Peak Oil: No Laughing Matter

2011•09•05 Brendan F.D. Barrett Osaka University

One possible explanation for the amazing and long-running success of the Daily Show, the late night satirical television show on Comedy Central, is the fact that politics has become so bizarre in recent years that we all just need to laugh about it, or we might go crazy.

We need these kinds of fake news programmes to help us let off steam, yet at the same time they provide fascinating insights on current events as they happen. The Daily Show frequently presents an impressive critique of the hypocrisy that oft surrounds contemporary politics in the United States and around the globe.

For many, with most regular viewers in the 18-49 age range, the Daily Show and its offspring the Colbert Report, are the only (or at least most trusted) source of news. The truth is that when you look around the world today — with financial crises, recessions, wars, riots, hunger and on-going environmental destruction (the list grows daily) — you really do need a sense of humour.

If you work in the environmental arena,  and you often find yourself in conversation with friends, colleagues and just about anybody on topics like peak oil or climate change, you can see people’s expression change quickly.

In social situations, perhaps an initial mention of the topic is fine, but then eyes glaze over and you can see people making a mental note “must not invite this guy around for dinner again”. But if you start with the line, “Hey, did you see the Daily Show last night?” well that could make all the difference.

You can then share with them the segment when Jon Stewart explains how the last eight US presidents have gone on television and promised to move America towards an energy-independent future.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
An Energy-Independent Future
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

So you see, politicians recognise the energy crisis we face. It’s just that they can’t do much about it. You could have written a book on this, but in only a few minutes the Daily Show tells you all you need to know. With a bit of humour, a serious subject can be deftly handled, and the advantage of talking about what you saw on the Daily Show is that it is cool in the popular sense, and you may even get invited back for dinner.

Fake news making up for the failings of real news

The sad reality is that we need fake news because the real television news media is not up to the task of reporting objectively on contemporary affairs due to the polarization that has taken place in recent years, not to mention the need to keep the media corporations and their multinational sponsors happy.

That could explain why a topic like peak oil receives so little attention. If anything, more often than not, the television news media appears to spend most of its time looking for any other alternative explanation to peak oil — speculation, pipeline accidents, restrictions on oil exploration, wars, etc.

For instance, when important research on peak oil is released, the findings are all but ignored. So when the Global Oil Depletion Report was published back in 2009,  perhaps the best coverage was in the The Bugle Podcast from Daily Show correspondent John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman, via TimesOnline.

Their Peak Oil special introduces the report and its finding that there is a significant risk of global oil production peaking by 2020.

John Oliver goes on to remark that “this has caused some panic because it turns out that 2020 is in most people’s lifetimes and is therefore a very serious issue. If it wasn’t until a year like 2120 then that falls very much in the not-my-problem file, and becomes a surprise gift to be unwrapped by future generations, along with the issue of nuclear waste”.

To which Zaltzman responds by explaining that the basic world attitude to peak oil has always been “Nah, it will be fine. Ah, it’s a lovely day what are you complaining about? There’s always one miserable fly trying to s—t in everyone’s soup. Has oil ever run out before? No!”

Let us hope that Oliver and Zaltzman will continue to powerhose nonsense on topics like peak oil all over the world!

A brief history of oil

Perhaps one of the most powerful and engaging satirical looks at peak oil comes from Robert Newman, comedian, author and political activist, with his one-man performance on the “History of Oil,” televised on More4 in the UK in 2006 and released on DVD in 2007.

Drawing on Richard Heinberg’s 2003 book, The Party’s Over, Robert Newman shows himself to be ahead of the curve and better read than most academics working in this field (this author included) and just about every policy-maker out there.

Explaining geopolitics in the 20th and 21st centuries, Robert Newman postulates that Western foreign policy has been a continuous struggle to gain control of Middle Eastern oil. Most of the major military conflicts, traced back to World War I, have been a struggle around oil, posing great concern for how we might respond to the advent of peak oil today.

