Shocking Demographics of The Oil Drum Revealed!!

Sharon March 13th, 2009

Ok, I know you are going to be stunned and shaken by this news. 

Apparently, readers of The Oil Drum are overwhelmingly men.  Even more shockingly, they are overwhelming white, middle aged and middle-to-upper middle class.  Lots of them are engineers.  Lots more are scientists. 

 Woah.  Let’s take a minute to recover from this news.  You mean the guys with all the graphs are actually talking mostly to other guys with graphs?  Gee, I’d never have guessed.

Now don’t get me wrong, I actually think that TOD is one of the best sites on the net.  I don’t write for a lot of other sites – I don’t have time and energy for it.  I have written for TOD, because I think what they do is truly important.  I am enormously grateful to those guys with graphs and penises for the work they do in sorting through an enormous amount of difficult data. 

That said, however, I think that while there are an enormous number of talented women now writing and working on Peak Oil and Depletion issues in one form or another, with a few exceptions (thanks to Leanan, Gail the Actuary and TOD alum Stoneleigh) they simply aren’t doing their work over at TOD. 

Some of this is the fact that women study engineering and the sciences at much lower rates than men, and that the material on TOD tends towards the technical.  Some of it is that the level of TOD discussion favors the initiated and one with some experience in the area – and while the number of PO aware women has boomed recently, a lot of them may not have been around long enough to feel comfortable on such a highly technical site.  Some of it is that a lot of us women (and plenty of men) are much more interested in what to do next, once we’re convinced, than in stacking up data that reinforces our older conclusions.

But some of it is the culture of TOD.  A long time ago, I wrote about going ASPO (which is not at all the same as TOD, but there’s some heavy overlap) and watching a presenter make a joke about the difference between “spending” and “investing” – he said that spending was when his wife went shopping, and spent his money on stuff that wasn’t of any real value.  Investing was when he bought his wife gold jewelry, because he was going to get a return on his money from her…. ha ha ha.  And the guys (10-1) all laughed, because, after all, it was just us guys here.

Now I later heard that the guy who said it kind of regretted making that joke, and “offending” me.  In fact, I wasn’t so much offended (the assumption that my reaction to this kind of stupidity must be “offense” is actually kind of demeaning in itself – the “oh, the humorless women are annoyed again) bit, as struck by how well this illustrated the underlying assumptions of the people at the ASPO conference.  What were they?

 1. We’re all guys here, or mostly.

2. We’ll all think jokes about women being whores are funny, because we’re all guys here.  And have you seen my fishing pictures?

3. The wives do like to shop, and spend our hard earned money, don’t they.  They wouldn’t be interested in this hard stuff, and we shouldn’t bother explaining it to them – we should focus on talking to *each other*  Meanwhile, they can shop.

Now this was one joke three years ago, but I still think it is so perfectly indicative of the boy culture that permeates the technical end of the peak oil movement.  And that culture is well…alienating to people.  Now if your goal is simply to talk to other upper middle class white engineers, that’s fine.  But if your goal is popular attention, you might want to think about talking to other people.

When I was asked to write _Depletion and Abundance_ it was because there was no single book about peak oil by a woman, who wrote for a more diverse audience.  And I’ve watched with absolute delight as the body of engaged, smart, funny, angry, brilliant PO and Depletion aware women grew and broadened – I read Kathy Harrison and Peak Oil Hausfrau, Chile, Crunchy Chicken and the rest with absolute delight.  Meanwhile, the women who preceeded me are out there too – Carolyn Baker has a new book, and Amanda Kovattna, among others, continues to write brilliant and thoughtful stuff.  But not, unfortunately, at TOD for the most part.

Personally, I’d love to see more women writing and commenting at TOD. I know why women don’t, and the downsides, but the reality is that it is a site that gets more mainstream media attention than any other, and one whose culture really could stand more people who do not start from the same assumptions.  And I’m hopeful that this will occur – TOD’s new “Campfire” series focuses on what to do about the future – a lot of the most original work on that subject is coming from women, and from men who don’t fit the model.  The two groups have a great deal to learn from one another, particularly as we move into a world where the primary tools for addressing PO and its related issues are not mathematical models, but ethical ones.  The question is no longer “when” (the answer being variations on “right soon now”), but “where do we go from here.”  And the best answers to this broad question come from a broad and democratic cross section of the populace.

The difference between the world of PO that I entered into public interaction with in 2003 and the present is huge.  The culture keeps getting more accessible and interesting, complex and diverse.  I’m delighted by that.  And I hope that some of you will make the effort to contribute (whether posts or comments) at TOD, so that the next survey results really do shock and awe ;-) .


