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Page added on September 25, 2011

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Kurt Cobb: Ignoring Daniel Yergin

General Ideas

It would be hard for the average person to understand why the vague ramblings of the world’s foremost energy cornucopian, the sweet, smiling, even-tempered Daniel Yergin, could stir up so much antipathy. The typical inhabitant of planet Earth has never even heard of this man and remains blissfully unaware of the dangers of fossil fuel depletion–dangers that Yergin naturally dismisses in his recent piece in The Wall Street Journal.

But back in the rarified realm of the energy-obsessed we find two responses posted under the headline: “Daniel Yergin – Oil Company Whore.” I was expecting some red meat. But the worst that either of the writers of these responses could muster is that Yergin is a “Pulitzer Prize-winning historian” and not particularly well-qualified to assess future oil supplies. In the comments under these pieces (all rebuttals), one commenter calls Yergin “the Alan Greenspan of the oil industry–the guy everyone thinks is a genius…until he is proved disastrously wrong.” It’s an unflattering comparison, but only to those who understand both who Alan Greenspan is and the complex reasoning behind the charge that he is the architect of our current economic troubles.

In truth, upon reading Yergin’s latest missive to the world’s policy elite, I found myself utterly bored. Could this man ever say something that would upset anyone other than a small group of activists who are extremely worried about oil supplies peaking before the end of this decade? I doubt it. He is paid to soothe, and these days so soothing is his writing that it should be placed next to the Sominex on the drugstore shelf.

Certainly, those concerned about how policymakers think about our energy future will feel compelled to respond to this craftily written piece and to Yergin’s newest book–a continuation of his famous history of oil, The Prize, but with a broader focus. Even if the respondents succeed at denting the minds of policymakers, what can they achieve? Wherever the peak oil movement plays at the inside game, it will be at a disadvantage. It is far easier to throw sand in the gears of a representative democracy than it is to get anything done. And, it is far more difficult to get people to prepare for a challenging future of energy stringency than it is to convince them that the future of energy should be entrusted to upbeat experts in suits.

I write all of this to lay out briefly the arena in which this battle of ideas is joined. It is an arena chosen by Daniel Yergin in which he has many preponderant advantages. He may be a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian with no formal geological training, but he’s also the head honcho of the world’s most recognized brand in energy advice, Cambridge Energy Research Associates (now absorbed by IHS). He is a frequent face at Congressional hearings and a man who hobnobs with kings and prime ministers the whole world wide. It is hard to convince anyone at the top levels that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, especially when the world’s major newspapers and broadcast venues give him access usually reserved for high government officials.

No matter how well-reasoned one’s arguments are, as a tactical matter, a head-to-head confrontation in the media with Yergin will be a draw at best, but more likely a loss since reason is not what moves crowds. I agree that the fact that Yergin must now address peak oil explicitly and at length shows that he is actually on the defensive. Before, say, 2005 he wouldn’t have bothered even to mention it. This shows some progress, but not among those who matter most.

There is a vast audience of people out there who, as I said, have never heard of Daniel Yergin, and who have never even heard the words “peak oil.” The elected officials who guide our policy will do little to address peak oil and related issues until voters communicate that these are top priorities that will affect elections. Beyond this there is the issue of encouraging personal preparedness, something that is in large part outside the scope of government policy.

I was involved in discussions about how to respond to Yergin’s long tirade against the peak oil movement. Should the response be point-by-point, or should we just make our case the way we want to? Whether it’s the inside game or a more extensive public education strategy, the answer should be obvious. We should largely ignore Daniel Yergin and find better ways to convey not just the facts about energy, but also model an appropriate emotional counterpoint that will penetrate hearts and minds in ways that Yergin’s sleep-inducing message never will.

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2 Comments on "Kurt Cobb: Ignoring Daniel Yergin"

  1. zoli on Sun, 25th Sep 2011 8:17 pm 

    How to respond to Yergin?
    Simple: People will ignore peak oil, and deny it unless we can come up with a way to tell people that we can still be OK, despite this event.

  2. Harquebus on Tue, 27th Sep 2011 8:54 pm 

    Yergin has done the peak oil cause a favor. Now all we need is a few politicians to deny peak oil.

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