Monday, December 22, 2014

Peak Oil: the elephant in the room

"Elephant Country" a book on peak oil by Luca Pardi. The title refers to the fact that some politicians had defined Italy an "oil country" because it produces some oil, but that's just as wrong as it would be to say that Italy is an "elephant country" because it has some elephants in zoos.

In 2003, I invited Colin Campbell, the founder of the association for the study of peak oil (ASPO), to give a talk in Florence. After the talk, a small group of conspirators (1) collected in my office. We drank together something curiously looking like petroleum in color (not in taste, fortunately); a strong liquor that came from Ukraine and was named "Balzam"(**). After a few glasses of that dark stuff, we decided to start the Italian chapter of ASPO; "ASPO-Italy". One of the conspirators of that fateful day, Luca Pardi, now president of ASPO-Italy, recently published a book on oil and gas with a curious title "Elephant country." It is a word play on some silly remarks on oil by one of our leading politicians, Mr. Romano Prodi, who said that Italy "floats on a sea of oil". But you can take the title of the book also as hinting to the old say about "the elephant in the room". Peak oil is the true elephant in the room of our times; it is there, it is large, you can't miss it, and yet it goes unperceived, unseen, invisible.

The invisibility of peak oil is all the more impressive if compared to how much more we know about it today than we did at the beginning. You can see that, clearly, in Pardi's book, which is an excellent summary of the work done up to now on the subject. Compare it with my first book on peak oil, published in 2003, and you'll see that, surely, we came a long way from then. Today, we have better models, better data, and generally a much better understanding of the concepts we summarize under the name of "peak oil." And all these new data and models confirm our initial interpretation: peak oil is here. Yet, the problem of the elephant in the room remains.

Peak oil remains a fringe concept, almost never mentioned in the mainstream media and in the political debate. Politicians and their advisers seem to have never even heard of it, and when they do, they misunderstand it. This situation is all the more disappointing if we take into account the amount of intellectual power that was dedicated to the subject. Few fields of science have seen such a group of smart, dedicated, and competent people obtaining such impressive results; normally on a shoestring budget or no budget at all. I would add that this group also had all the appropriate credentials to be taken seriously: university researchers, top level scientists, high level professionals. You would not imagine that the advice of such a group could be ignored. And yet, it was.

Rethinking to the work of the past ten years, I almost can't believe how naive we were. We really thought that good data and good models would, eventually, make their way into the consciousness of the decision makers. And, then, someone would have done something about the problem. Yes, we were so naive. We didn't think that we are living in a time in which elephants populate people's living rooms and go routinely unnoticed. We live in the time in which Karl Rove said that, because we are an empire, "we create our own reality." A reality in which seas of oil exist because a politician said so. Just this year, I saw an impressive example of this process of reality creation based on wishful thinking and fake data at the European Parlament, in Brussels.

We seem to be geared to see the world through our ideological filters; which work very nicely in keeping reality out. The problem is that virtual reality, no matter how powerful is the empire that created it, tends to shatter to pieces when it gets in contact with real reality. Virtual seas of oil tend to be badly trampled by the virtual elephants populating the living room, but we still tend to stick to our filters as long as we can. Peak oil just can't pass the filter.

So, the ongoing crash of the oil market goes not only unnoticed, but perceived as a good thing. It is likely that the closer we get to the global peak, the less we will perceive it. And when we pass it (and we may already have passed it) it will become a truly invisible elephant hiding behind the sofa in the living room. As we slide down the Seneca cliff, we'll think it is just a bump in the road to everlasting prosperity.

(*) For the historical record, the founders of ASPO-Italy who collected in Ugo Bardi's office over a few glasses of Ukrainian "balzam" were (in addition to Ugo Bardi) Luca Pardi, Francesco Meneguzzo, Giovanni Marocchi, and Renato Guseo (or at least those are the people I remember).

(**) The "Balsam" liquor seems to be originally from Latvia (see this article on Wikipedia.).  The version we drank that fated day, however, was brought to Italy by a colleague from Ukraine and it had the label written in Cyrillic characters. Whatever it was, it was kind of strong stuff! (Thanks to Marcus Kracht for alerting me on this point.)


  1. As Dimitri Orlov pointed out in a recent post:
    Reality is limited, ignorance is limitless. For at least ten years realistic analysis of the present is no longer available. Be it a war in northern Africa or fixing accounting practice that a loss is an asset.
    The question is, where in the room we wake up, when we take down the goggles. So better leave your headset mounted.

