The Illusion of Invincibility

One of the wry amusements to be had from writing a blog that routinely contradicts the conventional wisdom of our time is the way that defenders of that same conventional wisdom tend to react.  You might think that those who are repeating what most people believe would take advantage of that fact, and present themselves as the voice of the majority, speaking for the collective consensus of our time.

In the nearly seven years since I started this blog, though, the number of times that’s happened can be counted neatly on the fingers of one foot.  Instead, those who rehash the conventional wisdom of our day inevitably like to portray themselves as innovative thinkers bursting with ideas that nobody has ever thought before.  It’s those whose views most closely ape fashionable clichés culled from pop culture and the mass media, in fact, who are most likely to try to strike a pose of heroic originality, just as it’s those rare thinkers who stray from today’s popular orthodoxies who most reliably get accused of being rigid, dogmatic and closed-minded.

Quite often, for instance, I field flurries of emails and comments on my blog insisting that I really ought to consider the new and radical idea that technology can overcome the limits to growth. The latest occasion for this curious claim is a new book titled Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, which is currently benefiting from a well-funded publicity campaign featuring lavish praise from the likes of Richard Branson and Bill Gates. I haven’t read it; doubtless I’ll do so once the public library here in Cumberland gets a copy, if only to find out if the book can possibly be as full of meretricious twaddle as it looks. 

What interests me, though, is that by and large, the people who have emailed me recently invoking the book as proof that I’m wrong about the future admit that they haven’t read it either. The mere fact that somebody has insisted in print that we’re going to get a shiny high-tech future of limitless abundance seems to be enough to convince them.  That the same claim has been breathlessly retailed in print for the better part of three centuries, as of course it has, seems never to enter their minds, and when I point this out, the response is the online equivalent of a you-kicked-my-puppy look and an insistence that I ought to be more open-minded to their supposedly new ideas.

In reality, if course, it’s hard to think of any cliché in today’s pop culture more trite and hackneyed than the notion that technology always trumps resource limits. That shopworn Victorian trope very nearly defines the conventional wisdom of our age. The evidence doesn’t support such claims, for reasons I’ve discussed on this blog many times already, and claims about the future that take that notion as gospel have already proven problematic, to use no harsher word. Yet it’s as certain as anything can be that when the hullabaloo over this latest book dies down, and some new book comes out rehashing the same weary cliché, I’ll field yet another round of enthusiastic emails from people who insist that it’s saying something new and exciting that I must never have heard before.

Glance over at the other side of the conventional wisdom and you can see the same process at work.  The flurries of emails and comments I get pushing the vision of a bright new future are equalled, and more than equalled, by the flurries I get insisting that I obviously haven’t heard about the exciting new notion that something or other is about to squash industrial civilization like a bug. It’s all the funnier in that these flurries continued apace during the year I spent running the End Of The World Of The Week Club, retelling the story of some failed apocalyptic prediction of the past with every single weekly post. When I point out that the people who make such claims are rehashing the oldest and most consistently mistaken of all historical clichés, in turn, I can count on fielding another flurry of angry rhetoric insisting that I need to be more open-minded about their allegedly innovative ideas.

Amusing as all this is, it’s anything but unexpected. Every human society draws a boundary between  those ideas that are acceptable and those that are beyond the pale, and modern industrial civilization is no exception to this rule; it’s simply that modern industrial civilization also likes to preen itself on its supposed openness to novel ideas. The habit of pretending that repeated rehashes of the conventional wisdom are always new and innovative, no matter how many times the same things have been repeated down through the years, and insisting that ideas that challenge the conventional wisdom aren’t new and innovative, even when they are, is as good a way as any to duck the potential conflicts between these two emotionally powerful cultural themes.

Appealing as though such habits might be—and they certainly help spare people the hard work of coming up with ideas that are genuinely original—they have at least one serious drawback.  If the conventional wisdom is leading straight toward disaster, and only a radically different way of looking at the world offers any hope of escaping a messy fate, a radically different way of looking at the world is exactly what you won’t get, because everybody thinks that the only way to get a radically different way of looking at the world is to keep on regurgitating the conventional wisdom that’s leading toward disaster in the first place.  It’s much as though people trapped in a burning building went around writing FIRE EXIT in bright red letters on every door that led straight back into the flames.

With these points in mind, I’d like to talk a bit about the latest attempt to rehash the conventional wisdom under the guise of rejecting it.

Over the last six weeks or so, I’ve fielded emails and comments from many sources insisting that peak oil has been disproved conclusively by the recent fracking phenomenon. This is hardly a new theme—in recent months, the same claims have been repeated almost daily at earsplitting volume in the mass media—but there’s a difference of some importance. The people who are sending these claims my way aren’t trying to claim that everything’s fine and the future of perpetual progress promised us by our culture’s most cherished mythology is on its way.  No, they’re insisting that because peak oil has been disproved, I and other peak oil writers and bloggers need to get with the program, stop talking about peak oil, and start talking about the imminent threat of climate change instead.

