Not the Future We Ordered: Peak Oil, Psychology and the Myth of Progress

Sandra Geitz (Faculty of Business and Enterprise, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia)


ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 10 November 2014



Sandra Geitz (2014), "Not the Future We Ordered: Peak Oil, Psychology and the Myth of Progress", Foresight, Vol. 16 No. 6, pp. 615-620.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2014, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

“The unmentionable crisis,” begins John Michael Greer,

It is a curious and recurring reality in social history that the crises that come to define eras are very often those that, until they burst into the forefront of public attention, no one affected by them was willing to discuss at all (2013, p. 1).

Energy Future Beliefs: Not the Future We Ordered

Greer wastes few words. Not the Future We Ordered examines psychology of our collective and individual responses as we approach unwelcome change. Greer’s approach and message is direct; he challenges us all to reflect on our beliefs and consider our actions.

Greer is an ecological historian and a prolific author, publishing several books on peak oil futures, as well as other topics. He is most known for The Long Descent, which envisioned what we may be experience in post peak oil futures (Greer, 2008); and The Ecotechnic Future that dealt with how to approach and prepare for such a post peak world (Greer 2009). Not the Future We Ordered focuses on why we are unwilling to see and consider peak oil and its potential consequences to our industrial futures.

Through history, he tells how unmentionable social issues are reframed as individual pathologies: post-war America women suffered “housewife syndrome” in isolated suburbia, or African slaves ran from their southern masters pre-Civil War as they were afflicted by a curious racial illness, “drapetomania.” Greer describes how both the political left and right have deployed such psychology to divert scrutiny of systemic issues, a sharp observation of how we tend to respond to complex dynamics that threaten our ways of understanding. He shows with examples, how our collective experience of modern crisis has been reframed as shame from individual inadequacy or deflected as blame onto other scapegoats, for our own feelings of powerlessness.

Unmentionable oil limits

Greer contends that the growing gap between our daily-lived experience and our expectations of continuous progress, improvement and betterment is our current unmentionable. He attributes emergence of peak oil as a key driver of the gap, along with other systemic issues. Readers unfamiliar with Greer’s prior works or those unaware of peak oil dynamics could benefit from further context at this point of his book. Individual examples or narratives showing how peak oil can impact their lives, from interactions with our economic, political and social systems would be useful for a wider audience. For a clear explanation and visualisation of energy economics and potential financial futures from limited oil, refer to an exemplar from Tullet Preborn Strategy Insights (Morgan, 2013) or the video production of Chris Martenson (2013).

Peak oil or maximum global oil production remains misunderstood and a taboo topic. Not the Future We Ordered briefly describes the phenomena of peak oil, before examining reasons for our lack of understanding of peak oil science and implications for progress, our deep cultural narrative. Greer explains how peak oil is determined by total volume of remaining oil, geology and distribution of oil within various rock structures from the 1950s work of Shell geologist, M. King Hubbert. He emphasises that peak oil is a natural limit; technology and economic incentives may make marginal oil yields and remote oilfield searches more viable, delaying the onset of peak oil temporarily. This has profound implications for our mid-term futures. Oil is our major energy source; fluid fuels are fundamental to most global transportation and modern industry. Greer explains as peak oil occurs, extracting the second half of oil volumes become more expensive over time, as geology makes extraction more difficult and higher technology costs are required for these lower oil yields. With rapid growth in total oil demand from developing and emerging nations, especially China and India, Greer expects our futures to be constrained by ever increasing energy prices and critical oil supplies. This is especially relevant to countries dependent on oil imports, sustaining transportation and industrial basis of modern society.

Oil price spike

Greer summarises the lessons from the recent 1970’s oil crisis: sharply spiking oil prices attributed to peaking domestic conventional oil production in USA and an external embargo of Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). He outlines the responses considered by the West, and their failure to enact effective and timely adaptive actions following this energy crisis. Neither an energy transition to nuclear power nor renewables in combination with energy efficiency were chosen in time to sustain our ongoing energy supply. Instead, our collective response was political and economic; non-OPEC oil supply was boosted by market forces and with large imports of foreign oil, so oil prices fell below 20 USA dollars per barrel to restart Western economic growth in the 1980s. The events almost 40 years ago are highly contested. International Energy Agency (2012) discusses the history of 1970s oil shocks and how oil supply and demand remain today in close balance. The latest energy outlook from BP (2013) aligns these oil shocks to the events of the Yom Kippur war and the Iranian revolution, without mentioning domestic US oil production declines. Most of Greer’s potential audience is too young to recall this history. Not the future we ordered concerns human beliefs and responses to challenges of beliefs, hence the context that they occurred is important. If we are to anticipate potential future behaviours and responses, it depends if we learn and are influenced by our prior experiences.

