Oh brother, not peak oil!

Blind railroad man in "O Brother Where Art Thou?"

The blind railroad man could see what no one else could in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Photo: Verbatimcitation.blogspot.com.

Part one in a four-part series.

In the 2000 Coen brothers’ comedy adventure O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a bit of wisdom shared near the start of the movie applies to more aspects of life than we might like to admit. In particular, it has relevance for how we talk about the peak oil predicament in today’s media landscape.

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a four-part series on the challenges of telling the peak oil story. The movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? will help tell the tale throughout. Part Two: My brother’s keeper.

That’s illogical

We pick up the story when the three escaped convicts at the center of the film have narrowly fled for a second time, giving the slip to a bevy of cops hot on their trail.

Once in the clear, one of the fugitives, Ulysses Everett T. McGill, a silver-tongued dandy played by George Clooney, proudly flaunts a gold pocket watch that he swiped from the bureau drawer of Wash Hogwallop, his cohort Pete’s cousin with whom the trio stayed while on the lam.

Bragging that the watch is the key to getting a car, Everett plans to sell it. But Pete (John Turturro), rises up, angered that Everett stole from his kin. Everett offers a slick justification for taking the watch, an answer that Pete immediately dismisses as nonsense.

Undeterred, Everett replies, “Pete, it’s a fool looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.”

Peak oil communicators, take note.

When warming is cooling

We need look no farther than the global warming narrative to find a good example of what doesn’t work in trying to awaken the world, change the world, or just get anyone to listen.

The global warming / climate change / global climate disruption story, however relevant, has not succeeded in getting its message across in a way that has fundamentally made an inroad on consensus, policy, and in most instances in the Western world, behavior. Sure the issue has its cadre of hard-core adherents, but shouldn’t what scientists say is such a grave threat to civilization have gotten further with people, business and governments at this point?

Now, we can argue till the cows come home about what climate change activists are up against. Indeed it’s a formidable set of obstacles they face, beginning with basic human stupidity, then passing through interested persons (and personalities) with concerted disinformation campaigns and ending with greedy business types and their moneyed access to power.

But part of the blame has to go to the activists themselves, and their failure to properly reach and secure the allegiance of a mass number of hearts and minds.

“Logic is on our side”

Let’s face it, few people are moved to change because someone is telling them for the umpteenth time about the effects of so-and-so many parts per million of CO2 in the air and the radical tipping points that ensue therein. Even when it’s Al Gore.

Just look at when Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) mocked Gore by building an igloo during the great snowstorms of early 2010 and posting a sign calling it “Al Gore’s new home.” All Inhofe needed to say was “cold-y ice stuff ain’t warm” and he won the upper hand, eroding gains in the climate case. Logic, science and truth be damned.

The reality is that even among smarty-pants liberals, the emotional and irrational holds much more sway that the rational and logical, however much we may wish it otherwise. Research shows that we’re all much more moved by story and even stunts then we are by analysis.

That’s why Bill McKibben’s recent sojourn to the White House to urge President Obama to install solar panels did more for clean energy in the popular imagination than just about anything else this past year.

Scientists, thought leaders and the reasoned among us like to imagine that reason itself influences thinking persons and also turns the more distracted to our cause based on the self-evidence in a logical, sequential and well-presented case. Some mistakenly argue that anything less is “dumbing it down.”

But whoa, Nellie. What Kool-Aid are you drinking?

Why can’t they just listen to reason?

In the New York Times Bestseller Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, behavioral economist Dan Ariely points out that it’s not really reason that influences most decisions. It’s not a ream of logical inputs that drive choices. Rather, it’s the exact opposite. It’s expectations, hopes, wishful thinking, social norms and rhetorical techniques like peer pressure and fashion that convince us to think or act a certain way.

Add to that a society and culture like ours, glutted on a hyper-vast density of information, much of it nonsensical, superfluous and idiotic, where piercing the surface of that density is nigh impossible — even with life-and-death news — and you’ve got a real conundrum. Maybe more so with life-and-death news. After all, urgency feels a lot more critical when it’s say, a tsunami chasing you down the block.

