A thoughtful reader recently compared me to a crazy uncle; someone worth poking at the dinner table because a deranged and/or laughable opinion is sure to burst forth. Since I uncompromisingly strive for accurate self-knowledge, a quick review of recent output indicated that he was not off the mark. On the other hand, beyond the sheer entertainment value of provoking curmudgeons, analyzing bombastic examples of these singular opinions can be valuable in pointing out the dangers of becoming too immersed in a singular world view.
It can happen easily enough when debates are emotionally charged and consequential. One’s tendency is to be surrounded by familiar and supportive situations, because self-doubt in a vested argument is very hard on the ego. It’s easy then to hang out on familiar terrain to get conscious (or subconscious) confirmation that, well, we’re right. If we do that often enough, voila, you too can become a crazy uncle.
Being from the energy world, I need to be careful to read more than self-reinforcing publications, because that’s a path to one-dimensionality and evangelistic preaching. That’s how we get caught up in movements and lose sight of reality, and it can happen to opinions across the spectrum.
One example in my world is a publication called World Oil, which is obviously a boisterously pro-oil news source, and one I read regularly because it has a wealth of information. Many a petroleum-financed brow out there would therefore be perplexed if I say that it is dangerous to read, but it is, in isolation. World Oil bears a relentless daily tide of North Korea-grade rhetoric about the health of the industry and the juggernaut that is US shale production.
Here’s a few examples, from a single typical week: “OPEC acknowledges scale of shale boom as supply outstrips demand”(Mar 15); “ U.S. oil export surge means OPEC’s output cuts may be doomed”(Mar 13); “Watch out, OPEC: Busiest U.S. oil play heads for record spending”(Mar 12).
What’s particularly interesting is that this stream of gibberish comes to World Oil exclusively from the Bloomberg news feed. World Oil just condenses the stream into a pure, filtered form where contrary messages are attacked like a chicken thrown into a tiger pen (like when they fired Art Berman for voicing doubts about US shale capability).
What’s wrong with that? Nothing, in particular, except that if one immerses themselves in that world entirely then bias and a sort of sheep-like behaviour creeps in. Before long, one can find themselves seeing the world this way to the exclusion of all others.
Take this commentary from an eminent commentator in World Oil’s recent monthly magazine (no link, sorry, subscription required) in a subsection of a column that is entitled “A longer-term threat to industry health.” The author warns about “the increasing availability of alternative energy options. The most threatening of these is the upward-spiraling market for hybrid and electric cars.” The unbalanced (verging on unhinged) “analysis” continues “Electric cars are plagued by limited travel distances…” See what I mean?
Who in their right mind would deem alternative energy options “threatening things”? Anyone that knows anything about energy would immediately concede that a near-infinite and near-free source of renewable energy would be the greatest gift mankind ever received. Electric vehicles are wonderful things. I would be happier than anyone if I could get unlimited free energy from the sun to go anywhere I want, any time I want, and never pay another nickel.
But for now, that’s not reality. It might be in a few decades, but it’s not remotely close now. That’s a reality that we need to deal with, and hopefully in a thoughtful manner. Describing EVs as “threatening” or “plagued” is as polarizing and dumb as saying that pipelines are “threatening” or “plagued” by leaks. The dude needs some self-honesty – would he actually recommend his child become a petroleum geologist or geophysicist? And while you’re there, son (or daughter, or other option), you seem to like those computer things, why not take a few courses in COBOL?
Being a self-admitted crazy uncle, I’m sometimes guilty myself. More than a few recent missives/missiles on these pages have raged about pipeline protesters and the inability to build anything in a westerly direction (well, actually, in any direction except north, but that’s another story). The very act of doing that exposes oneself to the natural consequence – when taking a stand against something, anything that supports the opposing view becomes good. It certainly comes across that way to readers, and if left unchecked it colors one’s views in a way that’s not always right or healthy.
Of course, there are similar antics on the other side of the boxing ring as well. Pipeline protesters get swayed by exposure to more lunatic fringes also, which is why we sometimes see baffling arguments come out against pipelines. Some people honestly fear for of oil spills, which is understandable and transparent and definitely fair enough. But a fear of spills does not mean pipelines are dangerous or unsafe. And then other stuff gets smuggled in. Some climate change warriors hijack a pipeline discussion to Trojan-horse their agenda into the fray, which leads to incoherent diatribes where these interlopers pour a lot of fuel on the fire. Fighting global warming by delaying pipeline construction is going to take some creative, illogical and loud arguing, because there is no logical connection. There is no pipeline project on Canada’s radar that will change world oil consumption one bit, whether all are built or none. But since the common thread for all the groups is to fight pipelines, we get this cacophony of inarticulate reasoning that tries to tie it all together. It doesn’t work, and the sincere part of the concerned population gets drowned out. The poor NEB gets random vitriolic submissions from every professional protester and well-meaning citizen (two very different groups) that blur fact with apocalyptic fantasy, and are left in a tough spot.
Which is unfortunate, because the voices of reason get drowned out. An oil patch person/advocate is not a universal description, and neither is a pipeline protester. There are obstinate intractables on either side, and we shouldn’t let the control the agenda. We need solutions.
What’s important is that we focus on those solutions, rather than going to war. I don’t agree with people that make up stuff about pipelines or fossil fuels in order to further their obstructionist agenda, but I can see their perspective of demanding world class spill protection. So…why not, for example, stand in front of Kinder Morgan’s offices demanding a $1 per barrel tariff on oil that would go into a fund devoted to protection of the coastline? That would build up in a hurry. Don’t like $1/barrel? Then negotiate. Same for both sides. Reach out. Reach out and mean it; that’s how all great things get done, sometimes it takes herculean efforts.
We need fossil fuels these days, for the next few decades, and all the wishing, fighting, and posturing will not change that fact. We also need to be cognizant of environmental factors as the 7 billion people become 8 billion, and we risk overrunning the place. Without fossil fuels, we’d burn and consume everything in sight and leave it looking like a post-apocalyptic feral pig invasion.
But we can also see that the future is going to see us move away from them. For whatever reason you choose – global warming, relentless government initiatives, or lack of reasonably priced reserves – it’s coming. And it’s only wise to live with that reality also, just like living with the current fossil fuel reality.
Even crazy uncles can take meds.