Information and disinformation

I intended to examine "internet coverage" of the psychology behind why people aren't so concerned with rising gas prices today. I didn't get very far. I'm not sure if this is because the topic isn't being covered in so much depth (but see the CS Monitor article that we discussed recently) or because I'm a poor googler (horrifying thought!) Still, I did come across a couple of interesting pieces on the web today, mostly from more than 6 months ago, which is interesting in and of itself.

1. Why high oil prices haven't cut demand. OK, well, this article from 11/2004 isn't anything we haven't discussed before. But I did find the "The Economics of Energy Conservation" chart about halfway down the article pretty interesting. For example, while I've known that passenger vehicles constitute most of the energy use in the transportation section, I didn't realize it was 4x as much as the next category, freight trucks. This makes me hopeful that if we target passenger cars as the biggest area for efficiency standards, we can make some big changes.

2. Fly Me to the Moon, by Thomas L. Friedman. This article by Friedman (from 12/2004, preserved on a blog, sorry I don't have the original link) leaves quite a bit to be desired. And it worries me that so many people read Friedman's op-eds, without access to the research which would let them know that Friedman's idea about energy independence, which comes across as very simple, isn't at all. Friedman writes:
You give me an America that is energy-independent and I will give you sharply reduced oil revenues for the worst governments in the world. I will give you political reform from Moscow to Riyadh to Tehran. Yes, deprive these regimes of the huge oil windfalls on which they depend and you will force them to reform by having to tap their people instead of oil wells. These regimes won't change when we tell them they should. They will change only when they tell themselves they must.
Please. Those governments may take a hit, but China and India will keep them afloat. And Friedman doesn't address those pesky issues like the fact that the peak in the US was in the 1970s, or that we're exceedingly far behind on the development of hydrogen, if the infrastructure can even be scaled to the degree that we'd need it. I'm not saying I know what the right thing to do is, and I do agree that scaling back on foreign oil inputs would be wise, but I'm just annoyed at Friedman for making it sound like energy independence is so easy.

(Oh, and another note to Friedman: comparing the sacrifice that energy independence will entail to JFK's speech about the work necessary to get to the moon is utterly absurd.)

3. Are you worried about rising oil prices? The comments from BBC readers from August 2004 are kind of interesting. They run the gamut from
Well if our greedy governments didn't add 60-70% tax on the 82p per litre we spend at the pump then perhaps the whole price issue wouldn't be such a big one!
I don't care about rising oil prices. I don't own a car and I think those who do should be paying even more for the privilege of polluting our atmosphere. The next revolution will be electric. Let's get started...
(This kind of comment makes me shudder. The public ignorance about how widespread petroleum is in our food chain, manufacturing materials, cosmetics/toiletries, etc. is alarming. We need to be doing a better job on this.)

We could grow all the oil we ever need, we're just too stupid to legalise cannabis and use the oil extracts from that to run our cars. The idiotic "war on drugs" will mean never ending American "liberation" of the oil from oil-rich nations.

There's the answer, everyone! Oil from pot! Let's get started.

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Yo Dude! Like we were all talking and stuff about energy, and then we had a like, idea! Nobody likes the seeds dude - that's what sensemilla means in, er, Mexico lingo - seedless dude, like those grapes. I really get off on those grapes. When I get the munchies, I can eat a ton of them. But those seeds, dude...well, like I was saying, sensemilla means lots of seeds, and so we could, like, burn the seeds and then check emissions! Sure! Like, we could all work at the emissions testing place, and those seeds would be burning everywhere, right dude? Whoa! Totally cool, and very ecogreen and friendly to, like nature and bears and stuff. It could rock! just don't know about the whole job-thing though, dudes...

Ianqui wrote: "the psychology behind why people aren't so concerned"

Sometimes a journey takes us to places we did not want to know about, but we are better off for having taken it.

"Human nature", "psychology", etc. are complicated topics. They are as complicated, if not more, than "Peak Oil".

Followers of the Oil Drum who are able and willing to take the journey into the human mind may be greatly surprised by what they learn. We are not what we think we are.

Those who come to grips with "human nature" --meaning its biological underpinnings-- will start to understand why turning the Titanic around and diverting it from its current coarse is a much more daunting task than they first imagined.

But if you do not know how "the ship of mind" works, you cannot alter its coarse.

