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

Monday, November 17, 2014

The peak oil theater

In classical antiquity, theatrical performances such as the "Atellana" farce were based on standardized plots and stock characters, identified by the masks they wore on stage. It was not so different than our present TV soaps and a good example of our tendency to interpret the world in narrative terms.

I am a little late for the talk at the peak oil conference. Fortunately, it seems that I didn't lose much: the speaker must have started just a few minutes before I arrived and I only missed the introduction by the chairman. So, I relax in my seat as the speaker goes on with his presentation.(*)

The first thing I note is the way he is dressed; not the standard one at this conference. Most speakers, so far, have been physicists and they have a typical dress code: they look like physicists even when they wear a tie; and they usually don't. This speaker, instead, not only wears a tie, but even wears a double breasted suit (or so it seems to me - even if it is not a double-breasted suit, he wears it as if it were one). And it is not just the way he dresses, it is his whole posture and style. Everyone else at this peak oil conference has been speaking while standing up; showing slides, speaking without notes. Instead, he sits, shows no slides, and reads from a notebook he has placed on the table. If he is unlike the others in the way he appears, his talk is also totally unlike the others in this conference. Physicists tend to show data and numbers; graphs and tables; to the point of being boring. He doesn't. He is not showing data, or graphs, or tables. He is not even mentioning data. He is telling a story.

He takes us to a sort of tour of oil producers. Each country is described as if it were a character on the stage of the world's theater: the Americans, a little tough, but doing things right and successful in reaching energy independence by means of their advanced technologies; the Saudis, somewhat devious, but powerful with their large resources; the Russians, aggressive in their attempt of rebuilding their old empire. And the Europeans, well intentioned but hopelessly naive with their insistence on renewable energy. The story goes on as each character on stage interacts with the others. Will the Europeans succeed in getting rid of their dependence on Russian gas? Will the Americans be able to overtake the Saudis as the world leaders in oil production? What will the Saudis do to maintain their leadership?

Occasionally, data manage to appear in the narration; but when they do, the data are wrong. For instance, the speaker tells us that extracting one barrel of oil in Saudi Arabia costs as little as 2-3 dollars per barrel (yes, maybe thirty years ago). And he tells us that the Saudis just have to open the spigots of their wells to increase their production by 2, 3, or even 5 million barrels per day (yeah, sure.....). And some key concepts are never mentioned. No trace of peak oil, no hint of a depletion problem, and climate change seems to pertain to another conference, to be held on a different planet.

The talk winds up with the audience clearly perplexed. There starts the session of questions and answers and someone asks to the speaker what he thinks of peak oil. He answers first that he is not a geologist, but an economist; in this way confirming once more (if that ever was needed) that a man will never understand a concept if his salary depends on not understanding it. Then he adds that "they have been claiming for thirty years that peak oil was coming," and, if that wasn't banal enough, he mentions also the old quip by Zaki Yamani, "the stone age didn't end with the end of the stones." This is sufficient for stopping further significant questions. It is soon over and he rises up and leaves the hall while the conference continues with another speaker.

There is no experience so bad that you can't at least learn something from it. So, what can we learn from this one? For one thing, the speaker in the double breasted suit had an experience symmetric and opposite to experiences I had myself. Sometimes, when I tried to present the concept of peak oil to an audience of people wearing double-breasted suits, I had the distinct sensation that they were looking at me as if I were an alien from Betelgeuse-III, just landed in the parking lot with my flying saucer. When you say "clash of absolutes" you may well refer to this kind of experiences. But there is something badly wrong, here: we all read the newspapers, we all have access to the same data on the Internet. So, how can it be that people can come to such different interpretations and conclusions?

I have been mulling these considerations in my head and eventually it flashed on me: it is not a question of the data; it is a question of how people process them! And most people wearing double breasted suits think just the way most people think: they think in narrative terms, not in quantitative terms.

Think of our remote origins: prehistorical hunters and gatherers. What kind of skills did our ancestors need to survive? Well, one was the ability of making tools; from stone axes to fishing hooks. But, much more important than this was the stock of social skills needed to climb the ladder of the tribe's hierarchy; to become chiefs and shamans. That hasn't changed very much with the arrival of the social structure we call "civilization".  In the annals of the Sumerian civilization, we have records of the names of kings that go back to thousands of years ago, but no mention of the name of the person who invented the wheel during that period.  Even today, engineers are ruled by politicians, not the reverse.

