3-2 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.sightoil.3-2.4 | Stoekl PDF

In the first part of this essay, I con­sid­er why the dis­cus­sion over the like­li­hood of immi­nent “peak oil” has fad­ed from pub­lic view in the last few years. I sug­gest that, due to the decline in demand (due to the reces­sion) and the devel­op­ment of “uncon­ven­tion­al” nat­ur­al gas and oil sources, the “cost” of fuels has passed from the obvi­ous rise in price to that of anoth­er dimen­sion: the rise of hid­den, “exter­nal” costs—a reces­sion trig­gered by too-high prices, pol­lu­tion, cli­mate change, and so on. I argue, more­over, that this exter­nal­ized cost for­ev­er defies pre­cise mea­sure­ment. This is clear, for exam­ple, in the case of the “uncon­ven­tion­al” pro­duc­tion of gas in the “tar sands” region of Alber­ta. How can one mea­sure the cost of drift­ing under­ground plumes of arsenic that may not show up for hun­dreds of years? All of this makes a pre­cise cal­cu­la­tion of “sus­tain­abil­i­ty” just about impos­si­ble, while at the same time not absolv­ing us—all of those liv­ing in the cur­rent fos­sil-fuel civilization—from attempt­ing to cal­cu­late it. In the final part of the essay, I sug­gest that our subjectivity—as con­sumers, as free agents—is itself an after-effect of the agency of oil: we as sub­jects are inter­pel­lat­ed by oil. Thus one response to the unknowa­bil­i­ty of externalities—tied to the impos­si­bil­i­ty of the “closed econ­o­my” of sus­tain­abil­i­ty calculation—may be a dif­fer­ent mod­el of agency, in which cal­cu­la­tion is replaced, or sup­ple­ment­ed, by the act of gift-giv­ing. Most impor­tant, per­haps, would be the giv­ing of the gift of oil “addic­tion” not to any recip­i­ent (or agent), but to a nec­es­sar­i­ly repeat­ed for­get­ting.

Dans la pre­mière par­tie de cet arti­cle, j’examine les raisons pour lesquelles les dis­cours sur la prob­a­bil­ité d’un immi­nent « pic pétroli­er » sont passés depuis peu à l’arrière-plan. Je sug­gère que, à cause d’une demande en baisse pen­dant la réces­sion, de même qu’en rai­son du développe­ment du gaz naturel et des sources de pét­role « peu con­ven­tion­nelles », le « coût » des com­bustibles con­nait des aug­men­ta­tions non seule­ment en matière de prix, mais aus­si en matière des coûts « extérieurs » cachés, ce qui implique une autre forme de réces­sion provo­quée par des prix trop élevés, par la pol­lu­tion, par les change­ments cli­ma­tiques, etc. De plus, je sou­tiens qu’une mesure pré­cise de ces coûts extérieurs est peu envis­age­able. L’exemple de la pro­duc­tion « peu con­ven­tion­nelle » du com­bustible dans la région des sables pétro­lifères de l’Alberta illus­tre cette propo­si­tion. Com­ment, par exem­ple, prévoir les con­séquences d’un nuage mobile d’arsenic souter­rain qui pour­rait ne remon­ter à la sur­face que dans une cen­taine d’années? Ces fac­teurs d’indétermination ren­dent impos­si­ble toute prévi­sion de la « dura­bil­ité de l’environnement », sans pour­tant nous décourager de con­tin­uer à ten­ter de telles prévi­sions. En dernier lieu, je pro­pose que notre sub­jec­tiv­ité de con­som­ma­teurs apparem­ment doués de libre-arbi­tre est elle-même une con­séquence de l’action du pét­role : celui-ci nous inter­pelle comme sujets. Face à cela une réac­tion envis­age­able pour­rait être la pro­duc­tion d’un mod­èle actantiel dif­fèrent, dans lequel on rem­plac­erait le cal­cul par le don.

Allan Stoekl | Penn­syl­va­nia State Uni­ver­si­ty

Unconventional Oil and the Gift of the Undulating Peak

Whatever Happened to Peak Oil?

A fun­ny thing hap­pened on the way to Peak Oil. It has not hap­pened, or so it seems, at first. A few years ago—between 2005 and 2009, to be precise—there was much talk in the pub­lic prints (the ‘main­stream media’) about ‘oil run­ning out’—this was how ‘Peak Oil’ was appar­ent­ly con­ceived. Ken­neth Def­feyes, the author of Hubbert’s Peak, declared that Thanks­giv­ing, 2005 was the offi­cial date of Peak Oil: after this, pre­sum­ably, oil would get pro­gres­sive­ly more expen­sive, and soci­ety would col­lapse.[1] ‘Peak oil­ers’ were iden­ti­fied with ‘doomers,’ those who imag­ined that very soon we would all be liv­ing in caves, sur­viv­ing as well as we could with ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry imple­ments and weapons (at best). James Howard Kunstler’s nov­el, World Made By Hand, pub­lished in 2008, depict­ed in its rather aim­less nar­ra­tive a soci­ety that had some­how revert­ed either to a nine­teenth cen­tu­ry mode of exis­tence, or per­haps to a new dark ages, depend­ing on how one want­ed to inter­pret it.

Facts seemed to bear out the prog­nos­ti­ca­tions of the ‘doomers,’ at least for a while. Oil hit $147 a bar­rel in July of 2008,[2] and yet pro­duc­tion did not rise, which it should have, assum­ing con­ven­tion­al laws of eco­nom­ics (high­er price means high­er pro­duc­tion, and an even­tu­al fall in price). Motorists were not wait­ing in lines before the gas pumps, as they had dur­ing the ‘ener­gy cri­sis’ of the 1970s, but they were pay­ing the (then) astound­ing price of over $4 a gal­lon for that pre­cious elixir, gaso­line. The world seemed to be shift­ing on its foun­da­tions: Chi­na was boom­ing, ever more oil was called for, and yet pro­duc­tion was stag­nant, at best. Would we all be liv­ing in caves in a few years?

