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4 Jul 2012

Some Transition reflections on George Monbiot’s announcement that “we were wrong on peak oil”

George Monbiot announced in the Guardian on Monday “We were wrong on peak oil. There’s enough to fry us all“, an article which concluded “peak oil hasn’t happened, and it’s unlikely to happen for a very long time”.  Several people have written, and even stopped me while I’ve been out shopping, to ask for my take on his piece, so here it is.  It has been a tricky thing to write, as in the time it took me to compose it, so many other interesting analyses of it have been posted, many of which I have tried to reference here.  In a nutshell, I think Monbiot’s piece swallows an over-optimistic take on peak oil, and there are things in his piece that I disagree with and things that I agree with, although I don’t for a moment consider myself a peak oil expert.  What he does prompt is a rethink in terms of how we present peak oil.  Let’s start with the things I disagree with.

Firstly I would question the idea that it is somehow news to anyone that there are a huge amount of as-yet-unexploited hydrocarbons in the world.  I first became interested in peak oil in 2004 when I met Dr. Colin Campbell and heard him speak.  Here (right) is one of the graphs from that talk.  While the shape of the peak itself has actually turned out to be more of a plateau than a peak as shown here, what I want to note here is the size of the second half of the Age of Oil, the downward half.  It’s huge, so huge it doesn’t fit on Campbell’s graph.  

As I noted in The Transition Companion, like a game of football, the oil age has been ‘a game of two halves’ (see image below).

The first half featured mostly easy to find, easy to refine oil.  The second half is what Michael Klare calls ‘The Age of Extreme Energy’, the tar sands, fracking and so on.  Monbiot writes as though the idea that “there’s enough oil to fry us all” is some kind of a revelation to the peak oil world, that everyone had blindly assumed that peak oil meant climate change was cancelled.  Not sure if I missed something and am unique among peakists, but I had always understood that not to be the case.  Luckily at least Sharon Astyk shares that take on things, writing “no one with four brain cells to rub together has ever thought that peak oil could get us out of climate change – since the emergent consensus that 350ppm might represent a critical tipping point, there’s very little debate on this subject by credible scholars, simply because we know we could cross that line because we have”.

Monbiot refers to “monstrous deposits in the United States: one estimate suggests that the Bakken shales in North Dakota contain almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia”.  Yet these deposits have been known about for a long time, and, unless I am very much mistaken, are included in Campbell’s graph.  The difference is that now the technologies to extract them seem to have come about sooner than anticipated.  It is mportant not to get too carried away though, as the folks at Automatic Earth argue in their post ‘Unconventional oil is NOT a game changer’.  There may be as much oil in Bakken as there is in Saudi Arabia, but getting it out is another challenge altogether.  Extracting the oil from the Saudi oil fields was a breeze, like drinking hot chocolate through a straw (not advisable though, Health and Safety, how about chocolate milk?) as compared Bakken, which is more like to trying to extract the same amount of chocolate from a chocolate brownie.  It’s an entirely different process.  Plus, as Bill McKibben is wont to say, when we began extracting the oil from Saudi Arabia we didn’t know about climate change.  That’s not a luxury we have as we size up the oil shale and the tar sands.

Shale gas extraction in Lancashire

Monbiot’s article, as I read it, is referring to the ability to extract oil from reserves, not any meaningful increase in actual reserves.  He also ignores whole area of Energy Return on Investment of these unconventional oils (according to Richard Heinberg, tar sands have an EROEI of 5.2:1 – 5.8:1 and oil shale of 1.5:1 to 4:1, and Automatic Earth have some interesting things to say about EROEI), which are a key argument against the idea that oil extracted in this way is comparable to oil from the first half of the oil age, which we may look back on as being a clean, green fuel by comparison.

Then there’s the foundation on which the article is based.  It is disappointing that Monbiot, who has previously written so incisively about peak oil (for example here, here and here) has so resolutely and publicly decided that the whole idea is a nonsense, especially when you look at the basis for this volte face.  It appears to be based entirely on a new report from Harvard University, entitled ‘Oil: The Next Revolution: the unprecedented upsurge of oil production capacity and what it means for the world’.  The report was authored by oil executive Leonardo Maugeri, although the possibility that he may be inclined towards a somewhat optimistic take seems to have been lost on Monbiot.  

This report has also been the subject of an analysis by Heading Out at the Oil Drum who has questioned many of the report’s basic assumptions, concluding “enough, already! There are too many unrealistic assumptions to make this worth spending more time on”.  Sharon Astyk summarises some of Cohen’s key concerns as “including capacity for production that Saudi Arabia has claimed but never demonstrated, a huge leap in Iraqi oil production, which everyone has said will happen any day now since 2003 and hasn’t, and a lot of overstatements of US shale production”.  

Then there’s the idea that somehow the peak oil has been disastrously off-target in terms of its forecasting, that the whole activity has been a complete waste of time.  Monbiot states that “some of us made vague predictions, others were more specific. In all cases we were wrong”.  Well kinda.  As Richard Heinberg pointed out recently, although predictions are always a very inexact science, it is actually the ‘peakists’ who have been more accurate in their predictions than the likes of cornucopians such as Daniel Yergin.

