The perfect storm part I – Peak oil


This week in Sustainable Living class here at UMass we are beginning to explore the root cause(s) of the three big problems of our times.   According to the Director General of the World Health Organization, these problems (which I describe as \”the perfect storm\” because they are interrelated and all happening at once) are:

  1. Peak Oil

  2. Pandemic

  3. Climate Change

\"\"This blog looks for the root cause(s) of our excessive use and dependence on oil, a problem described by the term \”peak oil\”.   Most students at UMass have heard the term (which was not true just a few years ago). But it is surprising how few can speak about  the root cause(s) of our excessive energy use, which has resulted in peak oil.  So in class, we introduce the topic with a short video, and then ask the students to use the systems thinking iceberg model (which I wrote about last week) to begin to understand the root cause(s) of peak oil.  Here is what we learned…..

M. King Hubbard predicted that oil production in the U.S. would peak in 1970.   And it did! This means that half of the extractable oil in the U.S. was burned by Americans over 40 years ago.  This is a problem!

\"\"Even the former-President of the U.S., George W. Bush, charged the nation with being \”addicted to oil.\” The first step in 12-step recovery programs is to admit that we have a problem.   Based on our behavior however, it seems that we are not willing to accept this truth.  Like other addictions, this one will end badly.

So, if it is obvious that being addicted to a finite resource isn\’t a good position to be in, why aren\’t we taking it seriously?  I believe that most of us find it difficult to face problems when we can\’t imagine a reasonable solution.  And understanding the problem is the first step toward creating and accepting reasonable solutions.

So in class, we look for the root cause(s) of problems by using the iceberg.

When I asked the class to identify the structures that result in patterns of human behavior that cause us to continue to deplete fossil fuels at ever-increasing rates, they came up with the following list:

  • The oil industry
  • Automobile manufacturers
  • Advertising agencies
  • Vacation & Travel industries
  • Well, in fact almost ALL businesses….
  • The military
  • High gas mileage thresholds
  • Subsidies for the oil industry
  • The national highway system
  • Airports
  • Non-energy efficient buildings
  • Well, just about everything in our lives

Here is a short clip explaining how we determine structures, with a few more examples:


The more interesting question is what are the mental models (the beliefs, the assumptions, the stories we tell each other) that contribute to the creation of the structures that encourage the excessive use of a oil.  These are some of the mental models generated by the class:

  • Individual actions don\’t make a difference
  • We\’ll figure out what to do when things get really bad
  • The world is made for humans to use
  • I have the right
  • Shop till you drop
  • I need amusements to be happy
  • If I can\’t fix everything….. I won\’t do anything

Here is a short clip describing mental models, with a few more examples:


Why don\’t you identify your own mental models from the video below and share your thoughts in the comments box.


What do you think is the root cause(s) of peak oil?

I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my posts.

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