As an aside, a joke from one of the readers in a local paper: Re the Rove leak, I haven't seen so many people denying there is a "leak problem" since the Titanic.

A funny thing about deer.

Their eyes are "wide open" as the truck comes barreling at them in the night.

Yet they don't move. Why?

Though their eyes be open, they can't see.

A new journey can start simply by paying attention to "paying attention":

from How to save the World:

My favorite comment lately to illustrate the how little the whole gas price thing registers on most people's consciousness comes from a friend of mine. She recently bought a new truck, bigger than her last. I said it might cost a bit to fill it up. She said, "It's not so bad, I only used a quarter tank to drive it home from Manchester." She didn't yet know how much the tank held, but she only used a quarter tank...

TM: And the good thing is you can pay with plastic
... then you don't have to worry about how to balance the books until much much later ... in a far off future ... in a distant galaxy

The problem is that people are making long term asset investments (Houses, Cars, Appliances, etc) without realizing that operating energy costs will not remain this low for much longer. The problem is that no one knows when this will occur and indeed it really hasn't changed within living memory aside from a few years in the 1970s.

IMHO the US will easily absorb oil prices until $100-125 and even then we will largely be able to outbid the developing world, who will start to run out of food. And then the dominoes will start to fall.

My take, based on just "google news" searches on "gas prices" is that a lot of people treat gas prices like the weather. "Sure is hot today." "Gas sure is expensive." "Maybe tomorrow will be better."

Maybe they assume a "return to the mean" rather than the start of a change. Statistically speaking, a return to the mean is a good bet ... until you get a fundimental change.

Price doesn't matter. It will take physical shortages.


A few things ... First off, sinsemilla literally means 'without seed'. Sinsemilla generally refers to cannabis that is only seedless female flowers. Secondly, the diesel engine was designed to work with vegetable base fuels, including hempseed oil. Interestingly, while hemp oilseed is the highest yielding of the oilseed plants, it also happens to be banned, ruling it out as a current source of oil.

I know that hemp isnt going to save the world or make everything ok, but for those poeple who want to produce their own energy and fuels, hemp would be the best source of oils. This is part of my personal plan.

I think the best we can do is educate others about the problems, like we're talking about and doing here. Those that dont want to listen to people like us will be listening to someone else who can tell them a story they find more appealing. And they'll probably starve to death. All we can do is to try our best, and to set a good example.

Ianqui, check out The Oil Uproar That Isn't from the NY Times. This article was first brought to my attention by diane_a on another thread. Here's some"highlights" (lowlights?):

"Americans live in a car-driven culture where they want to do as much as possible as fast as possible," said Amy Myers Jaffe, the associate director of Rice University's energy program in Houston. "I can drop off my dry cleaning, pick up my prescription drugs, do my banking and buy my lunch, all without leaving my car."


"Don't blame S.U.V. drivers," said Mr. Nedzel, the 4Runner owner. "The marketplace has changed since the 1970's, and carmakers have adapted and people's habits have changed. For me, there isn't a hybrid that would get me where I want to go."

And while he says he would be willing to tolerate higher gasoline taxes, Mr. Nedzel opposes more stringent fuel efficiency standards. "That's like having an obesity problem," he said, "and being told you need a smaller shirt."

Based on stuff like this, I think it's hopeless.

I think in general the reason the public is oblivious or unaware of impending problems is that they are still able to live in comfort; indeed, as economic performance continues to be solid, there's yet no impetus to look for big lurking problems.

As an example of mindset, noted in a letter to the editor today (Houston Cronicle):

That half of country: Do math
HOW preposterous it is that more than half of Americans say the country is on the wrong track. The economy is sizzling, unemployment is at pre-9/11 levels at 5 percent, twice this year the GDP numbers have been revised upward in the vicinity of 4 percent, national crime rates continue to fall and we can still get a cheap mortgage. Despite Bush's much criticized tax cuts, tax revenues are up.

Perhaps that half should stop reading the headlines and do the math.


For many, the cost of fuel for transportation has not yet materially affected their lives. Only when it does will more folks be ready to look for something to blame, and even then, the blame will be placed at the wrong feet initially we can be sure of that.

