Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Why the Peak Oil Movement Failed

As I glance back across the trajectory of this blog over the last ten and a half years, one change stands out. When I began blogging in May of 2006, peak oil—the imminent peaking of global production of conventional petroleum, to unpack that gnomic phrase a little—was the central theme of a large, vocal, and tolerably well organized movement. It had its own visible advocacy organizations, it had national and international conferences, it had a small but noticeable presence in the political sphere, and it showed every sign of making its presence felt in the broader conversation of our time.

Today none of that is true. Of the three major peak oil organizations in the US, ASPO-USA—that’s the US branch of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, for those who don’t happen to be fluent in acronym—is apparently moribund; Post Carbon Institute, while it still plays a helpful role from time to time as a platform for veteran peak oil researcher Richard Heinberg, has otherwise largely abandoned its former peak oil focus in favor of generic liberal environmentalism; and the US branch of the Transition organization, formerly the Transition Town movement, is spinning its wheels in a rut laid down years back. The conferences ASPO-USA once hosted in Washington DC, with congresscritters in attendance, stopped years ago, and an attempt to host a national conference in southern Pennsylvania fizzled after three years and will apparently not be restarted.

Ten years ago, for that matter, opinion blogs and news aggregators with a peak oil theme were all over the internet. Today that’s no longer the case, either. The fate of the two most influential peak oil sites, The Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin, is indicative. The Oil Drum simply folded, leaving its existing pages up as a legacy of a departed era.  Energy Bulletin, for its part, was taken over by Post Carbon Institute and given a new name and theme as It then followed PCI in its drift toward the already overcrowded environmental mainstream, replacing the detailed assessment of energy futures that was the staple fare of Energy Bulletin with the sort of uncritical enthusiasm for an assortment of vaguely green causes more typical of the pages of Yes! Magazine.

There are still some peak oil sites soldiering away—notably Peak Oil Barrel, under the direction of former Oil Drum regular Ron Patterson.  There are also a handful of public figures still trying to keep the concept in circulation, with the aforementioned Richard Heinberg arguably first among them. Aside from those few, though, what was once a significant movement is for all practical purposes dead. The question that deserves asking is simple enough: what happened?

One obvious answer is that the peak oil movement was the victim of its own failed predictions. It’s true, to be sure, that failed predictions were a commonplace of the peak oil scene. It wasn’t just the overenthusiastic promoters of alternative energy technologies, who year after year insisted that the next twelve months would see their pet technology leap out of its current obscurity to make petroleum a fading memory; it wasn’t just their exact equivalents, the overenthusiastic promoters of apocalyptic predictions, who year after year insisted that the next twelve months would see the collapse of the global economy, the outbreak of World War III, the imposition of a genocidal police state, or whatever other sudden cataclysm happened to have seized their fancy.

No, the problem with failed predictions ran straight through the movement, even—or especially—in its more serious manifestations. The standard model of the future accepted through most of the peak oil scene started from a set of inescapable facts and an unexamined assumption, and the combination of those things produced consistently false predictions. The inescapable facts were that the Earth is finite, that it contains a finite supply of petroleum, and that various lines of evidence showed conclusively that global production of conventional petroleum was approaching its peak for hard geological reasons, and could no longer keep increasing thereafter.

The unexamined assumption was that geological realities rather than economic forces would govern how fast the remaining reserves of conventional petroleum would be extracted. On that basis, most people in the peak oil movement assumed that as production peaked and began to decline, the price of petroleum would rise rapidly, placing an increasingly obvious burden on the global economy. The optimists in the movement argued that this, in turn, would force nations around the world to recognize what was going on and make the transition to other energy sources, and to the massive conservation programs that would be needed to deal with the gap between the cheap abundant energy that petroleum used to provide and the more expensive and less abundant energy available from other sources. The pessimists, for their part, argued that it was already too late for such a transition, and that industrial civilization would come apart at the seams.

As it turned out, though, the unexamined assumption was wrong. Geological realities imposed, and continue to impose, upper limits on global petroleum production, but economic forces have determined how much less than those upper limits would actually be produced. What happened, as a result, is that when oil prices spiked in 2007 and 2008, and then again in 2014 and 2015, consumers cut back on their use of petroleum products, while producers hurried to bring marginal petroleum sources such as tar sands and oil shales into production to take advantage of the high prices. Both those steps drove prices back down. Low prices, in turn, encouraged consumers to use more petroleum products, and forced producers to shut down marginal sources that couldn’t turn a profit when oil was less than $80 a barrel; both these steps, in turn, sent prices back up.

That doesn’t mean that peak oil has gone away. As oilmen like to say, depletion never sleeps; each time the world passes through the cycle just described, the global economy takes another body blow, and the marginal petroleum sources cost much more to extract and process than the light sweet crude on which the oil industry used to rely. The result, though, is that instead of a sudden upward zoom in prices that couldn’t be ignored, we’ve gotten wild swings in commodity prices, political and social turmoil, and a global economy stuck in creeping dysfunction that stubbornly refuses to behave the way it did when petroleum was still cheap and abundant. The peak oil movement wasn’t prepared for that future.

Granting all this, failed predictions aren’t enough by themselves to stop a movement in its tracks. Here in the United States, especially, we’ve got an astonishing tolerance for predictive idiocy. The economists who insisted that neoliberal policies would surely bring prosperity, for example, haven’t been laughed into obscurity by the mere fact that they were dead wrong; au contraire, they’re still drawing their paychecks and being taken seriously by politicians and the media. The pundits who insisted at the top of their lungs that Britain wouldn’t vote for Brexit and Donald Trump couldn’t possibly win the US presidency are still being taken seriously, too. Nor, to move closer to the activist fringes, has the climate change movement been badly hurt by the embarrassingly linear models of imminent doom it used to deploy with such abandon; the climate change movement is in deep trouble, granted, but its failure has other causes.

It was the indirect impacts of those failed predictions, rather, that helped run the peak oil movement into the ground. The most important of these, to my mind, was the way that those predictions encouraged people in the movement to put their faith in the notion that sometime very soon, governments and businesses would have to take peak oil seriously. That’s what inspired ASPO-USA, for example, to set up a lobbying office in Washington DC with a paid executive director, when the long-term funding for such a project hadn’t yet been secured. On another plane, that’s what undergirded the entire strategy of the Transition Town movement in its original incarnation: get plans drawn up and officially accepted by as many town governments as possible, so that once the arrival of peak oil becomes impossible to ignore, the plan for what to do about it would already be in place.

Of course the difficulty in both cases was that the glorious day of public recognition never arrived. The movement assumed that events would prove its case in the eyes of the general public and the political system alike, and so made no realistic plans about what to do if that didn’t happen. When it didn’t happen, in turn, the movement was left twisting in the wind.

The conviction that politicians, pundits, and the public would be forced by events to acknowledge the truth about peak oil had other consequences that helped hamstring the movement. Outreach to the vast majority that wasn’t yet on board the peak oil bandwagon, for example, got far too little attention or funding. Early on in the movement, several books meant for general audiences—James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency and Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over are arguably the best examples—helped lay the foundations for a more effective outreach program, but the organized followup that might have built on those foundations never really happened. Waiting on events took the place of shaping events, and that’s almost always a guarantee of failure.

One particular form of waiting on events that took a particularly steep toll on the movement was its attempts to get funding from wealthy donors. I’ve been told that Post Carbon Institute got itself funded in this way, while as far as I know, ASPO-USA never did. Win or lose, though, begging for scraps at the tables of the rich is a sucker’s game.  In social change as in every other aspect of life, who pays the piper calls the tune, and the rich—who benefit more than anyone else from business as usual—can be counted on to defend their interest by funding only those activities that don’t seriously threaten the continuation of business as usual. Successful movements for social change start by taking effective action with the resources they can muster by themselves, and build their own funding base by attracting people who believe in their mission strongly enough to help pay for it.

There were other reasons why the peak oil movement failed, of course. To its credit, it managed to avoid two of the factors that ran the climate change movement into the ground, as detailed in the essay linked above—it never became a partisan issue, mostly because no political party in the US was willing to touch it with a ten foot pole, and the purity politics that insists that supporters of one cause are only acceptable in its ranks if they also subscribe to a laundry list of other causes never really got a foothold outside of certain limited circles. Piggybacking—the flipside of purity politics, which demands that no movement be allowed to solve one problem without solving every other problem as well—was more of a problem, and so, in a big way, was pandering to the privileged—I long ago lost track of the number of times I heard people in the peak oil scene insist that this or that high-end technology, which was only affordable by the well-to-do, was a meaningful response to the coming of peak oil.

There are doubtless other reasons as well; it’s a feature of all things human that failure is usually overdetermined. At this point, though, I’d like to set that aside for a moment and consider two other points. The first is that the movement didn’t have to fail the way it did. The second is that it could still be revived and gotten back on a more productive track.

To begin with, not everyone in the peak oil scene bought into the unexamined assumption I’ve critiqued above. Well before the movement started running itself into the ground, some of us pointed out that economic factors were going to have a massive impact on the rates of petroleum production and consumption—my first essay on that theme appeared here in April of 2007, and I was far from the first person to notice it. The movement by that time was so invested in its own predictions, with their apparent promise of public recognition and funding, that those concerns didn’t have an impact at the time. Even when the stratospheric oil price spike of 2008 was followed by a bust, though, peak oil organizations by and large don’t seem to have reconsidered their strategies. A mid-course correction at that point, wrenching though it might have been, could have kept the movement alive.

There were also plenty of good examples of effective movements for social change from which useful lessons could have been drawn. One difficulty is that you won’t find such examples in today’s liberal environmental mainstream, which for all practical purposes hasn’t won a battle since Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act. The struggle for the right to same-sex marriage, as I’ve noted before, is quite another matter—a grassroots movement that, despite sparse funding and strenuous opposition, played a long game extremely well and achieved its goal. There are other such examples, on both sides of today’s partisan divide, from which useful lessons can be drawn. Pay attention to how movements for change succeed and how they fail, and it’s not hard to figure out how to play the game effectively. That could have been done at any point in the history of the peak oil movement. It could still be done now.

Like same-sex marriage, after all, peak oil isn’t inherently a partisan issue. Like same-sex marriage, it offers plenty of room for compromise and coalition-building. Like same-sex marriage, it’s a single issue, not a fossilized total worldview like those that play so large and dysfunctional a role in today’s political nonconversations. A peak oil movement that placed itself squarely in the abandoned center of contemporary politics, played both sides against each other, and kept its eyes squarely on the prize—educating politicians and the public about the reality of finite fossil fuel reserves, and pushing for projects that will mitigate the cascading environmental and economic impacts of peak oil—could do a great deal to  reshape our collective narrative about energy and, in the process, accomplish quite a bit to make the long road down from peak oil less brutal than it will otherwise be.

I’m sorry to say that the phrase “peak oil,” familiar and convenient as it is, probably has to go.  The failures of the movement that coalesced around that phrase were serious and visible enough that some new moniker will be needed for the time being, to avoid being tarred with a well-used brush. The crucial concept of net energy—the energy a given resource provides once you subtract the energy needed to extract, process, and use it—would have to be central to the first rounds of education and publicity; since it’s precisely equivalent to profit, a concept most people grasp quickly enough, that’s not necessarily a hard thing to accomplish, but it has to be done, because it’s when the concept of net energy is solidly understood that such absurdities as commercial fusion power appear in their true light.

It probably has to be said up front that no such project will keep the end of the industrial age from being an ugly mess. That’s already baked into the cake at this point; what were once problems to be solved have become predicaments that we can, at best, only mitigate. Nor could a project of the sort I’ve very roughly sketched out here expect any kind of overnight success. It would have to play a long game in an era when time is running decidedly short. Challenging? You bet—but I think it’s a possibility worth serious consideration.

In other news, I’m delighted to announce the appearance of two books that will be of interest to readers of this blog. The first is Dmitry Orlov’s latest, Shrinking the Technosphere: Getting a Grip on the Technologies that Limit Our Autonomy, Self-Sufficiency, and Freedom. It’s a trenchant and thoughtful analysis of the gap between the fantasies of human betterment through technological progress and the antihuman mess that’s resulted from the pursuit of those fantasies, and belongs on the same shelf as Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society and my After Progress: Religion and Reason in the Twilight of the Industrial Age. Copies hot off the press can be ordered from New Society here.

Meanwhile, Space Bats fans will want to know that the anthology of short stories and novellas set in the world of my novel Star’s Reach is now available for preorder from Founders House here. Merigan Tales is a stellar collection, as good as any of the After Oil anthologies, and fans of Star’s Reach won’t want to miss it.


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Marcu said...

There will be no meeting of the Green Wizard's Association of Melbourne in December. I want to thank everybody for their participation during the year. Our next meeting will be on the 28th of January 2017. Keep an eye on the comments here or at for further details.

I also want to thank Mr. Greer for his tireless work on the blog and for kindly allowing us to post notices here.

As always send queries and comments to limitstogrowth1972[at]

My donkey said...

Speaking of peak oil, peak globalization, etc., what about peak knowledge?
Is it possible for collective peak knowledge to be still ahead but per-capita knowledge to have already peaked?

drhooves said...

An excellent summary of how the peak oil movement got to where it is today - stalled. But while I agree that same sex marriage and peak oil share some of the same characteristics, the opposition to the movements could hardly be more contrasted.

The wealthy have everything to lose when "business as usual" runs its course, so I expect MUCH opposition to any long-term, meaningful changes to this country's energy policies. Like most crises in history, economics and depletion will have to FORCE the issue, and that could still be another couple of decades down the road. Maybe much sooner, probably not much later, but we haven't reached the "pain point" yet. Getting closer, though.

John Michael Greer said...

My Donkey, since knowledge is information minus misinformation, we probably passed peak knowledge decades ago. Yes, it's a relevant concept.

Drhooves, good! That tells you that you don't want to go to the wealthy to get support for a renewed peak oil movement. You find the people whose interests would actually be bettered by downshifting to less fossil fuel use -- for example, people who would be employed if fossil-fuel-powered automation hadn't taken their jobs away from them -- and that's where you aim your education and outreach. One of the many other things the peak oil movement failed to do was to ask itself, "Whose interests will be benefited by the steps we have in mind, and how can we engage in coalition-building with them?" That's a basic skill of effective politics -- and one that will be needed as we proceed.

Don Stewart said...

Dear JMG
I believe that there are two fundamental reasons why the Peak Oil movement failed. First is the fact that the Peak Oilers mostly failed to realize that what we had was a thermodynamic problem. That is, once all the losses from oil in the ground to useful work accomplished had been accounted for, there was very little surplus. Even small increases in the cost put the whole enterprise under water. Which implies that most everything that we hold dear in the modern world is at risk. Not from running out of oil in the ground, but from failure of companies to be able to make any money at it.

Second is related to human need for Integration. I am bridging off Dan Siegel's newly published book Mind: A Journey Into the Heart of Being Human. Siegel shows to my satisfaction that our Mind is formed by the flow of energy and information within our brain, our body, our society, our economy, and our artifacts. Confronted with the deluge of energy and information, we seek Integration...making sense of it all in terms of our intellect and our feelings. The world being what it is, there are times when the bitter facts of unavoidable reality demand some response other than resignation to what is. For example, most people are not going to accept a diagnosis of terminal cancer with equanimity. But our Minds still seek Integration. And so we are likely to invent 'solutions' such as religion or political saviors who make things better (kisses from Mommy accomplished this task when we were 2 years old). Other people may find reasons to deny the evidence. And yet others will find ways to put things in silos: yes, climate change is going to be awful, but today I have to take my grandchildren out for ice cream. Since the Peak Oil movement, as such, never offered any reasons for optimism, people were encouraged to find ways to avoid dealing with it. Which is not to deny that some people branched off into solar or survivalism or whatever. But the mainstream never found anything as magical as oil as it existed about mid-20th century. Instead, serious people urged 50 Million Farmers to take up homesteading.

I submit that the fundamental reason Peak Oil failed is that they had no solution and that people could see no light at the end of the tunnel.

Don Stewart

Doctor Westchester said...


Yes, I've a front row seat to the failure of the Transition Movement and your description is accurate. Mostly coming out of the environmental movement, it also tended to fall prey to the four horsemen of leftist movements as described in "Learning From Failure". This was frustrating for me, as I tried to keep the four riders away from what I was doing, but with little success. I remember the head of my town's Transition steering group trying to reach out to the head of the local Chamber of Commerce and being told the group was too Democratic-leaning. The head of the steering group was a Republican. Oh well.

DaShui said...

Greetings ADJMG!

Lately there has been a lot of talk about "peak demand", in the MSM.

To me, its just the other side of the P.O. coin.

Justin said...

JMG, interesting. I think net energy decline is a far more effective meme than peak oil because it contains its own counter-response to stories about the discoveries of yet another ten gigatons of greasy shale.

If anything, blue collar interests will benefit from peak oil once the neoliberal bubble-city economic model collapses (or is rightly demolished). Once again, doing skilled work beyond the dream of roboticists in Boston or San Francisco with one's hands will be one of the most economically viable professions.

Breanna said...

How much good can be done on a grassroots level? The Transition Towns movement seemed very promising for that. Anything larger-scale, like big political/economic discourse about net energy, is rather above my ability to influence.

The two environmental-adjacent movements that I have personally seen do well and been somewhat involved in are cloth diapering and farmers markets. Both do their bit to reduce oil dependency and carbon footprint, as well as increasing the resilience of people and communities where they are prevalent. Notably, both also span the political spectrum.

With cloth diapers, the issue I'm most involved in, I've personally convinced 5 or 6 families to use cloth and most of them have expanded that influence in their own social networks. My sister (who is diametrically opposed to me on basically every political measure) has persuaded even more people than that; one of her friends started a cloth diapering shop. There are charities to provide diapers to low-income families and advocacy groups to raise awareness.

Is this a model that can work on a broader scale? I'm trying to look at movements that DO work and get a roadmap but I'm not sure whether or not it applies.

Barrabas said...

Its probably relevant that Trumpence has appointed Exxon CEO T Rex Tillerson along with a bunch of mitary generals to cabinet , no doubt with the express aim of gaining US access to Russian energy as well as dismantling the Russia China Iran axis .
Obviously energy considerations are front and center for this Junta . Any number of publicly available DOD publications freely admit that both climate change and peak oil are real , alive and well .
From memory almost the entire Rockefeller clan censured T - Rex Tillerson for not fessing up to these problems ,around the time they loudly disinvested themselves from Standard Oil Exxon .
Maybe theyve decided its better to but it from Vladimir than keep getting whoopied in the desert ?

Tower 440 said...

Greetings to the assembled Wizardren!
We in Northeast Ohio are following Melbourne’s example by holding well-advertised monthly meetings.
The monthly joint meeting of the Green Wizards’ Benevolent and Protective Association, Tower Number 440, and Ruinmen’s Guild, Local 440 will be held at 11:30 AM on Wednesday, December 21, 2016. Our location is Ruko’s Family Restaurant, 9385 Mentor Avenue, Mentor, Ohio 44060, (440) 974-1914. Shining the Green Light! Public Welcome! Tables for Failed Scholars. Look for the table topper with the Green Wizard Hat. Contact us at
Many thanks to John for the posting space on his blog.

Cortes said...

It's terribly sad that the demutualisation orgy of the Thatcher years in the UK saw the undoing of the great work of radical pioneers behind the building society movement (US = Savings and Loans) and the vast bulk of the Trustee savings bank movement. The quick fix of vacation monies derived from surrender of rights in mutual organisations was enough to persuade the vast majority to dispense with the fruits of 160 years of freedom from the financial beasts.
Experience is the harshest teacher, but I think the lessons of the last 30 years are beginning to sink in.
Thanks again for the great essay.

Doctor Westchester said...


A lot of the environmental/green people around me are running around in panic about our President-elect’s approach to environmental issues.

While it’s still very early, so far Trump’s energy plans seems like it can be described as follows: Take Obama’s energy plan and pull off all the fluttering green tokens stuck in it. Then wash off all the globs of green spray paint with shale oil (a.k.a. lighter fluid). Stick a few fluttering brown tokens (like direct governmental subsidy of shale oil and even big oil once the supply of private greater fools run out) on the dirty brown remainder and there you go.

Since the whole purpose of producing oil is to goose and grow the economy, it’s rather evident that the current rounds of shale oil/tar sand oil has been essentially been exercises in failure - a failure that has been somewhat hidden by the green spray paint mentioned above.

I wonder whether promoting fossil fuels in the way Trump is talking about runs the risk of exposing this failure. Since Trump is the salesman that he is, he would certainly try to B.S. his way around any such failure. But what opportunities might open up if such a failure became apparent?

JimBobRazrBk said...

Great post- thanks. I agree that the phrase "Peak Oil" really needs to be replaced with something else since for a lot of people that phrase just means, "We're going to completely run out of oil very soon," a prediction which they've learned they can't take seriously. I've learned I can't get most people to listen to the word "Peak Oil" in a time when oil is so abundant and so cheap that ships full of oil were driving circles in the ocean waiting for a time for the price to go high enough for them to be able to sell it somewhere.

You have mentioned in your books that the decline will be a process so long and slow that no one alive today will likely be around to see it "end." This is tied into the fact that although we have hit Peak Oil, we are nowhere being completely out of oil. This may seem like a silly question, but about how many decades probably remain where oil will still be accessible to people outside the extremely rich and / or governments?/militaries I get that each year there will be fewer and fewer of us who can get it, but it seems that it'll still be around for a long time.

JacGolf said...

Piggybacking is a tough one. You piggy back to the wrong thing (peak oil, climate change, etc.) and you are doomed to answer for all of the specifics. However, if you piggy back to a general concept, say, 'Hope and Change' or 'Make America Great Again' and you could become the leader of the free world.

