings of the Advisory Committee of the National Resource Council to the Atomic Energy Commission on Waste Disposal. Land Nuclear Waste Disposal."

Thus, the nuclear component of his energy scenario grew as he played with the theoretical energy recoverable from small amounts of Uranium, which indicated, using much more optimistic assumptions than he allowed himself in relation to oil, that several thousand years would pass before the U.S. ran short of U-235.

He also met and developed a long friendship with Wallace Pratt, another oil scientist somehow on loan to the nuclear program at the "Impact of the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy Panel," the report of which, including Pratt's work, Hubbert shared with his interlocutors.

And as a corporate veteran who had risen to high station in the company, Hubbert was certainly not a loose cannon. In fact, far from discouraging him about being too pessimistic about energy prognostication his immediate supervisor, who was head of the exploration and development work for all of Shell, according to Hubbert;

"...perhaps a few weeks or a month before the date of the meeting, I met with the Shell managing director, Mr. Schapers, whom I'd met several years before in Mirakabu , where he was an operating engineer, also in Mirakabu, came by and briefly visited me. I showed him my diagrams of the oil situation. His only remark was that he hoped that I would not in fact go overboard like Weeks of Standard of New Jersey had been doing.
Doel:
That's an interesting comment.
Hubbert:
Well, Weeks at that time had been progressively increasing his estimates."

This makes sense, since the world at this juncture was awash in crude oil.

When, as requested, he sent 500 copies of the paper ahead of his arrival at the Alamo, Shell Public Relations began to pester him to 'tone down' his presentation, but that was not going to happen. When he showed up at the Plaza Hotel, on the Trinity River, a huge crowd of reporters confronted him.

"To my surprise I found myself surrounded by the petroleum press, wanting to know, was this paper going to be given. ...I said, 'Why, certainly.' But it was perfectly obvious, there was something going on that I didn't know about, and I was furious. ... But anyhow, they had word of something that I hadn't heard of, and I was furious. In fact, I was so angry that I refused to go back to my hotel. I was checked in at the hotel, but instead of that my wife and I had dinner and went to a motion picture, and we didn't get back to the hotel room until around midnight. And then the next morning, when the meeting was opening, the program consisted of the Mayor of San Antonio giving an address of welcome. I was the next speaker, when I got a signal calling me off the platform... a telephone call from a minor executive assistant in New York, and he was expressing considerable alarm about my paper, well, couldn't I tone it down a bit? Couldn't I take the sensational parts out? I said, "Nothing sensational about it, just straightforward analysis." Well, he said, "That part about reaching the peak of oil production in ten or fifteen years, it's just utterly ridiculous." I said, "Listen, the Mayor is giving a talk, I'm on next. Can we close this off?" And well, "Please tone it down some." So I went back."

Almost a decade more at Shell followed, with plenty of acclaim to go with the criticism from outside the company, and nothing but support from within Shell. During all that time, he stood by and refined his numbers and tweaked his insights.

Still at Shell, when Kennedy came to power, he began to act as a company liaison on government science panels. In his talking about this experience, he gives a variety of insights into the real workings of science, which often had nothing whatever to do with numbers and data and technology and all. Here's one typical example, in which a recommended colleague is angry because he was not given more authority.

"I said, "Well, the reason that I called you is because you were suggested by Tom Nolan." "Well, yes." Well, all this was perfectly innocent at the time. We got to the meeting, and McKelvey came to this meeting like a bull in a china shop. He was plainly mad as hell about something, and he was kind of throwing his weight around. I'd given the report on the fossil fuels, and came time for McKelvey on the nuclear thing, ... . (and) it turned out that his ill behavior in connection with this meeting was that he was mad because I hadn't given him the whole works. Fossil fuels, oil, coal."

He repeatedly had to dodge the efforts of Edward Teller to involve himself in some of the policy work that Hubbert had undertaken. Asked why he didn't want to associate with the reputedly eminent physicist, M. King Hubbert replied, "Well, I heard him give a lecture at Stanford which was just as poisonous as the other things. But I didn't see him there. He was invited to give a lecture on the campus, big auditorium. But it was the same kind of Teller operation where facts were of no consequence whatever, a propaganda operation. In other words, destroy other things. That was what Teller doing."

One associate, whom he had plenty of rows with, had written a letter that contained what the fellow thought was a damning admission. The result, which Hubbert carefully documented, is another window into 'the scientific personality' perhaps.

