Do Historians Have a Death Wish?


Mr. Miller has been a speaker with the OAH Distinguished Lectureship Series since 1999.

Sigmund Freud, as he first suggested in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), then more fully stated in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), had come to think societies, not just individuals, might well have a death wish--a"death instinct"--within the psyche, opposed to what he called Eros, or a principle for life. One evidence Freud had for a"death instinct" derived from his realization that soldiers in war conditions, not to mention people in other life-threatening situations, would often, if not usually, risk death. With the foregoing in mind, I'm beginning to think myself (and this is scary, and should be for you the reader as well), Freud was right!

Let me suggest why--first by a reference to oil; second, by way of what I would call a new Catch 22. Based upon what petroleum geologists know (not just believe) from such disciplines as paleogeography and stratigraphy, the world's supplies of easily producible oil (what can be economically delivered from the earth) will be virtually exhausted in less than 50 years! Now, you tell me, with the world's peoples at present numbering 6.1 billion (but probably at 8 billion by 2050), and consuming, as they now are, in the"neighborhood" of 30 billion barrels of oil per year, how are world economies (all intensively industrialized with a heavy dependence on crude for energy) going to survive to the year 2050, when, according to L. F. Ivanhoe (an authority with 50 years experience in the oil business) makes clear what is inevitable--specifically, by 2050 the whole earth will only be able to deliver 5 billion barrels of oil?

Answer this next--what will the estimated one billion motor vehicles of the year 2050 be running on by that time--water? They will have to, if that were possible, because there will most certainly not be enough gasoline (distilled primarily, as it must be, from oil) available to meet the demand. Converting to hydrogen for power might well solve the problem, but we are moving so slowly on the technologies for hydrogen-powered cars, which will all demand for their use and upkeep, new infrastructures for fueling and maintenance, not to mention the training of technicians (none of which exist as yet, except in the embryonic stage), that I very much doubt a worldwide"energy crunch" can be averted much beyond another 15 or 20 years.

Now, I ask you--what, if anything are historians (or university presses for that matter) going to do about any of this? The answer would appear to be nothing (a case in point, for the two academic years 2000-2002 I offered a lecture topic"Are We Running Out of Oil?" on the program of Organization of American Historians (OAH) Distinguished Lectureship Series; yet, for that two-year period I received not one invitation to speak on the theme from any college/university in this country--" case closed"). The question raised above and observation combine to bring me to what I would denominate as the new Catch 22 by and for historians, which has been gathering force (I would say) for the last several decades, and might well be traced back to the so-called"scientific history" of the late nineteenth century.

For it would appear to me if we continue for much longer down the road of"scientific history," whatever that means these days (or ever did), the field of history in this country, if not in the wider world, is going the way of the dinosaur. May I offer the proof with a few solid facts? The first one concerns an e-mail I received not too long ago from a friend and former mentor at Miami University of Ohio, where I gained my doctorate (1976). He informed me that a monograph, published for him with several excellent reviews, had as yet sold no more than 400 copies! To which I want to add (and surely other historians reading this know much the same thing) monographs, issued by university presses in this nation seldom sell more than 800 copies (mainly to libraries, which it is also common knowledge, have been cutting back their orders in recent years).

What is the problem here? My answer is the new Catch 22 by and for historians. It works like this--write for a limited (increasingly"insular") audience of academics, primarily made up of those in one's own narrowly-defined specialty, in order to"get ahead" professionally; don't then (by any means) write what (heaven forbid!) would be characterized as"popular" in nature, that would appeal (not bore to death) a wider audience, for fear your colleagues (and the majority, it would appear to me, of university presses too), would"look down their collective noses" at your work, as not serious history! Or, let us say, shun the popular author, as if he or she had leprosy, because telling a good story.

