Monday, September 21, 2015

What happened to peak oil? The cycle of a meme and of its antimemes

The result of a Google Trends search for the term "Peak Oil". The fading out of the concept may be due not so much to reasons related to the validity (or non validity) of the concept but, rather, to a memetic phenomenon equivalent to the development of an immune response in the human body. Not all memes have sufficient viral power to entrench themselves in the human mindspace.

Likely, you haven't heard much, recently, about peak oil. If you did, it was only to hear that it was "wrong". Indeed, as you see in the figure above, peak oil had a peak of interest around 2006, a second one around 2008, then it gradually declined.

Why this decline? You might say that it was because the recent drop in oil prices. Maybe, but note, from the figure, that the interest in peak oil started a steady decline just when oil prices went up to reach a plateau at levels over 100 $/barrel. Then, you might say that the decline is because peak oil didn't appear when it was predicted. Maybe, but the record of the "peakist" approach is not bad at all when compared with of mainstream oil pundits. Had any of them anticipated such things as the burst of high oil prices that started in 2005? Did any of them foresee that the oil industry would have had to switch to expensive and difficult resources, that they had always shunned before, in order to keep production from falling?

So, why is peak oil fading away from our consciousness? The problem seems to be that, as a meme (a knowledge unit replicating in virtual space), peak oil just doesn't seem to have a large viral power. Peak oil is not the only case of a loss of interest in some concepts (memes) for no obvious reason. Take a look to the Google trends for "Global Warming." ("climate change" does a little better, but not so much)

So, the planet is going to hell, but people just don't care. Not even a blip of interest, for instance, in 2012, when the Arctic ice sheet collapsed to levels never seen before. The last peak of interest in global warming was created only by the climategate story, and then it was flatland all over.

There are many other examples of peaking and successive decline of various concepts. Take a look, for instance, to "communism"

Of course, the fact that a concept shows a peak of interest doesn't mean that it has to fade away forever. You could identify a peak of interest also in many commonplace concepts such as "electricity." But, here, the interest never faded away and, indeed, electricity remains a normal element of our lives.

Perhaps we could use the concept of "full width at half maximum" (FWHM) as an approximate measurement of the lifetime of these concepts. In this way, we can put together a list of memes and their lifetimes, measured by Google's trends or Google ngrams. This is, obviously, a very approximate set of numbers, they are there just to give an idea of the spread in the lifetime of some memes.

Meme                                approx FWHM, years

Nibiru                                0.3
Andrea Rossi's E-Cat        1
Peak Oil                             5
Global Warming                5
Cold Fusion                       17
Limits to Growth               30
Nuclear Energy                  35
Communism                      50
Electricity                          > 100

The FWHM (time duration) associated with these concepts can be seen as an indication of the capability of a meme to establish itself in virtual space. This depends, first of all, on the capability of the meme to replicate itself rapidly: the meme must be interesting, understandable, and, often, have some relation with reality. Then, if a meme is the equivalent of a gene (or a virus) in biology, then, if there are antigens, there must be antimemes (or, perhaps, "antimems"). This immune response may take the form of "memetic antibodies" which directly fight the invading meme. This is a fight that we see everyday: we call it "debate". As a result, the meme may go viral and infect the infospace of the Internet, or be rejected. In the second case, it may remain in a quiescent state, infecting only marginal areas.

This behavior can be seen in many examples. For instance, the meme of Andrea Rossi's nuclear device, the "E-Cat," flared up rapidly and then practically disappeared, just as rapidly. In this case, there was no need for a strong intervention of the immune system. The meme itself was weak, since the E-Cat simply couldn't deliver the cheap energy that it had promised to deliver. The same can be said of a meme such as the planet Nibiru hitting the Earth. It rapidly disappeared after that it was clear that no such thing was going to happen.

How about the "peak oil" meme? Unlike Nibiru or the E-Cat, peak oil is a serious concept, backed up by a lot of research. However, it didn't really get viral enough to become a mainstream meme. The main problem, here, may have been the choice of the term: "peak oil" conjures a specific moment in time when something exceptional should happen, even though it is not clear what. When people saw that nothing special was happening, they lost interest. The decline of the peak oil meme was helped by the anti-memetic system that created effective antimemes such as "they have been predicting peak oil already for 30 years ago."

