Five months is a long time in climate politics. The arguments change with the seasons. Back in the hazy days of July and August, the eco-newswires were dominated by stories about ‘record-breaking’ arctic ice extent – even though it wasn’t record-breaking, and the record is only 30 years long. Now, they are more likely to be stories telling us that 2008 hasn’t been all that warm, but that global warming is still happening.
The other dominant story was the genuinely record-breaking oil prices. Every time you filled your car with petrol, the price had gone up by several per cent. The environmental movement was keen to interpret this as another harbinger of the beginning of the end, and used it to demand that we change our ways. It seemed to prove that we were in the grip of what they said peak-oil theory had predicted. Here is Caroline Lucas, Green Party MEP on BBC TV, in June.
‘The days of cheap oil are over’, she says. ‘A look at the figures’ (what ‘figures’?) would demonstrate that we’re past the ‘half way point of all oil’, meaning that it would get more and more expensive, she claims. Demand outstrips supply. Lucas must be disappointed then, that OPEC have announced that they are cutting production by 2.2 million barrels a day in an order to rescue the price from its current plunge. In July, a barrel cost $147. Today, it costs just $41.53. If ‘the days of cheap oil are over’, why is it so cheap? Why is it necessary to create the scarcity which Caroline Lucas said existed in order to create the higher prices she demanded?
It could still be argued that the price drop reflects the current economic climate. And indeed, there is some sense in the argument that as demand has dropped so too has the price. But this doesn’t explain the peak. Because, back in June and July, it’s not as if the world was experiencing an economic boom. Another major story – you may have noticed – of the last two years has been the ‘credit crunch’ that began in early 2007. Yet these two years of worsening economic affairs saw the price of oil rocket upwards. Just as we know house prices can ‘bubble’, so too can commodity prices. The upward prices were driven, in part, not by imminent scarcity, but by the idea that they might continue. After all, many – not just Greens – were lining up to make this drama a crisis. And who wouldn’t invest in oil, if they thought it was running out? And here’s the funny thing… It’s not in oil producers’ interests for people to believe that there is an abundance of oil. The idea of scarcity makes their product more valuable. Who are these Greens working for? On this basis, too, there is no real incentive for companies to invest in new exploration. New extraction facilities are hugely expensive. Invest prematurely, and you alter the market, price, and of course, politics. Imagine that in July 2008 you had invested your capital on the basis of reports that…
Some analysts have raised the possibility of prices rising as high as $200 a barrel during the next 18 months. … “You really cannot forecast how much further the market will rally now,” said Tatsuo Kageyama from Kanetsu Asset Management in Tokyo. “All I can say is the market will continue to rise.“
… you’d be feeling the pinch now.
Search the web for charts showing oil prices, and what they reveal is that upward surges in oil price reflect political events. Regional conflict in the Middle East, and Africa, the War on Terror, assassinations, strikes, and so on, litter the upward progress of curves. Yet environmental doom-sayers are quick to tell us that there is something fundamentally wrong about our relationship with the natural world, and that we stand on the brink of a precipice. Nothing could be more arse-about-face. Oil prices were high for very human reasons.
The ‘half way point’ between what was in the ground and its depletion has been given incredible significance by various alarmists. It is yet another ‘tipping point’ that is used to manufacture drama from dull statistics, in much the same way as Arctic ice progression is used to manufacture drama from dull statistics. Once this fictional point is passed, we are supposed to enter some dark new epoch, in which a society that has foolishly been predicated on some ‘unsustainable’ relationship with the natural world begins to collapse. The search for these points-of-no-return represent a religious mission to look for ‘signs’ from Gaia. So convinced are people that such algebraic maxima exist, which give mathematical identity to society’s relationship with nature, that anything and everything becomes a ‘tipping point’ at the expense of understanding the world more deeply; understanding the increasing price of oil as a shortcoming of the market in the face of events in the human – rather than geological – world, for example. The idea of the ‘tipping point’ then assumes political significance. Rarely a day goes by without it being applied to something – gun crime, obesity, you name it. Where there is a moral panic, you will find the ecological metaphor – the “tipping point” – being used to paint a picture of inevitable decline into social chaos.
The invocation of social chaos is a demand for social control. Like alienated weirdos who once stood in public places wearing ‘the end is nigh’ placards, the people making these statements cannot explain the world – it’s already chaotic for control freaks. For example, they can’t explain oil prices in terms of political events. Curves representing Arctic sea ice approach ‘tipping points’, which they argue represent movement towards ‘runaway climate change’. ‘We’ve got to change the way we live’, they say. While they so comprehensively fail to explain the social world, we should ignore them, just as we walked past those men in their placards. They deserve only a bit of sympathy, at arms length.
There is a problem for people making these statements. Their luck runs out. Nature takes a different course. So…
As the environmental movement emphasises our relationship with nature, how about we treat doom itself as a ‘natural resource’ which is exploited for political capital? It is a resource that is depleted in two ways. First, let’s assume that it is finite – nature cannot continue to provide alarmists with these resources forever, and so their jumping on everything as the sign of ‘the end’ is unsustainable. Second, the utility of these resources becomes diminished as an increasingly credulous public tire of them – demand for more and more doom grows. Hence, climate change alarmists leap on sea ice extent one year, floods the next, heatwaves the next… and so on. Each new trend constitutes a new deposit of resource, that will be depleted, flogged to death, over the season.
Let’s call this theory the peak peak-oil-theory theory. So far, environmental alarmists have been able to avoid reaching the peak because they have been able to locate new trends, and invent new ways of telling stories about the progress of little blue lines which, for that season, appear to make sense. But now, there is clear evidence emerging that the tipping points have been passed.
Doom does not carry over from one season to the next. Arctic sea ice recovers from its ‘historic low’ in a year that climate-activist-meteorologists admit that global warming is postponed. The commodity price bubble of doom bursts. In order to prevent a crisis, alarmists pump ever more doom into the market, promising a bleaker future, but it just makes them look sillier and sillier. Confidence in the doom market crumbles still further, as the value of doom approaches nil.
The world’s doom-shale deposits, previously thought to contain enough pessimism to fuel the green project for centuries to come, don’t. The idea that technological developments will allow these reserves to be tapped is mere propaganda. The days of cheap doom are over.