The PEAK OIL symbol.
(Why its use is unsustainable.)



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Posting to Richard Heinberg
Posting to Kelpie Wilson

The Peak Oil symbol is often used by people attempting to communicate the fact that one type of oil - mineral oil - was created in Earth's crust by geological phenomena occurring over eons and it can be regarded as a non-renewable resource. In general they are attempting to alert human kind that the explosion in the human population from 1.5 billion to 6.6 billion people in the last century, which is based on this unique resource, is unsustainable. The resource is rapidly being depleted and as humans lose easy and cheap access to this astonishing resource all systems based on current uses of it will collapse.

The use of the Peak Oil symbol is not based in science. There is no research supporting its use by, for instance, showing that it communicates the issues with the hope required to generate sustainable behaviour. Preliminary analysis suggests its use reflects the origins of the symbol use i.e. people who are geological engineers rather than those with specialist knowledge of symbol use and impact.

As outlined in this letter to Richard Heinberg in response to his article on our depletion of this limited resource the use of the Peak Oil Symbol communicates neither hope nor the current market reality nor links to climatic impacts of combustion, all of which are critical in determining how people respond.

A fundamental fact is that no human can know how much mineral oil is present in the Earth's mantle. We can only act with knowledge on the quality and accessibility of known reserves. In this context the use of the Peak Oil symbol generates nonsense (or non-science).

In summary the symbol use does not resonate in a sustainable way, elucidating, inspiring and connecting issues.

Here is the note to Richard Heinberg. It was first posted on the Alternet on May 20 2008.

Hi Richard from New Zealand

You wrote

 The real problem is summed up in the phrase "Peak Oil."…. . Here is a concise definition of Peak Oil from my colleague Chris Skrebowsi, the editor of Petroleum Review in London. He says: "Global oil production falls when loss of output from countries in decline exceeds gains in output from those that are expanding."


I respectfully disagree with your statement. There are many reasons why the use of the  “Peak Oil” symbol is unsustainable and fails to communicate the issues you allude to.

In brief:

The central issue is our stewardship of the carbon flows and balances of this planet. It is our sense of stewardship that determines the value each person puts on carbon in all its forms.

In terms of behavioural change, the most sustainable change and adaptation occurs when individuals enjoy hope. They enjoy a sense of transition within a framework of viable options.

Hubbert's bell curve of mineral oil resources (on which the Peak Oil concept is based) engenders hopelessness because it frames all the focus on one carbon form – mineral oil. It works to reinforce our addictive use of mineral oil. The bell curve elicits in many people a sense of despair and desperation – the same sense of powerlessness that drug addicts experience as their habit becomes more habituated and the drug supply more difficult to maintain. They are increasingly filled with a sense of the inevitable downhill slide.

The use of the “Peak Oil” symbol also works to confuse the market price of mineral oil with its value. This is an extraordinary resource and the wise person knows its value is many thousands of dollars a 42-gallon barrel. This value can be extrapolated from its food and health producing potential and from a more general calculation that each barrel contains maybe 25000 man-hours of labour equivalent in a very convenient and mobile form. This amounts to a value per barrel of $500,000 if one accepts $20 is a reasonable payment for one hour of heavy labour lifting, pulling, pushing etc. Thus the wise person uses the resource sparingly regardless of whether market traders put a price of $2 or $200 or $2000 on a barrel.

In this context it is clear that the use of the “Peak Oil” symbol fails to have a meaningful relationship with the price of oil. As with drug pushers, the mineral oil traders will manipulate the price so as to maintain and enhance the addictive behaviour of the consumer. In some cases they provide free “hits” to hook people on the habit. Similarly it is common for mineral oil traders in New Zealand to supply cars to burn the product for deposits of $1NZ (about $US0.75. Mineral oil traders also play very influential roles in the media and Governments around the world. In New Zealand current addictive uses of mineral oil are heavily subsidised by all citizens, especially our young, through direct taxes, excess interest charges and inflation.

As mentioned the central issue is our stewardship of carbon. The use of the “Peak Oil” symbol also works to exclude the atmosphere from the combustion equation. Its total focus is on our capacity to extract mineral oil. It communicates little of the vital issues of the relative quality of the remaining reserves or the changing ratio of human beings per barrel of reserves.

For all these and many more reasons the use of the “Peak Oil” symbol is unhelpful. I suggest it is more helpful to use a range of symbols to express the complexity of the situation and sustain hope. These might include use of symbols such as “Cheap Oil/Gas Age”, “passing” “transition” “Great Electric-Solar Age. In short the Cheap Oil/Gas Age has passed for even if we discover we can extract mineral oil and gas for little monetary expenditure the costs of our current uses of it to the atmospheric and biosphere balances that sustain us are very expensive. We are now in transition to the Great Electric-Solar Age in which our children will make sustainable uses of carbon we cannot imagine.

Enjoy hope

 Dave McArthur

 The Sustainability Principle of Energy

“When a symbol use works to deny change it will materially alter the potential of the universe (energy) in a way that results in a reduction in the capacity of the symbol user to mirror reality. When a symbol use works for the acceptance of change it will increase the capacity of the symbol user to mirror reality.”

