Earlier this week The Washington Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, published an apology on behalf of the media for its weak coverage of the multi-year run-up to the current financial debacle.
To quote the Post, “The shaky house of financial cards that has come tumbling down was erected largely in public view: overextended investment banks, risky practices by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, exotic mortgage instruments that became part of a shadow banking system. But while these were conveyed in incremental stories — and a few whistle-blowing columns — the business press never conveyed a real sense of alarm until institutions began to collapse.”
In reading through the story I was struck by how eerily similar are the now admitted journalistic lapses and the failure to connect the dots in the financial story to what we have been witnessing in the media’s coverage of peak oil. The heart of Kurtz’s apologia is the troubling question “Why didn’t they see this coming?”
Lets look at a few of his points about the financial crisis and their analogies to peak oil. First, “the media warned repeatedly that the surge in housing prices might turn out to be a bubble, but the emphasis was on the potential toll on homeowners.” Nobody connected the dots to warn that a collapse in housing prices would leave many major financial institutions holding so many worthless loans that they would be rendered insolvent; and that this in turn would result in what may turn out to be a meltdown of the world financial system.
There is no lack of coverage of the oil in the financial and popular press. Much of this, however, is in terms of high gas prices and their damage to family finances and effect on inflation. The rapid growth in oil prices in recent years is usually attributed to increases in Asian demand for oil which has resulted in tight world markets. Here too the dots are rarely connected, and certainly not on the front page where the impending crisis might start to sink in readers’ consciousness. Few in the mainstream media have warned prominently that worldwide oil supply has been basically flat for the last four years, has little prospect for increasing significantly, and that the available evidence says world production will soon begin to decline creating untold havoc on the world’s economy.
Another issue in warning of a coming financial crisis is simply being believed. As a senior editor of Fortune told the Post reporter “if we had written stories in late 2000 saying this whole thing [the housing/financial bubble] is going to collapse, people would have said, ‘Ha ha, maybe’ and gone about their business.” The executive editor of Post, who until last spring was the top editor at the Wall Street Journal, told his writer that “These are really difficult issues to convey to a popular audience… We also have to remember you’re pushing against a powerful force, which is greed.”
With peak oil this issue is similar: the implications of the concept are so horrendous that few want to hear about or ponder its implications. The admission that journalism has an obligation to push important issues (like the end of the oil age) into public consciousness is good, but the mention of greed is interesting. With the housing/financial bubble everyone was benefiting — financiers, homeowners, governments, and countless middlemen. Everybody was making money. So too is the case with cheap, freely available oil. We are all benefiting in untold ways and we most certainly do not want to be told that it is all about to end.
Finally we come to the problem of journalists trying to take on the wealth, power, and expertise of the status quo. Where billions of dollars are at stake those with a vested interest, be it Wall Street investment banks or ExxonMobil, are going to react vigorously when their righteousness is challenged. According to the Post story, journalists concerned that the housing bubble and securitization of mortgages was a disaster waiting to happen were told that they simply did not have the expertise to understand the problem. Stories critical of what was taking place resulted in complaints to editors and newspaper owners.
With peak oil the story is similar. First you have extremely rich and powerful organizations such as ExxonMobil, most international oil companies, the governments and national oil companies of most oil producing states, which for one reason or another deem it to be in their best interests if the complete story of peak oil and its implications does not come to the attention of the general populace for as long as absolutely possible. You can add most national governments who simply don’t want to call for the sacrifices required to mitigate the consequences of peak oil.
You can add to this list the official U.S. and International Agencies, the EIA and the IEA that are charged with tracking world oil production and forecasting just when it will go into decline. Until now, their official position has been that the peak of world oil production is not imminent, but these official positions seem to be changing. When you get right down to it there is not a living soul on the planet that really wants to hear about peak oil and its implications. The peak oil story certainly will not sell newspapers until the affordability and availability of oil gets so bad that some sort of action must be taken.
Is there a lesson from the current financial crisis that might be applied to the impending peak oil crisis? For now the peak oil story is lost in the collapse of the equity markets, the commodity markets, and who knows what else. When people and their elected representatives are worried about what will happen to jobs, retirement accounts, and food supplies over the next six months, it will become increasing difficult to get them to heed warnings of higher gasoline prices and even shortages years from now.
Perhaps the one point we should all take away from this is the admonition by the Washington Post’s executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, that “you do have an obligation as a journalist to push important issues into the public consciousness.”