Peak Oil Terror in the Museli Belt

This week I’ve seen two films about the Hubbert Peak.

When an oil field is drilled, it takes time and investment for the infrastructure to be set up and the good oil to be pumped. As the oil is depleted it becomes more expensive to obtain. This “bell curve” model was put forward by a geologist named Hubbert, who correctly predicted the when US oil production as a whole would peak. He also claimed his model could predict a world peak. He predicted this would occur in the 1990s. He was wrong.

Although Hubbert was way out on his timing, there are many factors that affect when the peak might occur, and our information about world oil reserves is very poor. Most predictions put the peak within the next 30 years, possibly as early as 2013, according to a French government report. When oil peaks prices will rise. If we still rely on cheap energy and demand outstrips supply (and we don’t have an alternative), we’ll be unable to afford transport, pesticides, heating. Global markets will shrink and we may not be able to grow enough food and distribute it.

The first film, The End of Suburbia, was an overlong and poorly edited documentary on how Suburbia had become the American dream. All those who contribued (principally James Howard Kunstler, Peter Calthorpe, and Richard Heinberg) have written extensively on this subject and claimed we have almost or already reached the peak, that world recession is imminent and suburban life is unstustainable. The film didn’t consider alternative theories.

The End of Suburbia was screened by the the Green Party and followed by a discussion; but of course it was preaching to converts from the museli belt, and whilst no-one questioned the premiss of the film several people congratulated themselves on turning down their thermostats and burning wood instead of coal. The only comfort came from a worker for Small Change, a community project that will help people cope if energy prices continue to rise.

The other film I saw was an episode of the West Wing. This covered the same ground as The End of Suburbia, but at 42 minutes rather than 78 (and with some chess and some body language training for Toby thrown in too) it managed it much more succinctly.

There was an interesting contrast, though. At the Green Party meeting, the possibility of government action was dismissed, with the argument regarded as an electoral liability. Debate centred around actions we could take as individuals. I don’t think this will work. I keep my thermostat low and I don’t drive a car. But my abstemiousness may actually be driving consumtion: any significant reduction in demand for energy will drive prices down, and there will always be a ready market for cheaper energy. Another possible complication is the corrolory to the Jevons Paradox – it’s not easy to solve global economic problems. We need a collectively solution that takes in the whole picture, an economic solution. “It’s all economics” says Bartlett. “Why do the Saudis fight to keep oil prices from rising?” It’s to discourage conservation, he answers, and prevent the development of alternatives. We need intervention at a macro economic level.

If people want to make a difference they need to get involved with the political process, and I don’t mean with fringe single-issue parties. It has to be with parties who have a core ideology, a track record on the environment and most importantly a chance of power, a chance to make a difference. The scenario on the West Wing is a reminder that changes have been made by green lobbies working within parties in govenment – in the UK we’ve seen a raise in fuel duty, increased tax on inefficient vehicles and diverted funds into the railways. Like the Bartlett administration they get frustrated, and the will weakens, but the will is there and people who care should be there encouraging that. Joining a fringe party and finding like minds may be comforting, but joining the Jehovah’s witnesses of the green movement won’t benefit anyone.

Through government intervention oil needs to be conserved, energy efficiency improved and alternatives sought. It’s not something we should pretend individuals or groups can achieve alone. We need to influence government, we need leadership. We must engage in the process.

About Simon Wood

E-learning officer, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more...

13 thoughts on “Peak Oil Terror in the Museli Belt

  1. I think the peak oil theory is a really interesting and powerful meme, even if there’s nothing in it. It brings to the surface people’s discomfort at our profound vulnerability living in this massively non-localised system in which even a sandwich has travelled a thousand miles and passed through who knows how many hands, and has been produced in the first place from soil which is only good because it’s pumped full of artificial fertiliser. And more profound discomfort that our democracy doesn’t seem to give us any choice over whether or not we live like this, it just happens inexorably, and we all get pushed further and further down the unsustainable road whether we like it or not. I completely agree with you over the importance of engaging with the political process, but I think for many people in today’s culture there’s a real desire to redefine ‘normality’ and what our relationship to each other and the land can be. Maybe that’s Luddite, or maybe it’s a gut-felt recognition that the only way to face such an uncertain future is with a balanced portfolio of new sustainable local economies and the future-tech solutions of global capital. At the moment we’re forced to put all our eggs in the latter basket, which is bloody uncomfortable because we don’t get to meet the super-rich and powerful who actually make the decisions, therefore we can’t trust them, and the media are so twisted by commercial forces that it all seems to boil down to various forms of hypnosis. It’s made me think about how I actually want to live, irrespective of whether an economic meltdown is just around the corner…..

