The Psychology of Peak Oil? Some thoughts and some questions...

In yesterday's post, I made the point that dropping one of those really complex, scary primers on peak oil into people's email boxes is like throwing a flaming bag of dog pooh at their door and then running away: it's just not very nice (and true, neither was the metaphor...).

But, how else can you tell people about the evidence of peak oil?

As I said in the Monday Conversation, for most people, prima facie, the big idea of peak oil is so complex that it's just hard to get a handle on...which means that most people put it on the shelf in their heads because of their perceived lack of efficacy in the matter: "if this is true, there's nothing I can do about it. if it isn't true, it's a waste of time. Ergo, I ain't gonna think about it." Sad, but true.

I think another thing that's at work here is that, when one first sits down with these notions, one cannot help but think back through the many charlatans and wrongseers of recent history. Let's be honest, at first glance, "peak oil" screams of tilting at windmills and a y2k redux.

"'s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine..."

That is, until you actually sit down and think this through...

(I think the first thing you have to get through your own head, and then through the heads of others, are the notions of oil as a finite resource, and the basics of supply and demand. Even that is tough for many to grasp, but it's kinda the basics of the basics, isn't it?)

But, then, actually telling others about a series of events that are so dystopic is even tougher...on the teller, because they don't want to look like a fool or be considered "stupid" and on the tellee, because they don't want to hear this stuff. They'd rather be happy. They don't really WANT to know.

It's hard to make the public aware when they don't want to listen...and that's true of most advocates of most causes, green or otherwise. Change is hard. Doing something about something is even harder.

Most of the time, in my experience, even when you do start telling people about this causally, you get at least the "deer in the headlights" look, if not the "unsubtle subject change," or I've even gotten the "are you fucking nuts?"

You can't force people to listen, you can't just keep talking. They just tune you out. So, does that mean that you can only talk to smart people who are open-minded about this? If so, that means we're down to, oh, 5% of the population.

Another tack, is there a good way to tell people about this? or do people have to go through the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief before they get to where they can work with this? (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance).

Can anything we do in presenting this to others get around this psychological process?

Or is there something different between thinking on peak oil and grief that makes it cut differently or even deeper (grieving for the world, grieving for your hummer, grieving for your lifestyle?)?

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I don't know. I have found that the main thing you have to do is preface your explanation with these words "We are not running out of oil"

If you start with that phrase, they will listen to you. Then you tell them that what we are talking about is a maximum RATE of extraction. And since we can only use it as fast as we bring it up, this presents a problem when so many people throughout the world are competing for it.

I don't really see that as a particularly difficult concept, and most of the people I talk to seem to understand it unless they have ideological blinders.

I explain Peak Oil to my wife and friends from an personal finance point of view. How will our purchase and investment decisions change if we get a situation like the 1970's oil shortage? (which I lived through) What is your next car like? Will SUV used-car values sink like a rock? Will GM go bankrupt? During the 1970's crisis, I recall Chrysler asking the Federal Government for an emergency loan and stating that every new car model will be a small one.

So I suppose my approach is to appear as a prophet, describing events that commonsense says should happen if oil gets continually more scarce.

Might two general themes here be epistemology and psychology of peak oil?

In terms of psychology, when I hear of Kubler-Ross on denial etc., part of my instinctive reaction is "modern day folk theory." That is, while naming the activities of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance is certainly useful, it might be a bit heavy-handed to assert (and repeat) that these have to occur in "stages." The prickly scientist in me believes one cannot be too careful in distinguishing what one can know and cannot know. I believe we can know more about oil-production-phenomenal directly than whether or not Kubler-Ross is right about "stages."

In a similar vein, part of a "y2k" reference or smear might involve concern that, particularly when fears can be excited, belief systems or belief communities can become self-referential. It might be useful to take up such arguments related to skepticism not in general, but in particular. That is, in this arena or any other we are not going to solve general questions related to epistemology or "knowing." But we can keep our questions and responses grounded.

The above comment by sw provides one example of keeping discussion grounded. "RATEs of extraction" are tied to oil field physics and not something we can wish or define our way around -- certainly not in the short term.

Another way to keep things grounded is to focus on the extent to which the reporting of "reserves" has been affected over time by economic incentives and political incentives. Part of the rude awakening here, I currently believe, involves finding that the incentives have been set up as if to hide a shock until it is too late.

