In The Beginning Was the Word
Certainly for the last 20 years these two themes have tunneled into political consciousness, but there are huge differences. Peak Oil was never “official”, but Global Warming or at least anthropogenic global warming quickly became official, in the UN system, EU28 countries, the US, Japan, Canada and Australia, and some other developed countries. Today, in the cases of Japan, Canada and Australia the political commitment has already gone, and the downstream financial spinoff from the global warming theme, which enabled market operators to concoct and play with climate credit default swaps and a host of other all-new paper assets, has seriously ebbed. Outside of these countries, in the G20 and Russia, global warming always had a much tougher ride. Yet another stark Russia-versus-the West split occurred on this issue. Russia has a long and tortuous politically-charged obsession with a coming Ice Age – not the swamping of all coastal cities by global warming melting the planet's ice caps
Peak Oil faced and faces the same trial, by politics. Saudi Arabia, for example is not interested, to say the least, in either theory due to the explicit political-economic linkage between them.
Although seemingly farcical, even the first global warming, or at least climate change theory linked to fuel burning, led to major political unrest. This theory was based on the concept that gas emissions from burning wood and coal were causing dangerous, life-threatening changes to the local climate and weather and was developed and promoted by the renowned English scientist Joseph Priestley in the 1790s. Very soon after he published his theory on “phlogiston emissions” causing a menace to human life and survival in the English Midlands which was then rapidly industrializing, and rapidly increasing its fuel burn of firstly wood fuel then coal, Priestley was accused of treason. He was subjected to mob attack, his house was burnt to the ground and he was lucky to escape with his life – to America. Priestley was so extremely alarmed by the “phlogiston crisis” that he developed, that he militated for the American Revolution thinking that victims of “phlogiston” build-up in the air, in England, could be evacuated en masse to what the English elite of the time called the Rebel Colony of America.
Peak Oil theories also do not date from yesterday or year 2000, either. Apart from elite political and scientific concern, again in England but dating from the late 19th century on the possible rapid depletion and exhaustion of British coal reserves, leading to a collapse of industrial civilization – called The Coal Question and heavily developed by W. S. Jevons – the concern over potential rapid depletion of oil resources was already a significant theme by the 1930s. The so-called Noosphere theory of Russia's Vladimir Vernadsky called for and featured the massive worldwide development of nuclear power, partly to head off oil, gas and coal depletion and establish a veritable human paradise on Earth, sealing the triumph and summation of the human mind's power over the planet. Vernadsky was careful to not offend Stalin's totalitarian ideology by ensuring his Noosphere concept never avowed its blueprint in the Christian religious ecstatic philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin, Henri Bergson and others.
The IPCC of today, we can surmise, makes a point of not explaining its philosophy. For example it does not publicly attack the neo-pagan Gaia theory. This could be called a clever piece of (in)action by the IPCC, because the Gaia theory was developed by arch-warmist James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, on their admitted blueprint of late 19th and early 20th ecstatic or heroic philosophies such as those of Nietsche, de Chardin, Heidegger, Vernadsky and others. Among the far-flung New Age fantasies embarked in “Gaia theory”, the chemical make-up of the Earth's atmosphere is presumed and said to be under attack by humans and needs permanent defence. As we know the IPCC and its partners have issued an edict that CO2 levels in the atmosphere must never, ever exceed 450 parts per million. Why that frequently happened in the geological past is naturally and of course outside the interest zone of the IPCC, like any serious explanation from the IPCC, of the Medieval Warm Period.
Thesis and Antithesis – Opportunity or Threat
Any emerging philosophy and dependent political-economic doctrine, such as the claimed Great Theories of AGW and PO, almost instantly generates its antitheses. Opposition, to be sure, can be scientific or rational – but it is also obligatorily political, cultural and ideological. Mixing and melding these different strands ensures that no rational yes-or-no conclusion can be made that will satisfy all persons and all interest groups. For a very simple example, the ASPO (Association for Study of Peak Oil) has been financially supported by major oil companies – and opposed by major oil companies, often the same ones!
To be sure, this could or might be called keeping a handy enemy alive a little while longer, until that enemy or Straw Man is no longer useful. But it is also another key example of how human beings and society act with a permanent split mind – wanting to believe, and not wanting to believe. Bathed in splendidly erudite-seeming confusion, we can muddle along! Try proving the contrary.
Ethologists identify the fight-or-flight herd instinct as a prime determinant of social behavior, and for the political-economic elite this translates to the question, for elites, of the threat-or-opportunity any new or growing major theme or theory poses, for them. Peak Oil was quickly treated by the elites as a threat, but they very quickly saw Global Warming as an opportunity. As a direct result, media coverage of peak oil is almost absent – but global warming is trumpeted by elite-friendly (and elite-owned) media, still today in 2014, despite consumer fatigue with the issue becoming rampant.
