No, It Really Isn't Just a River in Egypt, Part 2

After Ianqui's excellent post yesterday, it seems like a good time to talk about the nature of denial a bit more. Part one of this series can be found here.

In his book, States of Denial, Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, Stanley Cohen argues that the capacity to deny a level of awareness is the normal state of affairs for people in an information-saturated society.

Cohen argues that 'far from being pushed into accepting reality, people have to be dragged out of reality.' As I have stated many times, I believe that's what this community needs to do: giving people a nudge, but in a gentle fashion edified by empirical evidence.

According to Cohen's definition, denial involves a fundamental paradox – that in order to deny something it is necessary at some level to recognize its existence and its moral implications. It is, he says, a state of simultaneously 'knowing and not-knowing' something.

This description is well suited to the current social response to peak oil...

The 'knowledge' of the problem of peak oil is pretty well-established at all levels of society; the general public (a large percentage of Americans call dependence on foreign oil a serious problem in polls); the scientists (many organizations and scientists from different disciplines attempting to bring attention to the topic); corporations (oil companies, etc.); the financial sector (reports warning of rising demand from China); the many heads of government (regular pious speeches calling for alternative energy sources and a slackening of dependence on foreign oil).

One problem is the integration of all of this information, data, and philosophy. There's a lot of folks coming at this problem from a lot of different perspectives. Those of us in the peak oil community have a leg up on them, we have begun that integration, but even we disagree on the course of the future.

Yet, at another level, our society clearly refuses to recognize the implications of that knowledge. Policymakers surely see the road ahead with oil, but they have not deemed it rational to steer away from the upcoming severe downhill grade with any alacrity.

Individuals, including my friends and family, after they understand the problem, can express grave concern, and then just as quickly block it out, buy a new SUV, turn up the air conditioning, or fly across the world for a holiday without a thought.

Cohen's analysis of the social responses to human rights abuses finds that the mechanisms of denial are extremely complex and varied. The circumstances that create any historical event are unique and it is unwise to make direct comparisons. However, following Cohen we can draw out certain consistent psychological processes that are highly pertinent to what's coming with peak oil.

Firstly, we can expect widespread denial when the enormity and nature of the problem are so unprecedented that people have no cultural mechanisms for accepting them. In Beyond Judgment, Primo Levi, seeking to explain the refusal of many European Jews to recognize their impending extermination, quotes an old German adage: 'Things whose existence is not morally possible cannot exist.'

In the case of peak oil, then, we can intellectually accept the evidence of peak oil, but we find it extremely hard to accept individual or collective responsibility for a problem of such enormity. Indeed, the most powerful evidence of our denial is the failure to even recognize that there is a moral dimension with identifiable perpetrators and victims of the crisis. We know who is at fault here, we see what they are trying to do, and we lack the efficacy and the will to do anything about it.

Secondly, we diffuse our responsibility. Cohen writes at length of the 'passive bystander effect' whereby violent crimes can be committed in a crowded street without anyone intervening. Individuals wait for someone else to act and subsume their personal responsibility in the collective responsibility of the group. One notable feature of the bystander effect is that the larger the number of actors the lower the likelihood that any individual person feels capable of taking unilateral action. In times of war and repression, entire communities can become incapacitated. In the case of peak oil we are both bystanders and perpetrators, an internal dissonance that can only intensify our denial and our lack of efficacy in changing the situation.

Psychoanalytic theory contains valuable pointers to the ways that people may try to resolve these internal conflicts; angrily denying the problem outright (psychotic denial), seeking scapegoats (acting out), indulging in deliberately wasteful behavior (reaction formation), projecting their anxiety onto some unrelated but containable problem (displacement), or trying to shut out all information (suppression). As the impacts of oil's peak intensifies we can therefore anticipate that people will willingly collude in creating collective mechanisms of denial along these lines.

It seems likely from many observations of the human condition, however, that suppression will dominate. In South Africa, many white bystanders who intellectually opposed apartheid adopted a passive opposition. They retreated into private life, cut themselves off from the news media, refused to talk politics with friends, and adopted an intense immersion in private diversions such as sport, holidays and families. In Brazil in the 1970s a special term, 'innerism,' was coined for the disavowal of the political. Who are the South African whites in the peak oil scenario, eh? Is there a new innerism developing?

(NB: this post is adapted and paraphrased (and in some places downright appropriated) from an article by George Marshall in the Ecologist. It originally contained a very interesting take integrating Cohen and a topic similar in many ways to peak oil, that of global warming (the original post can be found here)).