Kunstler on Thomas Friedman and his book The World Is Flat:

The Times's star columnist Thomas Friedman is making hay this season with his new book, The World is Flat, about the global economy. His book asserts that current trends will continue indefinitely -- China will continue to manufacture ever more of America's household products, Americans will continue to enjoy cash-out home equity loans to buy plastic patio chairs made in China, WalMart will keep running its warehouse-on-wheels at a thumping great profit, and all impediments to global trade will be vanquished by telemarketing, computer technology, and confident corporate can-do spirits. I am tempted to ask how Friedman manages to type on a laptop with his head so far up his ass, but this blog is dedicated, above all, to a high-minded brand of politeness so we'll just say that he is not paying attention to a gathering global energy shitstorm that is going to change absolutely everything -- including global economic relations which pundits foolishly maintain to be permanent conditions of life.

Pablum for the masses from Friedman. If we're going to go anywhere with changing socially constructed realities and the accompanying ingrained behavours, then somebody has got to say, as Jim Kunstler did, that ole Uncle Tom does indeed seem to have his head where the sun never shines.

I'll assume Mr. Nedzel is a genuine off-roader, but the sad thing is that most people only wish they were ... as they drive their SUV to work.

Classic self-branding. Having a Range Rover makes you both British and an Explorer. Cheap at half the price.

The general economics argument that fuel prices are not painful enough to affect behavour yet is entirely correct. When it does, there will be anger and blame (scapegoating). A simple truth about human nature is that people don't change until they are absolutely forced to do so and when that moment arrives, watch out and get out of the way.

A pity that the cognitive planning function that supposedly lies in the cerebrum neocortex frontal lobe has not worked out exactly as we might have hoped.

Dave--Thanks for reminding me about that NYT article. It was mentioned on a day I was out of town, so I didn't really register it. I'll go back and take a look.

If anyone else wants to read it too, feel free to discuss it again here.

There are two options:
(a) commit to the myth that everything is hopeless and do nothing, or
(b) commit to the myth that you can change the world by flapping your butterfly wings.

I for one, still believe in myth number (b).

The Great Lemming Herd is grazing its way ever closer to the Ledge (hewbie's ledge). But the few critters who "see" the Ledge (the PO Aware ones), can start sending mixed messages to the approaching mass to help turn the tide of history, if only we send the right messages.

To some extent this has already happened. King Hubert was a lone Lemming who sounded the alarm. A few others heard and understood. Over the years books have been published, radio interviews conducted, blog sites established. The ring of forewarners grows.

But are we sending the right set of signals to turn the herd around?

Too many in the herd still ignore us.

Dave of seems to see part of the problem.
Yes everyone in the herd has a neo-cortical layer.
Is it functioning?
Is it malfunctioning?

Are there "other" parts of the brain, of the herd mentality, that may block the neo-cortex from "seeing". How do we influence those other parts so that they help the neo-cortex to "see" the PO problem and to understand?

You can't shove the knowledge down into their throats.
You can't call them stupid.

Hey aeio what's in it for you ?

A few observations, not intended to apply to any particular post, unless I say so explicitly:

Be VERY careful about reading too much into individual comments you read online or hear from friends and relatives. An anecdote isn't statistically significant, and there will always be those who cling to bizarre beliefs, no matter what. I'm sure there are still some people waiting for the Y2K bug to hit. (Remember how in the first months of 2000 there were people saying, "Sure, nothing happened yet, but in one or two months we're in big trouble"?)

Never forget what a wide range of responses we're already seeing, just among those who have read a fair amount about PO. Some people are reacting to PO and/or environmental issues and buying hybrids as fast as Toyota can screw them together. And some people are buying the latest Ford Wretched Excess 9000, since it's "such a good deal at the employee price." But even more are downsizing a little or a lot when they buy a new vehicle. So some people are indeed responding to hgher gas prices, but they're not all doing the same thing at the same time. Hell, you can't get them to agree on a flavor of ice cream, so how can we expect them to agree on something this complicated? And for that matter, we wouldn't want them all to "get it" all at once--that would cause chaos in the markets and society in general.

Remember that a lot of people haven't yet heard about PO, or have heard only a little and think it's just the latest Internet goofiness that will be forgotten quicker than you can say New Coke once gas prices "return to normal." We still have an enormous amount of education to do.

