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Peak oil and the ignorance of crowds

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As our civilization proceeds down the slope of the post-peak-oil curve, global trade will become more and more expensive, so our economies will naturally localize. The energy-efficiency benefits of localized economies are obvious to us, but there are also social and even psycho-social benefits that aren’t often contemplated.

I had the good fortune to work with respected crowd-behavior expert Alan Berkowitz several years ago on a film project about “bystander behavior.” Berkowitz is a psychologist and sociologist who advises, writes, and speaks on bystander behavior, as well as a number of other health and social justice subjects. He founded and edited the Report on Social Norms.

I later interviewed him for my documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. I was curious about why human beings react so irrationally to evidence we are harming our planet and the life support systems on which we depend. “Bystander behavior” or “crowd behavior” theories offer some useful ideas. Berkowitz offers a concise summary in Applications Of Social Norms Theory To Other Health And Social Justice Issues:

Individuals may see that others are not doing anything and assume that there isn’t a problem (social influence), may fear doing something that may cause embarrassment (audience inhibition), or may assume that if they don’t do anything someone else will (diffusion of responsibility).

The phenomenon of “social influence” plays a huge role, in my view. Here’s how it plays out for an ordinary Joe:

One evening Joe sees a film, reads a news report or explores a scientific study that convinces him we are in a global emergency; we are about to drive our civilization off a cliff. The next morning, Joe walks out the door and sees his neighbors carrying on just as they have for the last several years.

As he goes through his day, he is surrounded by people behaving just as they did the day before. Life seems pretty normal. There is no apparent state of emergency. What goes through his head? According to Berkowitz:

“When I don’t see other people doing something, I think, ‘Well maybe it’s not really so bad, its blown out of proportion, because if it was really as bad as you say, someone else would be doing something.”

And so, Joe does nothing, just like the vast majority of people – and for the same reason. This is social influence at work.

Nonetheless, there are many other people around the world, however, who do actually understand that we are in a state of crisis. Many of them are even doing something about it. They are changing the way they live. But they’re spread around the world and therefore pretty invisible to the ordinary Joes out there.

Imagine, however, what will happen as our economies re-localize. Connections will be formed among people who share the same concerns and are similarly motivated. We will be increasingly surrounded by people who are changing their behavior. In such a case, social influence will inspire us to alter our behavior even more.

I’ve experienced this myself, as I’ve engaged more and more in my local Colorado Springs Transition group and in another local group called the Green Cities Coalition. I’ve noted that hanging out with these wonderful folks is changing my own norms. Behavior that might be considered completely normal among a group of stockbrokers (serving food on disposable plates, for example) suddenly becomes embarrassing when you’re mingling with sustainable-living advocates.

Berkowitz explained when I interviewed him:

The presence of other people inhibits the desire to help when there’s confusion about what’s really true for other people. Now let’s take a different situation. Let’s say I grow up in a community where I’m taught very clear values and guidelines about when I’m supposed to help and I know that the other people in my community share my values. We have a well-articulated shared set of values that in this situation we do X. So if you and I are both friends, lifelong friends, we went to high school together, whatever, and we’re driving a car and we see situation X, without even saying anything we’ll both get out of the car and go help because we know that we both share these values that we need to do these things. In this case the presence of other people encourages the desire to help because we have a shared value system.

Who you hang out with can either strengthen sustainable living values or weaken them. I’m not suggesting you avoid groups and friends who don’t share your commitment. In fact, being aware of the power of social influence, you may be able to start raising awareness and shifting values of those groups if you’re clever. Be sure to come back to your tribe frequently for a refill of values affirmation. Then go back out and infect more people with sustainable-living thinking.

Berkowitz offered this observation:

So we live in communities, we’re all walking around feeling unhappy and not allowed to tell each other that we’re all unhappy because we think we’re the only one. So there’s this whole system that maintains … forces us to keep the unhappiness as a secret. Why can’t we admit that we’re good people, we’re trying really hard, we’ve done the right thing and it hasn’t worked? And so we need to rethink some of our fundamental assumptions, like the world isn’t flat, and the sun doesn’t go around the earth and that women are smart enough to exercise the privilege to vote and own property and that the growth paradigm isn’t producing the results it promised us.

As our economies re-localize, our social connections will be reinvigorated, and we’ll find ourselves more and more in touch with others who share our values.

I believe this will serve to accelerate the transition. Many of us are experiencing it already, and we can manage that to our benefit. Hang out with people who reinforce your values and desired behaviors, and invite others in. They may be out there thinking they’re the only ones troubled by what’s going on out there.

Want to know more? This article from Forbes is worthwhile reading on social influence, as is this piece from Scientific American.

This article is based on a piece originally published in Shift magazine.

