Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Peak oil narratives

In examining the debate on global warming and on peak oil, I came to the conclusion that the elementary unit of communication in the public discussion is always a story - a narrative of some kind. In other words, we tend to interpret reality in narrative terms, as you can understand by just a glance to the titles of any newspaper.  

I argued in a recent post that the remarkable success of the denialist position in the climate debate is due to the development of a fictional narrative that describes how a group of evil scientists manipulated the temperature data in order to persuade the public of a non-existent global warming. This narrative is so seductive for human perception that it is almost impossible to fight it using just data. There are other examples; one is the case of the "wrong predictions" that the Club of Rome is often said to have proposed with the 1972 study "The Limits to Growth". It is a stubborn narrative which turns out to be almost impossible to demolish by simply showing that the pretended "mistakes" don't exist.

So, people tend to be attracted more by pleasant fables rather than by inconvenient truths. That doesn't mean that truth needs to be unpleasant, negative, or apocalyptic. However, if we want to pass our message to the public, data alone are not enough; scientific results must be presented in ways that take into account the human side of the problems. How to succeed in this task is an open question, but Antonio Turiel, who keeps the blog "The Oil Crash", has examined it in a recent post titled "running away from reality dedicated to the "Chemtrails" legend. 

As you may know, chemtrails are said to be the result of a heinous plot that involves the use of planes to spread poisons that appear as white stripes in the sky. Obviously, there exist no data that could even vaguely imply that the well known "contrails" generated by flying planes are anything more than harmless water vapor. Nevertheless, the narrative of the "chemtrails" concept is seductive in suggesting that our troubles are the result of the action of an evil group of enemies of humankind acting behind the scenes. Again, trying to contrast this fictional account by means of data results ineffective. 

If you can read Spanish, the post "Running away from reality by Antonio Turiel is well worth reading. Here, I am translating a section of it, the one where he examines the narrative behind conspiracy theories and compares it with the one behind the peak oil concept. 

Running away from Reality 
by Antonio Turiel. Nov 5, 2011


.... In the end, the proposer of the chemtrails idea sees a heroic narrative, a bold struggle against a demonic power, all-knowing and almost all powerful, which, once defeated, will originate a new order. Nothing new, then, with respect to the ancient story of Hermes who, sword in hand, cut off the head of the hundred eyed monster. From what we can see, we didn't progress so much from Hellenic times.

This narrative is completely equivalent to the one of the defenders of "free energies" (in fact, they are often the same people). We commented here the absurdity and the lack of basis of free energies (surely in English "Free Energy" is an ambiguous term which means both "free" as well as "at no cost", which in the end is the way we pretend to live; at full speed we did as up to now). What is interesting now is to see how the psychological mechanisms are the same of the case of chemtrails and this explains the fact that the believers in these two theories are the same. These two groups also coincide with the defenders of the great world conspiracy of the Illuminati and the New International Order.

I am not sure of all the details of these conspiracy theories but, essentially, the idea is that there exists an occult group of rich and powerful people who form a council that takes decision to determine the destiny of the world and who have a demonic plan to submit us to endless slavery. Actually, this idea is sufficiently absurd: it is obvious that the rich and the powerful conspire to maintain their situation of privilege and influence in an illegitimate way our representatives, subverting the meaning of democracy. But they do it in full view of everyone, without hiding and, in the end, without feeling shame because in any case they arrive to believe that it is the best, or the correct thing to do. To do it, they don't need an oak table in a dark cavern with a goat head hanging from the wall.

On the other hand, although some of these powerful entities or people may have plans for anticipating the coming chaos, I doubt that all of them have developed the same diagnosis of the problems and of the relative solutions. And, in the end, it is not obvious that they can implement their chosen plans, since there are always uncertainties in the human factor. Would their militias be always faithful? Will the political leaders keep to their assigned directives? Will the people remain submissive? History demonstrates that it is impossible to keep people submissive all the time, all of them. But, again, the heroic narrative of the fight against these great villains who stole our well deserved past prosperity, which we will recover if we defeat them, is much more attractive than the vulgar and mediocre reality.

Economists and politicians, on their part, fall in the same practice of self-deception, looking for a kind of reasoning that is more attractive than realistic. For instance, they speak of restarting growth, despite the fact that this economic crisis will never end; of accepting sacrifices now in order to obtain a future prosperity when, in reality, each adjustment is leading us to the catabolic collapse; of plans of rescue necessary to restart the economy, when in reality these are only useful to plug the holes of big banks; or of policies favoring employment which in reality are the degradation of the conditions of workers, etc. And the fact is that, again, our leaders look for a heroic narrative in which, thanks to their determination and their statesmanship, they will be able to return to the earlier situation, that is to a state of endless growth.

In contrast with this kind of description, the narrative of the Oil Crash is much more gray. It is not black as it is sometimes said. The Oil Crash is not the end of humankind; not, at least, if we don't want it to be such. The oil crash is not the narrative of an apocalypse; but it really is a narrative of humiliation. Because it consists in accepting that human beings have limits, that for once it is impossible to win. And this, for the Homo Invictus who surged from the industrial revolution, who always prospered during the past two centuries, is difficult to accept. This is the real problem with the Oil Crash: the arrogance of modern man. It is better for our ego to believe that there is a villain controlling everything than to accept that the situation is out of the control of any human being, no matter how evil.  The problem with the heroic narrative is not just that it is wrong; it is that it is leading us to disaster.

Read the whole post (in Spanish)


  1. Honored to see my words reproduced here, Prof. Bardi.

  2. The oil crash is not the narrative of an apocalypse; but it really is a narrative of humiliation.

    Sheer brilliance. I've read quite a bit about this subject, but somehow this last paragraph gave me yet another perspective. Thanks, Antonio. I'll have to remember that 'narrative of humiliation' line.

  3. Rethinking to that sentence, I think that "humbling" is a better translation; it is a detail, anyway.

  4. Antonio, it is a honor for me to host your thoughts here!

  5. Ugo, I disagree. Even if 'humbling' were the correct translation, 'humiliation' is much more to the point. People - or Homo Invictus - do not accept the Oil Crash narrative, because they find it humiliating. They don't perceive it as humbling. They see it as an insult.

    It is a detail, but an interesting one.

  6. Maybe you are right, Neven. So, I put back "Humiliation": It is just a shade, but interesting anyway

  7. My intention when writing "humillación" in the Spanish original was more in the line of a personal insult, apart from a lesson to be more humble (the word is ambiguous in Spanish, and unfortunately for Ugo I love playing with language ambiguities). So probably "humiliation" is the best translation.

    I never thought that that humble word was so much worth of discussion.

  8. As far as I can see, the big problem is not the oil crash per se, or the end of growth - it is the fact that global civilisation has grown far beyond anything that can survive without a 'business as usual' supply of fossil fuels. There are simply too many of us, and half of us live in cities, which are almost by definition unsustainable.

    I wouldn't like to hazard a guess for how many of us need an income and somewhere to spend it in order to stay alive, but I imagine it's the majority. We can't all go back to living off the land as industrial agriculture grows more and more inadequate to the task of feeding the world. Any land with sufficient water and fertile soil to support a subsistence existence is already owned by someone, and they're not going to just give it away.

    If we really are in massive overshoot, as the evidence seems to say, then I don't see any graceful way out of it. I don't see any painless way that we can crash back down to a sustainable population with a wildly different societal structure. Even if there *was* a way, we wouldn't take it, because there are too many vested interests, there would be too much self-sacrifice. People don't even want to change a light bulb to preserve a habitable climate for this and future generations - what chance do we have of completely re-inventing global civilisation?



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)