(I wound up talking to a woman I know whose husband reads my energy web site. She was asking me about it, when a friend of hers jumped into the conversation. The friend had "Suzy Sixpack" written all over her, and she dismissed my talk about there being an ultimate limit to the amount of oil we can extract by repeatedly saying, "They'll have to come up with something." After the third or fourth time she said this, I finally said to her, "No, 'they' don't have to come up with anything. There are no guarantees." She deftly rebutted my point by making her assertion yet again, and then--I kid you not--complaining about how expensive it is to air condition her 4-bedroom house in the current heat wave because she leaves the thermostat on 71(!!!).. Some people are so set in their ways that they'll be paying $10/gallon for gasoline and still believing that it would go back to $2/gallon "if only the gov't would do something." )

To date, I've resisted the urge to get bumper stickers made up that say "Your kid went to Iraq, and all I get is 12 MPG" and start putting them on monstrous SUV's. I won't do it, as I have too strong a belief in individual freedom, but man oh man, some days it's really tempting...

"... we're exceedingly far behind on the development of hydrogen, ..."

Why is hydrogen important?

I think the news is interesting both from the standpoint of content, but also the meta-level expectation of news media that it is the story they should tell. It's interesting when a story simply says "gas is expensive" and interesting when a story says (as I saw yesterday) "gas is expensive because of speculation." Certainly every one story, and one interview, is a data point in the whole flow of societal information processing.

Hydrogen is important because it is either:

1. The answer to everything
2. A dangerous distraction

Pinchy -

Dude, I was goofing about the whole thing. It's tragic but typical that every cause and movement under the sun will deal with Peak Oil in its own way. Stoners will just get stoned and try to legalize mj for making biodiesel....

I think all you have to do is read old newspapers from the 70's about the previous OPEC embargo and you will see exactly where we are heading. By reducing prices in the intevening decades, OPEC killed the oil industry, let a sense of false energy security permeate the world, and basically set things up to be almost the same as in the 70's.

We are facing a recession/depression from multiple cources (housing bubble, banking, fiat currency, energy, job export, corporate greed/policies, etc.) and gas mileage is almost as bad now as it was then, yet demand is higher. China and the rest of the world were not in the picture, so this is a new wrinkle.

But go back and read about the national guard getting called out, people stealing gas, fighting at the pump, lines miles long, etc. The SPR is supposed to help prevent this, but we are engaged in a war - just as back then!

The similarities are uncanny - we forgot our history, so we get to repeat it. Good thing I liked the 70's....

Actually, one of the ideas I posted here a while back was that our history might have inoculated US consumers against "shocks" in the same sense. I see that mentioned above as a factor.

But, even if there isn't "shock," we all know consumer confidence is a huge factor in national economic health. It was surprising that we first hit $60 oil, and maintained consumer confidence.

I'm afraid I see that weekening now, as those who expected a "return to the mean" are dissapointed.

Odograph wrote:

"[Another] story ... I saw yesterday [instead said] "gas is expensive *because of speculation.* " Certainly every one story, ... is a data point in the whole flow of societal information processing."

Odie, an astute observation!

Each data disseminator is targeting a slightly different demographic.
Take the word, "speculation" (please).
What reactions does that word trigger in the minds of different readers?
Not everyone decodes "speculation" in the same way.
For some people, the word invokes images of trading pits and gaming theory.
For other people, it's that stuff that heady people do when fiddling with fuzzy math.
In either case, the injection of "speculation" into association with the concept of "gas is expensive" works to diffuse or divert focus away from questioning why, just why is gas expensive?

You can play with different possible combinations to see the effects:
1. gas is expensive
2. gas is expensive, but experts say ....
3. gas is expensive and expected to keep climbing
4. gas is expensive and expectations are that families will remain home more often

What is the message manipulator trying to accomplish in each instance?

(For nay sayers: Of course you are right. Everything happens by mere coincidence. No one is playing tricks on your mind, messing with the me. Besides, you're the ONE, the one above it all.)

P.S> Oh yeh, I forgot your last suggestion:

5. gas is expensive, but prices are expected to return to more *normal* levels.

Keep thinking -- or not.


P.P.S. Consider the following neurolinguistic implant string:

6. gas is expensive, however, in comments today Alan Greenspan concluded that robustness within the markets will recapitulate ontogenic development of crude differentiation .....

Think that is complete fantasy ?
Think again:

Referring to the drag from the higher oil prices, Greenspan said, "Aside from these `headwinds,' the U.S. economy seems to be coping pretty well with the run-up in crude oil prices.";_ylt=AhS.Bun...