13 May 2006

Peak Oil Taxonomy: the Doombat

[Insert David Suzuki's voiceover from "The Nature of Things"]

The Doomatinus Howlsatmoonicus, known by the colloquial name 'Doombat'. A newly discovered species, the doombat is an offspring of the `net denziens peak oil doomer and moonbat.

The moonbat's habitat is almost exclusively located in the contential USA due to their unique dietary requirements. Doombats sustain themselves through a unique combination of SUV exhaust, electronic emissions from omnipresent NSA wiretaps, and the stench of decaying Republicans.

Doombats are well known in the blogosphere for their fetish for tinfoil hats.


It's become pretty clear to me that technology is not the limiting factor in determining how civilization deals with peak oil as a phenomenon. How culture adapts to the increasing rarity of its favourite fungible energy resource has more to due with sociology than technology or geology. While we can't say anything about the reactions of the vast majority of citizens that aren't even aware of the concept, I think it would be interesting to build a graph of the taxonomy of peak oil blogosphere denizens. After all, what better way to offend a bushel of people than to arbitrarily histogram them and make specious claims about the composition of each bin?

There are four major sub-denizen groups in the peak oil blogosphere:
  1. Corncucopians
  2. Traditionalists
  3. Technopeakers
  4. Doomers

Corncucopians don't believe in any imminent peak in world oil production. They typically point to how under priced oil was in 1997 and how that had a major negative impact on investment, the lag of which is being felt today. Corncucopians further believe that with the application of higher average oil prices, unconventional sources (tar sands, deep water, shale oil, etc.) will become practical and come online after some similar lag period from the lows of 1997 to the highs of 2006. The stereotypical cornucopian is either an economist or oil industry worker and their experience and education leads them to this conclusion.

The population of corncucopians isn't very large because they tend to leave the blogosphere once their views harden. Without the anxiety over peak oil, there's little reason for them to stick around. There are some exceptions, namely the ones that enjoy baiting the doomer denizens (a.k.a. doomer baiting).


The traditional wing of peak oil denizens is primarily focused on the geology of Peak Oil: the when and the where. Traditionalists are unique in that they have a single home, namely The Oil Drum. Only doomers have anything like the community of traditionalists but they are still more diffused throughout the blogosphere.

Traditionalists can be subdivided into two basic groups: the patricians and the plebeians. The patricians of traditional peak oil provide the talking points, the graphs, and the philosophy of the sect. Traditionalist plebeians are concerned about peak oil but lack the confidence or expertise to form their own opinions on the subject. Instead they stroke the egos of their patricians and parrot their talking points. The plebeians are the driving force behind the unified front that traditionalists present − their positive reinforcement helps their patricians to stay on message.

While traditionalists greatly enjoy the frottage of predicting peak oil dates and decline rates, they suffer from the fact that the majority of data is either spurious or proprietary. This leads to a loss of credibility when predictions turn out to be false.

Traditionalists are the one species of peak oil denizens that focus effort on trying to raise awareness in the general citizenry. Any mention of the keywords "peak oil" in the mainstream media provokes and outburst of euphoria. In contrast any publication on energy issue that doesn't resolve around the ontology of peak oil receives heaps of scorn. This can be compared to the reaction of small countries being named by the major media outlets of the United States. E.g. " Canada's Steve Nash has been named the NBA's MVP for the second time." Canada: Oh my god, ABC said 'Canada' on the air; USA: turn on NASCAR.

The biggest failure on the part of the traditionalists is largely a lack of imagination. For example traditionalists will examine car fleet replacement rates and assume that they will remain steady in the face of rising oil prices. The patricians look to history for solutions to peak oil and them extrapolate from there: they see an upturn in the use of rail transport, a surge in coal consumption. History rarely repeats itself.


Technopeakers
can be roughly stereotyped into those with formal scientific or engineering training and the Wired crowd. The ones with formal education likely have at least read about basic thermodynamic principles and are less likely to physically impossible claims. The technopeakers are a diverse group. There are differences in opinion among pretty much every one with regards to issues like biofuels, nuclear power, renewables, etc. Because of this mélange of interests there is common dissent and in fighting among themselves that the outside world remains oblivious to; technophiles sometimes engage in the self-defeating tactic of the circular firing squad.

