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

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Greatest Peak Oil Novel Ever Written

Herman Melville never mentioned "peak whale oil" in his "Moby Dick", published in 1851. But the novel can be understood taking into account the fact that the American whaling industry was going through its production peak just during those years. We may consider "Moby Dick" as the greatest peak oil novel ever written.

In 1970, the United States went through their production peak for crude oil. Production reached a maximum then started a decline that has been lasting up to a few years ago. The peak was an epochal event, it was the "great U-turn" of the American economy, which ushered in a new era of larger social inequality and diffuse poverty.

But the reaction to the peak itself was a deafening silence. Earlier on, the peak had been discussed and extensively debated since the time when, in 1956, the geologist Marion King Hubbert had predicted it. When it arrived, however, the peak was not noticed, not discussed, not understood. It was a non-event, if there ever was one, at least in terms of public perception. The same was true for other important peaks: the British coal peak in the 1920s, the oil peak of the Soviet Union in 1988 and more. These peaks brought great changes in the world and were related to the fall of great empires. But they were not perceived. The same thing is happening with the global oil peak ("peak oil"): the closer we get to it, the less interested the public becomes.

There is a reason why these epochal events leave no trace in most people's perception. It is because we tend to see the world in narrative terms, not in terms of facts and data. We perceive only the things that generate an emotional reaction on us and in order to generate this reaction there must be a story, a narration. We could say that all narrative is about a quest for something; it is about succeeding against difficulties, it is about the transformations that occur because of dramatic events. It is this transformation that makes our mind resonate with the events described. We react to events because we perceive a narration, not because we read numbers written in a table. Think the other major problem of our times, climate change, carries a tremendous narrative potential; it is not just that it may bring dramatic events but because we feel something for our planet. We perceive the fact that we risk to destroy the earth's ecosystem and we feel something about it: it the narration of a dramatic event. It is for this reason that "climate fiction" ("cli-fi") is so much discussed today.

But how about "peak fiction"? Peak oil (or any production peak) is just a point on a smooth curve that started at zero and will unavoidably go to zero in the future. It may decline faster than it grew (the "Seneca effect") but it remains a smooth curve. And there is not so much drama involved: we already know (or should know) that, one day or another, we'll run out of all those things we consume and which cannot be replaced. So, what can we learn from something unavoidable? It is the same as dying of old age. We know it has to happen, someday, but dying of old age is not what novels are written about. Think of the "Iliad" if it were to tell us that Hector died in peace in his bed. Think of Tolkien's trilogy if it were to tell us that Frodo sold the ring in exchange for a retirement plan.

So, in narrative terms, we must see the peak indirectly, through its consequences and the story that these consequences tell. Think of "Moby Dick"; Herman Melville's novel, published in 1851. In it, you won't find any mention of the "whale oil peak." And yet, there was such a peak (as shown in the image) just during those years. Whales were efficiently exterminated to the point that their numbers started diminishing and, with them, also the production of whale oil. Eventually, the whale oil industry collapsed as a result of its own efficiency. The fact that whales were disappearing was not perceived by the whalers of the time and there is no evidence that they understood - or even imagined - the concept of "peak whaling". But the melancholy that pervades "Moby Dick" and its basic theme of an unattainable quest shows that Melville perceived that there was something deeply wrong with the whaling industry of the time.

The symbolism contained in "Moby Dick" has been described many times. Captain Ahab's ship, the "Pequod," has been correctly interpreted as "America" (or, more exactly, the United States) and the desperate quest for the white whale as a symbol of the desperate human quest for something unattainable. The symbolism of so long ago remains valid today if we replace "whale oil" with "crude oil." We would want oil to last forever; but that is as unattainable for us, just as killing the white whale was for Captain Ahab. And, just as the Pequod and its crew destroy themselves in their impossible chase, so it may happen to the ship which is America today, destroying itself in the desperate task of squeezing the last drops of oil from the earth's crust.

Maybe, one day, someone will write a novel which will reflect our plea for crude oil so perfectly - although indirectly -  as "Moby Dick" did for whale oil in its times. If there will ever be such a novel, it will tell how we ended up in the terrible situation we find ourselves in, today. But it will never mention "peak oil" and not even crude oil as a source of energy; just as Melville never says in his novel what whale oil was used for.

h/t "James B"


  1. >Maybe, one day, someone will write a novel which will reflect our plea for crude oil so perfectly -
    >although indirectly - as "Moby Dick" did for whale oil in its times

    I would argue that Frank Herbert's Dune and its sequels represent that novel.

