The End of The End

SUBHEAD: How did Yergin and CERA, Exxon Mobil, and "Government and industry officials" so completely outmaneuver the peak oil prophets of doom? By Mike Bendzela on 2 January 2011 in OpEd News - ( Image above: Poster for "OilPeakapocalypse Now". From (

"Demand has peaked for good. It has declined four years in a row and will not reach the 2006 level again, even when the economy fully recovers." "Government and industry officials," quoted in Jonathan Fahey's AP article, "US gas demand should fall for good after '06 peak."

When I first began reading about peak oil in 2003, the year 2010 seemed like a distant, dire time, the Post-Peak Era, when suburbia and all its accessories would End.

It is now 2011, and the same world is still too much with us. The traffic on our road keeps increasing, and the acquisition of the last technological marvel is still the important issue of the day. As a critical thinker, I'm committed to changing my mind when predictions are invalidated. My view of "peak oil" has evolved from True Believer into Ambivalent Agnostic. The scales are dropping from my eyes.

I began seeing the handwriting on the wall about a year ago. It eventually caused me to cancel the module on peak oil in my College Writing class in the Fall of 2010. Advocates of peak oil apocalypse may be thinking that this sounds like the testament of a born-again Cornucopian who has seen the Light. No such luck.

This revelation was vouchsafed to me by Jonathan Fahey, via the Associated Press, in a recent article titled "US gas demand should fall for good after '06 peak." It contains a brilliantly-executed, if largely-unspoken, rhetorical strategy: Peak Oil is dead. Long live peak demand.

What I have read in their article confirms my nagging suspicion that the peak oil argument is over. Regardless of the validity or invalidity of the case, the debate is dead. Perhaps we only have ourselves to blame.

That which fervent peaker imaginations previously announced as intimations of doom, the prophet Daniel Yergin now preaches as Good News. The Peak of Demand is coming in clouds of glory. This is a gospel we can all embrace. Even loathed environmentalists will react with "delight."

We all know that the "peak demand" argument is fake, a distinction without a difference. When extraction peaks, demand peaks by definition. We taste the spoonful of sugar, but the pill still goes down like a chocolate-covered Valium. Fahey and his source, Daniel Yergin of Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), recast the very terms of "peak oil" in their own image. They articulate these refurbished terms as foregone conclusions, and they do so with confidence, not with apocalyptic fervor. Their argument is a Winner.

The end of growth--which peakers have spoken about for so long now that it is something of a cliché --is spun not as our punishment for failing to prepare for peak oil but as our reward for increased fuel efficiency standards, ethanol mandates, and less driving due to demographic shifts, such as the aging of the Baby Boomers.

If oil indeed has peaked, as many of us suspect, then the quote that Fahey attributes to Paul Sankey of Deutsche Bank is actually true: " 2030 America will use just 5.4 million barrels a day, the same as in 1969"; and this quote by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is true: "...the country's dependence on foreign oil will wane and heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxide will grow more slowly"; and what Yergin says is true: "the heady days of gasoline growing in the U.S. are over."

In the same way that New Testament scribes recast ancient Hebrew apocalyptic expectations in the image of their risen "christos," Jesus of Nazareth, so these latter-day CERA prophets and their scribes have supplanted the apocalyptic terms of the peak oil movement with the messianic message of "peak demand." It's an inspirational message: Even with 27 million more cars on the road by 2020, as foretold by NRDC, and with high per capita demand, we can still consume less and lower our carbon dioxide emissions. Yes, we can.

This is not the Apocalypse per se, but it is still the onset of the Kingdom of God. How silly of us for not seeing the distinction before.

So how did they do it? How did Yergin and CERA, Exxon Mobil, and "Government and industry officials" so completely outmaneuver the peak oil prophets of doom? How did they manage to get their AP-disseminated articles stuffed into everyone's stockings, while the peak oil message withered on the tree?

Easy. They co-opted the peakers' terms, converting lead into gold, and they stayed on message. How have our own prophets fared by comparison?

Saint Matthew Simmons gained a huge following by saying Saudi Arabian oil production was in its twilight. He wrote a book, "Twilight In the Desert," that made many startling inferences based on published technical papers rather than on direct data because the data are unavailable State secrets. Many of us were convinced by his inferences. But he also said that oil would be $200 a barrel by the end of 2010 and that natural gas production was about to go over a cliff. Before his untimely death, he even claimed that the Deepwater Horizon disaster left an "open hole" in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico and that the whole coast would have to be evacuated. Given these startlingly deluded claims, one wonders if he ever knew what he was talking about in the first place.

Then there's the other Matt, the star-gazing Magus Savinar, who continually invoked "The End Of The World As We Know It" (TEOTWAWKI) on his website Life After the Oil Crash, which is still listed number one under a Google search for "peak oil." He drew comparisons to the Titanic, told us to start hording canned goods and horoscopes, and disappeared. When disaster failed to materialize, he shut down his website and said his disciples were failures. What a cad.

