Monday, November 17, 2014

The peak oil theater

In classical antiquity, theatrical performances such as the "Atellana" farce were based on standardized plots and stock characters, identified by the masks they wore on stage. It was not so different than our present TV soaps and a good example of our tendency to interpret the world in narrative terms.

I am a little late for the talk at the peak oil conference. Fortunately, it seems that I didn't lose much: the speaker must have started just a few minutes before I arrived and I only missed the introduction by the chairman. So, I relax in my seat as the speaker goes on with his presentation.(*)

The first thing I note is the way he is dressed; not the standard one at this conference. Most speakers, so far, have been physicists and they have a typical dress code: they look like physicists even when they wear a tie; and they usually don't. This speaker, instead, not only wears a tie, but even wears a double breasted suit (or so it seems to me - even if it is not a double-breasted suit, he wears it as if it were one). And it is not just the way he dresses, it is his whole posture and style. Everyone else at this peak oil conference has been speaking while standing up; showing slides, speaking without notes. Instead, he sits, shows no slides, and reads from a notebook he has placed on the table. If he is unlike the others in the way he appears, his talk is also totally unlike the others in this conference. Physicists tend to show data and numbers; graphs and tables; to the point of being boring. He doesn't. He is not showing data, or graphs, or tables. He is not even mentioning data. He is telling a story.

He takes us to a sort of tour of oil producers. Each country is described as if it were a character on the stage of the world's theater: the Americans, a little tough, but doing things right and successful in reaching energy independence by means of their advanced technologies; the Saudis, somewhat devious, but powerful with their large resources; the Russians, aggressive in their attempt of rebuilding their old empire. And the Europeans, well intentioned but hopelessly naive with their insistence on renewable energy. The story goes on as each character on stage interacts with the others. Will the Europeans succeed in getting rid of their dependence on Russian gas? Will the Americans be able to overtake the Saudis as the world leaders in oil production? What will the Saudis do to maintain their leadership?

Occasionally, data manage to appear in the narration; but when they do, the data are wrong. For instance, the speaker tells us that extracting one barrel of oil in Saudi Arabia costs as little as 2-3 dollars per barrel (yes, maybe thirty years ago). And he tells us that the Saudis just have to open the spigots of their wells to increase their production by 2, 3, or even 5 million barrels per day (yeah, sure.....). And some key concepts are never mentioned. No trace of peak oil, no hint of a depletion problem, and climate change seems to pertain to another conference, to be held on a different planet.

The talk winds up with the audience clearly perplexed. There starts the session of questions and answers and someone asks to the speaker what he thinks of peak oil. He answers first that he is not a geologist, but an economist; in this way confirming once more (if that ever was needed) that a man will never understand a concept if his salary depends on not understanding it. Then he adds that "they have been claiming for thirty years that peak oil was coming," and, if that wasn't banal enough, he mentions also the old quip by Zaki Yamani, "the stone age didn't end with the end of the stones." This is sufficient for stopping further significant questions. It is soon over and he rises up and leaves the hall while the conference continues with another speaker.

There is no experience so bad that you can't at least learn something from it. So, what can we learn from this one? For one thing, the speaker in the double breasted suit had an experience symmetric and opposite to experiences I had myself. Sometimes, when I tried to present the concept of peak oil to an audience of people wearing double-breasted suits, I had the distinct sensation that they were looking at me as if I were an alien from Betelgeuse-III, just landed in the parking lot with my flying saucer. When you say "clash of absolutes" you may well refer to this kind of experiences. But there is something badly wrong, here: we all read the newspapers, we all have access to the same data on the Internet. So, how can it be that people can come to such different interpretations and conclusions?

I have been mulling these considerations in my head and eventually it flashed on me: it is not a question of the data; it is a question of how people process them! And most people wearing double breasted suits think just the way most people think: they think in narrative terms, not in quantitative terms.

Think of our remote origins: prehistorical hunters and gatherers. What kind of skills did our ancestors need to survive? Well, one was the ability of making tools; from stone axes to fishing hooks. But, much more important than this was the stock of social skills needed to climb the ladder of the tribe's hierarchy; to become chiefs and shamans. That hasn't changed very much with the arrival of the social structure we call "civilization".  In the annals of the Sumerian civilization, we have records of the names of kings that go back to thousands of years ago, but no mention of the name of the person who invented the wheel during that period.  Even today, engineers are ruled by politicians, not the reverse.

So, the common way to interpret the world is in narrative terms, assigning roles to people as if they were actors playing their on-stage role. It is the theater of life, not unlike theater of the on-stage kind, not unlike the various forms of narrative that surround us: novels, movies, TV soaps and the like. It is typical of most people and it is especially strong in politics, where the various actors are classed in terms of a narrative vision of their role. For instance, Saddam Hussein was one of the characters supposed to play the role of the bad guy. Once he was cast in that role, there was no need of proof that he was accumulating weapons of mass destruction in order to start a war. He was evil, and that was enough. And there was no outrage when it was discovered that the weapons of mass destruction didn't exist. That didn't change Saddam Hussein's role as the evil guy of the narration.