The loudest type of technopeaker is the one-shot Jonnys who fanatically believe in a magic bullet technological solution to cure all our ails. Nuclear fusion, hydrogen economy, and distributed solar power are all popular topics. Amory Lovins is probably the best known out of this group from his emphasis on conservation.

The biggest technophile group is the techo-optimists. These guys believe in peak oil but think that technology will save us. As such they tend to be pro-free market. Along with corncucopians, techno-optimists are the most likely blogosphere denizens to engage in doomer baiting.

The last major group is the techo-curmudgeons. Curmudgeons are the most likely group to have actual experience with R&D and tend to be grumpy and frustrated at the gamut of problems they encounter. They take an elitist view of the world and as a result are more likely than other technophiles to support government intervention because they don't trust the wisdom of the masses. Curmudgeons are often very number savvy but as a result they avoid any topic they have trouble quantifying because it's too much work. They likely point out the shortfalls of the technology they know the most about, and promote the technologies they know the least about due to their cynical worldview. This group includes me.

Doomers
spawn from the same fertile sediment as traditionalists but the two differ significantly on philosophy. Traditionalists tend to view the world as primarily altruistic while doomers view the world as primarily avaristic. This in turn colours how they believe people at large will react to shrinking oil supply versus growing demand. Doomers view oil as some kind of faustian substance and generally contrive to make logical connections that convince them that society will collapse when oil production peaks.

Doomer powerdowns are the most common and mildest Doomer subspecies. Their philoshopy is based on the singular assumption that the cost of cheap oil is embedded in everything and that rare oil will quickly make all modern economic activities impossible, regardless of their relative value to society. Powerdowners are very likely to correlate peak oil with peak energy. The end game for the powerdown sect is humanity reduced to 19th century technology and infrastructure. Anacedotally, powerdowners are the most likely members of the peak oil community to be suburbanites themselves with few practical skills outside the 3rd sector of the economy. Since they are more highly exposed than the rest of the world, they have correspondingly more anxiety about the consequences of peak oil.

Doomer nihilists take the powerdown scenario one step further to the die-off scenario and believe that the end of the oil age is here and the future will be an exact replica of the Mad Max movies until humans consume all oil and then promptly reach paleolithic age technology. To an extent they fuse the metality of 2K survivalists with the doomer culture.

Doombats, as described above, merge doomer and moonbat culture. Essentially they believe in the doomer precepts but transfer all the responsibility to George Bush, Big Oil, the Military-Industrial Complex, or whatever illuminati cabal they hold responsible for the ills of the world.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

good point.
keep posintg.

Anonymous said...

good point.
keep posting.

Mel. said...

Freakin' hilarious. Thank you.

Jim Robb said...

Robert,

Nice work. I like the circular firing squad reference, particularly. Keep it up.

Big Gav said...

:-)

Nice post.

You should have used more links when describing the various sects (I tried it once and alienated half the peak oil blogosphere in the process - though one journalist did commend me on having the gumption to do it).

For some reason when I read the word "doombat" the ERT group inevitably comes to mind - I never knew anything about the Illuminati until I started reading that one.

I won't ask which category I fit into (though I am curious)...

WHT said...

I like the term doombat but ultimately think we should consider only two groups -- people that want to try to identify and figure a way out of this oil predicament and people oblivious to it all.

Among the latter, you should add the category wingpawns. These consist of all the denizens of the wingnuttia blogosphere who go way overboard to avoid talking about any ills the country or the world may face. These people actually might know about the potential pitfalls that we may encounter, and you can sometimes infer it from their writings, but through careful framing of their arguments they can completely obfuscate the ideas that the traditionalists and doombats put forth. And these wingpawns don't necessarily fall under the "conucopians" category. The wingpawns talk relentlessly about such tangential energy issues as Saddam's "oil for food" program and opening up "Anwar" as some kind of final solution. The wingpawns get their talking points from conservative think-tanks and who knows where. In contrast, they constantly claim that doombats get marching orders from George Soros. The question ultimately facing the wingpawns remains how much longer do they need to play this game. The price of playing the pawn isn't always worth it, as they usually become the most expendable pieces.

