Monbiot: ‘wrong on Peak Oil’

Oh dear. It’s always sad to see a scourge of big business being an unwitting mouthpiece for the same big business. This is a quick response to George Monbiot’s latest Guardian article ‘We were wrong on Peak Oil’.

Firstly – the title. Monbiot says ‘we’, but he’s always been on the sceptical side of the Peak Oil discussion, as he is much more concerned about global warming. For me it’s the other way around – I think the science is demonstrably stronger for Peak Oil than for global warming (to be precise: than for Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming – CAGW) to the extent that the real world is living out what Peakists predicted, but not what CAGWists predicted…but I’ll come on to that.

The facts have changed, now we must change too. For the past 10 years an unlikely coalition of geologists, oil drillers, bankers, military strategists and environmentalists has been warning that peak oil – the decline of global supplies – is just around the corner. We had some strong reasons for doing so: production had slowed, the price had risen sharply, depletion was widespread and appeared to be escalating. The first of the great resource crunches seemed about to strike.

OK, good first sentence, agree with that.
It’s been around for much longer than ten years – as Monbiot accepts later on.
The reasons for this, however, are not primarily the ones that Monbiot lists – indeed, the fact that he thinks Peak Oil is adequately justified for these shallow reasons simply indicates his failure to engage with the fundamentals. Peak Oil is the observation (not a theory) that every oil field ever discovered is finite; further, the flow of oil from almost every oil field rises and declines; and that there are only a certain number of oil fields available in a finite world – so therefore the flow of oil available to the world will itself rise and decline. It’s extremely simple, and has been observed repeatedly in a wide variety of locations. The overwhelming majority of oil-producing countries in the world have passed their own local peaks. I could go on…
The first of the great resource crunches has struck – how else to describe the increase in the cost of oil by an order of magnitude? In the 1990’s oil was hovering between $10 and $15 a barrel – it has now ‘come down’ to around $100 a barrel from a peak of near $150. Clearly this is because Peak Oil is not a problem…Peak Oil might be simply summarised as ‘first it gets expensive, then it gets scarce’. We have emphatically reached the first phase.

Among environmentalists it was never clear, even to ourselves, whether or not we wanted it to happen. It had the potential both to shock the world into economic transformation, averting future catastrophes, and to generate catastrophes of its own, including a shift into even more damaging technologies, such as biofuels and petrol made from coal. Even so, peak oil was a powerful lever. Governments, businesses and voters who seemed impervious to the moral case for cutting the use of fossil fuels might, we hoped, respond to the economic case.

Oh George…’wanted it to happen’. One of the things about Peak Oil is that our wants don’t have a very great deal to do with it. Reality is non-negotiable – and it seems straightforward to me that we are indeed living through a situation that has shocked the world into economic transformation (yes, finance is a major aspect – see The Automatic Earth – but as James Hamilton has demonstrated, the oil price triggers recessions).
As for governments responding… who is to say they haven’t been?

Some of us made vague predictions, others were more specific. In all cases we were wrong. In 1975 MK Hubbert, a geoscientist working for Shell who had correctly predicted the decline in US oil production, suggested that global supplies could peak in 1995. In 1997 the petroleum geologist Colin Campbell estimated that it would happen before 2010. In 2003 the geophysicist Kenneth Deffeyes said he was “99% confident” that peak oil would occur in 2004. In 2004, the Texas tycoon T Boone Pickens predicted that “never again will we pump more than 82m barrels” per day of liquid fuels. (Average daily supply in May 2012 was 91m.) In 2005 the investment banker Matthew Simmons maintained that “Saudi Arabia … cannot materially grow its oil production”. (Since then its output has risen from 9m barrels a day to 10m, and it has another 1.5m in spare capacity.)

Good, some specifics.
Hubbert’s prediction was based on business continuing as usual – and the OPEC crisis of the 1970’s, which caused a drop in oil production – ie it left the oil in the ground – simply delayed things for ten years. So far his prediction is holding up pretty well (as, it could well be argued, are those of Campbell, Deffeyes and even Pickens).
The key claim in Monbiot’s article, however, is this: ‘average daily supply in May 2012 was 91m’. This is what is called ‘all liquids’ production – and this is not what Peak Oil is about (see discussion here looking at the US). For example, ‘all liquids’ includes ethanol production – you know George, it’s that stuff which Obama subsidises in order to transfer food from the third world into the petrol tanks of his target voters. Ethanol is not just evil, it is also a waste of energy (it uses up more energy to make it than you get out of it, in the US). To include ethanol – and bio-fuels, and even tar sands (slightly more debatable) – in discussions of Peak Oil is simply to confuse the issue, and, again, betrays a lack of understanding of the fundamentals. If we use the baseline consistent measure – called ‘crude and condensate’ – then we get a very different picture. Since 2005 production of C&C has remained stuck on a plateau of approximately 74 million barrels a day – and this despite the vast fortunes that are now being made for any new supplies that are coming on stream.