"But back at this time when I was in California, and I had a secretary, a very nice lady, who was holding the fort while I was gone. She reported when I got back that McKelvey and Grossling had come into the office one day and started going through my files, over her protests... . She protested and they ignored her and went through my files. What they did or what they took or what they were looking for was not disclosed. I've never seen the original of this letter since. I think it was in that file.

Doel: It's good you had the copies."

Later, to take revenge for his insisting on accuracy about some issue that his cohorts wanted to fudge, these high-minded denizens of objectivity wend about plundering his access to administrative support. General deception and backstabbing, while not the rule perhaps, were nonetheless common enough to occur in many more than a dozen incidents in interviews that I only looked through quickly.

The jump to academia and his continued presence in the policy arena, despite the headaches and heartaches that this byzantine experience brought to him, followed his leaving Shell in 1964. One of the things that he did was to begin working on clean-up issues at the Savannah River Plant, where he encountered again the shadow of Edward Teller.

After a cursory comment derogating the H-bomb's godfather, his interrogator steered him toward another topic, but Hubbert persisted.

"Let's go back to Teller just a minute.
Doel: That's fine.

Hubbert: While we were dealing with waste disposal, and that report had been suppressed and so on, and the problems of Savannah River, Oak Ridge and what not were going on, I remember when the -- I think Senator from Alaska was causing a certain amount of stir, over this whole situation." Hubbert wanted to make clear his rationale for turning away from a pro-nuclear position perhaps.

He focused on down home issues, like the decline of science educational standards, and he saw the ruination of the competitive and commoditized science that he witnessed in D.C. and in the universities where he worked. He talked often about both sorts of issues.

"I'd been working on this thing (a critique) for five years, not as a presidential (American Association for the Advancement of Science) address, but as a general review of what's wrong with what's going on in science. And so I had a fair amount of information on the subject. However, there had not been time to do any writing, composition of a presidential address. It still was a subject that I had been very actively thinking about and talking about for something like five years or more. And the reason for that was this thing that I'd encountered, both in my own laboratory and much broader, the number of errors that were showing up, fundamental errors, in many cases, certainly in classical physics, and in many cases in elementary physics, by very high level people, say, physicists. And the general attitude was of authoritarianism, that if something is said by the proper person, it must be so. If it wasn't said by the proper person, you couldn't trust it. That sort of thing. ... Another thing that had happened, some time a year or two before, the American Institute of Physics had come out with a big Handbook called PHYSICS, I believe. This Handbook was published by McGraw-Hill, as I recall, and the authorship of it was physicists, many of them from universities, professors, and undoubtedly industrial ones too. It was a big tome, about a thousand pages. Well, I happened to come across this, and flipped the pages, and one of the very early chapters was written by a professor, as I recall, from Brown University, and dealt with units of measurement. OK. And I go down the list, and I find fundamental units. What are the fundamental units of physics? One was a circular mill. One was a second. You find there's certain fraction of a day as occurred in a formula or something or other, of a day, and the day was the period of rotation of the earth. Well, it turned out that that unit was wrong by a ratio of 166 over 165, because the period of the rotation of the earth is the sidereal day. Whereas a second is the mean solar second."

He paid attention and connected small failings with much larger errors. He continued, after his retirement, to play a Cassandra role, even though he might have lived quietly and unobtrusively. He also made a turn toward Gaia and away from the likes of Edward Teller and the PR hacks in charge of the nuclear establishment.

As one close student of these matters has remarked, Hubbert had the integrity to admit that he would alter his opinion. “Fifteen years ago I thought solar power was impractical because I thought nuclear power was the answer. But I spent some time on an advisory committee on waste disposal to the Atomic Energy Commission. After that, I began to be very, very skeptical because of the hazards. That’s when I began to study solar power. I’m convinced we have the technology to handle it right now. We could make the transition in a matter of decades if we begin now.”

