Monday, February 02, 2009

Peak oil: a symptom, not a cause

Is peak oil--the inexorable decline in global oil production--a cause of our troubles, or merely a symptom of a deeper cause? I think it's the latter.

What is the ultimate cause of our troubles? In my opinion, it is the hierarchal nature of our society. As I discussed in my essay, The Problem of Growth, a terrain consisting of competing hierarchal structure requires that these structures continually work to grow and intensify; the resulting symptom of a requirement for perpetual growth drives both our increasing consumption of non-renewable resources and our FIRE-bubble economy (Finance, Investment, and Real Estate); peak oil, in turn, is a symptom of our non-sustainable use of resources.

There is a temptation to say that the financial crisis has debunked peak oil theory, that the financial crisis delayed the peaking of oil production (or is somehow masking it), that the financial crisis was caused by peak oil, etc. In my opinion, it's much more accurate and informative to point out that both the financial crisis and peak oil are symptoms of a deeper cause, and that this cause--the fundamental structure of our society--is really what must be addressed. The corollary, of course, is that we can't solve the financial crisis or peak oil because they are symptoms, not causes. Instead, we must search for ways to address our fundamental mode of organization...

It's worth noting that some people disagree with my assertion that our civilization's drive for perpetual growth is caused by our hierarchal mode of organization. I'm not intending to defend this logical leap here (see The Problem of Growth for an initial explanation, but I fully admit the theory needs more work). Even if I'm wrong, that still doesn't make the financial crisis or peak oil causes in and of themselves--they are still the symptom of our civilization's drive for perpetual growth (whatever it's ultimate cause may be), and therefore they are the wrong level at which to attack the problems they cause.

First principles: we need to identify the cause to our problem before we can effectively address it (I'm avoiding "solve" here because that suggests some singular, univerally-agreed objective). Our civilization's drive to growth is, again, only a symptom. What is its cause? This, I think, is the key question confronting humanity at present. I may be right that it is our overemphasis of hierarchal structure--and I'll make that argument in more depth in the coming weeks. However, if I'm wrong, that doesn't change the principle that we must identify the root cause in order to rationally proceed...


sudeep bhaumick said...


am not sure if you are aware of a blog called...

in my opinion he seems to have hit the correct spot. the limits of human sapience. you might or might not agree with him on other issues but do give the series on sapince a read. you might just like it.

Eadwacer said...

One of the issues you might address is the fact that systems are naturally hierarchical. One definiton of a system talks about viewing it at one level (A) as a collection of interacting entities, and at another, higher, level (B) as a single entitiy with emergent properties. The point being that a collection of (B) level entities can now interact, and so on all the way up. There is a tendency for systems to become more complex over time, by increasing the levels of interaction. I know this is different from the imposed heirarchy you are talking about, but it's a little difficlut to tell through observation which is which.

Nick Vail said...

Good stuff, Jeff.

I like your analysis...the methodology is quite Buddhist actually (Suffering being the symptom, perpetually clinging to a cognitively dissonant, "independent and permanent" sense of self being the underlying cause).

In this case of identifying perpetual growth as an underlying cause, one axiomatic misconception it is based on would be the single-minded pursuit of the accumulation of material wealth. This implies a deep-seated belief that "happiness" may somehow be attained and maintained by amassing seemingly external objects.

This fallacy leads directly to greed, envy, jealousy, desire, anger, and violence.

If one is able to find genuine contentment with what one already has, especially in a non-material way of appreciating the world and those who live in it (we are all inter-connected), that is the basis for a sustainable and meaningful way of live.

If one is able to skillfully make use of the resources one finds, with altruism and expanded thinking, then the benefits to self and others are limitless.

On the other hand, just getting more and more to try and fill some psychological hole is problematic enough, but then trying to maintain and guard it is a whole other mess.

To illustrate this, a famous Indian sage, Shantideva (7th century CE), once said (and I paraphrase):

If one wants to walk the world, and minimize harm to their feet, what do they do? Cover the earth with leather? No. That is both impossible and delusional.

Instead, one can wrap one's feet in leather, and it is as if the whole world was.

This relates to your post, in that, as a society, if instead of trying to pave over the world to make it easier to get what we think we want (more and cheaper), we actually learn about interdependence and sustainable living, and cultivate appreciation for how our living system functions, with us as a part of it, and genuinely find contentment in what we already have, inside, then that would address the root cause of poverty mentality that seems to be the engine of problem of perpetual (obsessive-compulsive) growth.

Wilton Vought said...

A relevant video on Peak Oil:

SystemicPlural said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SystemicPlural said...

Hi Jeff,
I like the general theme of this post and agree with you that it is a symptom.

I think that the ultimate cause is evolution because the nature of the way we organise is a result of our psychology which is a result of our brains evolution.

Therefore the solution is out wit evolution. Hmm, hard task that.

Maybe we could side step it though by using different aspects of our psychology that have also evolved.

I see most of the problems in the current economic/political systems as a result of too much emphasis on incenitvising greed and not enough on cooperation. We need to rework the system a little with this in mind. The steady state economy by Herman Daly would be a good starting point.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, I agree with your analysis completely. It's the classic petri dish situation. Continual growth eventually goes to infinity! I don't know why some people insist that humans are excempt. I guess it's like Noam Chomsky says, "some things that are so obvious it takes a great education to miss it!"