It is amazing what Obama has taught this nation. The 'Hope and Change' meme he implemented during 2008 allowed for many to latch onto that fantasy of whatever your hopes were/are, you could change the world to achieve them. Turns out, he was as the right wing labeled him, an ideologue with no ability to do anything outside of talk and pander to his constituencies. Hopefully, there is a better deal with Trump (intended) and he finds the actual middle ground with Russia, China and the left in the spirit of actually making a deal.

Either way, movements come and go, and like you say, "peak oil' has to go the way of 'Hope and Change' in order for us to accomplish what needs to actually happen...survive the onslaught of the tumble!


JacGolf said...

JMG and Dr. Hooves, be careful, the fossil fueled powered automation eliminated slavery here in the US. IF we lose oil, watch out for that culture to surface again, as it always has been B.O. (before oil)

Elmo said...

"what happened? ... One obvious answer is that the peak oil movement was the victim of its own failed predictions." No, actually it just went the way of every other Fad Movement. Peak Oil, while logically justifiable, was little more than an interpretation of one small aspect of a Very Large Problem: Human Civilization. We've moved on to Climate Change; and when that finally bores us to tears, we'll get on to complaining about all the nukes dropping in the third world. Life goes on.

Moshe Braner said...

"The unexamined assumption was that geological realities rather than economic forces would govern how fast the remaining reserves of conventional petroleum would be extracted. ... we’ve gotten wild swings in commodity prices, political and social turmoil, and a global economy stuck in creeping dysfunction that stubbornly refuses to behave the way it did when petroleum was still cheap and abundant. The peak oil movement wasn’t prepared for that future."

- my memory of those days (I was active on The Oil Drum) is that there was a wide diversity of opinions. Some (including me) insisted that the "Hubbert curve" is an interplay between geology and economics. The build-up before the peak is a matter of capital investment in the extraction of the resource, enabled by the economic profits the resource offers. And after the peak, the rate of extraction decreases due to economic limits, since heavy investments in scraping the hard-to-extract bottom of the barrel yield relatively lower profits. There was also much talk about the predicted "bumpy plateau" before and after The Peak, and that is exactly what' we've seen since 2005. The role of (unpayable) debt in funding efforts such as fracking (leading to those big bumps) was mentioned, but not adequately taken into account.

Alas the most public face of the "movement", the way it was reported on in the mainstream media (in the rare cases of any reporting at all), emphasized the simplistic story of developing scarcity and high prices. And that helped bring on the current mainstream attitude that "peak oil is dead".

NomadicBeer said...

Reading this article raises the same questions as the previous one on the failure of the CC movement.
How would you describe a successful peak oil movement? You mention spreading the information to politicians and public and triggering changes to allow us to survive better in the future.

Well, at least in US both of these have been wildly successful to the limits of human nature:
- Political Awareness: Peak Oil awareness has driven a lot of the political agenda for the US since 2000. Invasion of Iraq, color revolutions, encroachment on Russia, all the South American dirty games etc. Just because this is not what most peak oilers considered appropriate response does not change the facts. Given political limitations, the US leaders could not go with anything long term. Short term the actions above have helped the empire a lot.

- Public Awareness: Most people that I talked to accept Peak Oil at least at a superficial level. They refuse to think about it though because they would have to accept the evil they bring to their own children. That's just human nature, I doubt any movement could change that.

- Adaptations: See above what the empire is doing. At the individual level, most rich people have a doomstead somewhere (usually South America or New Zealand). The militarization of the US police is an adaptation. There are many others very similar. Again, just because we don't like the direction the adaptation is going, it does not make it disappear.

In conclusion, I think you should celebrate the success of the Peak Oil movement, not bury it.

Cherokee Organics said...


I reckon the phrase: Resource depletion; has much to commend it?

Hmmm. Firstly, I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to read it. And secondly, I appreciated your words as they were a positive dispel. :-)! It is an honour – I appreciated that – which looks to me like a burning torch in an otherwise dark night - or perhaps it is not too far of a stretch to call it a sword with flames?

You know, I suspect that any meaningful response to the situation requires giving up stuff and that was not a story that that movement was selling. I never really bought into the movement at all for that reason alone. It stood out like the proverbial dogs genitals to me (they say that phrase slightly differently down here, but it is not particularly family friendly!).

I'm happy to willingly give up stuff that our culture sells as a necessity to life and have actually done exactly that. And you know what is funny about all of that? It frees you up of the constant pressure to accumulate and consume, but there is a cost to following that path.

Respect for the work that you do! I just finished Overshoot this morning and it requires a little bit of brain processing time... Hehe! ;-)!



Peter Parpan said...

I first became aware of "peak oil" in 2004 when my environmemtal science instructor held up a cover of National Geographic. Acknowledging the implications changed my world view forever, but when the fracking boom started I took it at face value and saw no use in staring at a slow moving clock while industrialists had one more go round for a decade or two. It wasn't until a couple years ago when prices dropped to $2 that I took a second look, compelled to know why this was happening. This is when I discovered your blog and read several of your books. I owe a debt of gratitude to you for all I've learned. What I've always thought about the predictions of peak oil theorists is the mainstream can only say they're wrong until they're right. The narrative has changed but on a finite planet that basic idea remains true. Thanks for all the seeds you're planting, JMG.

John Michael Greer said...

Don, integration is a tricky concept, because there are an infinite number of ways to integrate any particular set of data. I prefer to talk about narratives, because when human beings piece together the disparate data of their world, they're usually using a story, explicit or implicit, to do it. From that perspective, what you've said is that the peak oil movement failed to take control of the narrative and define the data in terms that made their stance make sense to people. With that I heartily agree.

Doctor W., thanks for the data points! That's basically what I've heard from elsewhere in the Transition scene.

DaShui, exactly. What the "peak demand" people aren't saying is that demand is peaking because the externalized costs consequent on falling net energy are wrecking the real economy of goods and services, and causing massive demand destruction everywhere outside of the narrowing circles of affluence. Same process, different manifestation.

Justin, exactly -- and exactly. Those are points that can be introduced, discussed, leveraged, and inserted into the collective dialogue.

Breanna, what you're talking about is of great importance -- lifestyle change as a key to social change. Feminists back in the Sixties used to say "the personal is political," and they were right. The lessons you're learning in helping other people to take up less ecologically damaging ways to live their lives can be applied more broadly -- so please take notes! ;-)

Barrabas, bingo. It seems like a very sensible policy to me.

Cortes, interesting. I hadn't heard of that. Can you point me to some online resources that discuss it?

Doctor W., the Obama years have been nearly as disastrous for the environmental movement as the Clinton years were, since in both cases environmentalists -- as a captive constituency of the Democratic Party -- were required to insist that the administration was doing something helpful about the environment when it wasn't. Trump's administration could be a godsend to environmentalists, if they (a) start being for something rather than against this, that, and the other, and (b) hold the Democrats hostage by refusing to campaign for them unless they actually further environmental goals. Here's hoping!

JimBob, I expect some amount of petroleum, in some sense of that increasingly flexible term, to be being pumped and burnt until the end of this century at least. It's just that long before then, only militaries, government officials, and the very rich will have access to any of its products. Now imagine how your average Joe or Jane will react to that prospect!

JacGolf, oh, granted. Again, narrative matters. Obama had nothing but a narrative, and ditched it the moment the last votes were counted. Trump? We'll see.

Mark Hines said...

John, I just bought your book Retrotopia first on amazon kindle and liked it so much I bought a printed copy and read that too. Funny thing, I enjoyed reading the printed copy more. I really like the premise of the book and how thought provoking it is. Made me rethink my concepts of diminishing returns of progress and what efficiency really is.

Just for your info, here is a link to a New York times article about how we have reached the point of diminishing returns with gadgets.
Although he doesn't use the term, the article brings out some good points.

Keep up the good work.

Tower 440 said...

Hi John
Challenging enough to get people to keep their eyes on the ball, but when the existence of the ball is doubted… yeah, well… Here in the very red state part of Ohio, environmentalism is a tainted brand – part of a leftist plot to immiserate the middle class – and the perceived rot has spread to foul anything green, including peak oil, biodiesel, and environmental science classes. As far as I can tell, much of the damage to various green ideas is done by true believers who are shrill, persistent, and lack technical knowledge or skill beyond the ability to annoy everyone around them.
The people on the wrong side of the true believers end up giving more credibility to sightings of South Bay Bessie, Lake Erie’s own monster, than they do to peak oil.
One specific thing that I have noticed is the apparent arrogance of various people proposing peak oil and transition town plans. “Hey, SWINE! Have some pearls!” seems a prevailing attitude. Then, after the obligatory four years in the McMansion up the hill, the same people succumb to the wanderlust of the upper middle class and pack up to chase greener brownfields.
Personally, I’m working on humilitĂ©. We have a little garden club called the Green Wizards. It’s for people who like to grow their own food and tinker with antiques.

casamurphy said...

Gail Tverberg at has a good handle on the issue of peak affordable oil. I highly recommend her site.

denmon said...

What exactly would "peak knowledge" be? My reading of history suggests to me that most if not all that passes for knowledge is tainted with the brushs of ego and political intent. There can be no end of human curiosity while anything remotely resembling the human mind exists. Everything is debatable, nothing is absolute. I believe we are tiny parts of something beyond our understanding and can only approximate the dimensions of our immediate predicaments sufficient, if we are lucky, to survive until the next unforeseeable instant. Religious beliefs, whatever forms they take, are only as relevant as their ability to instil a sense of humility in the face of our greatest doubts and strength in our darkest hour, each like a unique language only intellible to its speakers. I don't think knowledge has limits any more than our passion to know and our insatiable curiosity.

Steve Carrow said...

Rebrand, rename, stop making predictions that are extravagant or poorly thought out, describe a positive alternative to the status quo, target those that would benefit from the change, create an engaging narrative, stay focussed, do all these things you've suggested, and then what? I predict continued business as usual.

I think that getting a significant portion of the first world to acknowledge that the party is indeed over and radically change its ways goes against all indications so far. Paris? Marrakech? Words only.

I guess I'm soured on the ability of collective human organizations to get beyond the subconscious social primate needs and tribal identities. Blame Dave Cohen over at Decline of the Empire for that, I guess.

The peak oil ( and climate change, and mass extinction, and....) awareness effort is still of some use for helping the small percentage who can see and are able to make the shift. I think at this point we are filling a few lifeboats and hoping for the best. The change our ways and save the planet ship has sailed.

You are one of the steady voices, and I appreciate your attempts with thaumaturgy and magic to affect a large change, but I fear it won't be enough.

patriciaormsby said...

Nice essay, JMG! I've had a very lively conversation across the past two weeks with my on-line altercation group (I sent them your way last week, BTW, and if a guy named Yves is giving you trouble, it's my fault, but he does "get it" after a while), which has pitted me against a believer in abiotic oil. Of course, his opinion is that there is lots of oil if the profiteers would just get out of the way. I haven't tried to disprove it to him (Yves did, but he doesn't yet see why people think "scientific consensus" is a scam), but I pointed out "net energy" as the key concept to understand. This is the only thing he and I disagree about. He is a businessman, struggling through the bureaucratic hardships of our current era and facing the breakdown in social order square on, while casting about for practical solutions and trying out all sorts of ideas. In other words, he's the kind of person most likely to lead the way forward, and it matters not one bit whether or not he believes in limited petroleum resources: he'll just blame all the mayhem on the Rockefellers. Since he says, "We'll see what happens," and because the economy could go in any direction depending on how things work out with Mr. Trump, the idea he proposes of seeing whether abundance returns if only the ogres let it might not be the best yardstick. I will propose instead to follow the breakeven point of the oil price for producers and see if that rises, falls or stays even. What do you think?

To the Green Wizards in the Kanto area, there will not be a picnic at the Asakawa Kompira Shrine in January, but it is great for Hatsumode. if you don't know the location, check out the "meet-ups" section at the Green Wizards website. I'll be away, but lots of nice people will be there. I'll be back for the February picnic--if it's not snowed out.

Patricia Mathews said...

Re: Merigan Tales - I am SO glad it's forthcoming -and on *next* month's book budget.
Pat, up to her ears because it's less than 2 weeks to that greatest of all holidays, Shoppingmas! Classic kids' books for the grandnieces and grandnephews.

Tim F said...

It seems strange that you deemphasize shale gas in your essay. I think the evidence was pretty clear by the mid-2000s that we would have a serious problem by 2010 or so, but the shale gas boom pretty much surprised everyone. Kunstler could not have predicted the impact of shale gas because no one did. By taking pressure off the demand for petroleum it kicked both OPEC and Russia square in the nuts while giving the global economy a little room to breathe, which is to say carry on as if everything is normal. Everything is obviously not normal, but this way we get another decade or two to party. Hell, it might buy us time to find some gee-whiz sustainability solution that does not involve mass depopulation, unattended nuclear plant ruins and hand-made leather plow straps.

The shale gas dynamic in particular will me amusing to watch. Russia really hates our fracking industry. He really had Europe's nuts in a vise until we started exporting the stuff practically for free. Given the massive degree to which Russia depends on petro cash, our boom really is their bust. Putin hates our gas industry and would love to see it shut down. Now Trump and the GOP want to drill even beyond what economics calls for. Why, I don't know. But they seem really committed to this stuff. Lord knows his picks for Interior and EPA love them some drilling. If Putin has untoward influence over the GOP then expect them to go full Greenpeace over fracking and choke off sales to Europe (if we drill it, the gas has to go somewhere). If not, yippie kay yay and pass the hydrocarbon dowsing rods.

Eric S. said...

I was involved with the Transition movement during its heyday in 2009-10, I moved away before it imploded, but what I recall from my friends in the chapter I was involved in was that that particular chapter at least threw all its resources and energy into the Occupy movement and died when it died. So that's at least one classic case of death by piggybacking. One of the weird things about the Peak Oil movement right now is that when it gets mentioned at all, it's usually on the sort of survivalist sites that wind up on the neo-McCarthy blacklists discussed a few weeks ago. It really does feel like it's been pushed so far out to the fringe that even mentioning it gets people backing away slowly... I was a little kid during the '80s and '90s and so never experienced that era... but was being a Peak Oil activist then roughly what it's like to be one now?

on other topics:

It seems like each Oil shock should hit the economy slightly harder than the one before. But with this last one, we wound up with a large and noticeable correction, but nothing quite like what we got in 2008. What we got instead was a series of global political crises that 2008 couldn't hold a candle to if it wanted. Was that essentially the same impact hitting in different spheres?

Last, though I'm sure you'll have already covered it in response to someone else: any suggestions for what you would call the next Peak Oil movement if you could plant those seeds?

Yupped said...

Good that you are talking about this. Peak oil needs a proper funeral, or at least it needs to be acknowledged as deceased (images of the Monty Python parrot sketch are coming to mind as I type). Right now the PO thing seems like a funny phase I went through, although it did leave a lasting impression on my lifestyle. I'm happy with the lifestyle changes, but the PO fears that catalyzed them have abated. The PO movement itself is definitely in its waning performance stages now.

I never bought into the rapid and obvious collapse scenario - I didn't get into the PO topic until about 2010 by which time the price and demand dynamics had already kicked in and it was clear it was going to be a bumpy way down. What I didn't realize - or really internalize - was how long and slow the way down was going to be - I still believed that the impacts of declining net energy, debt, fracking bubbles and the like would be visible and significant. Of course these things are real, and they are having their impacts and will continue to. But so far these impacts have been fairly well absorbed into business as usual, and business as usual appears to be quite flexible and adaptive. We're carrying a lot of fat, after all. Currently, I really have no idea when any one of these impacts could prove truly disruptive to a degree that most reasonable people would have to conclude that energy depletion is real and that we absolutely must do something about it.

Of course, things are not really carrying on as usual - declining net energy is real and the economic impacts are real. But these impacts, at least for now, are hard to discern amid the rest of the noise. I think the hard problem to solve is this - the reality of energy depletion requires major changes in our lifestyles; these changes are hard to make for most people; and most people won't make them unless they have to. Unless the energy depletion impacts are discernible and immediate and undeniable, then the changes are not likely to be made unless people have some other set of reasons to want to make those changes. So, basically, without the fear of major disruption, we don't act. How, then, does any revamped movement get a broad mass of people to embrace LESS in their own lives (along with the mantra that there is no better future) without that fear as a motivator?

Unknown said...

Off topic, but Cumberland, MD was just featured in bloomberg

Dennis Mitchell said...

Climate change and peak oil cast a dark shadow on my grandkids future. Change at a government level is getting less likely as the corporations tighten their grip. I really like the cloth diapers idea. We are reaching peak poop. The thing is, I don't know people making simple changes. Clothes lines and bicycles. Revolution at the day to day social level might be all we've got. I saw a guilt ridden story on the local news about how disposable diapers are such a drain on the incomes of "poor" parents. A garden, a bike, and a clothes line might be all I need to live the life of the sane and humble. I think we are stuck with peak oil as a term. In the long run it is reality, and that is what we can't accept.

John Michael Greer said...

JacGolf, that's a common misconception. Fossil fuel use was still pretty minimal in the US in 1865, except for a handful of industries such as steel manufacture -- and those industries never did use slaves.

Elmo, if that's the way you want to frame it, by all means. I find other approaches far more useful.

Moshe, I remember that as well -- and I also remember the constant pushback I got whenever I suggested that the standard linear-decline model didn't take important factors into account. The peak oil organizations, which had a very large role in setting the public tone of the movement, could have taken a broader range of perspectives into account. My guess is that the dream of ample funding and public acknowledgment was too tempting.

NomadicBeer, not at all. Most of the adaptations you've described are short term patches that have already made things worse in the middle (and not very lengthy middle) term. There were always other options; there are still some of those, and some very simple measures could make the road down a lot easier. More on this in an upcoming post!

Cherokee, oh, granted. The problem -- or one of the problems -- is that getting rid of excess technoclutter and dysfunctional junk is being framed as hair shirt austerity, and there are many other ways to go about it!

Peter, you're welcome and thank you.

Mark, delighted to hear it! Many thanks for the link -- to see a flicker of common sense breaking through in the New York Times is quite unexpected. ;-)

Tower 440, yeah, I've seen the same attitude expressed at top volume way too often to doubt it. It might be necessary to reframe the whole issue outside the context of environmentalism to get out from under the burden of all the nitwits who've used green this and ecologically conscious that to try to parade their own purported goodness in front of everyone else.

Casamurphy, sure -- just pay attention to the way her economic predictions repeatedly flop, and judge accordingly.

Denmon, while potential knowledge may be infinite, our capacity as a society to process and store knowledge is not. As the industrial age ratchets down, a lot of knowledge will be lost for a long time or forever. Depending on where we are in that process -- with misinformation crowding out actual knowledge -- we could already be past the point at which our society's knowledge base topped out and started to decline.

Steve, that is to say, it's a gamble, and it may not work. So? That strikes me as all the more reason to make the effort. Fiat justitia, ruat caelum!

John Michael Greer said...

Patricia O., no sign of him yet. If he's polite and his comments are relevant to the conversation, he's welcome. As for the breakeven point, that's certainly one thing to watch. Another is the severity and frequency of price swings.

Patricia M., and a happy post-solstice shopping orgy to you and yours!

Tim, those of us who were watching the economics predicted that marginal sources of hydrocarbons (you can spell that "shale gas" if you want to) would come on stream as things unfolded. As for our supposed oceans of exported gas, would you care to point me to a source with meaningful numbers that says that's actually happening? Last I heard, shale gas or no shale gas, the US is a net importer of natural gas.

Eric, no, it wasn't. There were some very respected people fronting the movement; there were a couple of US representatives who were supportive; the first ASPO conference I went to was full of investment brokers, who were interested in what the rising price of oil would do to their portfolios. It was a completely different world. As for your other questions: yes, the impact lands differently each time, and I'm not yet sure what to call it.

Yupped, fear is actually a lousy motivator. Preachers of all kinds should have noticed a long time ago that yelling about "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry (fill in the blank)" is popular entertainment but not much else. The interesting thing is that a lot of the changes that have to be made are already being made, as a matter of economics rather than ideology; demand destruction is a significant force these days, and so is the way that various groups outside the circles of affluence are downshifting their lifestyles in various not always obvious ways. Here in Cumberland, kids whose dads hotdogged in cars are hotdogging on bikes these days. The issue is simply how to catalyze such things...

Unknown, one of the reasons the Cumberland area rates so high on "brain drain" scales is that we've got two colleges that provide a lot of professionals for this whole region of Appalachia. That said, yes, we could use a lot of good jobs here!

Dennis, maybe so, but I wonder if it would be better reframed with a different narrative.

Keith Huddleston said...

Do you think there is any hope for a de-industrialization/retrotopian movement framed around quality of life issues?

So much of modern life is ugly, noisy, and boring. Spaces can be made that are the opposite of all of those things and then be used by the home economy as a way to pay for the space and it's joy.

Or do you think as long as there is a great fear of some competitor taking their status, most people really can't see that truth (after all, reading Walden shows that people have had the opportunity all along, eh?)

Agent Provocateur said...


Has the peak oil ... I mean “diminishing net energy” ... movement failed?

Well yes, if you had high hopes industrial societies would change radically to better meet the challenges declining conventional oil production. I never did.

We should give its promoters, including yourself, their due though. You in the peak oil movement (sorry, “diminishing net energy” has too many syllables) have been reasonably successful in getting the notion of peak oil to a larger audience. True it has been ridiculed and deliberately misrepresented in the corporate media. Yes, governments deny it. But in truth they get it. The proof of this is that their militaries get it. They have built it into their planning documents such as the JOE. These are signs of success. The meme is out there. Its not dead.