Scientists, however, tend to think in a different way; especially those who study the fields known as "hard sciences." However, their way of reasoning is difficult to understand for most people. Just think of the common statement used to deny the human role in climate change, "scientists were worried about global cooling in the 1970". Independently of whether it is true or not (it is only marginally true), it illustrates the abyss of difference between the common way of interpreting reality and the scientific one. Scientists believe they should change their mind if new data contradict old interpretations. But that's not what heroes do in novels and films where, typically, a character starts with a given idea, fights for it throughout the story against all contrary evidence, and ultimately triumphs.

So, nobody would even remotely pay attention to what scientists say, were it not for the fact that they can occasionally come up with toys that people seem to like so much; from smart phones to nuclear warheads. But when they move out of their role as toy makers, their opinion loses importance in the debate. Even when you try to argue that a large majority of scientists (maybe 97%) agree that human generated climate change is a reality, you obtain nothing. Even a large majority among scientists is such an exceedingly tiny minority of the general population that it is not worth paying attention for most people (including politicians and decision makers).

In the end, telling stories is usually more successful than arguing using data and models. Indeed, after the conference, I was told that the economist in the double breasted suit is a very influential person and that people high up in the government often ask him for advice in energy matters. Evidently, he can tell a good story.

Not all good stories have a good ending, but good stories can always teach us something. So, what can we learn from this one?  One is that we have been doing everything wrong with the idea of using data in order to convince people of the reality of such things as peak oil and human caused climate change. Yes, it is possible to gently nudge people's beliefs in the right direction if we find ways to expose them for some time to the data and to their interpretation. But the kind of commitment we can obtain in this way is weak and ineffective. It is easily destroyed by even the most brutal and primitive propaganda methods: casting scientists as the bad guys of the story works wonders: as spin doctors themselves confess, "playing ugly pays". And once a narrative has made inroads in the mind of people, it is extremely difficult - in practice impossible - to dislodge it from there. Have you noticed how, in most narrative plots, bad guys remain bad guys throughout? It is as if they were the characters of an ancient Atellana farce, wearing the appropriate mask for the bad guy (or scientists wearing their nicknames of geeks or eggheads)

Another thing that we can learn from this story is that we are all humans and none of us think like machines or like robots. Scientists may be trained to reason in terms of data, but even for them it is difficult to do it all the time. Reasoning in narrative terms has accompanied our ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years. If it is still with us, it is because it has done us a good service over this long span of time. What counts is not that the world can be seen as an unfolding story, but what kind of story is unfolding. And there exists a different story of the world to be told, a story infinitely superior to the current brutal plot that tells us that all the problems we have are related to the bad guys of the day and that when we'll have bombed them to shreds everything will be fine again. This is the plot of second rate novels: it has little to do with real literature, the kind of literature that changes people for good, that changes the world for good. A better story of the world says that the world is not our enemy. The world is, rather, our partner (**): it can provide us with bountiful goods, but, as for a human partner, and as it is the stuff of so many stories, what we do to our partner comes back to us. If we hurt our partner, we will be hurt back and this is true in fiction as in real life. If we hurt the world surrounding us (or "Nature" or "the ecosystem", or whatever term you prefer) we will be hurt back, and this is already happening. This is the story we are living: we may be the good guys or the bad guys; it depends on us.

(*) This post is a factual report from a recent peak oil conference. I didn't name names or places, but the people who heard the talk I am describing will recognize it and the speaker.

(**) The concept of Nature as a partner to humankind can be found, for instance, in Charles Eisenstein's book "Sacred Economics"


  1. Maybe we need to learn some basic 'rules of thumb' regarding propaganda!

  2. Whenever there are many interacting actors and participants in a situation, how they perceive and interpret - or misperceive and misinterpret- the situation and its likely evolution and also themselves and one another may end up determining the narrative as much or more than any facts or evidence. Moreover what the man said who told the story - whether it was. right or wrong or plausible or implausible, will end up being remembered more and better by most than any various facts, figures, graphs and evidence presented by others, and may in some cases also end up shaping future events. If this were not the case probably George Soros would not be rich and World War I would not have happened. Difficult to say what "the lesson" should be though. Show the facts and the graphs but also tell a good story about the real characters with and without their masks on?

  3. «how can it be that people can come to such different interpretations and conclusions?»

    «A host of psychological experiments demonstrates that [...] Instead of performing a rational cost-benefit analysis, we accept information which confirms our identity and values, and reject information that conflicts with them.»