Our underlying concerns of the finite oil reserves were avoided, delayed and soon forgotten according to Greer. The 1980-1990s economic boom revived our belief in prosperity; very few people were willing publicly to raise awkward questions about peak oil, even though a decade before most had lived experiences of high oil prices and shortages. Peak oil supporters were branded alarmist, while critics misrepresented peak oil as an abrupt oil shortages rather than the global mid-point of all oil stocks. Peak oil was discredited as a theory; when those apocalyptic oil shortages failed to occur, the critics were vindicated at the time.

Which reports to believe?

As each new oil-field discovery was publicised across the developed world, especially 1970s USA, an impression of oil abundance was created. The other story of rapidly increasing global consumption was given little attention. Greer could have expanded on how governments, institutions and the media influence or shape public perceptions of oil energy economics, beyond his recounting of the public delay by the US Department of Energy in releasing a controversial Hirsch (2005) report. Oil system stocks and flows can be extremely difficult for the general media and public to comprehend with many conflicting, short-term or selective reports from various global sources on oil production, consumption and reserves. Forbes current year-end headlines proclaim that the USA is awash with oil, changing geopolitical strategies now that it is net oil producer, from being an importer after almost two decades (Bapna, 2013). BP (2013) global energy outlook summarises 2012 as having slower growth in global energy consumption from both the economic slowdown and efficiency responses by individuals and businesses to high prices. BP notes the USA shale revolution as 2012’s significant energy supply event; the USA had its largest oil production increase in its history and globally the biggest oil and natural gas increase.

International Energy Agency (2013) forecasts the long-term impact of US shale oil as modest to its 2035 baseline scenario. They advise technological advances that are unlocking US shale oil and other deep-water fields in Brazil, and its strategic geopolitical implications will influence the next ten years significantly. The International Energy Agency (IEA) cautions that this is not a new era of oil abundance. The baseline 2035 IEA scenario emphasises how steadily increasing oil prices to $128 per barrel (in year-2012 dollars) are required for this new technology to be economically viable.

Diverging impressions can be created from the same source data. (2013) charts intensity of recent USA shale oil drilling to show how USA peak oil curve needs to be “redrawn” from it’s previously accurate 1970s conventional oil peak of M. King Hubbert. It discredits the “peak-oil brigade” as out-of-date doomsayers who used the theory to alarm the world it was running out of oil. More recently, The Economist (2013) claims oil to be yesterday’s fuel, as future global demand is peaking rather than oil supply. In contrast to IEA, BP and US Energy Information Agency, the Economist forecasts reserves increasing from 50 to 200 years. They contend that tighter automotive fuel efficiency will extend oil reserves globally and shale gas will displace future industrial demand. How does the public make sense of all these seemingly divergent trend reports?

Dismissing alternatives

Greer describes how alternative energy breakthroughs were regularly announced in the media, advancing hopes of sustainable energy futures. He accurately depicts conventional oil as the most affordable and energy intense source. However, his reasoning for renewables and non-conventional oils being only partial solutions could have been clearer; net energy research of Tullet Prebon compares energy sources with clarity (Morgan, 2013). All these factors subdued public concern and stalled a timely transition from oil dependency as deems Greer; compared to conventional oil each of the alternatives lacks abundance, affordability or availability.

“Comfortable majority of people across the industrial world used such arguments to dismiss the possibility of peak oil from consideration,” states Greer (2013, p. 22); we suppress peak oil awareness, as it challenges our identity, our understanding of place in our industrial world. Peak oil conflicts with our belief in continuous and inevitable progress; progress that Greer argues has mirrored fossil fuel discovery of coal and then oil, and key to ongoing material prosperity. He outlines how descent futures are considered unimaginable or implausible; we believe tomorrow will be better than today, with human agency and ingenuity beating all. He calls this our myth of progress, our compelling narrative in believing in our own omnipotence.

