All of this press coverage doesn't mean all that much (or, the tragedy of the commons revisited...)

< soapbox >

All of this MSM coverage of "peak oil" we've seen over the past couple of days should not make us feel better, even though the Peak Oil series over in Kevin Drum's world is pretty good.

Sure, information is getting out there...and that IS a good thing. But, it's been out there for a while for those who want to hear about it or are open to the ideas therein.

So, it seems to me that, if anything, this should awaken this generation of the peak oil community to the fact that now, we have to start thinking about the inevitable next phase: policymaking and political involvement.

I can hear some of you saying something to the effect of "oh lordy, there he goes again." No, that's not my point.

My point is, well, isn't it true that this coverage does nothing but throw a little manure on the ground that prepares the field for the planting of the ideas? Salience is a wonderful thing, but it must be maintained for political pressure to bring change, especially in our politics.

So, the question is whether or not we actually put in the time to grow the crops so we can eat this winter...that's the other story.

What the peak oil community will have to come to understand is that behaviors and attitudes must change en masse in order to apply the requisite political pressure for the consequences of peak oil to be ameliorated at all.

Another thing to remember, there's so many pieces to the puzzle. Remember Matt Savinar's little list of things that have to come together sooner rather than later...(yes, it's a little over the top, but it captures the essence of cooperation and political action that is required...)

1. A few dozen technological breakthroughs,
2. Unprecedented political will and bipartisan cooperation,
3. Tremendous international collaboration,
4. Massive amounts of investment capital,
5. Fundamental reforms to the structure of the international banking
6. No interference from the oil-and-gas industries,
7. About 25-50 years of general peace and prosperity to retrofit the world's $45 trillion dollar per year economy, including transportation and telecommunications networks, manufacturing industries, agricultural systems, universities, hospitals, etc., to run on these new sources of energy,
8. A generation of engineers, scientists, and economists trained to run a global economy powered by new sources of energy.

So, yes, the coverage is nice, but we have to keep our eyes on the prize here. That's my main point.

I also wanted to bring back to your mind the idea of the "tragedy of the commons." This idea contains the ideas of cooperation, etc., that have to occur for this whole thing to work out, at least to my mind.

The commons is the idea that public goods (available resources initially not owned by anyone, existing prior to the state), when they are used by individuals, those individuals do not bear the entire cost of their actions.

Instead, individuals (are conditioned to?) maximize their utility; which means that the best (non-cooperative) short-term strategy for individuals is to try to exploit more than their share of public resources. Meaning that this resource gets used up and benefits only those who hoard that resource.

In political science (and economics), we call those folks "free riders." The more of them there are, the more tragic/unequal the problem of the common resource will become.

The catch is that, by pure rationality, every actor should be a free rider unless they are constrained by some force, whether coercion or social identity, to do otherwise.

For instance, take the person who is 72, but doesn't contribute a dime to AARP. That person still benefits from the lobbying efforts of AARP for prescription drug reform, but they didn't help out the lobbying effort at all. Why? There was no benefit to them for doing so. They didn't deem the cheaper insurance, the calendar for the fridge, or the psychological perk of joining and making a difference, to be enough of a benefit to overcome their ability to skate by without paying.

What people forget is that it is completely rational for seniors to free ride from the AARP...just as it is rational for us to not want to pay an energy tax at the pump in order to expand our energy alternatives through research and development, or redistributing resources to assuring a soft landing.

The use of natural resources is not so different than the AARP perks, though there are a few caveats that are needed to make the two scenarios gibe.

The only solutions that truly solve the tragedy of the commons are either government control over the resources or involvement or a sense of shared purpose and identity that overcomes the sheer rationality of exploiting every resource at your fingertips.

The former requires government power. The latter requires the decisionmakers being on the same page.

This is the problem with governance of the commons, one solution restricts freedom by definition, the other comes from a sense of connection and community that has formed over generations, and usually only forms in smaller ecological units, such as tribes and families.

Assuming a majority of individuals follow the free rider strategy, the theory goes, the public resource gets overexploited and the collective bears much of the cost in one way or another, sooner or later. The problem is particularly important and troublesome when considering goods or resources to which access cannot be excluded or the market controls.

And that folks, it seems to me is the road we must go down in order to solve this situation for the betterment of our society. Taxes are almost inevitable, demand destruction as well.

