The making of Peak Oil #1: my choice of topic

May 13th, 2015

I have just released my latest and greatest comic, Peak Oil.

Keeping with my past tradition of publishing ‘making-of’ essays, I will here discuss my reflections on Peak Oil’s creative process.

This is the first in a seven-part series covering various aspects of the comic’s creation process.
2015-04-en-Peak-Oil-000-001-600

My role as a science communicator-cartoonist

As a science communicator-cartoonist, I deliberately choose to cover topics that are poorly understood by the general public.

My aim is to attract readers’ attentions temporarily, through well-drawn and thoughtful comics, and then deflect this attention away from myself towards experts who have comprehensive solutions and information.

Public Enemy black and white photo. Flavor Flav and Chuck D on a bridge posing.

In other words, I am Flavor Flav, and Hubbert is Chuck D.

I am simply a hype-man to the ‘voice of authority’, M. King Hubbert.

Hubbert: Don’t believe the hype about rising petroleum production!”
McMillen: “Yo Hub, they must be smoking the pipe, right?”

Choosing a topic with poor public awareness

Peak Oil is a prime example of an important topic that is poorly understood by the general public. I have personally been aware of the issue for 10 years, and still encounter mass-ignorance when speaking to others about the issue:
Cartoon high angle speaker at lectern. Giving a talk to an audience of members in suits.

  • “Oh, is oil going to run out? Oh well, we can just switch to another fuel.”
  • “But I heard that they’ve discovered a huge new oil field off the coast of [Brazil, Russia, Swaziland…].”
  • “But the price has dropped. Problem solved, right?”
  • “Good! I’m looking forward to Peak Oil! Finally the Saudis will be out of business!”

Those are examples of the kaleidoscope of misinformed responses I hear, whenever mentioning Peak Oil, or other issues relating to energy sustainability.

My comic does not address month-to-month issues, such as the December 2014 price drop. Nor does it get into important topics like EROEI (energy returned on energy invested).

I wanted my comic to be more ‘generalised and timeless’ rather than ‘up-to-date but soon-to-be-obsolete’.
Cartoon flying saucer floating over desert oil field. Oil derricks being sucked by hoses connected to the bottom of the UFO.

My aim: to create the definitive Peak Oil primer

I knew that I couldn’t produce the definitive account of Peak Oil, through the medium of comics. I could simply never include every fact, figure and nuance of the topic.

Instead, I decided to write the definitive Peak Oil primer which would give readers a 20 minute crash-course into the topic.

I aimed for my comic to take a person from zero knowledge of Peak Oil, to a reasonable understanding within the duration of 20 minutes.

Importantly, I wanted it to be a free online resource, available in as many languages as I could recruit volunteer translators. It is currently available in French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Brazilian Portuguese and other languages (click the ‘flag’ in the top right corner of my website: Union Jack flag icon).

Comic man standing next to large globe of North America, looking at arrows illustrating the Peak Oil concept. Geologist M. King Hubbert thinks about Peak Oil, scratching his head.

A launch pad for independent research

I hope that after reading my comic, readers to have the urge to learn more about the topic through their own independent research and reflection.

It is through this independent research that people will understand EROEI (energy returned on energy invested). It is through research that people will realise that the December 2014 price drop does not change the fundamental problem that we are burning petroleum at a rate far faster than it is being regenerated by Earth’s geological processes.

My comic takes readers halfway down the path of understanding, but relies on them to complete the journey themselves.

Low angle field geologist man thinking about the embodied energy of fossil fuels. The tonnes of ancient vegetation that are concentrated into coal and oil.

Peak Oil: global warming’s poorly-understood sibling

In my experience, most people have heard of global warming, but most people have not heard of Peak Oil. This is a great shame, as I rate the two phenomena as being equally important. Moreover, the timing of the two phenomena will likely overlap.

Since the public already has a solid understanding of global warming, I treated Peak Oil as an isolated phenomenon within my comic.

In reality, Peak Oil and global warming will be politically-linked phenomena, with influences from one spilling over to the other.

Peak Oil will happen regardless of global warming, and vice versa. But we will be forced to consider them as part of a linked problem.

Man in a business suit walking through a 1950s era hotel lobby. Group of men in business suits talking to each other sitting on seats.

For example, the need to rapidly de-carbonise our economies may result in an ‘unburnable carbon bubble‘ of fossil fuels that we deem unconscionable to burn, given the known effects of increased greenhouse gases. This will spill over to share markets, and then to broader economies.

In this situation the ‘roller coaster’ slope will look very different to the ‘standard run’ Peak Oil curve. We may be forced to rapidly curb our oil usage, constructing a quickly-dropping coaster, and leaving many ‘trusses’ locked in the storage yard.

Rear view over the shoulder of man in roller coaster car that is about to roll down a slope. The man looks nervous, and is gripping the handle tightly. Black and white drawing of roller coaster slope. Above the clouds at sunset.

These are scenarios that are beyond my foresight, and beyond the scope of the comic. With Peak Oil I simply wanted to raise public-awareness of Hubbert’s phenomenon, so that informed discussions can be made about the decisions that need to be made.

Plaintive cartoon drawing of distant roller coaster slope on windy day. Drawing of dead left caught in chain-link fence.

A call for patrons

As the below video describes, I am currently drawing three other comics in a similar vein to Peak Oil.

Can you ‘pay it forward‘ toward your next stuartmcmillen.com comics-reading experience?

If so, please buy a $5 PDF copy of Peak Oil via PayPal, credit card, or Bitcoin. If you want to donate an extra tip, you can edit the $5.00 price within my shopping cart. Alternatively, become a recurring monthly supporter via Patreon.com. Thanks in advance!


Red cartoon button image. Support my idiosyncratic comics! Buy a $5 PDF. Using PayPal, Bitcoin or credit card! Edit the price to donate an extra tip.Or become a regular monthly patron via Patreon.com

Other ‘making of Peak Oil‘ articles

This is the first in a seven-part series covering various aspects of the comic’s creation process. Next in the series is The making of Peak Oil #2: storytelling philosophy.

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  1. Me says:

    It’s a stunning piece of work. First the amount of it, but then also the graphics are very pleasant, love the sort of geometrical texture or whatever about the look. Lots of grids and such…reminds of graph paper.

    I also think it is appropriately simple and that it is kind in tone (much peak oil rhetoric is not, too screechy).

    All that said, I think peak oil has been a massive flawed Internet movement. And anti rational in how people don’t look at evidence and change views. TOD is dead for a reason. Volume is up. Price is down. Drill, baby, drill worked.

    Although the message is opposite of yours, the art and approach are similar:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5RwY1GXAzA

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