Chomsky and the Doomers

Superstar left-wing intellectual Noam Chomsky has been hanging out with the peak oil-doomer and New Age/permaculture crowd recently.

He appears somewhat incongrously in the New Age film Anima Mundi, alongside Deep Ecologist John Seed, Holistic “Science” tutor at Schumacher College Stephen Harding, 9-11 conspiracy theorist Mike Ruppert and Anthroposophist Dr Mark O’Meadhra;

and also took part in a recent round table discussion with Dmitri Orlov, James Kunstler, Nicole Foss and Richard Heinberg, discussing peak oil and the fate of civilisation.

During the discussion, Chomsky cites Daniel Yergin, author of The Prize and The Quest– two books about the oil industry, and is chalenged by Kunstler who askes him,

I hope you don’t take Mr. Yergin seriously. He’s the oil industry’s chief public relations prostitute.

to which the venerable man responded somewhat testily,

Oh, absolutely not. He’s a serious analyst and the same is true of the Financial Times and others. But that’s missing the point. Suppose he’s right. Then it’s a disaster.

Earlier, Nicole Foss had claimed that shale gas was not all it has been frakked up to be:

Shale gas is an absolute mirage. Right now, they’re using what’s left of conventional natural gas–a whole gas field from Northern Alberta–for the purpose of tar sands. But conventional natural gas in North America peaked in 2001. When we realize we actually do not have a hundred year’s worth of shale gas sitting in the wings–we might have five–then all of the sudden we’re going to realize natural gas is not going to be cheap in the future.

Now, Kunstler may well be correct about Yergin- there are plenty of compelling reasons to believe that oil has peaked and the world will find it harder and harder to fill the gap of diminishing production from existing wells with either new discoveries or new technology.

So the shale gas issue is critical because it is being widely hailed as the bridge fuel to a renewable future which will slowly begin to substitute for oil in transport over the next few decades until renewable energy improves or new technology is developed.

The IEA has recently upgraded reserve estimates to in excess of 250 years of global supplies of shale gas- how can Foss’ and the other doomers certainty that it will be more like 5 years possibly be reconciled with this?

The truth may be somewhere in between. Feasta have a good review of the different views on this here. A recent Deutsche Bank report concludes:

Whilst we think that EU shale-gas deposits certainly have the potential to contribute meaningfully to indigenous production over the next 10-20 years, we do not expect the impact of shale-gas production on EU gas prices to be anywhere near as great as has been the case with US shale-gas production.

Shale gas is still a new technology to be tried on any scale outside the US, and explorations are only just beginning in most of the world,(and already meeting widespread opposition from local groups who balk at having to pay the environmental cost for fossil energy they have been used to importing from distant countries they rarely visit) so ongoing improvements in technology and discoveries of this particular hydrocarbon over the next decades can be expected. It may not be as cheap in the future as is being hyped, but it does still appear to represent an example of a new technology that peak-oilers like Kunstler have always dismissed.

Medialens lament the fading faculties of the grand old man of the Left:

Kunstler’s rejoinder that Yergin is the chief public relations prostitute of the oil industry is dead on the bullseye, and apparently Noam hasn’t caught up with that reality yet. Nor does he seem to grasp that there is no longer any possible doubt that global oil production has peaked decidedly during the past decade. This is tragic to witness. But time and weariness stymie us all in the end. Commiserations, and respect as ever for this great old man.

What is more interesting is what the panelists all readily agree to- that it would be worse if Yergin is right and sufficient energy resources are available to offset collapse and allow civilisation to continue.

Chomsky explains:

The more peak oil is removed, the worse off we are and I think that ought to be kept in mind. The point before about the huge programs in the 1950s and since to shift us to a fossil fueled based economy and why that worked and why green technology doesn’t, I don’t think it’s a matter of us having made that decision, that has to do with corporate profits, and the government’s commitment to maximizing corporate profits. The highway act of the 1950s was not put to public judgment, any more than the development of computers and the internet was. These are government programs that are carried out in the interests of concentrations of private capital, which have an enormous influence on government policy and the population is left out of it.

So the transition to oil was driven by the drive for corporate profits and nothing to do with the energy density of oil and how it can do more work for us and thereby improve living standards in myriad ways. Chomsky would apparently have us believe that industrialisation brought no benefits at all and we would not have chosen it but for the greed of the corporations and a complicit government.

Chomsky may be growing senile, or he may have been coming from a very different position to the peak-oilers, more concerned with the horror of the prospect of another century of American hegemony than with the more mundane issues of irreversible resource depletion, with associated dangers of collapse, resource wars, famines, die-offs, and gang-warfare.

Orlov, Kunstler and Heinberg however, having written copiously about the likelihood of such events, have no such excuse. Don’t you just get the smallest feeling that their conviction that shale gas, for example, is a mirage, may be slightly colored by their death-wish for the modern world?

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