Psychology of existing beliefs

Greer notes how human behaviour tends to minimise discomfort. When we face cognitive dissonance, the psychological discomfort from experiencing a conflict in beliefs, we tend to reject any new data. He explains the sunk-cost fallacy or psychology of previous investment that we favour existing beliefs where we invested significant effort, identity or reputation rather than opening ourselves to new ways. The larger our personal investment, the more rigidly we hold onto existing progress beliefs, rather than acknowledge peak oil science. As sufficient evidence disproves old beliefs, we reach a tipping point and old ways are discarded. In transition, we experience psychological distress, double-bind of conflicting views from the constant cultural commentary promoting social progress while experiencing or witnessing stasis or declining living standards. Greer believes modern society is so invested in progress that we are blind to events such as peak oil; he states that we are unable to discard old beliefs in time, as adaption required 20 years to avert energy descent.

Not the Future We Ordered contends most of those opposing progress are tolerated others, act in the role of Jungian archetypes of the shadow. Unbearable attributes in others represent our most feared characteristics, so these others relieve our own burden of self-awareness, perpetuating the status quo. Rarely does criticism of norms lead to social change and the forming of new norms. Greer suggests industrial society tolerates many environmental groups and activists, as they reinforce progress; renewables and biofuels compete as more progressive, thus legitimising oil and other fossil fuels as progress’s base. Greer views a strong counter-narrative motivating these others in society. He suggests they are driven to avert apocalyptic collapse despite significant personal and reputational risk opposing progress, persisting even as success seems allusive.

Greer sees progress and apocalypse beliefs as unhelpful; he says they prevent us from navigating emotional patterns; naïve hope in the case of progress or paralysing fear and futility from collapse beliefs. To face futures of growing global energy demand and to take collective action on fundamental oil limits, Greer believes we must overcome our psychological barriers: progress beliefs, past investments and our shadows. He expects each of us to experience emotional loss as we let go of progress beliefs or “five stages of peak oil,” based on Kübler-Ross five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Alternate futures

Greer’s explanations of our individual and collective psychologies are very useful to understanding how belief systems can be self-reinforcing. His analysis that often activists bolster the dominant dynamics they seek to change is bold, brave and relevant. As told by Greer, our social psychology and energy history suggests that we are comfortable in the majority and unwilling to reframe beliefs in progress and energy abundance, as we risk socially exclusion. He anticipates psychological adjustment, personally and socially, as we abandon our dreams in progress and peak oil dynamics begin to take effect.

The various narratives of oil futures, continual progress from human power and ingenuity, abrupt apocalyptic end from human sin or the slow descent futures described in Greer’s earlier works, compete for our attention. Published in early 2013, Not the Future We Ordered was overwhelmed by the exuberant shale oil story, particularly in the USA.

This Greer book encourages us to look beyond short-term events and media litany, to envision alternate futures based upon the complex system dynamics of oil and human behaviours. There are signs that the concept of peak oil has moved beyond the social fringes. Energy economists, think tanks and geotechnical experts on energy dynamics are publishing reports on limits to oil, while there is greater public debate and awareness of peak oil. Globally, the public is acutely aware of rising oil and energy costs. Transport and industry oil efficiency or substitution to alternative energy sources are gaining momentum in direct response to high energy costs, now stabilised above $100 per barrel. As trust for institutions and governments diminishes globally, citizens are rejecting political rhetoric of further progress. Rather, many foresee declining prospects for their children and grandchildren. Perhaps a social tipping point is closer than Greer writes, as more embark quietly on alternate lower energy futures and encourage others to follow.

Not the Future We Ordered makes a thought-provoking contribution to our understanding the behavioural systems driving current habits and limiting future options, as we approach global peak of to oil production. It helps us to examine ourselves, our personal and social beliefs that drive our daily actions. Greer provides fresh insight to approaching our energy futures, and he adds belief systems to the complex energy dynamics of technology, natural geology, economics and geopolitical security to better understand how our futures may be shaped.

About the author

Sandra Geitz holds a Masters of Management (Strategic Foresight) and writes on foresight as Emerging Fellow for the Association of Professional Futurists. She leads business, strategy and cross-functional projects as an engineering manager in Ford Asia Pacific. She has a Bachelor of Engineering (Hons) from University of Adelaide.


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