It’s a curious claim, all things considered.  For well over a decade now, predictions based on peak oil have proven far more accurate than predictions based on the conventional wisdom that insists resource limits don’t matter.  A decade ago, cornucopian theorist Daniel Yergin was loudly proclaiming that the price of oil had reached a permanent plateau at $38 a barrel, smart money was flooding into exciting new ethanol and biodiesel startups, and everyone other than a few peak oil writers out there on the fringes assumed as a matter of course that the market would provide, ahem, limitless supplies of energy from alternative sources if the price of oil ever did rise to the unthinkable level of $60 a barrel.

Meanwhile, those peak oil writers out there on the fringe were garnering almost universal denunciation by predicting a difficult future of triple-digit oil prices, spiraling economic dysfunction, and the failure of alternative energy technologies to provide more than a very modest fraction of the vast energetic largesse our society currently gets from fossil fuels. The conventional wisdom was that this couldn’t possibly happen. A decade on, it’s not exactly hard to see who was right.

As for the claim that the fracking phenomenon has disproved peak oil, it’s worth revisiting two graphs I’ve posted before. The first one tracks oil production in the United States between 1920 and 2012:

See the little bitty uptick over on the right hand side of the graph?  That’s the vast new outpouring of crude oil made possible by fracking technology. That’s what all the shouting and handwaving are about. I’d encourage my readers to take a long hard look at that very modest upward blip, and then turn to the second graph, which should also be familiar:

This is the diagram of peak oil from M. King Hubbert’s original 1956 paper on the subject.  Those of my readers who are paying attention will already have noticed the very large area on the right hand side of the curve, more than two and a half times the size of all cumulative production and proven reserves  shown, labeled “future discoveries.”  The Bakken shale?  It’s included in there, along with many other oil fields that haven’t even been found yet.

The current fracking phenomenon, in other words, doesn’t disprove peak oil theory.  It was predicted by peak oil theory. As the price of oil rises, petroleum reserves that weren’t economical to produce when the price was lower get brought into production, and efforts to find new petroleum reserves go into overdrive; that’s all part of the theory.  Since oil fields found earlier are depleting all the while, in turn, the rush to discover and produce new fields doesn’t boost overall petroleum production more than a little, or for more than a short time; the role of these new additions to productive capacity is simply to stretch out the curve, yielding the long tail of declining production Hubbert showed in his graph, and preventing the end of the age of oil from turning into the sort of sudden apocalyptic collapse imagined by one end of the conventional wisdom.

Pick up any decent book on peak oil, or spend ten minutes of independent research on the internet, and you can learn all of this. Somehow, though, the pundits whose heated denunciations of peak oil theory show up in the mainstream media nearly every day don’t manage to mention any of these points. It’s not the only noticeable gap in their reasoning, either:  I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I’ve seen media stories insist with a straight face that kerogen shales like the Green River formation are the same as oil shales like the Bakken, say, or duck the entire issue of depletion rates of fracked wells, or engage in other bits of evasion and misstatement that make our predicament look a great deal less challenging than it actually is.

Until recently, I’ve assumed that the failure to do basic research implied by these curious lapses was simply a product of the abysmal ignorance displayed by the media, and American society in general, concerning the important issues of our time. Still, I’ve had to rethink that, and a good part of the reason is a chart that was picked out of the mainstream media by one of the ever-vigilant Drumbeat commenters over on The Oil Drum—tip of the archdruid’s hat to Darwinian.  Here it is:

You can find this graph in various forms in quite a few places in the American media just now. You’ll notice that, at first glance, it appears to be showing domestic production of petroleum here in the US rising up inexorably to equal domestic consumption, and leaving imports far in the dust. Take another look, and you’ll see that the line tracking domestic production uses a different scale, on the right side of the chart, that just happens to make current production look three times bigger than it is.

Perhaps some of my readers can think of an honest reason why the chart was laid out that way. I confess that I can’t. It seems uncomfortably likely, in other words, that peak oil theory has racked up another successful prediction.  It’s one that my regular readers will remember from several previous posts, including this one from last June: the opening up of a chasm between those who are willing to face the reality of our situation and those who flee from that reality into fantasy and self-deception.

That chasm runs straight through the middle of the contemporary environmental movement, very much including the subset of that movement that concerns itself with climate change.  It doesn’t run in the obvious place—say, between the techno-environmentalists who insist that everyone on the planet can have a lavish American middle class lifestyle powered by renewable energy, and the deep ecologists who see humanity as a gang of ecocidal apes yelling in triumph as they rush toward planetary dieoff. Both these extremes, and the entire spectrum of opinions between them, embrace the core presupposition that undergirds the conventional wisdom of our age.