When it’s the dire warnings of a very boring looking chart and graph of a would-be model some 50 years off, not so much. Even Al Gore’s contentious “hockey stick” seemed to get the attention of his critics more than it influenced his intended would-be supporters.

As George Clooney’s McGill said, “It’s a fool looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.” There’s the rub.

When warming is overheated

To be fair, climate change storytellers have tried to bypass logic to paint a picture of the looming crisis. Unfortunately they did so by going to the extreme of trying to scare the bejesus out of us. And while that may have seemed to be the most logical way to use irrationality to prompt action, it hasn’t succeeded.

I don’t dispute that climate change is one of the most potent threats to earth and all its species, including humans.

But I’m left wondering, Why, over twenty years after the first book on climate change for a popular readership—McKibben’s The End of Nature in 1989—polls show us that today fewer people are convinced that we must take immediate action to address ecological calamity?

What went wrong?

Alarmism and backlash

What was designed by earnest climate change advocates to awaken and engage people turned out to be too much too fast. And they told it too abstractly to boot.

However much you and I may care about shrinking glaciers, rising oceans, spotted owls and polar bears, most of us live in Madonna’s material world. To get most people to care about something, you have to get them where they live, which in most cases is neither an iceberg nor a tree-house.

Most Americans and indeed most Westerners (and more and more the whole world) care about living well and enjoying the here-and-now with all its options and opportunities, from frozen convenience foods to indoor skiing, from starting businesses to building one’s personal home-as-castle.

By not having secured popular opinion on the basis of something closer to the people’s hearts, lives, and livelihoods, and instead outsourcing it to the forest, a glen, a “habitat” or the vision of a New York underwater, climate change activists painted an outsized irrational picture that, however true or probable, lost its ability to convince by putting the cataclysm too far from our day-to-day experience. Too much, too soon, but never actually showing up, even if our crocuses do bloom in December.

And then, when New York wasn’t underwater soon enough and when Florida didn’t disappear right away, climate change Cassandras were ripe for looking like fools.

And all that invited a backlash.

Corporate antibodies attack

Like a swarm of antibodies encircling a virus to cut off its spread, corporate power and its political lapdogs have effectively debunked, bullied, mocked, and ignored climate change into near irrelevance largely using the simple counter-narrative of “Chicken Little.”

At least half the books available on climate change now tell the alleged “other side of the story,” drawing on a handful of dubious experts who say that climate change is bunk, that it’s not caused by humans or that even if it happens, it won’t be so bad.

Sure, a backlash would have occurred anyway, because that’s what greed does to secure its own interests — and political operatives will say anything for a .0002% bump in a poll. But a more accessible, more effective, less hyperbolic climate story might have kept more of the public on board when the evil genius counter-offensive hit. More public support would have better positioned climate activists and their allies in green business to win measures that address emissions and lifestyle despite the backlash from dirty corporations and their stooges in free-market think tanks.

Please, don’t mistake my meaning. I don’t think global warming activists should be made to look like fools. But the campaign to make them so has been formidably executed, with the kind of truth-free but effective double-speak found in a “Coke Adds Life” campaign. It makes no sense, but it sells. Global warming alarmism is now seen as wholly ineffective by more and more people. For climate deniers, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.

For climate activists, it was like wearing a “kick me” sign.

And when you don’t get the results you want, however well intentioned, that’s a failure.

Gusher of lies

In some ways, peak oil activists should be so lucky to have a host of writers, analysts, Fox News personalities and big business types trolling out the debunking machine. At least it would be an indication that they’re noticing us at all.

There are a few books purporting to dispel peak oil concerns, such as Robert Bryce’s Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence” and the work of David Yergin and Vaclav Smil. But in an oddly fortunate way for us their task will be more difficult than casting doubt on climate change. A hard and finite resource such as oil, even with tar sands as an understudy, is very difficult to dispute when almost all of us experience a direct relationship between the price at the pump and the pain in our wallet.

Regardless, understanding that peak oil is a reality, and one that will not be lessened by deepwater oil or tar sands or coal to liquids or iffy Saudi Arabias full of natural gas beneath the amber waves of grain won’t stop opponents from trying to cast doubt on the implications of the end of cheap energy.