  2. OK. Now a couple of thoughts.

    1. I was jogging today thinking about Edward Baptist's new book "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism", where he makes the case that the rise of industrial society in the US did not wash slavery away, but rather that it was built on top of it. That tells me that from the founding of the US in the 18th century until today, our wealth was based first on slaves, and second on burning fossil fuel that is loading carbon in the atmosphere. That is very sad.

    2. What is a better storyline? That peak oil pervades the narrative, and gives it a foreboding sense of doom; or rather that by continually delaying the end of fossil fuel by fracking, shale oil, drilling in the deep ocean, drilling in Greenland, and finally mining methane hydrate on the ocean floor, that in fact we can keep burning fossil fuel until carbon in the atmosphere exceeds 1,000 ppm?

    Which should we fear more? Running out of oil, or not running out of oil?

  3. Or.

    3. That inequality is spiraling, poverty growing and the middle class disappearing because of peak oil, AND ALSO that we have the technology to extend fossil fuel burning (albeit at a much higher unit cost) to drive CO2 to 1,000 ppm. You get both. That's not a very happy thought for a Friday afternoon.

  4. It is interesting that Moby Dick is so highly regarded as being symbolic of a profound human dilemma of some sort, possibly associated with the depletion of a resource. The great journalist Chris Hedges also regards Moby Dick as symbolic of our predicament, but in Hedges' case it is akin to a moral dilemma. In the novel Ahab makes it clear that his goal in seeking to find and kill the white whale is mad, an irrational obsession similar to an irresistible addiction. However, his means to achieve that goal are highly skilled according to the technology available at that time. His crew cooperate admirably and Ahab is a skilled captain. Ahab's methods are sane but his goal is insane. Similarly, the skill employed in applying horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing is commendable but the goal can be accurately referred to as insane. This can also be applied to industrial civilization's goals of perpetual economic growth, unconstrained population growth, unconstrained exploitation of physical and natural resources and increasing technological sophistication. John Michael Greer refers to "the civil religion of progress"as being a pervasive myth which helps to drive humanity onward in its insane and unachievable goals..

    Our dilemma can also be viewed in terms of Garret Hardin's "tragedy of the commons", applied to individuals but also applied to entire nations. The atmosphere itself of those commons which is being altered in ways that are highly undesirable for humanity.

    1. Morals are, after all, related to limits. Most moral rules, or "laws" tell you what your limits are, for instance you are told "thou shalt not kill". If we overcome our human limits, breaking the moral laws, for instance if we think we can kill for a good cause, then we become evil. Think of the case of Iraq - many people honestly believed that destroying Iraq was done for a good cause: preventing Saddam from using his fantasy WMDs. Evil is not for Sauron alone, it is around the corner for all of us.

  5. Marc -- I like the parallels between Ahab's technical skills and the technology required for horizontal drilling and shaking. It is, after all, remarkable engineering. I also agree that this is definitely a tragedy of the commons -- water and atmosphere being two of the most fundamental commons. We're all all sitting in a bath full of gas, and everyone has a handful of matches.

    Building on my earlier point on how difficult it is to build a clean, sustainable society. I was listening to a couple of radio interviews with Naomi Klein before her new book comes out "This Changes Everything", and she brought up reparations for Canada -- both in the context of payments due to the indigenous First Nation people, as well as reparations to current developing nations for the fact that the west has already burned a majority of the carbon that can be put in the atmosphere, leaving them no room to develop.

    How could we expect the rest of the world to develop cleanly, when we couldn't do it, and they would be competing with us while we continued burring dirty fuel. That's not fair, so I guess you could say colonialism is still alive and well.

    Does this mean that the US should have three sets of reparations on it's balance sheet? To native Americans, to African Americans and to the developing world? We wouldn't be deemed loan worthy by the IMF if those debts were on our books.