Although most wingpawns inhabit the sphere of pure right-wing punditry and bloviation, a few visible ones show signs of hedging their bets. You have people like neo-cons Frank Gaffney and James Woolsey doing sensible things without trying to hide it. These neo-pawns will most likely make the cleanest break at some point, because they have left their options open.

I make a special category for myself. I belong to the group that says: "Have I told you yet today how much I hate these people?"

And I agree with Big Gav that you should stick your neck out and link to some examples.

Anonymous said...

Interesting overlap with Robert Costanza's categories for different scenarios Optimists vs. SKeptics: Star Trek vs. Mad Max, Big Government vs. Ecotopia. see at www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol4/iss1/art5/

Anonymous said...

I don't think I would refer to Amory Lovins as a "one-shot johnny". Anyone who has read Natural Capitalism(the book he worked on with Paul Hawken) and is familiar with the full scope RMI's work (in other words beyond just "Winning the Oil Endgame") understands Lovins'/RMI's position is that no energy solution will work, including hydrogen, unless we become a heck of a lot more efficient at using energy-- in every sector of the economy.

Natural Capitalism is pretty clear that we need to re-design our cities to reduce auto-dependence, properly design buildings to significantly reduce energy use, change manufacturing and distribution systems to use a lot less resources and energy, change agriculture, and more.

I would not call this "one-shot johnny" thinking. I would call this exactly the kind of whole systems thinking thinking that we need to get out of our energy and climate predicament.

Anonymous said...

One problem which seems to afflict all peak oil discussion is an excessive emphasis upon the future prospects of the United States and prosperous Western economies. These classifications are relevant only to that context.

What are the prospects of Iraq, Haiti, Nigeria, Zimbabwe ... and the 900 million impoverished Chinese people? These people -- whose population is larger than that of the prosperous energy gluttons of the West -- are already experiencing the Doomer scenario in various shades of horror.

Also, the Peak Oil movement is often very much a pro-oil, pro-business, pro-development, pro-technology movement. Peak Oil is a problem because it will will bring an end to human "progress."

Well, human progress is just a myth. Humans have made a mess of the Earth in our futile attempt to transcend Nature. For all of our efforts, the planet has become a polluted, degraded, depleted cesspool. We've made the Earth into humankind's sewer.

The plants and animals of the Earth have already experienced the apocalypse. Humans collectively have the same sort impact on the Earth's biosphere as a meteor impact.

The doomer scenario for Earth's ecology is presently occurring. Those seeking to mitigate Peak Oil are merely providing humans more time to further destroy and deplete the Earth.

With billions of humans suffering perpetual impoverishment and the horrors of violence and war, I don't see any cause for optimism about humankind's prospects. With millions of plants and animals driven to extinction, I can't help but imagine that humankind is the ultimate merchant of doom.

****

Finally, I will also point out the scientific reality: All species, including the Homo sapiens, will ultimately suffer extinction. Humans are not immortal, the Homo sapiens will not exist forever.

Historical reality, for those unfamiliar with the last six thousand years of history: Nations are born, rise, reach an apex of power, and then decline and ultimately fall. See for example: the Roman Empire.

The United States of America will not last forever. Our nation is strong now but a day will come in which it is weak.

Science and technology, as products of a fallible animals limited intelligence, are also subject to downfall and failure. Our tools are not better than the animal that created them. A day will come in which all of the luxuries and conveniences of modern technological life are lost forever, and eventually all these accomplishments of modern man will become forgotten.

David Mathews
http://www.geocities.com/dmathew1

Stuart Studebaker said...

I think it is appropriate that I should follow Mr. Mathews's comments. I would like to add another category, or subcategory, actually. I see myself (generally) in the traditionalist camp, but I am more than anything a realist and agnostic on most issues of metaphysics. Doomers are not: they are True Believers.

