Colin Campbell (1931-2022). A tribute to the father of the concept of “Peak Oil”

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Colin Campbell died at 91, on Nov 13th, 2020, in his home, in Ballydehob, Ireland. He loved to illustrate the concept of peak oil using beer. No fancy theories, no ideology, no creation of resources: beer is a real thing that you can’t create out of thin air. And after you have drunk it, there is no more of it left! 

I met Colin Campbell for the first time in Italy, in 2003, when I invited him to give a talk at the University of Florence. That day, it was clear that Colin was bringing us an important message. He knew that our world, our proud civilization, and our (perhaps) great achievements, were all based on the availability of cheap oil. No oil, no energy. No energy, no civilization. 

Not everyone who listened to him, at that time, understood his message, but some of us did. It was just two years after that the Twin Towers in New York had fallen in flames, an event that screamed for an explanation, but that could not be explained in the framework of the world as it was presented to us by the official media. It was on that day that a small group of Italian scientists and researchers collected in my office, at the University of Florence, to meet Colin. It was an electrifying experience: we all had the impression that a veil was being lifted, that we could see what was behind the propaganda curtain, that we could finally perceive the machinery that kept the world moving. A new reality was being revealed to us. 

Colin was not a scientist. He was primarily an “oil man,” one of those people who are the modern version of the ancient explorers. People who have practical, no-nonsense views, who can’t be easily swayed by ideologies or fashionable trends. People hardened by experience, used to setting realistic goals and attaining them. Colin was not a man who could be easily intimidated or browbeaten. 

As a former oil man, Colin had access to data that for most of us are too expensive to buy, or simply unavailable. Together with his longtime friend and coworker, Jean Laherrere, they revisited an old model that Marion King Hubbert had proposed in 1956, they revamped it with new data, and they published their results in a 1998 article in “Scientific American” titled “The End of Cheap Oil.” The model was simple, and the data still uncertain, but the study went straight at its target and arrived at a clear conclusion: the oil resources of the world were becoming more and more expensive, and economic growth was going to be a thing of the past in a non-remote future. 

Colin was moving along a path parallel to the one created, some 30 years before, by the authors of “The Limits to Growth” and their sponsors, the Club of Rome. Colin was a big fan of the “Limits” study and, sharp-minded as usual, he could recognize ideas that were grounded in the real world. He would never have bought the vague arguments that had been deployed against the study, such as that resources are “created” by human intelligence. No, resources are something real, something physical, something that you can weigh and measure. And they do not come for free: you must pay for what you extract, and the cost may be more than what you can afford to pay. This is the essence of the idea of gradual depletion that leads to the “bell-shaped” curve. It was at the basis of the “Limits to Growth” study, and at the basis of the “Peak Oil” theory. Below, you can see the main result of the 1998 study.

In the early 2000s, Colin went on to establish the “association for the study of peak oil and gas” (ASPO). It was a group of scientists, intellectuals, decision-makers, and simple citizens who had understood a simple concept: the future was not going to be what we were told to expect. Rethinking about that story, today, it is truly amazing how Colin succeeded, alone and only with his own money, in creating an organization that arrived to have some effect on the global debate on energy. High-rank politicians heard the message, although often reacted by criticizing it. For a while, ASPO was a watering hole for all sorts of subversives, including the arch-conspiracy theorist Michael Ruppert, whom I personally met in Vienna at one of the ASPO meetings. I am reasonably sure that ASPO was infiltrated by the CIA, I have no proof, of course, but I would be surprised if they hadn’t probed ASPO to see what we were up to. Evidently, they decided that we were harmless (they were correct) and they left us in peace.

ASPO went through a cycle of popularity that lasted about 10 years. For a while, it looked like we could influence the world, that the people who had the power to do something would listen to our message and intervene. For a few years, there was interest in Colin Campbell’s proposal of an “Oil Protocol” (also called the “Rimini Protocol”) that would have put a limit to the extraction rate. But it didn’t last for long. 

The trajectory of ASPO went along a similar path as that of the Club of Rome and its “Limits to Growth” study. In both cases, a group of intellectuals tried to alert the world rulers about the finiteness of the material resources on which the economy was based, and that something had to be done to avoid the “overconsumption trap” that would necessarily lead to a crash. I called the cliff ahead the “Seneca Cliff,” In 2008, ASPO’s predictions seemed to have been borne out when oil prices shot up to levels never seen before. Was it “peak oil” arriving? It was, at least for what it had to do with “conventional” oil, but it had unexpected consequences. 

The powers that be reacted aggressively to the 2008 crisis, pumping gigantic amounts of money and resources into the exploitation of new oil and gas resources in the US. It was the start of the age of “fracking.” From 2010 onward, a huge amount of oil started flowing out of the “tight oil” wells, reversing the declining trend that had started 40 years before. None of the geologists in ASPO (including Colin Campbell) or outside ASPO, had predicted this development. They were people used to evaluate the profits of oil extraction in a free market. They couldn’t believe that the oil industry would embark on such an expensive and uncertain adventure. Indeed, fracking didn’t bring profits: it was mostly a political decision, meant to keep the powers that be in their position of power. In this sense, it worked, although nobody can say for how long. 

Fracking was the death knell for ASPO. After 2010, the public rapidly lost interest in peak oil, also as the result of a negative propaganda campaign against it, very similar to the one that had demolished the “Limits to Growth” study in the 1980s. Perhaps there wasn’t even a need for propaganda. People easily forget unsettling truths, much preferring comfortable lies. And that’s what happened. ASPO never officially died, but it declined to a much lower level of activity. Colin Campbell retired in his home in Southern Ireland and his last comment on peak oil was published in “Cassandra’s Legacy” in 2018.

Rethinking today about Colin’s legacy, we can see that he was not always right in his assessments. One of the limits of his approach was that it was focused only on oil and gas. His models were sometimes oversimplified, and, at times, he would be too fast in disparaging new technologies that could change the picture. But he never made the mistakes that other members of ASPO made, such as putting all their hopes on nuclear energy or refusing to accept climate science as a valid scientific field.  

But Colin’s basic approach was sound, even though it was not accepted as part of the mainstream views. It doesn’t matter: good ideas are like souls. They move from one generation to another, being reborn as new incarnations if they are good. Campbell’s ideas have that power, right now they are nearly forgotten, but waiting to reappear in a suitable body, like the spirit of the Dalai Lama. We, humans, forget things so easily, especially important things. But one day we’ll understand Campbell’s main message that what we get from the Earth may seem to be free, but it must be repaid, sooner or later. And the debt recovery agency employed by Gaia is truly ruthless and cannot be bribed using money. 

From the time when I first met Colin, that day in 2003, I considered him my mentor as I moved into a field of research, resource depletion, that was wholly new to me. It was in large part with his help, which he was always happy to provide, that I succeeded in carving for myself a niche in this new and fascinating field. Over the years, I came to know Colin and his wife Bobbins well. I can tell you at least one thing for sure: he was a good man. He was at the highest level of the empathy scale, as my friend Chuck defines it. He was not the kind of person who cared for his public image, nor he was used to boasting about his accomplishments. The exact opposite of the modern politician, typically a psychopath without any moral restraints. Colin cared for people. For his family, his friends, his coworkers, and also for humankind as a whole — otherwise he wouldn’t have done what he did with ASPO. He was one of the great minds who tried to alert humankind of the dangers ahead, such as Aurelio Peccei, Donella Meadows, Rachel Carson, Herman Daly, and many others. They were not heard, but their memory will not be forgotten.  

May Colin rest in peace in the arms of that Earth that he studied so much as a geologist. 

Originally appeared on The Seneca Effect Read More

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