So, news stories are nice, but changes in attitudes and behaviors in the public realm are the only thing that's going to soften the blow.

Talk to a friend. Call your congressperson. Call your senator. Call your state representative. Call your state senator. Seriously. I'm going to call a couple of them today where I live.

Sure, they may have no idea what you're talking about. They may think you're a freak. But only with an educated public outcry and changes in attitudes and behaviors while we have the resources to make a difference will a difference actually be made.

< / soapbox >

Edited to add: For all of you folks that are new to these ideas, a cute but informative set of powerpoints can be found here. (Thanks SB!)

Go to the postings for today

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This is a good post, but is a bit over the top, as is the original post by Matt Savinar, whch by the ways starts with: "Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon."

I tend to agree with the broad hypothesis of peak oil and think the detractors are putting too much stake in blind faith in technology and economics. My feeling is that we will adjust, but there could be rough sopts, and some possibly very rough.

But markets and people are complex and adjustments usually smoother then doomsday predictions. We are now close to developing a broad range of technologies (and non-technology solutions) that can gradually become substitutes and prolong the peak. Humans can adjust quickly and generations of scientists and a complete reworking of the international financial structure are completely unnecessary.

If you really want to get this message out, fall back on the very convincing data on supply and demand levels. People are aware the slogan "The end is near" has a very bad track record.

perhaps it is a bit over the top (and I agree that Savinar can be quite over the top, but I agree on the basic premise that we need a confluence of events to come together to avoid drastic changes to our society...).

I'm just of the opinion that while humanity is robust, it hasn't faced a "downslope condition" like this before, where the key resource supply shrinks.

Combine that with geopolitical conditions, and it drives my call to action to fix this now while we have the resources, instead of waiting until our capacity is even more limited.

Societies do not regress well or peacefully...

There is something interesting at

[What the Financial Times has admitted here is that oil arbitrage players have helped to drive the price of jet fuel through the roof. This has resulted in one major collapse in Southeast Asia and has only worsened the problems of United Airlines (which recently took away its employee pensions), Air France/KLM, and many other airlines. The Flat Earth economists argue that free markets will ameliorate Peak Oil. Here we have a perfect demonstration of the ways complex societies begin to collapse and proof that those economists are wrong.

Think of the ramifications if world air carriers start to fail; if FedEx's aren't flying and DHL's aren't delivered? Think of the ramifications if they cost five times as much as they do now. Think of the ramifications if a seat on an airliner or the freight for air cargo cost five times as much. A major airline fails and hundreds of downstream businesses are affected. Unemployment rises. Demand shrinks a bit.

And yet the United States is in one of the biggest road building and airport expansion frenzies in recent history. Why? The oil's running out. Cui bono? - MCR]

Have you seen this new Canadian Power Point?

For newbies. Really well done.

--step back

I moved the link out to the end of this blog post. Cute and informative. :) Thanks SB.

Well, the information is out there. But it is unresolved. It is still a "two competing schools of thought" argument. And that is where it will stand. Inertia is on the side of the economists who argue that the market will take care of things. As a society we really only react to crisis. As long as it is humanly possible to believe that increased investment will lead to increased supply and we will all live happily ever after, that will be the default conventional wisdom. Therefore, for the long term good, the sooner we have a real crisis where supply is unable to meet demand, the better off we will be. The more impossible it will be to believe that we can get by without major changes in the way we have been living.

The reason I am inclined to accept the more dire scenarios is that to avoid them would require more than a faith in the invisible hand of the market. These days, anything resembling governmental economic planning and the political pain that rational planning would take, obviates anything resembling solutions that have a chance to succeed.

Neo-liberal ideology around markets will assure that necessary changes will not be taken until we are in a serioius trouble. And then it will be too late.

Just reading the comments over at, it is apparent to me that it won't happen. We are in for a lot of pain.

I agree that activism is the order of the day; but there are too many "Morning in America" types to allow for real solutions. The geology of oil is indifferent to whether one is a conservative or a liberal.

As I see it, this whole notion of getting the word out to the mainstream is critical. Right now, we have a three-way division of the populace: The peak oil adherents, the peak oil deniers, and those completely ignorant of peak oil. I don't have any hard data, but my guess is that the last group is by far the largest in the US.

