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Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Peak Oil as a Social Movement

Save the whales. Save the rainforest. Integrate out schools. Ban Abortion. Stop AIDs in Africa, teen pregnancy, frivolous lawsuits. Legalize it. Ban gay marriage. We get the idea.

Like it or not, social movements or "causes" are an important part of our political landscape. And perhaps it is wise to recognize that the creation and promotion of a cause is one of the most effective ways to initiate grass-roots action.

The meme of the "cause" is pervasive as is the justification "it's for a good cause." While a cause can never exist in the abstract, there are some simple paterns which mask the fact that the problems behind the cause are usually very complex. Some have gone as far to say, "I will fight for the cause" or "die for the cause."

A cause should have a succinct and easily measurable goal. The cause should also present two and only two sides to an issue. In many cases the anti-cause is a straw man present only to motivate. The meme of an anti-cause is often very helpful in nurturing young causes. When it's tough to say what you're for, you can at least say who you're against.

What is the largest obstacle to the formation of a organized collective response to the problems of peak oil? The cause. Social movements need a cause to form around.

Given the size of this issue (PO), it might appear surprising that so few people have devoted themselves to forming social movements in response. One reason for the limited success of groups like PeakOilAction, PCI, and Community Solution is that lack of a clearly formed "Peak Oil cause."

If I donate time or money to one of these groups, how do I know that my contribution will "further the cause?" Why else are thousands of people devoting their lives to the elimination of ATM surcharges, Animal Testing, and email SPAM, but only a handful of people have taken up the peak oil cause? What do these problems have that is lacking from peak oil?

Solutions for one. Hope. It must never be suggested that all of our 5K walks, charity auctions, and scholarship grants fail to cure cancer. Cancer will be cured, and every little bit helps the cause.

The concepts of Die-Off and Crash are powerful psychological factors hindering the emergence of a peak oil cause. These are concepts any future peak oil social movements would be wise to downplay, whitewash, and then give to the anti-cause.

Other than the near-universal cry for better reserve data, and the vague notion of sustainability, there are few positive goals that peak-oilers wish to move towards. Does peak oil even need a social movement? Perhaps our post-ironic culture is too numb with cynicism to respond to anything other than fear.

Let’s give credit where credit is due. From abolition to suffrage, social movements have had their share of success, so the immediate reaction of many people is that peak oil needs a social movement. However, such successful social movements may have only resulted in changed laws. Changes in attitude and behavior take more time.

In fact, I would wager that there are many people watching this issue from the sidelines, waiting for the right cause to come along. We'll want a simple cause with some guilt-free catechism. We'll need the Yellow Lance Armstrong Bracelet of peak oil, something that says "I know" and "I'm doing my part." It’s for a good cause after all.


Aaron Dunlap said...

Great Blog Dan,

I would add that depletion issues don't fit the expectations of advocate groups we see today.

It's just too abstract a topic for mainstream consumption. This is particularly frustrating, since the argument underlying peak oil is actually very simple, and universally accepted. (If there is only so much of a thing, at some point we will be halfway through it.)The only real dispute is:

"How much is left?"

The cornerstone of PO is therefore a combination of geology & consumption, probably the 2 most boring topics in the world unless you are a geologist or an engineer.

In a weird way, peak oil theories have been a very integrated part of western culture for decades or longer. From the embargo by OPEC, to Hollywood's depiction of the apocalyptic future after our energy runs out in movies like Escape from New York, Mad Max, Soylent Green and the like.

Maybe it's no longer even possible to confront global issues like peak oil with any great effect. (Read Kyoto)

You point out the success of previous "causes" as evidence that these movements can have positive impacts on our society, and rightly so. However, like everything else movements track right along with culture as it changes. Perhaps the game has changed since previous successful campaigns in ways which make today's efforts less effective somehow?

WHT said...

You mention Lance Armstrong and his work for cancer.

Well, how about hopping on a bike? Nobody will believe Lance if he starts claiming he bikes to "reduce energy consumption worldwide", but if we all do...

deffeyesacolyte said...

Dan, Aaron, et al.

Advocacy and social movements require money. With this in mind, I've decided not to keep my knowledge to myself anymore. I've started a blog -
Check it out. I'll do my best to educate. If you guys don't have the money, find people who do and get them working with money managers who know what they're doing.

Dave Lankshear said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dave Lankshear said...

Preventing war and providing a stable marketplace for alternatives (with predictable oil prices) should unite people around the Oil Depletion Protocol. Only by averting war and creating a more stable regime of high oil prices, not massively swinging oil prices on a very market driven "Bumpy Plateau", will give entrepreneurs the key market signals to invest in their alternative energy systems and city plans. If oil was consistently high instead of $150 one quarter and then $70 the next quarter due to demand destruction, we could get somewhere.