72 Responses to “Shocking Demographics of The Oil Drum Revealed!!”

  1. [...] Shocking Demographics of The Oil Drum Revealed (Sharon Astyk) Now don’t get me wrong, I actually think that TOD is one of the best sites on the net. I don’t write for a lot of other sites – I don’t have time and energy for it. I have written for TOD, because I think what they do is truly important. I am enormously grateful to those guys with graphs and penises for the work they do in sorting through an enormous amount of difficult data. [...]

  2. [...] Shocking Demographics of The Oil Drum Revealed (Sharon Astyk) Now don’t get me wrong, I actually think that TOD is one of the best sites on the net. I don’t write for a lot of other sites – I don’t have time and energy for it. I have written for TOD, because I think what they do is truly important. I am enormously grateful to those guys with graphs and penises for the work they do in sorting through an enormous amount of difficult data. [...]

  3. james says:

    that is why women will never have the success in professional lives that men have: you are not curious, you are whining all the time instead of spending it on something you enjoy and you see men who are extending arguments to somewhat ridiculous lengths as immature although this is the best way to scan for new ideas and maintain your intellectual strength. i feel bad for you.

  4. Leanan says:

    I think you have a point. The first people to show up at a site tend to make their own. It becomes self-reinforcing, because like attracts like. And I do think TOD can be hostile to women in ways men don’t even realize. (The women the men don’t see…)

    I also suspect the percentage of women is higher than the poll suggested. Women tend to be more security-minded, and I suspect lie in surveys more often. The survey didn’t really make clear that gender was something they were really interested in; people are used to just making stuff up for those never-ending web surveys. I usually claim to be a 100 year old man living in Schenectady (zip code 12345).

    I know for a fact that many of the posters at TOD who use male-sounding user IDs and are assumed to be male are in fact women. Heck, I was assumed to be male when I first started posting there. Straight white male is the default setting of human. If you post using a female-sounding screen name, people hit on you. And I think there’s still tendency to give women less respect than men, at least in technical fields like science and engineering. Using a male or unisex name avoids those issues.

  5. Michael HC says:

    Hi Sharon, Interesting statistic, was there a graph? I am well used to highly marginal societies surviving on bugger all – life goes on.

    I have little time for TOD’s Doomers, there is a large world outside your USA that can survive without requiring a large SUV to get the supplies from the shopping mall, and has done so for a very long time. I am not worried by discordance on the TOD website – democracy works that way, if you say something stupid, there are a lot of intelligent geeks out there ready armed with graphs and statistics and black belts in resource depletion theory ready to point it out.

    The Peak Oil issue is not a won battle, we need those stroppy geeks and nerds still. Peak Oil is a slow moving train wreck for a consumerist society, which will adapt – that happens.

    Regards, Michael HC

  6. Big Gav says:

    Interesting post and comments here Sharon (even for a middle aged, middle class, white, engineer, TOD contributor like me).

    I think most of the TOD staff have read this post now (and are interested in what you have to say), but personally I’d just like to say that we do try to do posts on solutions (thats pretty much all I do and I’m not the only one) and the only way to overcome the doomer atmosphere is to have more non-doomers participating in the conversation.

    We don’t aim for it to be a white male bastion (and incidentally, its not a US only site – the Europe and ANZ chapters are also active) and you don’t have to be a techie to participate.

    If people would like to see more posts and comments by women, then encourage women to go there and participate (including submitting guest posts) – we aren’t actively ignoring anyone that I’m aware of, and Gail does most of the day-to-day site management lately in any case.

  7. scooperman says:

    I like TOD because its the best at what it does well, but I skip a lot of the banter. I like it because there are people on the site who are discussing things I would like to discuss, but the people surrounding me have not get their minds around it yet, so I can’t talk to them. I like the quickies of the Drumbeat. But I wonder where are the big idea, new concept thinkers, TOD is a site where I expect to find something wonderful and instead I get vanilla.

  8. Sharon says:

    I’m aiming for a middle course between those who dismiss the value of TOD and those who will hear no criticism. I actually kind of like the culture of TOD – I’m a big girl, and I like to argue. I think there is a lot of repetition, necessarily on TOD, but the reality is that new people are always coming to the site, and some things that look like repetition are *confirmation* of data. I tend to think that people who are uninterested in seeing if their opinions are confirmed by fact have chosen faith, rather than rigor as a category of analysis. So at no point is my claim “Don’t read TOD” – in fact, I’m trying to get some greater degree of diversity.