This participant in the energy policy scene goes on to say,

energy-montage-7"I don’t know of any topic that generates more useless comments than alternative energy technologies... . about why it’s no good for anything and how peak oil will kill us all off, etc. Even mentioning alternatives represents thought crimes for these people. There are lots of ways to lie about energy scarcity. When religious peaknics are pressed into a corner on the absurdity of energy scarcity (Hubbert himself, the god of peak oilers, said solar was the way in 1983, never mind the untapped gigawatts of kinetic energy that are unleashed by the oceans of the world each day), they change the subject to top soil depletion, economic collapse, climate change, etc.—all of which I acknowledge as very real and far more difficult to mitigate than energy scarcity. This is lying by derailing the conversation; changing the subject. The expense of clean energy is the next nonsense argument, with never a breath on what the U.S. spends on military operations around the world per hour, per minute, per second vs. the incredible advancements that resulted from minuscule grants into clean energy research. This is lying by omission. Additionally, the Steorn debacle now comes up in discussions of clean energy inventions. This is called poisoning the well. The barriers to clean energy are political in nature, not scientific or technological. And to the people who endlessly mention Hubbert’s Peak, and never mention the man’s ideas for the solution…How many peak oil sites are there? Hundreds? Thousands? How many of them mention Hubbert’s words above about solar power… Look into it. The answer is that NONE of the big peak oil sites mention that passage from M King Hubbert . That’s one of the most fascinating aspects of peak oil that I’ve encountered so far."

To recapitulate, then, the paper's presentation did take place on a given day, in a given year, as a work product for a definite purpose, in relation to the milieu in which he operated and the world in which Shell Oil, his employer, was doing business. Certainly, we can contextualize Hubbert's output. A picture emerges of a scientist who believes in the numbers he crunches; who has identified with a new technology; who has converged his work with that of at least some colleagues and of at least significant elements of the corporation that has employed his services and advanced his career for fifteen years.

AND A BRIEF GLOSS ABOUT THE SURROUNDING WORLD

As we have seen, facts and events surrounding Hubbert personally and professionally dovetailed with his mounting the podium, after he hung up on Shell Oil's V.P. for marketing, to deliver "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels." With absolute certainty, we can also state that all of these incidentals fit together in some explicable way with the wider patterns and history happening around Hubbert on that stage in San Antonio, even if this essay's manner of fitting them together is inherently hypothetical.

Of course, the world at large was percolating in tandem with the personal and professional events that had led Hubbert to speak out that March day fifty four years ago in exactly the fashion that he did. Just at the time of Hubbert's presentation, for example, the age of atomic power was set to begin, with the opening of the first commercial nuclear power station at Shippingsport, Pennsylvania.

cold-war-22Simultaneously, the Cold War had come to its first rolling boil, so that an exchange of H-bombs did not seem out of the question. Tom Lehrer was still doing math, rather than singing, "So long Mom, I'm off to drop the bomb, so don't wait up for me." "Dr. Strangelove" did not yet elicit a shivery thrill of fear and delight up the spines of hundreds of millions of initiates to Stanley Kubrik's ingenious mythos about nuclear annihilation.

But such eventualities were close at hand, as the emanations of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto and the first of 58 Pugwash Conferences indicate. And, Shell Oil had ongoing interests, to put the point mildly, in these matters of nuclear fission and defense contracts and other planetary affairs of finance, policy, and science.

Just prior to Hubbert's paper, Shell and other oil giants had found themselves embroiled in a fifteen year long, possibly benchmark, but little-known litigation often referred to simply as "the Oil Cartel Case." A few years following Hubbert's pro-nuclear speech (that now 'defines' peak oil), a non-actionable form of the alleged oil cartel came into being, in the form of OPEC, a circumstance that almost certainly oil companies helped to orchestrate.

Not that much longer down the road, the 1970's economic nightmare, almost as severe and intractable on its face as what we are going through now, burst like a noisome boil. And oil seemed to ooze like pus from the superating sore. Marion King Hubbert's thoughts were akin to a salve, or a purgative, that media and culture and scientific and policy leaders all applied to the suffering patient's social, political, and economic lesions.

Furthermore, this under-studied but important law suit and the economic downturn of the 1970's were inseparable from a key policy proposition about which all upper-level oil company executives agreed. No one in the upper reaches of this most rambunctious and lucrative aspect of capital disagreed that the most pernicious threat to profit and survival was overabundance and the attendant price competition that transpired among producers.

As well, the centrality of Middle East affairs, for both business and political entities , coincides perfectly with Hubbert's talk. The war that heated the Cold War to the point of phase change was five months away. Old imperial powers, France and Britain, conflicted with newly liberated colonies, while Israel, the United States, and the Soviet Union incisively or manipulatively advanced their own agendas, all under the overweening gaze of 'Seven Sisters,' who controlled the flow of oil.

