04 January 2010

Peak Oil Doom Can be Useful, Even if Not True

The concept of "Peak Oil Doom" is alive and viral in the blogosphere and on the conspiracy theory circuit. Although Al Fin thinks the doomers of peak oil are wrong on most of their assumptions, he understands that the concept of peak oil can be useful well beyond the trivial truth of a finite planet. Take this recent posting from peak oil doomer Jim Kuntsler (via In Mala Fide)
The great muddlement out there, this inability to form a coherent consensus about what's happening, is especially frightening when, as is the case today, even the intelligent elites appear clueless or patently dishonest, in any case unreliable, in their relations with reality. President Obama, for instance - a charming, articulate man, with a winning smile, pectorals like Kansas City strip steaks, and a mandate for "change" - who speaks incessantly and implausibly of "the recovery" when all the economic vital signs tell a different story except for some obviously manipulated stock market indexes. You hear this enough times and you can't help but regard it as lying, and even if it is lying ostensibly for the good of the nation, it is still lying about what is actually going on and does much harm to the project of building a coherent consensus. I submit that we would benefit more if we acknowledged what is really happening to us because only that will allow us to respond intelligently. _Kuntsler
Peak Oil doomers appeal to an innate sense of scarcity that most humans appear to possess. The message of peak oil doom penetrates deeply into the emotions, where meaningful action often originates. In the article above, Kuntsler properly describes President Obama as someone who is not trustworthy. To a doomer, any person who fails to speak doom incessantly (and implausibly?) is not worthy of trust.

In this case, the lack of trust in Obama may be for an inaccurate reason, but lack of trust is the proper attitude to take toward Obama nevertheless.

The same logic applies to survival prepping. Peak Oil doomers are able to convince a lot of people of the importance of prepping for surviving the severe economic downturn that is supposed to occur alongside peak oil. But even if peak oil doesn't happen, or is not associated with the severe economic downturn predicted, it is still good for people to be prepared for disasters and catastrophes -- many of which cannot be timed or predicted.

In fact, wisdom often arrives in strange and unlikely packages. Humans think in metaphors, narratives, and paradigms -- all of which are probably wrong at some level. But the failures of a narrative, metaphor, or paradigm do not make these crude roadmaps useless to us. We muddle on regardless of the lack of precision in our thinking -- or perhaps partly because of it.

As absurd as the modern peak oil movement may appear to those who are willing and able to look deeper into the underlying dynamics, the prolific and profit-taking doomers involved at the head of Peak Oil doom may be providing a useful service.

The same reasoning applies to religion, as viewed by a thoughtful atheo-agnostic such as Al Fin. Non-violent religions such as modern Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism etc. are based upon many fallacies. Yet they serve a useful purpose among large masses of people, in providing a focus for the spiritual and moral life of the individual. Shared religious beliefs provide a societal cohesion, and a useful moral level of interaction separate from the state's legal apparatus.

Humans are incapable of visualising n-dimensional space, or quantum mechanical phenomena, among a large number of other scientific concepts. Yet a large number of useful -- but imperfect -- analogies and metaphors are used in science education which allow the student to progress to a deeper understanding than he would otherwise have had.

In fact, our entire lives are made up of these useful but imperfect metaphors. No matter how deeply you may try to follow them, you will eventually lose the metaphorical chain at or before the point where the verbal becomes pre-verbal. Understanding pre-verbal metaphors is beyond most students of psychology.

So, if the very essence of human existence rests upon a house of slippery metaphors, who are we to deny the usefulness of metaphors such as Peak Oil Doom, which may have a large number of huge garage-sized holes in them? Perhaps instead we should begin to focus on the useful aspects of the ocean of faulty metaphors that we float upon. Well -- as much as we can.


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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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