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

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.


  1. Hi Ugo,
    I would say prediction in any field is risky business...

    But I'm sure you are quite right that if ("when" is probably safe to say) Maugeri's prediction fails, it will be forgotten that a prediction was ever made - either that or justifications for the failure will be made after the fact.

    1. Oh, yes. Prediction is always difficult, especially when it has to do with the future!

  2. Well worth reading, thanks for this post. I noticed this study in George Monbiot's blog.

    There has been a steady trickle of arguments formulated to attack the idea of peak oil... where this fits is an interesting question.

  3. Great post, as usual.
    The events at stake being closer (indeed!) and more easily measurable than those modelized in The Limits to Growth, I suppose that the decision regarding who is right will be made more rapidly and will give room to less controversy. Yet, as you mentioned, it is not to be ruled out that the instillation of doubt may turn to an outright desinformation campaing.
    In the last but one paragraph, you probably meant
    "It is too early to tell, but we canNOT rule out this possibility."
    Thank you again for this blog

  4. Like all bubbles, the debunking bubble will eventually collapse.

  5. Maugeri might be much too overoptimistic in his assessment of unconventional oil sources - and the cost under which they can be produced - but the basic line of argument, that, pushing up costs high enough, we can dig out very large oil resources, might still hold (IMHO).
    With oil it is not as with whales: if they are dead they are dead. The price could well rise to 150 USD per barrel or more and people would still use it like there is no tomorrow and pump it into the atmosphere.
    When coming to climate policy, we must concentrate on the warming argument - to fall back on "peak oil" might be too weak.

    1. Well, I respectfully disagree on the comparison you make, kinimod. The case of whales and oil are very similar. In 19th century, whalers exterminated the "easy" whales (a.k.a. "right whales"), but they could have moved to different kind of whales - sperm whales were much reduced in numbers, but not exterminated and there were other kinds of whales even more difficult to catch which were barely affected in that period. These "low EROEI" whales were too expensive to be worth catching.

      On your basic argument, however, you are perfectly right. Oil is not like whales in the sense that it is so vital for us that we will probably keep extracting it until nothing is left of any kind - or until global warming kills us all.

      In this sense, crude oil may be more like the case of Caspian Sturgeon, still a perfect example of a real life "Seneca Effect". I have a post in preparation on this point.

    2. For any interested layman as I am, here some graphs to put all the Maugeri and who not else reserves into perspective:
      Although I ask myself, what price assumptions have been made there and how the plots would look different with a different - namely much steeper - price curve. Anyway, oil prices will from now on probably know only one direction.

    3. Nice graph, indeed. But note that it is for "crude oil". The gist of the present debate is that Maugeri says that we don't care about crude oil declining, as long as we can substitute it with other - dirtier - stuff

    4. I think, if You go down to Fig. 2.2, which is Fig. 13.12 in the "Bitre Report" on "long term oil supply trends and projections", that what's called there "heavy" does actually include crude oil made out of Canadian tar sands. They project an annual production of 3.5 Gb/y total non-conventional oil, which is just put on top of the peaking and then decreasing conventional oil curve.
      So we can see, that we can buy some time with tar sands, 10 years or so. If the figures are right.


  6. In his latest blog post John Michael Greer also couples the recent peak oil debunking with (psychological) denial:

    Over the last few weeks, a number of my fellow peak oil writers have expressed worries about this outpouring of counterfactual drivel. Myself, I find it a very hopeful sign. What we are seeing is the shattering of the consensus that has excluded any discussion of peak oil from the collective conversation of our time. Plenty of pundits who refused to talk about peak oil at all are now talking about it incessantly. Even though they’re screeching at the top of their lungs that it can’t happen, and scrabbling around for any argument, however feeble or blatantly false, they can use to back up that proposition, they’re still talking about it.

    That is to say, industrial society is collectively entering the stage of denial.

    The application of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief to the process of dealing with peak oil has become common enough in the peak oil scene that an offhand reference to one stage or another in a talk or blog post on the subject rarely needs an explanation. It’s not just peak oil: the sequence of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance has become part of the common currency of thought in the modern world. For all its drawbacks and critics—and it has plenty of both—the five stages do a tolerably good job of modeling the way many people go through the grieving process in most contexts, which is after all as much as any theoretical structure can be expected to do.

  7. In his latest blog post John Michael Greer...

    But he also dismisses the concept of Seneca's cliff.