A lot of people I know are so busy that they barely have time to catch a few minutes of network news or skim the local newspaper. Their time online is almost exclusively e-mail, plus a little shopping. They know nothing about peak oil simply because they've never heard of it, or if they have heard of it, they've assumed it's just the delusions of another bunch of crazy people, like those nutjobs who said Y2K would be the end of the world. (I've had to deal with this reaction more than a few times thanks to my web site, even though I take a much more centrist view than most.)

Our job is to break through that barrier of ignorance. I am absolutely convinced that nothing we can do at this stage, literally not one single thing, is even approximately as important as getting the word out.

Yes, influencing policymakers to do the right thing is very important, but until we have a mass of voters behind us, politicians won't listen. First we get the voters, then we get the politicians by the short hairs, then we get the policies we need.

yeah, but Lou, don't we have to at least think about/discuss plans of action?

these waves of public opinion must be caught and ridden by politicians in position to ride them...and that only happens in special sets of circumstances come together...(this ain't it...).

This is the typical problem of movement politics. Large changes are needed to those who perceive them, but the perceptions of government can be/are quite different.

The global political order is driven by Mr. "Greedy Hand". He is Adam Smith's so-called invisible friend. It's time to shine the spotlight on this self-centered, short-term minded fellow.

Greedy Hand lives by a few simple rules:

1. Will I (the center of the Universe) be better of at the end of this fiscal Quarter than I was last Quarter?

2. How do I maximize my personal return on investments?

3. As to all the so-called "problems" of the world like Global Warming, Peak Oil (from the fruitcakes), Aquifer water depletion, yadah, yadah: The MARKET will provide !!! It always has. It always will.

4. If that does not work, God will provide. Surely he, in his glorious compassion (conservative as it might be) will not let humanity die off.

5. That failing, technology will save us. Why if we can put a man on the moon, we can do anything! Just get a bunch of sliderule pushing nerds to run some equations and solve the problem.

6. That failing, I got mine. The hell with everyone else. Nuke 'em.


Unplanning has some peak oilthoughts for this Memorial Day

Maybe this can shed a little more light on things. Of particular interest is the market already taking depletion into account long term, and the run-up in yellowcake.

This article is well worth the short read....IMO. And there are lots more people out there figuring out that it is actually our government doing this to us - Mogambo over at Daily Reckoning is having fits too.

If we actually had investigative reporting in this country (anyone for pulling the plug at Lexus/Nexus? grin) much of this would have already come out. But we have too few sources for news, they are too aligned with government interests, and most of their "reporters" are sissies or just plain stupid.

But the above is a good read...

I am personally pessimistic that we are in time to do anything to save industrial civilization as we know it - Matt Savinar's list is fairly accurate, and frankly, nearly impossible to achieve, particularly as long as Bushco remains in power and the American people think that his solutions are anywhere near accurate.

All the press coverage does serve one useful function though - when things start to go downhill, people won't have the excuse of not knowing what is going on and not having been warned ahead of time - they've been told, and most respond by ignoring the problem.

OT - but important...

Energy Bulletin has this:

Anyone care to speculate what trading their dollar holdings for oil reserves or future production quota guarantees might do to the dollar?

I made a new post above this one out there for the EB article, J et al...

*sigh* yet another call for an economist... *snicker*

Why ExxonMobil will wait for a crisis...

They are very right - at todays oil prices, it is dumb. But the fact that they KNOW oil will rise, that they have minimal prospects, that solar and wind WILL BE economical tells me that they are just waiting to suck the government teat to get into another energy avenue, to defray their startup costs. IMO...

The real story on the last few months of bond sales....

I linked to the actual US Treas site last time, but this is a synopsis. Our government is buying OUR OWN DEBT with freshly printed money from the FedReserve...China and the rest are finished supporting us willy-nilly.

What does this mean?

The glass is half full. SUV sales are down, but not out. Hybrid sales are up, but many still think they will remain a niche market.

Actually, the most recent market trends are running in favor of energy efficiency and conservation. If they continue for another decade, it's all good.

The amusing subtext, I think, is that people who made the "economist's" argument that price would sort things out ... didn't really expect it to start last year!