A recent study from the IMF, ‘The Future of Oil: geology versus technology’, which set out to see what has driven the changes in oil prices over the past 10 years, concluded that most of those price fluctuations can be explained by depletion above all other explanations.  Clearly predicting the future of oil availability and price is always going to be a hit-and-miss exercise, but in spite of Monbiot’s listing of failed predictions, my sense is that the peak oil movement has been proven right in some ways.  For example, as the International Energy Agency noted recently, conventional oil did peak, in 2006, and has been in sharp decline ever since, hence the need for the unconventional oils, which unless you had to, you would never even bother with, given the challenge and cost of their extraction, unless you had no other options, unless the age of cheap energy weren’t well and truly over.  The outstanding question is whether unconventional oils can fill the gap left by the depletion of conventional oil, and for me, in spite of everything in Monbiot’s article, is still the key question left unresolved.  

Overall, I thought that Dave Cohen captured it well a while ago in a post on

“There are basically two camps about the peak of global oil production.

•    Cornucopians — Not only is the glass half-full, it is brimming over. There is no threat whatsoever to industrial civilizations. The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.
•    Doomers — The glass is half-empty and we’re draining it fast. Industrial civilizations are going to collapse soon because there won’t be enough oil to go around. A new Stone Age is right around the corner.

Both these “schools of thought” are wildly incorrect.  These are emotionally-based positions which have little to do with Reality. Naturally there are many more Cornucopians than there are Doomers because mindless optimism is the default human position (mistake) in all matters, not just oil.  I can demolish both positions in two sentences.

•    Cornucopians do not know how to subtract.

•    Doomers do not know how to add.

Of course when I say these people don’t know how to add or subtract, I am describing the psychological requirements of these groups. Cornucopians cannot acknowledge that oil fields peak and decline, and that global oil production might do the same. Doomers cannot acknowledge that technology, exploration and wars in Iraq bring new resources on-stream. By and large, members of both groups know bugger all about the global oil industry”.

So now I’ll move on to where I agree with Monbiot, or at least where his post can trigger a useful conversation.  It does feel that the argument around peak oil has changed since Transition kicked off in 2005.  In 2005 it seemed that we were on the cusp of a supply crunch, that supply and demand were about to part company with each other, that $200 a barrel oil was a matter of just a few years away and that sudden and rapid change was inevitable.  I think perhaps that we underestimated the resilience, the ‘bouncebackability’ if you like, of the industrial growth system, at least in terms of its ability to evolve new extraction technologies.  In terms of managing its financial affairs it’s a different story.  

As Monbiot puts it, “the automatic correction – resource depletion destroying the machine that was driving it – that many environmentalists foresaw is not going to happen”.  Fair enough, but his article fails to mention the dire economic situation much of Europe is now facing, which has dampened demand and has replaced peak oil (temporarily) as our key limitation to growth.  That is a challenge that is set only to worsen, in my opinion.  

The International Energy Agency has frequently warned that any economic growth in the EU would lead to an increase in demand for oil which would derail that growth. David Strahan, in Petroleum Review, quotes Michael Kumhof, one of the authors of the IMF report, as saying “we have to do these really expensive and environmentally messy things just in order to stand still or grow a little bit … it doesn’t mean the picture is all rosy”.  The reality is that rather than our not having access to oil, for many people the economy is becoming so screwed that they can’t afford it anyway.

A friend visited from Ireland last weekend.  She told me of a neighbour who 4 years ago built a big house, as big as his mortgage would allow in the days of almost unbridled cheap credit, and fitted oil fired central heating.  He then lost his job, and while his wife still works, he is now a beekeeper and is helping my friend with her bees.  He went round the other day, in June, and over tea said “this is the first time I’ve been warm all day”.  They live in what 4 years ago was a desirable residence, which is now entirely inappropriate.  Huge.  Cold.  During the winter they basically live in one room with an open fire.  That is only partly the result of high oil prices, however caused.  Mostly it is a result of the debt crisis, a crisis that has only just begun.  Makes no difference to him though.  He’s still cold whatever.  There is nothing in Monbiot’s article that will heat his house next winter.

The important question for me is where are we now?  Where do we go from here?  The idea that our only option if we want to avoid a rapid collapse is an orgy of extracting unconventional oils by any means necessary is a logical idea when viewed from the perspective of the industrial growth system.  This is the same myopic mania that has redefined sustainable development as ‘sustainable growth’ and is hell-bent on a return to growth at all costs.  It is rather like an abusive husband who cannot see any option for his partner other than himself, while pschologically denying to himself the damage he’s doing.

However, viewed from a more holistic perspective it makes no sense at all.  The “we were wrong about peak oil” argument only really works as something to get excited about if you are a cornucopian who also believes that free market economics and deregulation is the key to economic growth and prosperity.  It also helps if you believe that climate change is a scam, which fortunately many of those who argue that “green is the new religion” and that we live in a world of bountiful resources do, the likes of Nigel Lawson and ‘rational optimist’ Matt Ridley.