(Source: Stuart Staniford and see his commentary on it)

Now, as it happens, I think it perfectly possible that there will be another minor uptick in C&C production – perhaps we will get up to, say 76 mbpd (if that happens it’ll be because more is coming through from Iraq) – but any calm assessment of the numbers can only lead to the conclusion that we are currently at the top of the fairground ride, and that the only significant likely move is going to be downwards from now on. How steep that ride down becomes is the only interesting – and frightening – question.
Lastly on this paragraph, Matt Simmons was right (emphasis upon the ‘materially’).

Peak oil hasn’t happened, and it’s unlikely to happen for a very long time. A report by the oil executive Leonardo Maugeri, published by Harvard University, provides compelling evidence that a new oil boom has begun. The constraints on oil supply over the past 10 years appear to have had more to do with money than geology. The low prices before 2003 had discouraged investors from developing difficult fields. The high prices of the past few years have changed that. Maugeri’s analysis of projects in 23 countries suggests that global oil supplies are likely to rise by a net 17m barrels per day (to 110m) by 2020. This, he says, is “the largest potential addition to the world’s oil supply capacity since the 1980s”. The investments required to make this boom happen depend on a long-term price of $70 a barrel – the current cost of Brent crude is $95. Money is now flooding into new oil: a trillion dollars has been spent in the past two years; a record $600bn is lined up for 2012.

Peak Oil has happened in the vast majority of countries already, and is pretty much certainly happening for the world now (clue: look at the oil price).
The Maugeri report is discussed in detail at the OilDrum here.
The constraints on supply do include financial ones – but these have also been discussed exhaustively, especially by Matt Simmons (as you’d expect).
The biggest problem with the Maugeri report – and with Monbiot’s blithe transmission of such propaganda – is the confusion between production capacity and actual production. As the Peak Oil cliche has it – if someone puts a million pounds in your bank account, but restricts the amount you can take out to £50 a week – are you now rich?
So why is this propaganda? Because the oil companies have a vested interest in preserving their share price, and if investors woke up to the fact that they were massively declining assets, they would bail out quick – and people would lose money. It’s much cheaper to fund ‘research’ that preserves the illusion for a little longer. Apres nous la deluge and all that.

The country in which production is likely to rise most is Iraq, into which multinational companies are now sinking their money, and their claws. But the bigger surprise is that the other great boom is likely to happen in the US. Hubbert’s peak, the famous bell-shaped graph depicting the rise and fall of American oil, is set to become Hubbert’s Rollercoaster. Investment there will concentrate on unconventional oil, especially shale oil (which, confusingly, is not the same as oil shale). Shale oil is high-quality crude trapped in rocks through which it doesn’t flow naturally. There are, we now know, monstrous deposits in the United States: one estimate suggests that the Bakken shales in North Dakota contain almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia (though less of it is extractable). And this is one of 20 such formations in the US. Extracting shale oil requires horizontal drilling and fracking: a combination of high prices and technological refinements has made them economically viable. Already production in North Dakota has risen from 100,000 barrels a day in 2005 to 550,000 in January.

Yes, Iraq is the great white hope of the oil industry – at least the Western oil industry – that is why there was a war to secure the supplies. There could even be as much as a potential 10mbpd available from Iraq – given peace and prosperity. The only question is whether that peace and prosperity will arrive in time to offset the declines from all the other countries where oil is already in decline – like the UK.
The American situation is short-term. After the 1970s it became more profitable (and easier in terms of regulations) for the oil companies to move away from the US to develop oil. That meant that there were some ‘easy gains’ left behind – because there were some even easier gains abroad. The uptick we’re seeing now is the claiming of those easy gains (and ANWR and near-offshore will also help in the medium term). But the underlying dynamic hasn’t changed. As for the Bakken containing as much oil as Saudi Arabia, there are few comments which reveal ignorance of the subject so completely. It’s like saying that a field of unharvested grapes contains as much wine as a particular barrel of Chateau Lafite – what is omitted is much more important than what is said. In this case, it is the cost of extracting oil from the Bakken (finanical and in energy terms) that is the most important element (see the OilDrum article for commentary).