I adapted and modified Marshall's excellent review of Cohen's book to the peak oil scenario. I too have read Cohen's book a couple of times and this review is quite on point in many places, hence my approach. Any differences or errors resulting from those differences from the author's original post and my adaptation are purely my own doing. But the ideas struck me as dead on.)

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You are starting down a trail that leads to darkness ... as well as enlightnement, but mostly darkness.

Are you sure .... you want to continue (?)

At many levels, of course you do.

There is one thing that, at many levels, we ALL must deny.

Peak Oil is very much related to that "one thing".

Re: Knowing and Not-Knowing and Alan Greenspan

I am generally sympathetic to the role of psychological defense in people's failure to acknowledge peak oil as some earlier posts I've made indicate.

To link up two topics today, Alan Greenspan used the word "oil" exactly 16 times in this testimony today before congress, often in conjunction with "natural gas". This comment follows up on Mike's excellent post in the "We Are Here" thread and the Greenspan thread itself. Let's examine some Greenspanese, shall we?

Thus, our baseline outlook for the U.S. economy is one of sustained economic growth and contained inflation pressures. In our view, realizing this outcome will require the Federal Reserve to continue to remove monetary accommodation. This generally favorable outlook, however, is attended by some significant uncertainties that warrant careful scrutiny.

And at the end

In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, despite the challenges that I have highlighted and the many I have not, the U.S. economy has remained on a firm footing, and inflation continues to be well contained. Moreover, the prospects are favorable for a continuation of those trends.

Significant uncertainty #2 is oil and gas. He notes "market participants now see little prospect of appreciable relief from elevated energy prices for years to come", which would cut into personal spending and damp growth rates. Optimistically, he notes that "recovery rates from existing reservoirs have enhanced proved reserves despite ever fewer discoveries of major oil fields. But, going forward, because of the geographic location of proved reserves, the great majority of the investment required to convert reserves into new crude oil productive capacity will need to be made in countries where foreign investment is currently prohibited or restricted or faces considerable political risk". And because of this, "These factors have the potential to constrain ability of producers to expand capacity to keep up with the projected growth of world demand". Finally, "current and prospective expansion of U.S. capability to import liquefied natural gas will help ease longer-term natural gas stringencies and perhaps bring natural gas prices in the United States down to world levels".


In other words, energy prices will be high from here on out, there are no new large oilfields coming online as we go forward, new capacity will have to come from unfriendly countries, countries in political turmoil, or who have nationalized their production or all three, producers may not be able keep up with demand growth anyway and maybe an LNG terminal or two will lower natural gas prices to world levels in the future.

I've read Peak Oil people on this site who are more optimistic than this. Talk about denial and the paradox of knowing and not-knowing, I think we've got a live one on the hook.

Ah, "prospects are favorable for a continuation of ... trends".

I think the creatures that lurk within like that message.

Sounds like a loony on board? Well no loonier than one who comprehends PO and worries that doom & gloom predictions might have some basis in reality.

Something is afoot. But what is it?


Nice work--you should receive an honorary Greenspan Fedspeak Decoder Ring for your efforts.

No, he isn't talking about declining production yet, but stagnant production is bad enough for economic growth and stability.

It was Lou Grinzo who first mentioned that ring and I said sign me up. Now that I feel that I've earned it, where is my Greenspan Decoder Ring? Lou? 8)

We'll be delivering it tonight, around midnight. Leave your front door unlocked, and try not to snicker at us as we arrive in our spandex Super Economist outfits. (We have to wear the costumes--it's in the rules. But some of us have made one too many trips to the buffet table at lunch meetings.)

Of course that "Anonymous" post was me, Dave. But it seems HaloScan blew away my posting information. I am constantly impressed with the HaloScan service.

Lou, I'll keep that door unlocked and I will wear that ring with pride.


That's what I love about this place. Confronting the end of the world with humor and style.

"Continuance is expected to persist despite an increasing drag factor from unforeseen headwinds" --A. Greenspin at

I am really glad to see this topic being discussed. We face denial in ourselves, in our family, with our friends, in our neighborhoods--and at some point we need to figure out how we are going to address it.

I think there might be other things at work than just denial. One thing we all can get caught up in is the feeling that even if we completely accept the peak oil premise and begin to reduce our consumption of oil, our neighbors (local and international) will continue to use it at an increasing pace such that our efforts will be for naught. So why try to be a hero? I know many will not sacrifice their own comforts until they are sure others will too. That is why it is so important for there to be some kind of official call to action.

Don't change till others change.

Sounds like sound logic to me.
One should never change course until the other fellow is ready to do so.