Embracing the hydrocarbons that will define the second half of the oil age will, as Monbiot puts it, “fry us all”.  Climate change is hardly the only impact though.  Kurt Cobb wrote recently about how the rush to unconventional oils would reduce the US to what he called “Pincushion America”, citing a former EDA engineer’s prediction that within 100 years most of the country’s underground drinking water reserves will be contaminated. In other words, one consequence of our moving into the “second half” of the age of fossil fuel extraction is that, in our desperation, we create even more difficult challenges for us and for our descendants.  

Extracting unconventional oils also takes a huge amount of water.  They drive indigenous peoples from their ancestral homelands.  They concentrate money and power into the hands of oil companies and their wealthy investors.  They cause earthquakes (the UK government’s position on fracking seems to be “if it causes an earthquake, just stop for a day and then start again”).  Our oil dependency will remain a key vulnerability for our economies.  As David Strahan puts it, “these days both consumers and producers have been praying for lower prices to keep the wheels from falling off the global economy”.  We can surely do better than that.  

The depressing part of Monbiot’s article is the sense that now that power is once again consolidating into the hands of oil executives, we are never going to kick the fossil fuel habit in time.  It reads as though he has thrown in the towel.  So where is this change going to come from?`  I know you will be expecting me to suggest that perhaps the Transition movement might be the answer, and you’d be right, but with a caveat.  As Rio+20 recently made clear, and as Transition has stated from the outset, “if we wait for governments it will be too late”.  I believe more than ever that the drive for change will need to come from communities, from citizens, from ordinary people coming together and getting on with it.  I am thinking about calling the next book I do “The Thrill of Just Doing Stuff” because I think that is ultimately what it’s about.

Fracking, shale oils, heavy oils, are the path to a world where power, resources and control continue to be taken out of the hands of ordinary people and into the hands of those that would ruin the world.  Transition offers a different story, one that is about living more within our means, connecting to place, returning power to people and communities, building resilience at the local level.  For me it has much more claim to the term “rational optimist” than Matt Ridley’s world of climate denial, growth-fetish economics and centralisation of power.  My caveat though is that it is still far far too small.

Whether it is called Transition or not is irrelevant, given that we are seeing an amazing flowering of community energy initiatives, local food initiatives, pioneering local authorities, new investment mechanisms designed to kickstart sustainability initiatives and a lot more.  I do think however that the approach that Transition initiatives have collectively evolved and refined is one of the most powerful tools we have at this time.  It is self-organised, self-replicating, driven, motivated and positive.  It is creating new organisations, new models for inward investment, a new momentum towards rethinking local economies.  It waits for permission from nobody.  It is starting to model the alternative to the unconventional fossil fuel hell that will otherwise be unleashed upon us.

It is still far too small, but it can scale up.  It needs investment (we’re working on it), it needs to actively support the emergence of new, more resilient, more localised economies (it’s here) it need more people (like you?), it needs exposure (perhaps Monbiot could be doing that rather than writing articles like this?) and that’s about it.  Most of the other obstacles are of our own imagining.  The kind of world Monbiot warns us of here may well be our only option (although we can draw a lot of inspiration from the countries that are actually getting on with installing renewables rather than just talking about it, such as Denmark and Germany), but while we need the holding actions, the campaigns to hold it back, we also need the rapid proliferation of a bottom up approach, and Transition is the best attempt I’ve seen so far (but then I would say that wouldn’t I?!).  It is ultimately only by withdrawing our support, our investment, our purchasing power, from the industries that see no choice other than squeezing every miserable drop out of the last days of the oil age that we will get anywhere.  And we can only do that if we have a compelling story about what we could create instead.  

Monbiot himself wrote in 2005 “Our hopes of a soft landing rest on just two propositions: that the oil producers’ figures are correct, and that governments act before they have to. I hope that reassures you”.  I see absolutely no reason based on anything in his most recent article that anything whatsoever has changed in relation to those two propositions.  It is clear that whether it is because of the debt crisis, climate change or peak oil, a smooth landing looks increasingly unlikely.  I for one have no plans to toss the peak oil analysis into the rubbish just yet.  Rather we refocus and move on with the important work that remains to be done.  

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Finn Jensen
4 Jul 11:59am

Great article Rob. Send something to the Guardian too.

First it was a change of heart on nuclear power for Monbiot and now peak oil. Where will it end?

Our community has just launched a share offer for a community wind turbine – see

We are also doing community orchards and allotments, insulating our local church/community centre – see

Keep up the good work.

Steve Last
4 Jul 12:04pm

Good response Rob.

I was slightly dismayed by the Monbiot article too. It felt like it was based on a very elementary grasp of what peak oil means. I think that the comments added by readers emphasised that many will clutch at any straw to avoid grasping peak oil and the enormity of the predicament, especially in the context of climate change and the economy.

It also suggests to me that there remains a big disconnect between understanding peak oil in terms of quantity (fairly straightforward)and quality (more complex). Those of us involved in Transition need to be aware of oversimplifying peak oil like this.

Your post highlights that we can’t analyse oil or energy in a vacuum and need to consider as the single most important factor underpinning the ‘industrial growth society’.

