Reflections on public engagement with the issue of peak oil

In the debate about global sustainability, peak oil has been somewhat sidelined. In seeking a greater public engagement with the energy challenge presented by the prospect of a declining oil supply, we have much to learn from how the public has responded to the issue of global warming. [18 September 2010 | Peter Boyer]

Address to a Sustainable Living Tasmania public forum, Tasmania’s Community Response to Peak Oil, Hobart, 18 September 2010

One of the most striking of the many diagrams in The Limits to Growth, the 1972 study of our global futures, shows time on one axis and distance on the other, to demonstrate how the great majority of people focus on what’s closer to them in space and time, with numbers falling away as we get farther afield and further into the future. I carry that image with me in my head as a reminder that people like us, the big-picture brigade, are not your average punter.

We’re neither better nor worse than others, but we are different, and we are a minority, outnumbered by tens or even hundreds to one. Where most give top priority to immediate needs and demands, we tend to spend much of our time worrying about a finite planet and what things might be like a century from now. In the case of oil supply, we’ve taken the trouble to look for patterns in future energy availability, consulting expert opinion and not just accepting what vested interests, including governments of oil-producing countries, are telling us. In just the same way we’ve observed what is happening with our climate, listened to the scientists who do all the research leg-work, and come to the same conclusion as with peak oil. That is, we believe that we in the developed world need radically to change our use of energy, which means big changes to our ways of life.

Pursuing better public energy and climate policies comes naturally to us, to the point where we sometimes fail to understand how everyone else doesn’t see it our way. We can’t see why the bleeding obvious isn’t so obvious. We read in disbelief or despair the bloggers’ posts about how we should get a life, or how we’re only in it for the money (!), or why the cost of electricity or petrol must be capped. The fact is, most people’s priorities and needs are different from ours, or we wouldn’t be here wondering how we can shake those others into action. We can shout all we like about the danger of not being prepared for shocks and relentless oil price rises but without the actual shock (such as we had in the 1970s and to a lesser extent in 2008) people aren’t going to listen.

In my humble opinion, some of the most thoughtful contributions to the global debate about climate change have come from Professor Mike Hulme, of the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, in England. Hulme is the author of a widely-praised book about people and climate, called Why we disagree about climate change, in which he methodically deconstructed the climate debate in an effort — I think a successful one — to pinpoint why people can’t come to a sensible agreement and just get on with fixing things.

One of the refreshing aspects of Hulme’s approach is his non-judgmental position about people whose positions on the cause or importance of climate change differs from his. To quote him:

Our discordant conversations about climate change reveal… all that makes for diversity, creativity and conflict within the human story — our different attitudes to risk, technology and well-being; our different ethical, ideological and political beliefs; our different interpretations of the past and our competing visions of the future.… If we are to understand climate change and… use [it] constructively in our politics, we must first hear and understand these discordant voices, these multifarious human beliefs, values, attitudes, aspirations and behaviours. And, especially, we must understand what climate change signifies for these important dimensions of human living and human character. [Hulme, Why we disagree about climate change, p xxvi]

Hulme is a lead IPCC author who endorses the position that human activity is contributing to climate change. As a geographer, he operates in a field that straddles natural and social sciences, which I think helps to give him a better appreciation than many in the IPCC fold about the reality of human intercourse — a reality which I would argue is even more complex than the science of climate itself.

Hulme argues — and I think he’s right — that in the public argument over climate policy, the content of the scientific argument for anthropogenic climate change is not at issue. It follows that the well-known complexity of climate science is not an important factor in the slow take-up of policy ideas. There are many other reasons, to do with the way we humans think and interrelate, which are much more telling. In considering public engagement on peak oil, the fact that the science behind peak oil is relatively simple compared to climate science isn’t necessarily going to make a difference. Often when those all-too-human factors kick in, the intellectual content of the argument takes a back seat. We can’t abandon content altogether — it will always have its place — but by itself it will never win the policy argument for decisive action on climate or peak oil. We have no option but to attend to these other, often much more powerful, imperatives.