What is that presupposition?  Total faith in the invincibility of technological progress.

That’s the common thread that unites the whole spectrum of acceptable viewpoints in today’s industrial society, from the cornucopians who insist that the universe is obligated to give us all the resources we want if we just wave enough money around, through the faux-environmentalists who are out there shilling for the nuclear industry because the other options are a little bit worse, right across the landscape of ideas to the believers in imminent apocalypse and the darkest of dark green ecologists. What differentiates these viewpoints from one another is their assessment of the value of technological progress:  the cornucopians think it’s all good, the techno-environmentalists think most of it’s good, and so on along the line to those extreme neoprimitivists who have convinced themselves that the invention of spoken language was probably a bad idea.

If you want to trace the fault line mentioned above, suggest to any of them that technological progress might stop in its tracks and give way to regress, and see how they respond. Mind you, by making that suggestion you’ll put yourself on the far side of a different line, the line between those ideas that are acceptable in industrial society and those that are beyond the pale. It’s acceptable to glorify progress as a mighty steamroller that will inevitably flatten anything in its path; it’s acceptable to argue that the steamroller has to be steered onto a different course, so it doesn’t flatten something of value that’s currently in its path; it’s acceptable to rage and weep over all the things it’s going to flatten as it continues on its unstoppable way; it’s even acceptable to insist that the steamroller is so mighty a juggernaut that no one can stop it from rolling over a cliff and crashing to ruin on the rocks below.

You can say any of these things in polite company.  What you can’t say, not without meeting total incomprehension and violent hostility, is that the steamroller’s fuel gauge is swinging over inexorably toward the letter E, and the jerry cans in back are dead empty.  You can’t mention that ominous grinding sounds are coming out from under the hood, that trouble lights are flashing all over the dashboard, and that the steamroller’s forward motion is already visibly slowing down.  You can’t even suggest as a possibility that in the not too distant future, the mighty steamroller will be a rusting, abandoned hulk, buried up to its axles in mud, stripped of all usable parts by roaming scavengers, and left to the patient and pitiless wrecking crew of sun and wind and rain.

Now of course some people are saying this.  To step back out of the metaphor, they are saying that technological progress, as well as the sciences that helped to make it possible, are subject to the law of diminishing returns; furthermore, that what has been called progress is in large part a mere side effect of a short-term, self-limiting process of stripping the planet’s easily accessible carbon reserves at an extravagant pace, and will stop in its tracks and shift into reverse as those reserves run short; more broadly, that modern industrial society is in no way exempt from the common fate of civilizations.  Ideas such as these have a long and intriguing history in the modern world, and I’ll want to discuss that history here one of these days.

Still, the point I want to make just now is that until recently, those who embraced the conventional wisdom simply ignored those of us who embraced these deeply unfashionable ideas.  Climate change activists, to return to the point at issue, could simply brush aside the peak oil perspective, and keep on insisting that the only thing that can stop technological progress from destroying the planet is more technological progress—biofuels, solar energy, geoengineering, you name it; plenty of technologies and their supporters vied for the lucrative role of planetary savior, but next to nobody questioned the assumption that some technology or other was going to play the part.  When peak oil researchers pointed out that predictions of catastrophic climate change assumed continued increases in fossil fuel extraction at rates the planet couldn’t provide, nobody paid the least attention.

The flurry of emails and comments I’ve received of late suggest that we aren’t being ignored any longer, and I think I know why.  It’s the same reason why peak oil theory keeps on getting denounced on a daily basis in increasingly shrill tones in the mainstream media, even though nobody with access to the mainstream media is arguing in favor of it, and the reason why those denunciations have strayed further and further into what looks remarkably like overt dishonesty.  For the last decade and more, again, predictions based on peak oil theory have proven substantially correct, while predictions based on a rejection of peak oil theory have been embarrassingly wrong. For that matter, the "standard run" model from The Limits to Growth, the most savagely denounced of the Seventies-era predictions of industrial civilization’s fate, has proven to be the most accurate projection of future trends to come out of that decade. One more graph:

The further we go into the future traced out by M. King Hubbert and The Limits to Growth, and the wider the gap that opens up between the myth of perpetual progress and the realities of contraction and regress that are taking shape around us right now, the more effort the chorus of believers will likely put into drowning out dissenting voices and proclaiming the infallibility of an already disproved creed. Why this should be so, why the illusion of invincibility is so central to the myth of progress and its believers, is an intricate question, far more complex than a single paragraph or a single post can cover. To explore it, I’m going to have to plunge into one of the handful of subjects I’d originally decided to leave severely alone on this blog: the religious implications of the end of the age of oil. We’ll start that discussion next week.