Maybe George should read a copy of The End of Growth as a next step . . . I’d be happy to lend him my copy!

4 Jul 12:17pm

Great response Rob

Rob Weston
4 Jul 12:23pm

Nice piece Rob. I’m puzzled most of all at the sudden shift in George’s tone. He seems – not only in this article but also in the one following the damp squib of Rio+20 – to have moved from frustration, anger and proactive participation to sadness, apathy and defeatism. I hope it’s just a mood, not a withdrawal. He has raised a lot of important issues over the years and brought the debate to – and inspired action among – a large audience of thoughtful, well-resourced and often influential people. This matters.

See you at the conference 😀

Jonathan Crinion
4 Jul 12:51pm

Thanks for this Rob.

I agree Transition is very much part of the solution but worry that it may repeat the same mistakes as it grows. I like what you suggest about inward investment(or perhaps reflection?).

I’m wondering if perhaps for Transition the issue is also moral one. Should we knowingly consume a part of nature (oil and all its derivatives), which we know is is harmful to nature, which includes us.

Ecopsychologists argue that it is only through a transformation to an ecological-Self, in which harming the planet is seen as harming oneself, that we we will be able to transcend the historic Cartesian egoic-identity that underlies the economic fundamentalism of today.

Thus perhaps the debate about oil is more of a debate about symptoms rather than looking at the foundation of the underlying psychological affliction that prevents society from seeing its connection to nature.

I wonder if for Transition to work in the way we imagine it could that it might also have to consider its own moral foundation?

4 Jul 1:02pm

Videos and presentations from the 2012 Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas conference last weekend are available here:

I’ve not watched them all yet but the ones I have were very good — well worth taking a look after working through all the links in Rob’s article above.

4 Jul 2:04pm

This is a great development, it means we have to change our discourse a litte.
In Chile we have refrained from basing the transition movement as a response to peak oil climate change or economic crises. We choose instead to see the systemic crises which is the cause of degenerative symptoms. Keep it coming. Transition in transition. Love from Chile.

4 Jul 2:08pm

Good comprehensive article Rob.

George Monbiots surprising about turn is quite well responded to by John Michael Greer (who’s article preceeds Georges!)

To summarise, Peak Oil has not gone away but that the complex feedback and supply and demand effects complicate the picture significantly more than most Peal Oilers have appreciated.

JMG article further explains that because of the money to be made in high oil prices it is sucking up investment which would be much better spent elsewhere. This is the vicious circle of the “Monkey trap” which JMG has previously well described.

Heres a quote “Does this mean that peak oil is no longer an issue? Not by a long shot, because the economic shifts necessary to bring substitute fuels into the fuel supply don’t exist in a vacuum, either. They also put pressure on the global industrial economy, and generate countervailing processes of their own. That’s the detail that both sides of the peak oil nondebate have by and large been missing, even as those countervailing processes have been whipsawing the global economy and driving changes that seemed implausible even to most peak oil analysts just a short time ago.”

Of course by many measures oil production peaked in 2005 anyway.

Jonathan Smith
4 Jul 2:30pm

Very welcome Rob and well written. The one thing we can welcome from Geroge Monbiot’s article is an impetus for us in the Transition movement to up our game and re-frame the peak oil debate – he does make some valid points.

However over the last few years I’ve lost respect for Monbiot. It seems to me he is doing shock tactics and just out to provoke. I’m not sure if he really makes friends with anyone in particular, and that to me suggests he’s lost vision and direction.

Who do his articles really help? As you point out Rob, he appears to have thrown in the towel. Personally I think the Guardian should think carefully about what his articles actually bring to their excellent paper.

Anders M
4 Jul 2:34pm

Actually prof. Kjell Aleklett, GES at University of Uppsala, has argued that lack of fossil fuels would make severe climate change impossible:

4 Jul 2:36pm

I see he quotes only part of Matt Simmons statement iirc Matt said Saudis will never produce more than 15mbpd and he thought 12mbpd would be a likely limit So to say that a rise in production from 9mbpd to 10mbpd is proof that Matt was wrong is daft.

4 Jul 2:58pm

hello Rob,

whatever he thinks about peakoil… It is important that we are not able to live without the supermarkets and it is necessary that the knowledge comes back to us, how to live with the nature and our neighbours.

Mike Grenville
4 Jul 3:18pm

Jeremy Legget’s response to the Monbiot article:
Monbiot says he was wrong on peak oil but the crisis is undeniable. Many within the fossil fuel industry are sounding alarms. Society ignores such warnings – and listens to potential bubble-backers like Monbiot – at its peril

josiah Meldrum
4 Jul 3:28pm

Hi Jonathan,

You say:

“Personally I think the Guardian should think carefully about what his articles actually bring to their excellent paper.”

Sadly I think they do think about it – page views, below the line comment and Monbiot trending on twitter… all key elements in digital mass media sales (the Guardian’s online revenue stream is, presumably, built on advertising). I think this has a deleterious effect on the journalism and there is a kind of race to the bottom for the most sensationalist stories and the most outrageous commentators (led by the Mail Online).