So what are these imperatives and how are they manifested? There was a terrific discussion on ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind a fortnight ago which addressed from a different perspective the kinds of points that Mike Hulme has raised. It was a discussion of the human aspects of the climate debate, mainly involving a couple of eminent psychologists, one based in Australia (Joseph Reser of Griffith University, Queensland), the other in Canada (Robert Gifford of the University of Victoria, British Columbia). These two are co-editors, with others, of a landmark American Psychological Association report, Psychology and Climate Change, which came out earlier this year.

Essentially, what they said was that the issue of climate change had focused too much on changes in the physical landscape and too little on changes in the “human landscape”. There were many aspects to the discussion, but here I’d like to focus on an elaborately-developed metaphor of Robert Gifford’s that I think throws light on our quest to gain public support for a Tasmanian energy descent plan.

Gifford took a psychologist’s look at the barriers in our path and came up with an image of dragons. As he put it, dragons are “the bad guys that we have to slay”. He discerned seven genera of climate (read, peak-oil) dragons, which are as follows.

Dragon 1: Limited Cognition. Being irrational is perfectly natural — we’re all a bit that way sometimes — and at such times we aren’t open to rational argument.

Dragon 2: Sunk Cost. This is the amount I’ve already invested in something, such as a car which cost $40,000; or a certain behaviour or habit, a behavioural momentum. Another Sunk Cost dragon is conflicting goals or aspirations: for example, while we all want to do our bit for the climate, we also want to protect our children, so we drive them to school.

Dragon 3: Other People. If we have friends who are “climate-unfriendly”, who drive Hummers, we’ll tend to be influenced by them. (Conversely, we can be influenced by friends who ride bicycles; the “other people” dragon can have a good side.)

Dragon 4: Ideological Blockages. This dragon involves subscribing to climate-unfriendly ideologies, like a belief that Mother Nature controls everything, so it makes no difference what I do. It can be based on a religious belief, but it’s just as likely to be secular (though religious in its implications).

Dragon 5: System Justification. We get comfortable with societal patterns and feel that if we change something we’ll upset the order of things. We don’t know what the consequences might be and we’re unhappy about that.

Dragon 6: Perceived Risks. We perceive risks in most things we do (what are the social risks of wearing this item of clothing today; what is the functional risk of putting solar panels on the roof; what is the temporal risk in spending time shopping for something I may not need). Mostly we don’t even think about risk in making our decisions, it’s so automatic. We live in a world of risk and are therefore risk-averse. The Perceived Risks dragon prevents us from acting because there might be a risk involved. This dragon often comes in the form of external messages from politicians and media.

Dragon 7: Limited Behaviour. This one comes in two forms, the first of which is tokenism (an example would be walking to work only in Walk to Work Week, after which we assume we’ve done our bit). The second form of the Dragon of Limited Behaviour is the rebound effect, which Gifford has illustrated with the statement, “Honey I bought a Prius. Let’s drive to Darwin.”

Neither Gifford nor Reser nor Hulme can offer a definitive package to us that, unwrapped, reveals how we can get our wider public to see, as we so clearly do, the hazards of inaction. That’s because there isn’t one. We like to generalise, using terms like “public” and “community” as if we’re just cogs in a machine, but as the psychologists know full well, each individual carries within him or her self a whole battery of motivations for choosing to do one thing over another, and it is folly to think there’s a single size that fits all.

But what they do tell us, loud and clear, is that we need above all to stay in touch with the wider community. We may have access to privileged information, we may see things that others don’t, but we gain nothing by seeing ourselves as apart from others. To achieve extraordinary goals, we need to accommodate the ordinary. We need to bring the big picture into the here and now, the planet into our own back yard, next century into the present. To give people a handle on the bigger picture that’s on their own terms, firmly lodged in their own immediate world. Not just “think globally, act locally”, but also “respond personally”, and to give this message in terms that mean something to them. Or as Blake put it, infinitely better than I could, To see a world in a grain of sand,/And a heaven in a wild flower,/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,/And eternity in an hour. [Auguries of Innocence].

In this particular quest, bringing our public into the energy and climate action tent, we need to take some time out from dwelling on the big picture. We achieve success in this struggle by seeking to be as one with all the rest of us, firmly grounded in the here and now. There’s no other way.

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