What is even more alarming, if that be possible, professional historians know they are"on the wrong track." What follows is the proof! David Thelen,"The Practice of American History," in the Journal of American History (December 1994), gives the results of a survey of"1,047 JAH readers" and what they had to say regarding the historical profession. I want to use here only one finding. By a margin of 79.7 percent to 3.9 percent, American historians agreed history should amount to telling a good story. Even foreign respondents ("under the influence" more of"scientific history") thought the same (more or less) at 56 percent to 13 percent. Now, surely almost every historian reading this essay of mine, recalling as well my statement of the new Catch 22, would have to admit, very few practitioners of our discipline are making much, if any effort, to tell a good story. Most have long since been seduced by the siren call of"scientific history," however defined, often (if not usually) boring to read, even to"insiders." In fact, if we, as professional historians, continue on this"tack" for much longer, I really believe the perfect book, the perfect article, will one day be written--that is, no one will ever read one or the other, except the author, along with perhaps a few"insiders," none of whom (besides the author, I suppose) will find of much interest.

If what I have presented thus far, does not suggest (even prove), we, as professional historians, are heading the way of the dinosaur, in a word more to"extinction," ponder the following, along with the final question at the end, which refers back to Freud. When the National History Standards, developed initially from the offices of the National Center for History in the Schools, funded in 1988 through the National Endowment for the Humanities, with headquarters at UCLA, then elaborated by many others across the country, came before the U. S. Senate, those standards were tabled (never to be considered again by either chamber of Congress), by a resolution of 99 to one (January 1995). Now, you the reader tell me (and honestly) is not the historical profession of this country in deep trouble, if, as was true in this instance, the National History Standards, which were intended as guides both for instruction and curricular development, could get but ONE vote for adoption, from our Congress (the Senate anyway), representing the entire country? Could it be then, as Freud thought, and as here applied to historians, we all have a"death instinct"?


Catherine Reef, Sigmund Freud: Pioneer of the Mind (New York: Clarion Books, 2001), p. 106.
L. F. Ivanhoe,"Updated Hubbert Curves Analyze World Oil supply," World Oil 217 (March 1996):91-94.

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Keith Miller - 8/28/2002

Mr. Olson, You need to learn how to search a good library for the scientific literature of oil & gas. For starters though, why don't you read the short article in World Oil, which I cited (and as corrected for month) in one of my comments. Moreover, if you are capable of this much reasoning (I have my doubts, given your comment posted August 8th), try this out. The age of cheap oil is over, or fast approaching, but even so, if the price per barrel of oil "hit" $100.00 at the well-head, oil companies can not produce what no longer exists! Or, do you think (evidently you do) oil materializes by magic underground. Finally, if you were not (it would appear anyway) entirely ignorant of what petroleum geologists, among many other scientists, can predict regarding the near future (next 50 years or so), you could have made an intelligent comment to my article. As it is, however, you remind me of a question asked by Walter Sullivan in his book a goodly number of years ago, titled WE ARE NOT ALONE, to wit--"Is There Intelligent Life on Earth?" I'm beginning to think (more and more often) the answer is no (and Mr. Olson, that's THE REAL PROBLEM, specifically people like unto yourself, who refuse to face a problem, which is before us--the rapidly dwindling supplies of the earth's oil and, if you are not too far up in years, to use your own word, you will be "vertical" to an see "energy crunch" beyond compare (and Cassandra in Greek mythology will have very little, if any, bearing on the matter). Do some reading, as suggested above, before "jump starting" a reply to me again. That would make me happy! Keith Miller

Orson Olson - 8/23/2002

Keith Miller's chagrin at being ignored shocks me more than anything else he writes above!

As economists observe, we DISCOUNT the future. Which means his Cassandra cries are more akin to hysterics over the fact that the earth is falling towards the sun! Or like Casablanca: "I'm shocked to find gamgling...!" I'm not--we aren't--and you, Kieth Miller, ought to find a real problem to dwell upon.

In fact, Miller's cries are even less than I have observed: unlike the earth's falling motion, there are SUBSTITUTES for oil, most already known, for whenever oil runs out. Because of the crucial information function of prices, the available "proven reserves" of oil changes with the price of oil; combined with advancing technology, which keeps the real cost of oil recovery coming down even where the "easily recoverable" oil has already been found, like the US, the cost keeps falling.

I have no doubt that the age of oil will continue through the lives of everyone verticle today. And if not--since no one can truely prognosticate the future--there are readily available alternatives.