The Shah of Iran, a notorious butcher of his own people, had just seized power in Iran, thanks to CIA and British Petroleum and MI5 assistance. Relations with Saudis, Iraq, and Iran, so critical to oil company and United States strategy for the better part of a century, certainly remained central when Hubbert debuted on the cosmic stage.

iraq_saddam_hussein-22Through the 1979 immolation of the U.S. sinecure in Tehran and the ministrations creating our very own Saddamic Frankenstein to the evisceration of that monster's pretensions in Kuwait and the Oil-for-food imbroglio that followed, we have arrived at the present pass--post 9/11, as a promised 'century long war' reaches the end of its first decade.

Establishing this overview, of the background and circumstances in which Hubbert's thirty three year long inauguration of Peak Oil took place and in which the expansion of and emphasis on Peak Oil has occurred since his death in 1989, ought to cause readers to pause. Peak Oil means nothing except in relation to this complicated fabric.

I do not pretend, in anything like a satisfyingly fulfilling fashion, to articulate that full relational meaning here, although the political economy of the oil industry and the imperial actions of the United States have to become a part of understanding Peak Oil, in my estimation. My hope is to return to this topic, building on what is demonstrable here, in order to develop this richer interweaving of the origins of Peak Oil with an assessment of its social, political, and historical import.

In any event, what we have learned today does set a table for considering Peak Oil in a preliminary manner, at once more personal and more telling about the social construction of knowledge and science. Marion Hubbert may have exemplified a "Boy Named Sue" phenomenon. He started life with a girlish name that he suppressed, to become one tough hombre from a harsh land of Comanche raids and constant drought, in which the discovery of gushers was a way up and out.

He came to a view of the world that saw a fundamental contradiction between the standards of everyday business and any possibility of a sustainable human presence. As a geologist, he helped feed the blip upwards of human progress that he believed also spelled our doom, if continued.

nuke-bomb-22His surroundings--nuclear weapons and the attendant problems of waste that also applied to an incipient industry both in competition with and allied to his own masters--implicitly spurred his analysis. His superiors and other oil industry leaders explicitly encouraged the development of his ideas, at the same time that his expression of them caused a sh**storm, politically, economically, and socially, among the same ranks from which his supporters came.

In the aftermath of this speech, both in his final eight years at Shell and in the hurly-burly academic, policy, and science scenes that took him past his retirement, Hubbert met the vicious Jekyll-and-Hyde face of scientism and opportunistic public relations ideology. He fought against such dishonesty and superficiality until he died, in the process reevaluating his early enthusiasm for nuclear energy and coming firmly to support renewable alternatives.

Certain beliefs--about growth and competition and human fate, characterized at least the second half of his long life. His perspectives on many things shifted, but not his paradigm about how our lives expressed something real. He spoke candidly about this at the end of a long series of interviews about his life and times.

He evinced, he said, "a simple rational view, discerned from the organisms in the earth and their impressions. As a famous physiologist from Chicago, Antone J. Carson, head of the physiology department, used to shock his audiences with, 'One of these days, I'm going to be a long time dead."

M. King Hubbert's legacy ultimately comes down to what he was doing. At some level, we can make a strong case that an answer to that query is possible. As a human being, he was responding, with as much integrity as anyone might muster, to the human prospect. As an actor, he was playing a leading role in an intricate, improvisational performance on one of life's main stages, the energy prescenium so to say.

On the other hand, a larger interpretation, though I have my inclinations as to how to depict this man and the 'Peak Oil' trope that accompanies his memory, is not yet mete to dole out. As an expression of broader historical forces, we can wait until the hoped-for next installment to say, though we do know that his contribution as an individual integrated, unless we adopt a completely nihilist view, with some overall pattern of commerce and empire and conflict.

In considering the contemporary Peak Oil clashes so heatedly and noisily surging all about us, we might consider sage words that Hubbert scripted for his original paper, following all of the math and statistical models inevitably flawed and surreal. Many of the man's words speak to us, if we take the care to note them, instead of responding to the blather and bother of those who have decidedly different, and possibly less beneficent, agendas to push forward.

"(A)s an essential part of our analysis, we can assume with complete assurance that the industrial exploitation of the fossil fuels will consist in the progressive exhaustion of an initially fixed supply to which there will be no significant additions during the period of our interest." (here)

PEAK OIL TROPE #1

A more definitive investigation of the subject matter of the next two sections will await the follow-up to this article. However, a precis of the truly vast literature of Peak Oil discussion, which runs the gamut from foaming-at-the-mouth diatribe through all manner of 'moderate' and slickly corporate iterations to
the 'run-for-the-hills' set whom we met recently in my review of Michael Rupert's film "Collapse."