  2. It will shortly be hitting people over the head with a Sledghammer. That is harder to ignore than theoretical Elephants which haven't yet manifested themselves to the dimwitted.

    What remains to be seen is what the reaction will be when the sledgehammer finally hits.


  3. The Elephant story remind me The experiment of the Invisible Gorilla.

    Daniel Kahneman in his book thinking fast and slow give us some clues about how our brain works. You are able to make invisible the Gorilla by making the observers counting the passes. The key is to persuade the observer in focusing his attention in something different the thing you want to make invisible. When you have unbounded means you can persuade a great deal of people to ignore what is important and, raise concerns about petty matters.

    Kahneman explains that our system 1 jump to conclusions when the information is scarce or irrelevant, the system 2 is lazy and endorse many intuitive beliefs. Kahneman call this behavior WYSIATI (What you see is all there is). With providing incomplete or manipulated information is easy to make people jump to wrong conclusions or not see the Elephant in the room.

    1. yes... it is a good comparison. We are blind to many, many things.....

  4. Peak Oil? Colonel Fletcher Prouty:- The Origins of Oil and Petroleum A Renewable and Abiotic Fuel.
    Worth a read.


  5. In his Solstice post, Michael Greer poses this question

    Did, for example, any of the official agencies tasked with tracking fossil fuel production consider subtracting an estimate for barrels of oil equivalent used in extraction from the production figures, so that we would have at least a rough idea of the world’s net petroleum production?

    Gail Tverberg pointed me to Antonio Turiel who took a stab at it with WEO 2014 data here: The results ought to be alarming, and perhaps they are inside the policy circles that produce the IEA reports. Turiel seems to think so, he critiques the dataset suggesting that perhaps it is based on attempting to hide the elephant by projecting supply rates of 100Mb/d in 2040.


  6. The unbelief of our contemporaries is an issue of utmost importance for those trying to warn about the huge problem of Peak Oil.

    The old title of this blog "Cassandra´s Legacy" summarizes the problem. As we all remember Cassandra was the daughter of the king of Troy. she had been graced with the gift of prophecy and punished by the curse that no one would believe her warnings. Cassandra, who had spent years prophesying the destruction of Troy, desperately warned its citizens not to give shelter to Helena, etc. And he could not prevent the fulfillment of the prophecy of the destruction of Troy.

    It is also striking , the blindness of the Trojans who were so tired after such a long war they had wanted to believe that the famous Trojan Horse was a gift from his enemies, and the Trojans brought it to the city.

    Examples like the two mentioned are very abundant in History, and show something that is particularly difficult to face for technical and scientists( except for psychologists and psychiatrists): human behavior is extremely irrational. The psychological mechanism behind this refusal to perceive an elephant in the living room- as so kindly the Archdruid Greer said me in response to a comment from his blog- is framed within the concept of "cognitive dissonance":

    "People prefer to be exposed to information that supports their beliefs, rather than information not support them and may even cause dissonance."

    This is the "theory of cognitive dissonance" (Festinger) that is within the range of the branch of the Psychology called psycho sociology . This theory is the study of what happens when a person has two different cognitions. Being a cognition: Any belief, attitude, perception, or piece of knowledge about something, whether it's other people, objects, subjects, self, etc.

    Another thing is that according to Kubler-Ross, when an individual is faced with the idea of a catastrophic loss, he experiment a first reaction of denial. This can also happen to our peers when they hear that peak oil means that the economic prospects of our lives are going into a sharp decline that can be definitive.

    The admission of the fact that natural resources are finite and that it will not be possible to continue the growth of our attentive civilization against only basic belief that, according to Arnold Toynbee, persists in our civilization; Faith in Progress.

    On the other hand we have Gustave le Bon in his book Crowds (1898) pointed that individuals, once they were joined to crowds automatically waive to much of his intelligence and self-control. Being therefore useless trying to convince a crowd with the arguments that are used with individuals, and high-efficiency the appeal to emotions and the use of metaphors and images.

    In view of the above it is clear that politicians are reluctant to admit the reality of peak oil because they are engaged in the conquest and retention of power, and the introduction in his discourse the issue of peak oil would be suicidal for their purposes.

    Your famous compatriot Gramsci, referring to the instauration of Socialism, said that to change the political hegemony, it was necessary first to change the cultural hegemony. Ie changing public opinion. Great idea that can be applied to any modification of a society.



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)