Monday, July 16, 2012

Peak oil debunked? The mechanisms of denial at work

The publication of the report titled "Oil: the next revolution" by Leonardo Maugeri has gone viral and generated a wave of responses all centered around the theme "peak oil has been debunked". We may be seeing a repeat of the denial campaign that, in the 1990s, consigned "The Limits to Growth" to the dustbin of wrong scientific theories. 

In 1989, Ronald Bailey published an article in "Forbes" where he attacked the 1972 "Limits to Growth" study by saying that:
Limits to Growth” predicted that at 1972 rates of growth the world would run out of gold by 1981, mercury by 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, copper, lead and natural gas by 1993."
No such statement existed in the "Limits" book, nevertheless Bailey's attack had an incredible success. It went viral and was repeated over and over by people who never worried about checking it. Eventually, it generated the legend of the "mistakes of the Club of Rome", still alive and well today and still at the basis of the widespread negative opinion of the "Limits" study. (this story is described here, as well as in my book "The Limits to Growth Revisited.")

The demolition of the "Limits" study remains today a classic example of the mechanisms of denial in scientific communication, as described, for instance, by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway in "Merchants of Doubt." Similar mechanisms have been at work against climate science, studies on the health effects of smoking, pollution studies and more. However, the idea that we are close to the peak of the world's oil production ("Peak Oil") had remained so far relatively immune to this kind of denial.

That may be changing with the publication of Leonardo Maugeri's recent study titled "Oil: the next revolution" which has generated a true tsunami of posts and articles all based on the concept that "Peak Oil has been debunked." We may be seeing a snowballing effect similar to the one caused by Bailey's 1989 article that destroyed the credibility of "The Limits to Growth."

To make my point clear, let me state that Maugeri's work is a serious study. Surely, it can be criticized (e.g. here, here, and here), but it is far better than Bailey's piece of pure slander and other propaganda pieces aimed, for instance, against climate science. But that has little to do with the mechanisms of denial. The problem is that most people - including decision makers - have no time, no inclination, and no expertise to go in depth in issues such as resource depletion. So, when facing a complex and nuanced issue they tend to choose the interpretation that they like best - it is called "confirmation bias." Now, surely good news are better than bad news and for most people an apparently authoritative study that says that we are not running out of oil is preferable to the gloom and doom of most depletion studies.

The problem is that Maugeri's thesis is based on preciously little: mainly on a new assessment of the oil reserves that takes into account the so called "unconventional" resources. Lately, the growth in this sector has been remarkable, true, but all what this "oil revolution" could do so far is to stave off the decline that would have occurred if we were relying only on conventional oil. Still, the fact that we haven't seen a well defined peak in the world's oil production is sufficient to give weight to Maugeri's ideas. Paradoxically, the numerous attempts of criticizing the study may have been counterproductive in giving it a visibility that it hardly deserves.

A couple of decades ago people started referring to the "Limits to Growth" study as "Club of Rome's mistake". Are we going to see Peak Oil described as "ASPO's mistake"? It is too early to tell, but we can't rule out this possibility. Especially if oil prices were to collapse in the near future - as they did in 2008 - most people would take that as a vindication of Maugeri's thesis. Never mind that the price collapse would also cause a decline in production - as Maugeri himself clearly states in his study. Most people perceive the problems with oil only in terms of prices, not of production. If we are going to see this kind of events unfolding, it will take a lot of time and effort to redress the public perception on Peak Oil, just as it is taking a lot of time and effort to fight the perception that the "Limits" study had been "wrong".

On the other hand, Maugeri's work may simply be forgotten when it will be clear that the "oil revolution" he predicts is not materializing. Communication is a field where prediction is always very difficult, even more than with oil production. The only thing we can say for sure is that we are sensible to the viral diffusion of legends. It is the way our mind works; it has not evolved for long range planning.


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)