  4. Since you mentioned telling stories and the word "theater" is in the title of the post, there is a another rarely discussed problem here and it is what our culture has been focused on over the centuries. There are some exceptions, but the vast majority of masterpieces of literature and art have been concerned almost entirely with interpersonal human relationships, and only fairly recently has this stopped being primarily about the interpersonal relationships of the elite (for example, does Shakespeare have a play that is not about kings and princes, or at the very least some very wealthy families? I can't recall one). This is not surprising - in order to have the time to create that art, you need to be insulated from the day-to-day struggle to produce food, so it only gets created when there are sufficient surpluses that allow a small class of people to have that opportunity. But by insulating them from the realities of food production, and associating them with the elite class (which is usually living in the same bubble), they tend to create works in which those issues do not feature at all, and the most critical aspect of human existence - the relationship with the ecosystem and the maintenance of the energy flows that keep it going is completely absent. Then once those works enter the cannon as classics, people study them for centuries and their thinking inevitably becomes more focused on the questions discussed in them, which eventually ends up contributing to the formation of some very unrealistic understanding of the world around them.

    1. I completely agree. And most of today's soap operas -from whichever countries- also typically tell the stories of wealthy, powerful (and often also spoiled, stupid, petty, jealous or vindictive) people most of whom are also young and relatively speaking attractive. Old poor farmers with worn features toiling over their fields ruined by climate change and pesticides are just NOT INTERESTING it seems. On the other hand things have also gotten much worse since Shakespeare or Leo Tolstoy's times. Tolstoy's Konstantin Dimitrich Levin landowner and one of the principal characters in Anna Karenina (somewhat autobiographical of Tolstoy himself) at least loved the land and nature and wanted to understand it and agricultural practices better to try to make it more productive, and working on it more humane. Now the main characters of soap operas all drive Porsches and the women shampoo their hair with dual shampoo-conditioners for better hair movement and "flow" when they thrust their heads backwards. We have NOT made much progress, also in storytelling, rather the reverse. On the other hand there is also some excellent modern and contemporary literature. But probably not that much about any of the heroic efforts and lives of committed climate change activists or peak oilers or other boring such unless maybe some tragic personal flaw brought them to their downfall and utter failure.

  5. took some minutes of investigation but i guess it is this conference: and the keynote from Adnan Shihab-Eldin ...

    1. It was not that one, but it could have been!

  6. Hi Ugo - I think the common sense of average people isn't so bad in these matters, but one of the problems is that if our collective institutions agree that things like climate change are a problem, but then don't actually take serious action - it lets everyone off the hook to be contradictory. People then follow govt/corporations lead of making rhetorical commitments to sustainability etc, but then going along with the system.

    E.g. I have friends on Facebook who in one post can rant about our govts' poor record on climate change, then in the next post celebrate flying by jet between regional Australian cities for leisure.

  7. I think the author of Scared Economics is Charles, not George Eisenstein. I heard him speak in New York City on November 8 but the most fiery speaker at the conference, and there was a lot of fire regarding humanity's desperate situation, was by Chris Hedges. I've been slow to transcribe it but there is a draft with some mistakes on my blog. This was the conference:

  8. Last year one of the leaders of the process safety community (chemicals, refining, offshore oil and gas) named Trevor Kletz passed away. My tribute to him (at was entitled “That would be telling”.

    Engineers and safety professionals (people like me) communicate mostly with reports, analyses and calculations. Trevor was one of the few who could tell a “safety story”. At about the same time as I wrote the post I was studying the Hebrew Bible. It’s a great story: rivers of blood, Moses in the bullrushes, plagues of frogs. It’s gripping.

    I know that if we are to communicate issues such as resource limitations or offshore safety it will have to be through stories. I have tried and not done well, even though I have written many professional books. Writing stories is difficult.

  9. Ugo,

    I learned a great deal from this posting. I have long wondered why we, as a society, are having such a collective problem understanding/believing science-based issues, such as climate change, resource depletion, evolution and vaccines. It seems to me as though someone needs to figure out how to deliver fact-based information in a compelling manner -- which isn't to say that some very smart people aren't already trying.

    Me. I'm a business person -- we're worse than economists. Narrative is everything and facts are pretty inconsequential.

  10. If we look at history, sociology and philosophy of science, this view of the scientist as a cold fact-checker, evidence driven, quantitative hero guiding the poor dumb human cattle seems pretty naïve, if not outright wrong. This "scientific hero' is just a narrative, science does involve checking statements against experience, but it doesn't work in such a clean straight forward way as the the scientific hero narrative tells us.

    1. That is true, but it is also true that it has been only fairly recently that we have become fully aware of all the cognitive biases that characterize our minds and what we can do to mitigate them. And that the great majority of people working in science have no real training in that area.

      So we have to rely on the collective self-correcting mechanisms which are based on people checking each other's work (often motivated by the not so noble drive to be on top of the other guy by showing him wrong). That mechanism is not foolproof either (collective delusion, groupthink, etc.) but eventually things tend to sort themselves out.

      Still, this does not significantly change the validity of the following propositions:

      1) While we fall short of that idealistic image, we should still strive to be as close to it as possible

      2) There is a vast gulf between the level of rationality and objectivity in the sciences and what is observed in pretty much all other areas of human activity.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)