Mob mentality and denial. They are interrelated in some down deep ways.

I don't know that I accept any of the "psychoanalytic" assumptions.

"Denial" is a buzzword from the Alcoholics Anonymous cult. "Denial" is difficult to verify. Denial can be defined: Anyone who doesn't see the way I see. There's a stench of condescension clinging to the word "denial."

How about just plain IGNORANCE? How about wondering if the society has failed at teaching people how to learn? Critical thinking doesn't come naturally.

I had no problem accepting Peak Oil. In fact, I said to myself: "Oh. I learned about this 25 year ago, in a class called Geology and Human Affairs at the University of Toledo."

Then there's the Kubler-Ross "steps of grief." It's such a tidy little package that people have no problem swallowing it whole. It's a sort of Grief Flowchart. Except that you don't have to follow it. Not that this ever led believers in it to question it....

My view (as a teacher) is plain: People are generally stupid, and they like to do thinks the way they've always done them. Learning new things and adapting to new realities is hard. Which is why most species have gone extinct....

You are right.
Psycho-babble is BS
Seeing is believing

Do NOT look here:

The human is head is one, and whole as can be seen plainly by folks of common intelligence

There are only two choices in this world. Either you're stupid or your not. All other explanations, especially from scholarly simiens, are just made up excuses.

The one word, "stupid" explains everything.

Do NOT look here:

People and other species go extinct simply cause they're dumb. Why do you think they called it the DoDo bird? It had a bird brain. It went extinct.

Do NOT look here:

Do not you see that the brain has layers and structure and maybe (although clearly implausible), just maybe, structure, function and behavior are interrealted.

ontogeny recapitulates etymology
huh? yeh right
pure BS

mikeB, step back,

The word denial is, following Freud, a primitive defense mechanism. It operates just about everywhere in all of us all the time. It's effects are not all bad all the time -- it has survival value or it wouldn't be there -- and it is really only one of many ways we all have of coping with reality, human or otherwise. Since reality basically sucks much of the time, its a good thing we are psychologically defended against it, generally speaking. Unfortunately, denial and cultural factors work against us (see below) when we have to deal with upcoming disasters like Peak Oil.

The fact that AA picked up on "denial" as it relates to drinking and other things is indeed pop psychology but this has nothing to do with psychological defense in the general case nor does it somehow invalidate theories of human behavour relying on this concept. The psychological view rests on larger explanations involving group behavour and the culture, and biological explanations ("human nature"). I'm sure PG could tell you a lot about that. PG, I've always like Peter Berger's The Social Construction of Reality.

step back, you are fond of the lemmings to the sea/sheep walking off the cliff metaphor. That's a nice metaphor but those people walking toward the Peak Oil cliff are merely living in the culturally determined/accepted reality that they were acculturated in or have adapted to -- this is a very fundamental property of the way humans operate. People don't survive and prosper by swimming upstream against the social current. They go with the flow. It is certainly almost impossible for almost all of them to imagine all this reality abruptly ending. On the individual basis, when you or I tell someone about PO and they get that glazed look like deer in the headlights (psychologically, they become dissociated), this can in some general sense be called "denial".

"Stupid" explains mostly everything at a very superficial level and if you want to stick with that, that's OK with me, but there's no need to trash stuff you don't seem to be too interested in.

PG is not stupid, Stanley Cohen who he quotes is not stupid, Freud was not stupid and neither am I.

One other thing: the "Dodo bird" went extinct because it was an island species that had never encountered homo sapiens and their domesticated animals (dogs, pigs) before. This bird was not "stupid"; the Dodo's environment changed with the introduction of human and other animal predators and it was not adapted to their presence. These various animals (including the humans) destroyed the forests where they nested and destroyed their nests when they found them. About 80 years after they were first "discovered", they became extinct due to these environmental changes which naturally they had no chance to adapt to in such a short timeframe.

This story tell us a great deal about who we humans really are.

Oh, Christ. That "anonymous" post was me. I'm not trying to hide from anyone. I don't know why this HaloScan software doesn't pick up my information sometimes. This pisses me off.

One of the more successful ways to kill a house fly is by approaching it very very slowly, not quickly:

Through years of evolution, flies have developed an alarm filter that responds best to quick motion. Their danger recognition systems do not detect slow change.

Same with humans. We filter out slow moving phenomenon:
Peak Oil
Global Warming
Loss of Liberty

WE respond only to immediate crisis. Then we forget. We go back to grazing on the grass (or weed if that's your bag).

Example: 1973 oil crisis. Big flurry. And then we forget.Then we create "economic" rationalizations for why we forgot.