TOD and other sites shut down or changed their focus because getting the word out was their initial reason for being. Their aim was achieved. CERA, EIA, and IEA have all have admitted we are past the point of peak conventional oil production. There was no reason for those, or your, peak oil websites to continue beating the drum. They didn't and neither did you.

Now, do governments and other institutions plan to do anything about it? Well, its like anthropogenic climate change. No one of consequence really thinks it does not exist. The plan in both cases is simple. We in industrial societies plan to burn as much fossil fuels as possible and in so doing bake the planet. That's the plan ... has been from the beginning.

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea but, realistically, no one has come up with a better one. No, not even you JMG. You do not have a realistic plan. No one does.

Except maybe Mr. Dmitry Orlov. His plan is to muddle through (or not). So, while we burn as much fossil fuel as possible and bake the planet, we will attempt to muddle through. Still basically the same plan. Who doesn't attempt to muddle through?

OK. Here in Ontario we have some wind turbines and solar arrays and are phasing out coal powered power plants. Great. Maybe a better public transit system. Maybe. Still the plan is essentially the same because all those things depend on fossil fuels which, as I've said, we plan to burn ... all of it that we can. Maybe just a little later if we conserve and are more efficient. Still the plan is the same and on any time scale that matters, we bake the planet.

Is this a counsel of doom and do nothing? Not at all. Governments and other institutions will respond because they must or die. Will they respond too late with too little? Why of course. Its all part of muddling through or not as the case may be.

What am I doing? I grow and raise a fair part of my own food, burn only wood for heat etc.. It makes some difference for my family and I, but really it doesn't change much nor do I expect it to. When I can't use an internal combustion engine, I won't. When I can't pay for the lights to be on, I won't. I'm just muddling though. And the plan is and will remain the same: I, like everyone else in an industrial society, will burn as much fossil fuel as possible and bake the planet as I attempt to muddle through. After we have used all the fossil fuels and baked the planet we will still continue to try to muddle through.

Just stop burning fossil fuels? That is not going to happen until we are forced to because what it means is to stop being an industrial society. That is not a politically sellable idea. Neither that nor any significantly lower rate of energy use or lower tier of technology you may regard as better. Work the numbers. The time frames just don't change much. All the different models of the Limits to Growth showed pretty much the same thing. In any case, we have already hit the iceberg. We are in a classic progress trap. There is no way out. We will just have to muddle through ... or not as the case may be.

PRiZM said...

Excellent timing with this post JMG! Definitely it coincides with the transition of power in the Whitehouse and government, but also at a time when more and more American people let it be known that they are wanting and ready for change. That is where many of us could come in, by trying to open more dialogue and planning on grassroots local movements, and what better way to brand it than as "Making America Great Again," except perhaps with a little less reference to Trump. It's a great opportunity to bridge the two groups, especially in communities in the Fly-Over States. The reality is, people want change, they want jobs, and they want some hope. Certainly what hope that is and the jobs which might be available vary based on area. That's why grassroots matters. I'd love to see more of us, especially the readers of this blog, but others as well, stop waiting for the government to fix things and realize that we must take matters into our own hands, and make the future we want. Thank you for always providing the inspiration and insight for such things. You keep doing this on a weekly basis. I know last week many readers of the blog we're asking for you to change your tune, to go with something a little more philosophical, but I applaud you and beg you to continue writing what you want to write as you see the need to do so.

Wendy Crim said...

This is really interesting to me. Personally, I have two children that are so far apart in age they are each, basically, "only" children. My first child I had young and she is now grown, and my second child is a pre-teen, still at home. I was always interested in breast feeding, cloth diapers, staying home with my babies. During my first pregnacy and birth, these issues were considered fringe and people gave me sideways glances for them. My second time around, much more accepted. Now, my husband has young clients and we have young friends that are just now having babies. Cloth diapers and natural parenting seems to be the norm (almost). So, I appreciate your comment. It's interesting to see the trajectory of this issue.

Wendy Crim said...

Thoughts on travel? I've been out of the country once and I flew. Ive flown enough times. I've heard you talk about flying vs. coal mining before- I enjoyed that. I love to travel and wish we had a real train system still. I travel by car and, unless I am required to go overseas, I refuse to fly. I won't fly for three reasons 1. It's bad for the environment 2. It's too expensive and 3. It's a god awful experience. I just personally hate to fly. Do you think passenger trains will come back in a meaningful way in the near-ish future? What about steamliners? I can't imagine a more delightful way to get overseas than actually taking the seas!

Ed Suominen said...

First-time commenter, and I'd like to begin by thanking you for all your writing, both in books (many of which I've purchased, enjoyed, and cited) and on this blog. Each week's installment is eagerly awaited, along with the plethora of fine comments and your responses to them. The concept of polite discourse seems alive and well here!

Count me among the PO enthusiasts who expected we'd all be waiting in gas lines by now for our ration of fuel to buy increasingly rare essentials in a crashing economy. Then along came this thing called hydraulic fracturing, which I observe after leafing through my pile of books from Kunstler, Heinberg, Simmons, et al. was utterly unanticipated by peak oilers. I certainly had no clue myself.

The story now is that fracked wells have a rapid depletion rate and the cost of a barrel from their stingy depths is higher than the market price right now. I tend to believe it, but take it with a bit of seasoning from the nearest salt deposit. Meanwhile, the oil trains roll on across Eastern Washington, full of Bakken crude.

RobM said...

I don't think it has anything to do with failed predictions or a flawed strategy. The peak oil and climate change movements failed for the same reasons: neither has a solution, and neither has a happy ending. The pain of both could have been reduced by choosing to climb down the cliff rather than waiting to be pushed off the cliff. Nobody wants population reduction or austerity forced on them, despite these being the only two actions that might help, and unfortunately they are in direct conflict with what our genes want to do. We are no better or worse than yeast.

Brian said...

Why has the peak oil movement so far failed? I think the answers are fairly obvious:

Lots of us know what the prescription is, but most of those who do can come up with good excuses not to take our medicine.

1. Simple Procrastination: I know I need to change, and I will, but I'm comfortable now so I'll get to it later.
2. Change is Hard: I'm too busy trying to keep my head above water this week to think about what I need to do to prepare for next year.

But the really big one is:
3. Social Conformity: Most people are too worried that they're going to look like a failure to their friends and family if they chuck it all, quit what they've been doing, and radically downsize their consumption of energy and materials.

We're social beasts and it's very, very hard to step away from the crowd.

Robert Honeybourne said...

Net energy is a good understandable concept

I think 'peak oil' did its time as did 'global warming' but gave the opponents a stick

Is it not the case that only by having a powerful 'meme' at the start does awareness get going? If it werent for 'peak oil' would so many people understand the issues of net energy. They can spread a more refined understanding?

Gravity was a good concept in its day and explained a lot, and my tube HiFi works well using classical particles
My iPad needs more scientific models though

So we push on to spreading the idea of net energy

Thanks for a good summary of the Peak Oil movement

Frank Johannessen said...

I think one problem with the peak oil movement that you left out is how a lot of the proponents of the theory grew a bit to fond of the idea of peak oil. This happens to all of us if we focus to much on anything. An example of this is how priests that are very vocal against homosexuality and drug-use have an uncanny tendency to getting caught having drug-fueled sex with gay prostitutes.

I think that this psychological quirk of the human mind led to some proponents of the theory wanting peak oil to happen. They rationalized this desire either as a needed wakeup-call for the general public or that it was neccessary to prevent catastrophic climate change, but in the end I think most just wanted to see peak oil happen and they wanted it to happen as hard as possible. If this is the case, they obviously had no desire for preventing peak oil from happening or mitigating the effects. I think this also caused a lot of the apocalyptic predictions (people tend to confuse what they want to happen with what they think will happen) that alienated the movement from the public.

Im not saying that everyone in the peak oil movement behaved like this. It was probably only a minor fraction, but it was a vocal minor fraction that oponents of the movement could point at to discredit the movement.

beetleswamp said...

Excellent timing on this one, as I'm currently involved with several groups who are trying to tackle head-on the problem of being on one of the most isolated places on earth with 1.5 million people and 90% of our food is imported with just-in-time delivery.

It's especially poignant at the moment as our politicians are currently playing the "say nice stuff for re-election" game and don't seem to expect anyone to hold their feet to the fire once it comes time to make good on their sustainability promises. You have made a good case that it's more important to provide outreach to the population currently being afflicted by higher-priced, lower-quality, out-of-state produce that was probably grown in used fracking water. It's amazing what some people will pay for a glorified piece of plastic that looks like a vegetable these days.

For a while I tried to make friends in the Transition movement and followed the news in the Peak Oil scene, but at some point it felt like people were bashing anyone who didn't share hyper liberal values or trying to get me to sign up for two thousand dollar permaculture seminars. The local food movement is much more nuts and bolts, less attractive to people who don't actually want to work, and political gold if properly exploited.

If someone asks why I got into it my response is "The era of cheap energy is over" because that's something anybody who pays utility bills can understand. They costs never go down. Not anymore.

DiSc said...

I never saw the Peak Oil movement as advocating specific policies, but more as spreading information about one aspect of the environmental crisis. So it could not "fail" since it was not really trying to achieve anything.

Fracking and low oil prices destroyed much of the movement's organization (including our own Dutch branch of ASPO which, I gather, is dead). However, it does not take a leap of faith to believe that the effects od peak oil will show within a few years anyway. Rather, it takes a leap of faith to believe that they will not.

One of the effects of the price crash(es) is that people in the Peak Oil movement have started looking at the larger picture. As you say, the oil industry is not only influenced by geology, but by economics as well.

So you find peak oilers like the Automatic Earth and Gail Tverberg looking at finance and economics. Both make false predictions at times, still I believe their analyses are largely correct. And they make for more interesting reading then Heinberg's books.

Like the Frankfurt School of sociology tried to understand why the Revolution had not happened in the West and ended up saying very interesting and unsettling things about our society, so maybe a new school of thought will be born out of Peak Oil and say interesting things about Globalization.

beetleswamp said...

*Not like they used to.

Spanish fly said...

I remember when Kunstler had his little time for glory publishing "The Long emergency". The few ASPOnites sites written in spanish looked poor Jim with contempt, when not in worse feelings.
Ironically, Jim the newyorker-democrat-secular jew was read with more enthusiasm in some extreme left dives in and out the www. His book was translated by a mountaineering publishing house...

Another book written by an alternative eco-leftist was half-ignored by true believers in peak oil, because he was not enough servile to ASPO cult...(OK, not every believers, to be fair)

That was sad and worrying for me.
So I realized that ASPOnites strategy was stupid and sectarian, a failure...
Blind beliefs in fast collapse (that I called comically "express collapse") were near orthodoxy, so supporters of "slow-moving disaster" (aka decay) were always talking to a wall.
7 or 8 years ago, I got bored of that doom cult, although I keep thinking that future will be darker than past. I'm worried with my nephew bad education, zombified by bright plastic gadgets and screens...

Spanish fly said...

"Rebrand, rename, stop making predictions that are extravagant or poorly thought out, describe a positive alternative to the status quo, target those that would benefit from the change, create an engaging narrative, stay focussed, do all these things you've suggested, and then what? I predict continued business as usual."

Steve, a little bit is better that none, isn't it?

drhooves said...

JMG wrote: "That tells you that you don't want to go to the wealthy to get support for a renewed peak oil movement. You find the people whose interests would actually be bettered by downshifting to less fossil fuel use -- for example, people who would be employed if fossil-fuel-powered automation hadn't taken their jobs away from them -- and that's where you aim your education and outreach."

Agreed, but one of the challenges will be overcoming the propaganda directed to maintain the status quo. How many people do we know, who are otherwise intelligent and logical, who are convinced that global warming is a COMPLETE hoax? At the risk of being condescending, I'd argue that the last few decades of impact of our education systems' failure to require development of critical thinking skills along with society's glorification of ignorance and celebrity lifestyles (Keeping Up With The Kardashians) has set the table for ANY political movement being a tough row to hoe. (note - in full disclosure, my handle of 'drhooves' has nothing to do with an advanced degree, but everything to do with my love of horse racing)

@JacGolf: Fossil fuel use aside, I'd make the argument that with higher taxes, mandated "health care", incredible amounts of debt, half of citizens relying on government handouts and significant privacy concerns, that many of us are already slaves - whether we want to be or not.

kristofv said...

I often wondered if the austerity ideology that captured western governments is part of a deliberate demand destruction approach. Dealing with peak oil without mentioning it and skewing it in such a way that the people at the bottom take the biggest hit. The obvious approach to dealing with the post-2008 financial crisis would have been governments investing (in the 1930s FDR did, but only with WWII as en excuse it was fully pursued). You can get a lot of people doing useful work and paying them without the work requiring huge amounts of net energy.

Self-driving cars seem to provide many engineering research jobs nowadays but this project lacks an inspiring vision. "Taxis for everyone but without annoying human drivers" or "my car goes shopping for me", just don't cut it. At least the internet and cell phones could be sold as promoting peace and love on earth when we all are within reach of one another. I have the feeling that promoters of technological progress nowadays, besides for renewable energy, are not even pretending it will bring about a better society.

latheChuck said...

All (except JMG) -

The coming of another solstice reminds me that it's time to for me to feed the Tip Jar again. As a regular reader and occasional poster, I've been setting aside $1/wk, paid on summer and winter solstices. I don't know how much JMG receives from each book sale, but I'm happy to know that he gets 100% of the tip jar. $1/wk doesn't really seem like enough, but if I can get a couple hundred of you other readers to follow along, my modest example will be worthwhile.

Compensation is the sincerest form of appreciation.

Why "on solstices"? Not for any particularly magical astrological reason, just that it helps me to remember. It's just a practice that assists my consciousness according to my will.

Hereward said...

Talking of new books, there is one I would like to bring to your attention and that is The Canary in the Coal Mine by Marianne Thieme and Ewald Engelen. Thieme and Engelen are members of the Dutch political party, Partij voor de Dieren (Party for the Animals of which Thieme is the leader) which currently has two seats in the Dutch parliament (that's proportional representation at work). The name of the party - something you will probably appreciate - is a kind of initiation; most people don't get it and think the party is only about saving the fluffy bunnies or some such like. Those who do get it, come to realise that a) how we farm the meat we eat says a lot about our society, and b) that a party that cares deeply about the welfare of animals necessarily has to take a whole system approach to agriculture, the environment and human society in general. From this starting point, political policies are derived which, far from being policies aimed at a single issue (nearly exclusively being the economy for most political parties), encompass a whole world in which humans are just a part.

The book is actually two in one. The part written by Thieme starts from the agribusiness, environmental side and the part by Engelen from the point of view of the unsustainability of the current western economic system. The two sides converge to map out their 'Plan B' because, as they say, there is no Planet B.

I think it could well appeal to druids and so, by way of a yuletide present, I have put enough in the tip jar to cover the cost of the book, should you wish to read it (unfortunately only available as an e-book in English at the moment). Failing that, please invest the money in mead or another worthy cause!

Greg Belvedere said...

I agree with your analysis of the shortcomings of the movement and it has got me thinking about new approaches. A new name seems appropriate. Perhaps something that talks about the problem through the lens of addiction. Though I worry that is too hair shirt. I really don't know. I know the changes I'm making personally, but I don't know what to do in the wider political sphere. Perhaps it makes sense to organize people to get subsidies for weatherizing and solarizing homes. This seems like an achievable goal that could have broad appeal.

I have noticed that the peak prefix has become very popular and widely used. It seems that it gets used by people who don't know what peak oil is. I don't know what this says about the phrase, but it seems relevant.

Phil Harris said...

Yes, in 2005 I took as plausible the argument that when the essential trajectory of oil production became widely known, economic & geopolitical mayhem would result, however disguised the arguments might become. (I was concerned though that 'Peak Oilists' could not properly theorise the shape of the oncoming decline curve.)

Actually I did not expect things generally to get as bad as they have. Like Climate Change, which I reckoned in 2005 would not be seen as 'imminent' for a couple more decades, the results seem worse than I guessed earlier they might be. (I thought Climate Change would take second place as a challenge for industrial civilisation looking forward. That seems to be the case despite the acceleration of results we are looking at. CO2 is relentlessly still going up although we hear a lot about the rate of climb no longer accelerating.)

The decline in 'Net Energy Profit’ – I like the concept - meets 'Modernisation' head-on I guess. And more people will feel that 'their future' has been taken away from them.
Phil H

Tim F said...

"would you care to point me to a source with meaningful numbers that says that's actually happening?"

We started shipping LNG in April. The numbers aren't that great because the infrastructure is still spooling up. My point is more that if we drill beyond what supply/demand immediately calls for, the surplus has to go somewhere. We are building for that eventuality right now. Whether you or I would choose that as a policy priority, obviously that is another story. Anyway that specific point is a not a big deal. Obviously the petro market is globalized. Even if America mostly-partially satisfies its own demand lots and lots of compressed algae stays in its local market and cheapens the stuff for everyone. Putin really needs us to stop doing that. Rex Tillerson looks like he will basically just do whatever Russia asks but the wingnuts at Interior and EPA will be the more traditional kind. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out

Ben Johnson said...

@ Shane - In last week's comments you suggested that the evangelicals are becoming more inward looking and less interested in fighting culture war battles. I hope you are right, though I still see a lot of anti-abortion battles being fought out in state legislatures. That said, the rank and file may be changing their minds even if the leaders are not. Here in Oklahoma, we had a referendum on last month's ballot to remove the separation of church and state from the state constitution. I expected it to easily pass. Instead, the NO vote won roughly 60-40. I was shocked, and I hope this is a sign that, the people at least, are giving up on culture warring.

@ JMG - I can draw a straight line from picking up The Long Emergency at a local library in 2007 to reading your blog today (and buying a few of the books :-) ). I've met with mixed results when talking about net energy with friends and co workers over the year, which is probably to be expected. Some people get it (you're right that the profit v loss narrative works for some), others respond with "well if you're still getting oil out of the ground, just keep pumping!" I suppose that's inevitable.
Also, a half dozen coworkers and I are organizing a community garden which will start with three raised beds in the courtyard. The idea got off the ground because of some volunteer watermelons and cantaloupes that took root over the summer. It may not be an explicitly 'peak oil' inspired project, but getting people into food security, even in a small way, is a first step forward, I think. Maybe even the first step in the journey of a thousand miles?

Erik Buitenhuis said...

JMG, I think you're behind the times. Never mind peak oil, we're at peak total carbon emissions. Carbon emissions have been essentially the same for the last three years:

n=ro said...

Hello John,

Reviving the Peak Oil Movement (Minus it's obvious mistakes) sounds like a good idea.

I would like to promote David Holmgren's 'Energy Descent' as a suitable title for this. (I'm not entirely sure whether he was the first one to make the term popular)

Holmgren used it specifically as the alternative to 'apocalyptic collapse' for quite a while now, and it also carries the notion of net-energy decline.

And it's short and precise.

kind regards,

Myriad said...

No other surviving peak-oil-themed sites come to mind? Not even one that rather than just "soldiering away" has been steadily growing in scope, participation, and influence? It's usually bad form to mention the elephant in the room, but if anyplace is an exception it should be here.

So: as far as I can tell and as far as I'm concerned, this blog and the "scene" around it (encompassing among other themes realistic energy and climate futures, catabolic collapse awareness, green wizardry, politics and economics of Imperial decline, spiritual environmentalism, history appreciation, retro solutions, old-school frugality (along with LESS), deindustrial SF — heck, if we had our own characteristic music style we'd be a whole subculture) is the surviving descendant and most promising successor of the peak oil movement, and whatever impetus that movement added to its author's efforts ten years ago is its most noteworthy accomplishment to date.

Of course most of the many threads gathered here originated and/or are also ably explored elsewhere, and peak oil was and is only one among many. I also understand the case for keeping personality well on the periphery if not entirely out of the picture. Still, if we're talking about the history, status, and future of peak oil as a movement, a nod in the general direction of the proverbial pachyderm corrects a glaring omission.

Glenn Murray said...

JMG, thank you for your insightful (inciteful) essays. Gay Marriage may have been a much easier nut to crack. It is a simple, clear goal, easy to make in the "Elevator Pitch" and does not ask for anyone to actually give up anything tangible. Peak oil/ Net energy is such a hairy and broad reaching predicament that the suites of responses will be so broad and varied as to appear completely unrelated (YEA DISSENSUS!). Maybe these are the points around the edges to stick the pry-bar: Co-op ownership (Cleveland Model and buy and manufacture local programs are both jobs programs, anti-globalization measures AND effective responses to our Net Energy predicament. As are Local Foods, Slow Foods, Slow Money, Libraries, Community Seed & tool Banks, Credit Unions, community gardens, Sewing Circles, Renewed interest in Trade Schools and Shop Class, The Maker Movement, rain barrels, Renewed interest in knitting and crocheting, board gaming parlors, bicycling, composting, Vaudville and Burlesque revivals, "Chickens and Bees" legislation. I am heartened to see a whole generation of kids growing up in my city doing all of these subversive things. None of them as a direct response to peak oil, but all helping just a tiny bit out at the edges. Anybody can enjoy doing any or all of these and other things and not give a tinker's cuss about about peak oil, but help in the response nonetheless.
Thanks again and Happy Solstice

Brother Guthlac said...

I admit that I expected the fracking bubble to imitate the 2008 real estate mortgage bubble during this past year now ending. Not hit that bump yet.

Varun Bhaskar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric S. said...

I'm not sure if this suggestion would be tantamount to piggybacking on other issues... but it seems that one of the weaknesses a tunneled focus on Peak Oil has is that it's a tightened focus on one single resource, albeit an important one, when in fact one of the core issues is resource depletion, and scarcity in a much broader sense, touching on a broad scope of non-renewable resources. Focus on oil as the only resource that's at issue, in a lot of ways, is the same sort of mistake that the global warming movement made with its identity, since it had no idea to talk about other shifts in global climate that were a part of the phenomenon. What they wound up doing was re-branding themselves as climate change, which was a name that was able to cover the broader scope of climate-related phenomena connected to greenhouse gas emissions.