About "global warming", we have problems, too: first of all, we propose a concept that people can't perceive in their everyday experience. Then, the immune system has generated strong antimemes that turned out to be extremely effective; such as "there has been no warming during the past 19 years". Indeed, "climate change" has fared much better than "global warming" as a meme. But even climate change is hard to perceive for the public, and it fails to evoke such things as ocean acidification, sea level rise, food supply disruption, and many others.

In the end,  it is all part of the game: the memetic immune system does its job of filtering away memes that are silly, useless, and dangerous. However, like its biological counterpart, sometimes it attacks the wrong targets, a true "autoimmune" genetic reaction. There are memes we badly need to diffuse in the world's infospace: that oil depletion is real and dangerous if we don't do something about it; that climate change is real and it is dangerous, if we don't do something to stop it.

Biological autoimmune diseases are common and dangerous; and the therapy is always difficult. In the memetic case, we are in also in a difficult situation. Maybe there are ways to avoid the slaughter of good memes; but it is not an easy task. In any case, I think that at least one thing is clear from this discussion: memes that have already generated a strong immune response have little or no chance to diffuse. "Peak oil" is basically a dead meme.

We need new memes that describe the same concepts. For instance, we should mention "depletion" rather than "peaking" as a way to describe the gradual loss of high yield mineral resources. Maybe ASPO (the association for the study of peak oil) should be renamed as something like ASOD (association for the study of oil depletion) (*)Maybe we could develop something more creative, such as "oil senility," why not? Then, it has been proposed to replace the term "climate change" with "climate disruption," and that could be a good idea. These are just examples; surely we can think of other possibilities. Just remember one thing: a good virus is a virus that mutates a lot!

(*) But we should be very careful with acronyms. I just discovered that, really, ASOD would not be a good name for an association studying oil depletion!


  1. Perhaps a meme is like a fad. It is encountered and taken up for a while by that portion of the population willing to take an interest, then fades as those folks lose interest. Or like movies; how many people want to see even the greatest movie of all time over and over again on a regular basis?

    In the case of electricity, it may be that we have been out on the long asymptotic tail for a couple of centuries. It may be that the peak was during Ben Franklin's time when it was a brand new meme. And don't forget that for a very long lived memes, one must compare them to the exponential increase in population during their lives. Per capita meme interest may be declining rapidly even as the overall interest stays level.

  2. I'm with you, Ithink Peak Oil has many problems to be interesting... we wrote a post in Turiel's blog call "¿Desglobalización?" (deglobalization?) trying to move the topic to something close to the peoples view of the industrial system.
    Declining in China's economy... declining in world trade... declining in seaborne trade (in dollars and in tonnes)... low price of commodities... low levels in the Baltic Dry Index... Declining in esports and imports in some importants economies...
    We know that is nor the same globalization than Industrial Civilization but is a word thate everyone can understand... and if you live in a port city like me you see the recession happening now...
    But maybe we still need a good sign to put "deglobalization" in the air... the same to "depletion", maybe you have to wait till the fracking companys crash.

  3. This is a facile look at why the peak oil concept has failed to gained the public's attention. The problem isn't "we need another meme." The problem is bad science promulgated by fake experts who fail to admit error.

    The fact is, it did gain attention for awhile, but then the predictions failed to materialize--spectacularly--and people moved on to more important issues.

    I myself followed the peak oil True Believers for many years, and gave up on them in 2009 when it became clear they didn't know what they were talking about.

    By comparison, my interest in climate change has not declined, because it is clearly authentic and part of a comprehensible trend.

    Peak oil, on the other hand, was packaged as an apocalypse and trafficked by fake experts like James Kunstler ("social critic"), Matt Simmons (banker), Mike Ruppert (crank), Richard Heinberg (journalist), and assorted agrarian romantics and Luddites.

    The failure of the predictions showed that no one knew what the hell they were talking about. I trust just about no one on this issue except Robert Rapier, who was always a critic of the extravagant predictions issues by all the would-be experts.

