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May 4, 2016

Peak Oil: We're Not That Different Pt 2

By Richard Turcotte

It's human nature to seek out information, evidence, opinions, etc, which support positions we've taken on a wide variety of topics. Contentious political and social issues provide glaring examples of this from both the left and right sides of the various debates. Climate change is certainly one of the more noteworthy subjects. The future availability and adequate supply of fossil fuels-oil in particular--is another.


Boston MA sunset
Boston MA sunset
(Image by Richard Turcotte)
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I ended last week's submission on the topic of Confirmation Bias* with these questions:

After all, who among us wants to be wrong about important matters on which we've staked no small amount of credibility?

But what if being wrong about those important matters winds up being the least of our problems?

It's human nature to seek out information, evidence, opinions, etc, which support positions we've taken on a wide variety of topics. Contentious political and social issues provide glaring examples of this from both the left and right sides of the various debates. Climate change is certainly one of the more noteworthy subjects.

The future availability and adequate supply of fossil fuels-oil in particular--is certainly one of those more noteworthy subjects. I'm of the clear opinion that our future energy needs are not going to be based on an endless, forever abundant, affordable, easily accessible fossil-fuel supply. Conventional crude-oil production reached a peak a decade ago, and for all the talk of our recent production increases [current glut and low-price considerations duly noted], there are some serious challenges looming if maintaining that affordable, readily-available, adequate supply is the issue.

I'm not alone, of course. There is an equally vocal, and more prominent contingent on the other side of this debate, claiming we peak-oil proponents are nothing more than doom-and-gloom messengers who've been consistently wrong in predictions.

That's the starting point.

The conflicts arise in part because of what one relies upon to support his or her position. In some instances, there are actual facts in dispute [some shaded to suit one's inclinations, of course]. But in too many other instances--peak oil and climate change among them--one side has a clear tendency to not just restrict the facts relied upon to a select and duly-massaged few; they also completely ignore a more substantial and substantive body of evidence.

Offering statements with an assortment of qualifiers ["if"; "possible"; "could"; "potential", etc] may offer those proponents some assurances that they are essentially correct. But to ignore an entire body of evidence contradicting--or least casting some reasonable doubt--on their staked positions calls into question motivations for disseminating partial truths.

Someone benefits when there's a deliberate failure to present both sides of the issues in dispute. Rarely is it the public seeking information from their preferred sources.

Close behind in the tactics of choice is to either attempt to distract with irrelevancies [past predictions made based on evidence then available does not then make future predictions invalid, especially when considering how often both sides have demonstrated less-than-stellar prediction skills], or intentionally confuse the public with phony straw-man arguments. Relying on an assertion by a fringe spokesperson as then being the foundational point for all positions offered by the opposing side is clever, but who benefits and who does not?

Credible peak-oil proponents regularly acknowledge the boon offered by tight oil/fracking production in recent years, while also pointing out the many evidentiary considerations casting considerable doubt on how much longer we can count on that option [not very is the answer]. Those opposed to the concept of peak oil will offer their phony "running out of oil" argument as the final say in whether or not to believe peak-oil advocates, while managing to address almost none of the facts raised that support our concerns for the future supply.

What's now being produced [by hydraulic fracturing--"fracking"--of tight oil-shale formations] is much more costly; uses tremendous amounts of water; involves the injection of chemicals whose composition is kept secret; requires much more drilling to keep pace with the rapid depletion rates from fracked wells; and is contributing no small amount of infrastructure damage to local communities.

It is a characteristic trait of the conservative personality that they are generally averse to ambiguity, seeking closure on issues as soon as possible. They have much less interest in debating the fine points--not always such a bad thing! But on matters of great importance, simplistic debate strategies carry a host of risks when too many critical facts and considerations (such as those I just listed), are ignored in favor of focusing on one's primary belief.

As Robert Altemeyer observed with more than a bit of sarcasm, in his study on the conservative/authoritarian personality

[A]uthoritarian followers may really mean it when they say no discoveries or facts could change their beliefs about the important things in life....
For them, one sound bite cancels the other, and there really is no difference between a widely-confirmed fact and a speculation, between fifty studies and one.

If the purpose of engaging in a debate over important topics affecting many is to actually discuss the important considerations, the benefits of that narrower approach benefit few. Recognition of that fact and a willingness to consider that the "opposition" actually has a number of valid concerns, legitimate factual evidence, and an honest intent to share important information with a public unaware of the issues would go a long way to having more rational conversations.

More importantly, more of us would benefit from open and honest debate about all of the relevant issues, not just a few cherry-picked one whose motivations are clearly designed to skirt the "open and honest debate" approach.

Good to have some hope.

* Confirmation bias is the tendency of individuals to pay attention to or believe information that confirms the personal values and beliefs they already hold, rather than allowing their beliefs to be changed by new information.

Adapted from a blog post of mine

Submitters Website:

Submitters Bio:

Looking Left and Right: Inspiring Different Ideas, Envisioning Better Tomorrows

I remain a firm believer in late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone's observation that "We all do better when we all do better." That objective might be worth pursuing more diligently."

If we don't look for ways to tamp down the vitriol and intense hatred which members of Left and Right teams freely direct at "the opposition," we will not only foreclose whatever options might still remain to find common ground that moves us all forward. Worse still, we will eliminate both the hopes for and attainment of a better and more peaceful future. We're too close to achieving that empty triumph as it is.

We might not want to acknowledge that we're all in this together, but we are. The sooner we pause for a moment and ask ourselves What Happens Then? if we continue to stoke the white-hot partisan fires, the sooner we realize that sustaining polarization is not in the best interests of anyone.

If we keep doing more of the same partisan same, the answer to What Happens Then? won't be to anyone's liking--not that current antipathy is offering us much. It's actually not contributing anything other than deepening the divide. There will be harsher consequences from doing more of the same.

Aren't we better than that? Shouldn't we want, expect, and deserve more?

There's plenty of blame to go around, of course. But we're no closer to one side winning--whatever that might mean--than we ever have. Partisans on each side might not (or might not want to) believe that, but if Left or Right is counting on Right or Left to concede, a long and painful wait is all that's guaranteed.

Sure as hell we won't experience "better" by doing more of what we're doing now".So I'm hoping to do my part by offering--from my staunchly progressive approach--a different and more meaningful perspective on our conflicted public dialogue. I invite you to join in. Who knows " we just might get to a better place after all!

Richard Turcotte is a retired attorney and former financial adviser (among other professional detours) and now a writer.