Robert Newman expounds during his stand-up performance that “we are about to enter a whole new era with peak oil. Petroleum geologists predicted that somewhere between 2006 and 2010 we passed a planetary peak oil spike, Since then, they argue, with every year, there has been and will be less and less net energy available to humankind, no matter what we do.

“It is, I believe, an epoch of such enormity that to make any meaningful comparison at all you have got to go back to the Mayans, to the Romans and the collapse of the last complex civilizations. Because those civilizations, they didn’t collapse because people go bored of being Mayans and Romans.”

To laugh and learn more, tune into the entire performance on Google video or buy the DVD.

For Robert Newman, peak oil and climate change are not just subject matter for his comedy. He is trying to make changes in his life. On his blog, he mentions that:

“It was my intention to make the world’s first ever carbon-neutral television programme when I recorded ‘Robert Newman’s History Of Oil’ for More4 last year. ‘Will there be travelogue?’ the executive producer had asked me.

“’No,’ I said, ‘Apart from all the carbon emissions, what’s the point of sending me halfway round the world to stand outside an oil-refinery in Houston just to deliver two paragraphs to camera? Why not fax the script to the Mexican guy who sells burgers outside the refinery gates and have him read out the script while his mate holds a camcorder?’”

He continues by explaining that when filming the History of Oil at the Hoxton Music Hall, it was “a chance to implement another carbon-neutral strategy. Some of the stage-lighting was powered by two cyclists in the style of Rinky Dink’s famous pedal-powered sound systems. When the cyclists tired, members of the audience took over. For the audience, this meant a sense of involvement in the show. For me, watching them work up a sweat assuaged my resentment that they had all got in for free. I even took a turn myself.”

So there you have it. Peak oil can be a laughing matter. Not so much the fact that it is happening, but more about how everybody reacts to it — whether through denial, anger, resignation or laughter.

It is an emotive subject that lends itself to political satire, mainly by left-leaning comedians who perhaps understand the ramifications for today’s world better than right-leaning comedians, who would rather keep things as they are, while still seeing the funny side of that.

If you have come across some comic interpretations of peak oil online, I hope that you will share them with us in the comments section of this article. But most of all, I hope that some comic relief along the lines described herein can help you come to terms with the reality that is peak oil, sooner rather than later.

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Peak Oil: No Laughing Matter by Brendan Barrett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.



Brendan F.D. Barrett

Osaka University

Brendan F.D. Barrett is a specially appointed professor at Osaka University in the Center for the Study of Co*Design. He teaches and undertakes research as part of the Co-creation Design Division. His core areas of expertise include urban transitions, ethical cities, sustainability science, and science/research communication.

Brendan worked with the United Nations in Japan between 1995 and 2015, with the UN Environment Programme and the United Nations University (UNU). At UNU he was the Head of Online Learning and Head of Communications where he oversaw the development of interactive websites and video documentaries on complex social and environmental concerns. As a result, Brendan has extensive experience in science communications and launched the Our World web magazine in 2008.

Join the Discussion

  • Thanks for mentioning Robert Newman’s brilliant Monty Pythonesque treatment of this issue.
    Peak Oil is such a mammoth revelation and its near term consequences so threatening to business-as-usual that most people react with fear and denial. A century of technological progress has given them an almost religious faith in miraculous “fixes”, to such an extent that many will refuse to even consider the facts on offer. So we have become a modern cargo cult waiting for the solutions to resource constraints and climate change to touch down on our imaginary runway, while we stay busy cutting down the last trees, draining the aquifers and using the last of the oil to make more plastic pumpkins. In God we trust, I guess.

  • Ormond Otvos

    We’ll never hit peak oil because consumption will fall due to population decrease from the effects of global warming: food riots, wars, biological weapons, distribution blockages by the First World.

  • jimmoffet

    Isn’t peak oil a silly thing to worry about if we can’t burn more than 1/3 of current proven reserves without catastrophically exacerbating climate change?

    Seems like we have more than enough oil…

    • BrendanBarrett

      That really depends on whether we can actually access the reserves that you mention at an affordable cost. Perhaps the better term to use here is “peak cheap oil.”