Daniel Yer­gin, the Pulitzer Prize win­ning author of The Prize and main­stream go-to guy on oil, was called on to make his pro­nounce­ment, and he did so: through CERA (Cam­bridge Ener­gy Research Asso­ci­a­tion), his high priced (and prof­itable) think tank, his spokesper­son pro­claimed: Peak Oil is garbage.[3] But which Peak Oil? At this point a care­ful observ­er could start to note a prob­lem: Peak Oil was com­ing to mean dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent observers. For Yer­gin, it was indeed the sud­den dropoff of pro­duc­tion lead­ing to a ‘prim­i­tive’ existence—perhaps the future as fore­seen in car­i­ca­ture by Kun­stler. But Yer­gin him­self rec­og­nized, if not a “peak” fol­lowed by a sud­den drop-off in pro­duc­tion, then at least a slow rise, an “undu­lat­ing plateau” (anoth­er geological/topographical metaphor) fol­lowed, in, say, forty years by—decline.[4] He wasn’t call­ing it ‘Peak Oil’—he exco­ri­at­ed the term and those who used it—but it amount­ed to the same thing: an even­tu­al drop-off in oil pro­duc­tion. One had the strange feel­ing that peo­ple were argu­ing about seman­tics, for Def­feyes, and any num­ber of oth­er ‘Peak Oil’ gurus, had already indi­cat­ed that the issue was not so much a sud­den peak fol­lowed by apoc­a­lypse, but rather the steady falloff in pro­duc­tion caused by the decline of returns on ener­gy invest­ment: in oth­er words, ener­gy from oil from here on out would cost more in ener­gy to extract and pro­duce; “Ener­gy Return on Ener­gy Invest­ment” would tend toward a point of neg­a­tive returns.[5] Oil, in short, would start to cost more. While some peo­ple were argu­ing about apoc­a­lypse, and try­ing to score points, the real prob­lem start­ed to appear: how to cal­cu­late the rise in the cost of oil (in ener­gy invest­ed), pre­sum­ably, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly, reflect­ed in the price of oil (as mea­sured in dol­lars)? But how would high cost man­i­fest itself, if not in high price?

What hap­pened next served to dis­cred­it the peak oil as apoc­a­lypse sto­ry, but for atten­tive observers hard­ly ban­ished Peak Oil in its larg­er sense to the trash heap of dis­cred­it­ed ideas. The price of oil fell dra­mat­i­cal­ly, going as far down as $35 a bar­rel in Feb­ru­ary of 2009.[6] Sud­den­ly oil was ‘cheap’ again, but there was a mas­sive reces­sion; car sales fell through the floor, GM was head­ed for bank­rupt­cy, and it seemed that the Amer­i­can Way of Motor­ing had final­ly swerved into a ditch.

If oil was cheap, its cheap­ness clear­ly had some­thing to do with the reces­sion. Cheap oil, com­ing so soon after peak oil, taught every­one a seri­ous les­son: even if oil pro­duc­tion is stag­nant, fall in demand will cause prices to fall dra­mat­i­cal­ly. Oil is not or will not be eter­nal­ly expen­sive (in price): a reces­sion due pre­cise­ly to high oil prices will cause demand to fall, and prices along with it.[7] One can well imag­ine that the famous “undu­lat­ing plateau” would be caused not by con­tin­u­al dis­cov­er­ies of new (often ‘uncon­ven­tion­al’) oil sources and their quick exhaus­tion, but by the rise and fall of demand as the world entered a roller-coast­er phase in which demand gyrat­ed with the onset and alle­vi­a­tion of mul­ti­ple oil-price induced reces­sions. Peak Oil, from this per­spec­tive, would be asso­ci­at­ed, pre­cise­ly not with a sim­ple peak but with the undu­la­tions of a not so calm­ing and bucol­ic plateau. The plateau, after all, announces the inevitable fall; thus it is a kind of long drawn out peak (long in media-atten­tion span terms—another few years or even decades—but hard­ly on a geo­log­i­cal or even his­tor­i­cal scale). An undu­lat­ing peak?

By this time the main­stream media had pret­ty much lost inter­est in the whole ques­tion: Barack Obama’s elec­tion and his stand­off with the Repub­li­can Par­ty stole media atten­tion not only from ener­gy issues, but from ques­tions of ecol­o­gy, which had been high­light­ed in the last few glow­ing years of pros­per­i­ty before the crash. Michael Pollan’s loca­vorism, issues of city struc­ture, food miles, active transportation—all that head­ed back to the blogs from whence it came.[8]

And then, start­ing in late 2009, the real block­buster: nat­ur­al gas was no longer in cri­sis mode (because there had been talk of ‘Peak Gas’ as well); gas sup­plies were grow­ing more plen­ti­ful, and the bot­tom of gas prices was nowhere to be seen. Oil pro­duc­tion too was actu­al­ly ris­ing; the same tech­no­log­i­cal ‘break­through’ that was enabling the uptick in nat­ur­al gas production—namely hydraulic frac­tur­ing or ‘fracking’—was hav­ing its effect in the oil fields. The era of ‘uncon­ven­tion­al’ oil and gas was final­ly dawn­ing: these resources were being wrest­ed out of the ground through the injec­tion of steam and a witch­es’ brew of chem­i­cals, trans­form­ing and trau­ma­tiz­ing local economies from Mon­tana and North Dako­ta (the Bakkan fields) to Penn­syl­va­nia and New York State (the Mar­cel­lus Shale). More­over, the Athabas­ca Tar Sands, pro­duc­ing syn­thet­ic oil from cooked down tar, were also prov­ing to be a new major source for oil, as ‘con­ven­tion­al’ oil pro­duc­tion inevitably declined (as per Peak Oil the­o­ry). Hence the main­stream take on oil, fol­low­ing, as always, Yer­gin: yes, con­ven­tion­al oil was in decline—as was nat­ur­al gas—but uncon­ven­tion­al sources would make pos­si­ble not only the replace­ment of dis­ap­pear­ing con­ven­tion­al oil, but would actu­al­ly pro­vide more oil to the mar­ket. The seem­ing peak of Thanks­giv­ing, 2005 would be for­got­ten.[9]

So what is one to make of all this? Will the price of oil and gas con­tin­ue to drop not because of a ter­mi­nal reces­sion, but because of ever increas­ing ‘uncon­ven­tion­al’ pro­duc­tion?