Perhaps a re-branding of the Peak Oil movement could expand into a broader resource scarcity movement, which would be able to fall back on other more visible issues when people aren't thinking about oil prices, while also being able to resist being trampled over by solar and nuclear booms by being able to focus on not only net energy, but on non-renewables such as rare earth metals and uranium when those booms happen. Toward the end, the Peak Oil movement was starting to do that very thing, but I'm not sure (and if I'm wrong please not only correct me, but point me towards it so that I can read it), they ever had anything that took a broad scope of all the non-renewable resources we were burning through, the industries that would be impacted, and rough estimates of their likely production curves and presented them in an easily accessible format for the layman in quite the same way as was done with oil and started a conversation on weaning ourselves away from those as well.

Of course, the biggest danger of a re-branding of that sort would be the possibility of such a movement getting absorbed into some other conservation movement and becoming a victim of the exact same sort of piggybacking that hurt the Peak Oil movement to begin with... but while allowing itself to be consumed by the environmentalist mainstream and the broader sustainability movement may have been too broad, perhaps focusing solely on oil is too narrow? Perhaps there's a middle ground that allows things like the impact of helium depletion on the medical industry, and of phosphate depletion on agriculture to be included in the movement, while drawing a clear boundary line that keeps it focused enough to avoid getting swept away by either the environmentalist mainstream or by sexier resource depletion issues like overfishing and deforestation that touch on slightly different, albeit overlapping issues?

Jim R said...

Thank you, JMG, for keeping this blog going all that time.

I arrived here as a reader, from The Oil Drum. Was just going through life, it was being pretty good to me, and had forgotten the extra-credit class I had taken in 1970 titled "The Energy Crisis". I found that pretty depressing in the '70s, however.

So The Oil Drum was an interesting review, to come back after 35 years and see where we are on those 'Club of Rome' graphs. Turns out they were fairly accurate. It was also interesting to me, from an engineering/scientific perspective. I had no idea drilling a hole in the earth was so complex. The secrets are all in the mud :-) And then, to watch the workers in the wake of the DWH blowout, operating robots under miles-deep water, wrangling pipes and tools under unimaginable pressure, as the oil volcano spewed. The old hands on TOD said the relief well was the only way, and they were right..

I guess the peak isn't far enough in the rearview mirror, quite yet, for popular mass recognition. There were some perceptive Drummers who always said the production peak would be masked by demand destruction, and that was correct as well.

As I see it, the greatest takeaway from TOD is the handful of prognosticators and philosophers whose perceptions have proven to be correct. Club Orlov, The Automatic Earth, and The Archdruid Report, for different aspects of our predicament, with clear insight.

Lucas said...

The average person could accept the gay marriage movement because nothing was required of them. What do I care if someone I don't know wants to get married??

The average person could not accept the peak oil movement because to do so would require them to radically reexamine their own lifestyle and assumptions about the future. Same goes for the climate change movement.

I am not sure that any iteration of the peak oil movement would have worked.

Paulo said...

Perhaps the moment or particular point of aha suffered feedback complications. nevertheless, present consumption is between 8 and 10X the rate of new discoveries.

Varun Bhaskar said...


If activists were half as studied as you we would be living in retrotopia right now. The sad part about that statement is that it doesn't take much effort to be half as studied as you. Just a book a month, and suddenly you know about the history of different social movements. May I venture a suggestion? Why don't you write a story about what the peak oil/environmental movement would look like in the near future? I think many people can now see a potential future with retrotopia, but picturing the vehicle to get us there (sans horrible war) is a little harder to imagine.

Just a thought.



Bill Pulliam said...

I never really understood how "peak oil" was a "movement." It was a phenomenon, a process that was essentially inevitable, even if the details and time scales were uncertain (aren't they always, for everything?). That is like describing "winter" as a "movement."

I found the concept of the "transition town" kind of interesting, until I unexpectedly found myself living in one. Who would have ever thought that a tiny hillbilly backwater where the three most numerous institutions were churches, junk shops, and biker bars would have somehow been overtaken by a "green" invasion? The idea was sold to the local chamber with promises of money money money ("green is the new gold!"), got tangled in its increasingly incomprehensible jargon, and faded away. In the end the local conspiracy theorists convinced the city council that the "Transition Movement" was part of Agenda 21, and the pro-transition resolution was rescinded. But by then it was all but dead anyway.

The past and the present were not planned, and the future won't be either. Peak Oil will continue to play out in ways more complex and confusing than anyone will be able to anticipate, and there will be 7 billion different responses to it. Tend your own garden, smile and wave at your neighbors, always keep an eye on the winds and weather (literally and metaphorically), and see where it all goes...

Dmitry Orlov said...

I don't believe that same sex marriage is entirely the result of grass-roots activism. It is part of an overall agenda to destroy the family, because atomized individuals are easier to control through bureaucratic, administrative means. Where such liberal strategies of social control fail, religious fundamentalism is used for exactly the same purpose.

ganv said...

It is an important history to understand so we can learn from it. It seems to me that a major factor is short term thinking on all sides. I have always felt that peak oil is a major issue on the timescale that the IEA has predicted global oil production to peak, which is in the 2020s or early 2030s. Many on the Oil Drum were consumed with arguing about whether their prediction was off by 10 or 15 years. But it was hard for people to accept the uncertainty in what sources could be tapped at what price so that they could see the longer term. I thought you clearly predicted that the big question was what happened after the first big price spikes. And electing Trump with maybe an Exxon-Mobil executive as secretary of state shows we are going to amplify the chaos. We are only in our 3rd year below $80 per barrel. There is clearly another price spike coming, and Tillerson will benefit from high prices so it seems pretty predictable. I can't see why the serious ideas don't support as strong of a movement as in 2006. But humans are just really really short sighted. And movements seem to require new issues every year rather than a conservation law playing out over decades.

Gavin Harris said...

Hi JMG, another post that tickles the planning brain cells.

Cherokee, I know your suggestion of "Resource Depletion" highlights the actual problem well, it also opens the door to all those who would deny that it is a problem - for example the abiotic oil brigade.

I would suggest something built on the phrase that JMG actually used, e.g. the Net Energy Discussion. Discussion implies that multiple viewpoints are supported and Net Energy forces people to consider the mathematics. From there, you can build the narrative in the direction of what to do about the increasingly poor return on energy extraction.

Also, as JMG notes in another comment, fear is a bad motivator. Governments have been over doing the fear thing recently and it hasn't worked - just look at Brexit for a prime example. Instead, we should look to the success of long term religions. We need to give people hope, we also need to present a positive message around doing well with less. A positive anti-consumerism, the pro-spartan lifestyle, something of that order. A big part of that is going to be doing away with the apocalyptic doomer porn and selling stories like the ones that JMG has requested in previous space bat challenges or more recently in the awesome Retropia series. said...

Great post John.

Agree with your analysis of the failings of the peak oil movement and why it has largely disappeared from view.

One thing I would add is that there was always a "shadow" peak oil trend within the powers-to-be. It is well known that Richard Cherney's energy commission studied peak oil and its geopolitical implications and was a major driver for the Iraq war. Vice-President Cherney obsession with removing Saddam Hussein from power appears likely to have been driven by a dream of a pro-American Iraq in the heart of the Middle East. A stabilized Iraq with a oil industry taken over by American oil companies would have given the United States huge strategic leverage in the coming decades as we entered the twilight zone of industrial civilization.

Now, we all know that this neo-conservative dream was an absurd fantasy but it if had worked out (which it never would have!) than it would have given the Americans a huge advantage of a post-peak world. To summarize, the US government did have a plan on peak oil, except it didn't work out. In fact, it exploded in their faces.

My own view is that the things that need to be done to start mitigating the impact of climate change, resource scarcity and a tottering globalized economy can be sold in a different way to the now largely discredited climate change/peak oil movements. Nationalism is still the most powerful force around and could be used to mobilise the public on a platform of greater national self-sufficiency, reduced energy usage and a diversification of our energy supplies.

If anybody can pull it off, maybe President Elect Trump can find a way of appealing to the public using the power of nationalism. We will see...

Mark Rice said...

What was the objective of the "Peak Oil" movement? Was the objective some sort of large scale collective government or industrial action to get ahead of the curve? Or at least not be so far behind the curve?

I can easily see that at some point declining use of fossil fuel is likely to be catastrophic. But could we get some sort of large scale proactive action to get ready for this? In this day and age?

Forget about that. First of all Humans are not all that rational. And our culture is more and more reactive. I work as an engineer. We used to really design things. We would do tolerance analysis. We would do our best to anticipate problems before they happened.

Those days are gone. We now do hasty designs. Build things and see what went wrong. Then we thrash around in a reactive manor. (To be honest we never anticipated all the problems so there is always a reactive component to this.)

Our best hope now is for the overall price of fossil fuels to rise slowly. That will induce people to find other solutions. I realise in practice we will see a lot of price instability. This will not be a smooth process.

Jim R said...

Now that I've read your entire essay, another comment or two. I still miss The Oil Drum. I can't recall another online forum that had such a wide-ranging, thorough, detailed, intelligent discussion of the world of 2005. It did tend to veer into alarmism, however, as each pip of noise in the production figures was identified by 'Hubbert Linearization' as the absolute peak.


Of those other blogs I mentioned -- I really started following The Automatic Earth because of Nicole 'Stoneleigh' Foss. She was the one who kept pointing out that DEflation is also a factor in the global economy, and its power to crush things is neglected by almost every living economist. She was right about that. Deflation is what we had, following the 2008 spike. But The Automatic Earth has not really been a change agent, and is now little more than a financial news aggregator.

Dmitry Orlov made some amazingly accurate predictions in his 'Closing the Collapse Gap' and other essays, pointing out the many similarities (and some distinctions) between the collapse of the USSR and the current state of the 'west'. Orlov has devoted his efforts to 'be the change', more or less... But then I'm a land-lubber and never really liked sailing or being in a boat.

The Archdruid Report. I was actually a little off-put by the title of this blog. And I had never pondered the philosophical frameworks all around. You pointed out that my non-religion is actually the Church of Progress. Thank you for skewering my entire belief system. No, really.

Keith Hammer said...

It may be that things like peak oil and climate change have taken a back seat in the collective consciousness due to the awareness of the crises of capitalism we see around us every day. this parade of the plutocrats in the new Trump regime may signal the end of the shotgun wedding between capitalism and democracy. The stripping of assets and the destruction of the commons can now enter its final phase.Peak oil cant compete with that.

Mister Roboto said...

Well, what happened at the very start of 2006 was peak cheap oil (easily-accessed light-sweet-grade petroleum), and since then, what has kept us cruising down the rocky road of a bumpy plateau in production is a combination of money-printing (quantitative easing is still going on, it's just the European and Japanese central banks doing it instead of the US Federal Reserve), oil-shale, tar-sands, and inferior grades of petroleum such as heavy sour crude. I agree that the POM should have anticipated such an eventuality because you shouldn't need to be some Nobel Laureate in the social sciences to know that industrial society isn't go to go gently into that good night.

As far as the geological reality is concerned, what I predict will happen is that once light-sweet crude production starts to go into serious terminal decline (which could begin to happen as early as 2021), the inferior grades of petroleum mentioned above will stop being kind-of-sort-of economical to produce in their current quantities (keep in mind they have to keep rolling over and rolling over increasing amounts of debt to keep it nominally economical) because of their relatively poor EROEIs. The situation will begin to unfold even more rapidly once we reach that point. What remains of the POM would do well to prepare for it so that the world doesn't descend into blind panic.

Little Al said...

I was trying to bring up peak oil this morning in a conversation with a Republican friend. He kept saying that the problem with alternative energy is that it has to be subsidized while conventional forms of energy are much cheaper and therefore better. I countered that governments needed to subsidize clean renewable energy because very soon that is all we are going to have. He didn't seem to follow my point. He is 75 years old and only seems to care about what effects him on the short term since realistically that's all the life he has left.
It leads me to conclude that most humans only are able and willing to think in terms of what effects their lives directly. Humans are too selfish to work hard for a movement they can't mine a direct reward from.
Another point, the selection of Perry to Energy Secretary may wake up the environmental movement since this guy is so ignorant and disgusting. But Dick Cheney's presence did little to raise a coherent opposition against the Bush administration.
It seems that humans are stupid enough to keep sucking the last remaining sources of easy oil, natural gas, and coal until we wake up one fine morning with all realistically accessible energy sources completely gone. Neither Trump nor Clinton would do anything to change that outcome since it is complete political suicide to have a government enforcing serious carbon reduction.
They would label it environmental fascism and be done with all practical reform.

Clay Dennis said...

Not to bring up the dreaded bicycles debate but one of the best constructive responses to Peak Oil is growing movement toward tactical urbanism ( guerilla traffic control). Most of the people involved in this don't think about it as a response to Peak Oil but it ends up being an effective and useful one which meets most of your standards for effective change. In denser locations like Portland it is widely understood that the biggest barrier to more people walking or riding bikes instead of traveling by car is the danger posed by autos. So in addition to advocating for bike lanes, diverters, etc with the local political entities a growing movement of people gets out and does these things when necessary even when the city drags its feet. So if the city is dragging its feet in putting up traffic diverters on a residential street that is widely used by bike commuters, walkers and kids and has been swamped with speeding Cut-through car drivers ,they do it themselves at night with drums, big planters etc. Of course the city often removes them but as we speed down the long collapse the governments ability to respond decreases with time and the power of the guerrillas increases. The movement has been getting better at integrating more groups in to it so it is not really privileged cyclists in lycra, but more people who ride bikes to save money, haul kids and cargo on bikes, walkers, and parents who want their kids to be able to walk to school safely. The unofficial purpose of the movement is very simple, make it safer and easier to walk or bike and harder, slower and more expensive to drive.

Bob said...

Thank-you for an insider's view. Unfortunately, public perception is what it is, and Peak Oil was placed into the "chicken little" category of dire warnings.

By comparison, the Montreal Protocol that addressed ozone depletion was a single issue initiative that was modestly successful. It relied upon a dire prediction, but real time observations were available. We didn't have to wait to see the trends playing out. The Montreal Protocol was able to develop an agreement within the necessary time frame.

The time frame for adapting to the implications of peak oil could have been 60 years.

Hubbert's theory came out in 1956. A prudent civilization would have acted on that forecast and devoted more effort towards diversifying the energy sector. It would have viewed advances in energy efficiency as a major factor in securing our future energy needs.

In the face of an uncertain future, what should be our approach?
When we invest, do we put everything in one type of financial instrument or do we diversify?
Do we practice monoculture because it tends to optimize yields, or do we mitigate the risk by planting mixed crops?
Why do we maintain seed banks?
If the military can do contingency planning, why haven't we extended this to other sectors?

We shall get mass social movements, but they will arise as a reaction to crises. Prescience (as well as prudence) are unlikely to be expressed as virtues of such movements, and this will compound their mistakes.

You mentioned the counter-example of mainstream economics and its persistence in academia. But these are narratives that support the status quo. Are you familiar with the heterodox school known as Modern Monetary Theory? Their predictions of the GFC were more accurate.

russell1200 said...

JMG - I think Tim has a point. We are still net importers of energy, but the trend did look like it was working the other way. Lack of infrastructure to send natural gas the other way was an issue. But it is not impossible to conceive of a near future where our energy imports would balance with exports.

Fracking changed the vocabulary of the oil issue. Magical thinking though it may be, we have an issue, and here is the solution.

At which point, faced with an unpalatable solution, a number of peak-oil environmentalists decided that we had plenty of fuel after all.

Losing the environmental folks, combined with the presented solution of Fracking, deflated the movement.

ChemEng said...

Thanks for the interesting insights. You and I both attended the ASPO conference in Washington D.C. in the year 2011. We met briefly.

1. I work in the energy industry and I noticed that pretty much everyone was surprised at the sudden drop in oil price ― it was not just those who studied peak oil who so badly misjudged where we were going.
2. In his best-selling book “Black Swan” Nissam Taleb (2007) discusses those rare events that cannot be forecast but that have a major impact. His third criterion is particularly cogent here, “After the first recorded instance of the event, it is rationalized by hindsight, as if it could have been expected”. In other words we are all experts after the event. Having said which, I am still surprised at the speed and magnitude of the fall in the price of oil. (Taleb’s observation can be seen now in the political scene ― all those observers who failed to predict the Trump victory will now pontificate at great length telling us why he won.)
3. I have worked in the area of process safety for many years and, at the time of the 2011 conference, was studying the recent Deepwater Horizon event. I offered my services to the ASPO leaders but they were summarily rejected. I felt almost as if I was being viewed as one of “the enemy”. I think that they made a mistake ― they should have accepted data and advice from all sources.
4. I once had a successful salesperson tell me that you never try to sell through the emotion of fear. You don’t say, “If you don’t buy my product or service something bad will happen to you.” What you do say is, “If you do buy my product or service something good will happen”. It’s two sides of the same coin but it makes all the difference. It seems that too many of the Peak Oil and related types focus on what’s going wrong. Instead they should be offering a vision of a new world that is inherently appealing (if possible).
5. During the 1980 oil bust a bumper sticker around Houston was, “God ― send us another boom. This time we promise not to screw it up”. Well, He did and we did.
6. Many of my engineering colleagues have great confidence in incremental improvements that will address our problems. They point to the shale industry as an example. It is not revolutionary like fusion energy, but the technology was sufficient to solve the problem. (The motto, “Perfect is the enemy of good enough” comes to mind.)

I look forward to your continued discussion on this topic. I see that oil prices are drifting up.

Brian Kaller said...


I wrote about this sort of thing last year:

One thing I brought up was that a large number of groups sprang up in those few years, and I saw them go through many of the same problems as other environmental and activist groups before them. The issue was considered fringe, and attracted fringe types, people who felt allergic to ordinary citizens and turned up their nose at the idea of reaching them.

Many of the people who came to meetings, it turned out, made a career of attending meetings of fringe groups and trying to take them over. They drove other members away until they were the big fish in the now-small pond, which suited their needs.

I was surprised, however, by the speed at which the movement imploded after the 2008 crash. I thought their efforts would be more in demand than ever, as the economic crunch meant there was far more need to have gardening clubs, home-steading courses, activism and so on. Perhaps the economic crash violated people’s faith in an energy crash, or perhaps the crash meant that people suddenly had no hope of backers, and little spare money or time for activism. In any case, I’m hoping we can learn from such mistakes before the next round comes.

anton mett said...

To Tim and JMG: In conversations about American exporting gas, I find it useful to be very specific about the terms we're using. For most Americans "oil" and "gas" are interchangeable, and on more than one occasion I've had relatives/friends explain to me how the news said America is exporting oil. I usually concede saying, "I think I saw something about that too. But didn't they said gas not oil? Because I think we're still importing the oil, but then we're refining it into usable gas and exporting it back out. Kind of like our local lumber mill exports exports lumber even though there isn't any active forestry within a hundred miles of us." Usually they concede as it seems like one word is a small point, but it really changes everything.

Izzy said...

"Taxis for everyone but without annoying human drivers" or "my car goes shopping for me", just don't cut it.

I don't know: as a young-middle-aged urban person, I would welcome both of those things immensely. (Also, does Green Wizardry have sections on apartment living? I'm not really allowed to make significant modifications to my place, plant things other than in windowboxes, etc.) Cheaper taxis where I wouldn't have to depend on and make awkward small talk with some guy I don't know--essentially, a version of the subway/bus system that goes where I want, when I want it? That would be amazing.

(I do like my smartphone: excellent conversation-with-randos-avoiding device, without the possibility of carsickness incurred by trying to read a book in the back of a car, or the difficulty of doing so while driving.)

Roberta said...

A shout-out to my fellow cloth-diapering and breast-feeding moms. My babies were born in '82 and '95, and I also haven't had a clothes drier for nearly my entire adult life. My youngest was 12 when he announced that he'd discovered that his friends' mothers didn't own 2 washing machines, but that someone had actually invented a machine that dried clothes. I expressed astonishment that anyone living in Southern California, where we lived at that time, would think they needed such a machine and he agreed that it was a very peculiar thing.

The peak knowledge concept has me disturbed at the moment. I have several friends that I consider allies in our nascent local food movement who have waded into perilous currents. One is now exploring various geo-engineering and chemtrail conspiracy theories. The other is attributing the recent years of water shortages to Agenda 21 plotters. I've thought for some years that when some people are emotionally incapable of dealing with the intractability of real problems, they find imaginary problems to fixate on. This little theory seems to contain some truth and I'm not at all happy to have this confirmed.

Myriad said...

Maybe it was because of my relatively late arrival at the core peak oil sites (after years of hearing about it from the periphery), but I've never been able to achieve a clear understanding of what the goals of the peak oil movement were/are. It's not to prevent peak oil, because the core idea is that that's not possible. It would make sense for the goal to be mitigation of the consequences, but I found no consensus on how that was supposed to be approached. Instead, there were arguments between various incompatible extreme positions, e.g. proponents of massive public alternative energy "build-outs" versus preppers.

Did anyone else notice that a large part of the remaining peak oil movement in 2012 appeared to get caught up (to its eventual detriment) in the Mayan apocalypse farrago, the coincidence of that date also being a plausible peak oil date being too tempting to resist? That might have just been a local peculiarity, which is why I'm asking.

If the movement were about mitigation, then the obvious action is energy conservation. "Energy conservation movement" has a nice familiar ring to it, too. A connector might improve it: "energy/conservation" or "energy•conservation" implying that using less energy conserves more than just energy, and conservation of other things also tends to conserve energy. I'd go with that, or an updated variant such as LESS.

