Monday, September 21, 2015

What happened to peak oil? The cycle of a meme and of its antimemes

The result of a Google Trends search for the term "Peak Oil". The fading out of the concept may be due not so much to reasons related to the validity (or non validity) of the concept but, rather, to a memetic phenomenon equivalent to the development of an immune response in the human body. Not all memes have sufficient viral power to entrench themselves in the human mindspace.

Likely, you haven't heard much, recently, about peak oil. If you did, it was only to hear that it was "wrong". Indeed, as you see in the figure above, peak oil had a peak of interest around 2006, a second one around 2008, then it gradually declined.

Why this decline? You might say that it was because the recent drop in oil prices. Maybe, but note, from the figure, that the interest in peak oil started a steady decline just when oil prices went up to reach a plateau at levels over 100 $/barrel. Then, you might say that the decline is because peak oil didn't appear when it was predicted. Maybe, but the record of the "peakist" approach is not bad at all when compared with of mainstream oil pundits. Had any of them anticipated such things as the burst of high oil prices that started in 2005? Did any of them foresee that the oil industry would have had to switch to expensive and difficult resources, that they had always shunned before, in order to keep production from falling?

So, why is peak oil fading away from our consciousness? The problem seems to be that, as a meme (a knowledge unit replicating in virtual space), peak oil just doesn't seem to have a large viral power. Peak oil is not the only case of a loss of interest in some concepts (memes) for no obvious reason. Take a look to the Google trends for "Global Warming." ("climate change" does a little better, but not so much)

So, the planet is going to hell, but people just don't care. Not even a blip of interest, for instance, in 2012, when the Arctic ice sheet collapsed to levels never seen before. The last peak of interest in global warming was created only by the climategate story, and then it was flatland all over.

There are many other examples of peaking and successive decline of various concepts. Take a look, for instance, to "communism"

Of course, the fact that a concept shows a peak of interest doesn't mean that it has to fade away forever. You could identify a peak of interest also in many commonplace concepts such as "electricity." But, here, the interest never faded away and, indeed, electricity remains a normal element of our lives.

Perhaps we could use the concept of "full width at half maximum" (FWHM) as an approximate measurement of the lifetime of these concepts. In this way, we can put together a list of memes and their lifetimes, measured by Google's trends or Google ngrams. This is, obviously, a very approximate set of numbers, they are there just to give an idea of the spread in the lifetime of some memes.

Meme                                approx FWHM, years

Nibiru                                0.3
Andrea Rossi's E-Cat        1
Peak Oil                             5
Global Warming                5
Cold Fusion                       17
Limits to Growth               30
Nuclear Energy                  35
Communism                      50
Electricity                          > 100

The FWHM (time duration) associated with these concepts can be seen as an indication of the capability of a meme to establish itself in virtual space. This depends, first of all, on the capability of the meme to replicate itself rapidly: the meme must be interesting, understandable, and, often, have some relation with reality. Then, if a meme is the equivalent of a gene (or a virus) in biology, then, if there are antigens, there must be antimemes (or, perhaps, "antimems"). This immune response may take the form of "memetic antibodies" which directly fight the invading meme. This is a fight that we see everyday: we call it "debate". As a result, the meme may go viral and infect the infospace of the Internet, or be rejected. In the second case, it may remain in a quiescent state, infecting only marginal areas.

This behavior can be seen in many examples. For instance, the meme of Andrea Rossi's nuclear device, the "E-Cat," flared up rapidly and then practically disappeared, just as rapidly. In this case, there was no need for a strong intervention of the immune system. The meme itself was weak, since the E-Cat simply couldn't deliver the cheap energy that it had promised to deliver. The same can be said of a meme such as the planet Nibiru hitting the Earth. It rapidly disappeared after that it was clear that no such thing was going to happen.

How about the "peak oil" meme? Unlike Nibiru or the E-Cat, peak oil is a serious concept, backed up by a lot of research. However, it didn't really get viral enough to become a mainstream meme. The main problem, here, may have been the choice of the term: "peak oil" conjures a specific moment in time when something exceptional should happen, even though it is not clear what. When people saw that nothing special was happening, they lost interest. The decline of the peak oil meme was helped by the anti-memetic system that created effective antimemes such as "they have been predicting peak oil already for 30 years ago."

About "global warming", we have problems, too: first of all, we propose a concept that people can't perceive in their everyday experience. Then, the immune system has generated strong antimemes that turned out to be extremely effective; such as "there has been no warming during the past 19 years". Indeed, "climate change" has fared much better than "global warming" as a meme. But even climate change is hard to perceive for the public, and it fails to evoke such things as ocean acidification, sea level rise, food supply disruption, and many others.

In the end,  it is all part of the game: the memetic immune system does its job of filtering away memes that are silly, useless, and dangerous. However, like its biological counterpart, sometimes it attacks the wrong targets, a true "autoimmune" genetic reaction. There are memes we badly need to diffuse in the world's infospace: that oil depletion is real and dangerous if we don't do something about it; that climate change is real and it is dangerous, if we don't do something to stop it.

Biological autoimmune diseases are common and dangerous; and the therapy is always difficult. In the memetic case, we are in also in a difficult situation. Maybe there are ways to avoid the slaughter of good memes; but it is not an easy task. In any case, I think that at least one thing is clear from this discussion: memes that have already generated a strong immune response have little or no chance to diffuse. "Peak oil" is basically a dead meme.

We need new memes that describe the same concepts. For instance, we should mention "depletion" rather than "peaking" as a way to describe the gradual loss of high yield mineral resources. Maybe ASPO (the association for the study of peak oil) should be renamed as something like ASOD (association for the study of oil depletion) (*)Maybe we could develop something more creative, such as "oil senility," why not? Then, it has been proposed to replace the term "climate change" with "climate disruption," and that could be a good idea. These are just examples; surely we can think of other possibilities. Just remember one thing: a good virus is a virus that mutates a lot!

(*) But we should be very careful with acronyms. I just discovered that, really, ASOD would not be a good name for an association studying oil depletion!


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)