What is inter­est­ing, I think, is the fact that at a cer­tain point peo­ple lost their abil­i­ty to under­stand what the ris­ing cost of oil could mean. The basic, most pri­ma­ry mean­ing, was obvi­ous: more expen­sive oil was oil that had a high­er price in dol­lars. So when oil hit $147 a bar­rel, every­one talked about “Peak Oil.” If oil cost more it was because it was get­ting scarcer, the specter of ‘lights out,’ of the decline of empire, hov­ered over con­sid­er­a­tions of eas­i­ly mea­sured price. Of course some skep­tics, includ­ing Pres­i­dent Oba­ma, argued that the price run-up was due to nasty spec­u­la­tors. The lat­ter, for some rea­son, had nev­er exist­ed before, at least not in the oil mar­kets. But the skep­tics’ protests were mut­ed, as long as a gen­er­al fear of high prices, and the over­ar­ch­ing ques­tion, “Where will this end?”, presided over debates. As soon as prices start­ed to fall, how­ev­er, a sur­pris­ing thing hap­pened. “Peak Oil,” it turned out, real­ly was garbage, or so it seemed, pre­cise­ly because prices were falling—it was irrel­e­vant why. Sud­den­ly, a dis­con­nect took place between price and cost: it was gen­er­al­ly ignored, at least in the pub­lic prints, that the falling price was due to a reces­sion caused in large mea­sure by the pre­ced­ing rise in oil prices. The fall in oil prices, in oth­er words, was now caused by noth­ing less than their pre­vi­ous rise, and by, yes, increas­ing scarcity.What was start­ing to appear, and what sub­se­quent­ly appeared very clear­ly, was that the price of oil had to be seen in the con­text of the cost of oil. The cost, more­over, was not always to be mea­sured in dollars—but then how to mea­sure it?

One could eas­i­ly answer—perhaps too eas­i­ly: in reces­sion, in gen­er­al­ized (or more gen­er­al­ized) human mis­ery. As mon­ey went to pay for oil, it could no longer pay for oth­er stuff: hous­ing, indus­tri­al invest­ments, what­ev­er. The entire growth/debt econ­o­my was threat­ened. The cost of oil would now be mea­sured in ris­ing job­less­ness, in polit­i­cal angst, in the rise of a lunatic right, in a not-so charm­ing insou­ciance per­tain­ing to glob­al cli­mate change. The impor­tant thing, though, was that the cost of ener­gy, and the cost of Peak Oil—which is always how Peak Oil will man­i­fest itself, through cost—was being ‘exter­nal­ized.’[10] Costs, in oth­er words, were being passed on, or passed off, in such a way that they did not seem to be a fac­tor in what was hap­pen­ing. Oil seemed to be cheap—$35 a barrel—Peak Oil was dead, but now the ris­ing cost of oil was to be mea­sured in terms that did not lend them­selves eas­i­ly to quan­tifi­ca­tion, uncom­pli­cat­ed pric­ing, and sud­den recog­ni­tion. In oth­er words, ‘Peak Oil—the ever-ris­ing cost of con­ven­tion­al­ly pro­duced oil products—made (and makes) itself felt though exter­nal­ized costs that may not ini­tial­ly be asso­ci­at­ed in a direct way with the price of oil at all.

Peak Oil’s real­ly high cost, then, was not pri­mar­i­ly the scary price of $147 a bar­rel, but the end­less ‘Great Reces­sion,’ and the larg­er (eco­log­i­cal, social) costs of the pro­duc­tion of ‘uncon­ven­tion­al oil.’ The beau­ty of the reces­sion, though, is that it can be attrib­uted to so many things oth­er than Peak Oil. Sim­i­lar­ly, the costs of ‘uncon­ven­tion­al’ production—contaminated water, air, and land, along with the larg­er effects of glob­al cli­mate change—can be over­looked, or can be dis­so­ci­at­ed from the actu­al price of oil, and thus ignored. This dif­fi­cul­ty of con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing and quan­ti­fy­ing the import and pre­cise impact of exter­nal costs was not due, I think, entire­ly to the obfus­ca­tions of pun­dits on tele­vi­sion or in the Times. It was due to the inher­ent and pro­found dif­fi­cul­ty of deter­min­ing exter­nal costs. It is one thing, in oth­er words, to real­ize that the real cost of things is being passed off and some­how obfus­cat­ed. It is anoth­er thing to fig­ure out what those real costs are, and locate them.

The Puzzle of External Costs

Exter­nal­ized cost in the case of the Athabas­ca Tar Sands can be char­ac­ter­ized in a num­ber of ways. The most impor­tant, I think, and the most gen­er­al, is this: it is not ful­ly know­able. This is the para­dox of exter­nal cost: it is extreme, but it plays out in sce­nar­ios of the future that resist rep­re­sen­ta­tion, pre­dic­tion, cal­cu­la­tion, and that, quite clear­ly, extend over long peri­ods of time into the future. In his excel­lent book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Con­ti­nent, Andrew Niki­foruk says this about water use in the pro­duc­tion of ‘uncon­ven­tion­al’ oil:

For near­ly a decade, sci­en­tists, as well as envi­ron­men­tal and Abo­rig­i­nal groups, have asked the gov­ern­ment to study how much these city-scale with­drawals are impact­ing the [Athabas­ca] river’s health and instream flows. To date, nobody can say with any cer­tain­ty whether the province’s promis­cu­ous per­mis­sion-grant­i­ng has left enough water in the Athabas­ca for the fish. In the win­ter­time, water lev­els drop so low that by 2015 indus­try will be with­draw­ing more than 12 per­cent of the water’s flow. (Niki­foruk 65)

The non-knowl­edge of the future of envi­ron­men­tal contamination—the exter­nal­ized cost of uncon­ven­tion­al oil (and hence of oil in general)—is in prin­ci­ple nev­er ful­ly know­able because the future is nev­er pre­cise­ly pre­dictable. Costs will make them­selves felt, but may not be rec­og­nized as costs, and will have to be ‘paid,’ in one way or anoth­er, for peri­ods of time that are beyond the time scale of (mod­ern) civ­i­liza­tion as we know it.