We have confused threats to the living planet with threats to industrial civilisation. They are not, in the first instance, the same thing. Industry and consumer capitalism, powered by abundant oil supplies, are more resilient than many of the natural systems they threaten. The great profusion of life in the past – fossilised in the form of flammable carbon – now jeopardises the great profusion of life in the present. There is enough oil in the ground to deep-fry the lot of us, and no obvious means to prevail upon governments and industry to leave it in the ground. Twenty years of efforts to prevent climate breakdown through moral persuasion have failed, with the collapse of the multilateral process at Rio de Janeiro last month. The world’s most powerful nation is again becoming an oil state, and if the political transformation of its northern neighbour is anything to go by, the results will not be pretty. Humanity seems to be like the girl in Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth: she knows that if she eats the exquisite feast laid out in front of her, she too will be consumed, but she cannot help herself. I don’t like raising problems when I cannot see a solution. But right now I’m not sure how I can look my children in the eyes.

Um… despite disagreeing with what went earlier, it does seem as if George is starting to climb the Dark Mountain. At last.
The thing about Peak Oil – and I haven’t even touched on some of the worst aspects of it, eg the Export Land Model – is that it is only the presenting symptom of a much larger crisis, that of the End of Growth. There remains much to be done. For a Christian perspective on all of this – exploring the spiritual roots of how we have come to be where we are and how to get out of it – see my book.

Reviews of ‘Let us be Human’

Hopefully this list will continue to get longer. I’ll update it as necessary.

At the Energy Bulletin review by Roy Smith“I would highly recommend this book to anybody seeking to explore the spiritual ramifications of the crises our industrial civilization faces. It is concise and well-written, and possesses the unique strength of being written by one of the few people I am aware of who has an equally solid grounding in Christianity and theology on the one hand and in the issues of resource depletion and the limits to growth on the other.”

Jeremy Williams at Make Wealth History“If you move in mainstream Christian circles at all, you’ll know that Norton is swimming against the current here. In my experience at least, the church is no more aware of the growth dilemma than the general culture is. That’s a shame, because churches should be natural hubs for imagining an alternative lifestyle together – that’s pretty much what they’re for. Churches don’t build community, they are community. There’s a vital opportunity there if we can learn to see it, and Let us be Human deserves a bigger audience.”

At Amazon.co.uk“In this brilliantly insighful book Sam takes us on a broad brush journey. He highlights the failings of our current culture and the failings of the Church to really engage with it… A definite ‘Must Read’ for anyone who wishes to be part of the emerging discussion surrounding what it means to be human and Christian in our time.”

A comparison between my book and Tarkovsky’s ‘Sculpting Time’ by Jonathan Evens at Between “both have been addressing the same issue; that only by becoming more distinctively Christian can we engage constructively with the crises of our times.”

Mad Priest is nice to me“THE BOOK on the Peak Oil crisis and what Christianity’s response to it should be. It’s a serious book but it is perfectly intelligible to non-experts like me. In fact, that is the point of the book. It is designed to get us all up to speed on this major issue of our times.”

It’s available here, and it’s very cheap on Kindle.

First official review of my book

“I would highly recommend this book to anybody seeking to explore the spiritual ramifications of the crises our industrial civilization faces. It is concise and well-written, and possesses the unique strength of being written by one of the few people I am aware of who has an equally solid grounding in Christianity and theology on the one hand and in the issues of resource depletion and the limits to growth on the other.”

I say: thank God the first one was so positive; it’ll set me up for the later ones! Much gratitude to Roy Smith for his kind words. Full review here at Energy Bulletin.

God and Mammon – a response to some comments

Byron has very kindly engaged with my God and Mammon declaration; herewith my response to some of his comments.

#1. Agreed, as long as the first commandment is always also kept in the context of “a second, which is like it”. How is the second “like” the first? I understand Christ’s words here to offer the second command not as a supplement (how can any love supplement the wholehearted, uncompromising and totalising obligation of the first?), but as an explanatory and expansionary gloss on the first. That is, we love God wholeheartedly in and through loving our neighbour as ourselves. This offers a greater depth to the diagnosis and analysis of idolatry, which will therefore likely (or perhaps by definition) be in breach of the second commandment as well as the first. But I doubt we’re on significantly different ground here and I don’t think you’ve denied any of this in how you’ve expressed yourself which is clearly intended to be brief and sharp.