When I think of the efficacy of peak oil activism, I am tempted to think of the environmental movement that gave us the clean water and clean air acts. I was a wee lad at the time, but I can vividly recall the pictures of Pittsburg in soot and of course The Crying Indian. For me as a child pollution is everywhere apparent, and my connection to it (like throwing trach out where Crying Indians might see) was pretty easy to understand. Even now, in So. Cal. we see the smog everyday while on the freeway and are reminded of the connection and of the need for activism. Peak oil, on the other hand, is relatively hard for people to see, and unless gasoline goes up really high, I suspect it will be for some time to come. I suspect people are aware of the problems of oil, but they don't really get the peak oil scenario, and why should they? Uncle Cheney says it is just as matter of deregulating domestic production in places like ANWAR. Many people believe him, after all, isn't he "from" the oil bidness?

You guys probably read the same stuff I do, but this one shows people are responding:

"Michaels failed to do his research. It turns out that for at least ten straight months in 2003 the Prius was indeed the fastest selling car in America, which J.D. Powers defined as the car that spends the shortest amount of time on a dealer’s lot before being sold – in other words, they sell incredibly fast. And that is still true – in fact, the latest data show the average time spent on a car lot for hybrids in early 2005 was 16 days; for gasoline cars the average was 65 days. The vast majority of Prius’s don’t even make it to the lot – they are sold before the delivery truck even arrives at the dealers."


First, thanks for the traffic...!

I certainly hear what you're saying, and wasn't implying that mainstream media coverage was going to save the day, but I tend to agree with Lou's position above: we've got to get the word out.

I'll be honest, though -- I don't know that calling your senator/congressperson/state rep. is the most effective action at this point, as politicians tend to steer away from emerging ideas (notice I didn't say "new") and stick with those that have a solid, organized constituency behind them, even to their own detriment (think of the Democrats in the last three national elections...). I think odograph's onto something when he points to the rise in sales of the Prius. We don't have to buy the "invisible hand" theory of the market -- we can (and should) view markets as tools for achieving goals (as Paul Hawken suggests in The Ecology of Commerce). And I can't think of a better way to influence markets from our own meagre positions than to "spread the word."

A hastily-dashed-off two cents... I look forward to your reply

The only response I get from my congresscritters regading my attempts to enlighten them about Peak Oil is "yes, I'm concerned that folks are paying too much for gas," or other such canned crap. I even try to get the attention of the staffer who'll read my letter first. But since I've let them know they're on my hitlist for supporting the war and Imperial expansion, I'm surprised I get the form letter reply at all.

About the corporate media's sudden rush to talk about Peak Oil, I suspect it will have to do with yet another rationale by the war house for their Iraq crimes and those to be visited on Iran and elsewhere. It must be recalled that NO corporate media outlet is anti-Empire, although some may condem its excesses when they can no longer be hidden.

As for the commons, as soon as the idea of private property was adopted, the commons were doomed--history is very clear about that. The term privitization is the current euphemism promoting the destruction of what few commons are left. The people of France understand this, which is why "Non!" won, and why Holland is likely to do the same. It's also why Seattle happened in 1999. The crisis generated by Peak Oil wouldn't be a crisis if the planet was treated as the Commons for ALL the world's people. But then all of previous history would be different, and I wouldn't be typing these words.


Talking of commons, here is whjat I found at

"My mother often told me that in California, unlike many places we had been, the public was guaranteed in the Constitution of the State of California to access to use the beaches at any time or place, and that they would never be privatized, restricted and exclusive as they are in many elitist parts of the world.

She was an old time Californian and proud of how the Constitution of our State protected the rights of ALL people to the beach, rather than serving an elite aristocracy like in so many horrible places where equal rights do not exist, elitists live above the law and the poor live lives tantamount to slavery. Her attitude and the attitude of Californians like her made this state a role model for the world to love.

Near the end of the 1970's we began to see beaches getting restricted and made off limits. Parking by the side of the road was becoming a crime everywhere. Park Rangers started carrying guns and acting like Gestapo rather than docents of a park. And admission to our parks and beaches had a price tag put on many of them (which gets heftier all the time and for what?)

Now in the 2000's the beaches are almost off limits, except to those with money to throw away. Largely people who don't work for a living but use money to make money, living off the backs of the working poor. In Santa Cruz, we recently had a Park Ranger shoot someone's pet dog because it was off a leash. A friend of mine temporarily homeless camping on the beach was rudely awaken by a Park Ranger who told her to get off HIS BEACH. That's what we are paying taxes and fee's for!