Writ­ing of pro­posed car­bon cap­ture technology—which in prin­ci­ple would store the car­bon pro­duced through uncon­ven­tion­al pro­duc­tion and refining—Nikiforuk notes that

Once CO2 begins to be inject­ed at care­ful­ly cho­sen sites, the EPA has pro­posed that reg­u­la­tors track CO2 plumes in salt water, mon­i­tor local aquifers above and beyond the stor­age site to assure pro­tec­tion of drink­ing water, and sam­ple the air over the site for traces of leak­ing CO2. And this isn’t some­thing to be done over twen­ty or fifty years—the EPA believes this over­sight needs to be main­tained for hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of years. (Niki­foruk 141)

What’s true of the imag­ined (real­ly sci­ence-fic­tion) tech­nol­o­gy of ‘car­bon cap­ture’ is true of the very real and present dan­ger of the spread of oth­er kinds of ‘plumes.’ Niki­foruk writes, for exam­ple, of Arsenic plumes that result from SAGD (Stream Assist­ed Grav­i­ty Drainage), a tech­nique used to “melt [bitu­men deposits] into black syrup” (69):

Arsenic, a potent can­cer-mak­er, pos­es anoth­er chal­lenge. Indus­try acknowl­edges that in situ pro­duc­tion […] can warm ground­wa­ter and there­by lib­er­ate arsenic and oth­er heavy met­als from deep sed­i­ments. Cana­di­an Nat­ur­al Resources recent­ly report­ed that one arsenic plume moved near­ly twelve hun­dred feet over a fif­teen-year peri­od but esti­mat­ed “it would take cen­turies, if ever,” for that arsenic to affect drink­ing water. No one, how­ev­er, knows how much arsenic sev­en­ty-eight approved SAGD projects will even­tu­al­ly mobi­lize into Alberta’s ground­wa­ter and from there into the Athabas­ca Riv­er. (Niki­foruk 72)

Here again we see unpre­dictable “move­ment” and “leak­age” (Niki­foruk 140-141) tied to deep uncer­tain­ty and an incon­ceiv­able time-frame: “cen­turies, if ever” for dis­as­ter to happen—or not. My point is not to high­light the dan­gers of all this plume-movement—Nikiforuk, with his impec­ca­ble and detailed research, has already done that—but to note the ways in which this move­ment is unknow­able in at least three ways, at a cost so exter­nal in its hid­den­ness that it becomes incon­ceiv­able. Maybe (or maybe not) the arsenic will move (first unknowa­bil­i­ty); maybe this move­ment will hap­pen over cen­turies, or over thou­sands of years (sec­ond unknowa­bil­i­ty). As with the CO2, one can imag­ine that it would have to be mon­i­tored for mil­len­nia, even in the uncer­tain­ty of its move­ment. But by whom, and under what cir­cum­stances? (Third unknowa­bil­i­ty.)

But at this point the small­ness of human cal­cu­la­tion col­lides with the vast­ness of cost beyond human scale, and cer­tain­ly beyond the momen­tary scale of the spasm of cap­i­tal­ism now dri­ving Tar Sands devel­op­ment. What human civ­i­liza­tion will be found in Alber­ta in, say, two thou­sand years? What sense will it make of our ‘addic­tion to oil’? What will be the cost to that civ­i­liza­tion of the future of the ‘plumes’ of ‘mov­ing’ arsenic? The cost of mon­i­tor­ing it? Of ame­lio­rat­ing it? Of aban­don­ing the region because it is unliv­able? All of this is unknow­able, and unknow­able too, for that rea­son, are the final, exter­nal­ized costs of ‘uncon­ven­tion­al’ oil.

See­ing these costs as ‘hid­den,’ however—and unknow­able in their hiddenness—has a corol­lary: they will leak out. Just as ‘plumes’ drift, and even­tu­al­ly show up in drink­ing water, or on the sur­face, so costs will appear, unpre­dictably, show­ing them­selves in ways that do not imme­di­ate­ly allow us to see them as costs. Just as arsenic might appear far from its ini­tial source, on a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent geo­log­i­cal lev­el, so cost might appear in forms that con­ceal, rather than reveal, their sources. Leak­age, then, is both mate­r­i­al and semi­otic, and the two are linked, indeed insep­a­ra­ble. The cost of arsenic leak­age depends on the move­ments and direc­tions of that leak­age, which can nev­er be ful­ly known and yet will refuse to stay hid­den; in the same way cost as a mea­sure and con­se­quence shows up in dif­fer­ent places, nev­er ful­ly know­able or defin­able, com­ing in dif­fer­ent forms or ver­sions, ruin­ing things, leav­ing issues whose res­o­lu­tion or ame­lio­ra­tion seems to have noth­ing to do with the stra­ta out of which it has emerged. This will (or may) go on for cen­turies, mil­len­nia, for­ev­er, for peo­ple whose civ­i­liza­tion is shroud­ed in the dis­tant future. Exter­nal cost, like arsenic plumes, like the fic­tion­al CO2 plumes, drifts, appears, disappears—is known, ignored, rep­re­sent­ed, con­jured away. Costs con­tin­ue, or will con­tin­ue, to be felt (or reck­oned, ignored, dis­placed) long after what incurred them—‘oil’—is for­got­ten. What is the ‘ori­gin’ of this (not-so) hid­den cost, then, of those plumes? Our ‘fos­sil fuel addic­tion’? This is as dif­fi­cult to pin­point as the move­ment of cost itself, in all its var­i­ous guis­es. Just as we will have a hard time indi­cat­ing the true cost—let alone price—of a bar­rel of ‘uncon­ven­tion­al’ oil, so too we will have dif­fi­cul­ty in account­ing for the ‘need’ for oil that dri­ves its extrac­tion and refine­ment. We know by now all the argu­ments: that we could live with the con­sump­tion of a lot less ener­gy, of a lot less fuel; that our hous­es could be more effi­cient, and our cities too. There is no need to dri­ve so much, heat emp­ty and leaky rooms, waste ener­gy con­sum­ing stuff we do not want and that only alien­ates us from oth­ers. We know all that. But still we con­sume. We con­sume heed­less­ly, locked in the semio-mate­r­i­al link­age of leak­age, of the drift of poi­son and cost.

