Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Call To Arms: The End Of The Oil Drum

I felt a deeply saddened by the news that The Oil Drum was to stop publishing new posts at the end of the month. The comments both on the website and on Twitter have been resoundingly positive, with many long time readers/first time posters logging on specifically to say how much they had learnt and to thank all the contributors.

The end of something familiar is always hard to take but as seems the administrators cannot be swayed it is time to look elsewhere. I personally have chosen Resilience.org which is the relatively new reincarnation of the Post Carbon Institute’s Energy Bulletin.

Why then did Energy Bulletin morph into something quite different while The Oil Drum remained relatively unchanged over the years? I think the answer is survival. Many people may cringe to hear this but success on the internet is about how well you can market your product (website). You may have great content but unless lots of people are reading it then what is the point?

I think this is where the downfall of The Oil Drum lies. It has published incredibly important work but refused to change with the times and become more relevant. Public interest in peak oil peaked at the end of 2005 with another surge of interest in the middle of 2008. And yet The Oil Drum faithfully stayed the course, publishing in depth technical articles that often showed an alternative view to the mainstream story being fed through the media.

I think though at a certain point they began preaching to the converted and needed to change gear. Readers knew their was a problem, and rather than providing solutions The Oil Drum kept outlining the same problems in different ways. If you look at Resilience.org today compared to Energy Bulletin a few years ago the main difference is a lot more stories on growing your own food, building community and transitioning to a low energy lifestyle. This is all very important stuff that people are really want to learn about.

As an ecologist I am drawn to the the conversation biology metaphor of charismatic megafauna, also commonly known as umbrella species. These are your dolphins, whales, lions, tigers and pandas that people generally love and will spend a lot of time and money trying to save. The benefit of course is that when you conserve something like wild panda habitat, all the other less attractive plants and animals in that same area are also protected by association. While snails, cockroaches and rats are all ecologically important they would never gain as much attention as a panda. The main reason why The Oil Drum steadily lost readers is that its main topics were lowly cockroaches and rats which did little to bring in new readers. What was needed were some attractive topics that would bring in new people who would then hopefully stay around for the more in depth technical topics. I think those of us that have been into peak oil and energy issue for years forget that at the start it can be a very daunting topic with a steep learning curve.

This is not to say that the technical topics should have been watered down, just that more variety should have been provided if the goal was to attract and maintain new readers.

As Robert Rapier mentioned on Twitter, it may have been the Bakken that ultimately killed The Oil Drum, but I think it is also the stubbornness of the The Oil Drum administrators to stay the course rather than move with the times. This is not to dig the knife in, merely to serve as a warning to other sites and content creators out there that also do important work. Stay relevant.

So where are we at with peak oil right now? Oil production continues to grow in the States thanks to shale, the media keeps trumpeting ‘energy independence’ despite countless rebuttals of this by a small number of journalists and bloggers and the general public are carrying on business as usual. We have been on a global production plateau since 2005 and  we keep getting told the global economy is getting better. Most people want to believe that and so they do, despite all the evidence to contrary. It’s basic human nature to ignore a problem until it affects you personally. This has been displayed recently with Hurricane Sandy and the resurgence of interest in climate change.

Peak oil is still a problem and while many peakers were saying it should be here by now, shale oil can only delay the real shocks for so long. As John Michael Greer has written, we are in for a long descent with many short lived ‘recoveries’ along the way. Until oil prices become personally  unbearable and the global economy grinds to another halt no one will take any notice of those of us still plugging away and preaching to the converted few.  That won’t stop me at least and neither should it stop you. Pick up a pen or tap away on a keyboard and add your voice to the mix. Because while no one may be listening right now they sure will be when the time comes. We need all the voices we can get.