Monday, December 22, 2014

Peak Oil: the elephant in the room

"Elephant Country" a book on peak oil by Luca Pardi. The title refers to the fact that some politicians had defined Italy an "oil country" because it produces some oil, but that's just as wrong as it would be to say that Italy is an "elephant country" because it has some elephants in zoos.

In 2003, I invited Colin Campbell, the founder of the association for the study of peak oil (ASPO), to give a talk in Florence. After the talk, a small group of conspirators (1) collected in my office. We drank together something curiously looking like petroleum in color (not in taste, fortunately); a strong liquor that came from Ukraine and was named "Balzam"(**). After a few glasses of that dark stuff, we decided to start the Italian chapter of ASPO; "ASPO-Italy". One of the conspirators of that fateful day, Luca Pardi, now president of ASPO-Italy, recently published a book on oil and gas with a curious title "Elephant country." It is a word play on some silly remarks on oil by one of our leading politicians, Mr. Romano Prodi, who said that Italy "floats on a sea of oil". But you can take the title of the book also as hinting to the old say about "the elephant in the room". Peak oil is the true elephant in the room of our times; it is there, it is large, you can't miss it, and yet it goes unperceived, unseen, invisible.

The invisibility of peak oil is all the more impressive if compared to how much more we know about it today than we did at the beginning. You can see that, clearly, in Pardi's book, which is an excellent summary of the work done up to now on the subject. Compare it with my first book on peak oil, published in 2003, and you'll see that, surely, we came a long way from then. Today, we have better models, better data, and generally a much better understanding of the concepts we summarize under the name of "peak oil." And all these new data and models confirm our initial interpretation: peak oil is here. Yet, the problem of the elephant in the room remains.

Peak oil remains a fringe concept, almost never mentioned in the mainstream media and in the political debate. Politicians and their advisers seem to have never even heard of it, and when they do, they misunderstand it. This situation is all the more disappointing if we take into account the amount of intellectual power that was dedicated to the subject. Few fields of science have seen such a group of smart, dedicated, and competent people obtaining such impressive results; normally on a shoestring budget or no budget at all. I would add that this group also had all the appropriate credentials to be taken seriously: university researchers, top level scientists, high level professionals. You would not imagine that the advice of such a group could be ignored. And yet, it was.

Rethinking to the work of the past ten years, I almost can't believe how naive we were. We really thought that good data and good models would, eventually, make their way into the consciousness of the decision makers. And, then, someone would have done something about the problem. Yes, we were so naive. We didn't think that we are living in a time in which elephants populate people's living rooms and go routinely unnoticed. We live in the time in which Karl Rove said that, because we are an empire, "we create our own reality." A reality in which seas of oil exist because a politician said so. Just this year, I saw an impressive example of this process of reality creation based on wishful thinking and fake data at the European Parlament, in Brussels.

We seem to be geared to see the world through our ideological filters; which work very nicely in keeping reality out. The problem is that virtual reality, no matter how powerful is the empire that created it, tends to shatter to pieces when it gets in contact with real reality. Virtual seas of oil tend to be badly trampled by the virtual elephants populating the living room, but we still tend to stick to our filters as long as we can. Peak oil just can't pass the filter.

So, the ongoing crash of the oil market goes not only unnoticed, but perceived as a good thing. It is likely that the closer we get to the global peak, the less we will perceive it. And when we pass it (and we may already have passed it) it will become a truly invisible elephant hiding behind the sofa in the living room. As we slide down the Seneca cliff, we'll think it is just a bump in the road to everlasting prosperity.

(*) For the historical record, the founders of ASPO-Italy who collected in Ugo Bardi's office over a few glasses of Ukrainian "balzam" were (in addition to Ugo Bardi) Luca Pardi, Francesco Meneguzzo, Giovanni Marocchi, and Renato Guseo (or at least those are the people I remember).

(**) The "Balsam" liquor seems to be originally from Latvia (see this article on Wikipedia.).  The version we drank that fated day, however, was brought to Italy by a colleague from Ukraine and it had the label written in Cyrillic characters. Whatever it was, it was kind of strong stuff! (Thanks to Marcus Kracht for alerting me on this point.)


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)