What lan­guage can we use to rep­re­sent cost, what cal­cu­lus to quan­ti­fy it? And what psy­chol­o­gy, what phys­i­ol­o­gy, what cul­tur­al urge or somat­ic dri­ve to explain, ful­ly reck­on, the ‘need’ for the use­less expen­di­ture of ener­gy? Ener­gy that, more­over, comes to us from sources we do not need to know about, can­not know about. Think­ing about the fate of the Athabas­ca riv­er, real­ly under­stand­ing its ecol­o­gy, the move­ment of all the plumes, even the barest out­line of all that, the future of all that to infin­i­ty, would ruin a nice dri­ve to McDonald’s. Just as cost and the ori­gin of all those costs is unknow­able, ungras­pable, we have a motive to keep them unknow­able. This, I sup­pose, is yet anoth­er lev­el of unknowa­bil­i­ty. The unknow­able, ungras­pable urge to spend, to con­sume, to burn—by def­i­n­i­tion irra­tional, giv­en all the con­se­quences of the act, them­selves (or their costs) ulti­mate­ly unknowable—along with the will­ful desire, kept hid­den no doubt, not to know. We know enough to want not to know. We want to not know all that we know is ulti­mate­ly unknow­able. Denega­tion to infin­i­ty. To blame it all on cap­i­tal­ism is cer­tain­ly tempt­ing, it could cer­tain­ly work in an analysis—but that sup­pos­es anoth­er cal­cu­la­tion, one in which all the num­bers work out cor­rect­ly, one in which the future is per­fect­ly mapped and known in all its sus­tain­able glo­ry. Cer­tain­ly a wor­thy goal, that, but one fears that sus­tain­abil­i­ty posit­ed in the teeth of the rad­i­cal unknowa­bil­i­ty of the cost of the human foot­print is just one more exam­ple of semi­otic leak­age: an equal­iza­tion of mate­r­i­al process and the pow­ers of calculation/representation that is more wish than ful­fill­ment. The riv­er is already endan­gered, CO2 lev­els are already ele­vat­ed, the future cost of all this is already a for­mi­da­ble conun­drum. Ulti­mate­ly the future of ‘uncon­ven­tion­al oil’ may boil down not to pre­cise cal­cu­la­tions through which it can be known and controlled—though all that is necessary—but to its role as an agent in which our very sub­jec­tiv­i­ties are both con­sti­tut­ed and called into ques­tion.

The Agency of Oil

To say that the car­bon foot­print defies sim­ple cal­cu­la­tion is not to say that we have a free hand in pol­lut­ing. It is to say, how­ev­er, that our response to egre­gious cat­a­stro­phes like the Athabas­ca Tar Sands projects must be nuanced in the sense that sim­ple rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a clear­ly iden­ti­fi­able event—an event with­out leak­age, so to speak—by clear­ly iden­ti­fi­able and sin­gu­lar­ly respon­si­ble sub­jec­tiv­i­ties is no longer suf­fi­cient.

Why, after all, do cor­po­ra­tions pro­duce oil from the Tar Sands? Why do leg­is­la­tors and jurists enable them? Why do tele­vi­sion and print jour­nal­ists in the main­stream media affirm their activ­i­ties? More is at stake, I think, than sim­ple eco­nom­ic pres­sure, the love of prof­its, and so on. To be sure, all that is involved, but I think at the same time one must go back and con­sid­er, if you will, the gen­e­sis of the sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of the agent of uncon­ven­tion­al oil.

As Paul Rob­bins and Julie Sharp point out in their arti­cle “Tur­f­grass Sub­jects,” the sub­ject of ide­ol­o­gy is itself the result of an inter­pel­la­tion on the part of the oth­er. If, as Althuss­er has argued, indi­vid­u­als are con­sti­tut­ed in ide­ol­o­gy through sys­tems of “nat­ur­al neces­si­ty and imme­di­ate prac­tice,” this is pos­si­ble because they act both as seem­ing­ly free agents and as “sub­ject­ed being[s] who sub­mit[…] to high­er author­i­ty” (Rob­bins and Sharp 121). This free­dom in submission—one is a respon­si­ble sub­ject and one is sub­ject to authority—is char­ac­ter­ized by a moment in which the sub­ject rec­og­nizes him or her­self in free sub­mis­sion: the inter­pel­la­tion of a police­men, fol­lowed by the response of the (now guilty, ‘respon­si­ble’) indi­vid­ual, is a moment of the con­sti­tu­tion of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty (self-aware­ness in sub­jec­tion).