Get around the psychological processes by giving people a "rock to jump to", give them alternatives. If this means big changes in life style then: WHAT ARE THEY? HOW DOES ONE GO ABOUT DOING THEM? HOW LONG WILL THEY LAST, ETC. This gives people hope. The churches have been doing this for thousands of years with fairy tales about other worlds. However, we're realists and we need real world solutions/programs/information for the peak oil problem.

Mark - fairy tales is one way to put it, but I would add that our current culture carries around alot of active myths, perhaps no less absurd than Appollo and Zeus.

Such as, we can have infinite growth with no consequences. Or, the consequences can always be set safely at the feet of the next generation.

But to address the overall question -

I've been talked to a number of "smart" people about this over the last 3 years and I get two really common responses - (I guess, in the form of denial)

technology will save us;
the theory may be right, but we have plenty of oil for the next 5 years. (Always a figure of at least five years.)

Lately, when I talk about peak oil the segue is simple - gas prices - and many people tune me out, but some want to know more.

It really is tough going; a topic people hate right off, because it seems to contradict everything we have built and lived for.

Only the oldest among us remember horses as transportation.

Hi there!

When I started getting serious about peak oil (circa 2002), I went to see a professor (of energy resources) in the university of my city. I am a journalist (sort of), so I had it easy. As nobody would buy me a story about peak oil at that time (well, I wrote a very good one for a men's lifestyle magazine, one of those with scantily clad women on the cover, that was 2002 and I put pictures of Simmons, Campbell, Bakthiari et al!), I decided to do something on my own, and he gave me an advice that it has worked well (although won't work with everybody you speak): expose the facts and let them arrive to their own consequences, don’t jump on it.

Also, I recently read an interview to an old journalist, he said something like "the worst the news, the more sweet must be the headlines".

Those advices work when there's plenty of time and you do an "ant work", little by little, raising awareness, but I must confess that I am being literally overwhelmed by how fast things are running. The day I almost shit my pants? When I heard of the IEA “Saving oil in a hurry” report. Either those guys are trying to reverse their always optimist stance to avoid being blamed of incompetence when things start to get really thought, or things are about to be real thought soon!

Anyway, things are going as planned, back to nuclear power (although there are many reasons this is the wrong move), more drilling where possible, and a boost to unconventional production (although higher conventional oil prices are already making less profitable production of unconventional oil, like Canadian tar sands, whose production costs are 125% up from last year).

As we say in Spanish, “apriétense los cinturones, que vienen curvas”! (buckle up, twisty road ahead!)

BTW, my sincere congratulations for the authors of this site, it's in my fav list now!

In the "50, 100 & 150 Years Ago" of May's Scientific American: May 1905 [you need to subscribe to get a link], they discuss the reaction to those that spoke of running out of coal. They were, I assume, wrong that coal would run out anytime soon, but it made me think of peak oil. It seems that the idea of peak oil must be an expression of a more general truth. If we could develope more, or any, historical paralells to peak oil theory, it might go a long way to getting a foot in the door of a broader debate

Well, there are several things happening concurrently with oil prices rising. The main problem is the reach of oil into every single thing we do. The result of increasing oil prices will be, at a minimum, a major recession. If you want to verify this, have a look at a graph of the DJIA vs Oil prices over the last 50 years.

We are also faced with a highly leveraged housing market, where real estate prices have risen by as much as 450% in some areas. ARM's and "Interest Only" mortgages have allowed families of very moderate means to own homes. A decade ago, they would not have qualified. Most families are also heavily leveraged with credit card debt. Due to these two factors, any increase in the prime has a very instant effect on consumer spending, hence the Fed trying to raise interest rates very slowly.

As the rising prices of everything made or transported with oil begin to filter into the economy, consumers will pull back on consumption, which is the biggest driver in the US economy:

Add in the problems at GM, AIG, etc. and you can easily see where there is potential for large job loss. This will eventually domino into the housing market, as people are forced to do something about the debts they cannot pay due to job loss, rising interest rates, falling dollar value, and increased consumer prices for EVERYTHING.

The real situation, when you look at it all, is a very scary mess. But oil prices are the first domino in the string.... My advice is to pick people who will listen, and address it in terms of how oil will shock the economy due to it's preponderance in everything we do or wear or eat. That is something they can understand.

This might help: And there is more good information there too.

the graph says it all.

I searched for "biodiesel" in this blog and found nothing. How can a discussion on the future of oil not include biodiesel?