What the Doomers do have on their side is a correspondence between their vision and linear prognostication, i.e., IF nothing is done to ameliorate the situation, THEN we're all cooked.

Once you start introducing variables into the equation, such as the curmudgeonly nurtured technologies that you favour and then combine them with the social and cultural changes I tend to advocate, then the Doomer Argument fails to predict much of anything.

Mr Mathews (with whom I have been in a running argument for the past few years on the Energy Resources Yahoo List) is a dedicated Doomer. Still, a stopped watch is exactly correct at least once a day, and he can speak the truth, and I'll quote him:

"All species, including the Homo sapiens, will ultimately suffer extinction."

And right there is his prejudice laid out for all to see: all species must SUFFER extinction. What if there's no suffering to extinction? What if we evolve ourselves into smarter, incredibly elegant, creatures with superior social and ethical instincts, and it is all handled (at first) by in vitro fertilisation and genetics, so we will literally give birth to homo futuris? How is that (outside of the specious detail of childbirth itself) a SUFFERING extinction in any sense of the word? Not that I expect such a technological solution to human extinction, but what it does show is how in one simple stroke, the Doombat attitudes of the likes of Mr Mathews are simply and completely blown away. And: such a genetic solution actually *could* happen.

Hence, defeating the Doomer Mythos is like dynamiting fish in a barrel - it's too easy. I'll quote myself from the Energy Resources List:

"(They) want to spread the end times gospel, like some ecological Jim Joneses. (They) want the drug of (Their) misery to prevail, (They so deeply desire) the addictive and explosive rush of horror one garners from gazing into the abyss to dominate the vision of others who are less inclined to gaze so deeply into the dark.

I too have spent many years looking into the abyss, probably longer than (most of these doomers) have, and I no longer see an abyss. The future is not a black hole. It is transformation. Not to something "better" - it doesn't really work that way - just something more adapted to the environment that obtains. "

And to the Doomers themselves, I would pose the followling:

"Your moral and ethical charge (as a responsible human being) is to allieviate suffering wher eyou find it. If you find yourself drawn to the suffering itself, then go to the suffering. I urge you to sell your possessions and go to Darfur or Bangladesh or on a more local basis - New Orleans or East LA or Camden NJ. Work with suffering. Work with the horror, and find some meaning in your pampered whiny existence."

Sometimes I get tired of battling Doombats, but the stakes are far too high. The struggle for a dignified survival for our species is becoming more attenuated with each passing year, and while this seemingly gives more creedence to the Doombats, this attenuation will necessarily result in appropriate and reasonable decisions being made by caring and inventive people. We can do it, because we must, and with a combination of technologies (such as you would advocate) and shifts in social and cultural systems (that I would advocate) a reasonable and dignified future can be built.

I also keep a blog on this and related subjects here:

http://early-warning.blogspot. com

I'll definitely link to yours - kindly reciprocate!

best regards,

Stuart Studebaker

Anonymous said...

Mr. Studebaker makes a valid point: No one actually knows what will happen in the future. Maybe a thousand or ten thousand years from now humankind will correct all of its significant flaws, fix all of the damage which has already occurred on the Earth, and formulate a utopian society founded upon the principles of peace, equality, frugality and non-destructive intellectual curiousity.

Who knows, Ray Kurzweil's Singularity might occur and we all will enjoy techno-immortality and virtual deification. The future is looking brighter ...

Or at least it seems. But at the present moment the world is filled with violence, deprivation, oppression, exploitation and obsessive hyperconsumption. The oil age has not brought humankind the utopia it promised over a century ago.

As to the prospects of the Homo sapiens evolving into some other form of life: I doubt it. For a better species of humankind to evolve the present species must at the very least leave a hospitable planet for that species to inherit. A polluted, degraded and depleted planet provides little prospects for the survival of any potential descendants of humankind.

The present world is already in a state of apocalypse. There's plenty of suffering already in this time of abundant cheap energy. We'll soon find out if things will get better or worse as Nature begins to deprive humankind of cheap energy and other vital resources.

