24 November 2015: Peak Oil

Written and Image by Melissa Wang 

Peak Oil Matthew Schneider-Mayerson banner

It is hard to imagine a world without one of the most essential natural resources in industrialised nations today – oil. Many of our daily needs, from propelling vehicles to producing electric power, require oil as the energy source. In fact, many of our common products like toothpaste, washing powder and shampoo contain petroleum products.

However, in the era of climate change, such a world could become a reality in the near future once we reach “peak oil,” the point at which maximum rate of crude oil extraction is reached, after which petroleum production is expected to begin to decline forever. Many scientists warned that we needed to move beyond fossil fuels. In the mid-2000s, as oil prices were rising around the world, a subculture formed around those who fervently believed that peak oil was imminent. Assistant Professor of Social Sciences, Dr Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, studied this subculture in his recently-published book, Peak Oil: Apocalyptic Environmentalism and Libertarian Political Culture.

 “Oil is a material substance for which there is a finite quality. This group of people, ‘peakists’ as I call them, became very concerned about the amount of cheap oil that would be available in the near future,” Dr Schneider-Mayerson explained.

Over a period of five years, Dr Schneider-Mayerson studied this subculture of over 100,000 Americans, who were mostly educated white males, and delved into their backgrounds, thoughts and responses. In doing so, he explored related topics such as the rise of neoliberal thought in American political culture, the impact of the Internet on our ability to form social movements, and the influence of apocalyptic popular culture on conceptions of environmental change.

Dr Schneider-Mayerson found that many in the peak oil movement hoped that peak oil could lead to the end of industrial civilisation. The permanent decline of crude oil extraction and its consequential impact on the market could become the impetus that would drive mankind beyond the use of fossil fuels and to seriously to combat climate change. Dr Schneider-Mayerson said, “These people understood that climate change needs to be addressed as communities, not individuals.”

While individual efforts such as those undertaken by peakists could not be sufficient to combat climate change, Dr Schneider-Mayerson argued that they might communicate the need for action as well as a commitment to the common good, as the world experienced the real effects of climate change. Dr Schneider-Mayerson highlighted the problem of oil being the centre of today’s economy, “I don’t believe that the world is going to end when we run out of oil, but it is problematic that our entire way of life is dependent on a finite substance. This now produces catastrophic consequences. An energy transition away from fossil fuels is currently underway, yet it remains difficult to imagine life after oil. Studying the actions of ‘peakists’ helps us understand that difficulty and navigate its potential pitfalls.”

At Yale-NUS, Dr Schneider-Mayerson teaches a class on Energy Humanities, which covers some of the issues raised in his book. A book launch will be held on Sunday, 29 November from 7.30 – 9.30pm at local restaurant Food For Thought (National Museum of Singapore).

Interested parties can register for the book launch here.