As a search, the phrase yields just under a million and a half hits. At least on the first ten pages, a substantial majority of these--over 75%--are one form or other of a warning. 'Human existence is on the line.' 'Much more than oil company profits are at stake.' The argumentation generally includes something like M. King Hubbert's beloved Gaussian charts(), showing the strong correlation between human population increase and fossil fuel usage.

The upshot is obvious, though it ranges in intensity from 'Run-now- or-die' to 'Act-now-or -suffer.' One might view these portals and blogs and information nodes and networks as falling into a couple of categories.

*One sort proffers a pointed call to action, if not to panic. Bloggers galore (HERE), former colleagues of Hubbert (HERE), and opportunistic marketers of products and services to help the benighted cope and thrive (here), are typical of this sort, along with Michael Ruppert's latest offering.

alt-en-graphic-22 *Another kind models the NGO or academic approach, marshaling great minds and authoritative thinkers to address pending crises related to Peak Oil. The Post Carbon Institute is one such enterprise, as are The Oil Drum, which features Dave Summers in its archives and all sorts of nerdy sorts, and the Oil Depletion Analysis Center, an English NGO that the conspiracy theorists and more populist sites below love to hate.

At one extreme, the calls to action from such aggregations of passion and purpose are millennial. "Dear Reader," intones one such, "Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon. This is not the wacky proclamation of a doomsday cult, apocalypse bible prophecy sect, or conspiracy theory society. Rather, it is the scientific conclusion of the best paid, most widely-respected geologists, physicists, bankers, and investors in the world. These are rational, professional, conservative individuals who are absolutely terrified by a phenomenon known as global 'Peak Oil.'"

Others offer more sober assessments that JustMeans readers and all cautious cousins of the planet ought to consider carefully. Robert Rapier uncovered a classified German military report so far only available in German.

"This week a study on peak oil by a German military think tank ... . shows that the German government is closely studying the issue of peak oil, and is aware of the potential for serious consequences as oil production declines.

The study is reminiscent of the Hirsch Report, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy, that warned of the risks posed by peak oil. ...This report describes potential outcomes that require planning and preparation.

The scenarios outlined in the paper are exactly the kinds of drivers that lead me to advocate for greater regional energy self-sufficiency. The report clearly lays out just how vulnerable Europe will be because of its continuing dependence upon Russia for both oil and gas, and notes that Russia will be in a very strong political bargaining position as a result."

As well, such meeting places involve critique and outreach to disbelievers. Richard Heinberg seeks to refute Greg Palast's dismissive attitude in a long post at the Post Carbon Institute, which he leads. His main message is engaging, however. "But I would greatly prefer it if you would simply acknowledge that thousands of Peak Oil activists around the world are in fact devoting themselves to a worthy cause. Most of them are working hard to wean themselves and their local communities from oil dependency."

vermot-22Finally, all manner of media--from newspapers to broadcast to web-based to grassroots, produce journalistic or documentary materials that start from or incorporate Peak Oil thinking. Again, a more extensive consideration of all such products and processes is forthcoming in these JustMeans reports, Lord willing and the creek don't rise.

PEAK OIL TROPE #2

This section of the commons, though a distinct minority of the total in the initial sample in regard to orientation to Peak Oil, does represent a broad spectrum of opinion and analysis. This report found no site in that first wave that was 'beyond the pale,' so lacking in thought or content as to merit the label of moronic drivel or retarded diatribe. A larger set of groups, however, are necessary to suggest the shape of this smaller subset.

*At the most ideological level, various outlets for Peak Oil criticism suggested a close-to-wholesale rejection of Peak Oil as a useful way of thinking about our problems and prospects. Here, is the top 'debunker;' here PrisonPlanet, and here, InfoWorld suggest that poor people and less-than-middle-income communities should reject the politics of Peak Oil; here EducateYourself proffers a conspiratorial model for considering Peak Oil.

*More investigative sources include such operations as the already explicated efforts of Greg Palast; also, different entities that insist on a broader based conceptualization of Peak Oil belong here, such as a portal at Mt. Holyoke College that gives access to extensive resources on energy, or the prolific materials available through the Society for the History of Technology, or all manner of internet science and technology access points that have already shown up in my work or will show up in future materials.

energyplanet-22 Also, these structure that give 'qualified' support to the notion of Peak Oil include aggregators and other listings or linking services, such as Oil Scenarios, Daily Reckoning, and Energy Planet's mainly 'Go-Peak-Oil' list.

