Monday, April 16, 2007

Responsibility in Communicating the Peak Oil Message

I have a confession to make. From time to time I feel seriously insecure about continuing to write about peak oil. Added to the constant awareness that people simply do not want to hear the message, that becomes a conflict for me. You see, I am not, nor have I ever been, an oil expert, a geologist, geophysicist or even a professional energy analyst. Hell, I don't even have a college degree, of any type, ended my "formal" education in grade 12. Like Richard Heinberg and Matt Savinar I came to the peak oil issue as an outsider looking in. It seemed to fit in with much about which I was already passionate.

I brought with me a lifetime concern about our gradual but obvious destruction of the environment, some early activism in that regard, a deep concern about our exponentially growing population and the limits to the earth's carrying capacity, deep angst and confusion over our belief in our entitlement to the earth's resources exclusive of the needs of other species, a deep concern over our destruction of soil fertility through our modern agricultural practices, an inquiring mind, a high degree of Mensa-level intelligence, a deep-seated and long-held concern and anger about the insidious influence and control corporations are exerting over our everyday lives and, particularly, over our governments. More importantly I brought an ability to write well with a balance of effective research, well thought out and reasoned argument and a deep feeling of passion. But I often wonder if all of that is enough.

The crux of my concern is this. There are many good writers out there on the subject. To a large degree we are all writing the same thing, feeding off each other and on common data, all drawing the same logical conclusions from that data. They may not say things in exactly the way I would but, so what?

My uncertainty, derived from a lifelong battle with a never-overcome inferiority complex, develops generally when I read a highly technical piece from one of the peak oilers who is an oil geologist or geophysicist. Not only could I not write the piece they did, half the time I struggle to understand what the hell they are talking about. It would be no less understandable if it were written in Swahili. And then I get angry because I realize it is the same thing all over again that I encountered when I was twenty-one. So please bare with me and let me explain that incident in order to clarify.

At twenty-one I was a computer programmer analyst with two years experience under my belt already. Our IS department's office was an open design with individual cubicles. It also had very poor acoustic design. You could hear every conversation in the whole office. Overhearing those discussions I grew agitated because I was stuck working on simple jobs while those around me, based on what I was hearing, were getting all of the nice, complex problems to work on. Most were college graduates which I assumed, and reluctantly accepted, was the reason they were given the more challenging assignments. Finally I summoned the courage to confront my boss on the issue. I told him I could handle tougher assignments like my co-workers were getting and I felt they should start to assign me to some of them.

I was totally crushed when he laughed in my face. Until he explained why.

"Believe me," he said (forgive my paraphrasing but I don't remember the conversation exactly after forty years), "but you couldn't be more wrong. If I get something complex across my desk, something new that needs some ingenuity and innovation, it goes straight to your desk. Those guys you are referring to complicate the simplest jobs and hide behind jargon when they talk about it. They create complexity where none exists. You go straight to the heart and essence of it, take complexity and make it simple, and get on with the job, and do it in half the time they would. And you explain things in English, not computereze."

That was an incredible life-lesson for me. I realized then that there is a tremendous difference between communicating and communication. The responsibility for the recipient's ability to understand rests squarely with the person doing the communicating. Communication rests not on the act of communicating but the method. If the recipient cannot understand then communication has not taken place and, therefore, the act of communicating has been wasted. My ability to understand a complex problem is of absolutely no value if I cannot help others to understand what I have understood. A man with the intellect of Einstein is only important insofar as he can communicate to others what he knows and help them to understand it. It was a responsibility I willingly assumed for the rest of my life.

That having been said, that is the reason I keep writing about peak oil. The essence of the peak oil issue, which is constantly lost in discussion and arguments about field reserves and oil grades and rates of extraction, is this. Peak oil is not about the oil!!!! So many of those involved in the peak oil discussion have not grasped that simple truth. That is the forest that is hidden by the trees.

The peak oil discussion and debate too easily and too frequently degenerates into a discussion about the price and availability of gasoline for the family car. That gasoline is only one of over 300,000 products insidiously integrated into our everyday lives. Oil is not only the energy that sustains our society's mobility. It is the physical structure of our society, the raw material for all of the plastics in our homes and offices and the infrastructure of our communities, the synthetic fibers with which we clothe ourselves, the chemicals on which agriculture has become hopelessly dependent for growing the food that sustains us, the drugs and pharmaceuticals responsible for our health and our lives, the ubiquitous additives and preservatives in our processed foods, the cleaning products under the sink, the asphalt on our roads that lets us speed around aimlessly from place to place. It is not just the source of the fuel in your car, it is the raw material from which most of your car is built.

Life as we know it, as virtual and disconnected from the natural world as it is, exists only because of oil and the other fossil fuels. The obvious corollary is that life as we know it cannot exist without oil and the other fossil fuels. Put another way, and a message that no one wants to hear, the end of oil is the end of the world as we know it! People tend to react violently to the first part of that statement; "the end of the world," and completely miss the last part, "as we know it" and yet the first part is not true without the qualification of the second part. Put another more palatable way, the end of oil means that things are going to change..... big time.

Peak oil is not about the oil! It is about what we do with the oil. And primarily what we have done with the oil is build up a critical dependence on it in more ways than the average person can even see or understand. As you read this look around the room in which you are sitting. Ask yourself how many of the things in that room are not partially made from oil or derivatives of it. How many of those things could be made from other materials and function as they do? How many were made close enough to you that they could get to you without oil-dependent transportation? And most importantly, how seriously would it change your lifestyle if they were not there?

There was a TV commercial running over this past winter pushing the role the chemical industry plays in our everyday lives. During that commercial everything made from or dependent on chemicals in the fabrication were gradually removed from the house. What struck me about that commercial was that everything that disappeared was made from oil and its derivatives. The chemical industry of today is essentially a petrochemical industry. It was a perfect picture of our dependence on oil and the things that will begin to disappear from our lives as we pass peak oil. And the family car and the gasoline in its tank weren't even part of the picture.

That is why I continue to write about peak oil. I continue to hope that I can be a part, however small, of getting average people to understand the depth of their dependence on oil in order that they can begin to understand the depth and breadth of the changes that will occur in their lives when we pass peak oil and head down that downslope. I also hope to convince them that those changes are going to be critical enough that they need to view skeptically those who glibly promise them that there is no problem, that we've got enough oil to last for centuries, that the American way of life is not negotiable. As Richard Heinberg says, if your way of life is not negotiable you need a new negotiator.

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