Strong opinions, weakly held

Why people oppose peak oil on philosophical grounds

Andrew Leonard posts an explanation of why many conservatives hate the the concept of peak oil (and the idea that human activity is causing climate change):

Partisan conservatives pooh-pooh peak oil (and human-caused climate change) because they think that to concede that these challenges are real and must be confronted is to acknowledge that greed is not always good, and that free market capitalism must be restrained, or at least tinkered with substantially. Peak oil and climate change are fronts in the culture wars, and to some conservatives, watching the price of oil rise as the Arctic ice melts, it might feel like being in Germany at the close of World War II, with the Russians advancing on one front while U.S.-led forces come from the other. The propositions that cheap oil is running out and the world is getting hotter — as a result of our own activities — threaten a whole way of life. The very idea that dirty Gaia-worshipping hippies might be right is absolute anathema.

Given that many on the left also see peak oil and climate change as cultural battlefields, as weapons with which to assault enemies whose values they politically and aesthetically oppose (see James Kunstler), it’s no wonder that some conservatives are fighting back like caged rats, or that they want to blame speculators for oil prices, or biased scientists for climate change.

It really is a shame that these issues are subject to such strong partisanship. They’re problems that are going to require cooperation to address.


  1. Rafe, you’ve known me long enough to know that I think environmentalists miss many converts because they are unwilling to moderate their message into a form a true “conservative” would be willing to accept.

    I’m about the furthest thing from a liberal tree hugging environmentalist….

    …that said, it really amazes me how stupid and idiotic most Republicans and Conservatives have become. They can’t see the forest for the trees. To me, it’s not about peak oil or environmentalism. It’s about national security and the future of this country.

    If there is one thing the past five years should have taught anyone (be they for or against the war either at the start or still today), it’s that we are fools for gorging ourselves on cheap oil purchased from those that would call us their enemy.

    That’s the main reason my family and I are trying to become more “green”. While helping the environment is nice, I believe helping this country use less foreign oil is really what is important in the short term…and if that leads to long term benefits as well ain’t that grand?

    PS – I’m 100% against increasing domestic oil production on the grounds that the oil we have in the ground should be used as a true strategic reserve against the day when peak oil has come and oil really becomes expensive and rare.

  2. Everyone who thinks humans can’t cause human-impacting environmental change needs to stop what they are doing and go read “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” by Jared Diamond right now.

  3. Anyone who reduces an opposing viewpoint to fear and bias rather than trying to parse it’s intellectual arguments is adding little to the discussion. This article would be improved greatly if the author were familiar with what’s known as the “Principle of Charity.” Davidson and other modern analytic philosophers talk about the need for a principle of charity to improve the quality of philosophical discussions. These principles have various formulations, like trying to put your opponents arguments in their best light, etc., but Wikipedia covers the ground just as well with the mantra “Assume Good Faith.”

    Keeping this principle in mind, we are faced with two options to explain criticisms of peak oil (I’ll stick to that argument for the purposes of illustration): 1) Conservatives know they are wrong, don’t like being wrong, but are unwilling (or too dumb) to change their views, so they are just stamping their feet like children. 2) Conservatives believe that market mechanisms will encourage substitutions to lower demand in proportion with the rise in oil prices.

    The former explanation requires no counterargument, just requires us to point out conservative childishness. The second argument requires a response, which might involve tedious analysis of facts.

    It may be psychologically gratifying to opt for the former explanation, but it’s intellectually lazy.

  4. Galbraith summed up conservatism some time ago and it holds up pretty well:

    “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

    I think there’s hope for progress in a left-right alliance with right-wing christians who fall into the ‘stewards of the earth’ and ‘care for the poor’ camps (only the former being relevant for peak oil matters). But as far as the traditional republicans/conservatives, I don’t hold much hope. The problem is that matters like abortion are serious wedge issues that often divide the potential for stronger alliances.

  5. David J. McCartney

    May 13, 2008 at 7:58 am

    I have engaged a number of conservatives in the matter of peaking energy and a common, if not universal retort, involves the assertion that man is intrinsically inventive and will rise to the need. The question they pose to me is, “Do you really think mankind is that dumb and incapable?” (Well, too often, yes).

    I believe that much of this posturing derives from the tenants of their (commonly) held Christian theology, that energy salvation is as assured as spiritual salvation. If your belief system is founded on the principle of bottomless mercy from a caring God, why would you not extend that bias to the rest of your life? Additionally, if you believe that man was created by a higher power as a manifestation of the image of that God, this exceptional thinking is understandable.

  6. As I tried to state above, environmentalists would make much better progress if you dropped the peak oil and environmental arguments (when discussing with Republicans) and just discussed it on as a national security issue. If they bring up drilling in ANWR or the continental shelf, just say that we should save our oil reserves for the day when oil becomes increasingly harder to pump, whether that be in 10, 50 or 100 years.

    How can a “Conservative” argue with national security, independence and planning for the future?

    Is your goal to argue a specific point (peak oil, environmentalism), or is the goal to bring about a desired change in behavior (reduce oil consumption/carbon emissions)?

    There is no reason why groups can’t work toward the same goal but have different reasons for wanting those goals.

    The fact that posts here discusses how conservatives don’t want to hear the same tired arguments and won’t be budged from their stances says to me, “hit them with a different argument all together”.

  7. Jeff, thank you for that reminder. I’m pretty close to the stereotypical tree hugging environmentalist, but this weekend I was at a workshop on residential greywater systems (see?) and the presenter was going on about CO2 emissions on one hand, and peak oil on the other, and I was thinking “if CO2 emissions are the problem you make them out to be, then ‘peak oil’ seems like a godsend. Pick your evil, already!”.

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