PS Now, how about the decline of progress? That's REALLY somthing to worry about....

keith miller - 6/1/2002

TO ALL READERS of Do Historians Have a Death Wish?--Oversight on my part for which I offer pardon here. The brief article cited after my piece is given correctly, EXCEPT the issue of World Oil with article by L. F. Ivanhoe came out NOT in March 1996, but November 1996. Very glad I caught this!--would certainly assist anyone interested in locating Ivanhoes's essay. Keith Miller

keith miller - 5/30/2002

Mr. Freedman, Have no idea of your training and/or field(s) of study, but from over 20 years now of studying in-depth the literature of oil and gas, including that of petroleum geologists, very conversant with the facts on future of oil (and its inevitable and virtual exhaustion within another 50 years--and no longer), I MUST congratulate on your good sense. A major evidence of your soundness here--very few people are getting (and especially economists) the truth here; that is, market forces, even more efficient, oil-burning technologies are not going to save us; and you suggest why--with the depletion below a certain critical level the rise in oil prices will not help in any appreciable way, for no matter how high the price per barrel goes, you can't produce what no longer exists! I would warn one and all then, we'd better (and soon) drastically reduce worldwide the alarming rate at which oil is being consumed (a problem compounded by the nature of exponential numbers which in any progression soon takes on reach astronomical dimensions). And, that IS the history of oil production. Mr. Freedman, get this! Through 1956 the entire world, dating from Drake well in 1859 near Titusville, Pa, had delivered 96 billion barrels of oil. In just another 41 years the whole world produced (and of course consumed) an additional 704 billion barrels of crude (which adds up to total cumulative oil output globally by 1997, again dating from Drake well, of 800 billion barrels of oil). What does that mean?(Answering this question below should--to any sane person I would think--make abundantly clear a HUGE danger; that is, no exponentially-increasing production of any finite resource, such as oil, can continue for long); but now for answer, which staggered even some friends of mine who are, in fact, petroleum geologists, to wit--in the 41 years from 1957 through 1997 the world delivered 88 percent of ALL the oil ever produced in modern times, dating from Drake well (1859)! If that's not alarming to contemplate, what is? Would love to here from you on HNN by way of reply! Keith Miller (Ph. D. from Miami University of Ohio--1976). P. S. Many alternatives exist as sources for energy, which could finally free us from heavy dependence on oil, BUT as stated above, market-force approach too haphazard and unwieldy to effectively solve impending economic crisis, which is GLOBAL, not NATIONAL in scope. Only viable way out, it seems to me, is governmental action from local to global levels (directives/legislation both), which politicians fear (looking at no more than next election or two) in a long-term approach (decades of planning). Mankind, as you know I'm sure, Mr. Freedman, has never been very good at looking ahead for many years (BUT this time it MUST be done). Why? If peoples of earth wait much longer, world economies will collapse or experience severe depressions for serious lack of needed energy supplies even for the short term for their populations(almost all societies being, as they are, heavily energy intensive). The situation is soon going to be grave indeed, and you have it right, an alarm call, such as I'm giving is much overdue!

Clayton E. Cramer - 5/30/2002

"Mr. Cramer, Will NOT, as indicated before, click on your latest comment (May 30th), especially with my marvelous woman friend (vivacious, youthful, and stunning in beauty), in order to perhaps be irritated by you!" I have no idea what you are trying to say with that sentence. This isn't writing style. It's writing incompetence.

Clayton E. Cramer - 5/30/2002

"Even in the simplistic Economics 101 scenario that Mr. Cramer puts forward scarcity is not a function of price, but the other way around." Someone needs to work on their reading skills. What I wrote was "in a free market, prices reflect scarcity." What does "reflect" mean? It means that scarcity determines price. (Well, strictly speaking, scarcity and demand. But no one is expecting the demand for oil to drop substantially.)