As above, the messages available here vary. Some perspectives are extreme enough to be hostile to the entire proposition of Peak Oil, from a decidedly populist point of view. Ken Adachi, for example, has this to offer:

"This is a big story. It's an attempt by the Illuminati, working through their number one propaganda production factory, the Tavistock Institute in the City of London, to create the illusion that the world is rapidly running out of oil and within a few short years, we will experience unemployment, wars, famine, and all manner of horrendous strife as a result of the fallout from the now "rapidly vanishing" oil supplies. It's a scam from top to bottom. If you've noticed that gasoline prices are beginning to rise at gas pumps across America, you can thank this deception for that jump in gas prices and you can also expect those gasoline prices to continue to rise over time and possibly remain at unprecedented high levels from here on out, UNLESS enough Americans wake up to this deceit and demand an end to it."

Others express equal, or, on occasion, even greater dismissiveness toward Peak Oil precaution, but they do so from a mainstream, much more middle class POV. Their work is often environmentalist or focused on the human potential to invent our way out of crisis. "You may find this confusing at first, but I will now give you the ultimate peak oil debunk in four easy words. You may experience a flash of discomfort, or a stunned sensation. But hang in there, and read it over at least five or ten times. Let it sink in: YOU DON'T NEED OIL. Have you grasped it? Resistance to this idea is ingrained, and you may involuntarily mumble in disagreement, but try to fight through that. That's the addiction talking. Trust me: the idea that "we need oil" has been inculcated into the deepest fibers of your brain by decades upon decades of relentless GM and Exxon advertising."

Among the most thoughtful of such outpourings are the research-based materials, as is the case again with the work of Greg Palast. "But Hubbert was also deadly right. We are indeed running out of oil. There's no contradiction here. We have to distinguish between an economist's concept of "running out" and a scientist's. To an economist, every commodity is finite. We are running out of oil and we are running out of copper, aluminum foil, birdbaths, pickles, lumber, clean air, Frappucinos, chocolate, tongue rings, lollipops, silver, cow-shaped milk dispensers, Dylan retrospectives and sand. That is why economics is called "the dismal science." Limits and scarcity are economists' bread and butter. There's a limited supply of every commodity."

Finally, once more, in aggregate, thousands or even tens of thousands or more of reports, articles, blogs, and other mediated products present this more nuanced and less wholehearted consideration of Peak Oil. And, just as with the more militant Peak Oil expressions above, further work in this arena is on the docket for future postings of mine.

CONCLUSIONS

In the Jimbo-at-JustMeans view that this work has developed, whether oil is peaking, has peaked, or has yet to peak, to some extent makes no difference in terms of what our responsibilities are. In essence, I would place myself squarely in the ranks of either the 'Yes, but...' or the 'Maybe, but...' opponents to a 'strong' Peak Oil perspective, depending on the specification of what the boundaries of the phrase are and so forth.

strongdem-book-22My 'but...' clause would note that matters of achieving strong democracy outweigh any concern over Peak Oil. Strengthening community power and knowledge would take precedence over any issue regarding Peak Oil. Most important, the need to comprehend Peak Oil as an incontrovertible aspect of the wider political, social, and economic aspects of science, technology, and society would assume a much more prominent position in seeking to utilize and articulate the implications of Peak Oil.

Part of the process of this more profound iteration of Peak Oil's parameters involves struggling to express what are the likely forces behind, or at least the implications of, the different Peak Oil actors. In other words, what path does following the Carbon Institute suggest? Where does Greg Palast's critique lead us? Can we discover the objectives of ha-hee and other ferocious and slick 'debunkers' of the Peak Oil idea? What are the organizational affiliations or other disciplined agendas of PrisonPlanet and InfoWorld and EducateYourself and other radical, anarchic, possibly 'red' critics of Peak Oil?

In order to complete a 'roadmap' for ordinary citizens to use in navigating this idea, as well as the ideological and policy positions that inherently accompany distinct views of the matter, we thus need first to strengthen and extend this work in the way of creating a rich and multilayered assessment of fossil fuels, energy, and political economy since the 1970's. Then we need to tease out where the various participants in today's melees stand in relation to this wider socio-economic and political economic framework.