David Mathews
http://www.geocities.com/dmathew1

Robert McLeod said...

Some of you are taking this too seriously.

Anonymous said...

Hello Robert,

The classification scheme is not serious, but the state of the world is a serious matter.

There's a serious problem in the world. The source of the problem is humankind, but the solution is not available through any sort of human effort.

Peak Oil is relevant to this question but not essential: My objections to the innate evil traits of humankind would remain if the supply of oil were infinite and there were no climatic consequences related to burning fossil fuels.

Science and technology made a lot of promises, some of which came true but the majority have failed. On the negative side, science and technology have granted humankind the destroy and pollute the Earth at an astonishing and ever-increasing rate.

When all is said and done, I suppose that Science & Technology will take the prize as the most ulitmately destructive and violent of human activities. I should not have to remind anyone of the dreadful consequences of science and technology. The 20th century should still remain fresh in everyone's mind.

The problem inherent in all doomer scenarios is that in the vast majority of cases these are forward-looking as if to imply that something terrible is coming. No, something terrible has already occurred. The doomer scenario, the ultimate apocalypse, has already occurred.

The consequences of the oil apocalypse has already afflicted a majority of Earth's population. Billions of people are already suffering to various degrees because of the scourge of oil abundance, they need not fear so much oil depletion. The Earth's ecosystem is already destroyed as well, and this process of destruction continues.

Only a small fraction of Earth's population has enjoyed the maximum benefits of the scourge of oil, including among them the wealthy people of the United States and the prosperous West. Oil has allowed Americans to enjoy all of the benefits of resource depletion while leaving all of the costs of pollution and degradation in the Third World.

The only reason why this state of affairs is acceptable to Americans is because we really do not care about the suffering of others. Don't tire me with all of the noble ideals which the United States routinely violates throughout the world. Americans primarily care about their own self interests, very little time is spent thinking about the plight of the impoverished elsewhere throughout the world.

But the United States of America is not an immortal nation. A day will come when the sufferings which routinely occur elsewhere begin happening here. A day will come in which Americans suffer the same level of impoverishment which we presently tolerate in Africa, Asia and Mexico. A day will come in which Americans will beg for International help and discover that none is available.

For people who are primarily interested in their own greedy self interest, this is the doomer scenario that they contemplate. But I am not so worried about my own future or the future of the United States.

My concerns are not nationalistic, they are global in scale. I live on a planet which is inhabited by 6.5 billion humans and an abundant diversity of life. These people and Nature are already experiencing the apocalypse. They continue to suffer but no one seems to care; they continue to suffer but there really is nothing whatsoever that we can do to help them.

What is the proper classification of a person who looks at the Earth and notices that the Apocalypse is already here?

David Mathews
http://www.geocities.com/dmathew1

LJ said...

Very nice, god forbid we should forget to make fun of ourselves. "What do we live for, but to make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them in our turn?". Labels are fun, but use sparingly, lest we be ghetto-ised.

Dave M, don't you think the daily contemplating futility a little wearing, if not paralysing? After some point it matters little how much deeper the shit is, its time to get paddling. Large inevitabilities matter less at the local/present scale, just ask a woman (ducks).

Anonymous said...

"Dave M, don't you think the daily contemplating futility a little wearing, if not paralysing?"

No, not in the least. Instead of getting caught up in the frivolous futilities of humankind, I devote my attention to really big things (such as the Universe), really old things (such as the living biosphere of the Earth), and really complicated things (such as complexities of matter/energy in the quantum realm).

I spend my time appreciating Nature's works, all of which are a great deal more impressive and enduring than anything which humans have ever done. I find that the Universe is such an astonishing place that I could easily spend thousands of years enjoying this place (Ray Kurzweil, where's my mmortality?).

After spending many years observing human behavior and studying the abysmmal history of humankind, I have concluded that by all objective measures the Homo sapiens have failed. Humankind has squandered its opportunity. All those unique and special talents which were given to humankind have been wasted on every evil intention and horror which humans could ever imagine.