Michael Ruppert of Patmos has been saying "collapse" is imminent for about ten years now. His predictions include delirium tremens visions of Dick Cheney bringing down the World Trade Center. Ruppert's career reveals an essential truth: scratch a peak oil advocate, and there is a high probability of finding a 911 conspiracy theorist. The peak in world oil production turns out to be the "motive" for those who believe the Bush administration engineered the attacks as an excuse to occupy the oil fields of Iraq. Subsequent refutations of the conspiracy theory fall on deaf ears: these theorists KNOW that 911 was "an inside job." When they see buildings that have been hit by jetliners burning and collapsing, they see "controlled demolitions." They have the credibility of those who see the Virgin Mary in rust stains.

I was a victim of this conspiratorial thinking: Years ago, I attended a "peak awareness" meeting where I met a young filmmaker who asked to interview me about peak oil. I did and had a nice long conversation with him about peak oil. Little did I know that the film would turn out to be a platform that simply recycles Mike Ruppert's paranoid claims that peak oil was the motivation for the 911 attacks staged by the United States. Seeing my scenes edited together with scenes of Ruppert saying Flight 93 was "shot down" over Pennsylvania nearly made me ill. This movie will embarrass me in perpetuity on the Internet. Perhaps it serves me right.

Loathing for the United States is a virtual prerequisite for becoming a peak oil acolyte. A twin-headed angel--one head rising in the West by the name of James Kunstler, the other head rising in the East named Dmitry Orlov--continually issue jeremiads against the US-as-Babylon. These two fire hoses of contempt are pressurized by the belief that a Reckoning will come to America at the peak of world oil production. But it's apparent that the peak has arrived, or is near, and yet one continually awaits Orlov's prediction that the US will go the way of the USSR. One also awaits Kunstler's perennial predictions that the Dow Jones Industrial Average will slide to 6000 and that suburbia will be abandoned. One notes that, though the USSR dissolved, Russia bounced back. One should also note that Kunstler is a self-described "comedian," and, yes, his writing is often very amusing.

Robert Hirsch, et al. is a group of authors that published an influential paper back in 2005 warning that failing to prepare well in advance of peak oil would be courting economic doom. These authors had cachet because they were hired by the Department of Energy to conduct their study. In subsequent interviews in 2008, Hirsch foresaw oil at $500 barrel. Oil prices immediately dropped into the thirties. In a more recent book-length treatment of their thesis, these authors have the audacity to say that anthropogenic global warming theory is unproved. They cite the most god-awful sources to make the claim that there is "doubt" about human-induced climate change, including the widely-debunked Oregon Petition Project and various Right Wing websites. They advise that we develop and burn everything we have at our disposal--bitumen, coal, lignite--to combat peak oil, and that global climate change need not concern us. These bright peak oil advocates, like the others, have clearly lost their minds.

That leaves a heavenly host of bloggers--novelists, therapists, high priests of this-and-that--with their invocations of an new agrarian future: Grow kale or die. I'm inclined to think "Grow kale and die."

It is an article of faith among the peak oilists that industrial agriculture is doomed. They like to remind us that they are not saying oil is going to "run out," but then they proceed to preach messages that sound as if it were indeed going to run out. In the "absence" of oil, we will "return" to a peasant past, where former stock traders hoe organically-grown fava beans. Most peak oil converts share the same belief about agriculture: industrial agriculture, bad; "organic" farming and "permaculture," good. They have been saying this for so long that it is yet another peak oil cliché.

These peak oilists fail to see that evolution works one way: industrial agriculture is not going to disappear, it is going to adapt. Biotechnologies and genetics will continue to develop foods that are more stable, more apt to survive under adverse conditions, and more able to deliver higher yields per acre.
"Organic" agriculture and "permaculture" are belief systems, pure and simple. They are food purity cults developed by Luddites and agrarian romantics with no trust in the modern world or in science. It takes much more acreage, and much more labor, to grow foods by these methods than by conventional means. They work fine on small farms, but large farms--those that feed large populations--must operate on industrial scales. When oil supply begins to contract, it is more likely that fuels will be requisitioned for uses in agriculture first rather than that a new peasant class will open up. As I said, evolution will continue. Just imagine what new GMOs can be developed that will require less land and less labor to grow. Imagine reformulations of pesticides that target certain species and leave the others alone.

Imagine the energy that could be conserved if we simply clamped down on non-essential, recreational uses of gasoline and diesel. With the phenomenal success of the Internet and related technologies, we can now stay at home and do most everything we used to have to drive somewhere to do--shop, watch movies, work at our jobs, go to the bank, get a degree, etc. Imagine the possibilities. That's exactly what peak oil advocates have lacked--imagination.

And we wonder why no one listened.

So what is it like seeing our prophets' credibility pass into oblivion? Like looking down an open hole into which a box containing someone you love is being lowered. Only they now tell us the Tomb Is Empty. We continue to await the return.

By critiquing the failure of peak oilists to convince the public that TEOTWAWKI is nigh, I am not saying that the future is rosy. I believe peak oil is imminent, if not here already, and I have my own visions of the future, but I'm not going to be so foolish as to blab them. Truly, I say unto you: I have no idea what's going to happen. The best I can do is offer some ancient, unoriginal advice:

"There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor."


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