The Origins of Peak Oil Doomerism  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

Toby Hemenway has an article on the genesis of peak oil doomerism, including a history of apocalyptic thinking through the ages- The Origins of Peak Oil Doomerism

People in the Peak Oil movement chafe at the label of doomer, but many of us do have an apocalyptic bent. Although plenty of Peak Oil commentary is sober analysis, a survey of the major websites and books quickly brings up apocalyptic titles like,, The Death of the Oil Economy, The End of Suburbia, and The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight. Peak Oil writings are sprinkled with predictions that billions will die, civil order will collapse, and even that civilization will end. Scientists, too, aren’t immune. During geologist Ken Deffeyes’s Peak Oil presentations, he displays the words “war,” “famine,” “pestilence,” and “death”—the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The Right, the saying goes, has the Left Behind books, and the Left has Peak Oil. Both predict that the end is near.

After I published an article suggesting that Peak Oil may lead “merely” to widespread unemployment and hardship rather than collapse, hundreds wrote to tell me I was a na├»ve optimist and a cornucopian. A significant part of the Peak Oil community holds the rock-solid sentiment that the only future is one of chaos. While the end of the oil era possesses “death and taxes” certitude, plausible post-peak scenarios span a wide scope. So why is the most touted one the most extreme? Predictions of any stripe, a review will quickly show, are almost always wrong. The future rarely goes in the direction we expect. The certainty of coming doom held by so many made me wonder why we are drawn to societal collapse and our own extinction.

The point of this article is not to argue for or against a Peak Oil collapse—a futile debate that won’t end until we enter that future—or to discuss whether our civilization deserves to continue. Rather, it’s an exploration into why, given an impending crisis or major challenge, many people in our culture spiral so quickly and automatically toward an “end of the world” vision rather than imagining any of the countless other options.

My earliest hypothesis was that a person’s chosen energy future was based more on personality than on data: Given the same information, people I knew to be optimists generally envisioned a positive future, while pessimists descended into doomerism. But in this simplistic reasoning, I was leaving out a growing mass of critiques of civilization itself by authors such as Joseph Tainter, Derrick Jensen, and Daniel Quinn, and others esteemed by many Peak Oil adherents. While these writers argue that civilization is evil, unsustainable, and must collapse, they also posit that human beings deserve something better that can only arise after this culture dies. This death-and-rebirth thinking didn’t fit my “optimist versus pessimist” hypothesis. And seeing how vehemently and urgently people argue for doom-and-gloom—I’ve literally had my lapels grabbed—made me suspect that neither individual psyche nor the cold logic of pure reason was at work here.

I now believe that Peak Oil catastrophism is largely a manifestation of our primary cultural myth: that all things end with suffering, death, and then resurrection. Belief in apocalypse is programmed into western civilization. Given our heritage, “the end is nigh” is the nearly unavoidable personal and collective response to times of uncertainty and rapid change.

Apocalypticism is at the core of the Judeo-Christian social mythology, and it influences our beliefs far more deeply than we are conscious of. I can hear the objections: “I’m not religious—I’ve never even been to church.” But that’s like saying, “I never studied Greece, so ancient Greek culture hasn’t influenced me in any way.” Cultural beliefs are in the air we breathe. We are programmed by our knowledge of mortality and of the natural world, as well as by millennia of myth-telling, to believe that all things, from organisms to businesses to civilizations, progress from birth to a shuddering death and, often, a renewal in new form. As much as the Religious Right’s boast that America is a Christian nation makes liberals uncomfortable, there is some truth to it. From the Declaration of Independence’s “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” and the dollar’s “In God We Trust,” to once-pagan, Christian co-opted Easter egg hunts, Judeo-Christian beliefs saturate our culture. And the idea of apocalypse, that some time soon the End Times will be upon us and all will be transformed, is one of the most fundamental tenets of that system. A look at the history and particulars of apocalypticism will show the truth of that statement, and reveals that Peak Oil catastrophism conforms to our apocalyptic myth in such detail that it is difficult to deny its role.

The archetypal apocalypse story in the West is, of course, that of Jesus of Nazareth. Both his life’s story and his messianic prophecies of Judgment Day reflect oppression, death, and transformation, following the common arc of the apocalypse myth. This trajectory is echoed in the Peak Oil projection of increasing global despoliation and chaos, collapse, and the belief that “after Peak Oil, everything will change.” But this myth has also emerged hundreds of other times in our history. Jesus would have remained one of thousands of minor apocalyptic prophets, all predicting a similar end, if not for the brilliant public relations of Saul of Tarsus and other early Christians. And one of their tactics was to piggy-back onto already existing apocalypse stories.

Apocalypse myths predate Jesus by centuries. Ancient Greece, Persia, and Egypt are their primary birthplaces for the West. In Greek mythology, Zeus destroyed the world several times via flood, fire, and war. In one typical example, Zeus, seeing that humanity had become corrupt, ended the world by flood, sparing only two people to found a new race. And there it is: the basic pattern of apocalypse that’s been followed ever since. Humanity becomes wicked and is destroyed except for an elect, who go on to birth a new world.

Always a Social Context

Most people think of apocalyptic groups as religious sects. Religion and apocalypse are still tightly wedded, especially in the US, where a Gallup Poll reports 75% of the people believe in life after death. But as religion has been replaced with other organizing principles such as science and economics, so too have the reasons for apocalypse. Religious people express their doomsday belief through acts of their deities, but the common feature of apocalyptic belief is not religion. It is a social background of upheaval and anxiety. When times get uncertain, people in Judeo-Christian culture gravitate to the idea that there will be an end to the wickedness and misery through disaster and collapse.