Here is a question for the economists out there. As petroleum prices increase and biodiesel prices remain constant, the demand for vegetable oil as combustible will increase, demand for petroleum will decrease and, therefore, petroleum prices will stabilize. Has this equation been looked at by economists? What is the long term result? For example, can North American farms produce enough soy and rapeseed oil to reach equilibrium with petroleum supply?

Emmanuel M, in Canada
PS: biodiesel can be used with existing technology for transport, but also for electricity generation and home heating. It could in theory work for jet engine too but I have not read it has been tested successfully.

I got an email a minute ago - I am NOT a "Peak Oiler". I am a "Peak of CHEAP Oiler". We still have lots of oil, and lots in inventory even now. But we are quickly running out of the cheap oil, and this will drive up prices inevitably over the long haul. We are talking about over the next several years, not about the next few weeks. I am worried for my kids futures and where this might put us as a society in a few years.

Biodiesel - first thing you need to do is throw out any figures for biodiesel grown with petroleum fertilizer, if you are looking at the long term picture. Once you do this, I think you will find nothing has been written, unles Cuba has something. Everything we do in agriculture is predicated on petroleum-based fertilizers and insecticides. Even GM crops are modified so that they can tolerate high levels of weed killer rather than modified to be more prolific!

If you assume that our consumption remains as it is today, I would be willing to bet it would take most of the worlds croplands JUST FOR FUEL REPLACEMENT... So, what would we eat while we drive our bidiesel cars around?

One big question I have yet to find a number for is this: At what price does oil become uneconomical as a transportation fuel?

When will the airlines actually be forced to reduce flights due to economics? I think when we reach that point, things will change worldwide, and rapidly.

Wow, you kids have been busy.

Some very good stuff in this set of comments that I will let stand on its own...

(and prak's right, the graph's freakish!)

but I want to address Emmanuel's point:

I think I can speak for HO when I say that we encourage the deployment of all safe and sustainable alternative energy sources as soon as possible.

However, the reason you don't see a discussion in this blog by us, at least to this point in its development, on certain alternatives is best reflected a few points back, down in a post called the Monday Conversation.

Sources of energy such as biodiesel are great, but all of them need to be research and scaled in to the economy.

That will take a while.

The point is, any of these alternate sources are only going to be helpful if they are implemented and researched QUICKLY and enacted in a coordinated manner BEFORE our resources become expensive and change the society's priorities.

"If we wait too long to use what we resources we have to build the bridge to non-petroleum based economy, then we're pretty fucking stupid."

You're free to discuss which of the sources you think are the best, the pluses and minuses, and we encourage that...but our main concern is that nothing is scalable and nothing is ready for when oil prices potentially go through the roof right now.

To us, that's the siren that needs to be sounded.

Everything else is secondary until resources and public opinion are swayed towards consideration of such sources...know what I mean?

Can any learned scholars show me a single incident in history where a society succesfully negotiated resource depletion?

Or maybe something simpler - can anyone show me where a civilization willingly reduced it's energy consumption?

Please - somebody make a fool out of me....

Wouldn't Diamond would say something like: "we're just not that smart."

I know you guys will probably giggle, but I do think going back to the 55 MPH limit would be a great first step. And much of the driving public has either done it before or been told of it.....

My 4x4 gets 17 mpg driving 80-90 here on Houston freeways. By getting into the right lane and going around 60, I get 20 mpg.

By adding 3 oz acetone to 10 gallons of my gas and staying around 60 MPH, I am getting about 25 mpg.

Since I must drive 80 miles a day starting at 5am and no buses run then, I am trying my daughters 1974 VW Beetle next week and see what it does.

But if you look around, excluding the hybrids, there just aren't too many cars which get decent mileage numbers, and certainly none built by american companies. Why do it? Well, my gas bill is around $300/month just for my commute if I do nothing. And I feel like I am doing, well, SOMETHING....

There's three kinds of people in my audiences -- idiots, changelings, and troopers.

Idiots can't be reached. Ignore them.

Changelings are those in the intellectual and emotional process of accepting that Industrial Civilization, based on petroleum, is a goner. It's a big adjustment. Takes time, takes study, takes discussion. They'll talk your leg off. Don't do it. Get them to talk to each other.

Spend your time on the troopers. These are the people who have done their homework, accepted the reality of civilization's coming collapse, and want to discuss, and do, real things about it. There's damn few troopers around.