      • jimmoffet

        Discounting a serious change in the political risk premium, I haven’t heard anyone seriously contend that won’t make it through 1/3rd of proven reserves at under $130/barrel, which is still pretty damn cheap.

        Regardless of which climate thresholds you prefer, we’ll reach them long, long before we reach peak cheap oil.

        • BrendanBarrett

          Richard Heinberg has seriously contended that point. Here is an interview with him backed by various data

          He also argues that “when the price of oil goes
          beyond 100 dollars and stays there for very long that tends to undercut economic growth.”

          Here is another article from the Oil Drum explaining why high oil prices are a problem (by the way I would say $130 per barrel is far from cheap!): Ten Reasons Why High Oil Prices Are a Problem –

          But to be honest, I must be very silly because I am worried about both scenarios – not being able to access enough cheap oil to keep the economy running and being able to access too much of the unconventional oil and other fossil fuels so that we end up frying the planet.

          If possible, it would be best if we can find a way to avoid both.

          • jimmoffet

            Between the mid-eighties and last year, we saw a 300% jump in oil prices.

            According the eia (, we’ve likely got at least until 2030 before we see even a 30% increase, and that’s if the current demand accelerates unabated.

            Again, no matter what threshold you choose for avoiding catastrophic damage to the planet, it will require winding down demand long before the price becomes a problem. Neither of the links you provided dispute that.

            So, cheap peak oil is really not an issue unless you’ve already consigned the planet to runaway warming.

            That said, I think it’s insane for anyone to think that we’ll get our political act together in time to meaningfully reduce warming. So yes, we’ve consigned our fate the nastier end of the warming spectrum.

            And yes, there will be peak cheap oil and it will be a serious economic problem.

            Personally though, I would rather have weathered the economic damage of giving up oil a few years earlier on a more habitable planet, than weathered the economic damage of it giving up on us a few years later on a less-habitable planet.

          • BrendanBarrett


            Totally agree with your last point about the need to move away from oil (and fossil fuels in general) much earlier in order to ensure a more habitable planet and perhaps even greater energy security. Instead, we have become ever more desperate to exploit what remains either through the tar sands or fracking, with even more damage to the environment.

            I also agree that we will struggle to get our political act together in time to prevent runaway climate change. Yet, I am also intrigued by this interview with climate scientist Michael Mann –

            It is clear that we don’t have much time left and drastic action is required.

            With regard to the EIA’s forecasts, I found this article very helpful.

            Anyway, many thanks for your comments and this discussion.

          • jimmoffet

            I always like a reason for optimism but when professor Mann says that he disputes the takeaway that it’s impossible to avoid 2C of change, rather that it is possible but requires a nearly immediate peak and precipitous decline in hydrocarbon usage, it’s hard to feel good about the prospect of that actually happening as you look at the state of international agreements.

            I’ve moved away from concerning myself with limiting hydrocarbon emissions and toward trying to advocate for justice for the areas of the world that will be hardest hit by otherwise avoidable climate change.

            It would have been an amazing feat for humanity across the globe to get together and decide to do something that requires tremendous sacrifice today and whose rewards will largely be paid to future generations or people in other nations. Unfortunately, we’re just not that mature as a species yet. Individual democracies are capable of this for themselves and I’m convinced it’s merely the lack of a decent international government that we all feel some ownership of. We’ll all fight for and win it eventually, though it may take a while.

            As such, I think the rational option is to accept the lay of the land and do what you can where it might count the most. In my view, in the narrow sense, that means advocating for aid for places like Bangladesh, and, more generally, advocating for the proper calculation and payment of liabilities from those who emitted to those who will suffer the consequences.

            If trash your neighbor’s yard, and you get caught on video, you should have to clean it up. It shouldn’t be any different because of an arbitrary border between you.

          • BrendanBarrett

            Jim, this article supports the point you were making earlier regarding the exploitation of fossil fuel reserves –

  • Ed

    I want to know when the oil majors will get their act together and start oil exploration on the moon. Come on boys, get it together.