  2. Your Jevons Paradox stuff depresses the shit out of me. I know it’s true, and my GOd yes we absolutely need global macro-economic intervention, but if Kyoto, which is simply too little too late, can’t be agreed to by the big boys and can’t even have its targets hit by governments like ours who are supposedly commited to it, then when’s it gonna happen???? And the thought that small scale businesses like mine might at the end of the day just be giving the market more capacity to be wasteful makes me want to buy an SUV with my new credit card and suck it’s exhaust pipe until sweet oblivion arrives…

    You probably know this already, but really interesting programme on R4 tomorrow at 11 about Labour’s environmental aspirations when elected, and how and why they were compromised…

  3. Dan, I totally agree with you about sandwiches. I happily can get sandwiches that are locally sourced, and prepared 50 feet from my office. Which is one of the reasons why I think our demacracy does give us some choice.

    I also agree we need to develop local ecomonies. If the worst happens, it is these that will sustain us, but perhaps more importantly local economies are the foundations of local communities, and the scales have tipped to far the other way.

    The super-rich and the super powerful are not the same. I’ve met more of the latter than the former… And I entirely disagree with the premiss you can’t trust someone you haven’t met. You put every journalist, every writer in one catagory and label them twisted. Media ownership distorts the news agenda, yes. But the media are twisted, hypnotisists? Too general, unfair.

    Ultimately involvement in the political process isn’t easy. I’ve known people who have dedicated their free time, campaigning, convincing, cooperating and compromising to get things done. You don’t win all the arguments, and you have to be open to understanding entirely opposing views. But to achieve something, however little (and you’re right, Kyoto is too little) has to be better than simply being right.

    Thanks for the notice on the R4 prog, sounds v. interesting.

  4. Dan, I totally agree with you about sandwiches. I happily can get sandwiches that are locally sourced, and prepared 50 feet from my office. Which is one of the reasons why I think our demacracy does give us some choice.

    I also agree we need to develop local ecomonies. If the worst happens, it is these that will sustain us, but perhaps more importantly local economies are the foundations of local communities, and the scales have tipped to far the other way.

    The super-rich and the super powerful are not the same. I’ve met more of the latter than the former… And I entirely disagree with the premiss you can’t trust someone you haven’t met. You put every journalist, every writer in one catagory and label them twisted. Media ownership distorts the news agenda, yes. But the media are twisted, hypnotisists? Too general, unfair.

    Ultimately involvement in the political process isn’t easy. I’ve known people who have dedicated their free time, campaigning, convincing, cooperating and compromising to get things done. You don’t win all the arguments, and you have to be open to understanding entirely opposing views. But to achieve something, however little (and you’re right, Kyoto is too little) has to be better than simply being right.

    Thanks for the notice on the R4 prog, sounds v. interesting.

  5. The market will play an important part in the solution. The market is a powerful force in wealth generation and improving the standard of living. But you can’t leave everything to the market, because it will always want more consumption. Hence the need for strong legislation now on renewables, efficiency, planning etc…

  6. The market will play an important part in the solution. The market is a powerful force in wealth generation and improving the standard of living. But you can’t leave everything to the market, because it will always want more consumption. Hence the need for strong legislation now on renewables, efficiency, planning etc…

  7. So how do we persuade the government to come up with strong legislation like that? I can’t see them doing it this election term. Go up against the car industry and the aviation industry and the construction industry and the hordes of idiot voters who will be outraged at their civil liberties to drive and fly how much they want being infringed, with a Tory party who will play any dirty opportunist trick available to claw their way back to power? It’s one thing to sell the people the idea of invading some distant country run by a very nasty man with a moustache. It’s another thing altogether to sell them the idea that we might actually have to change the way we live. Can’t see it happening. Any ideas?

  8. Of course we need to work through the democratic process, but there is more to individual action and single-issue pressure groups than you imply. You talk of changes being “made by green lobbies working within parties in govenment,” but government won’t make these changes unless it is convinced that they are palatable to a fair proportion of the electorate.