In terms of a 'progressive' stance--which is to say an attitude that insists on social justice, expansive democracy, and potent communities--the Labor Day song from Harlan County, Kentucky summarizes one crucial aspect of the intent of this work. Understanding, in this view, always necessitates 'choosing sides' in some fashion or other, which Marion King Hubbert definitely saw in the last quarter century of his life.
They say in Harlan County,

'There be no neutrals there.
You either be a union man, or a thug for J.H. Blair'
Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?

Readers may recall that I posed a double-barreled question a few pages back. 'How has the concept of Peak Oil become so prominent today, and how might a citizen understand and use the idea so as to increase community empowerment and effectuate both democracy and social justice.?'

The answer to the initial interrogatory is now possible to state in simple terms: the prominence of Peak Oil represents a conjunction between, on the one hand, the work of a powerful and honest scientist, M. King Hubbert, whose life revolved around oil or oil companies, and, on the other hand, much wider social forces that perceived some combination of accuracy and utility in the concepts that this Shell Oil employee was developing.

The second question, also, has an answer that citizens might ponder. That response recognizes the necessarily extant connections between this personal and historical story of an idea's promulgation, and the needs and goals of the powers-that-be; this common folks' answer goes further, however, recognizing the responsibility to broaden and deepen an understanding of those connections so as to build the capacity both to join the debate and advance appropriate community policy responses in the resultant participation in discussion and argument.

AFTERWORD

filling_petrol-pdOne of my projects long ago and far away in grad school was for a Printing and Text class that taught folks how to set type, use out-of-date but still functional little presses, and so on. My final project, "Answers Require ?'s," though graphically crude, earned me the professor's intellectual admiration. Interestingly enough, many teachers today advise writers to avoid posing rhetorical or hypothetical questions, at best an instance of 'dumbing down' nonsense.

As is often the case with these stories, more questions accompany the ending than the start. Hopefully, those inquiries not only are clear in their wording but also point a direction toward action, as well as understanding. Gaia is greater than all of us put together; but putting the majority together in a way that expresses will and power is the only way to address the way that we have beleaguered our 'Mother.' Words must lead to social movement, or even the most comprehensive understanding won't amount to much.

But the larger point is also apt. We must recognize that, in a sense, our jobs as citizens begin with tussling with an issue until we can formulate a powerful inquiry. 'Answers' really do require questions, and poorly molded questions are unlikely to yield delightfully fresh-baked and nutritious answers.

One impediment to this inquisitive process, which may apply with some force to the pedagogic tendency noted above to discourage questioning in essays, is often the assumption that 'the answers are already obvious,' or, even worse, 'somebody else might find the answer, but I can't/shouldn't/oughtn't help out in determining what's what.'

Attitudes such as these are ubiquitous today, I would maintain even more commonplace than the oft-complained about apathy and ignorance of everyday folks. And one source indisputably promotes just such disempowering ideation. This is the notion that knowledge, and hence participation beyond the minimal level of nodding and saying 'yes sir,' or 'no sir,' as directed, requires expertise, arcane training, or other indicia of 'higher' authority.

Today's story provides telling indicia of one problem with such cults of expertise. These representatives of the intelligentsia, even Nobel Prize winners like Edward Teller, often get things wrong, knowing their desires in advance and caring little or nothing for an 'objective' consideration of the facts. The whole situation in regard to the Savannah River Plant, noted above as near and dear to Edward Teller's H-bomb heart, epitomizes this sort of deal.

Uncharacteristically biblical in his disdain, Hubbert told a Philadelphia Enquirer reporter, who was "quoting Edward Teller on some aspect of (the waste disposal problems), 'Well, I (h)ave ... some information with regard to Edward Teller.' I said, 'As far as I'm concerned, Edward Teller is an abomination unto the Lord.'"

The point of this, near the end of the story, is not to introduce more evidence. Rather, it is to note that scientists occasionally 'call each other out,' and such eventualities simply don't fit with any sort of perfectionist, scientistic model of how technology and society fit together.

Now, as the matter stands, I know quite a bit about the historical and current situation at SRS. Edward Teller was a liar. He covered up, distorted, dissimulated, and otherwise sought to deflect attention from gross injustice and environmental and social depredation. These are opinions, obviously. But I have evidence that I'll be presenting to readers here by and by. In reporting this story, I found further corroborating testimony for my assertion.

Once more, though, the overall reason for discussing this is that anything that even bears the faintest family resemblance to a 'cult of expertise' in regard to science and technology policy flies in the face of the actual facts of the inner working of science as a political, social, and economic endeavor. Nor is that all.

