As I glance back across the trajectory of this blog over the last ten and a half years, one change stands out. When I began blogging in May of 2006, peak oil—the imminent peaking of global production of conventional petroleum, to unpack that gnomic phrase a little—was the central theme of a large, vocal, and tolerably well organized movement. It had its own visible advocacy organizations, it had national and international conferences, it had a small but noticeable presence in the political sphere, and it showed every sign of making its presence felt in the broader conversation of our time.
Today none of that is true. Of the three major peak oil organizations in the US, ASPO-USA—that’s the US branch of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, for those who don’t happen to be fluent in acronym—is apparently moribund; Post Carbon Institute, while it still plays a helpful role from time to time as a platform for veteran peak oil researcher Richard Heinberg, has otherwise largely abandoned its former peak oil focus in favor of generic liberal environmentalism; and the US branch of the Transition organization, formerly the Transition Town movement, is spinning its wheels in a rut laid down years back. The conferences ASPO-USA once hosted in Washington DC, with congresscritters in attendance, stopped years ago, and an attempt to host a national conference in southern Pennsylvania fizzled after three years and will apparently not be restarted.
Ten years ago, for that matter, opinion blogs and news aggregators with a peak oil theme were all over the internet. Today that’s no longer the case, either. The fate of the two most influential peak oil sites, The Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin, is indicative. The Oil Drum simply folded, leaving its existing pages up as a legacy of a departed era. Energy Bulletin, for its part, was taken over by Post Carbon Institute and given a new name and theme as Resilience.org. It then followed PCI in its drift toward the already overcrowded environmental mainstream, replacing the detailed assessment of energy futures that was the staple fare of Energy Bulletin with the sort of uncritical enthusiasm for an assortment of vaguely green causes more typical of the pages of Yes! Magazine.
There are still some peak oil sites soldiering away—notably Peak Oil Barrel, under the direction of former Oil Drum regular Ron Patterson. There are also a handful of public figures still trying to keep the concept in circulation, with the aforementioned Richard Heinberg arguably first among them. Aside from those few, though, what was once a significant movement is for all practical purposes dead. The question that deserves asking is simple enough: what happened?
One obvious answer is that the peak oil movement was the victim of its own failed predictions. It’s true, to be sure, that failed predictions were a commonplace of the peak oil scene. It wasn’t just the overenthusiastic promoters of alternative energy technologies, who year after year insisted that the next twelve months would see their pet technology leap out of its current obscurity to make petroleum a fading memory; it wasn’t just their exact equivalents, the overenthusiastic promoters of apocalyptic predictions, who year after year insisted that the next twelve months would see the collapse of the global economy, the outbreak of World War III, the imposition of a genocidal police state, or whatever other sudden cataclysm happened to have seized their fancy.
No, the problem with failed predictions ran straight through the movement, even—or especially—in its more serious manifestations. The standard model of the future accepted through most of the peak oil scene started from a set of inescapable facts and an unexamined assumption, and the combination of those things produced consistently false predictions. The inescapable facts were that the Earth is finite, that it contains a finite supply of petroleum, and that various lines of evidence showed conclusively that global production of conventional petroleum was approaching its peak for hard geological reasons, and could no longer keep increasing thereafter.
The unexamined assumption was that geological realities rather than economic forces would govern how fast the remaining reserves of conventional petroleum would be extracted. On that basis, most people in the peak oil movement assumed that as production peaked and began to decline, the price of petroleum would rise rapidly, placing an increasingly obvious burden on the global economy. The optimists in the movement argued that this, in turn, would force nations around the world to recognize what was going on and make the transition to other energy sources, and to the massive conservation programs that would be needed to deal with the gap between the cheap abundant energy that petroleum used to provide and the more expensive and less abundant energy available from other sources. The pessimists, for their part, argued that it was already too late for such a transition, and that industrial civilization would come apart at the seams.