Actually, I suspect we are on significantly different ground here. I view one of the most dire problems that the church faces, and which vitiates all of its attempts to engage critically with the world, as salt and light, as being due to the evacuation of the sense of the first commandment into a comfortable affirmation of the “second, which is like it”. There is a reason why Jesus says that the first commandment comes first. The first commandment contains a distinct meaning, which cannot be disregarded. Yes, there is an intrinsic link between love of God and love of neighbour – and where there is no love of neighbour then that is a clear sign that the love of God is deficient – but I believe that Christians have become very comfortable with the idea that by doing good works for our neighbours we are doing all that we need to do in order to love God. No. That is false, and a heresy. I go into this in some detail in chapters three and four of my book – which is the real intellectual heart of it – but for now let me say that if we get the first commandment right, the second naturally follows; the inverse is not the case, and, indeed, the inverse is eventually self-defeating.

#2. Is there really any necessary tension between obedience to the first commandment and seeking the good of a local political economy? I refuse to accept that unfettered economic growth is actually good for a local political economy when considered with a wide enough lens. Your phrasing seems to imply that Mammon is simply to be equated with “the needs of any local political economy”, apparently denying the possibility of faithful Christian discipleship in this sphere. In contrast, and as stated above, I take it that genuinely loving God will involve a disciplined, creative and humble engagement with the needs my local community, including its political economy.

OK, some clarification, although I’m happy with my wording (for the moment). I believe that we are called to pray and work for the good of the city in which we find ourselves (Jeremiah 29.7). There is an important little word here: ‘may’. There is nothing wrong with material wealth and prosperity – I believe that God calls us to the land of milk and honey. Furthermore, I believe that we are called to work for the particular goods that enable human flourishing (see below). Yet what is most crucial is to recognise that, however wonderful, such prosperity is secondary and can most assuredly be gained when the first commandment is given priority. That is what I see as a hallmark of the Old Testament prophets, and their insistence upon right worship. My point, therefore, is to insist that the good of the local political economy must, like everything else, be placed into a proper context. My point might be paraphrased as ‘nobody who loves local political economy more than Jesus is worthy of being his disciple’.

#3. Are wars “inevitable” when base human appetites are systematically fostered? I would suggest that conflict may thereby become far more likely, though there is nothing truly inevitable in the realm of human actions and the form of the conflict may be either hot or cold, depending on circumstances and opportunities.

Short answer: pretty much, yes. There is a reference here to ‘the American way of life is not negotiable’ which I see as a stark example of idolatry in action.

#4. You introduce here the concept of growth for the first time (I presume you are more concerned with the concept of growth than simply the language of growth). As you know, I share your deep concerns about this ideology and its (spiritual, social, political, ecological) consequences. However, picking out growth alone may appear somewhat selective. The ideology of economic growth as a primary, even highest, political good is one form in which the idolatry of Mammon takes in our society, though it does not exhaust this idolatry. It is quite possible (though perhaps somewhat more difficult) to repudiate growth while maintaining an idolatrous service of Mammon. Embracing some form of zero-growth economics does not automatically solve the love of money (though it may of course help, and may be an important part of repentance of such idolatry in certain circumstances).[Additonal comment snipped]

This I see as the heart of the declaration – the rest is preamble. I am concerned with both the concept and the language of growth – it is through our language that the idolatry spreads and is enacted, so I think being careful about our language is of the essence of the battle that we face. Moreover, I do not see the idolatry of economic growth as the source of all that has gone wrong in human nature – that’s the Fall; nor do I believe that overcoming this idolatry will lead to all things being fixed. My contention is that this is the battle for our time. The is the fight that we have to face, in our generation.

The analogy with the Barmen declaration is instructive. The trigger for that was the rise to power of the Nazi party. A sense of national pride presumably has some place in a healthy personality, under God; the problem comes when it is turned into an idol – as happened. I don’t imagine that Barth and his friends believed that they were going to address all the problems of the world through their action, they were simply pointing out that the underlying tensions and idolatries had broken out into the open in their day, in a particularly toxic form, and that Christians had to make a stand, and decide who and what they were going to choose (Joshua 24.15).

My point is equivalent. The idolatry of Mammon has been prevalent for generations; it is not a new issue. What is new is the wider context, that is, we have gone past the limits to growth. To pursue growth in this context is radically self-destructive; to use their own jargon, continued economic growth has negative marginal utility. To pursue growth will make things much, much worse. The only way through this crisis is by abandoning our desires for more growth.

Furthermore, ‘growth’ is an abstraction, it is a calculation and a mathematical figure entered into government ledgers. What human beings need are homes and jobs, schools and hospitals. The provision of those things may or may not generate ‘growth’ – but they are worthy goals in their own right. I believe that it is the veneration of the abstraction, at the cost of a blindness to reality, which most reveals this contemporary idolatry.