Rob­bins and Sharp point out that it may not be a ques­tion mere­ly of the agency of the police­man: tur­f­grass, to which the home­own­er is sub­ject, can play exact­ly the same role. They write:

Thus, as the turf draws its demands from the cul­ture and the com­mu­ni­ty, it helps to mould the cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my into spe­cif­ic forms, and helps to pro­duce pecu­liar kinds of people—turfgrass sub­jects. […] Indus­try is not pro­duc­ing desire, but is rather respond­ing to the need for infor­ma­tion required for the mate­r­i­al prac­tice of lawn care by the tur­f­grass sub­ject. Nei­ther does com­mu­ni­ty pres­sure, a clear dri­ver for indi­vid­ual behav­ior, engage in some sim­ple way through the demands of indus­try. Rather, it can far more eas­i­ly be argued that com­mu­ni­ty pres­sures suit most direct­ly the demands of tur­f­grass. (Rob­bins and Sharp 122)

Of course, the ‘demand­ing’ agent in a case like this need not be ani­mate. To be sure, plants of all sorts ‘use’ humans to pro­lif­er­ate; as Michael Pol­lan has point­ed out, corn, apples, mar­i­jua­na and oth­er crops “use” us to aid them in their genet­ic quest for dom­i­nance, just as much as we “use” them (Pol­lan). But what Rob­bins and Sharp say of tur­f­grass can be just as eas­i­ly said of the auto­mo­bile: vir­tu­al­ly all of human soci­ety turns around the acqui­si­tion, care, devel­op­ment, and dis­pos­al of cars. In oth­er words, an extrater­res­tri­al observ­ing earth could be for­giv­en for think­ing that cars are the dom­i­nant species, and humans are bred sim­ply to serve them.

Which brings us back to the Tar Sands, sus­tain­abil­i­ty, and Peak Oil. As with tur­f­grass, oil too ‘moulds the cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my into cer­tain forms—indeed one could argue that the rise of cap­i­tal­ism itself was a func­tion of ever cheap­er and more effi­cient ener­gy sources, with the ener­gy pro­duced by the burn­ing of oil at the very end of the process (see Hein­berg  45-84). As sub­jects, we are inter­pel­lat­ed by oil, by its demands and incon­sis­ten­cies. As with the auto, we care for it, cul­ti­vate it, prop­a­gate it, rouse it from its slum­ber by free­ing it from shale or melt­ing it from sand, love it, abuse it, waste it. That is what we do, what we are. We are sub­jects of, and sub­ject­ed to, the ener­gy slaves pro­vid­ed by oil—we are incon­ceiv­able with­out those slaves, their demands are our demands.[11] When they call, we answer. (Indeed if Hegel were alive today, he would rewrite the mas­ter-slave dialec­tic as the con­fronta­tion between a sub­ject liv­ing under ‘late’ cap­i­tal­ism and the ener­gy slaves pow­er­ing her appli­ances, cars, pro­vid­ing her food, her heat, her leisure.)

But the demands of those ener­gy slaves—and ulti­mate­ly of oil, whose agents they are—are as close as we can come to quan­ti­fy­ing the exter­nal costs of oil, and under­stand­ing Peak Oil as a func­tion of those exter­nal costs. Just as, when the police­man calls, we can nev­er be sure what he is call­ing about as we turn around, so too when oil calls we can nev­er know ful­ly what its demands, and its costs, will be. Where will the plumes of its poi­son reach? What will be the lim­its of those demands? When will oil go away, leave us with­out our dear slaves, force us to respond to the demands of ever more cost­ly fuels? We can nev­er be sure of the ‘oth­er,’ nev­er firm­ly grasp its posi­tion as us only sep­a­rate from us, the mir­ror of our sub­jec­tiv­i­ty all the while being a pro­found­ly for­eign agency, a pro­found­ly alien and even hos­tile one. In the face of this anx­i­ety we will leave no stone unturned, spare noth­ing to pro­vide the appa­ra­tus of oil—its vast indus­tri­al infra­struc­ture, its ener­gy slaves work­ing in every con­ti­nent and in every service—with what it wants and needs, despite the obvi­ous risks to the envi­ron­ment and even to our own health. We can nev­er ful­ly and clear­ly cal­cu­late that cost, but we can depict, quite clear­ly, our depen­dence on an agency that is uncon­cerned with all that oth­er stuff, with all the stuff of our sub­jec­tiv­i­ty in (impos­si­ble) iso­la­tion from a socio-tech­ni­cal ‘frame’ that brooks no oppo­si­tion.

ut anoth­er way, to free our­selves from that ‘oth­er’ agency, as from tur­f­grass or some oth­er nox­ious mono­cul­ture (corn, for exam­ple, itself obvi­ous­ly depen­dent on an oil infra­struc­ture), we will have to imag­ine defeat­ing an agency which has called forth, through its inter­pel­la­tion, our very subjectivities—and some­thing to which we are sub­ject­ed. Not an easy task, for we nev­er real­ly know where this agency is com­ing from or where it will take us; where, in oth­er words, its plumes are drift­ing, where its leaks are open­ing, what new demands it will make. If we could draw the line once and for all and be done with it, it would per­haps be easy. But ‘it’ can nev­er be pinned down: when will Peak Oil ‘arrive’? How will its exter­nal costs be man­i­fest­ed in 30 years, 50, 100? Who will be there to attend to those costs, how can we pre­pare those peo­ple of the future by prepar­ing and attend­ing to our own needs, now and in all the pos­si­ble futures to come?