    But the “you disagree so you are an asshole” responsive culture that many people at TOD have is seriously offputting – and moreover, not that interesting. I’m sure some people are turned off by the technical data, but as a non-scientist, I don’t have a lot of trouble deciphering even the extremely technical posts, and I don’t think I’m unusual. I sometimes have trouble reading through them, because not everyone makes an effort to be compelling or even really clear, but then again, that’s a disease of modern scientific literature. And there are people over at TOD who really do work hard on that – I find a number of TOD regulars including Professor Goose, Gail the Actuary and Euan to be remarkably clear and readable.

    But at the same time, TOD’s comment culture is extremely hostile, for not political sites on the net. It really has nothing to do with PCism – it is just a question of whether you want to talk to people just like you, or the wider world. Not being the biggest jerk in the room gives one a remarkably wider audience. And it is destructive – I see men and women coming to the site not full familiar with the material, and getting told that they are idiots for asking questions – or hearing everyone who doesn’t fully share the worldview critiqued as “sheeple.” This is, IMHO, totally counterproductive, if one’s goal is to connect PO to people’s realities.

    Me, I go there for the lively debate – but lively debate and offputting bullshit are not the same things – and I can’t say I overblame people who come away from their first or third shot at TOD thinking “why would I go there again?” My hope is that this will get the people who are regulars there thinking a little bit about their own culture, despite the “It has nothing to do with us” line that some have taken, and that it will also get some women here saying “look, it isnt’ going to change unless we make some effort to diversify the community.”


  9. Heading Out says:

    Um! As one of the two founders of TOD (and foregoing for now why we founded the site) I would point out that the first person Kyle invited to join us in contributing posts was Ianqui, who is female, and who wrote more on the local issues that you are concerned about. We began the site four years ago this month, and she began writing regular columns in June of that year, dropping out a year later.

    This was her first guest post and this her first column .

  10. db says:


    Not to be a party pooper but my wife DOES spend my money AND she doesn’t believe in peak oil.
    I think you are knee jerking just a tiny wee bit.

  11. Shira says:

    I really like TOD. Leanan and Gail do a great job with the Drumbeat. I read it several times a week just for the news summary.

    I like graphs, too. I like the math and the technical bit at TOD as well. There is some excellent analysis by people in the energy business, even sometimes buried in tedium in the comments. HereinHalifax writes neat little essays about energy efficient lighting, for example. I don’t try to read the whole thing, mudslinging and asides, just scan a bit or search on westexas to see what Jeff Brown has to say.

    I’ve never posted on TOD, in fact often read and seldom post here, in fact seldom post anywhere. Too busy trying to get the starts on for spring and the bread baked, in and around my day job.

    .. middle-aged, middle-class, white, engineer, … female

    Shira in Bellingham, WA

  12. Sharon says:

    Db, in every stereotype there must be a tiny grain of truth, no? On the other hand, perhaps she spends it because she knows you regard it as “your money” not “our money.” And thus, it isn’t a long term asset of value to her – it might disappear at any moment since it is “yours.”


  13. dewey says:

    darwinsdog – Your response to me implies that if I don’t agree with you, I must be uninformed – you “challenge” me to take a graduate course in evolution. Been there, done that. And I agree with you that there is no doubt humans have caused many extinctions already and are working up to a mass extinction event, and likewise, that escalating environmental damage must lead to a reduction of our own excessive populations. Still, there is uncertainty regarding the distribution and timing of those species and human population losses. We are still arguing about whether the K-T boundary was really an instantaneous devastating event or a series of crises that took hundreds of millennia to reach their final conclusion. If we know so little about events that have already happened, it’s hubris to think that we have precise knowledge of events that haven’t.

  14. SV says:

    TOD is mostly of interest to men because Peak Oil concerns the future availability of a resource by which people may derive the wealth that has made economic growth possible. As men’s primary value to women tends to hinge more closely upon their ability to extract resources form the environment, it is natural that Peak Oil should concern them more. As women’s value to men tends to be much more immediate and automatic, Oil and the wealth society derives from it, tends to be of a more ancillary concern to women. To women, physical appearance and the well-being of their offspring tend to be of primary interest. Men by contrast have little power in these areas. They have little choice but to concern themselves with the scarce resources from which they will attempt to derive the wealth by which they can attract women. Being a homemaker is rarely a viable option for men. It is men who invariably suffer the lionshare of workplace and military deaths. If women want equality, I say come on up to the front lines of war, and work the most dangerous jobs. Invariably, the more beautiful sex is the one that can expect greater physical safety. For the ugliness that is the lot of men and testosterone, life must need be much more about eat or be eaten.