By contrast, the gay rights movement had the clear goal of legalizing gay marriage in the U.S..

The importance of such a goal is that it allows one to engage in debate, in the formal meaning of that word, meaning not just any argument but an argument over a choice that can be made, by specific people or groups, in the present or future. For peak oil, because there was no consensus for action (no premise, in debate-speak), "debates" over peak oil outside the central sites were largely limited to arguing about whether or not it or its claimed follow-on effects would happen.

This seems similar to other stalled movements I've encountered, in support and in opposition. Creationists tend to want to "debate" about where the world came from, and most 9/11 conspiracy theorists want to "debate" about whether or not there were explosives in the towers. Oddly, I've found that given the opportunity to transform those arguments into valid actionable debate premises (such as "Creationism shall be taught in public schools" or "A new international investigation of the events of 9/11 shall be conducted") for the purpose of debate, most proponents will resolutely avoid doing so. I find that strange, and a bad sign. Unfortunately, a number of peak oil activists I encountered followed the same pattern, being more than willing to tell me what I should expect or believe but reluctant to discuss what I (or anyone) should do about it.

Myriad said...

I should add, to connect my two previous comments:

This blog and related venues presenting the contrasting 'long descent' scenario were a striking exception. Quoting from my as-yet-unpublished 60,000-word personal account of the 2014 Age of Limits Conference:

"Given that it is indeed primarily about the present [rather than the looming future as it might first appear], the 'descent movement' is, in large part, a self-help movement, and from what I've seen, it's an unusually benevolent one. It does not urge its participants to withdraw from society and follow a leader; quite the contrary, it urges them to join existing communities and build community connections with their neighbors. It does not urge its participants to hoard gold or guns or wealth; quite the contrary, it urges them to "invest" in learning and practicing useful skills while avoiding accumulating loot that would, in an actual collapse, only make them tempting targets. It does not urge its participants to donate money in return for promised gifts of riches from a grateful deity; quite the contrary, it urges them to get out of debt, live frugally, and conserve. It does not urge its participants to disregard the material world in the hope of rewards in the afterlife; quite the contrary, it urges them to engage with the material world to prepare for whatever it brings their way. It doesn't urge them to petition or protest for the government to solve their problems; quite the contrary, it tells them not to expect real solutions from that quarter, and to look to themselves and their communities instead. It encourages them to work hard, guard their health, save their money, read a book, listen to their elders, turn off the TV, go outside, eat their vegetables, sit up straight, and for God's sake, grow the [expletive] up."

Cherokee Organics said...


Exactly, people fear the hair shirt austerity which is why every few months you'll read a story about how hard life is off the grid in the Australian and perhaps also the American meaning of that phrase. Those articles really annoy me.

The truth is my wife and I are having a hugely fun time of it all down here. It is hard work sometimes, but then it is also enormously creative and engaging - which sitting down in front of a television isn't! I grew up watching the adults do exactly that, night after night and it looked to me as if their souls and spirits had somehow died. It was horrible to observe.

Just out of curiosity, are you planning to review your predictions from almost a year ago? We do a post mortem when things go wrong?



RAnderson said...

Fascinating piece by Bloomberg on the Cumberland brain drain. Being a central MD native and having gone to college there in the late '60s, my roommate was a Cumberland native and at the time I was seeing a young lady who lived in LaVale. I became somewhat familiar with the area, as I drove out to Cumberland to visit quite a number of times in my '63 Ford. His father was a mechanical engineer for a local consulting firm and her father had moved the family there from Texas, also to work for a sizable tech related concern. At the time, 1968-70, the big industries were mining and such major employers such as PPG, Allegheny-Ludlum Steel, Celanese, and Kelly Springfield (Goodyear) Tire, all employing a lot of blue-collar folks at very decent pay scales. Still, even then it was apparent that things had begun to fray at the edges, and Cumberland had always had a bit of a dodgy-hillbilly reputation with those from a bit farther to the east. Personally I liked the place a great deal, with it's low cost of living, access to recreation, Deep Creek &c, down-to-earth attitude and canals and rivers and old brick buildings. While it's sad to hear of further economic decline, I can see why one might choose it as a place to live in during these increasingly interesting times. Clearly our host has done so, and with it his small part to reverse the aforementioned drain.

Renaissance Man said...

The organized movement may have failed, but I am not at all convinced that the predictions of the Peak Oil movement failed.
My understanding of the Peak Oil hypothesis was that, after the achievement of peak production, prices become unstable rising and falling dramatically interspersed with production declines in fits and starts coupled with demand destruction that pulls the economy apart. As far as I can see, these predictions, in general terms, have pretty much come to pass. But this would also happen over a long period of time.

Production of conventional (i.e. the standard drill-rig in a field) oil would begin to decline (it did), the price would rise from the roughly $20/Bbl price it held for decades (it did), unconventional and hard-to access sources would then be economical to exploit (e.g. 2000m down in the Gulf of Mexico or fracking or the Alberta Tar Sands), but the high price would cause economic dislocation (an ignored contributing factor to the 2008 crash and subsequent non-recovery-recovery), which would cause the price to fluctuate wildly over a period of time... and when previous fluctuations were on the order of $5 up or down that caused heart palpitations and cold sweats on the trading floor have now become fluctuations of $30 or so, I'd say that, in the parlance of the previous era, that's pretty wild.

You are correct, that some specific predictions failed, but my understanding of the overarching prediction, in the same way you describe the general narrative of the collapse of the U.S. Empire or the general narrative of the decline of Western Civilization. You frequently point out that the details differ and specifics cannot be described, but the morphology remains the same. Maybe I'm an outlier, but I'm comparing the rise and decline of the oil age to a wave, not a trampoline, with a decades-long transition period of crashes and bumps. It took 100 years to build up a massive oil-dependent economy and it will take time to eventually wind down, fast-crash fantasies or super-high-tech-pseudo-green fantasies notwithstanding. Again, as you have pointed out frequently these are the binary narratives of the civil religion of Progress, I expect -- and expected 10 years ago -- the global winding down to proceed over decades, not days.

Ed-M said...

I first became acquainted with Peak Oil back in 2003 or '04 when I stayed up late at night listening to the Art Bell Program (now Coast to Coast AM) and Matt Savinar of Life after the Oil Crash fame. I ended up getting addicted to all things peak oil and global warming related, especially the message boards of Matt's site, the Oil Drum, James Howard Kunstler's comment threads, etc., etc., etc.

How I wish I could have all that time squandered, back. :^(

Emmanuel Goldstein said...

Another excellent and thoughtful essay JMG!
One natural system that I never see discussed in the area of climate change is "buffering." Here's a link;

Buffering systems are widely used by nature to greatly diminish changes to the acidity of blood due to what we eat and drink. The blood buffering system can be overwhelmed, but it is very difficult to do this.
Nature has analogues to the buffering system that usually maintain the environment despite stresses. These systems can also be overwhelmed, but it is also very difficult to do this.

So I would caution us, in the next efforts to educate about peak oil, to avoid making claims about baking the planet or bringing on the next ice age. These things have happened before, but so far as I know, have never been caused on a planetary scale by humans, or any other organism.

IMHO, the good news is that natural buffering mechanisms will likely make the impact of our stupidity much less than it rightfully should be, whether by GAIA or the systems of nature.

Of course, this does not rule out the possibility that part of this buffering could be the removal of humans from the environment...

MollyLikesMovies said...

Renewable energy is being used by conservatives, too--I have a friend who's a cattlewoman/rancher, and she converted to solar panels to run her cattle-watering system, so in case the weather is bad or the road is washed out, the cattle will still be ok. And houses in our rural area are slowly going off the grid (Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls is off the grid, too, through a combination of wind, solar and geothermal).

The way I put it, every time a house goes off the grid, an oil rig dies. Peak demand is starting to look like a real thing. (Oh, and every new Tesla car set to be produced in the next two years has a waiting line for it).

rapier said...

One thing that could not be predicted is that the huge increase in US production from fracking of both gas and oil was that it accomplished while virtually all US based production companies were losing money and that still goes on today. Hundreds of millions of losses have already been recognized by investors and bankers in 15 and 16 and there are billions more waiting in the wings and yet the energy industry hums right along, at an admittedly slightly slower rate.

The result is so nonsensical and so bizarre there is no good way to get ones mind around it. The way I do is that it is somewhat understandable if you think of it in terms of 'printed' money being burned. Who cares if you burn a bunch of worthless money if more worthless money is on the way to replace it.
Another oddity is that self identified free market capitalists are the biggest supporters of money losing energy enterprises.

While the trend is most pronounced in the US the entire world is happy to produce oil at a loss or at best razor thin margins because such production is encouraged by all political systems. If forced to admit the losses they are justified on the old sunk cost explanation.

While interest rates are spiking, with US Treasury rates up 40% or so in 6 weeks it isn't like borrowed money is expensive, yet. Only when borrowing for oil producers becomes impossible or impossibly expensive will the game change.

Sydney Mike said...

As Arthur Schopenhauer put it: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” I am not sure if we are at stage one or two in the peak oil truth. No later than 10 years after peak oil, we will enter stage three. People will be wondering why we did not see it coming.

Why has the Peak Oil movement failed? Well we have not quite identified the peak oil moment. It will come and the benefit of hindsight will help identify it. A blink in time, 10 years’ delay, will not make a difference in the big scheme of things.

As to alternative energy sources that most expect, we need to highlight an essential advantage of fossil fuels. Two thirds of the ingredients in mass are not required to be carried to the point of combustion. The O2 is present in our atmosphere. We can draw on it when required to release incredible energy from carbon such as oil or coal in the chemical reaction that produces CO2. This is an absolutely essential point. A lithium battery must contain all the energy required to power the attached electric motor. We cannot take part of the ingredients from the environment.

While net energy is a good point, the fact that high net energy is never likely to be more easily available from anything other than fossil fuels needs to be made. The O2 part is all around us. I have never heard a peak oiler talk about this.

The dream of fusion also contains an inherent flaw of thought. The energy required to contain a fusion reaction on earth seems to me necessarily equal or greater than the energy that can be obtained from it. The net energy will be close to or even below zero.

shady said...

I think it was Kunstler who, in reference to industrial civilization, said something like:

"We will continue to do what we do until we can't. Then we won't".

Pretty depressing at first glance. But then galvanizing. Trying to "save" industrial civilization is not do-able. I think of us as the Fossil Fuel People. Asking us to stop use fossil fuels is like asking a fish to stop swimming in water. It just isn't going to happen.

Some brave souls will try and heave themselves up on dry land and use fins as legs. But the vast majority will continue swimming until they can't. Then they won't.

At the very least, we can learn to swim in much shallower waters - that is, reduce our individual dependence on fuels. But in truth, I am not really doing that. I am sleeping with the fishes.

John Michael Greer said...

Keith, it would have to be handled very skillfully, to keep from going the way of the voluntary simplicity movement, and being turned into a sales pitch for "simple" products. It might well be worth trying, though.

Agent, sure, the movement got some traction in governments and militaries -- and then it fell apart. It could be getting even more traction right now, if it was still out there pushing.

Prizm, thank you. As you've noted, one of the things that can be done with a peak oil narrative is reframe it in terms of "a lot more things will have to be done by human muscles," = "more jobs." There are other ways to reframe it along the same lines. It really isn't that hard, once you get out from under the progress-or-apocalypse ideology.

Wendy, one thing a renewed peak oil movement could do would be to lobby for greatly improved passenger rail service. Here again, that would ally with existing interests and get people thinking of the movement as something that can give them something they want if they support it.

Ed, that's the sad thing. As I noted above, there were a number of us who were talking about how marginal fossil fuel sources would be brought on line once the price of oil went high enough, and I've also discussed the way that costs from those are being externalized to create a false impression of their economic viability -- but the core peak oil narrative rejected that. Oh well.

RobM, if that's the case, why are so many people so passionate about believing that the world is about to come to an end for one reason or another? That has no happy ending either -- everybody dies -- and yet it's always popular. On the other hand, you may be on to something in one sense: the only thing either movement offered was a choice between business as usual and catastrophe -- and when business as usual sucks, it's not easy to motivate people to take action to maintain it.

Brian, every movement to change anything has to contend with those. Successful movements figure out how to do so. Failed movements don't.

Robert, but here again, what happened to the organizations, conferences, and so on that once promoted these things? That's what I'm talking about, you know.

Frank, yeah, there was also the apocalypse lobby, as I call them -- the people who like to think they want everything to fall apart. They didn't help, no.

Beetleswamp, good. Yes, those are the kind of concepts that could work.

DiSc, the effects of peak oil are already showing all over the place. They're just different effects than the standard narrative led people to expect.

Spanish Fly, interesting. Over here ASPO wasn't quite as wedded to the "express collapse" scenario (nice phrase, btw) -- but there still seemed to be something of a groupthink.

John Michael Greer said...

Drhooves, okay, you fooled me -- I thought it was a sly reference to the Devil, who legendarily has cloven hooves and knows more than anybody else but God. The reasons why so many people dismiss global warming as a hoax, it seems to me, have less to do with the failures of our education system -- bad as that is -- and more to do with the collapsing prestige of science in contemporary society, on the one hand, and the role climate change has had as a stalking horse for class warfare on the part of the affluent against the working classes, on the other. Of course a renewed peak oil movement would have to guard against those, too.

Kristofv, it's entirely possible that one of the things behind the current fad for austerity policies is a sort of sidelong recognition of limits. I wonder, though. There are deep and tangled roots to the currently fashionable attitude that the vulnerable must be punished for their vulnerability, and that attitude can be found just as widespread on the left as on the right -- it just chooses different targets.

Hereward, thank you! I'll check it out as circumstances permit.

Greg, as long as those subsidies aren't tax writeoffs, I'd be very much in favor of that. If they're tax writeoffs only, it's another giveaway to the already affluent -- they're the only ones who pay enough in taxes to make that worthwhile, after all.

Phil, good. This is about where I thought we would be in 2016, for whatever that's worth.

Tim, er, numbers, please. Exports compared to imports, and both compared to domestic production and consumption. Lacking that it's just handwaving.

Ben, delighted to hear it. Big things routinely start from such little projects.

Erik, that's a different issue. Until something other than petroleum is providing the single largest share of energy consumed by human beings on this planet, peak oil still matters.

N=ro, maybe. I'm still mulling over the possibilities.

Myriad, I don't generally toot my own horn, but thank you.

Glenn, that is to say, each of those gives you a different elevator pitch, any or all of which can be useful in any particular context. Yes, peak oil is a broader issue. I still think there are ways to frame it and address it that can get productive responses -- and getting rid of unproductive assumptions and framing narratives is an essential first step.

Brother G., I missed that one, too. The impact of negative interest rates on the downside of bubbles hadn't really sunk in yet; that said, it's not that hard to integrate the slow hiss of leaking air in place of the fast collapse.

John Michael Greer said...

Eric, of course those are also issues. My take is that a focus on energy resources is probably about as broad as you can get without losing focus -- but that's simply my take.

Jim, you're welcome and thank you! It was those who kept talking about demand destruction who should have been listened to, at least as a Plan B.

Lucas, er, you may need to get out more. A great many people did in fact get bent way out of shape by the suggestion that same sex couples ought to have the right to get married.

Paulo, that is to say, the reality of peak oil is still clamping down on us, even though the movement fell apart.

Varun, hmm! That's an interesting prospect. I'll think about it.

Bill, er, you're aware of groups such as ASPO, Post Carbon Institute, etc.? That's what I was talking about, which is why I spoke of the peak oil movement rather than the phenomenon of peak oil. The existence of the latter doesn't erase that of the former.

Dmitry, in what possible way does it "destroy the family" to allow people to form families who otherwise would be legally prohibited from doing so? You might want to lay off the koolaid a bit.

Ganv, you're right about short term thinking -- and of course another spike in oil prices is coming; I expect it to peak around 2020, and then crash again.

Gavin, exactly. I see you've figured out my diabolical strategy!

Lordberia3, nationalism could do it. There are other things that could do it as well, and of course it's not an "either-or" situation.

Mark, there were several objectives. One was to get governments to take proactive steps to deal with declining supplies of crude oil. Obviously we're past the point where that could happen, if it was even a possibility. Another was to get communities, local groups, families, and individuals to do the same thing -- and that's still very much a live option. More on this as we proceed.

John Michael Greer said...

Jim, you're welcome -- just one of the services I offer. As for The Oil Drum, I miss it too -- I used to read it daily.

Keith, that is to say, you find the way you've framed the narrative of late capitalism more interesting than the way you frame the narrative of energy. Not everyone necessarily agrees with your framing, you know.

Mister R., keep in mind that there's a whole continuum of oil between the lightest sweetest crude and the crap they dig out of the ground in Alberta. As the good stuff runs out, the slightly less good will take its place, and the slightly worse still after that. I doubt we'll see blind panic -- just an unsteady downward movement, like riding a defective elevator that goes down one lurch at a time.

Little Al, did you think of pointing out to your friend just how much in the way of subsidies the oil industry gets from the US government, via the depletion allowance and other giveaways? It's pretty phenomenal.

Clay, hmm. Have you considered running candidates for city offices who will set aside more bike-only corridors and the lke?

Bob, but there were specific reasons why peak oil got that label, and it didn't have to happen that way.

Russell, and yet the peak oil movement got going when petroleum was $10 a barrel. I still don't buy it.

ChemEng, er, I should probably point out that some of us did predict the drop in oil prices -- and, of course, Trump's victory -- well in advance. So it's not just 20/20 hindsight.

Brian, finding a way to screen out dysfunctional professional activists would be useful, yes. Some lodges I've worked with use the term "flake filters" -- the things you have in place to filter out flaky people who will otherwise absorb all your time and energy, and give nothing back in return.

Anton, good! But in this case there's a further confusion, because "gas" can mean "gasoline" or "natural gas," and the latter's the thing Tim was talking about.

Roberta, fortunately peak knowledge doesn't have to equal peak reasoning. Your friends are suffering from a shortage of reasoning and reality testing, not a shortage of knowledge. Your theory, though, seems sensible to me.

PRiZM said...


Your posts often give me hope and confidence that even in these dark times we can effect some change, whether it may be through political means, or others. With the current state of affairs in US politics, it feels as if no matter what we do there is a divisive split between peoples which will culminate in a battle, what with the anti-Trump group stopping at no expense to strip him of a presidency. I'd really like to have some faith that our government is robust and flexible enough to allow things to continue without any major, violent conflicts, but that will require a lot of persuasion among many people who have seemingly different ideals. Ultimately, being able to bridge this gets back to our education. With that in mind, if you could ask people from both sides, Pro-Trump sides and anti-Trump sides to each read a book, which book would you recommend to the opposing parties?

John Michael Greer said...

Myriad, excellent! You've put your finger on a core issue -- any future peak oil movement, to have any chance of shaping events, must have a specific goal in mind and must measure every choice against that goal. Mitigating the impacts of fossil fuel depletion -- that's a suitable goal. Once a movement has that in mind, whenever a proposal comes up, you can simply ask, "does this do anything to mitigate the impacts of fossil fuel depletion?' -- and if it doesn't, into the dumpster it goes. Period. Of course, as you've pointed out, that also encourages productive rather than unproductive debates, and it has a range of other good features as well.

Cherokee, I think that the media makes a big fuss about how horrible living off the grid is because otherwise, people would find out that it's more fun than the life the media wants them to lead. As for a postmortem for the year -- of course! That'll be either on the 28th of this month or the 4th of next month, I'm not yet sure which.

RAnderson, one of the details they didn't mention is that you can buy a 4 bedroom house here, a nice one, for $50k. It really is much cheaper to live in the rust belt...

Renaissance, you were clearly reading the more nuanced and historically literate end of the peak oil scene! That was, unfortunately, a minority view.

Ed-M, cheer up -- you could have squandered it on the Kardashians instead. ;-)

Emmanuel, excellent. Yes -- that's one form of an core concept from systems theory, the concept of homeostasis. Complex systems always respond to a disruptive influence with actions that attempt to restore balance. Buffering is one of the ways they do this. The climate is a complex system, and so is the global energy economy -- and so they behave accordingly. (It occurs to me that I should do a series of posts on basic systems theory one of these days...)

Molly, why do you say "too"? I'm a moderate Burkean conservative, you know, and conservatives are at least as likely to use renewable energy as liberals -- in some contexts, even more so.

Rapier, as I noted above, the impact of negative real interest rates on the energy situation is something that a lot of us missed. That simply guarantees that the real (nonfinancial) costs get externalized somewhere else -- but it's still a twist that matterrs, of course.

Sydney, I don't think there will ever be a "peak oil moment," except maybe in retrospect. Rather, changes will happen, and explanations will be invented after the fact. Your two remaining points, though, are spot on.

John Michael Greer said...

Prizm, I'd like to see everyone sit down and read The Coming Fury by Bruce Catton, to get some sense of just where this could head if people get stupid enough. It's a brilliant book, and does a fine job of showing how democracy can freeze up around bitter ideological polarization and lead to a bloody civil war that next to nobody originally wanted.

siliconguy said...

"The organized movement may have failed, but I am not at all convinced that the predictions of the Peak Oil movement failed.
My understanding of the Peak Oil hypothesis was that, after the achievement of peak production, prices become unstable rising and falling dramatically interspersed with production declines in fits and starts coupled with demand destruction that pulls the economy apart. As far as I can see, these predictions, in general terms, have pretty much come to pass. But this would also happen over a long period of time."

Bing bing bing! At least in my opinion you have it right. We are in the bumpy plateau phase and will be for some time to come.

One thing a lot of people keep getting wrong is that there is no one oil price that will seize up the entire economy at once. The marginal utility of a gallon of gas in a weekend ATV trip is less than the utility of my commute to work, and that is less than that used in a fire truck, and that less than the backup generator in a hospital.

As for the oil used in the chemical industry, the marginal utility of a plastic bread bag is less than the PEX used for domestic water is less than the gasketing used at the chemical plant which is less than some of the medical uses.

Barring shocks like the sudden rise to $147 several years ago, the economy can adapt to higher prices, but it takes time. And the economy is getting more GDP per unit of energy than it used to, but it's still not as energy efficient as Europe.

nuku said...

@Sydney Mike,
Excellent point about fossil fuels needing O2 to release their latent energy. Any energy source that requires combustion/oxidation (in layman’s terms “burning“) is in a sense “outsourcing” to the wider environment a key requirement of the energy releasing process. The “waste product“ CO2 also needs to be outsourced into the environment for the process to contunue.

A simple example would be a car running in a completely sealed garage. The gas tank is full and you start the car. After using up the oxygen in the garage, it wouldn’t continue to run. Also, if the exhaust pipe of the car just filled the garage with CO2, the engine would eventually stop. So there needs to be an external source of O, plus the waste product CO2 needs to be externalized.

Going further, since we live on a finite planet, there is only so much “free” oxygen in the atmosphere at any given time. Where does that oxygen come from? Ultimately from green plants which metabalize CO2 using the sun’s energy. See “oxygen cycle”.

Unlike the car in the garage, the earth is a closed system as far as material inputs are concerned, it only requires light/heat energy from the sun.

Genevieve Hawkins said...

I agree totally that net energy produced must be the central part of the equation it is impossible to understand what's going on without understanding that. What I wonder though is since our money is fiat (i.e. by decree only), as long as people accept the US dollar for the labor to extract the diminishing returns of resources in the ground, then really, why can't this go on for a lot lot longer? I mean some big oil company says well it will cost us one Brazilian dollars to extract that really resource intensive shale, which will provide less than one Brazilian dollars of energy output, but it doesn't matter because the Fed can conjure up the one Brazilian dollars at will for the big oil company (actually a little more complicated through lending to banks and share buybacks, but the net result is the same). So really until there's not a drop of oil left in the ground this disaster won't strike. The EROI has been obscured by funny money...

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG - I think you missed my point. To borrow one of your own catch phrases, if you reread my comment I was not denying the existence of those groups (of whose existence you know perfectly well I was quite aware) and such, I was questioning whether "peak oil" ever was really an appropriate title or figurehead for this "movement." "Peak oil" was not their goal, the eventual restructuring of civilization away from fossil fuels and towards other energy sources was their goal.

Indeed, in some ways putting "peak oil" front and center could be read as meaning that we didn't really have to do anything, these changes were going to be forced upon us. After all if there is less petroleum available then less will be burned. Peak oil is the cure for global warming. Energy efficiency and transition away from carbon will be mandated by the market and economics of scarcity. Whoopie, job done! Of course if you care about maintaining social function and something resembling human rights and a smidgeon of egalitarianism, well, then, you still have quite a job cut out for you.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I think the other Tim may be right about natural gas. Check out the Energy Export Databrowser: for USA gas. I'm not sure how much the data lags by, it show net imports shrinking to nothing on the graph. We might be a net exporter of natural gas at the moment. I don't expect it will be long lived with fracking in steep decline, but on the other hand natural gas gets a higher price outside of North America. Surprised me to see it.


DiSc said...

@Hereward, I did not know about Marianne Thieme's book, but I will borrow it from the Almere library.

I am partly responsible for getting the PvdD into the European parliament, although I find their politics too far to the left. And the whole 7th Day Adventist thing is, hm, suspicious.

But there was no one else I could vote for with a clean conscience.

kristofv said...

Cheaper taxis where I wouldn't have to depend on and make awkward small talk with some guy I don't know--essentially, a version of the subway/bus system that goes where I want, when I want it? That would be amazing.

But this amazing convenience at a low price would come at an invisible price: there would be a highly complex and expensive infrastructure behind it to perform a task a human begin can do easily, jobs that disappear (some engineering jobs would be created), more energy used as the number of trips would increase and the cars would mostly just have one person in them.
I understand the appeal of convenience at a low price, but because of reading this blog I cannot regard these kind of technical solutions as something we should spend time and effort on. We are already though. It will be sold as green because the cars will be electric.

Bruno B. L. said...

JMG, yes, zero negative interests means that the costs are being loaded elsewhere. But where? My guess is that whoever is buying all that debt and whoever is producing all the goods said debt is being used to buy - so, the Chinese and the third world.

donalfagan said...

I think TOD reached its heyday after Katrina, but it jumped the shark predicting that a cyclone would cripple production in the Middle East. It was always about the oil shock. But TOD led me to Roscoe Bartlett's energy conference, which was well worth attending.

During the recent campaign I brought up energy depletion on a political site, and one of my more intelligent friends asked, "Don't tell me you still believe in Peak Oil!" Remember when wags on TOD coined a "Yergin" to mean some multiple of his oil price prediction? Now Daniel Yergin is to be on Trump's economic advisory panel.

latheChuck said...

Molly - I've heard [citation needed] that conservative "red state" regions are far more likely to support the development of renewable energy projects than the liberal "blue state" regions. The point of the article was to claim hypocrisy on the part of liberal enviro activists, but now that I've seen the electoral map, it looks at least as likely that the red states host the projects, not just because they support all kinds of energy development, but because they can. The blue counties / electoral districts are such a small fraction of the land area, and so densely populated, that it's hardly feasible to develop wind farms (the most popular projects, as of the writing) in them. (The vigorously resisted off-shore wind farm near Martha's Vineyard is the exception, which illustrates the original claim.)

Shane W said...

(off topic) regarding abortion, none other than Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said that the court acted prematurely in deciding Roe v. Wade. Only a few states had legalized the procedure, and, unlike same-sex marriage, the opposition has not collapsed but continued to fester. It's not a settled issue. Now, I am pro-choice and would hate to see women die from coat hanger abortions, but this issue does seem to be destined to be returned to the court of public opinion until some kind of consensus develops.

Mister Roboto said...

keep in mind that there's a whole continuum of oil between the lightest sweetest crude and the crap they dig out of the ground in Alberta.

That makes sense, I guess. What seems weird and dysfunctional to me is that we are so thirsty for liquid fuel that Canada is pouring all that natural gas into the tar-sands rat-hole (along with all the fresh water the process demands and how environmentally filthy it is) when maybe they could just use the natural gas for cooking and heating fuel as well as electricity generation. As awful as shale-fracking is, at least that yields some natural gas instead of consuming it! Tar-sands fuel seems to make about as much sense as a soup sandwich.

ThisOldMan said...

I think the "economic" phenomenon discussed here can be explained by the fact that the elasticity of the demand for oil is NOT independent of its price, as is commonly assumed for simplicity in economic analyses. It goes down sharply with price, and this nonlinearly makes the underlying dynamical system oscillate. Which is itself an oversimplification ...

Bob said...

Bob, but there were specific reasons why peak oil got that label, and it didn't have to happen that way.

Turning a well anticipated, inauspicious event into a crisis didn't have to happen, but it did grab some publicity. A functioning academic community could have done the same job behind the scenes, without public knowledge or input. But we don't have a functioning academic community, we have status quo gatekeepers.

Bob said...

@Keith Hammer,

We are much more concerned with our income levels as that is the indicator by which the necessities of life can be obtained. Other worries seem abstract by comparison.

Unknown said...

Boy oh boy.
"Will Populism Kill Your Jetpack?"

Bob said...


As I was led to understand it, money was made on the fracking leases instead of on the product.

Unknown said...

Regarding the Peak Oil in the Military, I don't see it much in the US Navy. This year there was a "Great Green Fleet" initiative which consisted entirely of some biogas additives to existing fuel. Sounds a lot like "Greenwashing." Does about as much good as the 15% corn ethanol added to conventional gasoline (basically just a subsidy dumpster, and diverts land use from things like FOOD).

Also, the next generation of ships are horrendously expensive for their capabilities, and I don't remember if efficiency was even a design criteria.

Also, the streets in Norfolk (home of the world's largest Naval base) flood any time there is significant rainfall. Some lower lying areas have similar problems to Miami where the seawater comes OUT the sewer drains at high tide. With another 2 feet or so of sea level rise, I suspect the city will need serious infrastructure changes. On the base, sure the piers could be further elevated, but the vast parking lots where all the sailors park who actually work on the ships wouldn't be able to get there. The city is not particularly bike or pedestrian friendly either.


Eric S. said...

"My take is that a focus on energy resources is probably about as broad as you can get without losing focus."

It still seems like in that case, given the short attention span of society, and the cyclical manner of energy, one of the biggest challenges is to find a way to keep the movement relevant on both sides of the cycle. Part of the re-branding of global warming into climate change was a way to explain the phenomenon that would be able to answer the thought-stoppers of the "if global warming is real, why is there a freak blizzard in May?" variety, which basically the same thing as the "if peak oil is real, why are oil prices down" argument. It seems like different ways of attempting to deny peak oil have different chinks in their armor. For Solar and nuclear enthusiasts, there's net energy and other non-renewables with their own depletion curves such as rare earth metals for Solar, and Uranium for Nuclear. Fracking and other "tight oil" sources are probably the easiest part of the energy industry to use as an illustration of how net energy works, since its return on investment is so transparently reflected based on the oil prices at which it becomes profitable, or crashes as reflected in the late Fracking bust. For oil itself, part of how I've started slowly converting my friend in the oil industry over to understanding some things about peak oil is just through helping to prepare him for instability. I impressed him during this last cycle by warning him in advance that work was about to start getting scarce, and then letting him know accurately roughly when prices would start rising and giving him work again. With oil, it's starting to look like we're well into the "bumpy plateau" phase of the classic Peak Oil model right now, and one good strategy while in that phase might be pointing out the extremely transparent net energy and resource issues with the alternatives, in order to get alternative energy advocates to do the one thing they're currently refusing to do (adding reduction and conservation to their calls for alternative energy), while shifting the attention on oil away from the long game of decline and towards energy instability, since at that point the violent price swings and systemic instabilities that are part of this phase of peak oil can be more easily worked into the layman's understanding of the model.

Pantagruel7 said...

A bit off the current topic: I just finished Retrotopia. Apropos of that, the recent spate of data breaches that only seems to be gathering momentum seems a fine example of diminishing returns of technology. Classified military research stolen a few years ago, probably costing the US taxpayers billions, personal identity info, etc. Apparently nothing is safe if it's on a computer.

gwizard43 said...

"It occurs to me that I should do a series of posts on basic systems theory one of these days..."

The sooner the better! I can't seem to articulate this as well as I'd like, especially to non-technically minded friends.

Jerome Purtzer said...

Great Essay JMG-It's mildly amusing when the Peak Oil denial folks rant and rave about disproving Peak Oil and meanwhile every oil company and all of the agencies that compile data about all oil fields in their future projections all have the bell shaped curve reminiscent of how every teacher had to grade tests in Grants Pass, Oregon. Yes, we were being taught Hubbert's Peak Oil and we didn't even know it. Many of us grad-you-ates are probably running oil companies now and/or denying the fact that we might run dry someday. Drill Baby, Drill!

Chris Larkin said...

I remember debating my friends about peak oil back in its heyday, arguing that it’s a cyclic industry and there will be future gluts and shortages. The oil industry’s history is too full of booms and busts to not realize it’s a spiral. That combined with the tremendous supply of unconventional sources means any descent could be extended out for a very long time. The Atlantic Republic could continue scrape by on tar sands after fracking dries up and then turn to coal liquefaction before the search becomes moot.

A positive message will be key to any successor to the peak oil movement. A doom and gloom message was my major take away from the old peak oil movement, and help lead to the movement’s downfall when things looked immediately less grim. That sort of message does work especially well in eras of revolution & strife, but since the goal is to minimize that era as much as possible, it’s self-defeating. I don’t think making a positive message needs to be as hard as others have made it out to be.

While one can’t promise a life of cornucopian plenty, there’s other positive things it can promote. Pride and joy in both work and creative acts are lacking in the lives of many, and are a natural fit. Thrift and frugality are popular in many circles. For example, tapping into “Buy it for Life” groups to push for older but lasting approaches could pay off. There is the rich treasure trove of concepts and symbols inherited from the Romantics that can be used.

Rita Narayanan said...

While everybody in West would connect Prince Charles & his Highgrove sustainability programme with feudal ideas......the Post Carbon network is very enthusiastic about Bhutan's GNH (Gross National Happiness). Suddenly it boils down to carbon points but then the old feudal world had a low carbon footprint.

My point being on one hand these groups tout very **in Berkeley liberalism but this is possible with the secure cover that the capitalist State & funding provides as well the inherited growth/wealth of an older more ordered world.

how can one talk about energy without the context of politics & society...and just stick to economics/materialism.

Happy Panda said...

I'd like to add my vote for a philosophy post. But there's one you mentioned you'd get around to writing and I've been waiting for. That is...why are most of the world's central banks pursuing zero and negative interest rate policies? What are the reasons for paying the borrower to borrow while taxing a saver? Does it have anything to do with the occasional articles I read about a supposed "war on cash" or is that just more catastrophizing blown out of proportion?

The only thing I can think of is to break the huge supply of money sloshing around the world looking for "investment opportunities". The law of supply and demand applies - I presume - to the investment market just as much as any other kind of market.

I'm sure there must be costs to implementing these strategies but for the moment the only one I can really see as obvious in my own life is the impact it has on retirees. My mother (in her mid-70s) constantly moans about the horrible returns she's getting on her various savings accounts and retirement account. She spent most of her adult working life thinking when she was in her 70s and 80s the interest on her savings would keep her comfortable. The same goes for my dad (in his late 70s) though he's less vocal about it. I know he too is frustrated and angry about it.

So I'd really like to see you do a post on why so many world banks are pursuing these policies. There surely must be angles to it I don't know about and haven't considered. It also will likely interest your international readers as well since these monetary policies aren't an exclusively U.S. phenomenon.

Maxine Rogers said...

Hi JMG and wonderful correspondents,

I promote adaptive changes to peak oil by not mentioning it. I run the garden club and highlight small farms where my older, usually well to do gardeners can get the wholesome tasty produce, eggs,meat,fleeces and hand spun yarn they want from local farmers. I promote seed saving as a refinement of one's gardening education and also as a way to get to the seed swap table at our annual Seedy Saturday.

I also write a popular monthly column called Agriculture Matters. I don't expect everyone to start farming but I have induced some interest in pickling vegetables by fermentation as it is a much easier, more nutritious and not at all hot way to preserve the summer's bounty. I have offered Mother of Vinegar culture, Swiss chard seeds and seed walnuts to my readers for free. I have had reasonably success by writing with a sense of humour and not insisting that my way was the only way.

There really is no need to mention that the world is changing. Some of my most extravagant friends are converting to a less energy-intensive lifestyle simply because they went broke. Inflation really is starting to bite here on the West Coast of Canada.
Yours under the red cedars,
Max Rogers

Asher Miller said...

I've posted a detailed reply to your comments about Post Carbon Institute and here, along with some thoughts about the general theme here:

(I tried to post my comments directly here but received a character limit message.)

Patricia Mathews said...

Massive cognitive dissonance - I listened to Obama's press conference on the radio this noon. His trademark tone of calm sweet reason now seems to have more than a touch of the impatient indulgence of someone who knows where it's at, towards those who simply Do Not Get It. Of course, he started by bragging on what has happened to America in the past 8 years - same stuff as my oldest daughter is pushing at me - and I found myself wondering if I was oscillating between two totally different parallel worlds.

Sven Eriksen said...


Re: Your comment to Dmitry,

If I may, I should like to coin a new term: "vodkoolaid" ;-)

pygmycory said...

JMG, could you talk about the impacts of negative interest rates on the downside of bubbles in a post? I don't understand it, and it is rather relevant right now.

I find it difficult to maintain a low-energy lifestyle sometimes in the absence of obvious signals from the outside world. It isn't the lack of a car - I'm used to that and it would be too expensive anyway - but trying to dissuade myself from buying yet more hobby-related objects. Time doesn't increase with the number of projects I want to do, nor do my energy levels, nor do I suddenly gain more places to put them!

But my small ectothermic critters habit is really hard to resist. One of the odder things driving it is that part of me is afraid if I don't do this now I'll never have another chance. I have acquired fewer critters, and those a lot more slowly, than I would have if I were not considering oil depletion and climate change, though. I have also not acquired any that need truly high temperatures, UVB, significant amounts of meat for food, or large quarters. All but one would need no extra heat at all if I didn't keep my basement suite so cold to save energy. The extra heat leaving the tanks helps keep me warm, and their lighting acts as room lighting, so I'm not even sure you can call most of it wasted.

Sylvia Rissell said...

Patricia Matthews:
I have recently remarked that many of the pre-election discussions about the candidates had vastly different personality and history ascribed to the candidates. It was almost as if there were two different fictional television programs, one where Ms. Clinton was the heroine, and Mr. Trump the villan, and another show where heroic Mr. Trump and evil Ms. Clinton faced off. (Also the same episode names. In one show the "Bengazi" episode was about a congressional hearing.) I worry that both of these shows exist and are called "News".

I once described voluntary simplicity to a co-worker. He said that family members grew up in "Involuntary Poverty."

Sister Crow said...

drhooves: Horse racing? Oh, dear, I thought your 'nym had to do with the character from "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic." Guess I'm even more saturated in pop culture than I even realized...

onething said...

Agent Provocateur, that was a very fine post at 12/14/16, 9:10 PM. Well written and everything. I'd have to say I largely concur.

Except, it would have been just as good and on point if the phrase "and bake the planet" were simply omitted.

Looking over several of the comments, I'm annoyed to note the tendency to ascribe stupidity, selfishness and lack of thinking skills to anyone who doesn't agree with a certain interpretation of data known as climate change. To me, this attitude is a red flag showing that people might be in an echo chamber. The idea that anyone worth giving basic respect to might disagree is denied. Thus the constant need to name the psychological issue that causes them to deny the obvious. This is convenient if you want to not have to question the belief you have chosen.

Of all the people I know who are horrified, perhaps even a little embarrassed at my lack of getting with the program, not one has openly come to me and asked me why I don't buy it. Only one actually lives like she believes that CO2 emissions ought to be reduced, that person being my sister. The other person I know who has seriously reduced energy usage is me. I find peak oil and overshoot in general enough of a worry all by itself. The others fly to South America for vacation, have dishwashers, and drive 50 miles to a better grocery store and don't carpool when they do it. And I say this not to show that they are hypocrites, but rather that I doubt they actually believe it, despite their emotionalism on the topic.

Someone above asked "if the austerity ideology that captured western governments is part of a deliberate demand destruction approach."

I've had the same thought about climate change. Or, if not demand destruction, a reason why people can justify stepping down in lifestyle without feeling utterly betrayed. (It had to be done anyway, to save the planet.) Yet another good use for climate change is that it takes people's time and attention away from other environmental issues they might fight for.

I note with satisfaction that Orlov has come here and said something unpopular. He would disrespect me for my above opinion, but I applaud him coming and saying what he did.

John Roth said...

@Happy Panda

Central banks are pursuing a low to negative interest rate policy because they’re scared *** about the fragility of the current recovery. They’re afraid that if they raise interest rates to historic levels, they’ll precipitate a recession or depression - see the mis-cue the Federal Reserve made in 1937 that plunged the recovery from the Great Depression into a secondary depression.

The US Federal Reserve has just raised its interest rate a quarter of a percent - the result is still under one percent. Part of the reason they felt they could do that was that “the market” expected them to do it, and had already made adjustments, so there was essentially no risk of unexpected consequences.


Just saw a report on some hard-core psychology experiments in Germany. The take-home is that conservatives are more influenced by references to returning to the past, which they see as better, while liberals are more persuaded by references to future problems and ways of handling them before they bite.

Study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (paywalled).

This is the abstract:

Conservatives appear more skeptical about climate change and global warming and less willing to act against it than liberals. We propose that this unwillingness could result from fundamental differences in conservatives’ and liberals’ temporal focus. Conservatives tend to focus more on the past than do liberals. Across six studies, we rely on this notion to demonstrate that conservatives are positively affected by past- but not by future-focused environmental comparisons. Past comparisons largely eliminated the political divide that separated liberal and conservative respondents’ attitudes toward and behavior regarding climate change, so that across these studies conservatives and liberals were nearly equally likely to fight climate change. This research demonstrates how psychological processes, such as temporal comparison, underlie the prevalent ideological gap in addressing climate change. It opens up a promising avenue to convince conservatives effectively of the need to address climate change and global warming.

-end abstract-

Discussion is here:

Link to the journal article is at the end of the discussion.

Lucas said...

JMG--I think you missed my point. I agree that many people got bent out of shape by gay marriage. But it still was not about them--it was about other people. At the end of the day they were not forced to put their own lifestyle on the chopping block.

Facing peak oil or climate change in a real way does force a person to come to terms with changing their little cozy corner of the world.


Cortes said...

Thanks for the reply, JMG.

Here's a piece about Building Societies (US - Savings and Loans):

As far as I'm aware the sole surviving Trustee Savings Bank is that in Airdrie, central Scotland; the others were seduced into a centralised organisation which was swallowed (huge bounties for their managers) into LloydsTSB...

Even worse is the Co-Operative movement which has degenerated into a shark like antepartum feeding frenzy among high ranking insiders.

As mentioned earlier, the buds of recovery are appearing.

Cathy McGuire said...

Hmmm... it seems the Web Monster won't let me post... lucky I tend to copy them before I send them into the aether. When I first tried to post yesterday, there were 16 comments before me - wow, it gets big fast!!
Good post - and first time in a while I could read all the comments before I posted. ;-) I think that Gail Tverberg's Our Finite World ( ) has some good points to make about net energy and how economic realities affect fossil fuel usage (and visa versa). And also there is the Peak Oil News ( ) that is quite varied in quality, but still posting on energy issues. Oh,and Ugo Bardi of Cassandra's Legacy is still going strong ( )But it's true that many folks may have fallen away after the various crisis points failed to happen... there's a kind of collapse fatigue that sets in and pushes people back into old habits. And/or other kinds of crises come up and push that issue to the fringes.
And meanwhile prices keep going up due to energy costs, but slow enough that it's like boiling a frog slowly.
I don't think the movement has died so much as faded from view, pushed aside by other seemingly more urgent problems... but I agree that it could gain more hearts and eyeballs by creating a narrative that doesn't aim for specific dates so much as pointing out the inevitable curve.
Anyway, thanks as always!

David, by the lake said...

@unknown re jetpack story

It was difficult to read that story. It takes skill to blend self-righteousness and technofantasy in such a overweening manner.

Marinhomelander said...

The Transition movement here in Marin County has degenerated into shills for developers who now have, per California law, the right to build large high density housing within a mile of a new multi-billion dollar train line to nowhere.
The developers are more than happy to utter the proper green phraseology as they arrange their financing and hit the jackpot.

Theoretically people will live in these "Transit Oriented" rabbit hutches in the sky and will ride the new and incomplete train to their jobs. Every unit has a parking place.

The amount of energy expended on building this train that uses diesel car sets, will never be made up for by taking cars off the road, since most of the projected ridership, is cannibalized from existing bus lines to be dropped and any new riders will drive to the stations instead of taking buses from their neighborhoods to San Francisco.

Watching the bright eyed and bushy tailed young environmentalists turn to grey bitter business opportunists, or Target clerks, is sad and depressing.

Ben Johnson said...

@ Shane - I picked the abortion issue as a case in point from just this year. Mostly Republican politicians, egged on by evangelicals, have spent most of this decade attacking women's reproductive health. I'd be happy to provide citations if you like. The politicians are still fighting the culture wars. I'd dance in the streets, probably naked, if they would pack up their morality crusade and go home.
That said, I'd appreciate if you reread my comment, and respond to my take on the voters' rejection of a bill removing the separation of church and state from the state constitution. This referendum constituted ;-) an effort by evangelical leaders in this state to continue a number culture war battles. And voters said NO 60-40. Do you see similar grass roots rejection of culture war issues where you live? Are those rejections an off shoot of evangelicals turning away from political crusading at the personal level?

patriciaormsby said...

@Unknown, the article you linked to (which is a howler) gave me more hope with Trump as someone with a sense of reality. But he will have to pay attention to how technological failure is spun. Scapegoats are already being found...

Karim said...

Greetings all!

I have been involved in attempting to raise peak oil issues in Mauritius since 2003 when I began publishing newspaper articles and organising meetings or symposiums.

My articles and presentations can be found at: if it interests anyone.

What I realised is that interests in energy goes up and down with energy prices. Now with low energy prices, interest has gone down, but not down to zero level. I expect energy issues to gain traction once more whenever oil prices go up again.

It is also clear that the basic message of having to do with less energy, less stuff is not palatable to most, hence the temptation to turn away and gaze at the extravagant claims made for renewable energy. It is irresistible.

The myth of progress prevents the vast majority of people in ever contemplating a post peak life of having less of nearly everything and of relying more on local resources.

I also got involved with local trade unions and small centre left green political organisations in attempting to raising energy issues. It got some traction, but the collapse in oil prices, the upsurge of shale oil and natural gas convinced many that technology will come up with timely responses, so why the haste.

I also saw with some horror that once our local centre left political organisations got funding from abroad, their interests in peak oil just dropped to zero and they got obsessed with climate change while doing exactly nothing about it.

Although I agree with JMG's analysis, in my experience the collapse in oil prices, the myth of progress did much to incapacitate peak oil movements and hinder any attempts to push forward sustainability issues.

I still try to maintain interest (via newspaper articles in my country) on energy and sustainability issues because in spite of all I occasionally meet people who read my articles, liked them and were interested in the issues raised.

It is still very worthwhile to do so for it keeps the issues alive and creates greater public awareness from which future movements may arise.

I am not too sure that "net energy" should be the next battle horse as although a simple concept to grasp, it is very difficult to get figures about it that are accepted by most people. But certainly it ought to be part of the cavalry!

These days, it seems to me more appropriate to talk in terms of the sustainability of human civilisation and the need to respond to the dynamics of change that we, ourselves, have triggered.

Perhaps, we could call ourselves "sustainability activists" for the focus is now how to ensure that a cultured, human and sustainable civilisation(JMG's thinking is acknowledged there!) actually makes it to the future.

Candace said...

The main thing I notice (because JMG has pointed it out) is that these movements counter the present conception of the myth of progress.

I am the only person in my circle of family and friends that doesn't have a television. And when I mention it, I get a certain amount of hostility. I just think convincing people that their life doesn't depend on access to bright, shiny, new, stuff is a tough sell. It's going to take a few failures until the idea that "less" doesn't have to mean misery when we talk to people about it.

It took abolition a few hundred years to succeed, so these movements may have some false starts. No I don't think there is a much time to get things moving, on the other hand the end of slavery here wasn't all that painless either.

O. Hinds said...

@Sister Crow:
If it makes you feel better, I thought the same thing. I consume a pretty narrow wedge of pop culture, I think, but MLP is in it (and also how I discovered The Archdruid Report, actually).

re the jetpack article linked by Unknown and commented on by others:
Aye, I kept experiencing a kind of dissonance while reading that, repeatedly seeing things that sounded good to be and then having the article present them as bad.
Also, one bit that just confuses me: "Users might ask themselves: Is a new sensor system designed to manage traffic, or surveil it? Does this new drone looking for drought-stricken forests, or is it an eye in the sky for DHS?"? What? Isn't "Trump favors old-fashioned dumb roads over camera-festooned smart ones" and "Trump may use traffic management sensor systems to spy on people" in the same article kind of a mixed message? And there's no chance at all that drones are already being used by the government for covert observation of Americans; that's only a concern once Trump gets into office?
I could pick out other parts, but that whole article is... really something.
Thanks, Unknown.

Effra said...

Thanks for another stimulating essay.

I think the other aspect to what happened in 2008 is that the very crash that high oil prices helped to precipitate created the monetary and financial conditions that made non-conventional production profitable. No QE no shale boom. The wonder in a way is that western economies could withstand such a sustained period of high prices from 2011 to 2014 although one could argue that the euro zone could not. But that the 2011-2014 period wasn't more destructive aside, the deleterious consequences of what made non-conventional viable are going to be us for a long time.

Cherokee Organics said...


Yes, I agree with you about that and it was one of the reasons I started writing in much greater volumes about the fun times we're having here. Before that and for many years I used to write the occasional article here and there, but I had a background feeling that a turning point had been reached in our society and thought that providing an example of another approach to life would be helpful to others. All the writing about the fun hasn't changed the course that we are personally on! Not one bit. I gave the community groups a go in various forms and the incessant squabbling drove me bananas. I'm a practical kind of guy after all and so I worry about outcomes whilst others tend to worry about process.

I've been slowly absorbing the contents and message of the book Overshoot into my brain and world perspective and I'm personally curious about your views on a question or perhaps it is more of a concept that has been troubling me: I can't quite come to grips with the jettisoning and shutting down of the existing infrastructure which is going on down here right now. You see I realise that there are environmental gains to be made from pursuing that strategy, but I also realise that that strategy is being pursued for short term economic gains at the cost of making our society less resilient and of course those costs are being borne by the working class - and pretty soon the middle and also the salaried class will share that one too.

I get all of that, but what I don't understand in my own thoughts is that I'm sort of conflicted between policies that navigate a middle way between those conflicting objectives where everybody gets something but nobody is happy and the future is faced realistically and with good grace. My gut feeling tells me that we are so far in denial that we can't get to that place without a lot of societal pain which forces us to abandon previous narratives and replace them with workable ones. Dunno.

For example, I'm really curious as to how you began to imagine the Retrotopia fictional world? Clearly such a world is still perhaps not good for the environment, and it too faces the very real prospect of demanding too much from its environment and resources, but at the same time it is a more humane society and perhaps has less abstract stories running it so perhaps it could adapt more readily to changing circumstances.

The turning point for me in wondering about this was the recent announcement of the imminent close down of the Hazelwood coal fired power station down here. It makes great sense to do so from the perspective of the environment, but from a resiliency point of view it makes no sense whatsoever, and nobody is willing to question the growth narrative. It is like being on a sinking ship and chucking people over board every now and then just so that you - who is left on board can enjoy a few more hours of life. As a strategy it makes no sense whatsoever because the ship will still sink.

I reckon I'm mildly confused about it all...



Anselmo said...

I think that the peak oil issue can not be compared with the climate change or the weddings of homosexuals.

Is clear that the lobby gay have been backed by powerful economic conglomerated and by his subordinate media and politicians. I figure that with the purpose of attack the family , core intitution of the society, with the aim of to dissolve the society and to controll more intensily the individuals.

About the climate change it have been used, as President Putin said, as a geopolitical weapon . And his destine is the corresondent to wichever weapon or tool that has become useless.

The Peak Oil issue have the next two peculiar factors that droven It to the present situation:

1) To admit his ugly implications suppose to renounce to the only basic believes that support the western civilization; The faith in the unlimited material and technological progress, and the outcomes will be the disintegration of the order social, politic, and geopolitic.

2) The Peak Oil is mixed with another huge problem. The crisis of capitalism for imposibility for expand more himself.

According with the economist Mikhail Khazin, since the years 70, the capitalism have troubles for to counter the declining of his econmic yields by mean of expansion and the corresponding specialization of each region. And this mixing makes difficult to understand the consecuences of peak oil.

For me the first factor exposed is crucial.


As denomination sustitutive to the term peak oil,I propose :

Energetic decline.

latheChuck said...

On zero (or less) interest rates -

Part of the story is the willingness of central banks to create money to be lent, without demanding interest. The other part is buyers willing to put money into investments which promise no nominal interest, but guarantee return of principal (with "full faith and credit" of the issuing bank). No-interest bonds make sense when everything else offers substantial risk of loss: real-estate can fall in value, automobile buyers can default on their loans, banks can fail (or impose fees), businesses can face falling demand with no useful way to use new capital, stock markets can tumble overnight, precious metals can be stolen, etc.

The offer of zero-interest bonds indicates central-bank attempts to accelerate economic activity; the purchase of zero-interest bonds indicates pessimism about any other investment option.

A related topic is "inflation-indexed savings bonds". US citizens can buy them directly from the US Treasury, on-line, in any amount up to $10,000 per year, and expect the interest paid to be updated every six months, according to the Consumer Price Index, for the next 30 years. There are no fees, sales commissions, or secondary market, and very little interest paid (for the last few years), so they get no publicity from the usual financial middlemen who profit from the churn of other investment options. If our central bank is striving to increase inflation, here's one way to ride with it (if you're fortunate enough to have cash left over after paying off debt, insulation, etc.).

Bob said...

@Mister Roboto,

The pursuit of profit doesn't always make sense, but we have been told that it will lead to the best of all possible worlds. The Tar Sands projects are a testament to that belief.

Hereward said...


In terms of political epitaphs such as 'left wing' or 'progressive' I find it quite difficult to pigeon-hole the PvdD. For instance they want to turn black the clock in terms of how we grow our food, is that 'progressive?' They also want to scrap taxation on labour and put it on the exploitation of resources, is that 'left wing?' Their policies are very much in line with E. F. Schumacher's in his book Small Is Beautiful and as further expanded upon in JMG's book The Wealth Of Nature. Both are well worth reading, by the way if you haven't done so already.

Actually, I didn't know that about her link with seventh day adventism, which is certainly not my cup of tea, but in any case, whether Thieme's politics are shaped by that or not, it's not apparent in the book, nor in the policies of the PvdD. Anyway - and I'll quote JMG from 30 Nov. - "I would be just as likely to vote for a surly misanthrope who loathes children, kicks puppies, and has deviant sexual cravings involving household appliances and mayonnaise, if that person supports the policies I want on the issues that matter to me. It really is that simple."

trippticket said...

@ Cathy McGuire

First, I thoroughly enjoyed your latest offering to "Into the Ruins!" Loved it. Loved them all actually.

Second, in answer to your "collapse fatigue" offering, my wife and I couldn't agree more. We are in the process of developing an organic family farm for a wealthy landowning friend, have been since May Day. This is the 3rd time since we "went sane" so many years ago that we have tried this co-farming, co-housing experiment. And yes, it's starting to come apart again. Predictably, I might add.

Each time I think we got distracted by the shiny - in our case it's mostly sunny open land (we live in a heavily wooded area and I have a hard time cutting down big beautiful trees), springs, access to power equipment, a farm-building budget this time, not to mention a much larger, nicer house to live in all 3 times.

In each case the trade-offs don't end up being worth it. We miss our property, our off-grid cottage that we built with our own hands, the pace of our life particularly, the quiet, the autonomy, the collapsing early... And in every case the barony has either gone back on their promises, or been intolerable enough, personality-wise, to offset the draw to their property. Sheesh. It's tiring.

So, we're probably going to slowly break ties, slowly start shifting back home after the new year, and head back to our already-collapsed way of life. Again. The shiny just never really seems to hold up! And I have to admit to a little embarrassment in our desire to keep trying it.


trippticket said...

Just as an aside, after 5 years of doing business under a 10' x 10' canopy at farmers markets and craft shows, in the burning heat and freezing wind and rain, gambling $300 entry fees against the weather, our little herbal products company will be opening a tiny brick and mortar shop just off the square in our little mountain town! 24 S. Main St sounds like a promising business address, doesn't it?!

AND, as far as I know, we will be the first storefront in Ellijay, GA, to be completely off-grid!

Visit our website if you like, at

Cheers, everybody!

NZ said...

JMG- I see the main problem facing movements for change revolve around the socialization process that everyone needs to undergo. Humans develop into functional beings with a large cultural toolbox to finish off what nature provides at birth. Although healthy human beings retain the ability to adapt throughout their lifetimes, an argument can be made that the important work in forming individuals is completed early in life. A broad direction is set, and human growth potential is largely baked in. Minds are set, making change a slow process. However, the young offer potential for change, if not crushed in the process. This is why conservatism is mostly held, the consequences for failure are too frightening to contemplate and those advocating change face added pressure and responsibility. The have to be "right".

This cultural and sociological component is THE most important deciding factor determining the course of events. The leaders, elders, parents, take the responsibility to pass on this cultural component of human development. If the culture is WRONG headed, only an external force will bring about change. The ideology driving Monoculture we see today, as easily seen in the process of modern industrial agriculture, applies across different aspects of society. This is what the new Feudalism attempts to point out. A return to a highly polarized society made more brutal by the maintenance of an unjust hierarchy.

The cultural problem is not solved by better arguments to refute monoculture or better, more accurate future predictions to the course of events. Its building and maintaining a different culture. Insight must be translated into the physical world. Direct action is the most important feature. What you do. The failure comes from this lack of integration between insightful ideas and physical social structures. The failures of our current cultural models are becoming painfully obvious. Double down on exploitation, or learn how integrate with others into a sustainable, self reinforcing structures.

Cult of sociability?

Matthias Gralle said...

Slightly off-topic: glad to inform that five of JMG's books are available in the municipal library of Québec, one of them in French (and digital).

Happy Panda said...

John Roth said...

@Happy Panda

Central banks are pursuing a low to negative interest rate policy because they’re scared *** about the fragility of the current recovery. They’re afraid that if they raise interest rates to historic levels, they’ll precipitate a recession or depression - see the mis-cue the Federal Reserve made in 1937 that plunged the recovery from the Great Depression into a secondary depression.

@John Roth

This probably explains much about zero interest rates and I was aware of it. But it doesn't explain negative interest rates very well to my mind. The Federal Reserve has considered the topic in some of their meetings from what I've read although they have yet to jump on the negative rate bandwagon. But even bringing it up means they're exploring it as a possible tool in the Federal Reserve box.

The EU could pursue zero interest rates just like the U.S. but it hasn't for quite some time and still doesn't. It also convinced Japan to emulate EU negative interest policy, not Federal Reserve zero interest policy. Why? What did Japan find so persuasive? Japan is famous for its peoples' high savings rate. That is no small political matter to put what amounts to a tax on the savers of Japan. But there must be some convincing reason for it or Japan's CB wouldn't have bought into it.

I hope JMG will get around to explaining his take on this in a dedicated post and what it might have to do with The Long Descent. Is there any similar historical parallel to this happening?

Nancy Sutton said...

Yay! my hard cy of 'Retrotopia' arrived ;) Font size I can actually read .... and a map! Now I can return to the 'real sized' world.

Ed-M said...


Kim Kardashian, eh? Well I would be more into something like this person -- have your wife click on the link instead!

Which reminds me... I'm glad you let Dmitry have what-for, but I'm going to add my two pence.

Ed-M said...

Dmitry Orlov:

Delete the last sentence of your comment and you sound just like those "controlled" religious fundamentalists!

I mean, THEY are the ones who are pushing this destruction of the family conspiracy theory! Now HOW is dame-sex marriage destructive to the family? In reality, not in the RFs' distorted thinking? And what makes this all the more disgusting, is that there is no need of any organized conspiracy to destroy the family. The capitalists are doing it just fine, with capitalist and propagandistic methods (chief of which is advertising with entertainment a close second). The only bureaucratic and administrative methods that come into play here is the very model and nature of public/private/charter schooling. No pro-gay agenda required!

Unknown said...

Tomxyza here.
I want to bring up a thought in regards to re-framing Peak Oil. It seems to me that what is needed is to come up with words that focus the discussion on regenerative approaches vrs consumptive approaches. If our policies supported things that were regenerative rather than consumptive we could shift things in a very positive way. The ecology we help develop has to be more regenerative than consumptive or it fails in the long term.


Hereward said...

Re my last post: 'epitaphs' should have read 'epithets.' Some Freudian slip!

latheChuck said...

Happy Panda - Negative interest rates are not necessarily more of a tax on savers than positive interest rates are, when the positive rate is less than the rate of inflation. The traditional function of a bank is to accumulate capital from depositors to loan out to borrowers. This enables borrowers do something productive with the money: prepare for a career, build a profitable factory, drill a productive oil well, work productive farm land, drive a car to work, etc. Finance (tertiary wealth) then allows consumable goods (secondary wealth)to be produced from raw materials (primary wealth), and everybody shares in the profits via the interest payments. But as the primary wealth is depleted, and the market for consumable goods is saturated, then finance is left chasing its tail. Inflation of the money supply can keep the interest payments flowing, but not enough to preserve the buying power of the depositor.

Which would you rather have: 4% interest paid in a 6% inflation environment, 0% percent interest with 2% inflation, or -1% interest "paid" with 1% inflation? (Actually, you don't get to choose!

latheChuck said...

On the topic of "joyfully resilient living", I pulled a few carrots from my (Maryland) garden just before the big freeze came down this week. I shared one with my 19-year old son, who asked "Dad, why do your carrots taste so much better than the ones you get from the organic market?" It's a combination of cultivar (the kinds of seeds that I plant), soil (organic fertilizers), freshness (minutes after the harvest, not months), and season (carrots store extra sugar when the weather turns cold, to minimize freeze damage).

What's it worth to me, to hear a compliment/question like that? Priceless!
What did it cost? A dollar for seeds (plus some ambiguous share of the costs of a suburban 1/4 acre lot!).

As I sit here, the sun is setting and music echoes through my neighborhood from a hip-hop concert in the university football stadium at least a mile away, and I contemplate the cultural dissonance between my tasty carrots and their high-wattage urban entertainment. What kind of future are the students preparing for? Not the one that I expect!

pg said...

Candace, in the words of Emily D, tell the truth but tell it slant.
I haven't had a TV since before 2000. My dog hated it, and the cable guy. She (the dog) was an old breed (Affie). When sheer beauty, long red hair and a roman nose say "Pay attention to now"--it may be a quirky moment, but it could be (was, Rikki has been ashes for yrs, along with her late beau, a Great Pyr) a solid truth. My dogs have been great resources in silliness and deflection.

Cathy McGuire said...

@Trippticket - Good luck with your store and your move back! I tried co-housing too - a real mistake. Now I'm pretty happy with my little half-acre - I'm just struggling to deal with increased disability which leaves me unable to do what I want... I keep waffling between thinking I can push through the pain and telling myself to figure out how to hire help! (Also, I really want to spend time writing, and I don't have energy after a day of "homesteading"). Not sure what this year brings, but I'm really thrilled to have my writing accepted in many places (I'll be in the first issue of Mythic, also, and Founders House will be bringing out my novel soon). Thanks for your compliments - I'm quite proud to be in that issue of In The Ruins, with those other wonderful stories and articles!

nuku said...

@Happy Panda,
Re negative interest rates: you ask “why”.
Seems to me the simple answer is that govts and their lackey economists don’t want people to save, they want them to SPEND. How else to prop up the world’s failing economies?
Also, having “$ in the bank” gives folks a bit of independence and dignity. With no savings and a house full of useless consumer gagets, people are forced to accept crap “uber” jobs and join the “gig” economy where they are perpetually under the thumb of employers.
Mandating a year long Xmas season during which people are publicly shamed if they don’t buy each other useless gifts might be another “tool” in the box...
Is this conspiracy? Probably not, just business as usual.

John Michael Greer said...

Siliconguy, exactly. It's a bumpy plateau in terms of volume, and a bumpy decline in terms of net energy. If the peak oil movement had at least included that possibility in its planning, it would be doing a lot better now (i.e., not flat on its back gasping for air).

Genevieve, the limit there is real (that is, nonfinancial) costs. You can have all the money you want, but if the production of real, nonfinancial goods and services is in contraction -- as it is -- what do you get then? (Hint: negative interest rates, among other things...)

Bill, thanks for the clarification; no, it wasn't clear at all that that was what you were trying to say.

Tim, so noted. I'll want to see whether that's a blip or not.

Bruno, good. Yes, that's part of it. More in an upcoming post!

Donalfagan, yeah, I know. It's been a long ragged road from the days when Roscoe Bartlett was making speeches on peak oil in the House of Representatives.

ThisOldMan, very nicely summarized! Thank you.

Bob, I'd use considerably harsher language to describe the US academic industry, but I'll settle for your characterization out of politeness.

Unknown Joel, that's on a par with what I've heard from other sources. Green spraypaint is the order of the day! Thanks also for the data point on Norfolk; I wonder how many people have realized just how much of the US coast is going to be awash in the not too distant future...

Eric, good. One of the reasons I think net energy is a useful opening wedge is that it applies across the board, whether prices are high or low.

Pantagruel, bingo. Nothing on the internet is ever private, therefore nothing on any computer that's ever connected to the internet is private. Want something to stay secret? Type it on a typewriter and put it in a locked filing cabinet -- which is of course what they do in the Lakeland Republic!

Gwizard, duly noted.

John Michael Greer said...

Jerome, no doubt!

Chris, you're neglecting the issue of net energy. Sure, there's vast amounts of unconventional fossil carbon, and most of it requires more energy to extract and process than you get from burning it. (If that sounds like a good idea to you, I'd like to hire you for a job -- you get $50 an hour, but you have to pay in $60 an hour of your own money. Math question -- how fast will that make you rich?) That being the case, the positive spin is going to be a little tougher; on the other hand, you're right that it's far from impossible.

Rita, good. Another post I need to do in the new year will discuss the way that liberalism sold out to neoliberalism, and stopped talking about economic justice in exchange for notional equality for women and people of color who happen to belong to the affluent classes. The tacit enthusiasm for feudal values is part of that, of course.

Panda, that'll definitely want to be a post early in the coming year, because it seems to me that there's at least one major factor at work that hasn't yet been considered. More on this soon!

Maxine, and that's also a way of pursuing it! Thank you for the reminder.

Asher, glad to see it. A central point of this week's post was the hope of goading surviving peak oil organizations out of their apparent coma, and getting some debate going on where what's left of the movement might head now; thank you for contributing to the latter. That said, I hope that you'll get around to considering my comments as substantive criticisms, which they are, rather than simply dismissing them as so many insults.

Patricia, inside the bubble, everything looks rosy. I'd like to see Obama come and visit a couple of former mill towns in flyover country someday.

Sven, that will do nicely!

Pygmycory, I'll consider it. As for hobbies, that's always a delicate issue. If your fish are a source of joy in your life, I'm not going to tell you not to keep them -- and it occurs to me that the skills you're learning may be useful down the road when it comes time to restock bodies of water with fish suited to their new climatic conditions.

Sylvia, good. I've experienced some involuntary poverty of my own, for what that's worth, and it was a useful corrective to the giddier excesses of the voluntary simplicity scene.

Sister Crow, I missed that one completely -- but then I've never actually seen an episode of the show in question. (It didn't come on the air until long after I ditched my last TV.)

John Michael Greer said...

John Roth, that is to say, conservatives are conservative -- interested in, ahem, conserving the past -- and also skeptical about arbitrary assumptions about the future, while liberals are less interested in the past and more enthusiastic when it comes to claims about the future. I kind of thought we knew that. In other news, fire burns and water gets you wet. ;-)

Lucas, thanks for the correction. The thing is, as I'll discuss in an upcoming post, for a lot of people -- especially those millions who are out of work due to automation -- deindustrialization may be a significant step up. It's primarily those who are affluent enough to benefit fully from the high-energy lifestyles of the present who are going to suffer.

Cortes, many thanks for this!

Cathy, true enough. That's one of the reasons I think it would have been much better not to fixate on sudden change, and take the lifestyle angle a few changes at a time. But that's a subject for another day.

Marin, I have great respect for any environmentalist who is willing to walk his or her talk, to the extent of significantly reducing his or her carbon (and other resource) footprint. Most of the environmentalists I've met, alas, do no such thing; it's all talk, no walk, and so of course they sell out to corporate interests at the drop of a slogan.

Karim, sustainability's a good option, because it puts a positive spin on things, and it also lends itself to hard quantification -- exactly how long can this or that be sustained? No question, interest ebbs and flows with energy prices; that's one of the reasons why this requires a long game.

Candace, true enough. The antislavery campaign might be worth studying as a source of useful lessons, come to think of it.

Effra, good. I'm going to have to do some intensive reading, but I think that there may have been more than coincidence in the juxtaposition of volatile oil prices and collapsing interest rates. More on this as we proceed...

Chris, that's a hugely important point, of course. One of the basic rules of game theory is that you can only maximize one variable at a time; if you prioritize the biosphere, sooner or later you're going to have to accept less resilience, and if you prioritize resilience, sooner or later you're going to have to accept a worse outcome for the biosphere. Thus in the real world you end up making awkward compromises between a flurry of competing variables, none of which can be neglected but none of which can be given absolute priority. A real mess!

Anselmo, er, it's a bit late to insist that they can't be compared, when I'm already comparing them, you know. ;-)

LatheChuck, good. Very good. And the fact that other options offer either a high risk of loss or next to no earnings has its own critically important lesson to teach...

John Michael Greer said...

Trippticket, congratulations! That's a big step; I hope the storefront thrives.

NZ, if that were true, change would never happen -- and yet it does, all the time. May I encourage you to consider changing focus from "why things can't change" to "how things do change"? It really is more productive...

Matthias, delighted to hear it! Thank you.

Nancy, delighted to hear that, too. I'm still waiting for mine!

Ed-M, er, your link doesn't seem to have come through. Anything but the Kardashians is probably an improvement.

Unknown Tomxyza, yes, that's certainly an angle worth exploring.

LatheChuck, delighted to hear it. I know the feeling!

Candace said...

Fun coincidence. Reading "Overshoot", just came across this. From First Illinois paperback edition 1982, p. 53

"Once mankind was committed to heavy reliance on continued use of exhaustible resources such as the deposits of fossil energy, it was certain to be as painful for people to emancipate themselves from their own technological entrapment as it had been for earlier men to emancipate themselves from owning human slaves."

Seems like abolition movement would definitely be useful to review.

patriciaormsby said...

Coming to Dmitry's rescue, my impression of him in the past is he wasn't anti-gay. The point he seemed to be trying to make (in my view) is that America's decision-makers felt no motivation to stand in the way of same-sex marriage, and that they might even see some benefit to whatever social disruption resulted. (Ever hear of "divide & conquer"?)

Here in Japan, I once saw the then Environment Agency leak a document on the severity of dioxin pollution, and i was so impressed to see them do something altruistic. That warmed my heart.

That illusion lasted me all of two years before I discovered a bigger nasty hidden goal that was being served by the leak. Quite a lot of money changed hands.

Dmitry, be careful what you drink before you post! You're normally highly articulate.

Rita Narayanan said...

Thanks JMG

JMG said * Rita, good. Another post I need to do in the new year will discuss the way that liberalism sold out to neoliberalism, and stopped talking about economic justice in exchange for notional equality for women and people of color who happen to belong to the affluent classes. The tacit enthusiasm for feudal values is part of that, of course.*

if you observe the noted environmentalist Dr Vandana will get the drift of the larger every sort of way she embodies the adeptness, articulation in English & the rest of the highly educated world elite. She is great friends of the royals in Bhutan & Prince Charles...My point being: why doesn't this educated elite find a middle moderate ground instead of touting democracy/equality & then being friends w/ the Manor House. The extreme **ideals they expouse don't reflect a complex human sociology.

All the Best for 2017 :)

Cherokee Organics said...


Many thanks for your honest reply. Hmm, it is about what I thought.

I believe that we could accept the realities of the situation if the burden was shared equally. I did notice that Mr Catton Jr. spoke of the dangers of poor communication of the risks and I took note of that.

What I see in our leaders is not only that, but they also have a lack of coherent vision which is concerning because what it tells me is that nobody wants to be the dude (or dudette) that bursts the bubble.

Given that is the circumstances then dissensus is an excellent approach. I keep having the feeling that I'm tramping along ground that you yourself have already walked in the past?



Bob said...

Karim's comment reminded me of the Brundtland Commission from way back in 1987. It produced a report, Our Common Future. In that report was the term "sustainable development", defined as: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

In other words, a mild acknowledgement of the myth of progress.

trippticket said...

JMG said

"Eric, good. One of the reasons I think net energy is a useful opening wedge is that it applies across the board, whether prices are high or low."

For my part, I can say that the only inroads I've ever made with anybody re: energy descent in the last 9 years have been when I've kept the conversation within the confines of EROEI, energy. That seems to make some sense to people. When I've made the mistake of using the term "Peak Oil" I usually get tin foil hats for Christmas in return. Joking, but you know the response I'm talking about...

Jasmine said...

Dear Mr Greer

If a future peak oil movement is to succeed then it needs to hit people when it hurts.

Peak oil has been looked on as something that will happen in the future and is fixated on things like when oil production will peak and start to decline. I think this is mistaken. What we need to be doing is to looking at how the peaking of conventional oil production 2006 has been slowly destroying our economy since that time. It was one of the factors responsible for the 2008 financial crash and has acted as a drag on growth ever since then. We need to be carrying out research to show how the high oil prices and decreasing EROI have been affecting growth and destroying the pound in our pockets. This is what is important to people. We need to show how peak oil is affecting our incomes now and has been doing so for the last 10 years.. Show how it has been affecting our pockets now and it will stop being something abstract that may happen at some point in the future.

Show the man on the clapham omnibus that peak oil is decreasing his income and destroying the pound in his pocket and he might sit up and start to take notice. Show him graphs and reports that show that all liquid or shale production might peak in the near future and he will fall asleep.

It is the pound in our pockets that matters and this is where it really hurts. Anything else is just an abstraction. A future peak oil movement needs to hit them where it hurts.

Jasmine said...

Dear Mr Greer

One of the problems is that conventional economics is not designed to deal with peak oil as it developed the 18th and 19th century when resources were still plentiful. The Price mechanism is supposed to deal with scarcity. Unfortunately with peak oil the price mechanism breaks down. The price mechanism is supposed to signal scarcity because the price goes up. And sure, the price of oil does go up when supply cannot keep up with demand. However oil is not like other products as it is one of the basic energy sources our economies rely on. So when the oil price goes up the economy eventually goes into recession and this brings down demand and the oil price crashes. Therefore price is no longer acting as a signal of scarcity.

In conventional economics there is an infinite number of substitutes that we can use when one product goes into scarcity. This might have worked 100 or 200 years ago as when wood became scarce we could move on to coal. However we now live in a world of scarcity and all the substitutes out there contain low concentrations of energy than oil and are more expensive and have a low energy return on investment. You can’t run a modern industrial society on energy sources like this.

The inability of modern economic s to understand peak oil may be one of the reasons why some in the peak oil movement made the mistake that oil prices would remain high when scarcity hit.

Shane W said...

@Ben Johnson,
I just think that abortion may be an exception, since opposition to the procedure has not gone away. It still remains controversial. All the information I have is anecdotal. There's Trump's embrace of the LGBT community during his campaign, and here in KY, we had an openly gay mayor run against Rand Paul, and the tone of that election was way different than in the past. Neither side brought up sexuality as an issue. Over 15 years ago, Ernesto Scorsone ran for a local Congressional seat, and there was a "whispering campaign" against him, and his GOP opponent directly said that he could not be for "family values" since he was not married. I don't think he was out at the time. The incoming state House speaker has stated that he is "focused on economic, not social issues". This is just a sea change in tone from the 80s-90s, when the GOP was running on social issues and "family values", with homophobia leading the way. I'm not sure if it's the Trump effect, but the GOP seems to feel that it's in their benefit not to push social issues anymore. We'll see come January if they actually follow through in action. But they certainly must be sensing that this is no longer a winning strategy for them.

Nastarana said...

Dear Mattthias Gralle, I don't know if Canada has yet experienced the plague of librarians who hate books, but you might want to check out those puppies, keep for a week or so, and then return, whether you have time to read them that particular week or not. Here in the US, that simple action keeps worthy books on the shelves and available to all for another 2-5 years. I managed to convince a branch library in the Mohawk Valley to retain its copies of all 10 or 12 volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History by politely kicking up a fuss when I found them removed from the shelves. British historical scholarship is not to be despised, imperialist bias notwithstanding.

People who live in MD, PA and VA might be able to convince libraries to buy Mr. Greer's books on the strength of his being a local author.

For persons who are dismayed or offended by gay marriage: if you want young people to form families, they need to be able to support those families in some state other than miserable poverty. That means a lot of prices, starting with rent, need to come down. A long ways down, and that means a whole group of someones besides people who are already poor need to accept smaller returns on investment for the sake of the greater good. To put it in religious terms, we need to revive the notion of a just profit, as opposed to whatever the traffic will bear.

Hubertus Hauger said...

JMG, how I understand this article; In resilience-org you hit a sensitive spot!

I understand, that they do defend their work, which they see criticized from you and you value much legitimately.

Yet they miss the most crucial point in this! I see a great concern from you, which you utter here in that accusing tone. Contrary to your frequently announced position, that we people worldwide have reached the limits of growth, from which is coming unavoidably collapse and thereafter a compulsory simplification of life, whether we’re ready or not, you would still welcome a change of course for the better. Am I right?

You do miss, like I guess, we all do, a spreading awareness of our inevitable future and thereafter decisive steps towards restoring much of the goodies. Even you expresses continuously your fear, that we are in a collapse by disaster, you rather would prefer a collapse by design.

Unfortunately this does yet not happen. And the most capable of us, like them peak-oilist, were unable to swing opinion. Due to your analyses we were loosing focus, getting corrupted by opposing interests and getting unreliable through revealingly broadcasted predictions, which don’t come true and most important of all, don’t relieve us from the effort, to convince our fellow people ourselves, instead of self-evident disaster events, bringing all to its senses.

In this context we all are responsible for the lack of success of the "Limits of growth" movement. Better to chance that in due time, to reach some saving coast still.

Justin said...

Pygmycory, if you have fish that can be bred in captivity, why not try and breed cold resistant ones? It's surprising what you can do - for instance in three generations you can take guppies and make them able to live in full salinity ocean water. Of course, guppies have a brackish marsh-dwelling species in their evolutionary history so it's not too surprising.

Why not start a blog on really low energy fishkeeping? People used to keep fish before electricity you know. Even a fish that needs to eat meat or fish, if it can survive low temperatures and less-aerated water can be kept alive on a tiny fraction of the resources that say, a cat would require.

I did a bit of googling, and although smaller animals typically have higher energy requirements per unit mass than larger ones, it happens that a human and a small (~100g) fish require approximately the same amount of energy on a mass basis. Even though prepared fish food is expensive remember that people used to manage to feed fish before it was available.

pygmycory said...

My animals are a huge source of joy in my life. The skills I learned from keeping them are also why I have a job now, and continuing to keep them means that customers take me more seriously. Also, I keep learning new things that apply to my job, even if it's 'let's not bring in scarlet baddis unless someone special-orders them. They refuse to eat anything but tiny live food, which means they are very hard for us to feed, and most people who buy them would have them starve to death.' Finding that out probably saved a good few fishy lives, even if I would not have bought him if their requirement for live food was widely known, and I'd been able to find out beforehand. I ended up learning to culture fruit flies just to feed one tiny fish. He's doing very nicely now.

I've ended up learning a lot about culturing insects. If there's ever much of a market for insects for human consumption here, I could farm them. I currently culture fruit flies and mealworms for my pets.

I have a feeling that restocking with new species is going to be illegal for a good while after the native species will no longer survive. That means it will likely happen haphazardly anyway, in a totally unplanned manner.

Andrew H said...

Have you read 'The Mandibles' by Lionel Schriver. I don't know whether the author regularly visits this site, but the novel encompasses so many of the topics discussed by you, that I would not be surprised. I seems to me that the fact that an author with such a background as hers, has written such a novel, suggests collapse is much more commonly acknowledged and accepted than I had supposed.

Caryl said...

Hello John Michael--
I remember the nice things you wrote about my peak-oil novel, After the Crash. Perhaps I had a sense that the peak oil movement would not be permanent, and my novel was cast in a light-hearted and whimsical tone. Even so, I was asking questions about history, civilized life, and the nature of events. I think it's unfortunate to compare peak oil to same-sex marriage, which is an emblem for sterility. No, what could have happened and maybe should have happened was a renewal of the concept of stewardship: that is to say, the things that need to be done, environmentally and spiritually, to ensure continuity and create future. If anything, the West presents a case of an economy that has run off the rails and functions purely as a predator. What peak oil should have told us is this: to not use up everything makes future possible. Is it too late to understand this message?

Larry N said...

More fodder for net energy and net losses in energy. Natural gas losses from fracking continue to mount.

Cherokee Organics said...


Oh yeah, and with my new mental tools I realised this morning that the singularitarians are a rather bizzare form of the old adage "Go West, young man!" Of course how could I have been so dense as to not see that? I don't much like their chances given that another of my old computers has suffered massive hardware failure this evening... Computers give me a headache.



Shane W said...

Traditional pan- and polytheistic cultures had important roles for queer (I use this term b/c "gay" and "transgendered" are Western industrial conceptions) people to play before homophobic, salvationistic, Abrahamic monotheism forcibly took over. It's the homophobic Abrahamic monotheism that is the usurper, that displaced the traditional, sexually friendly polytheism, first in the West, and then outward as Western influence spread through colonization and industrialization. When we talk about "traditional", it's important to set the record, um, straight...

Unknown said...

Tomxyza here:
I recently came across a video clip of Orcas working at killing a cow humpback's calf in Monteray Bay. The cow and calf eventually got into shallow water and the Orcas broke off the effort. The interesting piece was that the Orca experts said they were training their young. One of our problems as a civilization is that we forget that humans are an apex predator species. It is possible to be social loving animals and still be apex predators. The "liberal left" wants to believe in love and kindness and forget about our nature as predators. Acknowledging and recognizing our basic predator nature while honoring our social loving nature would go a long way towards creating balance. When it comes to peak oil we need to understand this from our predator aspects not just our social aspects.


PRiZM said...

Two other things I wanted to add..

Sunday while attending a mini-sermon, we were watching a fellow by the name of Andy Stanley. While I found his preaching and style grotesque, I did come away with something related to movements which had never crossed my mind before. Christianity was rather weak at first. Jesus didn't gather a lot followers as he was on the Earth. And even the years following his death didn't result in huge growth. It wasn't until Saul became Paul that Christianity really began to blossom into a force to be reckoned with, lasting until present in its various incarnations. Something can be gleaned from that, especially the scriptures which Paul penned.

Second, concerning all the conflict arising, I recalled a thought "Geography of Genius" pointed out: how conflict provides opportunity for more genius to develop. I won't go into all the details, but the coming years, and decades ahead do allow for lots of conflict. We're in for prime time genius development!

David, by the lake said...


I find myself rather discouraged of late. Perhaps I simply need to learn more patience or else engage the world in a different way. I am incrementally making adjustments in my life as I can, but when I try to have conversations re things like resource limits or our empire, I invariably get the pro-technology or anti-isolationalist line in one form or another. Perhaps I need to simply focus on my own life and my own community for the time being, as the discussions in the broader fora resemble repeated head-meets-brick-wall events. I'd like the country to take the less-bad path, but little I see indicates that we are open to that - or am I looking in the wrong places?


Reply missive going out today. Add land reform to the list of ideas? Access to property to support greater self-reliance. Old-school!

Somewhatstunned said...

Earlier in the comments Karim proposed the description "sustainability activist" and I wanted to thank him for what turns out to be a suprisingly useful term.

'Surprisingly' because each word on its own is a bland nothing. "Sustainability" started out well but has now become too baggy to hold any useful content - it's often just a greenwashing gesture. "Activist" can be used for nothing more than an over-serious person who goes to lots of meetings. Yet put the two words together and each seems to bring the other to life. I think the term might fit me, in a small way.

Bob said...

RE. low interest rates

Part of this has to do with an ideological preference for monetary policy over fiscal policy. Getting money into the hands of people who will spend it in the "real" economy is considered economically irresponsible. So the preference is to increase liquidity for the banks and for wealthy investors. But when banks don't see good opportunities for loans, the extra liquidity goes nowhere. Investors turn their attention towards stock buyouts, large asset purchases, or speculative trading. The real economy fails to benefit from these activities.

Another explanation is that a "mature" economy will not attract as much investment as a growing economy. Currently, the growing economies are in the second and third worlds.

William21 said...


i appreciate the moderate, no-panic way you state your conclusions. no sudden collapse, etc. but I wish you would give (or at least cite) some hard calculations to back up your conclusion (so frequently stated) that it is now too late for industrial civilization to survive in anything like its current form. frankly, i don't see the evidence for that. we may do great damage to the planet with global warming, but considering the carbon resources still available, and the better methods of extraction, your calculations are just plain wrong. we CAN make the transition to a low carbon energy future. the only piece still missing is a breakthrough on batteries. we need very large batteries with a rapid charge and discharge cycle that last for ten of thousands of cycles. unlike fusion power, there do not appear to be any inherent reasons why such batteries are impossible. if they are possible, they will be built, and when that happens, our high-energy civilzation can indeed survive. comment?

Ol' Bab said...

JMG: Krugman often gets it wrong, but this shows he can read history:

Sounds like he accepts that our republic is doomed...

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