This is a wonderful clip. Matt Simmons is the author of ‘Twighlight in the Desert’, is a leading US investment banker, and a long-term advocate of the peak oil argument. When he was asked to go on CNBC’s ‘Fast Money’ to discuss the high oil prices, he clearly stunned the presenters with his forthright analysis of society’s current perilous situation. When asked if $147 a barrel is a ‘wake up call’ he replied “yes, but we’re not having a wake up call, we’re having a witch hunt for who got us here”, a succinct analysis of the current world situation. What was especially fascinating to watch was when he was asked for his prognosis of the near future.
The nub of his argument is that oil is still actually very cheap, and that the biggest danger the world faces at the moment is those people who argue that the current high prices are a blip, a bubble, a speculators spike. When asked for his scenario of the next year or two, he replied that the US would keep dropping its inventories (of oil) and feeling good about it, which would be followed by a shortage, which would, in turn, lead to “a run on the banks so fast your eyes would spin. This is when everyone tops up their tank. We haven’t run out of oil, but we could literally run out of usable diesel and gasoline and then we would have the Great American Disaster, because within a week we’d have run out of food”.
At this point the looks on the faces of the presenters is priceless. Yet Simmons isn’t finished yet. What can we do now, he is asked. We need to retreat from our oil addiction, “start living in villages again, eliminate long distance communiting by liberating the workforce and paying by productivity and growing food locally, and starting to embrace an enormous amount of R&D into things we’re not really doing anything about today, like ocean energy, geothermal, then within 5-7 we could get ourselves out of a very deep hole, but we have to do it real quick”.
The programme’s oil analyst then quickly goes straight off back into business-as-usual, and the discomfort evident in those in the studio subsides. In Richard Heinberg’s ‘Peak Everything’, he cites Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five psychological stages people go through when told they have a terminal illness, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. I am increasingly finding these a useful scale by which to measure where people are at in the peak oil debate. While Simmons appears to have moved, in this piece, to acceptance, the presenters are still in the bargaining phase, as if we can somehow haggle and trade our way out of this.
When I look around at UK society today, we see the denial about peak oil in the tabloids arguing that high oil prices are all the governments fault, and in the conspiracy loons who argue there is still hundreds of years worth of supplies which some mythical ‘they’ are hiding from us, the anger in the striking hauliers and other fuel protesters, the denial in government circles who still argue that oil will cost $67 a barrel in 2020, the bargaining in the debates around the 2p duty on fuel, the depression about it seems to be pretty common in writers on the subject, and then the acceptance, which I guess is what Transition work is trying to do, to look at the practicalities of where to go once people accept what is happening. It is fascinating to see what happens as people move through these stages, and I see lots of people moving through them quite quickly these days!
What is so fascinating about this clip, is that it is somehow a microcosm of what happens when people in denial and in bargaining meet someone from the acceptance stage. Now all we need is for Simmons (and others) to really integrate climate change into his thinking, and then that acceptance would be even more powerful! These exchanges are happening more and more these days, and what is important, I think, is not to take any of these 5 stages as being somehow superior to any of the others, there is no moral high ground here, rather they are all perfectly natural responses to a bewildering situation, although ultimately, the faster we can move towards acceptance, the faster we can actually start in earnest our preparations for life after oil.