Peak Oil and The Sociology of Knowledge
Anyone who wants to drag in the irrational where the lucidity and acuity of reason still must rule by right merely shows that he is afraid to face the mystery at its legitimate place. - Karl Mannheim (1952).
The significance in differences in argument between what Colin Campbell terms the ''flat-earth fraternity'' and Peak Oil theorists is profound.
Flat-earthers typically dismiss arguments that global oil production will peak (very soon) and subsequently decline in favour of arguments claiming that vast reserves of oil exist (somewhere) and can be exploited well into the future thus securing economic growth for decades to come. Other variations from the flat-earthers include such arguments from the smooth transition to a “hydrogen economy” to the bizarre claims in the absence of any knowledge of the laws of thermodynamics, that modern supply-side economic theory combined with technology will somehow magically produce oil or some cheaper more efficient alternative to the dictates of market demand.
Peak oil’s empirically based claims can countenance no such sociological or economically arational challenges. It seems today for all purposes that there is little or no spare oil production capacity world wide, we currently produce about 83 Million barrels per day. Yet in today’s “deficits don’t matter” world everything but everything is blamed for oil supply concern except geological limitations.
Continued economic growth predicated by cheap and abundant oil viewed through the perspective of such an inherently flawed argument seems to ignore all prejudiced, obscurantist and irrational baggage. Upbeat claims regarding abundant oil by Oil companies, OPEC, Governments, the International Energy Agency, and Automobile Associations amongst others obtain a legitimacy, which obviates the need to look at the social milieu for an explanation as to what is actually going on.
History however clearly instructs us that rationality (or in this case the lack thereof), choice and belief inevitably depend upon the existence of certain social structures and norms. Beliefs across groups of people can emerge under specific intellectual conditions informed by empirical problems and guided by respected research traditions. Such a methodology unfortunately rarely speaks to the social classes chock-full of pregnant confusion, largely ignorant to dynamics of energy supply, consumption and its relationship with societal well being. In other words, the masses will suck up mainstream media propaganda that we need to rid the world of terrorists and that oil will return to US$25 per barrel very soon. Continue your recreational shopping at your pleasure.
In many ways it is perhaps an historical curiosity that science was touted as having enormous practical and utilitarian value in informing and inevitably improving the physical conditions of life. This approach however in the face of mass consumption, aspirations and expectations of certain standards of living seems to carry no weight anymore. Instead many of us look to economists, politicians and other soothsayers to assure us that the science in regard to Peak Oil is wrong, if you want to know what’s happening to oil supply you’re better off reading your local Financial Times than consulting an oil geologist. The fact that oil reserves equivalent to five or so Saudi Arabias will be discovered and developed within a decade or so and that the oil price per barrel will return sometime soon to US$25 dollars per barrel are a given.
PowerLess NZ urge New Zealanders and politicians unafraid of ditching their dogmas to rationally question current assumptions. Consider our economic system, predicated on debt, fractional-reserve banking and fiat currency. Much of what we consider “value” in New Zealand is not determined by anything at all measurable or tangible it is merely a perception of an expectation of future use or gain.
This system is necessarily dependant upon limitless infinite growth to survive. Rational thought ought to inform all of us that this scenario is an impossibility theorem. Growth is not possible without energy and there is nothing on the market that can currently replace oil and natural gas. Without oil and natural gas our financial system is doomed. Several respected independent scientific sources predict Peak Oil, the time at which the demand for oil exceeds the available supply, to occur between 2005 and 2007. Richard Heinberg argues the answer to this dilemma is the one no one wants to hear. So we sit, and wait, and assume, and deny.
Steve McKinlay for
2 February 2005
PowerLess NZ is a growing group of scientists, energy analysts and concerned citizens whose principle objectives are to alert both Government and the general public to New Zealand’s looming energy crisis. Our aim is to support development of renewable energy resources at both a private and public level, as well as encourage a firm move away from dependence upon fossil fuels.
More information about global peak oil and resource depletion can be found at
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