Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The moth effect: blinded by too much evidence

A moth flying into a flame probably doesn't see it any more in the last moments before being consumed. Too much brightness creates blindness. Too much evidence is blinding us from seeing the threats we are facing: catastrophic climate change and resource depletion. (image from goodgrieflinus

Many people have been asking me why my new book, "Plundering the Planet" was published in German and not in English (even though I wrote it in English). The reason is simple: it was relatively easy to find a German publisher, much more difficult to find one who would publish the English version (*). When contacted, American and British publishers simply shook their head. They felt that there was zero interest for a book about resource depletion and catastrophic climate change - which form the basic thread of the book. These are both unthinkable and unspeakable subjects in the present debate in the English speaking world except as a fringe opinion held by small groups of contrarians.

I can't fault these editors: they know their market. Right now, the general feeling seems to be that a few years of increasing oil production in the US (and in a specific region of the US) have been enough to completely destroy the very concept of "peak oil" and - additionally - to completely discredit any claim that we have a general depletion problem with all mineral resources. At the same time, catastrophic climate change remains a subject of interest only for polar bears.

The situation is better in Germany, where it is still possible to carry on a serious debate on these subjects and where the press has been highly responsive to the publication of the book. Even in Germany, though, there are signs that the debate may be evolving in the wrong direction; that is closing to all options except to the one involving drilling more and drilling deeper for oil and gas.

Think about this situation for a moment: what the hell is going on? The problems of climate change and oil depletion have never been so clear as they are now. Just look at the Arctic ice cap: would you deny that it is melting, and melting fast? And look at the market prices of all mineral resources: can you deny that everything costs now three times more than it used to cost just ten years ago. And you know that depletion is forcing us to use more coal, and that more coal is bringing more climate change. Come on, dammit: how can you ignore the evidence so blatantly? All this is happening for real!

And yet, the English speaking world seems to be nearly completely oblivious to evidence. I think there is no other explanation that to invoke the concept of the "moth blinded by light". I imagine that, in the last moments, a moth doesn't even see the flame it is flying into. It is totally blinded by it. We must be subjected to something similar. We are flying into total disaster willingly, perfectly aiming at maximizing damage to ourselves, and totally blind.

They say that moths fly into bright lights because their brains are geared for seeking faint lights; maybe for orienting their flying - they simply are not equipped for managing very bright lights. Our decisional system seems to suffer the same problem: it is geared to seek for short term economic profit and it was never conceived for anything else. The evidence of incoming disaster is incomprehensible to it, so it just shuts it off. The more the evidence grows, the more actively the system operates to shut it off. And it flies into the flame.

(*) Eventually, we were able to find a publisher who will take care of the English version of "Plundering the Planet". If everything goes well, it should appear this fall.


  1. This is truly insane situation. Or is it just BAU as always? Maybe BOTH!

    Today I saw a short link-free blog written in slovak language called "Why is Swiss wealthy" with more than 85 000 reads and more than 10 000 likes on Facebook.

    When I write about topics Ugo mentions here, the average read is about 1000 (actually, that is quite high number most of the time).

    Even apple cake recepts have larger audience. This makes me frustrated most of the time.


  2. There is perhaps little comfort in thinking that both moths and humans will get precisely what they deserve. And probably much sooner than even the realists among them think. But what is a "realistic moth" anyway?...."a moth by any other name would see as far"....and still be be a moth-brain.... (as Shakespeare surely would have said....which is something to perhaps remind some of those enthusiastic British publishers about in particular)

  3. Perhaps Germans are protected to an extent from the English language. Similarly Germany traditionally had a different take on 'democratic capitalism', having a bias toward 'social duty' rather than 'individual success'? (See for example F. Engels horrified confrontation with 19thC Manchester and his conversation with the quintessential Mancunian business man. “There is a lot of money being made in Manchester, Mr Engels. Good afternoon.”)

    Germany confronts its own internal contradictions. But as the joke said about Soviet Communism: "if the Germans cannot make it work, nobody can".

