Past Its Peak

Over the past century and a half or so, petroleum has been abundant and relatively easy to extract, Scott McLemee writes. The next 150 years -- in fact, the next 15 -- do not look quite so promising.

November 4, 2015

The impending collapse of civilization should, as Samuel Johnson said about being hanged in a fortnight, wonderfully concentrate the mind. For most of the interview subjects whose responses Matthew Schneider-Mayerson analyzes in Peak Oil: Apocalyptic Environmentalism and Libertarian Political Culture (University of Chicago Press), that collapse is inevitable, if not already underway.

“Peakists” skew, on the average, pretty far to the left of the stereotypical American survivalist in ideology, but there is a meeting of minds on strategy. Peak-oil activism -- as the author, an assistant professor of social sciences at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, presents it -- consists mainly of: (a) stockpiling necessities, (b) consuming less and (c) blogging while you still can. This sounds awfully unambitious, even by the standards of a politics of diminished expectations.

Schneider-Mayerson’s questionnaire drew responses from about 1,750 committed adherents of the peak-oil scenario in 2011. That year now looks like the end of peak oil’s era of maximum public exposure. My own unscientific survey of otherwise well-informed people suggests that the whole concept is less than universally familiar, so first a word of explanation.

The claim that oil production has peaked, or will soon, is grounded in a hard ecological and economic reality: as the pool of oil in a well shrinks, it takes more effort and expense to pump out. The return on investment will eventually hit zero. An enormous amount of petroleum remains underground, but the energy consumed in extracting each barrel will exceed the energy produced by burning it. And once we reach that point on a worldwide scale -- as must happen, sooner or later, when the last untapped deposit has been located and exploited -- the effect can only be catastrophic.

Over the past 150 years or so, petroleum has been both abundant and relatively easy (hence profitable) to extract. Huge, complex and interlocking institutions and technologies became possible thanks to eons’ worth of solar energy condensed in liquid form by the decay and burial of vegetation over untold millions of years. The next 150 years do not look quite so promising.

Nor do the next 15, really, if some of the peak-oil extrapolations are valid -- in which case the Mad Max films may count as utopian, since Mel Gibson at least had some functioning oil rigs to protect. (More than three-quarters of Schneider-Mayerson’s respondents indicate that they had seen the films, and it’s a fair guess more than once.) Quite a few counterscenarios come to mind, including the development of other energy sources or of more efficient ways to extract, and use, the black gold itself.

But peakists can always point to the undeniable reality that advanced industrial societies are dependent on a fuel that must run out. And facing that inevitability “was often revelatory,” the author says, noting that “the gulf between their conception of the future before and their conception of the future after their awakening is so stark that this moment often cleft their lives in two.”

Those who filled out Schneider-Mayerson’s questionnaire in 2011 tended to be middle-aged, middle-class white American men with higher educations (more than 43 percent had postgraduate degrees). They characterized their views as “liberal” or “very liberal” (about half) and reported their religious preference as “none” (also about half). They constituted “a vibrant social formation that existed from roughly 2005 to 2011,” when the largest peak-oil news sites and blogs were drawing hundreds of thousands of readers per month. At least one novel set in the postpeak future, James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand (2008), was widely reviewed, with the author laying out the premises in an interview on The Colbert Report.

The flourishing of this subculture coincided with the doubling of the price of gasoline in the United States throughout this century's first decade. And the demographics of Schneider-Mayerson’s interview population suggest that anger at the George W. Bush administration -- in particular its foreign policy -- may also have spurred interest in scenarios of life after petroleum. The movement seems to have reached its own peak in the wake of the 2008 credit crunch. The new decade brought aggressive campaigns to promote and exploit alternatives to drilling (coal, natural gas, tar sands). And not having enough hydrocarbons to burn is not exactly a pressing issue as the reality of anthropogenic climate change sinks in.

But a follow-up questionnaire, in 2013, found that only 10 percent of those whom the author surveyed in 2011 “had significantly questioned their dedication to peakism, and the vast majority stood firm in their convictions and life course.” Peakism has been called a sort of Left Behind for liberals, and apocalyptic sects are known, after all, for proving remarkably resilient.

The language of religious conversion is hard to avoid. The crisis underscored by peakism is in large measure an existential crisis, even a crisis of faith. Believers experience a moment of truth -- of grasping that the values and ways of life they have taken for granted are embedded in, and reliant on, a society that depends on a substance that cannot be replaced. The literal meaning of the word of apocalypse is “uncovering,” and what the peak-oil scenario uncovers is something like an abyss.

Schneider-Mayerson notes that around two-thirds of respondents indicate that they’ve found it difficult to talk about their beliefs with others, who often take it as an attack on their own lifestyles or an obnoxious display of pessimism. And the subculture seems both inward turning and remarkably asocial. More than 60 percent of respondents indicated that they had never attended in-person meetings with others who shared their concerns. Almost a quarter said they visited peak-oil website more than once per day. The very word “movement” seems out of place. Movement is exactly what peakist ideology did not encourage, even at its height -- unless you count buying a more fuel-efficient car, which is really stretching it.

Schneider-Mayerson interprets the tendency towards insularity and inactivism as a sign of the peak-oil subculture having accepted more of the dominant mentality of the past few decades than one might expect: in particular, a deep distrust of collective action, and of the state as capable of doing anything without screwing it up, combined with fatalism and an abiding sense of powerlessness. And feeling powerless, one places no demands on those who do have power (the first step toward gaining any). The belief in an inevitable collapse and disintegration of society is stupefying, if not self-fulfilling. “There is no alternative,” it says. “Let us tend our gardens.” But that's no strategy, just a symptom of decline.


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