One way to remain popular as a hip, iconoclastic media brand in America is to reinforce the conventional wisdom -- in a hip, iconoclastic way, of course. I've learned this from Freakonomics. Take the recent blog post entitled, "Has 'Peak Oil' Peaked?" Author Stephen Dubner asserts that with oil prices way down from their 2008 highs, the media "frenzy" over peak oil has faded away -- but without the media doing a reality check on this hysteria they were peddling to a gullible public.
My memory of that time is quite a bit different. The mainstream media did little on peak oil and Freakonomics' partner, The New York Times, was nearly silent on the issue. All the air in the media bubble was being taken up by shrill blaming of the major oil companies (even though they were delivering a commodity prized by the world to American gas pumps with no lines or interruptions). Or it concerned sinister futures traders somehow gaming the market. Most of the discussion on peak oil was confined to sites such as The Oil Drum, the "doomer blogs" -- and inside the oil industry itself.
Mr. Dubner shows his hand when he writes that even peak-oil "proponents must admit that high oil prices were driven in large part by a huge spike in demand (which has now fallen) and not just scarcity..." That should send up a strawman alert. Most geologists and industry people who have been discussing peak never claimed it was merely a phenomenon of scarcity. Peak oil wouldn't be as urgent an issue if demand weren't on track to continue expanding at a rapid rate. But with such rhetorical sleights of hand, Freakonomics shows them.
And makes us all feel better. All that stuff about discontinuity, Kunstler's Long Emergency, the Great Disruption -- no worries! The blog post goes on to talk about all the zowie new technology that might keep delivering fossil fuels to our SUVs -- gosh, "engineering advances" might recover enough new crude that is equal to all of today's proven reserves. (Coincidentally, I'm sure, Exxon Mobil's CEO told reporters after the company's annual meeting that fossil fuels would be the dominant source of energy for 100 years -- because alternatives aren't "viable").
Let's have a quick primer: Peak oil means the world reaches the point where half of this commodity has been burned up. It is a fact of geology. America, once an oil-rich petro-state (a critical advantage we had over the Axis in World War II), hit its peak in the early 1970s. The North Sea and probably Mexico are just past peak now. The serious debate has been when world peak would occur, and what its consequences would be. The optimists tend to say 20 years out -- hardly a long transition time. Many believe we are at peak or hit it in 2008.
After peak, the remaining half will tend to be more expensive to find and refine. We already got much of the good stuff -- light sweet crude -- that refines so efficiently. The remainder will also tend to be in places not necessarily friendly to American interests. And the thing to watch is actual production, not the airy and secretive reserves -- which everybody from the Saudi royal family to the oil majors have an interest in inflating. Production has been falling as part of the recession, but what's striking is how it was hitting a ceiling during the boom. Saudi Arabia may have hit peak in 2005. Also telling was how many oil exporters were holding back supplies for domestic consumption during the boom. Then came a severe financial collapse. All these are classic signs of peak oil.
But, again, peak doesn't mean "we're about to run out of oil!!," as the peak debunkers like to set up. Oil is still to be had. But if more and more of the nearly 7 billion people on this planet want to live American suburban "lifestyles" and participate fully in an economy based on petroleum, the other half of this one-time endowment will be used up much faster than the first half. Thus, the rapid modernization of China and India were key drivers behind the demand spike in the 2000s.
So where does this leave us? Energy prices will be unstable. As the global economy grows, oil prices will snap back. When they reach unsustainable levels, the economy will fall into recession and prices will retreat. We may see many of these "yo-yo" recessions. Nations will compete to secure the planet's remaining oil -- China's foreign policy moves are heavily influenced by this. America's involvement in the Middle East is, of course, the classic example. More conflict is likely. Concurrent with this are the economic, social and national security consequences of global warming from burning fossil fuels (more media "hysteria," sure...).
And yet, the political power of the oil industry, the Saudis and the sprawl barons will keep America pretty much on the same course. There may be nods to alt-fuels research, electric cars, and perhaps a little more money for rail, but no Great Transition to avoid the continuing Great Disruption. Probably the biggest driver behind this clinging to the status quo is what historians once quaintly called "custom." Most Americans simply can't imagine a life different from the auto-centric, suburban past that was only possible because of abundant light sweet crude. Trying to sustain this past will be increasingly costly and difficult. But we will try. We will try to find a golden past of 35-cents-a-gallon gasoline but reality will not accommodate us.
And the media will remain just as clueless, just as in thrall of myths and the status quo. With the serious press in its deathbed, we are left with a media unable to handle complexity -- and that is where most of our challenges live. I will let Freakonomics have the last word here, because it makes my point exactly:
It is always interesting to watch what happens when the media latches onto a given issue and then, as the reality on the ground evolves — sometimes radically — the media fails to catch up to, or even monitor, the changes. This means the public is stuck with an outdated version of conventional wisdom which, even if it were true in the first place, is no longer so.
Oh, "media" is a plural noun of "medium." But it would be Freaky to point that out.