    The fascination with sudden collapse—call it the Seneca cliff if you must, though it’s only fair to note that Seneca was talking about morality rather than the survival of civilization, and the civilization to which he himself belonged took centuries to decline and fall—is to the peak oil scene exactly what the fixation on Bakken shale oil and "effectively infinite" natural gas is to the collective imagination of industrial society as a whole: a means of denial. It’s just one more way of pretending that we and our grandchildren’s grandchildren don’t have to endure the long bitter centuries of decline and fall that are waiting for us...

    The idea of a swift collapse, or sudden discontinuity is just not on his radar - at all, which is quite unrealistic, considering how far into overshoot we already are and how disregarding of nature's repeated warning signs we remain, as a species.


    1. Well, he doesn't really "dismiss" the idea of the Seneca cliff. It is really a very involved paragraph, typical of Greer's style. He seems to think in terms of the Roman Empire which took a couple of century to collapse and that it is what we should expect. Perhaps, but it is also true that things today move much faster than at the time of the Roman Empire. Then, he seems to think of the Seneca Cliff as a sort of positive delusion, "pretending..... don't have to endure the long bitter centuries of decline....". Which is curious, to say the least!

    2. Ugo
      Yes, this is seemingly odd on Greer's part. However, he gives a great deal of space to David Korowicz. In a detailed recent report from Feasta, Korowicz worries about sudden glitches in the global 'electronic-clockwork' (to mix my similes) that are likely to brutally and suddenly unravel the complexity we have increasingly come to live by in the last few decades. In reply to a point that I raised about David having made a good point or two about the fragility of the 'interactive globalised trading world', Greer said:
      "Phil, oh, the global economy is toast; that's a given. We had one before, [he means I think 19thC global 'free-trade' and capital/finance industrial and imperial expansion] in the second half of the 19th century, and its explosive unraveling in the wake of the First World War did a lot to set the stage for the Great Depression.
      Greer takes the long view and looks to historical examples when discussing the ways interested parties and power structures define their interests, when in expansion or in decline. He does not expect industrial civilisation, now more than 2 centuries old, but based on finite resources, to effectively disappear before another century or so. Sudden shocks and disappearances however would be par for the course during the decline. The decline, perhaps sudden, of the American empire for example seems a given to Greer as I read him, and he has made detailed references to the disappearance of the European empires, and in particular the sudden end of the British Empire, during the last century.

      Interesting stuff.

    3. Yes, interesting. But it also shows the enormous difficulties we have in grasping the evolution of non linear systems; with their sudden "jumps" to different states. Our minds are just not made for that

  8. Ugo
    Thanks for the reminder of that insight. It perhaps explains why humans are so keen on 'signs and portents' and will happily follow pseudo-authority. (In modern times we see many 'fact-free' public relations battles.)

    With regard to models of interaction and Limits to Growth, I offer some questions. Can your models cope with variegated terrain and geographically located partial collapse(s)? The world is not remotely a uniform version of the USA, and is only very partially industrialised. Even where industrialisation is well advanced for example, we have seen the Soviet collapse, which dramatically altered their particular input/output resource numbers. In the USA itself we see places like Detroit essentially collapsed although changes in overall USA numbers have been relatively slight compared with USSR. Europe is becoming distinctly variegated again it seems, and 50% youth unemployment is unsustainable in any future, so parts might rapidly slide back to a lower level of complexity and become relatively disengaged from more active participation in the global equations? Can we expect selective, if not voluntary collapse?

    I understand, I think, the conceptual advantages of a 'one-world' model and a single category, i.e. that of expanded fast-moving industrialisation with its resource input/outputs, but would value your comments. I cannot imagine for example a mass transport aviation industry 40 years from now, but can imagine linked pockets where aviation thrives, perhaps even having a skeletal global network. It might result from path-dependent survival of industries in some areas, at the same time as the elimination of whole other areas; these latter populations having to a large extent dropped out of the industrial equation, if they were ever really inside.


    1. After the publication of the first "Limits to Growth" study, in 1972, there were several attempts of expanding the model and to make it more detailed; separately covering different areas of the world. It was not a success; in part the effort faltered for lack of funds and of interest, but also because it was just too difficult: the more parameters you insert in the model, the more it becomes difficult to manage.

      Personally, I am trying to take the opposite approach: simplify the model as much as possible and make sure that it obeys the laws of thermodynamics. In this way, at least it gives you a safe idea of what is the trend. Then, for the details, alas... signs and portents!



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)