Dress your best on your execution day… try to leave a good impression on the death squad by standing erect and proud…Be extremely courteous to your assistant when you lose money. Try not to blame others for your fate, even if they deserve blame. Never exhibit any self-pity.
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb
In reporting on the energy scene, it is wearyingly necessary to monitor the news flow to see if there is anything notable or comment-worthy happening. It’s not easy, because news is no longer news but “value-added” commentary through a frantic popularity-contest lens governed by a slavish devotion to the flavour of the day. Therefore, I don’t go there much, but sometimes the temptation is too great. Last week was a whopper, in the form of the US presidential debate. Since the outcome of the US election will shape Canada’s energy future (possibly more than the next Canadian election, unless the conservatives can get their act together), I watched the debate to see if it was possible to crystallize in some form the impact of both candidate’s most-recent positions on energy, specifically, how it might impact us hosers north of the 49th.
Ah, who am I kidding, I tuned in gleefully with popcorn at the ready in anticipation of a total sh*t show. I expected a geriatric Yosemite Sam chasing an even older Bugs Bunny, throwing anvils at each other. The arteriosclerotic silverbacks did not disappoint (all that was missing was Acme explosives).
I dutifully wrote up a post about it, analyzing the energy aspect, but after a read through, tossed that synopsis in the dumpster. The post met my most stringent criteria – I thought it was funny – but where’s the sport in mocking that spectacle? Furthermore, wouldn’t doing so just add one more grain of sand to the beach of insanity that the energy world now consists of? Is there any value to the world in dancing around that pyre, trying to interpret the indecipherable, just for cheap laughs?
Feeling dirty and complicit, I headed over to the bookshelf in search of some intellectual thirst-quenching, something insightful to guilt me out of the mental gutter. It was a pleasure to dust off the works of Nassim Taleb, author of all quotes herein, and a person for whom intellectual slumming is unacceptable. It did not take long to find mentally healthy framing of a better way to view the oil patch’s conundrums.
“The strategy for the discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves.”
The oil patch, in my experience, has never spent a lot of time wondering “Who are we” and that sort of sociological handwringing. Everyone was too busy, and besides, it was self-evident – we were mostly entrepreneurial types, drawn to a fast-moving business that provided one of the key necessities of life. Farming, forestry, mining, energy – the backbone of the Canadian economy and industries that were indispensable for life as we knew it. Maybe we weren’t ivory towered, but few heaped scorn on us. That, as we know, is no longer the case.
So, now we may find ourselves asking those questions: Who are we? Are we doing the right thing? How do we know? By what standard – keeping everyone alive, or by minimizing our footprint? And more pragmatically, why do people hate us?
It’s easy to get hung up on that last aspect, and, if one goes near social media, getting caught up in fistfights with those who do seems almost unavoidable. But that is a dead end, an unwinnable war (though some seem to enjoy it), and at the end of the day demand for hydrocarbons will be significant for decades to come. Changing energy systems quickly and by dictate is unprecedented in history, and no one has a road map or a realistic game plan. So no matter the noise, hydrocarbons will be produced for a good long while, somewhere in the world.
“The main idea behind complex systems is that the ensemble behaves in ways not predicted by its components. The interactions matter more than the nature of the units…Their [oversimplifiers] three flaws: 1) they think in statics not dynamics, 2) they think in low, not high, dimensions, 3) they think in terms of actions, never interactions.”
Inherently, many in the petroleum business (or agriculture, or other resource extractors) know these things; we have a better view of the elemental input side of the equation, and how hard it is to make wide-scale changes. But because we’re in a foxhole under heavy artillery fire, we haven’t noticed that others (like Taleb) do too, because the whole commentating world seems to ignore these realities.
Given that such wisdom is out there and, in fact, popular, we need to disengage a bit from the haters. It is imperative that we walk back from the front lines, sit down, grab a coffee, and think: What kind of people are we? What do we want to be known for? On a spectrum of cultural aspirations, do we want to be closer to the Trump/Biden end of the spectrum, or the Taleb one?
While it is also imperative that we take environmental obligations seriously (and I honestly don’t know who doesn’t), we also need to remember to stand tall and not take the bait of those out to bury the hydrocarbon industry. It is worth remembering, and especially worth repeating, that the world cannot function without hydrocarbons, and the world is better off with reliable, efficient and as-clean-as-possible supplies of such (clean-as-possible includes embracing the better new ideas, which we in all honesty know when we see them). As long as we have those goals in mind, we have nothing to hang our heads about and the old maxim of “you can’t cheat an honest person” is here valid, in an obviously modified way. Taking shots at someone is easy, especially if, NNT again, the critics have no skin in the game. Almost everyone I know in the oil patch has skin in the game, through investments, specialized careers, or their very business itself. The haters have no investment, they take no risks, they build nothing.
“If you take risks and face your fate with dignity, there is nothing you can do that makes you small. If you don’t take risks, there is nothing you can do that makes you grand. Nothing. And when you take risks, insults by half-men, small men, those who don’t risk anything, are similar to barks by non-human animals. You can’t feel insulted by a dog.”
We should not want to be known as whiners, or finger pointers, or demanders. I know that is an almost absurd call (see: Bill C-48), but we should aspire to more, to aim higher. We can’t stem the criticism of the fuel we provide, because it’s beyond our control and has become a religion for some that truly believe the world will end soon if we don’t quickly abandon hydrocarbons. But we don’t need to fight religious wars. We provide fuel, and we do it well, and we should always strive to do it better. We will keep providing fuel, to the best of our ability, until the world quits demanding it and/or quits relying on it. The petroleum industry historically has faced routine gut-punches in the form of commodity price crashes (and even very bad national energy programs) that would have killed other industries, yet the can-do spirit reappeared nearly instantly like fireweed. This time it is different, but our response doesn’t need to be. The world needs what we do, we just have to maneuver the best way forward to do it. Through the chaos and hopelessness, paths will appear – hydrogen, tree planting, carbon capture, who knows what.
“Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire. Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.”
It wasn’t easy turning my back on the fat comedic carcass that was the US presidential debate, but it was in truth a good idea to do so. The world doesn’t need more of that mud flinging. (By next week I may fall off the wagon again, a curmudgeon can’t change his stripes; but for now, enjoy the words of someone far wiser than I (and be sure to pick up all the NNT books – one percent abrasive, ten percent funny, and eighty-nine percent brilliant).) What it needs, what we need, is a good dose of stoicism – emotionally resilient to misfortune, accepting the moment as it presents itself. To face the hostile world this way is, oddly enough, even more satisfying than mocking the reprobates that define modern politics.