Have We Really Hit Peak Oil?

By Richard Heinberg, Posted May 20, 2008.

And if we have, we had better prepare to change the way we live.

...It's understandable that our elected leaders would want to do something about the meteoric rise of gasoline, diesel, and heating oil prices that are now bankrupting independent truckers and forcing many folks in colder states to choose between being able to stay warm and being able to drive to work. Yet efforts like the ones just mentioned are based on a profound misperception of why oil prices are rising. The real problem is summed up in the phrase "Peak Oil."

Petroleum is a finite substance and we have reached the inevitable point at which it simply isn't possible to increase the rate at which we extract it from the ground. Most oil producing countries, including the US, have already seen their glory days and are now watching output from their wells gradually dwindle. Only a few nations are early in the production cycle and able to ramp up the rate of flow.

Here is a concise definition of Peak Oil from my colleague Chris Skrebowsi, the editor of Petroleum Review in London. He says: "Global oil production falls when loss of output from countries in decline exceeds gains in output from those that are expanding."


Well, how are we doing? Who's winning, the decliners or expanders?

Link here to rest of Richard's article.

Here is the note  to Kelpie Wilson. It was first posted on Truthout on May 24 2008.

Hi Kelpie

A helpful article – especially the introductory discussion of the power of cognitive dissonance. Lisa says, “Hard truths are hard to talk about as well as hard to absorb”. The truth about the truth is that it is much less easy to live than it is to think and talk about. And we all experience dissonance between our walk and our talk.

Any dissonance we experience is manifest in our use of symbols in whatever form we use e.g. gestures, words, text frames, pictures etc. Thus we get the phenomenon whereby “environmentalists” with their extra sensitivity to the implications of their actions are particularly vulnerable to reflecting dissonance in their choice of symbols. We find those who are most calling for a certain type of change employ symbols that most deny that change.

Take the Energy Bulletin, which you refer to.

 Analysis of its website indicates massive dissonance and confusion. Distilling the content down to the website’s content down so as to extract the authors’ definition of energy we find the principle use of the “energy” symbol is that energy is mineral oil and gas. In other words they make the fatal flaw of confusing energy with a couple of the forms or manifestations it can take. In so doing they frame out and destroy a vast range of insights into the multitude of sustainable options we have of using the potential of the universe(s). The authors also coincidentally adopt the use of the energy symbol promoted by the bankers of the fossil fuel and Bulk-generated electricity sector to serve their short-term interests. In so doing all the Energy Bulletin’s wonderful content is negated and the site works directly against its stated objectives.

 Similarly the evidences massive denial of change.

Its website is framed by the statement “Discussions about energy and our future” and the equally confusing statement by Henry Ford, “Most people spend more time and energy going around problems than in trying to solve them.” Time is just a manifestation or element of energy, a part of the time/space dance of matter.

 My point is that we all experience cognitive dissonance and we cannot avoid our roles as stewards of Earth’s resources, as much as we try to. The inescapable truth is that our lives ARE the models, ARE the communication. The truth of each of us is out via our use of symbols.

Even the current use of the “environment” symbol is revealing. “Environmental writers” commonly use the symbol to portray a world “out there”, thereby obscuring the fact we ARE our environment. This use of the symbol reveals the writer’s fundamental disconnection with the universe and this is projected onto the audience. Dissonance prevails and with that a sense of hopelessness and confusion.

I have on my website a proposal called the Sustainability Principle of Energy which is fundamentally a tool for enhancing our capacity to make sustainable uses of symbols. If we take care with our use of key symbols and conserve their potential then their use will resonate to reshape our lives in more sustainable and meaningful ways.

 In this context I suggest the use of the Peak Oil symbol is unhelpful.  Certainly it is valuable in that it makes very clear that the mineral oil on Earth is a limited resource and does not confuse the mineral with energy, which is as bounteous as the potential of the universe(s). However it fails to communicate a sense of transition to other possible ages beyond the Cheap Oil/Gas Age. This most brief Age of humanity when mineral oil and gas were cheap to extract and we were unaware of the affects of their combustion on the atmospheric balances that sustain us is now past. It is gone. We do have options of other more viable cultures including ones based on the enhanced and more intelligent uses of our electrical, solar and carbon potentials. However for them to become manifest we need to adopt the symbol uses that generate them.

Thank you for your article Kelpie

 Dave McArthur

Peak Oil and Politicians

Saturday 17 May 2008

by: Kelpie Wilson, t r u t h o u t | Environment Editor

" In 1956, M. King Hubbert, a petroleum geologist with Shell Oil, presented a paper to the American Petroleum Institute that predicted US oil production would peak in the early 1970s and then follow a declining curve, now known as Hubbert's curve. But Hubbert almost didn't get to give his paper. He got a call from his bosses at Shell, who asked him to "tone it down." His reply was that there was nothing to tone down. It was just straightforward analysis. He presented the paper, unedited. You can read the whole story here...."

Link here to Kelpie's full article.

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