I’m sure Monbiot would deny it, but many of his recent (the last year or so) articles feel this way: sensational, often no more than ad hominem attacks and sadly sometimes (because when he’s good he’s very good) very badly researched – like this piece.

Horacio Drago
4 Jul 3:43pm

There is no mystery about what Mr. Monbiot has been writing in recent times. After the Fukushima disaster he has been radically changing all his approaches and is now an enthusiastic advocate of nuclear power as the best alternative to combat climate change. Obviously he is being paid by the influential and corrupt nuclear industry. At the end of the industrial civilization, he is one more of some previously respectable people who have sold their soul to the devil…

[…] der Hebammrich der Transition-Town-Kultur, fühlt sich (durch eine Vielzahl von Anfragen) genötigt, nochmal zu erklären, was Peak Oil ist und dass er nie – im Gegensatz zu George Monbiot – annahm, dass Peak Oil dem Klimawandel im Wege […]

John Mason
4 Jul 3:52pm

The headline to the GM article nearly gave me a coronary, prompting a furious email being fired off! In the cold light of the following day I send a more considered one the points of which Rob covers well here. Here’s the core part of what I said:

“I do disagree with the Maugeri analysis and your further analysis of that. Why? Because the key to all of this is conventional or regular crude, which is what Hubbert was dealing with 55 years back. He was no more talking about the shale-plays than he was talking about tidal power. I would argue, and will continue to do so unless I see compelling evidence otherwise, that all of the non-conventional oil sources are so heavily rate-constrained in terms of production that they cannot, and will not, form a substitute, once conventional resources decline in terms of production-rate beyond a certain (currently unknown) point. I think one needs to separate the two and treat them as different entities.

I ran this past my Skeptical Science colleagues today and there was a range of opinions, but it was clear to me that those who disagreed with me were those lumping the whole lot together, when to my mind that is the wrong approach. We can bump along the plateau pulling 85 or maybe even 90 million barrels of Regular from the wells every day, and at the same time with an all-out drive get another 20 million barrels of non-con/day, but that may well be the ceiling for these resources in terms of practicality, so that as regular production eventually drops away we fail to meet the shortfall. This in turn, if we are smart enough, leads to an unprecedented rolling-out of renewables; if we are too dumb it merely prolongs and worsens the economic chaos under which we are living now – and leads to further climatic deterioration.”

Hoping I might get a response to that. Like a lot of us who have followed the peak oil story, the article made me feel like a granny being taught to suck eggs!!! Cheers – John

4 Jul 4:02pm

Such a good read Rob. While I love the constant Transition updates on the site I do miss your outward focused analysis and inspiring posts such as this one. Like it or not you’re a leader. The new book sounds great 🙂

Elizabeth James
4 Jul 5:33pm

Thank you Rob, I enjoyed reading this.

It put me in mind of a post of yours from a while back – I think it was research from Transition Streets – about what made people ‘buzz’ when they got involved in something Transition-y for the first time.

It cetainly wasn’t the abstract, moral-high-ground position of knowing that they were ‘doing their bit’ for the climate. No. It was the warmth of actually being connected to other human beings in a way that the industrial growth machine frustrates daily as a matter of course that really meant something. Making connections; getting to know people; having fun – that was enough.

No amount of worthy ecopsychological posturing about how we need to sit people down for a lecture in the history of ideas on healing the Cartesian split is actually going to achieve any real behavioural change, because people don’t typically make choices based on abstracts like this.

But joining in with something fun that also happens to solve a current problem is. And cake.

So having fun, solving a new and unexpected problem thrown up by the decline of the oil age/unravelling of the debt pyramid that is the modern economy (and more cake) are really what’s needed right here, right now, to make Transition get out there.

Viva la revolucion.

David MacLeod
4 Jul 5:34pm

Well done, Rob! I was just perusing through the Transition Handbook, and came across the Monbiot quote you ended your article with. I signed on to Energy Bulletin to quote Monbiot back to himself, and found you’d already done so.

“Our hopes for a soft landing rest on just two propositions: that [oil executive Leonardo Maugeri’s] figures are correct, and that governments act before they have to. I hope that reassures you.”

4 Jul 5:50pm

Also did a uey on veganism. Kind of undermines his own credibility by appearing to be born again, whatever, on every major issue and then switching. I think Josiah makes some valid points about market pressures on journalism. And I welcome the opportunity for well-informed debate.

lesley Bradley-Peer
4 Jul 6:33pm

“The Thrill of Just Doing Stuff” – Brilliant! I’m going to see if that one lands down here – an alternative bottom line…Just for the Fun of It 🙂

Thanks Rob, I’m sure it took lots of time and energy to write that response.

4 Jul 9:43pm

Excellent stuff Rob. Thanks.

4 Jul 10:11pm

Schnews wrote about this issue George back in 2008
SchNEWS 644 – 29th August 2008 – Peak Oil Theory

Justin Kenrick
4 Jul 10:57pm

Lovely article Rob . . . here’s hoping we can all keep our good humour, our knowing that denial doesn’t have to come from being paid and a ‘baddy’ but just from feeling defeated and lost and alone.