  6. Ugo
    At another level, Melville's metaphor could be about our 'Ocean of Ignorance'? (Naomi Klein uses that phrase in a personal context about herself and the medical profession in a striking extract from her recent book about Climate Change: // )


  7. hmm...a journalistic narrative is a lazy way of conveying information that relies upon the fact that human beings love a good story. yet every story needs a human angle and there mobydick is rocking-nice parallel you draw with melvilles novel

  8. Hi Ugo,

    In the original unabridged version there is an entire chapter dedicated to depletion. Melville compared whaling to the decimation of bison populations in North America and concluded that a collapse was unlikely. He observed (in my view correctly) that human hunting was not very different from the introduction of a predator in the habitat, and thus sperm whales where able to adapt. Each ship was only able to process a mature whale at time, therefore decimation did not took place. He described remarkable things, like whales forming larger groups to reduce encounters with humans and old or ill whales getting behind as easy prey to free the rest of the group. Melville kept short of declaring a peak but he made it very clear that whaling was becoming harder with voyages taking ever longer to fill the hull; the Peaquod processes a single whale in the whole book. There is also a chapter accounting an encounter with a ship hunting the "wrong" species. It is absolutely clear that by the time Melville wrote the book the "easy whale oil" was gone - and that possibly many folk were aware of the fact.

    The unabridged version of Moby Dick can be hard to find. About half of the book are random treaties on the Science of time, the editors much like to leave out.

    1. Yes, there is a chapter in this sense - it is chapter 105, where Melville examines the question of whether whales have "degenerated" as the effect of hunting. His conclusion is that, no - they haven't. He says "Wherefore, for all these things, we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality".

      Although he does mention the disappearance of the buffalo - he says " short a period ago—not a good lifetime—the census of the buffalo in Illinois exceeded the census of men now in London, and though at the present day not one horn or hoof of them remains in all that region."

      So, it is like you say, indeed. The disappearance of whales is hinted in the book as the increasing difficulty of the chase, but Melville, just like the whalers of his time, refuses to admit that whales were being exterminated to near extinction.

    2. BTW, the whole novel in htm format can be found at

  9. There has been very little fiction written handling Peak Oil. As above, the Peak Oil story needs to be told in emotional terms. Statistics don't change people's, minds but a good story can.
    A Peak Oil story needs to relate to 'my' lost job, my family and friends, our hunt for security, our moral dilemmas when the issue of too many human beings relying on too little oil and the very hard shocker decisions that need to be taken. All written in love, hate and human dreams.
    :) Give me another year and i will have it done. :)

  10. DId Melville's Moby Dick stop whaling? Why would a great novel about peak oil stop the pathological-pathetic-perverse hunt for petroleum then? Maybe because peak oil would be mentioned explicitly? Or maybe it would be best if it were left unmentioned and left to speak to us tacitly from under a fracked well or from beneath the depths of a Brazilian sub-salt deposit, but very very ominously? But then what if nobody got the point? Or maybe got it only a couple of hundred years later when we reached peak planet? Though since in fact we are already well past peak planet too, understanding probably would be immediate and action on renewables (++) would begin well before the novel were even finished being written?

  11. Gen. Dempsey's Remarks at the Pentagon Energy Security Forum:

    October 18, 2011 — I heard Secretary Hammack tell you I’m an armor officer by background which means that I was probably among—I’d have to check whether I’m right about this with the Navy, but I was probably among the most energy consumptive hogs that ever walked the face—you know the M1 tank, two gallons to the mile. You know the drill.

    So. Thank you Katherine for that kind introduction. And to you and Secretary Burke and Dr. Robyn for leading the efforts here to encourage us to think differently about energy and how energy relates to our security.

    As a student of literature and history, I feel obliged to note that 160 years ago today, Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, was first introduced to the public.

    No, you’re not in the wrong place and I’m not here to give you a lecture about the nuances Herman Melville’s work, Moby Dick. So what connection does your presence here today have to this great American novel?

    In a word, energy. Ishmael, Captain Ahab and the crew of the fictional ship Pequod were part of a global industry largely dedicated to one thing – the pursuit of a critical source of energy … and at that time, of course, whale oil.

    And 160 years later, some things just haven’t changed. We’re still engaged in a nearly, in a seemingly endless energy and quest for the pursuit of energy.

    So, let me make this point up front: improving our energy security directly translates to improving our national security.

    -- Source: Joint Chiefs of Staff.



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)