It is not, then, just a mat­ter of ‘kick­ing our addic­tion to oil.’ Or per­haps it is, if we can argue that any addiction—to hero­in, food, cig­a­rettes, cars, whatever—is about not just us and what we want, but also what the ‘oth­er’ wants from us, how its char­ac­ter, make­up, what­ev­er, deter­mines how we go about act­ing (or not act­ing) in rela­tion to it. If the hero­in addict is called by his drug, finds it to be “my wife, and my life” (as Lou Reed put it), so we, and the entire civ­i­liza­tion, are called by oil. We turn around to face it—with guilt, per­haps, but we turn around. Every oth­er addic­tion flows (lit­er­al­ly) from that of oil.[12] To break our enslave­ment to our ener­gy slaves means lit­er­al­ly refor­mu­lat­ing our sub­jec­tiv­i­ty: how we con­sti­tute our­selves in every way in what we are sub­ject­ed to. A task a thou­sand times hard­er than kick­ing any spe­cif­ic addic­tion, because ener­gy enslave­ment through oil is the nec­es­sary con­di­tion of all oth­ers (it is hard to imag­ine the cur­rent vast army of hero­in addicts in a solar-ener­gy econ­o­my).

One can imag­ine an anti­dote, after a sort, to this econ­o­my of inter­pel­la­tion and indebt­ed­ness (I am oblig­ed to the police­man to turn around when he calls me: I owe it to him, to what he rep­re­sents). It is the gift econ­o­my.[13] Now there is already a gift giv­ing implied in the Tar Sands devel­op­ments, but it is not a very hap­py one. Cana­da is export­ing syn­thet­ic crude to the US, and retain­ing all the envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion that goes along with it. In short, the US gets the oil and Cana­da gets the dev­as­ta­tion. This is the biggest gift one coun­try can give anoth­er, dwarf­ing even the gift giv­ing of the Mar­shall Plan about which Bataille waxed so enthu­si­as­tic.[14] But this gift­ing is noth­ing more than an affir­ma­tion of the suprema­cy of oil and its agency, through rec­og­niz­ing above all the US’s need for oil.

One could imag­ine anoth­er giv­ing of oil: to give the gift of oil in this case would be to refuse depen­dence on it. Rather than giv­ing the poi­soned gift (to one­self, one’s own coun­try) of eco­log­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion, one could give the gift of the agency of the oth­er.[15] In this case, the other—here oil—would not be seen as a hos­tile mir­ror-image, but rather as a frag­ile, death-bound agent of fini­tude (which oil, at its peak, cer­tain­ly is). In Mar­guerite Duras’s screen­play for the Alain Resnais film Hiroshi­ma mon amour, Duras has her hero­ine cut her­self off from the pow­er of the trau­ma­tiz­ing mem­o­ry of the shoot­ing of her Ger­man lover at the end of the war. Speak­ing to her own 18 year old self in the city of Nev­ers, she says: “Je te donne à l’oubli”—“I give you to for­get­ting.”[16] In this case, the fero­cious agency of her oth­er, her double—herself as a trau­ma­tized girl, guilty of collaboration—is giv­en to for­get­ting. In this sce­nario, a lack of remem­brance is an agent—it receives some­thing, a memory—but an agent as non-agency. Of course no for­get­ting is per­ma­nent, one is always sub­ject­ed to the hor­ror of the eter­nal return, but in this case for­get­ting can serve as a recip­i­ent of a gift whose giv­ing puts in ques­tion an econ­o­my of demand, need, addic­tion, and care­ful cal­cu­la­tion of pay­back (cost). This is, in oth­er words, a move­ment by which anoth­er econ­o­my is embraced; this one, how­ev­er, is not one of giv­ing to anoth­er clear­ly defined enti­ty (the US, for exam­ple) but to forgetting—the absence of agency—itself. A for­get­ting as gift.

This, then, is a rela­tion not of pre­cise cal­cu­la­tion but of dis­en­gage­ment. Imag­ine if one could give tur­f­grass to for­get­ting. Just stop water­ing and mow­ing it. But how to give oil—now in its impe­ri­ous agency ‘unconventional’—to for­get­ting? That’s a much more dif­fi­cult ques­tion, because oil, as I’ve not­ed, is in many ways the ‘root’ of all oth­er addic­tions.

This is hard, in the same way that kick­ing tur­f­grass is hard. The agency of tur­f­grass depends not just on what grass wants (water, pes­ti­cides, the labor of mow­ing), but on what a num­ber of socio-tech­ni­cal infra­struc­tures demand: neigh­bors, friends, com­mu­ni­ties, indus­tries. Grass’s demands, we could say, are framed by a num­ber of oth­er sub­jec­tiviz­ing struc­tures. But the demands of oil, its unknowability—Where is it? Where are the plumes asso­ci­at­ed with it leak­ing? How is it to be got­ten? What is its fini­tude and futurity?—is tied to the demands not just of some oth­er peo­ple but the grav­i­ty of one’s appar­ent sur­vival. My car inter­pel­lates me, but my food keeps me alive.

Per­haps this is the true moment of not-know­ing. At a cer­tain point, the gift to for­get­ting can­not be know­ing, antic­i­pat­ing, cal­cu­lat­ing. Cal­cu­la­tion may be only an infi­nite regress in which the over­ween­ing agency of the other—oil’s inter­pel­lat­ing power—is rec­og­nized and ulti­mate­ly affirmed: how can we bal­ance accounts, how can oil be mas­tered, but only to the extent that its use is for­mat­ted with­in a ful­ly sus­tain­able econ­o­my? For­get by just doing it: stop feed­ing it. Starve the beast. Con­sume less. Eat less (espe­cial­ly ‘cheap’ food). Stop dri­ving. Hell, give up the inter­net. Do any­thing to break a depen­den­cy in which exter­nal costs are seen only as a stag­ger­ing sub­lime, a mind-bog­gling infi­nite, rather than what they also are: ide­o­log­i­cal forms to be giv­en away, to the recur­ring obliv­ion of for­get­ting.

Such a for­get­ting can­not be per­ma­nent, definitive—any more than can be that of Duras’s hero­ine. The days of the sup­posed easy mea­sure of effi­ca­cy (like the easy mea­sure of exter­nal­i­ties) is over. But it is a ges­ture, the first one to ‘take,’ or to let go.[17]


[1] See, for exam­ple, the pre­dic­tion of Thanks­giv­ing 2005 as the offi­cial date of peak oil, at Ken­neth Deffeyes’s web­site: http://​www​.prince​ton​.edu/​h​u​b​b​e​r​t​/​c​u​r​r​e​n​t​-​e​v​e​n​t​s​-​0​5​-​1​1​.​h​tml.