    The statement, "the record of the 'peakist' approach is not bad at all when compared with of mainstream oil pundits. Had any of them anticipated such things as the burst of high oil prices that started in 2005? Did any of them foresee that the oil industry would have had to switch to expensive and difficult resources...?" is just the tu quoque fallacy. Not only that "the 'peakist' approach" is actually very bad, as evidenced by the fact that things have turned out exactly the opposite of what they were saying about ten years ago.

    A more insightful approach about the failure of the peak oil approach comes from Daniel Kahneman in his book "Thinking, Fast and Slow." Peakers would do well to study "Part 3: Overconfidence":

    "Tetlock also found that experts resisted admitting that they had been wrong, and when they were compelled to admit error, they had a large collection of excuses: they had been wrong only in their timing, an unforeseeable event had intervened, or they had been wrong but for the right reasons. Experts . . . are dazzled by their own brilliance and hate to be wrong. [They] are led astray not by what they believe, but by how they think. . . . [Such experts] 'know one big thing' and have a theory about the world; they account for particular events within a coherent framework, bristle with impatience toward those who don't see things their way, and are confident in their forecasts. They are also especially reluctant to admit error. . . . [A] failed prediction is almost always 'off only on timing' or 'very nearly right.' They are opinionated and clear. . . . The first lesson [of this chapter] is that errors of prediction are inevitable because the world is unpredictable. . . . [H]ighly subjective confidence is not to be trusted as an idicator of accuracy."

    I'm amused now to read some people on peak oil sites saying things like, "peak oil is alive and well as indicated by the recent crash in oil prices." Ten years ago, the cry was, "peak oil is alive and well as indicated by the recent rise in oil prices."

    The peak oil "meme," as you call it, is for True Believers.

    1. True experts, such as Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere, never played the role of prophets; but they had to contend with people who didn't understand the concept of oil depletion and who took their work as a prophecy of doom. And they are still very common, as you amply demonstrate in this comment

  4. I have never liked much the concept or notion or idea itself of self-replicating "memes" from the time it started being used. I prefer to think in terms of ideas or concepts or notions such as Peak Oil (or other ones) which spread or do not spread and become accepted or not through social and virtual space for a variety of reasons including also incomplete or incorrect initial definitions or understandings of what they mean or should mean as well as the effects on the acceptance of the concepts by various parts of the propaganda systems, or by the emergence of new competing concepts. or by the emergence of new temporary conditions and realities. As these factors emerge the original concept or notion can be modified and refined or better explained accordingly or abandoned if the comprehensive evidence base warrants it (for peak oil it does not) as is the case for most explanations. Blogs and posts and other internet based social media can both inform and educate but also can generate more heat than light and lots of sound and fury signifying nothing. Both right ideas and wrong ideas can travel and the Internet media can give rise to additional self amplifying booms and busts than other media or directly experienced reality. Figuring out evolving reality and truth has always been a tricky business and is even more so today. The marketplace of ideas is larger and more diverse and faster moving now than it was before. But I think we can still safely be guided by notions of truth, comprehensive evidence over time, and observation and logic to try to better navigate our own subjectivism and that of others whether individual or collective.

  5. Hi Ugo, interesting thoughts.

    In a way, it is actually good that "peak oil" did not last long as a meme. As some commentators already pointed, the meme status provided fertile ground for apocalyptic charlatans riding the wave with their dreams of destruction. As a comparison, "climate change" has lasted quite well (just heard it on the radio several times this morning), but is actually used to signify so many different things that its real meaning has greatly diluted.

    Now, what is most remarkable is that while interest in "peak oil" has mostly vanished in 2015, when 2014 is becoming a major candidate for the event. What an irony.


    1. Yes, sometimes the limitations of the human mind appear incredibly clear.

  6. A very good and up to date discussion of U.S. shale oil, peak oil and resources and the related financial, economic and environmental aspects can be found here:

    Peak Prosperity Sept. 21, 2015 interview with Kurt Kobb: "Money cannot manufacture resources"



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)