The issue then becomes how we live in the face of peak oil. That is the challenge and the battle facing peak oil writers and commentators.

In response, do we keep trotting out the production and decline curves? Do we continue peppering every other sentence with the words collapse, imminent disaster, and apocalypse? Do we tell the story of our children—your children, their children— losing out on college and begging around for jobs as ditch diggers, if they’re the lucky ones? Do we talk about the idiocy of Americans for having ever bought into the suburban fantasy in the first place and then snort condescendingly at the prospect of them stranded in their mini vans scuffling over their last bag of Chips Ahoy 100 calorie packs?

I think not.

Once upon a time…

We do need to tell stories. Many of them. We each need to be translators of the facts and figures into visions of the possible and the practical with ample doses of hope rewarding the sweat of our brow with the continued harvest of many varieties. We need more storytellers. More visions. More ideas. After all, we’re asking the public to go eyes-wide-open into the greatest new experiment in living most of us have ever encountered. So we need ways of turning what we think we’ll lose into what we know we can gain.

But this is not textbook- and footnote-type stuff.

In addition to being first-stage researchers and analysts we also need to be translators of the story into narratives that connect with people in a way that draws them in, where they see themselves and their children in the story, and are inclined to action because they can understand the threat while still feeling empowered enough to take action in their own lives. And all this before it’s too late.

I’m afraid that we don’t have enough of these translators stepping up to the plate even as the stakes on peak oil ramp up by the day. Instead, we’re dominated by more graph-happy talks and more incestuous polemics than we can use in a lifetime. Yes, we peak oil communicators need to talk to each other, but we need even more to talk to Them Out There, the people who most need to hear this. And we need to talk in a way that they can understand and engage with us.

In the midst of this essay intended to be about communications I feel more inclined to go within the word, saying that what we actually need is more communing.

We need to go beyond the polemics, citations, cases and inward gazing in and among the peak oil community and instead gear up to go large.

We get it. Now let’s talk to others.

Myth: a powerful vehicle for truth

We need to draw on the myths of the past, the myths that have informed generations of people for millennia, and tell the stories in new ways, much as the Coen brothers reinvented O Brother as a riff on the Odysseus saga.

The journey. The obstacles. More seeking, fewer answers. Your own struggle. Your own uncertainty. Your story.

What if we all tried more immediate what ifs?

What if global warming were real right now? What would that look like in your family? In your town? What does it look like?

On peak oil, what if one day there was no more access to gasoline, or it was too expensive? Or it was rationed, first to the military, and then to the rich? What then? What if the lights went out not for hours, but for days or weeks on end? What would you do? Your community? What might you face? What’s the back-up plan?

What about the rich terrain of the ordinary? What was it like when you planted those first seeds as a member of a newly formed community garden? Or began selling your wares at the farmer’s market? What’s it like now that you’re a farmer milking the cow at 5am on a cold February morning when you’d much rather be in bed? What are the stories, the simple stories of daily life that happened along the way to the story you’re now living that’s still unfolding? Not as a how-to, but as a heart, as a life, as a soul.

Tell it. Tell that story.

Where are those stories? How can we commune? What might you share? What might we try?

Wisdom from a seer

I won’t begin to assume that I know even half of the kind of stories that might be shared in a world where voices began to rise, where the hidden circuitry of energy and our vulnerable connection to it is exposed in new ways.

But we might take a cue from a blind railroad man, the seer who gives a lift and some sage advice to the jailbirds at the beginning of O Brother Where Art Thou:

You seek a great fortune,
you three who are now in chains.
You will find a fortune,
though it will not be the fortune you seek.
But first…first you must travel a long and difficult road,
a road fraught with peril, mm-hmm.
You shall see things…
wonderful to tell.
You shall see a… a cow…
on the roof of a cotton house, ha.
And, oh, so many startlements.
I cannot tell you how long this road shall be,
but fear not the obstacles in your path,
for fate has…
vouchsafed your reward.
Though the road may wind,
yea, your hearts grow weary,
still shall ye follow them,
even unto your salvation.

And the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

Part two of this series is now out: My Brother’s Keeper, which looks at the dynamic of “us versus them.”