An example is one of the first Western apocalypse stories with a known historical setting, Daniel’s prophetic dream of the world’s end in the biblical Book of Daniel. Here, political and social strife paints the background. This story was written about 165 BCE, during the height of a Jewish revolt. Jews had enjoyed several centuries of peaceful rule under first the Persians and then Ptolemy, but Palestine then fell under a Syrian-Greek tyrant. He trampled on civil and spiritual liberties, and forbade Jewish religious ceremony. The result was the Jewish Maccabean uprising. During this, Daniel dreamed of four beasts, each representing a successive ruler of Palestine, in which the final beast would “devour the earth . . . and break it in pieces.” This rapacious empire would then be overthrown, and only Israel would be saved. Nearly every subsequent example of apocalyptic belief occurs in a similar social context of upheaval, oppression, and alienation.

The hallucinatory Book of Revelation is the best-known apocalyptic text, but early Christians and Jews had many other books for solace in difficult times. The first-century books of Ezra and Baruch, excluded from the Bible, tell of a time of terrible hardship and injustice, symbolized by the wrath of a devouring eagle. The eagle was the well-known emblem of the Roman Empire, which held Christians and many Jews under brutal repression at the time these books were written. This empire, it was prophesied, would soon be destroyed by a mighty warrior, and all those who collaborated in the empire’s rule would die.

A later set of end-times texts, known as the Sibylline books, first appeared in the fourth century after the death of Emperor Constantine, when rule of the failing Roman Empire was contested by his two surviving sons, Constans and Constantius II. Constans, who favored the Nicene version of Christianity that is common today, was murdered by his brother. The Sibylline books mirror the fearful response of Catholics to this killing and reversal for their beliefs, and tell of a time of tyrants who oppress the poor and enrich the guilty. The books say a new leader will appear and destroy the heathens and their temples. A similar set of Sibylline books appeared when Syrian Christians suffered under Moslem rule in the seventh century. In all these cases, people hoped for the end of social disorder through catastrophe.

Countless other apocalyptic movements arose in similar contexts of confusion and oppression. In 13th century Germany, Frederick II was enmeshed in bitter conflict with the Pope, claiming that the Church was irredeemably corrupt. During this clash, Joachin of Fiore arose as a prophet to preach of approaching last days when the Church would be destroyed, choosing 1260 as the date of its collapse. Later, in the reign of the singularly ineffective Frederick III, when the gap between rich and poor grew enormous, and lawless nobles extorted the populace, the Bohemian Wirsburg brothers attracted thousands who believed the final days would come in 1467. Apocalyptic cults arise, it seems, in a context of oppression, uncertainly, and corruption. And in most cases, the subsequent destruction of the wicked was to be followed by floods, storms, and plagues that would decimate mankind, reminiscent of claims that global warming and ecosystem collapse will come on the heels of Peak Oil, as if one calamity isn’t enough. ...


Anonymous   says 1:20 AM

Ok, so because people predicted long ago that the end of civilisation was coming soon....and were wrong.....sometimes.......that means that peak oil is rubbish. Well....the US peaked in 1970.....fact...heaps of other countries have peaked too. There fate so far has been to rely on imported oil from other countries....question.....are you saying that those other countries will never peak. The world doesn't have the option of importing oil from somewhere only solution to peak oil that has worked so far....will not be available to the world as a whole......I ask you you think that those "other countries" will never peak? Do you realise that the USA had the second highest oil production of any country in the world.....only surpassed by Saudi Arabia...and only by a very small other words......the USA was the biggest oil producer barr one other was the Saudi Arabia of the world for many years. Just as the USA peaked and went into terminal will Saudi Arabia...and all the other middle east coutries.....most of them have peaked already......Saudi production has declined also. Every oil well ever drilled suffers from depletion and declining production sooner or do whole fields........states.......countries...and eventually the world....which it may have already.....the fact the past predictions of doom based on this or that didn't happen does not change the fact that peak oil is inevitable.....and there is no answer to the problem......accept to get oil from somewhere else.....which will be nowhere when the world peaks.

"While these writers argue that civilization is evil, unsustainable, and must collapse, they also posit that human beings deserve something better that can only arise after this culture dies."

Does Tainter really argue that "civilization" is evil? Or is the writer trying too hard to fit their narratives into his biblical analogy?

Part of the problem here is a lack of definition of "civilisation". Whose? Which one? And even what the author means by collapse?

My poor understanding of Tainter was that collapse involved a simplification and reduction of complexity - and therefore (almost by defn) a reduction in anarchy and chaos.

Anon - no one said oil production won't peak - and Toby didn't even say (like I do) that we will be able to replace oil as a primary energy source without problems (he left the question open).

The essay was about apocalyptic thinking and what causes it.

SP - I can't remember if Tainter was anti-civilisation - though I think the other examples were valid.

I agree that defining both civilisation and collapse is key to making sense of these sorts of articles - particularly whether or not collapse means chaos or if it means "anarchy" (in the sense of less centralisation rather than an absence of order).

Big Gav - good pithy article and well worth the read.

I wonder if anon is in that transition period... having come across this peak oil thingy, finding the arguments pretty solid and is now in a dissonant phase of reassessment?

The style and strident tone reminds me of arguments 5-6 years ago on TOD.

Funny to post such a comment here on a site called "Peak Energy" ;-)

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