Not only are writing skills in short supply, so are reading skills.

keith miller - 5/30/2002

Mr. Cramer, Will NOT, as indicated before, click on your latest comment (May 30th), especially with my marvelous woman friend (vivacious, youthful, and stunning in beauty), in order to perhaps be irritated by you! Let's give it a rest, O. K.? Obviously, you don't like my views on historical profession or my style of writing. So be it! To conclude this way--will any of this bring the sounding of Gabriel's trumpet and the Last Judgment? Personally, I doubt it. Keith Miller

Nicholas Freedman - 5/30/2002

"Economists tend not to worry so much about resource exhaustion for a very simple reason: in a free market, prices reflect scarcity."

What an absurd comment. I have no doubt that there are many economists who are concerned about resource exhaustion. Even in the simplistic Economics 101 scenario that Mr. Cramer puts forward scarcity is not a function of price, but the other way around. In the real world the equation is even more complex and consumption is a factor. Further, that the consumption in question is not being limited by a potential scarcity of the resource goes directly to the point that Keith Miller was making.
I imagine Mr. Cramer doesn't plan on being alive in 2050, but for those of us who are younger, even the potential of oil depletion should be enough to sound alarms, provoke conversation and contingency plans.
To be content with some hope of a deus ex machina-type solution-"I’m sure that someone will fix it!"-is simply not rational.

Clayton E. Cramer - 5/30/2002

The purpose of writing is communication. There are no hard and fast rules for the proper length of a sentence, but most experts agree that long sentences should be regarded with skepticism. A sentence that is long because it is awash in digressive clauses is quite a bit harder to understand than a series of short sentences.

When writing to an educated audience, longer sentences are more acceptable than when writing to the masses. Even when the target audience all have Ph.D.s, however, unnecessarily long or complex sentences can be a barrier to communication. Long sentences increase the number of ideas that must be retained and processed together into a semantic unit. Regardless of your educational level or intelligence, a 97 word sentence turns what should be a pleasure, or at most an obligation, into a chore.

As for your writing skill: I'm sure that in some circles your
style qualifies as erudite. I recognize the style that you
use. It is the mark of the grad student who is terrified that
what he is writing isn't terribly profound. He must therefore engage in stylistic curlicues, complex sentence structure, and the unnecessary use of jargon. It is unfortunate, because I often find that buried under this pseudo-erudite style there are points of some importance--as there were in your essay.

If you have something important to say, simplify. This pseudo-erudition adds nothing to the points that you are trying to make. It just makes you look like William F. Buckley, Jr., who throws out $10 words where one or two $2 words would be just as effective. Using those less impressive words is less likely to create barriers to communication.

keith miller - 5/29/2002

Mr. Cramer, From heading of your two replies to my first comment, and as I intimated to you regarding that, it is obvious more of your remarks are not worth the time necessary either to click on them, much less to read. So far as a 97-seven word sentence is concerned may I make two compelling points: (1) is the perfect length for any sentence chiseled in granite somewhere (say on Mt. Sinai?--I doubt it!; and (2) this from William Strunk's Elements of Style (various editions), if you write well enough (AS I DO) you can break all the rules! Keith Miller

Clayton E. Cramer - 5/29/2002

For those who think I am being too hard Mr. Miller, go take
a look at the 97 word sentence that he wrote.

"Now, you tell me, with the world's peoples at present numbering 6.1 billion (but probably at 8 billion by 2050), and consuming, as they now are, in the "neighborhood" of 30 billion barrels of oil per year, how are world economies (all intensively industrialized with a heavy dependence on crude for energy) going to survive to the year 2050, when, according to L. F. Ivanhoe (an authority with 50 years experience in the oil business) makes clear what is inevitable--specifically, by 2050 the whole earth will only be able to deliver 5 billion barrels of oil?"

Is there any better example of what academic writing should NOT be? Is it possible that Mr. Miller intended this whole essay as a parody? I can only hope so. On the off chance that he simply doesn't have a clue, here is how he should written it--at least if he wanted anyone to take his ideas seriously.

"The world's population at present numbers 6.1 billion, and will probably grow to eight billion by 2050. The world currently consumes in the neighborhood of 30 billion barrels of oil per year. According to L. F. Ivanhoe (an authority with 50 years experience in the oil business), by 2050 the whole Earth will only be able to deliver 5 billion barrels of oil. How is the world economy, all intensively industrialized with a heavy dependence on crude for energy, going to survive to the year 2050?"

