The Experts’ Apocalypse: Peak Oil and Phantasm on the Road to the Middle East

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:30 AM
Congressional Room B (Omni Shoreham)
Roger Stern, University of Tulsa
Experts derived the ideology of oil scarcity from a syllogism of secular apocalysm and economic fabulism. The apocalypse was that peak oil was near. The fabulism was that other countries would try to interrupt US supply as the world ran out of oil. In 1979, for example, the USSR was expected to invade the Middle East to offset its dwindling domestic production. Middle East oil producer-states were believed to possess an “oil weapon” with which they could punish the US by withholding supply. Implicit was that these states were strictly non-economic actors, zealots with enormous market power who greatly preferred political expression to earning money from exports. The conclusion to this logic was that the US must exert military force to protect Middle East supply.

In 1908, scientists of the US Geological Survey forecast US production would end by 1935. Belief in peak oil and corollary threats to supply led to steady foreign policy escalations. These were the 1953 coup against Iran, the Carter Doctrine of 1980, support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War, and the 1991 Gulf War. Though peak oil anxiety was higher than ever by 2003, oil scarcity became less important as a rationale for Middle East policy. By then, decades of US policy decisions based on scarcity ideology had destabilized the region, a condition that provided its own rationales for intervention.

Because it was so often proved wrong, the persistence of oil scarcity ideology is an enigma. It persists, this paper argues, because peak oil seems scientific and is warranted as such by experts.

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