I think George is just great and has written and writes some wonderful stuff – the fact that he’s clutching at some straws that suck seems to me to be just the deep grief of feeling the world of good rich soil, living rivers, and seasons that we can live with and moan about, slip away under the crushing machine of delusional cancerous boom and bust economic growth.

George deserves a hug for all the wonderful work he’s done, including putting his body on the line. I would wish him a years break from writing and public speaking, I bet he would recover his depth of spirit, a spirit to match the sharpness of analysis he is capable of when the deadline culture is not spinning him into these states.

These are all my guesses, and I am sitting on a plane about to fly back from working in Cameroon. Alright I’ve been trying to protect forests and the indigenous people’s right to live there but I am still flying and frying the planet.

How can we all keep the good humour while being aware of our complicity in this system? How can we remain radical against what needs to be radicalled against, while being open and positive about the fact we are alive now and this is our chance to make our children’s future liveable?

Rob I didn’t know how to read that great title of your possible new book.

Is the fun of just doing stuff what drives the growth machine (he says, tapping on an iPhone that is sold to me as fun stuff) or about the fun of just doing stuff in transition?

Probably both!

Making the distinction may be crucial though, and for that we maybe need to think about transition as being not so much the fun of cake (and I LOVE cake) as learning to grow the flour and bake the bread.

How about we declare a year off for all of us? A year off from arguing against, and a year off from cake (hard I know!) and from any writing and public speaking that is against or that is fluffy. A year of being real. God knows I could do with it.

And with those midnight thoughts tapped out to myself on the privacy of a tiny screen – while cramped between what must be other just as (relatively) wealthy travellers – I sensibly just deleted all these – probably incomprehensible – words, and tried to relax to get a few hours much needed sleep.


Elzi Volk
4 Jul 11:04pm

Although not a part of an official Transition group, and before I even discovered the Movement, I began my own ‘transition’ disconnecting from the the madness of modern and industrial society. Peak Oil was not my primary motivation, but certainly a part. Instead, it was a moral choice; a choice based on values.

I am hoping that the latter is just as important to the overall Movement as is Peak Oil.

5 Jul 8:35am

Very likely, doomers (probably some) know how to add. It’s just that they don’t think that better technology will be sufficient to allow for replacements of conventional oil.

andrew ramponi
5 Jul 9:06am

As someone (?) once said ‘Neither you or I, or Einstein or the President of the United States can come to any sensible decision without the facts’. The predicament with the energy/economy/environment troika is that the issues are so huge and interconnected and with so many known and unknown variables that not only can’t we (anyone and everyone) know all the facts, but trying to put them together is thanklessly hopeless.

As Chris mentioned, the ASPO 2012 talks are on utube. I’d highly recommend Nate Hagens talk “Navigating Through a Room Full of Elephants”.
For me his most poignant and striking fact comes from comparing the energy in oil and human bodies with the costs. The conclusion: $500,000 of labour is replace by one barrel of oil. The basis of our civilisation.

This is enough for me. Much as I enjoy intellectual tinkering it hasn’t helped with this particular problem, so I see the status quo as quite simply a free lunch. The often obscured fact about free lunches is that someone, somewhere, sometime will pay for it.

What to do…eat a bit less maybe?

5 Jul 11:28am

The Guardian, and the rest of the MSM, are hardly real friends of Transition or the kind of society we’d like to see though they of course would love it if that’s what you think.

Patrick Cleary
5 Jul 12:08pm

When I first heard about peak oil in late 2004 it was a revelation. Given that action on climate change was so inadequate here was a new opportunity to transform society. If people and governments couldn’t be bothered to address climate change then maybe the prospect of falling oil supplies would help engineer a radical push towards the green agenda.

Seven years later and the government’s idea of resilience in the face of a potential tanker drivers strike is keeping petrol in your garage. The response to the end of cheap oil isn’t far removed from “drill baby drill” whether its fracking, unconventional oil tar sands etc.

I think the crushing of that earlier hope lies behind the tone of GM’s recent articles on peak oil and the Rio summit. It’s something that resonates very strongly with me and leads me to question whether Transition is really of much use in the face of the assault on our planet and the threat that represents to humanity. Everything Transition represents is good but it increasingly feels to me as a marginal activity. I wonder if, at its core, Transition is afraid of politics.

That said, I’m disappointed that GM didn’t take a more critical approach to this new report and I’m grateful to Rob for such a comprehensive response.

The Peak Oil Poet
5 Jul 12:53pm

Pretty much any credibility your post might have had was completely lost when you referenced the Automatic Earth blog as if it is a valuable source of information

it is not – far from it – and any site that suggests otherwise is just another site profiting from doom instead of applying reason


5 Jul 1:07pm

I see nothing new in George’s analysis. My understanding of peak oil has always been that we will have to extract oil from harder and harder sites, which will become increasingly expensive. Oil prices are going up and up. This has allowed the oil companies to invest in the harder to reach oil – good for them, but bad for everyone else. Our cost of living is increasing massively. Peak oil or no peak oil, there are still many problems relating to our energy supplies.