Anonymous said...

I have often wondered about a related question: how do you make oil an inferior good, i.e. a good that declines in use with a rise in income. What can society find that is "better" than oil? For instance, cars made horses an inferior good for transportation. What will make oil an inferior good?

I appreciate your start, and look forward to your analysis.

Tom L

Jeff Vail said...

Well, I suppose there's always the possibility of something that will render oil an inferior good. It may or may not be something that we can conceive of at present. Fusion power of some sort seems like a possible candidate, as would some form of super-efficient, very-high-net-energy photovoltaic. However, both of these would need to provide an EROEI of 50:1 or more, in my opinion, to make them superior to oil when you account for the related resource limiations of rare-earth metals needed for batteries and other transmission and storage infrastructure costs.

I certainly don't see that happening, but I'm trying to carefully avoid any faith-based proclamation that it's impossible!

mallow said...

Opposition to hierarchy in any form is central to anarchist thought. It's good to have company. Systems per se are not naturally hierarchical and it's got nothing to do with evolution. We evolved to cooperate.

Big Gav said...

The question of why we strive for growth is an interesting one.

My guess - until everyone has reached a certain level of prosperity (ie. decent housing, transport, clothing, education, entertainment + recreation facilities etc) then society as a whole will strive to produce these things (pretty much regardless of what political system they are living under).

Where this doesn't occur, political instability (or repression) is the likely result - so the endless search by elites for stability means that growth becomes a way of maintaining the existing hierarchy.

Population growth is an additional factor which further prompts the need for growth.

Now - assuming we can eventually supply everyone's material needs (preferably in a sustainable way - which means renewable energy sources and high levels of recycling via acradle-to-cradle manufacturing system) and stabilise the population (which is actually a function of achieving the first goal - prosperous societies where women have economic freedom and access to contraception and education strongly tend to low - or negative - population growth), then the need for growth slowly disappears.

If I'm correct about this, it doesn't really matter if we have a hierarchy in society or not - the driver for growth vanishes.

Jeff Vail said...


I agree with your basic theory, but I don't have much confidence that such a universally "satisfied" society is possible.

First, I think there is solid evidence that our definition of "prosperity" is a relative one, and that we are satisfied by having more than others, not by having some empirical "enough." If this is true, then we cannot achieve universal prosperity by definition.

Second, if there is some empirical level of "prosperity" that would at least dampen this drive to growth, I question whether it is possible for this to exist universally. I think the wealth and prosperity of the world's rich remains, as it has for millenia, supported by the base-of-the-pyramid of poor and exploited peoples. Is this a necessity? I don't know, but I thik there is at least a strong argument that it is.

This is why I think we need to address our organizational structure. I think that, to remove the need for growth, we need to learn to strive for sufficiency per se, rather than as a relative measure, and that we need to be able to sustain this status without depending on some distant class of poor and exploited people or territory.

Is it possible to achieve a stable, sustainable society without addressing hierarchy? Quite possibly, but I worry that it's a bit like planning to achieve world peace by getting everyone to just stop fighting--solid in theory, impossible in implementation...

arkham618 said...

The best theory of the psychosocial underpinnings of the "perpetual growth" meme that I've encountered can be found here:

Superficially, perpetual growth is necessitated by interest-bearing money, but the text posits that such a monetary system is itself the product of a mechanistic, reductionist metaphysics (i.e., Cartesianism) that conceives the universe as a lifeless amalgamation of discrete particles. The connection may not seem immediately intuitive, but it is drawn out in great detail by the author.

SystemicPlural said...

I agree with Gav but for different reasons.

It is not so much that we will reach a level where everyone has what they need, but such a level that the majority realize that there is more to life than material possession. Swinging the pendulum of human values back towards community values. This evolution happens for two reasons.

Firstly,in order for us to respond adequately to the failing resource stream (peak oil) and the abused waste stream (global warming), which have been caused by our current values, we by necessity need to think about the world in a different way. We already know what that looks like in individuals. (Relativistic, pluralistic and peer driven.)

Second, human values have been evolving for a long time and one consistent vector is a constantly increasing degree of behavioral freedom. Moving to relativistic community values is a step up.

It is either that or we fall back to older, fundamentalist community values; hello hitler.

Values psychology;Check out for source.

Wesley A King said...

I would suggest looking into the work of the late Murray Bookchin, while he did not speak much to the topic of peak oil he did write about a system based on perpetual growth being an outgrowth and symptom of hierarchical society the book where he lays out his grand thesis on hierarchy is the Ecology of Freedom. Another author who often debated Bookchin that would be worth reading is Joel Kovel. Both authors are what you would call socialists and anti-capitalists. I encourage you look into their works because what you have said about the finacial crisis and peak oil being symptoms of the underlying system of organization and production has been something socialists and anti-capitalist have been talking about for the last 20 years.

Karl said...

Our civilization's drive to growth is a big part of our purpose, and not a symptom of disorder. Oil is our inheritance, an inheritance that needs to be invested in technologies that enable the release of energy on the order necessary for colonization of the stars. I liken our species to a fetus. A fetus doesn't aim toward sustainable development within the placenta.

Contemplation of one's naval should be a choice for individual human beings, not the only thing left for humanity to do.

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