  4. Excellent, if depressing, article. I think that the active delusion-seeking of humans makes the comparison somewhat unfair to the moth. A moth will in general not fly directly into a flame, it spirals in. That's a clue that it is trying to navigate from the brightest light - which in the past was the moon. Thus, keeping a set angle to the light would enable it to fly a relatively straight line. Having the brightest light source nearby causes the moth to adjust its course, and produces an inward spiral. So the moth's problem, like ours, is human intervention.

    A search for delusion-seeking insects would probably not find any, and for good reason.

  5. "Right now, the general feeling seems to be that a few years of increasing oil production in the US (and in a specific region of the US) have been enough to completely destroy the very concept of "peak oil" and - additionally - to completely discredit any claim that we have a general depletion problem with all mineral resources."

    The current propaganda is indeed getting hysterical reagrding this so called "US energy boom", and that the IEA is one of the key messenger of this propaganda a true scandal (let's not forget also all the finacial interests behinf that).

    Otherwise regarding peak oil, and it "acceptability" (or current discredit), a key aspect in this is most probably the myth regarding the first oil shock, myth that could be summarized as :

    "first oil schock=Yom Kippur war/Arab embargo= geopolitical event = nothing to do with geologic constraints"

    Typically that's how it is "indexed" on below graph for instance :
    (and most historical graphs regarding oil, were US 1970 is never mentioned)

    Whereas the reality is much more :

    - end 1970 : US production peak, the energy crisis starts from there, with some heating fuel shortages for instance (some articles can be found on NYT archive on that)
    - Nixon name James Akins to go check what is going on
    - Akins goes around all US producers, saying this won't be communicated to the media, but needs to be known, national security question
    - The results are bad : no additional capacity at all, production will only go down, the results are also presentede to the OECD
    - The reserves of Alaska, North Sea, Gulf of Mexico, are known at that time, but to be developed the barrel price needs to be higher
    - In parallel this is also the period of "rebalance" between oil majors and countries on each barrel revenus.
    - So to be able to start Alaska, GOM, North Sea, and have some "outside OPEC" market share, the barrel price needs to go up (always good for oil majors anyway) and this is also US diplomacy strategy
    - For instance Akins, then US ambassador in Saudi Arabia, is the one talking about $4 or $5 a barrel in an OAPEC meeting in Algiers in 1972
    - Yom Kippur starts during an OPEC meeting in Vienna, which was about barrel revenus percentages, and barrel price rise.
    - The declaration of the embargo pushes the barrel up on the spots markets (that just have been set up)
    - But the embargo remains quite limited (not from Iran, not from Iraq, only towards a few countries)
    - It remains fictiv from Saudi Arabia towards the US : tankers kept on going from KSA, through Barhain to make it more discrete, towards the US Army in Vietnam in particular.
    - Akins is very clear about that in below documentary interviews (which unfortunately only exists in French and German to my knowledge, and interviews are voiced over) :
    For instance after 24:10, where he says that two senators were starting having rather "strong voices" about "doing something", he asked the permission to tell them what was going on, got it, told them, they shat up and there was never any leak. The first oil schock "episode" starts at 18:00

    (the "embargo story" was in fact very "pratical" both for the US (to "cover up" US peak towards US public opinion or western one in general, but also for major Arab producers to show "the arab street" that they were doing something for the Palestinians).

    It is also quite telling that this documentary and Akins interviews in particular do not exist in English (and neither Eric Laurent book, also translations exist in plenty of languages)

    How many Americans these days know that they went through their oil production peak in 1970 1% ? 0.5 ? less ?

    1. By the way, below the graph for liquids from the latest Laherrère synthesis :

      Which also shows, besides the scary future capacity perspective, that we are also at some kind of "maximum dissonance", between "official information"(the dotted lines), and "reality based objectives projections at best available data".

      Other key graphs below :

      And direct link to latest oil and gas synthesis :