Don’t Cry Wolf Too Often

Most of us exist in an emotional state where we balance fear and denial. Determining which potential disaster scenarios are real and which are scare tactics is very difficult but necessary. Think about Y2K, terrorist attacks, ozone depletion, peak oil, bird flu, illegal immigration, and global warming — how do we assess which are real dangers and which are public figures pontificating?

John Michael Greer describes several of the scare tactics used by leaders to motivate the masses and the consequences of crying wolf too often, in the context of Peak Oil and the future. More good writing and insight from this excellent blog. Excerpts below.

Link: The Archdruid Report: The Twelfth Hour

Jonathan Edwards’ harrowing 1741 sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God … bent all his talents to the task of convincing his listeners that as they sat their in their pews, right then and there, the ground might suddenly open up beneath them and drop them screaming and flailing into the jaws of eternal damnation.

It was a great success at the time. Like so many preachers before and since, though, Edwards discovered the homely moral of the story of the boy who cried wolf: you can only scare the stuffing out of people in the same way so many times before the impact wears off, and your listeners become irritated or, worse yet, bored. Few things in popular culture have less cachet than last year’s imminent disasters.

That’s the hidden downside of the story of the eleventh hour. When you’ve told the same story often enough, people become used to the fact that you’ll be back again shortly with another catastrophe du jour, and another one after that, and so on. They stop being scared and become irritated or, worse yet, bored. At that point it doesn’t matter how many more changes you ring on the story or how colorfully you describe this year’s imminent disaster, because they’ve learned to recognize the narrative as narrative – and, not uncommonly, they’ve learned to glimpse whatever agenda lies behind the story and motivates the people who tell it.

The awkward conversation about Peak Oil in today’s industrial societies, I’m convinced, cannot be understood at all unless the spreading effect of these paired recognitions is taken into account. For decades now our collective discourse has been filled to overflowing with competing renditions of the story of the eleventh hour, from every imaginable point on the political and cultural spectrum. Whether it’s the missile gap or the ozone layer, fiat currencies or emerging viruses, immigration policy or trade deficits or the antics of whatever set of clowns is piling into or out of the executive branch this season, somebody or other is presenting it as a source of imminent disaster from which, at the eleventh hour, their proposals can save us.

The irony here, and it’s as rich as it is bitter, is that this is one of the cases where the crisis is real. Depending on how you measure it – with or without natural gas liquids, oil-sands products, and other marginal sources of quasipetroleum fuel – world oil production peaked in 2005 or 2006 and, despite record prices and massive drilling programs in the Middle East and elsewhere, has been slipping down the far side of Hubbert’s peak ever since. Dozens of countries in the nonindustrial world are already struggling with desperate shortages of petroleum products, while the industrial world’s attempts to stave off trouble by pouring its food supply into its gas tanks via ethanol and biodiesel have succeeded mostly in launching food prices on a stratospheric trajectory from which they show no signs of returning any time soon.

Does this mean that we’re finally, for real, at the eleventh hour? That’s the richest and most bitter irony of all. As Robert Hirsch and his colleagues pointed out not long ago in a crucial study, the only way to respond effectively to Peak Oil on a national scale, and stave off massive economic and social disruptions, is to start preparations twenty years before the arrival of peak petroleum production. The eleventh hour, in other words, came and went in 1986, and no amount of pressure, protest, or wishful thinking can make up for the opportunity that was missed then. Listen carefully today and you can hear the sound of the clock tolling twelve, reminding us that the eleventh hour is gone for good.

The problem with this realization, of course, is that the story of the twelfth hour doesn’t make good melodrama.