– Dave Gardner, Transition Voice

18 Comments on "Peak oil and the ignorance of crowds"

  1. paulo1 on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 2:13 pm 

    Interesting take for many of us PO folks who have wearied sounding the alarms of awareness. For me the situation boils down to this. Do you want to live a deliberate and pro-active life making your own decisions, right or wrong? Or, do you want to live a reactive life much like a leaf in a stream, going along and coalescing with the group around you? They have no problems (apparently), then you should have no problems.

    It always reminds me of the classic, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, or the latest similar offering, “Invasion”.

    This is the blessing of the internet and sites like this. Until it becomes unsafe or illegal to do so, it is possible to seek out others and their ideas. When it becomes restricted, as in China and/or one day in the West?, perhaps we will have to search locally.

    (We have to quit meeting like this.) Hah!


  2. Makati1 on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 2:33 pm 

    @paulo 1, that is why they get the name “sheeple”. I once spent 3 months on a sheep ranch in Idaho, helping during the lambing season. I feed about 1,200 sheep and, in between, went into the field to bring in the newborn lambs (slimy, hard to pick up without a handful of grass or hay).

    When I tried to feed the sheep, they would crowd over the trough and I could not get them to move out of the way until I jabbed them with the pitchfork. Then they would just look up at me as if to ask “Do you want something?”. Sheep are stupid, herd animals that will see a neighboring sheep get taken by a wolf and, when the wolf is gone, goes right back to grazing as if nothing had happened. Reminds me of a few people I know.

  3. Davy, Hermann, MO on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 3:54 pm 

    Well, do we want loss of confidence now or later? That is what happens if a significant acknowledgement is made by political leader, respected think tanks, and ultimately most MSM. I think we should wait for a time. The public will go ape shit when they understand the significance. Would you be at all invested in paper assets if you knew the profound implications of this issue. Let those who care research these issues. Many will never understand it anyway. Many will react poorly with bad decision that will affect them and others. We need more time for a multitude of efforts from the bottom up to occur. We need seeds planted to sprout later. We need more research ourselves on the best practices. We need more understanding on possible outcomes of the predicament to the limits of growth in a complex global world reaching diminishing returns stuck in an energy trap. Yet, what is ahead will overwhelm many of these bottom up practices especially now. It is possible with more time we can get a critical mass of initiatives. In any case what is coming cannot be prepared for by more than some localized areas in sweet spots that may allow decent survival prospects. The sheer scale of the population overshoot to our carrying capacity is such that there is a near impossibility to avoid a damaging correction, contraction and or collapse. We are facing the most significant potential bottleneck event man has ever faced since this is global now in an ecosystem that is near collapse.

  4. Northwest Resident on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 4:01 pm 

    When Dave Gardner writes “our economies will naturally localize”, he makes it sound as if we’ll just slide from a global trade-dependent economy to the local economy without missing a beat. While I also believe that localized economies are the wave of the future, getting from where we are now to that point is going to require upheaval on an epic scale. If you’re a starving, panic-stricken average Joe-six-pack looking to “get in touch with others who share your values”, then it is likely to be a panicked mob on the rampage that Joe joins up with. Once we get to the point where local economies are being forced on us by reality, I don’t see a lot of happy endings for the average Joes and Janes in the world, most of whom have lived in utter ignorance of impending doom, are either too old or too fat or too weak (or all the above) to survive outside of the easy life that BAU has provided, and who comprise the vast majority of the population. There is no easy transition to localized economies — to get there, we must pass through the proverbial valley of the shadow of death, and even then, few will make it, IMO.

  5. MSN on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 5:17 pm 

    As our civilization proceeds down the slope of the post-peak-oil curve…


    Imagine your on a ship, you know where you set off from and know the destination, but don’t know the route.

    This is the problem with the collapse prediction, we know what’s coming, we just don’t know how. As we don’t know how we better prep before hand. I agree.

    Let the rest of civilisation crash and die. Survive yourself. Transition voice apparently tries to inform the masses.. sigh. it just means the masses will come to your ‘transition town’ and take anything not pinned down. Then you can all die.

    Either way, please please please don’t think peak oil (max) has happened or is even happening yet. It like the wheels spinning but the hamsters not there. You have no proof or substance to such a claim.
    Being five or fivehundred miles from your destination doesn’t mean you’ve arrived lol.

  6. Northwest Resident on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 5:46 pm 

    “please please please don’t think peak oil (max) has happened or is even happening yet”.

    MSN — Please attempt to dispute what Dr. Richard G. Miller says when he argues that we are already in peak oil — I’d like to see you try:

    Former BP geologist: peak oil is here and it will ‘break economies’

  7. Stilgar Wilcox on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 7:21 pm 

    My view of the human condition differs somewhat. I see most people as automatrons. They simply mimic what they think is expected of them, and without question accept BAU as perpetual. They feel it would be unpatriotic even sacrilegious to ‘independently’ do anything that could be perceived by their peers as non-conforming i.e. rebellious to that ideal.