5 Jul 2:06pm

Why is it so hard for humanity to see another path forward? We’ve only been on this oily one for a scant century, but yet desperately cling to it and to any sign that it might continue like a lifeboat in a frigid sea? Somehow humanity managed to survive – even comfortably at times in the B.O. era.

Julian Gearing
5 Jul 3:09pm

Please check out Jeremy Leggett’s response to Monbiot, questioning his reasoning and saying the experts say Peak Oil is almost on us –

5 Jul 3:34pm

Like your response. Neil

Kate Konchog
5 Jul 10:04pm

Rob, you really should put some of these points forward in the arena in which GM has presented his arguments ie the Guardian.
I get peak oil, it makes total sense to me to use existing resources so that we pave the way for a smooth shift to less polluting, less expensive, more sustainable ways of doing the things we want to do…. the problem is that many people haven’t really grasped it- and think that peak oil doom mongers are saying” it’s nearly all gone” when in fact (HA!) they were wrong, there’s loads of it sloshing around , party on !
And these people are leftish, Guardian reading, banjo playing, surfboarding, scientific type professionals such as I work with… we have these conversations so I know they are out there. But I am not as able to present the evidence in as compelling and thoroughly well researched way as you. So please do respond to the guardian article in the Guardian-they will read it, and might just get it : I can’t get everyone to read your blog !

Sara Ayech
5 Jul 10:24pm

Thanks for this article Rob. I personally think this is a good opportunity to move on and focus on the key issues:

1. Regardless of how much oil there is left or how developed the technology to now obtain it, we are now moving towards a reliance on hard to extract oil. Getting it out of the ground, the sea bed, tar sounds and the Arctic will cause an unthinkable amount of environmental destruction, far beyond what humans have so far done to the planet.

2. In the face of climate change we still urgently need to move away from our fossil fuel dependency.

When our TI (Dartmouth Park) wrote our mission statement about 6 months ago, we discussed and chose not to use the term peak oil and spoke instead of the need to free oursleves from fossil fuel dependency. Our reason was that we felt the concept is complex, requires a graph and a discussion to explain, and that the key issues were climate change and a reliance on unconventional, expensive, environmentally destuctive oil.

There is an important role for campaigning organisations and individuals to fight against the companies who are set on scraping every last drop of oil from the ground, regardless of the damage it causes to the planet.

But as a Transitioner (as well as an oil campaigner) I wholeheartedly agree that our role is to work with our communities to develop practical, positive, bottom-up, empowering alternatives. In recent years, while governments have done little but remain wedded to oil (and now in thrall to gas) our movement has been successfully showing some inspiring solutions. Regardless of the commentators we should be proud of this and move on.

Nicola Beglin
5 Jul 10:38pm

Thank you Rob – I am completely in awe for your clarity and analysis , and pointing our way forward.Also the breadth of your research and providing all those links to follow up. Please do get something in the Guardian as others have suggested.

John Mcgeechan
6 Jul 8:59am

well measured response Rob

Jerry Barr
6 Jul 10:12am

I have been waiting anxiously for this response and it is comprehensive and well presented. Thank you Rob

6 Jul 12:59pm

Rob, your insight gently challenges the traditional activist view: that if we really want to eliminate something, we should focus on it. It is clear that by giving a particular problem all our attention and energy, we feed that problem. Your measured response is clear. Our energy should be focused on what we need, trust, love, living in abundance, education and peace. Thank you.

Judith Katz
6 Jul 3:38pm

Dear Rob,
My favorite paragraph is the one that starts with, “Whether it is called Transition or not is irrelevant…” What you say about replicable, scalable and grassroots made me think about what I am doing with some friends here in the San Francisco East Bay. The “Connection Action Project” is setting up empathic listening posts to restore the commons and offer sacred spaces where any point of view is welcome. Volunteer empaths translate stories, criticism, and blame into the universal language of feelings and needs.
For a long time I lived a hedonistic lifestyle based on my fears and certainty that the world was coming to a dire end. Now my life is more oriented towards service to others. In a way it is also hedonistic because I find more happiness in contributing that I did in taking, even if I don’t know whether it amounts to anything in the long run.
I like your idea for your next book.
I am especially inspired by your commitment to stop flying.

Yours, Judith Katz

Sara Ayech
6 Jul 10:32pm

Thanks for this article Rob. I personally think this is a good opportunity to move on and focus on the key issues:

1. Regardless of how much oil there is left, how developed the technology to now obtain it, or how economically viable it has now become to extract, we are now moving towards a reliance on hard to extract oil. Getting it out of the ground, the sea bed, tar sounds and the Arctic will cause an unthinkable amount of environmental destruction, far beyond what humans have so far done to the planet.

2. In the face of climate change we still urgently need to move away from our fossil fuel dependency.

When our TI (Dartmouth Park) wrote our mission statement about 6 months ago, we discussed and chose not to use the term peak oil and spoke instead of the need to free oursleves from fossil fuel dependency. Our reason was that we felt the concept is complex, requires a graph and a discussion to explain, and that the key issues were climate change and a reliance on unconventional, expensive, environmentally destuctive oil.