So, the common way to interpret the world is in narrative terms, assigning roles to people as if they were actors playing their on-stage role. It is the theater of life, not unlike theater of the on-stage kind, not unlike the various forms of narrative that surround us: novels, movies, TV soaps and the like. It is typical of most people and it is especially strong in politics, where the various actors are classed in terms of a narrative vision of their role. For instance, Saddam Hussein was one of the characters supposed to play the role of the bad guy. Once he was cast in that role, there was no need of proof that he was accumulating weapons of mass destruction in order to start a war. He was evil, and that was enough. And there was no outrage when it was discovered that the weapons of mass destruction didn't exist. That didn't change Saddam Hussein's role as the evil guy of the narration.

Scientists, however, tend to think in a different way; especially those who study the fields known as "hard sciences." However, their way of reasoning is difficult to understand for most people. Just think of the common statement used to deny the human role in climate change, "scientists were worried about global cooling in the 1970". Independently of whether it is true or not (it is only marginally true), it illustrates the abyss of difference between the common way of interpreting reality and the scientific one. Scientists believe they should change their mind if new data contradict old interpretations. But that's not what heroes do in novels and films where, typically, a character starts with a given idea, fights for it throughout the story against all contrary evidence, and ultimately triumphs.

So, nobody would even remotely pay attention to what scientists say, were it not for the fact that they can occasionally come up with toys that people seem to like so much; from smart phones to nuclear warheads. But when they move out of their role as toy makers, their opinion loses importance in the debate. Even when you try to argue that a large majority of scientists (maybe 97%) agree that human generated climate change is a reality, you obtain nothing. Even a large majority among scientists is such an exceedingly tiny minority of the general population that it is not worth paying attention for most people (including politicians and decision makers).

In the end, telling stories is usually more successful than arguing using data and models. Indeed, after the conference, I was told that the economist in the double breasted suit is a very influential person and that people high up in the government often ask him for advice in energy matters. Evidently, he can tell a good story.

Not all good stories have a good ending, but good stories can always teach us something. So, what can we learn from this one?  One is that we have been doing everything wrong with the idea of using data in order to convince people of the reality of such things as peak oil and human caused climate change. Yes, it is possible to gently nudge people's beliefs in the right direction if we find ways to expose them for some time to the data and to their interpretation. But the kind of commitment we can obtain in this way is weak and ineffective. It is easily destroyed by even the most brutal and primitive propaganda methods: casting scientists as the bad guys of the story works wonders: as spin doctors themselves confess, "playing ugly pays". And once a narrative has made inroads in the mind of people, it is extremely difficult - in practice impossible - to dislodge it from there. Have you noticed how, in most narrative plots, bad guys remain bad guys throughout? It is as if they were the characters of an ancient Atellana farce, wearing the appropriate mask for the bad guy (or scientists wearing their nicknames of geeks or eggheads)

Another thing that we can learn from this story is that we are all humans and none of us think like machines or like robots. Scientists may be trained to reason in terms of data, but even for them it is difficult to do it all the time. Reasoning in narrative terms has accompanied our ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years. If it is still with us, it is because it has done us a good service over this long span of time. What counts is not that the world can be seen as an unfolding story, but what kind of story is unfolding. And there exists a different story of the world to be told, a story infinitely superior to the current brutal plot that tells us that all the problems we have are related to the bad guys of the day and that when we'll have bombed them to shreds everything will be fine again. This is the plot of second rate novels: it has little to do with real literature, the kind of literature that changes people for good, that changes the world for good. A better story of the world says that the world is not our enemy. The world is, rather, our partner (**): it can provide us with bountiful goods, but, as for a human partner, and as it is the stuff of so many stories, what we do to our partner comes back to us. If we hurt our partner, we will be hurt back and this is true in fiction as in real life. If we hurt the world surrounding us (or "Nature" or "the ecosystem", or whatever term you prefer) we will be hurt back, and this is already happening. This is the story we are living: we may be the good guys or the bad guys; it depends on us.

(*) This post is a factual report from a recent peak oil conference. I didn't name names or places, but the people who heard the talk I am describing will recognize it and the speaker.

(**) The concept of Nature as a partner to humankind can be found, for instance, in Charles Eisenstein's book "Sacred Economics"


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)