One reason for this, again showing how human beings operate in society, is that peak oil is highly rational, while anthropogenic global warming is an engaging doomster fantasy, well-suited to New Age packaging and massive dumbing down, notably the Gaia theory. Put another way, if global warming was true, there would be precious little that humans could do to “backtrack and unwind” the damage, which the IPCC rather arbitrarily sets at a cut-off date of 1850. Presumably, if the world backtracked to 1850 CO2 emissions, population, urbanization, agriculture and industry, all would be fine. World population, for example, would be “reset and rewound” to about 1.2 billion, from 7.2 billion today, roughly a 6 on 7 Die Off. Knowing this is impossible, at least politically, the IPCC and its partners concoct elite-friendly financial and technical band-aids of various kinds, strictly to amuse the elite.
Conversely, if peak oil was true, oil prices would tend to be high or very high and world oil supply would grow very slowly or not at all - despite the oil price. Which is what we have. However, high oil prices are a lot more than merely attractive to the oil sector's elite, but also to governments. While peak oil alarmists obligatorily whine that oil prices on the US Nymex briefly attained $147 a barrel in 2008, with a lot of help from Goldman Sachs, they forget to mention that filling station forecourt prices in EU28 countries, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Norway and other recent-or-current official believers in global warming and the need to “decarbonize the economy”, are often $385 a barrel today. Apart from Big Oil's take there is Big Government's take and a major interest in keeping oil prices high.
Technology and Culture
Technology change, which apart from its economic impacts has a complex, long-lasting and major cultural effect on society and social groups, due to technology being inherited and imposed culture change, finally causes radically changed social perceptions. For peak oil, the improvement and development of hydraulic fracturing, and always-growing geological knowledge of the world's stupendous carbon inventories, have been a double hammer blow.
This already sets a simple choice for political deciders. Due to shale gas being so much more abundant and easier to produce than liquid hydrocarbons, the technology-based, rational choice would be to shift from oil to natural gas, starting with road, marine and rail transport. But due to cultural and political uptake being rigorously non-rational, this rational choice will at best happen slowly.
The zero hypothesis or global default theory is that rapid and massive culture change, including globalization, is only tangentially related to energy climate crisis theories. They are at best sideshow issues in a global process – exactly of the type claimed by Vernadsky or de Chardin, packaged as New Age whimsy by Lovelock and Margulis in their Gaia theory. As one simple but highly unwelcome factor for elites still peddling global warming fear, increased amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere must and will increase biomass productivity. Despite the IPCC bravely claiming, or hoping that adverse impacts of CO2-enrichment of the atmosphere will reduce world food production and intensify world hunger, the opposite is more likely. Former arch-warmist James Hansen, before bowing out and retiring from the global warming talk circus, claimed in 2013 that “coal is greening the planet”, and that increased biomass fixation of CO2 was the reason why the warming trend he so profitably exaggerated, for himself, was no longer happening.
As a bye-bye to James Hansen, not hoping he ever comes back, we can say: Better luck next time!
Cultural anthropologists note that delayed response to, and acceptance of technology change, called skeuomorphism, can exist for centuries rather than decades. The herd instinct is to resist all change and sublimate it all ways it can. Being surprised that peak oil and global warming are now two chaotically confused political-economic doctrines betrays basic simple ignorance of human culture and society.
Also well known from non-western and traditional societies, the recourse to legend, myth and traditionalization of technology change is constant. For modern or “western” society, called advanced technology-industrial, it should be no surprise that peak oil and global warming are now heavily mythologized, legendary, non-scientific, ideology-based issues and themes. The role of these non-science factors is for example shown by the rigorous refusal of car and vehicle makers, and governments to promote the use of natural gas-fueled transport. High priced oil is so much more culturally satisfying than low-priced gas! Oil wars can be rationalized in a jiffy. This is normal.
To be sure, technology or inherited and imposed culture change finally upsets the apple cart. The coal question of W. S. Jevons disappeared as oil and then gas supplies grew. Although fracturing of coal beds, to extract coalseam gas, had been attempted since the start of the 19th century, hydro-fracturing was only industrially perfected by George P. Mitchell in the 1980s and 1990s, creating a state of confusion for remaining defenders of a restricted or absolute peak oil thesis, which demands that oil supplies decline – not just stagnate. Another so-called “pause”, this time the so-called “pause” of global warming since the start of this century, sets a similar ideological challenge for global warming purists, or supposed purists.
Finally, the political-economic result of thesis-antithesis duels and feints on socially-approved and culturally-imprinted Great Theories is the inevitably chaotic state of dominant ideology we have at any one moment, like today.
World oil prices have certainly been swollen by both global warming and peak oil theory, to the point where oil is simply overpriced and simply too expensive. Also, the threat of these two theories to industrial civilization and the so-called New World Order, whatever it may be, has been drastically exaggerated signaling that we now have over-extended, over-mature elite fear themes, ready to collapse and implode at any moment. To be sure, they enabled oil prices to be levered up to extremes, not exactly to everybody's benefit, but they also masked and displaced attention and concern from the real threats to civilization – which are many, powerful and overdue. Probably the elites know this, but their agents and servants have not yet concocted all-new Great Theories to explain it, and deny it.
By Andrew McKillop
Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights
Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012
Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.
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