The end of science and technology is by no means a terrible event, in spite of all the pain and sorrow which must come. The extinction of the Homo sapiens is not an unjust event, the fossil record reveals that billions of other species have experienced a similar fate.

Death itself does not terrify me. At least, not today ... when death appears so distant as to not threaten. But at some level I know that death must inevitably come, and when it comes I must certainly die.

I look at the past and see billions of years without humankind. I look in the future and see billions of years after humankind. This brief moment of humankind's existence ranks among the most transient of Nature's phenomena.

Given the reality of this most great and temporary of gifts, I wonder why humans are so sad, angry, hateful and violent all of the time?

If humans could place this life in its proper perspective they would appreciate and enjoy every day of life as a gift more valuable than all of the gold, diamonds and oil in the world. Instead of spending time dreaming of purchasing and possessing things, people would devote their entire attention to appreciating & comprehending (but never possessing) the Universe.

These ideals are too great, they are well beyond the capacity of the naked ape. Maybe Nature's will replace humankind with a better intelligent, tool-making animal in the far distant future. Or maybe it will not. The future will take care of itself.

David Mathews
http://www.geocities.com/dmathew1

J C said...

In response to Dave M. and others,

Human kind is not the scourge of the planet we are so often led to believe. The problem isn't our species: the problem is our CULTURE!! Unfortunately, we are taught that our species was created to take over and control the biosphere, through religious and scientific ideology, but that is a recent cultural belief that has a history of only approx. 10,000 years, compared to the hundreds of thousands of years of peaceful, sustainable existence of our species on the planet. Humankind is NOT CANCEROUS, though without a doubt our global culture based on the assumption of separation and species superiority most certainly is.
There is yet another kind of observer of the rise and fall of globalization economy based on the hydrocarbon addiction. There are those of us who understand the vastly unique opportunity to mankind, and indeed, the planet, for a paradigm shift that has been coming for ten thousand years. There are those who have seen the evidence that unequivocally denounces the myth that man's existence prior to the "salvation of agriculture" was grim, short lived and meaningless. All evidence is in fact to the contrary! Man lived well, and within his means, and as part of his ecosystem as opposed to the usurper of it. Tens of thousands of cultures evolved and thrived on this planet before one assimilated or annihilated the rest. What has happened to the Native Americans has happened to every other culture since our “mega-culture" started to spread out of the Fertile Crescent, now Iraq. But the assumptions of this "mega-culture" are false, based on greed, which arises from fear, which is the result of a lack of faith in whatever you choose to call your higher power, unless your higher power is technological advancement, as is the unfortunate norm of late.
So now we stand at a crossroads, and some say technology will save us, everything is the way it should be as we drive 200+ species to extinction a day, warm the earths atmosphere over 1 degree in a short matter of years, hopelessly pollute the land and water. It's all good because we can burn more coal, turn to more and more dependence on the suicide pact that is nuclear energy, and make our SUVs slightly smaller. These are the drastically uneducated and the pathetically deep in denial. And some say we can't be saved, that the economy is going to collapse and we'll all be drowned in anarchism (look up the definition, by the way, and you may be surprised) and that with out global economy we can't have global government, and without government, who is going to save us from our awful selves.
But I say to you, and anyone that will listen, WE DON'T NEED SAVING!!! Things will change, of that there can be no doubt. But it is likely the greatest thing to happen to our species ever. We have the opportunity to once again be free of the oppressions of our culture. After 10,000 years, it has systematically failed us, is in fact killing us, not to mention our souls--- why keep it? Why hold on to the chains of our dependence on a culture and it's ideologies when the have proven exponentially to be poison? Let it go.

There are many who will read this who will find my position to absolutely fly in the face of everything they have been taught. Our cultural beliefs run deep, indeed. We knew how to live on this planet, once, not so long ago, in a way that allowed for natural law and natural processes. Whether we like it or not, we have to change our paradigm or history will repeat itself. Change is upon us. So learn from the past, and look to the future, and smile. We do not walk alone.
J C

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