[Additonal comments snipped]
I also think even the idolatry of Mammon is only part of the picture. The roots of our ecological predicament are complex and involve multiple strands. The libido dominandi is at play. Technocratic hubris and the triumph of instrumental reason over sophia. The myth of progress. A falsely absolutised division between humanity and the rest of creation. A failure of political representation. An attenuation of moral imagination. And so just as selecting climate change as the only relevant symptom is too narrow, so selecting the love of money as the only relevant cause is as well. Yet, in either case it is possible to accept that for polemical purposes, some simplification may be tolerated, provided it is acknowledged as such and is then supplemented with a broader and deeper analysis. In effect, the pedagogic and communicative path through which to confront our predicament is a tactical decision, amenable to multiple solutions, which may vary based on contextual factors.

I agree with almost all of this – and my own ‘broader and deeper analysis’ is in my book. I’m not really wanting just to be polemical with this though. I am really coming to the view that this is indeed status confessionis – that is, it is a salvation matter, and ‘it is our blindness to this that constitutes part of our predicament’. Not, necessarily, at all times and in all places, to reject ‘economic growth’ – but here, and now, for us. I believe that God is repeating Deuteronomy 30 to us in our own time.

“You cannot serve both God and Mammon” – a declaration

1. Our Lord Jesus Christ was asked what the most important commandment was and replied “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22.37-38) As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to hold fast to this commandment, giving everything to God and not letting anything else take the place of God in our lives.

2. Furthermore, our Lord Jesus Christ said “You cannot serve both God and Mammon” (Matthew 6.24). Jesus explicitly teaches that there is a tension between the demands of the first commandment and fidelity to God, and the demands that may be made by the needs of any local political economy.

3. Surveying the present state of our societies and economies it is clear that, as a people, we have succumbed to the worship of Mammon, and that it is the duty of all faithful Christians to resist such worship, to repent of our behaviour, and to seek anew the Kingdom of God. The fruits of such idolatry are clear: the injustice and unemployment and waste of human talents; the corruption of our political leadership and their collusion with immoral financial practices; the depredation and degradation of our natural environments and the exhaustion of our natural resources; the inevitable wars and other crises that arise from the systematic fostering of base human appetites and the refusal to compromise our ways of life, and pursue a more equitable sharing of the gifts bequeathed to us.

4. As part of my pursuit of faithful Christian discipleship I therefore resolve to abandon the idolatry of “economic growth”; to reject the use of such language in my own speech; to repudiate that language when used by others; to bring people’s attentions to the way in which such idolatry increases human suffering; and above all, to seek to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, trusting that in returning to the Lord I will indeed find mercy, and that he will freely pardon me of my offenses.

Background notes
This was inspired by the Ash Wednesday declaration of Operation Noah. That declaration was primarily concerned with issues around climate change, seeking to make action to combat that perceived problem as a status confessionis – in comparison with the Barmen declaration, which focussed German church resistance to the idolatry of national purity developed by the Nazi party.
I believe that we are indeed in a similar situation to that of the churches in Germany in the 1930s. Patterns of behaviour are in play that are leading to catastrophe if not addressed. However, I am not able to sign up to the Operation Noah declaration. That is because I believe that climate change is not the issue that needs to be addressed. The science of climate change is nowhere near strong enough to be considered for status confessionis, and even if it was certain, it only scratches the surface of the relevant idolatry. That is, climate change could be solved overnight, and the idolatry of Mammon would not be affected. It is the idolatry of Mammon that is at the root of this crisis of our time, and if we address that, then we also address climate change in so far as that is necessary.
For a more substantial discussion of the theology behind this declaration, see my book Let us be Human: Christianity for a collapsing culture.
If you agree with this declaration, please do make it your own.

LUBH: official book launch

Learning Church special – Rev Sam’s official book launch
Saturday February 18th, 9.30am WM Church Hall
Sam will read a few extracts from his book ‘Let us be Human’
Copies will be on sale for £9 (£5 off RRP)
Date subject to delivery of the books themselves!!

Coming very soon

“We live in a time of escalating crises and environmental disasters – how should the church understand them, and how should the church respond to them? In this short, readable and punchy book, Sam Charles Norton argues that the fundamental problem of our time is a spiritual one – that we have forgotten what it means to be wise – and that the path for the faithful through this time of crisis is to re-establish the priority of worship. Only by becoming more distinctively Christian can we engage constructively with the collapse of our culture.”