There is an important role for campaigning organisations and individuals to fight against the companies who are set on scraping every last drop of oil from the ground, regardless of the damage it causes to the planet.

But as a Transitioner (as well as an oil campaigner) I wholeheartedly agree that our role is to work with our communities to develop practical, positive, bottom-up, empowering alternatives. In recent years, while governments have done little but remain wedded to oil (and now in thrall to gas) our movement has been successfully showing some inspiring solutions. Transition is doing a great job of showing a positive low-energy future rather than a terrifying one where we continue along the road of planetary destruction in order to get every last drop of oil. Regardless of the commentators we should be proud of this and move on.

Nicole Foss
8 Jul 5:36pm

The critical failing for unconventional fossil fuels is that low EROEI energy sources are incapable of sustaining a society complex enough to produce them. I’ll publish a commentary on this at TAE later today.


Gray Southon
9 Jul 12:11am

I think you tragically miss the warning that Monbiot is giving – that the new technologies are releasing non conventional oils in a way that make the oil industry a massive Juggernaut that will override our concerns about climate change.

It is great to keep “doing stuff”, but don’t take your eyes of the large power dynamics (good and bad) that can fundamentally affect the stuff that you are doing.

Steve Sainsbury
9 Jul 12:41pm

We’ve seen this over and over again. People who have at first had a sound grasp of realities, then get bamboozled by the lobbyists and others with odd motives. I’ve been going off George for a long time now, his idea that buses will be the ideal transport system of the future is laughable. Will the bus companies be able to afford to maintain the road infrastructure (which requires loads of oil) by themselves? Mad stuff. And he clearly hasn’t ‘got’ that Peak Oil forecasts have always included non-conventional oil in their calculations, so nothing’s changed. Rob – please stay as sound as you are now always!!

Michael Bassey
9 Jul 6:36pm

Thanks Rob. I felt depressed when I read George Monbiot’s article but your balanced argument – and the folk above who have put in some very wise comments – have lifted me back to my usual optimism. In my forthcoming “Convivial Policies for the Inevitable” I talk of today’s three horsemen of the apocalypse: global warming, peak oil and economic chaos. (What the 4th horseman will be is anyone’s guess). What seems increasingly likely is that it will be economic chaos that will bring our society to the realisation that ‘transition’ has important answers.

13 Jul 5:03pm

I guess its fair enugh to be talking about peak oil and its definition but to me that is not the problem. With a finite resource surely what we should all focus on is the time at which we really run out. Somehow we take comfort that this will not happen but it will. The issue is when. In 10 years 20 years 50 years or what. We have an opportunity now (but is it too late?) to change our ways to cope with this, a concept lost on all world politicians and most of the world population.
If we really do have more time as we focus on getting the more difficult oil we must use it well and put into place a society which is less oil dependant. I recall during my university energy studies that the professor (a governement advisor) said “everyone thinks there are clever people out there who can solve the problem and that they will think of something. I guess I am one of those and I really dont know how”
In our considerations of our oil supplies we should not forget that consumption is related to population growth (and industrial growth linked to population demand and economics) and this is the fundamantal area that need to be addressed. Our population levels are not sustainable and with this comes energy demand, pollution and global warming, which is sort of what I believe Michael Bassey seems to mean.

vicky moller
15 Jul 11:26pm

great dialogue.
In West Wales the cat is out of the bag, people mostly want to get out of oil and the global economy and replace it with self-reliance for the long term.
Nationally Wales is progressing legislatin to oblige public bodies to act for future generations through the proposed Sustainable Development Bill.
Locally one practical outcome is a movement to buy back the economy, through crowd sourced share purchases. Cardigan Town is an example where 490 people bought an acre of town and are transforming it (from depressed to creative vibrant) Visit and see for yourself.

George M and Transition: George explodes truth out of the ground, with anguished passion. It’s how he works, its a divine curse, he reminds me of the ancient mariner. I feel for him and want him to see the good his writing does.
The gentle tone of all the transition response to his ‘No Peak Oil’ wail shows how secure and mature Transition practioners are, like older brother to younger brother.

Looking at the economy is confusing if you dont look at the whole picture. Outrageous debt was hidden by economic growth. Economic growth was fuelled by cheap and increasing resources, depending on cheap increasing fuel burning.
Take away the last element, the growth collapses and the debt is exposed.
Oil price (meaning availability) and global economy are like windscreen wipers, one advances the other retreats, in turn.

But it is true that while transition, in all its guises is indeed delighting in solving the worlds problems in miniature, there are midnight threats over the horizen we are not facing, and I am happy not to, happy to create a golden age while the light holds.

Charles Justice
16 Jul 10:56pm

Great article Rob. Isn’t it amazing how oil, our global economic system, and our habits of consumption and production are all intertwined? I see two major leverage points here: money and ideologies. Change how we perceive the problem and we can change what everyone does. That’s the job of writers and bloggers. Change how we perceive money to drive changes in the rules around how it is created and used and you can change an economy from growth oriented to sustainable. Change in the way we perceive things and ideas is possible but change in the physical laws of the universe is not. The economy cannot keep physically growing but knowledge and good practice can.