The Greatest Peak Oil Novel Ever Written

Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

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Published on Resource Crisis on September 12, 2014

Herman Melville never mentioned “peak whale oil” in his “Moby Dick”, published in 1851. But the novel can be understood taking into account the fact that the American whaling industry was going through its production peak just during those years. We may consider “Moby Dick” as the greatest peak oil novel ever written.

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In 1970, the United States went through their production peak for crude oil. Production reached a maximum then started a decline that has been lasting up to a few years ago. The peak was an epochal event, it was the “great U-turn” of the American economy, which ushered in a new era of larger social inequality and diffuse poverty.

But the reaction to the peak itself was a deafening silence. Earlier on, the peak had been discussed and extensively debated since the time when, in 1956, the geologist Marion King Hubbert had predicted it. When it arrived, however, the peak was not noticed, not discussed, not understood. It was a non-event, if there ever was one, at least in terms of public perception. The same was true for other important peaks: the British coal peak in the 1920s, the oil peak of the Soviet Union in 1988 and more. These peaks brought great changes in the world and were related to the fall of great empires. But they were not perceived. The same thing is happening with the global oil peak (“peak oil”): the closer we get to it, the less interested the public becomes.

There is a reason why these epochal events leave no trace in most people’s perception. It is because we tend to see the world in narrative terms, not in terms of facts and data. We perceive only the things that generate an emotional reaction on us and in order to generate this reaction there must be a story, a narration. We could say that all narrative is about a quest for something; it is about succeeding against difficulties, it is about the transformations that occur because of dramatic events. It is this transformation that makes our mind resonate with the events described. We react to events because we perceive a narration, not because we read numbers written in a table. Think the other major problem of our times, climate change, carries a tremendous narrative potential; it is not just that it may bring dramatic events but because we feel something for our planet. We perceive the fact that we risk to destroy the earth’s ecosystem and we feel something about it: it the narration of a dramatic event. It is for this reason that “climate fiction” (“clifi“) is so much discussed today.

But how about “peak fiction”? Peak oil (or any production peak) is just a point on a smooth curve that started at zero and will unavoidably go to zero in the future. It may decline faster than it grew (the “Seneca effect“) but it remains a smooth curve. And there is not so much drama involved: we already know (or should know) that, one day or another, we’ll run out of all those things we consume and which cannot be replaced. So, what can we learn from something unavoidable? It is the same as dying of old age. We know it has to happen, someday, but dying of old age is not what novels are written about. Think of the “Iliad” if it were to tell us that Hector died in peace in his bed. Think of Tolkien’s trilogy if it were to tell us that Frodo sold the ring in exchange for a retirement plan.

So, in narrative terms, we must see the peak indirectly, through its consequences and the story that these consequences tell. Think of “Moby Dick”; Herman Melville’s novel, published in 1851. In it, you won’t find any mention of the “whale oil peak.” And yet, there was such a peak (as shown in the image) just during those years. Whales were efficiently exterminated to the point that their numbers started diminishing and, with them, also the production of whale oil. Eventually, the whale oil industry collapsed as a result of its own efficiency. The fact that whales were disappearing was not perceived by the whalers of the time and there is no evidence that they understood – or even imagined – the concept of “peak whaling”. But the melancholy that pervades “Moby Dick” and its basic theme of an unattainable quest shows that Melville perceived that there was something deeply wrong with the whaling industry of the time.

The symbolism contained in “Moby Dick” has been described many times. Captain Ahab’s ship, the “Pequod,” has been correctly interpreted as “America” (or, more exactly, the United States) and the desperate quest for the white whale as a symbol of the desperate human quest for something unattainable. The symbolism of so long ago remains valid today if we replace “whale oil” with “crude oil.” We would want oil to last forever; but that is as unattainable for us, just as killing the white whale was for Captain Ahab. And, just as the Pequod and its crew destroy themselves in their impossible chase, so it may happen to the ship which is America today, destroying itself in the desperate task of squeezing the last drops of oil from the earth’s crust.

Maybe, one day, someone will write a novel which will reflect our plea for crude oil so perfectly – although indirectly –  as “Moby Dick” did for whale oil in its times. If there will ever be such a novel, it will tell how we ended up in the terrible situation we find ourselves in, today. But it will never mention “peak oil” and not even crude oil as a source of energy; just as Melville never says in his novel what whale oil was used for.

h/t “James B

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