    People say things like ‘they’ wouldn’t let that happen, or ‘they’ will think of something, demonstrating their allegiance and belief in authority as a deity watching over their automatronic lives.

    When shtf the automatrons will take cue from their peers to panic in the exact same manner.

  8. Stilgar Wilcox on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 7:32 pm 

    Adding to my previous post; it differs from simply viewing a human much like a sheep, from the standpoint they have a sizable brain, but choose to dependently accept rather than independently rebel. The gray matter is there, it’s just been lulled into compliance.

  9. Northwest Resident on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 8:02 pm 

    “The gray matter is there, it’s just been lulled into compliance.”

    Or it has been fried, as in, “This is your brain on drugs.”

    Or it wasn’t enough gray matter to begin with, never capable of soaking up anything more than simple platitudes and emotional one-liners to add to the basic “package”.

    Or it started out with great potential but was fed a steady stream of garbage, resulting in your prototypical GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) scenario.

    So much gray matter, so much that could go wrong with all that gray matter, and so much that HAS gone wrong with it. Stupidity is too often a generational trait, handed down through the ages from father to son, from mother to daughter. We see it all the time…

  10. jimmy on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 8:40 pm 

    I like to think simple. It could be that peak oil is complex confusing issue with lots of contradictory information (that includes math!) that doesn’t really command their attention because they are busy doing things that do command their attention. For most people energy is an invisible part of life. They never see a coal mine or an oil well or any of the messy aspects of energy. Lights come on, cars drive, jet planes fly. That’s just they way the world is. It works so well and so effortlessly that it seems to a birth right. To tell them that it won’t always be that way just seems absurd.

  11. GregT on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 9:27 pm 


    Being angry is a normal reaction, and one of the 5 steps to acceptance.

    Take a deep breath and try to relax. Look at the world around you, and ask yourself; What has changed recently? What caused the ongoing global financial crisis? Why are sovereign nations all going bankrupt at the same time? Why is there so much civil unrest in so many places all at once? Why has the price of oil quadrupled? Why has debt skyrocketed worldwide? Why are people everywhere talking about alternate energy?

    If you answered peak ‘conventional oil’, you are on the road to recovery. If not, keep on searching.

  12. MSN on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 10:08 pm 

    Northwest, I checked out your link.

    He says:
    “We are probably in peak oil today, or at least in the foot-hills”

    I don’t understand the issue here, I am arguing were in the foothills.
    I just think were 20 miles to our destination… as a doomer (not just you) I imagine you think were 5 miles or less to it. Point is… we agree on what’s going to happen, timescale is different (15 miles) but after looking at past predictions (being wrong) and the fact peak oil is ‘always around the corner’ I am thinking maybe we should back up our timescales with reason. Not doomer hope.I happen to believe it will be in three corners time, not one. done.

  13. Northwest Resident on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 10:54 pm 

    MSN — It is the combination of the economic problems and the oil extraction problems we are having today that might make me think we’re a little closer than what you think. Sure, as long as the economy keeps rolling along and is supportive of oil development/extraction projects, we no doubt have enough extractable oil to keep us going that extra 15 miles you mention. But the economy is what is likely to collapse first, and that could happen at just about any time, irregardless of where we are in relation to “peak oil”.

    You wrote: “…please don’t think peak oil … is even happening yet.”

    But it IS, MSN, it IS. Foothills, 5 miles in, 15 miles in, whatever. We are experiencing it right now. I’m glad you agree with that point.

  14. Makati1 on Thu, 27th Feb 2014 1:49 am 

    We are eating our seed corn (built up resources from cheap oil) and the bottom of the barrel is starting to appear. THAT is where I think we are. Only a few more meals away from the end of our wasteful, debt based, lifestyle and into Mother Nature’s reality.

    When? This year? Next? Not more than 5 or 6 years, I would think.

  15. Stilgar Wilcox on Thu, 27th Feb 2014 2:18 am 

    “Or it wasn’t enough gray matter to begin with, never capable of soaking up anything more than simple platitudes and emotional one-liners to add to the basic “package”.”

    Thanks NW for the good chuckle. I like the part about the basic package. LOL. They should have opted for the deluxe package which includes critical thinking. Then maybe duh would have turned into ah ha!

  16. St. Roy on Thu, 27th Feb 2014 12:57 pm 

    @Davy, H. Well said

  17. Sudhir Jatar on Thu, 27th Feb 2014 1:32 pm 

    We have been having our annual conclaves on petroleum. This year was the third when I spoke on peak oil and climate change. This is the first time I found that I had some who openly spoke in my support and I suspect many heard me and appeared to agree!

  18. dashster on Fri, 28th Feb 2014 3:20 am 

    The good news is that if we stop trade the US benefits. “Globalization” has sent US jobs to the third world. The bad news is that if we started returning jobs the elite would call for even more immigration. They would never want the labor market to be in favor of the sellers.

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