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Energy debates need imagination, public interest and honesty

By Sam Powrie - posted Tuesday, 21 February 2012

I maybe be drawing too long a bow with this allusion (I was initially trained as in anthropology), but readers may recall that cargo cults sprang up in the Pacific during and immediately after WW2 when technologically naive communities experienced a rapid influx of industrial goods, including cans of petrol and kero, often dropped from the air or unloaded from planes and ships.

This amazing influx of refined goods, technologies and highly energetic fuels set up all sorts of new and often unmanageable forces in the communities concerned. People could suddenly eat more, work less, indulge themselves, engage in new behaviors, break down taboos and so on, frequently with no idea (or even concept) as to where these new materials came from, who supplied them, at what cost, who or what made them etc. They were essentially a manifestation of magical power.

As a result the 'big men' - those at the apex of traditional Pacific societies saw an opportunity. Anxious to retain their influence (and probably also keen to maintain some cultural continuity) such individuals used the magical qualities of these goods as well as their emergence from the sky or from over the horizon to build a sense of dependency and supplicant status amongst their communities. You get the picture?


Whole systems of belief and 'worship' grew up around the hope and prospect of a continued flow of these 'high energy' materials and commodities. All of it naturally focused on consumption, resource largesse and maintenance of the new status quo (the new 'horn of plenty') with little thought to possible future realities, apart from the need to stay connected to the magic. The central message from those at the heart of these cults was 'if you want more, then you need to believe in what I say and pray harder!' Sound familiar?

This is the sort of culture that I reckon most of use have been born into and inherited. An ignorant, energy-centric consumption-based cult of hope and blind acceptance of the horn of plenty. It doesnt really matter whether the tenets of your faith in the future involve oil, gas, uranium or unobtanium or whether you even think about such issues at all the principle remains the same. A blind (or at best incoherent) belief that technology and economics the twin vehicles supplying us with the symbols of our wealth will continue to bring new stuff from over the horizon for ever.

This is how I think most of us necessarily view our current fuels of choice - oil and gas. Most of us simply cannot directly experience or even conceive of where these substances come from, how they are formed or 'made', what the spatial or time scales and quantities involved are, the significance of their rates of production, consumption and decline and the significance of key relativities such as Energy Return on Investment (EROI) and their place in the production equation. Oil reservoirs are just too remote from our familiar biosphere and the temporal and quantitative scales of their formation and use are just too large and complex. As is the significance of their inevitable depletion for things we take for granted.

We often focus on what it may take to create new energy paradigms so called renewable or nuclear futures but what about asking what it might take for us to simply keep the foundations of our current societies intact? Do we ever ask ourselves such questions? How we ensure the simple maintenance of our vast and complex society, our built infrastructure, our technology, our institutions of learning, production, government and trade and our way of life just never seems to enter our heads. Maybe its all just too, too complex to appreciate. In theory that is. Like most things, it is all likely to become much clearer in practice if things start to unravel a bit!

The scale of thought involved also seems to make it very difficult for many of us to appreciate what a proper analysis of peak oil and gas requires in terms of imagination, adherence to the public interest and intellectual honesty. Which is probably why, when faced with factual arguments, so many detractors of any Peak Oil (PO) discussion descend into negative personal comment. It's pure defensive reaction against something they simply can’t stand to think about!

So I reckon that the PO argument - to the extent that any 'argument' is still worth having at this late stage of the game - needs to be conducted differently. We need to start with Hubberts depletion curve. The price mechanism (the 'pray harder' bit) does indeed need to be acknowledged as a 'magical' force able to change the shape of the curve, flattening it out and creating the current six-year old production plateau. But it surely must have its limits.


Peak Oil is a geological and engineering reality not just a matter of economics. Its’ about the realities of production, not the elastic definition of what is and is not an economically defined reserve. At what point does production become inelastic? Those calling for attention to oil depletion need to more adequately explain both the factual limits of this capacity to change the shape of the depletion curve and what this shape-changing may or may not mean for the total area under the curve (which represents what can actually be produced!)

In other words, I just want to see a more logical argument and discussion. Can it, for instance, be logically argued that the price mechanism will make the total oil-in-ground resource accessible and increase the quantity we can convert from 'resource' status to producible 'reserves'? Can this occur indefinitely?

Or does the production equation operate within definable limits? Does the price mechanism simply allow us to use what is producible at a faster rate without actually increasing reserves as such? What are those limits? Are they determined by engineering or geological issues or by affordability - or by both? What are the real facts that govern 'affordability - in both financial and energetic terms. At what energy return does the oil industry give up and invest in fish farming and bicycles instead?

And finally, what are likely to be the geopolitical and oil-to-market realities in an oil constrained world? The 'free market', taken as a given by believers in the invisible hand, seems likely to turn out to be just another fizzer, an expression of the 'cargo cult magic' that I reckon will evaporate at the first real sniff of a market shortage. At what point (for instance) will the Saudis tell us free marketeers to all 'get fracked' and turn instead to regional trading alliances with neighbors who have more water and maybe some nuclear power to spare?

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About the Author

Sam Powrie is a speech pathologist from Adelaide.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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