    For example, we may want to persuade governments to increase aviation fuel duty. We campaign within a party which has “a core ideology, a track record on the environment and most importantly a chance of power” (by the way, did you have one in mind?) Senior policy makers within the party worry that there is no public stomach for such a change. They know that people are liable to tell opinion pollsters they’re in favour of something that will cost them more, but while wimping out in the polling booth. Surely it would be helpful to be able to point to a large number of people prepared to increase the cost of their own air travel by using an air travel emissions offset scheme like this one.

    I am fully aware that such schemes are highly controversial, but I am trying to argue that individual action (often spurred on by single-issue groups) can serve to catalyse the formal political process, even when its direct impact is negligible, by demonstrating that the change is truly acceptable to the public.

    I’ve got more to say on this one, but it’ll have to wait.

  9. “It’s another thing altogether to sell them the idea that we might actually have to change the way we live.” (Dan)

    “Government won’t make these changes unless it is convinced that they are palatable to a fair proportion of the electorate.” (Tarquin)

    Governments are in it for the hard sell. If politics is the art of the possible, you won’t find out whether something is possible until you try. It’s the job of the party in government to change people’s minds.

    Pressure groups can work in two ways: Working to push their agenda inside government, putting pressure on the government to sell ideas to the electorate; or pushing their agenda with the electorate to put pressure on the government. It’s very difficult to do both… Geldof and Bono praised the G8 leaders when the agreements fell far short of what their supporters wanted. But if they denounce the compromise they become marginalised: voices in the wilderness. It has to better to be closer to the machinery of power whilst you have a chance of making any significant difference.

    So, Dan, how do we change the way people live? We have to persuade the government to lead, rather than follow. To set the agenda and put the arguments, rather than letting polls or focus groups set it for them. Of course, to do so without alienating the electorate means listening to a diverse range of arguments (focus groups have their place). And bringing people with you make make it a frustratingly slow process (don’t expect everything to be delivered within one parliament).

    It’s easy for a party that has never had real power to tempt voters with a menu of desirable but unattainable goals. But even within that part of the political debate that concerns green issues there are conflicting priorities. How can single issue groups hope resolve these? Why should a party which won’t ever be in power worry about being held to account for their incoherent agenda? Parties that win power have to have a larger constitutency, to hear arguments they don’t like, and to wear unpalatable compromises on occassion. That’s the price you have to pay for being able to make actual change.

    And that’s not to marginalise serious contributions individuals can make. I love the emissions offset scheme. And we do need individuals and companies to change the infrastructure of our economy “by reducing emissions through developing renewable fuel sources or boosting efficiency”. It’s when serious people seem to be channeling their efforts into fringe movements that have little hope of actually achieving anything that I get depressed…

  10. “It€™s another thing altogether to sell them the idea that we might actually have to change the way we live.” (Dan)

    “Government won€™t make these changes unless it is convinced that they are palatable to a fair proportion of the electorate.” (Tarquin)

    Governments are in it for the hard sell. If politics is the art of the possible, you won’t find out whether something is possible until you try. It’s the job of the party in government to change people’s minds.

    Pressure groups can work in two ways: Working to push their agenda inside government, putting pressure on the government to sell ideas to the electorate; or pushing their agenda with the electorate to put pressure on the government. It’s very difficult to do both… Geldof and Bono praised the G8 leaders when the agreements fell far short of what their supporters wanted. But if they denounce the compromise they become marginalised: voices in the wilderness. It has to better to be closer to the machinery of power whilst you have a chance of making any significant difference.

    So, Dan, how do we change the way people live? We have to persuade the government to lead, rather than follow. To set the agenda and put the arguments, rather than letting polls or focus groups set it for them. Of course, to do so without alienating the electorate means listening to a diverse range of arguments (focus groups have their place). And bringing people with you make make it a frustratingly slow process (don’t expect everything to be delivered within one parliament).

    It’s easy for a party that has never had real power to tempt voters with a menu of desirable but unattainable goals. But even within that part of the political debate that concerns green issues there are conflicting priorities. How can single issue groups hope resolve these? Why should a party which won’t ever be in power worry about being held to account for their incoherent agenda? Parties that win power have to have a larger constitutency, to hear arguments they don’t like, and to wear unpalatable compromises on occassion. That’s the price you have to pay for being able to make actual change.

    And that’s not to marginalise serious contributions individuals can make. I love the emissions offset scheme. And we do need individuals and companies to change the infrastructure of our economy “by reducing emissions through developing renewable fuel sources or boosting efficiency”. It’s when serious people seem to be channeling their efforts into fringe movements that have little hope of actually achieving anything that I get depressed…

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