— Lindsay Curren

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  1. says

    this is a fantastic article with so many valuable insights and deserves to be read and re-read. I would just like to add that one way of helping to make peak oil and climate change a real and immediate story for those of us living in “Madonna’s material world”, is to bring together and highlight all the myriad real-life stories of individuals, families, villages, and towns throughout the world where climate change is hitting hard with the “fierce urgency of now”. There are stories in the news media about Indian farmers committing suicide because they can no longer afford to dig their wells deep enough to reach the falling water table, falling because of rapid climate change within the bread-basket area of India. There are stories about the suffering caused to villagers dwelling in the Andes as a direct result of the disappearance of a glacier that used to provide all their fresh water. There are stories about school children having to wade knee-deep to school in Bangladesh through water that is rising year by year because the rising sea-level means sea-water is penetrating ever further inland; they can literally see the water level rise higher up the wooden stilts that raise their school hut just above the surface of the water. I could go on, but the point is that these stories are scattered all over the media, usually in little-known places, and it takes some research and persistence to dig them out, and then these stories have to be brought together and the dots connected into one great narrative that reveals the tidal-wave of suffering that is already sweeping across humanity. When people are exposed to real-time, real-life, stories of suffering right now, that will stimulate people’s natural empathy for the suffering of others, which in turn will stimulate their willingness to engage in comapssionate action to mitigate the main cause of the suffering: climate change. I think we need to do much more to stimulate the core emotional intelligence of empathy, especially amongst ‘Westerners’, because no matter how ‘material’ they may be, they are also great contributors to charities and NGOs when, for example, famine or emergency appeals are made, appeals which always show real people in real trouble. There is a great video on the global urgency of everyday empathy at: http://planetsave.com/2010/12/23/the-global-urgency-of-everyday-empathy-video/

    • says

      Thanks for your kind words. I’m having a lot of fun putting together this series, not least of all because it means I get to watch O Brother over and over again!

      I do hope we’ll hear more first person stories from folks who are already clearly impacted by climate chaos. We’re totally open to that through our contact page. And we’re opening up a submission portal on submishmash.com.

      Meantime, maybe some folks from Australia might like to chime in with thoughts on their current massive scale flood.

  2. Auntiegrav says

    The songs and hymns of the past are the history of nonfactual communication of reality. Human intentions (your logic being used as justification) are not all they are cracked up to be. In “Stumbling on Happiness”, Gilbert shows many ways that humans delude themselves, but the most important, I think, is that we cannot predict what will make us happy 2 weeks or 6 months down the road. This inability to know what we will be satisfied with lies at the heart of the Coercion of our belief systems. (see “Coercion” by Douglas Rushkoff).
    To say “Even when Al Gore explains it” is laughable. The guy has NO personality, NO ability to present himself in the context of real people, and yet the liberals who worship him can’t believe that he isn’t believed.
    Perhaps if the Climate Change advocates didn’t advocate with so much money, they might get someone on the street to listen to them. Once you get the corporate buy-in (Chevy Volt, etc), then you have lost credibility of it being a personal action issue. Why would people stop using money (the root tool of overconsumption) when they can just buy a “green” car or a “green” house?
    The intentions of humans to “save” anything will only fail as they believe that a solution can be purchased.
    The real solution is to not buy things and to stop working for the systems that coerce more systems while pushing the costs into the future via debts and delusions.
    If you want Change, keep it in your pocket.
    Transition needs to be based on the resources available locally to one’s hands and mind. Anything else will just end up in a landfill or a song in some obscure religion of the future which worships stainless steel rats.

    • says

      Of course the whole point of the article is to encourage the telling of stories in such a way that facts are not discounted, but that they live and breathe through the narrative being told as that is what reaches hearts and touches souls.

      And I hoped it was clear that I was referencing Gore ironically. His work is worthy, but yes, many argue that he could use some presentation tips.

  3. ChuckT says

    Excellent! I look forward to reading the remainder of your series. I am perhaps an anomaly here in that I am politically pretty conservative (though of the Rod Dreher “crunchy con” variety”, tend to vote Republican (though I consider myself “independent”), believe in LESS Gov’t intervention and intrusiveness and the “free market system” etc. though NOT in a full on Libertarian “laissez faire” way. I also believe in preserving our environment, the need for some Gov’t regulation and oversight to control & prevent corporate corruption and ruining our environment, the primacy of small business over BIG business. I agree with some historically Democrat positions, and some historically Republican positions. I feel I am a man without a country.