Another aspect of this is that experts change their minds, as, confronted by routine dishonesty and wrongheadedness on the part of erstwhile scientific wizards, Marion Hubbard altered his perspectives on the energy solutions that America should embrace. Nor is that all.

The monopoly on discourse, to which Hubbert's life in policy circles attests, and which appears in all manner of public forums regarding what a community can expect in regard to technological change, is nearly universal in the United States, although some of my upcoming reports inquire about exceptions to this rule. Anyone who has sat through an NRC hearing, or EPA colloquium, with a few countervailing instances when locals and community members have hijacked such occasions(INTERLINK to Home Ec, by Berry), can attest to this lack of discursive democracy.

The scene in Europe is different. As "Civic Participation and Democracy," an article in a European Union publication committed to democratic dialog states the case, "The dynamics of deliberative democracy are characterized by the norms of equality and symmetry; everyone is to have an equal chance of participation. Also, both the rules of discussion and topics to be discussed can in principle be challenged, the agenda itself is to be mutually agreed upon. Another important principle is that the reasons should be made accessible to all concerned; this means not only that they should in some manner be made public, but also be comprehensible."

This runs directly counter to the notion of spheres of expertise that weigh more, have greater validity, and often simply squelch all manner of common speech input. Not only is such a totalitarian model anti-science, eventually it will guarantee that the people turn against the social order in this guise that calls itself scientific.

As a pharmaceutical researcher and friend of mine put it, "You'll never find science behind this stuff, just opinion as far as I'm concerned. These days, science is really corporate opinion." The corporate response, that this constitutes a public relations issue, is the elevation of the shill at the lower reaches, and Edward Teller, at the higher end.

Not that we would deny such flacks and hacks from having their slick-as-butter power-point opportunities, on the contrary, they would be a part of the queue at the microphone, or around the table. Business is a stakeholder, and doing "business better," for example in regard to renewable energy, must reserve a place at the table for all parties.

But theirs would not be the only propaganda available. Nor would we view WAND's input as propaganda while the Department of Energy wrapped itself in the garb of objectivity that the likes of Edward Teller have always been expert at spinning.

Finally, we would note that probability, as useful as it is, does not represent reality but models data into simulacra of what reality might be. In the context that Marion King Hubbert provides us in today's story, moreover, the interests of a so-called scientist can cause a front-loading of falsehood in place of fact, just as the interests of upper-level stakeholders can advocate data-collection protocols that prohibit the collection of the necessary data to load into the system.

Almost all of us remember The Jungle from high school and college. It tells a tale of science and technology in the service of profiteering that cost the public dearly. Sinclair self-published a diatribe that took on journalism and the 'experts' who so often fed reporters their lines. Robert McChesney and Ben Scott write persuasively of the drawbacks of our media and its sources in terms of democracy, justice, and community health.

dipstick-22JustMeans readers might consider emblazoning this assessment of Sinclair in their brains. "In The Brass Check, Sinclair made a systematic and damning critique of the severe limitations of the 'free press' in the United States. (T)he thesis of this book,' he wrote, is 'that American Journalism is a class institution serving the rich and spurning the poor.' If The Jungle was notorious for its aggressive assaults on capitalist industry, The Brass Check pulled even fewer punches. The title itself is a reference to the chit issued to patrons of urban brothels at the time. Sinclair drew an analogy between journalists and prostitutes, beholden to the agenda, ideology, and policies of the monied elites that owned and controlled the press. It was an integral part of his broader critique of the corruption of U.S. politics and the appalling nature of capitalism: 'Politics, Journalism, and Big Business work hand in hand for the hoodwinking of the public and the plundering of labor.'"

As a final postscript, the monetizing streak among Peak Oilers is very strong. "It's an ill wind that blows no good" and so on. This site especially typifies that, in announcing, "The domain name and website DryDipstick.com are for sale. They will go to the highest offer received by 15 September 2010. There is no minimum offer and there will be no negotiations. If you're interested contact us."

PHOTO CREDITS:
Cold War: public domain
Oil Rigs: public domain
Alternative Fuels Graphic: Post Carbon.org
Filling Petrol: public domain
Saddam Hussein: public domain
M.K. Hubbert: Niels Bohr Library & Archives

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Non-standard font styles will be removed, but basic text formatting like bold and italic will be preserved.

Full HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Non-standard font styles will be removed, but basic text formatting like bold and italic will be preserved.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

FMR Icons

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.