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Page added on June 10, 2010

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Criticism of the New York Times Peak Oil Story

Criticism of the New York Times Peak Oil Story thumbnail

I gained a valuable insight from the recent New York Times article about Peak Oil and the Transition Movement [“Imagining Life Without Oil, and Being Ready,” by John Leland, June 5, 2010], but this was not insight about the subject matter itself. What I learned was that even in a time of a great oil-caused environmental catastrophe, even the New York Times cannot address these crucial issues head-on, but only by embedding them in a personal interest story about a vaguely kooky and self-deprecating “doomer” who’s latest “obsession” has mainly managed, it appears, to annoy her co-workers and alienate her husband.

About the actual issue of Peak Oil, we hear a single paragraph summary of–or rather reference to–one peak oil skeptic, and no analysis whatsoever about the basic facts of world or US energy usage, no documentation about world oil supplies, and not even the most rudimentary math about how the two issues may converge in the future.

The rest of the article provides some surface-level cultural comparison, some glimpses into the thoughts of another “doomer” or two–people, the article implies, who have been skipping from one doomsday scenario to the next—as well as a list of some scary sounding books, unaccompanied by discussion of their actual content or the specificity of their research. Even though the mention of a congressional caucus lends some credibility to Peak Oil, the story leaned towards dismissive and patronizing. It did not make any serious attempt to inform the reader about real challenges we face. Like most reporting on any of the more abstract and long-ranging issues having to do with fossil fuels, the principle purpose of the Times, it seems, was to provide a measure of reassurance, in this case by dint of contrast. Is this the direction that the editors of the Times have decided to take as the door to analysis and reflection has been opened by the starkly concrete devastation in the Gulf?

What the article might instead have highlighted is the fact that the world consumes 85 million barrels of oil a day, a number which many oil geologists believe to be the peak amount of oil the world will ever be able to produce, regardless of universally projected increases in demand. It might have discussed the way the rise, peak, and decline of production for individual wells, nations (64 of which have already reached their peak), and regions provides a model for the way the world’s oil production is likely to peak and decline. It might have noted that the conservative International Energy Agency recently concurred with the basic Peak Oil model. It might have mentioned that a report authorized by the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US military recently predicts that Peak Oil is likely to occur by 2012 and that by as early as 2015 the world may be suffering from a shortfall of 10 million barrels a day. It might also have provided some commentary about what the likely fallouts from such a shortage could be, including economic and political disruption. But it didn’t. Far better to paint a light-hearted portrait of some canned food hoarding worry-warts.

In the context of the likely and impeding peak and decline of world oil production, a serious article might also mention the fact that a mere 1% of our current energy needs are met by wind and solar, and that the most optimistic projection for the growth in renewable energy neither meets the likely increase in energy demands nor compensates for a likely drop-off in oil availability, not to mention both. These numbers are readily available from reliable government and industry websites and the arithmetic necessary to provide some basic energy information to the New York Times’ readership is well within the capabilities of any of its reporters or editors.

Were it to start with this sort of background information, the Times might then have searched for some organization that had attempted to comprehend the world’s overall energy situation; it might have looked for a movement that had developed an intellectual framework and an actual plan that responded to this basic information. It might have noted that nearly all alternative energy plans or programs for environmental conservancy are either significantly vague or depend on hopeful, yet fully unrealized technological leaps, but that in contrast the Transition Movement suffers from neither of these debilitating lapses.

For the Transition Movement is not a random gathering of tree-hugging “doomers” playing survivalist. We are a group of educated, committed, and knowledgeable citizens who are working to cut our individual dependence on fossil-fuels without unrealistic faith in unrealized renewable energy programs. We are taking these individual efforts and joining together in local communities to help others decrease their dependence on fossil fuels. Most significantly, we are beginning the difficult work of establishing larger (yet still local) strategies, plans, models, and skills to help our communities wean themselves from oil and other greenhouse-gas creating energy sources.

This would have made for an interesting story. For the flimsy and predictable caricatures found in the Times article notwithstanding, the Transition Movement is unique in its approach. Unlike most environmental movements, which are most likely to ask for little more than checks and signatures from their members, the Transition Movement realizes that we need to rework our entire food, transportation, and housing infrastructures and that in the absence of real government leadership at this point, we need to start this work ourselves. The fact that an end of cheap oil will also spell an end of the effortless global transportation of goods and services means that in a post oil age, localism will become increasingly important. The lack of federal or state leadership, therefore, is in some ways an asset, as grassroots community change may precipitate a more resilient sense of local independence and self-sufficiency. But unlike survivalist groups, Transition is not about dropping out our running for the hills. It is about community transformation and transitioning.

This sort of community effort leads to tremendous hope and joy, and a sense of growing momentum. In Transition, we are confident and optimistic as we see the results of our efforts to increase the number of community gardens, our creation of small-scale energy cooperatives, and our support for strengthened local economies. But members of the Transition Movement do not believe that the challenges we face will be simple to overcome. There is not a flaky or dreamy sense that we can simply rewrite local energy policy, or actualize in our communities a post oil infrastructure by the mere virtue of the collective enthusiasm of our local grassroots efforts. We acknowledge the difficulty; we understand the degree to which industrial society is not only addicted to oil and other fossil fuels, but the extent of its collective denial about our energy supplies as well as the consequences of an energy shortage or oil price spike.

But because of our careful study of issues of energy and the economy, politics and the environment, we have elaborated a detailed and thoughtful view on what a successful post-oil energy descent strategy might look like; and because we see very little action in this direction, we have no choice but to begin working on its implementation in any way we can, with hope and cautious faith in the momentum that our models and examples of joyful resilience might help build. In the face of Peak Oil, we believe that collective genius and ingenuity, our resolve and commitment, and the potential strength of our communities remain far from their peak. We believe that this sort of emphasis on community will not just help us survive; they might allow us to truly thrive.

Transition Milwaukee




2 Comments on "Criticism of the New York Times Peak Oil Story"

  1. Jessica Maday on Thu, 10th Jun 2010 11:11 pm 

    You make it sound as if it takes months of study to come to the conclusion of Peak Oil. I learned it in my 8th grade physical science class when they taught me oil is a non-renewal resource. Kind of hard to miss the fact non-renewal means its gonna run out. And as for how dependent our food system is on oil, anyone looking around in the grocery store can figure that out. I live in Washington State and last time I checked oranges and bananas are not indigenous to my area. Thanks for pumping up my ego because I acknowledge the reality of Peak Oil, but dude it doesn’t take a rocket science to figure it out.

  2. Edpeak on Sat, 12th Jun 2010 10:56 am 

    “Kind of hard to miss the fact non-renewal means its gonna run out. ”

    Running out is not the same as peak oil. Peak is about maximal extraction rates.

    Also if ALL you know is that oil will peak, then you don’t know whether it’s peaking in 400 years or “right about now”

    So no, your 8th grade science teacher, while they did a GOOD thing telling you that it’s non-renewable, did not by that sentence tell you that oil will peak, much less that it will peak in a time-frame requiring urgent action.

    NEW YORK TIMES pieces making environmetnalists, hippies, peak-oil concerned folks, etc, look bad? Par for the course. We need to build grassroots democratic alteratnatives to investory-owned, advertiser-funded, Corporate media…meanwhile, since that will take a while, yeah, we gotta work on minimizing how MUCH their mainstream stories misrepresent the truth, and can at least reduce the amount of disinformation, to a smaller amount of disinformation from the likes of the NY Times