Why does the OAH put an historian of such poor writing skills out as an expert to whom others might want to listen?

Clayton E. Cramer - 5/29/2002

Perhaps instead of, "Scanned, and then barely, the "gist" of your comment," you should have read it carefully. My point was not that your concern was not important. Nor was I disagreeing with the hazards of overspecialization. Instead, I was suggesting an obvious reason why you aren't exactly a hot property on the lecture circuit: your writing is unnecessarily convoluted.

If your essay was about the coming collapse of the world economy because of a shortage of petroleum, then you would have been better off writing an essay about that. Instead, you combined three completely separate issues, two of which are important and worthy of discussion, and did a poor job of explicating all three.

Economists tend not to worry so much about resource exhaustion for a very simple reason: in a free market, prices reflect scarcity. This rising of prices both discourages profligate use of a scarce resource, and signals to entrepreneurs the need to find either more supplies, or an alternative resource.

Why do you think that petroleum drilling started in 1859 in Pennsylvania? Because the increasing price of whale oil gave warning that whales were in short supply. The entrepreneurs who started drilling for oil didn't do it out of the goodness of their hearts, or out of concern for the collapse of civilization. They did it because they saw a market opportunity, and took it. I have no doubt that something similar will happen with petroleum, as it becomes scarce.

keith miller - 5/29/2002

Mr. Cramer, Scanned, and then barely, the "gist" of your comment. So far as I know History News Network is intended for serious intellectual exchanges, not veiled insults and/or sarcastic remarks. One more thing, with your comment in mind, it is inceasingly clear to me, as I stated (but here I will go further), historians and beyond them world civilizations have a "death instinct," as feared by Freud. The coming collapse (yes, I said collapse) of world economies within 50 years is everyone's concern, not just economists (and I can assure you, if really interested--from your comment i have my doubts), all economists, like others of their kind (and historians too, who seem to be "blinder" than most academics) are studying primarily, if not entirely, "more and more about less and less," the sum total of which is going to "bury us all" under its dead-weight. Trying to dismiss what I had hoped would be a much needed "alarm call" on serious matters with the snide reference that I am nothing more than an "environmental guru" is not even clever, much less relevant, to the discussion. In fact, I'm getting bored here, so will offer a profound insight in closing from Walt Kelly's Pogo: "We have met the enemy and he is us." A reply to this comment, if made, will not even be scanned, and certainly not read, unless it would appear to start out on a higher level of debate than your first one! Keith Miller

Clayton E. Cramer - 5/28/2002

Contrary to popular belief, most professional historians are actually skilled writers--sometimes very skilled writers. Perhaps Mr. Miller does not find himself in demand on the lecture circuit because his writing style is simultaneously clumsy and histrionic? I can readily imagine why those seeking a speaker might fear that his public speaking skills match his writing--and look for someone else.

Mr. Miller's overuse of quotation marks to indicate emphasis is certainly unique, but so are facial warts--both are more distracting than endearing. Consider also this crime aginst clear sentence structure from Mr. Miller: "If what I have presented thus far, does not suggest (even prove), we, as professional historians, are heading the way of the dinosaur, in a word more to 'extinction,' ponder the following, along with the final question at the end, which refers back to Freud."

Let us re-write Mr. Miller's sentence: "What I have presented thus far suggests (perhaps even proves) that professional historians are headed the way of the dinosaur. Consider what happened when the Senate tabled--by a 99-1 vote--the National History Standards adopted in 1988. Do historians have what Freud referred to as a 'death instinct'?"

It has all the same information in it. It is much easier to understand. It does not require the reader to make two or three passes at parsing the sentence. Yes, well-educated readers can understand what Mr. Miller is saying--but why make it harder than it has to be? Complex sentences do not suggest deep thought; they imply a jumbled and confused mind.

The question of how our industrial civilization will deal with a shortage of oil is both interesting and important. It is, however, a question more suited to the economist (who predicts the future, or at least tries to do so) than the historian (who understands the past, or at least tries to do so). If Mr. Miller wants to be an environmental guru, perhaps the OAH isn't the right place to advertise his availability?