After the oil crunch?

The end of cheap oil helps renewables, but makes far dirtier alternatives viable. A low-carbon futur

There are two competing explanations for today's high oil prices. One sees the price rise as the result of a temporary imbalance between supply and demand, exacerbated by a weak dollar and a bubble of speculative commodities trading. Fix these problems, adherents suggest, and the price can return to previous low levels, allowing business to continue as usual. The other sees the current price spike as symptomatic of a much deeper crisis, one that could end life as we know it in the rich, consuming west as global supplies of cheap oil begin to run short, not temporarily, but for ever. As Chris Skrebowski, editor of the UK Petroleum Review, puts it: "This is what I would describe as the foothills of peak oil." An imminent oil peak is no longer just a fringe theory: increasing numbers of experts view the topping out point as very close, if not actually upon us. "Easy, cheap oil is over, peak oil is looming," warns Shokri Ghanem, head of Libya's National Oil Corporation. If they are right, we are about to move into a very different world.

But while the reality of global warming is now nearly universally accepted, the potential problem of peak oil is still widely doubted or ignored. There is no official policy for a smooth transition to a post-oil future; the British government blithely reassures us (in response to a peak oil petition on the No 10 website) that "the world's oil and gas resources are sufficient to sustain economic growth for the forseeable future". Both the International Energy Agency and the US government issue projections based on oil reserve estimates which many geologists and oil industry insiders suggest are grossly inflated. This complacency smacks of a fatal combination of ignorance and denial. Recent oil production figures suggest that the peak oil crowd is winning the debate. For the past three years world crude production has flatlined at about 86 million barrels per day, despite a rapid upward trend in prices. This lack of increase in supply, combined with rapidly rising demand in countries such as India, China and Brazil, lies at the root of today's soaring prices.

Unlike the oil price shocks of the 1970s, caused by political factors, the present crisis is caused by something far more intractable even than the Middle East conflict - geology. David Strahan calls this "the last oil shock" in his book of the same title; the one after which supply and demand can never be rebalanced and the world totters towards economic catastrophe. As Strahan points out: "For three years the oil supply has been a zero-sum game in which if one country consumes more, another has to consume less."

In this case, unusually, it is the rich world which is losing out: countries which are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have seen crude oil use falling for two years, as price rises choke off demand. Indeed, what we do here no longer seems to matter much: car sales in Russia leapt by a staggering 60 per cent last year, while new vehicles flooded the roads in India and China. With oil massively subsidised in many Opec countries, some of the strongest growth in demand is now coming from oil producers themselves. Whether the actual moment of peak oil is now, next year or in five years' time is not what matters most; what defines this new era is the conclusive end of cheap oil. Never again will oil be bought at $20 a barrel, as it was through much of the 1990s. Instead, we will see crude prices rising steadily - if not uniformly - towards $200, $300 and $400 a barrel in years to come.

The oil crunch has created a crisis for western leaders. George Bush made two humiliating trips to Riyadh to beg the Saudis to pump more. He was rebuffed: whether the Saudis can't or won't remains unclear. In France, President Sarkozy has had to contend with striking fishermen, and in Britain the hauliers are blocking roads and refineries once again. Gordon Brown's absurd response was to ask North Sea producers to increase output - despite the fact that offshore production peaked in 1999 and has since fallen by 40 per cent. The hauliers' protests have now spread to France and Spain. All seem to believe that the rising cost of energy should be borne by someone else, not them. They huff and puff to no avail - the rules of geology cannot be broken.

But peak oil may not be quite the crisis the catastrophists predict. So far, the price hike has been an environmental boon: the rise in fossil fuel prices has made emitting carbon more expensive, helping to make up for the more or less total failure of world climate change policymaking. Higher oil prices have made renewables more competitive, spurring rapid developments in wind and solar power: installed capacities of each are now doubling every two years. In the US, SUV sales have slumped - General Motors may now drop t he Hummer and focus production instead on its new plug-in electric hybrid model, the Chevrolet Volt. The aviation industry has seen its profits evaporate, with many analysts declaring that the era of cheap flights is over. All of these should be causes for celebration. In global warming terms, oil at $139 a barrel has been the best thing to happen for a decade.

Betting on failure

But high oil prices cannot substitute for proper carbon regulation indefinitely. Even as the "green tech" sector soars to new heights - $100bn flooded in last year - equally big investments are being ploughed into the dirtiest fuels of all: unconventional oil and coal. An upcoming report from the WWF and the Co-operative Insurance Society suggests that oil sands in Canada are three times as carbon-intensive as conventional oil, while oil shale in the US Rockies may be up to eight times more so. And these reserves are vast, estimated at 1.7 trillion barrels for Canadian oil sands and up to 1.5 billion barrels for US oil shale. Proven reserves of 174 billion barrels in Canada place the country second only to Saudi Arabia, which claims 260 billion barrels.

But extracting this oil is environmentally devastating. Some open-cast mines in Canada's oil sands are so huge they can be seen from space, and they have already laid waste to vast areas of fragile boreal forest. This is not oil that can be drilled easily out of the ground: each barrel requires the extraction of two tonnes of tar-soaked sand, which is then washed with hot water to remove the hydrocarbons, using both gas and water in massive quantities. Current operations use enough natural gas to heat a quarter of Canada's homes, according to the WWF/CIS report, while 300 million cubic metres of water are diverted from the nearby Athabasca river. Ponds to hold the resulting toxic sludge measure up to 50 sq km each.

Coal-to-liquids technology is also being ramped up worldwide, using the Fischer- Tropsch chemical process to produce synthetic petrol, diesel and kerosene from solid coal - but again this is vastly more carbon-intensive than pumping conventional oil, doubling CO2 emissions. The Economist suggests both oil shale and coal to liquids become competitive with world crude prices at $70 a barrel or above. With high prices likely to continue, all the majors are moving rapidly to invest in this area.

Even after making record profits on the back of high prices - $27bn for Shell and $40bn for Exxon-Mobil in 2007 - the evidence suggests that oil companies are moving away from renewables and instead "recarbonising" by ploughing billions into unconventional oil as they run down their conventional reserves. In May this year, Shell pulled out of the London Array, expected to be the world's biggest wind farm. Instead, the company plans to double its output from the Canadian oil sands, and is being closely followed in investing in unconventional oil by BP, Exxon-Mobil and ConocoPhillips. However, as the WWF report asserts, these companies are exposing their shareholders to a significant investor risk: essentially they are betting that world policy failure on greenhouse-gas regulation will continue indefinitely.

If policy improves, high carbon prices will likely make dirty fuels uncompetitive when compared with renewables, and investors in solar, wind and other clean energy sources will win out at the expense of the oil majors. This has to be the best-case environmental scenario: that high oil prices continue, and that the pricing of carbon in world markets chokes off investment in dirty replacements. Then a true transition to a post-oil, low-carbon future becomes a real possibility. But this scenario depends on policymakers having the vision to squeeze fossil fuels further even as restive populations protest at losing their foreign holidays and big cars. As David Strahan concludes: "All it needs is some brave political leadership. What a terrifying thought."

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.
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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge