“Nobody has ever solved a drinking problem by attributing the hangovers to a shortage of liquor.”
The above is a quote from this article by Charles C. Mann, Peak Oil Fantasy, published in Orion Magazine and which is the inspiration for this post.
This article is a masterpiece of writing on the history of humanity’s discovery and addiction to the use and abuse of fossil fuels. If you feel that you don’t understand any of that, or even if you do think that you understand everything about oil, peak oil, and oil scarcity, then you will profit greatly from taking the time to read this article thoughtfully. Heck, it is interesting and engaging enough for its intrinsic self to make such an undertaking worthwhile, but its underlying message, which I have no doubt many people will incorrectly misinterpret and take offense to for a variety of reasons, requires an unbiased, free-thinking, clear-headed appraisal to be able to extract the true meaning from it.
Illustration by Nicolas Lampert
Here, briefly, for what it is worth, is my take on it.
The author uses the statement, quoted at the beginning of this post (read it again), as a metaphoric summary of the generally perceived problems surrounding fossil fuel use by our civilisation. He preceded that statement with this description:
“Like giddy drunks locked in a warehouse full of booze, humanity takes advantage of ease and profusion to throw a party. The next day is the hangover, with the floor covered in spilled booze and shattered glass.”
Let’s examine the various parts of this metaphor:
The Drunken party – what we have been doing since we discovered coal, oil & gas.
The Hangover – the results of partying too hard.
The Problem – now, that’s the hard part. Is it the booze or a shortage of booze? Is it the partying itself? Is it the resulting mayhem of ‘spilled booze and shattered glass’ or worse? Or is it the excessive, addicted behaviour of the partyers, incapable of knowing when enough is enough?
The author takes the position that it is a drinking problem, and I agree. But that is not primarily anything to do with the booze. Nor the supply of booze. Nor even the possible shortage of booze, other than that the partyers will, by consuming all nearby supplies of booze, need to go further and further away to obtain sufficient supplies to keep the party going. That makes supply or shortage of booze a secondary problem, at least for a while until the Law of Diminishing Returns kicks in.
No, the primary problem, and I think the author of this piece is being quite astute to have recognised this, is the behavioural attitude of the partyers in being unable to modulate their use of booze (dare I say it) sustainably.
Translating this to reality then, it is not that coal, oil and gas will eventually run out that is humanity’s problem (it never will run out, only get more and more difficult to obtain in sufficient amounts or quantities to keep our societal party going), but in fact our real problem is our inability, incapability even, or downright stupidity to recognise that we are a) giving ourselves an enormous future headache, b) causing mayhem and destruction to our one and only ‘party room’, and c) that there is an urgent need to call a halt to, or a dramatic toning down of, the partying.
So, this article is awarded my Solid Gold Seal of Approval. And if by some mistaken belief I have not interpreted the author’s intention correctly, then my view, in my world at least, prevails.
Well, I’ve read your piece and I’ve read Mann’s article and the comments following it and, while I don’t disagree with you, I tend to agree with the commenters who seem to think he’s saying that PO doesn’t matter because we will always find something else to exploit, in other words, let’s go out and do whatever we want regardless of the consequences. He may also think we haven’t been wise in our use of fossil fuels (only an idiot would think we have), but that, OK, let’s be wise from now on but still let’s go out and do what we want.
It’s an excellent history of oil discovery and production, but like one of the commenters, I kept waiting for the turnaround, which didn’t come.
Hmm… yes, I think you have fallen into the same trap that most, not all, the commenters on Mann’s story also have. Misinterpretation of what Mann is saying.
Let me explain what I mean.
The third last paragraph of Mann’s piece explains what we all, all who have any idea about Peak Oil at all, know would happen should fossil fuel sources run out, or oil in particular anyway. I don’t think you would disagree with what is said there.
The second last paragraph where he says: “But our situation is different and perhaps more difficult. The dilemma stems from relative abundance, not scarcity. As technology expands our reach, resources remain easy to take out of the earth. Even if today’s reserves of oil and gas become costly to extract, others lie waiting in the wings:”, I immediately thought “People are going to choke on that” and judging by the comments that is exactly what happened. I believe that what most people appear to be thinking, is not what he meant. Or he was intentionally trying to arouse thought on the issue by being obtuse.
He was quite correct in my view to say that “The dilemma stems from relative abundance, not scarcity.” in spite of what all us interested folks keep saying, mostly I think in an attempt to scare other folks into thinking about the situation (a strategy which has had little success so far). If there really was a scarcity of oil (which is not borne out by the facts of the last few years where production has continued to rise, for whatever reason, and yes, I know that can’t continue for long), then society would have no choice in the matter, and there would be utter panic, disbelief, confusion, blame and mayhem, once that realisation sank in to thick skulls. But because there is no scarcity of the stuff to dig up, by whatever means, we will just keep on finding ways to do that. Until we can’t any longer. I think that was the point Mann was trying to convey, aided by his ‘drunken party’ metaphor and echoed by my poor attempt to clarify that position. I see nowhere (unlike in Heinberg’s writings) where he was advocating that we keep on digging and partying, just that that would be the inevitable reality of our built-in, herd driven inability to do anything else.
Don’t be upset. I am not putting you down. Your opinion is as valid as mine. I am just disappointed that an apparently large component of the Peak Oil community is not reading Mann’s work the same way I do.
I just wish that I understood the last sentence, his definition of what is the real problem: “The first lesson of Pithole is to stop learning the lesson of Pithole.”
I have something of a glimmer of what he means but the ‘Pithole’ thing still remains a bit of a mystery. ‘Pithole’ of course refers to Pithole Creek, the world’s first big oil-patch. Does he mean, I wonder, that we should try to forget that we ever discovered oil? If so, and if that is the real problem, then we are stuffed.
No upset here…You are one of the few people I read who knows where it’s at, as they say. I’ll have to read it again and have a detailed think. No time today!