[2] On July 11, 2008, to be pre­cise: http://​afp​.google​.com/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​A​L​e​q​M​5​g​s​J​A​Y​3​O​h​p​M​x​Z​L​y​_​G​S​p​r​X​L​s​q​q​T​Y2A

[3] “‘Peak Oil the­o­ry is garbage as far as we’re con­cerned’, said Robert W. Ess­er, a geol­o­gist by train­ing and CERA’s senior consultant/director of glob­al oil and gas resources, accord­ing to Busi­ness Week online nation­al cor­re­spon­dent Mark Mor­ri­son (Sept 7).” See http://​www​.ener​gy​bul​letin​.net/​n​o​d​e​/​2​0​418. HIS-CERA defines itself as a “glob­al ener­gy infor­ma­tion com­pa­ny,” pro­vid­ing research to cor­po­ra­tions. Its web­site: http://​www​.ihs​.com/​a​b​o​u​t​/​i​n​d​e​x​.​a​spx.

[4] See Yergin’s com­ments, as report­ed on The Ener­gy Blog: http://​the​fraser​do​main​.type​pad​.com/​e​n​e​r​g​y​/​2​0​0​6​/​1​1​/​c​e​r​a​_​t​h​e​_​u​n​d​u​l​a​.​h​tml

[5] On “Ener­gy Return on Ener­gy Invest­ment” (EROEI), see Hein­berg 125-126.

[6] See the Los Ange­les Times, 18 Feb., 2009: “Crude Oil Slides Below Key Thresh­old of $35 a bar­rel”: http://​arti​cles​.latimes​.com/​2​0​0​9​/​f​e​b​/​1​8​/​b​u​s​i​n​e​s​s​/​f​i​-​g​a​s18

[7] See Gail the Actu­ary, “Oil Lim­its, Reces­sion, and Bump­ing Against the Growth Ceil­ing,” for an exhaus­tive dis­cus­sion on the rela­tion between the avail­abil­i­ty of oil and the pros­per­i­ty of the growth econ­o­my.

[8] See Pol­lan, “Why Both­er?” on the virtues of con­fronting glob­al cli­mate change through changes in ener­gy and food policy—this in an open let­ter addressed to the next pres­i­dent (unde­cid­ed at the time of the writ­ing of the arti­cle). Such ide­al­is­tic, and inspir­ing, arti­cles rarely seem to appear in the Times any more (at least as of 2012).

[9] See Krauss: “This strik­ing shift in ener­gy start­ed in the 1990s with the first deep­wa­ter wells in the Gulf of Mex­i­co and Brazil, but it has tak­en off in the last decade as a result of declin­ing con­ven­tion­al fields, climb­ing ener­gy prices and swift tech­no­log­i­cal change. […] The Unit­ed States may now have the means to reduce its half cen­tu­ry of depen­dence on the Mid­dle East.”

[10] On exter­nal costs, see Laf­font.

[11] On ener­gy slaves, see Hein­berg 30-31.

[12] By this I mean that the flour­ish­ing of our “late cap­i­tal­ist” econ­o­my is entire­ly depen­dent on fos­sil fuel inputs: agribusi­ness (mono­cul­tures), trans­porta­tion, the wide­spread pro­duc­tion of delight­ful com­modi­ties and toys, all of this is unthink­able with­out mas­sive fos­sil fuel inputs. The cost of every oth­er addic­tion goes up when the over­all cost of oil goes up.

[13] For the clas­sic analy­sis of gift economies, see Mauss.

[14] See, for exam­ple, the last chap­ter of Bataille’s The Accursed Share.

[15] In Ger­man, of course, gift means poi­son. On the poi­son-gift con­nec­tion, see Mauss 81.

[16] The full line is: “Petite ton­due de Nev­ers, je te donne à l’oubli”—“Little shaved-head­ed girl from Nev­ers, I give you to for­get­ting” (Duras 118). Duras’s hero­ine has had her head shaved by mem­bers of the Resis­tance (or sim­ply by nasty towns­peo­ple), as pun­ish­ment for “hor­i­zon­tal col­lab­o­ra­tion.”

[17] Sze­man notes the absence of a coher­ent dis­course on the left con­cern­ing peak oil and all its con­se­quences. How, pre­cise­ly, to see that cap­i­tal will end before nature, and not vice ver­sa? (820-821). Cit­ing Jan Oost­hoek and Bar­ry Gills (821), Sze­man notes that what’s need­ed is “a new polit­i­cal econ­o­my [that] must take our impact on the planter’s envi­ron­ment ful­ly and real­is­ti­cal­ly into account.” As Sze­man also notes, this is “easy enough to say, but much, much hard­er to pro­duce when what is called for is a full-scale retrac­tion against the flow of a social whose every ele­ment moves toward accu­mu­la­tion and expan­sion.” I would note here only Oost­hoek and Gills’s use of the word “real­is­tic” in the above quote. How does one take one’s impact real­is­ti­cal­ly into account? What is real? I can only sug­gest here that a gift econ­o­my might very well have a dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tion of the real—or the Real—than that of a growth/debt econ­o­my.

Works Cited

Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share: An Essay on Gen­er­al Econ­o­my. Trans. Robert Hur­ley. New York: Zone Books, 1988. Print.

Def­feyes, Ken­neth S. Hubbert's Peak : the Impend­ing World Oil Short­age. Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton UP, 2001. Print.

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Gail the Actu­ary. “Oil Lim­its, Reces­sion, and Bump­ing Against the Growth Ceil­ing.” The Oil Drum. August 17, 2011. Web. Feb. 20, 2012.

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Copy­right Allan Stoekl. This arti­cle is licensed under a Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.