As it turned out, though, the unexamined assumption was wrong. Geological realities imposed, and continue to impose, upper limits on global petroleum production, but economic forces have determined how much less than those upper limits would actually be produced. What happened, as a result, is that when oil prices spiked in 2007 and 2008, and then again in 2014 and 2015, consumers cut back on their use of petroleum products, while producers hurried to bring marginal petroleum sources such as tar sands and oil shales into production to take advantage of the high prices. Both those steps drove prices back down. Low prices, in turn, encouraged consumers to use more petroleum products, and forced producers to shut down marginal sources that couldn’t turn a profit when oil was less than $80 a barrel; both these steps, in turn, sent prices back up.
That doesn’t mean that peak oil has gone away. As oilmen like to say, depletion never sleeps; each time the world passes through the cycle just described, the global economy takes another body blow, and the marginal petroleum sources cost much more to extract and process than the light sweet crude on which the oil industry used to rely. The result, though, is that instead of a sudden upward zoom in prices that couldn’t be ignored, we’ve gotten wild swings in commodity prices, political and social turmoil, and a global economy stuck in creeping dysfunction that stubbornly refuses to behave the way it did when petroleum was still cheap and abundant. The peak oil movement wasn’t prepared for that future.
Granting all this, failed predictions aren’t enough by themselves to stop a movement in its tracks. Here in the United States, especially, we’ve got an astonishing tolerance for predictive idiocy. The economists who insisted that neoliberal policies would surely bring prosperity, for example, haven’t been laughed into obscurity by the mere fact that they were dead wrong; au contraire, they’re still drawing their paychecks and being taken seriously by politicians and the media. The pundits who insisted at the top of their lungs that Britain wouldn’t vote for Brexit and Donald Trump couldn’t possibly win the US presidency are still being taken seriously, too. Nor, to move closer to the activist fringes, has the climate change movement been badly hurt by the embarrassingly linear models of imminent doom it used to deploy with such abandon; the climate change movement is in deep trouble, granted, but its failure has other causes.
It was the indirect impacts of those failed predictions, rather, that helped run the peak oil movement into the ground. The most important of these, to my mind, was the way that those predictions encouraged people in the movement to put their faith in the notion that sometime very soon, governments and businesses would have to take peak oil seriously. That’s what inspired ASPO-USA, for example, to set up a lobbying office in Washington DC with a paid executive director, when the long-term funding for such a project hadn’t yet been secured. On another plane, that’s what undergirded the entire strategy of the Transition Town movement in its original incarnation: get plans drawn up and officially accepted by as many town governments as possible, so that once the arrival of peak oil becomes impossible to ignore, the plan for what to do about it would already be in place.
Of course the difficulty in both cases was that the glorious day of public recognition never arrived. The movement assumed that events would prove its case in the eyes of the general public and the political system alike, and so made no realistic plans about what to do if that didn’t happen. When it didn’t happen, in turn, the movement was left twisting in the wind.
The conviction that politicians, pundits, and the public would be forced by events to acknowledge the truth about peak oil had other consequences that helped hamstring the movement. Outreach to the vast majority that wasn’t yet on board the peak oil bandwagon, for example, got far too little attention or funding. Early on in the movement, several books meant for general audiences—James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency and Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over are arguably the best examples—helped lay the foundations for a more effective outreach program, but the organized followup that might have built on those foundations never really happened. Waiting on events took the place of shaping events, and that’s almost always a guarantee of failure.
One particular form of waiting on events that took a particularly steep toll on the movement was its attempts to get funding from wealthy donors. I’ve been told that Post Carbon Institute got itself funded in this way, while as far as I know, ASPO-USA never did. Win or lose, though, begging for scraps at the tables of the rich is a sucker’s game. In social change as in every other aspect of life, who pays the piper calls the tune, and the rich—who benefit more than anyone else from business as usual—can be counted on to defend their interest by funding only those activities that don’t seriously threaten the continuation of business as usual. Successful movements for social change start by taking effective action with the resources they can muster by themselves, and build their own funding base by attracting people who believe in their mission strongly enough to help pay for it.
There were other reasons why the peak oil movement failed, of course. To its credit, it managed to avoid two of the factors that ran the climate change movement into the ground, as detailed in the essay linked above—it never became a partisan issue, mostly because no political party in the US was willing to touch it with a ten foot pole, and the purity politics that insists that supporters of one cause are only acceptable in its ranks if they also subscribe to a laundry list of other causes never really got a foothold outside of certain limited circles. Piggybacking—the flipside of purity politics, which demands that no movement be allowed to solve one problem without solving every other problem as well—was more of a problem, and so, in a big way, was pandering to the privileged—I long ago lost track of the number of times I heard people in the peak oil scene insist that this or that high-end technology, which was only affordable by the well-to-do, was a meaningful response to the coming of peak oil.