    I am open to the possibility of anthropogenic climate change – but I am distrustful of the science and even more that the recommended “solutions” will do anything other than enrich a different set of interests and will only put an even further drag on our already struggling economy choking job growth. (more on this in a moment) At the same time – I DO think the effects of an observable global warming trend are obvious and cause for concern for many around the globe.

    I am even more open and convinced that we (the U.S. and western europe) need to find solutions to our wasteful consumption, our overspending, and our over dependence on oil for EVERYTHING (transportation, heat, food growth, products, shipping, etc.). Why? Because I DO think the Peak Oil issue will have a significant impact on our economy, our personal finances – and the lives of our children and grand children. Also – for National Security reasons. I am a 9/11 survivor (worked on the 97th floor of Tower 1) and I’ll be damned if want any more oil money going to the middle east and those who hate us, NOR do I want to see our children fighting to maintain access to oil to “preserve” an unsustainable way of life. I was very disappointed that in in the wake of 9/11 we as a nation didn’t do more to try to move away from imported sources of energy. To me – the “logic” for Peak Oil and the evidence are strong enough to warrent action (personal and national).

    To me – permaculture practices just plain make sense. They resonate. And yet . . .

    I too often feel that the rhetoric of those who active in these issues – runs towards anger and bitterness at those they disagree with politically (overwhelmingly directed at the RIGHT and conservatives). There is this never ending steam of comments about how “stupid” the right is, how “hateful” and “racist” and yada yada yada “THEY are”. Well – I have to tell you. It makes it VERY hard for anyone from the “other side” who might otherwise be open to your concerns to listen. Let’s face it. Nobody likes to be attacked for their concerns, beliefs, and political leanings. I am disappointed that so many Republican Conservative leaders and pundits have turned their back on Climate, Environmental, and Energy issues. But I am also disappointed at the rhetoric that comes from the left and the blatant scare tactics they have tried to use.

    Think about it – you on the left don’t like the “holier than thou” attitude of so many on the Right in the Christian Coalition faction. But neither does anyone on the right (or middle) like your “smarter than thou” attitude and statements. I for one am a professional, have BA and MS degrees. I am not stupid. But I do recognize the limits of my own knowledge and abilities. Perhaps you need to do likewise. (and yes – the rhetoric and attacks go the other way too. I don’t like them either!)

    Regarding the AGW issue – I feel like I am caught between “experts” in a shootout situation and am left usure who to trust. We common folk are NOT experts – but – enough has happened to call into question the integrity and fairness of the funding and whether “political correctness” has tainted the science – that has (I think) many on the right more skeptical. WE should all be careful about trying to DIALOGUE more and DEBATE less. Too often we become our “positions” and are more concerned with winning the debate – than trying to build concensus around issues and actions that MANY can agree with and that will be required for any large scale changes.

    Thanks for reading and considering these thoughts. I look forward to reading yours.

    • says

      Hi Chuck. Thanks for your comments. All folks are welcome here, there is no pre-set political allegiance to maintain. I find in myself, and in most folks I meet, that there is more of a tendency to have political views that are all over the map, rather than a stalwart allegiance to a given political party. Sadly a lot of assumptions are made, which I believe is behind that anger that you pointed out. The Internet can sometimes serve and sometimes distract from treating folks as full and complex humans, and dealing with them with compassion, listening and exchanging views rather than reacting and ranting. We hope for the best in dialog here. Best, Lindsay

      • ChuckT says

        Thanks for your reply Lindsay. We’re all subject to the need to blow off steam and rant now and then, and let’s face it – it DOES make for good entertainment. Nothing seems to entertain us more than seeing someone on their high horse get pilloried – left or right or anywhere in between. (sad – but true) However, it also makes it possible for we (as a citizenry) to be manipulated at worst or kept ignorant at best (because we can’t find the facts and judge for ourselves). Anyway – as I said – I look forward to reading more in this series.


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