Should national governments make contingency plans in case of peaking oil? In a recent report of an interview he did with Fatih Birol, head of the IEA, the journalist George Monbiot appears shocked there is no such plan for the UK. Why?
In about 1973 you could collect three vouchers from the side of a cornflakes packet and send off for a little plastic model of a North Sea oil rig. For a child, this was the brave new frontier, the UK’s answer to the space program. It was exciting. And even then it was common knowledge we had ’30 years’ of oil so there was no need to worry about the future. Since then, we’ve always had ’30 years of oil’ because most policy makers saw this not as a prediction about reality but merely as code for ‘not on the policy radar, ever’. Then (after 30 years, note) North Sea oil began its steep and irreversable decline and policy makers were actually surprised.
Unfortunately for Reason with a capital R, humans don’t look at the facts and then decide what is going on. Instead we collect and filter data on the basis of preconceived notions of what must surely be going on. Egalitarians such as George Monbiot generally believe things must be running out and our options are narrowing. The by-line to the article says he was ‘shocked and alarmed’. He would be – it’s in the egalitarian job description. In contrast, Individualists are quite sure they know that there are limitless opportunities just waiting to be unlocked by human ingenuity and that all talk of scarcity is defeatist nonsense. Then there are the Hierarchists and the Fatalists who have their own take on the argument. These four poles are the four ‘cultural biases’ of grid-group cultural theory. An understanding of this goes a long way towards making sense of the way issues such as peak oil and global warming are such a lightning rod for debates about how society ought to be organised. A great primer on the basics of grid-group is Christopher Hood’s The Art of the State (1998), and the FourCultures blog looks at the world through a grid-group lens.
At the very least, this approach helps us recognise that we’re not really debating how much oil there is. We’re really promoting conflicting visions of social organisation, and using oil (or carbon dioxode, or whatever) as the pretext.
Economist Peter Leeson has a new book coming out about the economics of piracy in the late 16th and early 17th century ‘golden age’. He uses piracy as a test case for the claim that rational choice economics is what motivates much of human behaviour. In an article on the same subject, he writes:
‘“Pirational choice” differs from rational choice only in that it deals with rationally self-interested decision making in the uniquely piratical context.’ (Leeson, 36)
The Murdoch rearguard action against climate change science just won’t die, although these days it tends to be confined to the opinion section of the newspapers, rather than counting as ‘news’. In today’s Sydney Telegraph, columnist Piers Ackerman gives another outing to his argument that climate change is natural (and, since you ask, probably isn’t happening anyway). He blames the state-run ABC media and the Fairfax press for perpetuating the myth. Which is slightly ironic, since in today’s Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax owned) columnist Miranda Devine writes almost the same article excoriating the ‘church’ of climate change ‘fundamentalists’ and promoting the same climate sceptic, who happens to have a new book out this month, Adelaide University professor Ian Plimer.
Paralleling Devine’s use of religious metaphor, Ackerman sees climate change as a kind of ‘religion’, which is not to be questioned, and has its own orthodoxy and its own high priest in Al Gore.
This is hardly a new line of argument, and it still doesn’t look like dying away any time soon, so what’s going on here?
British Journalist George Monbiot has been writing a number of pieces about a TV ‘documentary’ which supposedly tried to debunk climate change by doctoring statistics and misrepresenting interviewees. Certainly it was one of the most mendacious things I’ve seen on TV, right up there with ads for shampoo that cures dandruff. Monbiot seems to think this kind of thing plays well because, as he puts it,
“We want to be misled, we crave it; and we will bend our minds into whatever shape they need to take in order not to face our brutal truths”.
I think he’s completely wrong on this. We are not self-deceiving in this way, and we are not living in ‘the age of stupid‘ as a film with a similar theory put it (although I look forward to seeing the movie). Well, not with global warming, anyway. Dandruff may be another matter. I’ll explain.