I consulted with a legal expert who informed me that while our spoon fed media was waving the flag and celebrating the 200th anniversary of our nation, the California Legislature quietly and with little fanfare altered the California Constitution removing the open access to beaches that had long been California's Heritage."

As a recently exiled native Californian, I became aware of the change through the Greens in Santa Cruz. Here in Oregon and still in Hawaii the public has title to the 100 year high tide line with reasonable access required.

In another activist group I'm a member of, our main point person informed us that the Wall Street Journal gained access to our group's supposedly confidential banking records, a felony under Federal law with additional repercussions under the Patriot Act. Our group is very active in trying to expose some very major securities fraud that deeply involves the whole financial edifice and amounts to trillions of dollars accumulated since 1980 when the laws were altered to allow such fraud to be winked at, which provides the motive for the WSJ's felonious act. For comparison, the gaming of Mutual Funds by some brokerage houses amounted to small potatoes. The system is so over leveraged, forcing proper resitution might even cause its collapse, not to mention major prison time for many million and billionaires whose current property is illgained. Some in Congress know this as do some in the business and investing communities. Hubris, greed and megalomaniac power all relate to accumulation of property, but only if that property can be kept private.

There's an old saying: Truth is stranger than fiction.

I'm a lurker who is has been educating myself on this subject for the past few months. One bit of action I've decided to do is incorporate this subject into a first-year class I teach on basic research methods.

Unfortunately, I'm not quite sure if this is above the heads of my students or not. As an English teacher by training, I find my needs quickly outstripping the one geology class I had as an undergraduate. I've seen the powerpoints and grinzo, but I'm wondering how to give my students enough of a platform for them to conduct their own self-education on this subject.

Any advice would be appreciated. I don't teach the class until spring semester.

willpax -

I can "nutshell" the petroleum end of it in simple terms for you, if you can tell me where you want to go with it. I used to teach "Intro to Petro"...

willpax: an undergrad methods course or grad? if undergrad, and you're looking for something to model, you're looking for something nomothetic that's cross sectional (time series is above their heads...)...ooh, that's tough.

if grad, many options abound...let me ponder.

Bugging your Congressman can help! I had talked to some staffers in my Congressman's office about peak oil and he went gave a series of special order speeches on the house floor about peak oil. :) :) :)

I have heard that calls and faxes are better than email and letters. They get a lot of emails via forms on the internet and they get ignored. Also, letters to the editor of your local paper mentioning the Congressman's name will get the attention of their office.



Re: research methods class

The class I have in mind is by no means an ideal place for this subject. Briefly, it is a first year undergraduate seminar in which we teach a group of students basic research methods, and they produce a brief (12-15 page) research paper as we hold their hands through the process. Thematically, the course is also about "informed citizenship" and applying research to real world problems in community and social policy.

What this really means is that I have maybe 5-8 class periods to set up an issue (while giving them basic research information along the way) and then they will narrow a topic and teach themselves some slice of the overall issue. I usually end with a pseudo-action segment, where they conduct debates, do mock town hall presentations, or write letters to relevant political leaders stemming out of their own research.

Topics tend to be broad and trendy--people have done poverty, education, religion in public life, and other "hot button" issues that encourage students to dig under the surface on some issue. I've had students tackle intellectual property, but felt that it was too challenging for the weaker students in the class (the stronger students were challenged but invigorated; the others were merely overwhelmed).

I thought some aspect of Peak Oil would be good. It is topical, it is timely, and it is one that they would presumably feel the need to learn more about. It is flexible enough to offer a variety of topics (different sources, different strategies for coping) and a variety of positions (with expert disagreement, the students will feel more ready to stake out their own position).

From my point of view, it is a way to use my job to spread the word among people who are part of the generation that will have to deal with this.

Currently, I'm thinking that I would need to be very structured--perhaps give them 3-5 general questions for exploratory research, then having them work on subsets of those questions in their term papers.

I suppose we could call this a pedagogical challenge.

To clarify: nearly everything that I would be expecting these undergraduates to do will probably fall under the category of a literature review rather than real research. To expect more than that is simply beyond the scope of the class.