There are doubtless other reasons as well; it’s a feature of all things human that failure is usually overdetermined. At this point, though, I’d like to set that aside for a moment and consider two other points. The first is that the movement didn’t have to fail the way it did. The second is that it could still be revived and gotten back on a more productive track.
To begin with, not everyone in the peak oil scene bought into the unexamined assumption I’ve critiqued above. Well before the movement started running itself into the ground, some of us pointed out that economic factors were going to have a massive impact on the rates of petroleum production and consumption—my first essay on that theme appeared here in April of 2007, and I was far from the first person to notice it. The movement by that time was so invested in its own predictions, with their apparent promise of public recognition and funding, that those concerns didn’t have an impact at the time. Even when the stratospheric oil price spike of 2008 was followed by a bust, though, peak oil organizations by and large don’t seem to have reconsidered their strategies. A mid-course correction at that point, wrenching though it might have been, could have kept the movement alive.
There were also plenty of good examples of effective movements for social change from which useful lessons could have been drawn. One difficulty is that you won’t find such examples in today’s liberal environmental mainstream, which for all practical purposes hasn’t won a battle since Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act. The struggle for the right to same-sex marriage, as I’ve noted before, is quite another matter—a grassroots movement that, despite sparse funding and strenuous opposition, played a long game extremely well and achieved its goal. There are other such examples, on both sides of today’s partisan divide, from which useful lessons can be drawn. Pay attention to how movements for change succeed and how they fail, and it’s not hard to figure out how to play the game effectively. That could have been done at any point in the history of the peak oil movement. It could still be done now.
Like same-sex marriage, after all, peak oil isn’t inherently a partisan issue. Like same-sex marriage, it offers plenty of room for compromise and coalition-building. Like same-sex marriage, it’s a single issue, not a fossilized total worldview like those that play so large and dysfunctional a role in today’s political nonconversations. A peak oil movement that placed itself squarely in the abandoned center of contemporary politics, played both sides against each other, and kept its eyes squarely on the prize—educating politicians and the public about the reality of finite fossil fuel reserves, and pushing for projects that will mitigate the cascading environmental and economic impacts of peak oil—could do a great deal to reshape our collective narrative about energy and, in the process, accomplish quite a bit to make the long road down from peak oil less brutal than it will otherwise be.
I’m sorry to say that the phrase “peak oil,” familiar and convenient as it is, probably has to go. The failures of the movement that coalesced around that phrase were serious and visible enough that some new moniker will be needed for the time being, to avoid being tarred with a well-used brush. The crucial concept of net energy—the energy a given resource provides once you subtract the energy needed to extract, process, and use it—would have to be central to the first rounds of education and publicity; since it’s precisely equivalent to profit, a concept most people grasp quickly enough, that’s not necessarily a hard thing to accomplish, but it has to be done, because it’s when the concept of net energy is solidly understood that such absurdities as commercial fusion power appear in their true light.
It probably has to be said up front that no such project will keep the end of the industrial age from being an ugly mess. That’s already baked into the cake at this point; what were once problems to be solved have become predicaments that we can, at best, only mitigate. Nor could a project of the sort I’ve very roughly sketched out here expect any kind of overnight success. It would have to play a long game in an era when time is running decidedly short. Challenging? You bet—but I think it’s a possibility worth serious consideration.
In other news, I’m delighted to announce the appearance of two books that will be of interest to readers of this blog. The first is Dmitry Orlov’s latest, Shrinking the Technosphere: Getting a Grip on the Technologies that Limit Our Autonomy, Self-Sufficiency, and Freedom. It’s a trenchant and thoughtful analysis of the gap between the fantasies of human betterment through technological progress and the antihuman mess that’s resulted from the pursuit of those fantasies, and belongs on the same shelf as Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society and my After Progress: Religion and Reason in the Twilight of the Industrial Age. Copies hot off the press can be ordered from New Society here.