    That I’m afraid, is the plain and blunt honest truth.

  15. db says:

    Nice try Sharon but way off the mark.
    You have otherwise interesting posts, however so I won’t score you a D-.

  16. Dale Hooper says:

    Are there any websites or blogs dealing with the practical aspects of preparing for Peak Oil/Global Warming?

    I have been preparing since 1973 (the Arab Oil Crisis).

  17. olive says:

    if this is the best you can do then go back to your shine box

  18. DownSouth says:

    I hope that the TOD staff gives this post and comments a serious review. I think there are some criticisms and suggestions here that might help them improve the site.

    My two cents worth:

    1) TOD seems to favor the information-driven model that leads to a concept of public education as a one-way process: the expert speaks; the citizen listens. While this model works fine for disseminating objective information, it doesn’t work very well in forming value judgments.

    2) TOD is a meeting place for people who believe some, if not most, of the promises of the Enlightenment will not be fulfilled. And as the true defects, and glories, of modernity are revealed, the result is a potpurri of creative ideas, destructive ideologies, strident arguments, brilliant insights, prejudices, pretentiousness, vendettas and obscurantisms.

    “Great ideas,” Alfred North Whitehead once observed, “often enter relaity in strange guises and with disgusting alliances.” The same insight is conveyed in cruder form by an old joke. A farmer is seen to be digging furiously into a huge pile of horse manure that towers above his head. When a bewildered observer asks why he is digging, the farmer replies, in some exasperation: “Because there’s a pony under all this horseshit.”

    I suppose one is always left wondering, as they take part in this messy process, whether they are the pony or the horseshit.

    3) scooperman pondered: “But I wonder where are the big idea, new concept thinkers, TOD is a site where I expect to find something wonderful and instead I get vanilla.”

    But I wonder if it happens that way.

    For a wonderful lecture on genius, how it operates and how great works come about, I found the following lecture highly informative:

  19. Sharon says:

    DownSouth – I think you have a lot of it right. I’m reminded (and once said this about Stuart Staniford, who I admire enormously and disagreed with regularly ;-) ) of what Emerson said about Carlyle: “If genius were cheap we might do without Carlyle, but in the existing population, he cannot be spared.”

    That is, the reason I do read TOD is that there are bits of genius there – and it is worth wading through, well, whatever. My fantasy is that someone might someday say the same about my site, since genius is never common ;-) .



  20. Debbie Cook says:

    There are only a few internet resources I check virtually every day: ASPO’s Peak Oil News/Review, The Oil Drum, and Energy Bulletin. I am fascinated by resource issues and so between those sites I feel I can stay pretty well informed. Having been in politics for eight years, I have a thick skin and am not bothered by the insensitive comments people make in blogs and emails (another bastion of relationship destruction). But there is no denying that each one provides incredible value that is not found anywhere else. I can skim the news articles for issues of interest and in the case of TOD, I can skim the remarks for tidbits of information (I look for links that are often of high value). I decide which tool to use and how to use it. I can only feel gratitude to all of the contributors (whatever their gender) at TOD and hope they can find the stamina to continue what often must feel like a slog.

  21. I’m a little late with this comment, but I wanted to add it anyway, in the hope that it sheds some light on why the discussions at TOD can take the turns they do. I posted it at today’s DrumBeat in response to suggestions by jokuhl to do something productive, rather than just make pessimistic comments….

    Thanks for speaking up, jokuhl. I feel the same way.

    There is an element here of “old guys bitching around the cracker barrel.”

    I’ve heard this kind of conversation before among the aging engineers at my company.

    As an “old guy,” I see this as tempting but self-defeating habit — it probably has something to do with our declining physical powers.

    Three problems:

    1. There’s nothing new.
    2. It’s boring and repetitive.
    3. No one wants to be around you.

    As Jokuhl says, there is a “TON of things to do,” all one has to do is open one’s eyes.

    There are psychological hurdles though. One has to admit that one is emotionally vulnerable. One is NOT going to be the top dog when one starts on a new path. It takes a long while, for example, to become a good gardener.

    In a survival situation, guess what happens to people who complain, predict gloom and don’t help out. One day they wake up, and the rest of the camp has moved on!

    Energy Bulletin

  22. Pump says:

    What should interest you more isn’t the fact that most of them are white and male, it’s that they’re mostly engineers and scientists. That latter point may increase the credibility of a site that discusses peak oil issues!

    Finally, given an “ambiguous future,” one’s gender, race, economic status, and age may matter less in the long run because everyone will have to stay home and plant food.

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