Once again, Indymedia possibly not the best place for it, but there you go...
But it’s not just the emissions coming out the cars and lorries of the M6 that are causing the problems, it’s what goes into them as well: petrol, or to use its base name, oil. You might well know enough about climate change to offer your opinions out in the work canteen or down the local pub, but be less cocksure handling an issue that many will tell you is far greater a threat than rising global temperatures; it’s something called peak oil and if you haven’t heard of it yet, there’s a small army of people out there who believe you soon will.
Now I’m neither competent nor influential enough to explain to you the ins and outs of peak oil and for this I point you towards the aforementioned excellent 2005 book The Long Emergency. I’ve no doubt similar titles do the subject equal or greater justice, but I‘ve only read Kunstler. The peak oil realisation is both grim and harrowing; you just don’t feel like working through anthologies on the subject for fear you might top yourself. I will, however, attempt to give you a condensed and layman-like outline, in the hope that it will inspire you to get down to the library and find out the full story for yourselves. So here goes.
Oil is a finite resource. There is only so much of it and when it’s gone it’s gone. No one of sane mind will try to deny this. The only debate then, for the sane at least, lies in two key questions. Question one is when will we run out of oil, tough one that. Question two is how we will adapt to life without it, also a tricky one. Those who do not merit the work of hard line peak oil theorists, and there are many, will tell you that the peak, that’s the point at which we start to go downhill in terms of oil production, is a long way away; so far away in fact that there’s really no need to worry. When I was a child, they said the same thing about global warming and amazingly, some still do. Next they’ll be telling us the war in Iraq wasn’t to secure the worlds second largest oil reserves for the world’s largest economy. That would be ridiculous though wouldn’t it?
Those who listen to the theorists, but remain squarely optimistic (you know the type), will tell you that yes, the black gold is on the way out but don’t worry too much because our ever inventive and masterful species will, as always, adapt and overcome, indeed, we’re half way to sorting it all out already, oh hang on, it’s already sorted, brilliant; more on these fallacies later.
Then there are the peak oil doomsayers themselves. They carry with them a morbid set of alarming and terrifying predictions, the square root of which is the imminent end of the age of cheap oil. Oil extraction and demand has increased so dramatically over the last fifty years that the imminent peak in production has been drawn ever forwards, and that demand for cheap oil is only going up. Ours is the age of oil, not money or gold, but oil. You can take your pick as to exactly when we will peak, many believe we already have, but there seems to be a general consensus within the peak oil community that it is coming within our lifetime. Once we do peak, oil-reliant systems will freefall into irreversible decline. But just what, or who, is oil reliant?
I asked my girlfriend to pick something randomly from the bedroom the other day. She chose the bed itself, so let’s use the bed as an example of how most things these days are invariably oil reliant. In fact the bed is too complicated, let’s instead only look at a small part of the bed, the wood. The tree that died for our bed would have been chopped down by a chainsaw, possibly petrol powered but almost certainly oil tainted, perhaps oil was in the plastic that cased it, or in the lubricants that maintained it, and then we can think about the machines that made the chainsaw itself, they too will be touched by oil in exactly the same ways, then we can move on to think about transport. For the tree, the chainsaw shop and the chainsaw factory to have all been within the same country is almost an impossible suggestion these days, that’s forgetting all about the raw materials that made both the chainsaw and the chainsaw factory. All of which means a lot of transport; transport being the largest sector for oil use globally; it is also the sector with no viable alternatives.
So far we have found oil at every level, and we have only chopped down the tree that gave us the wood for the bed, we haven’t even thought about the paint on the wood, the screws, the mattress, the sheets, the duvet or the pillows; all as equally oil tainted as the wood. My girlfriend of course, could have pointed to anything in the bedroom, to almost anything in the world in fact. Oil is the most versatile substance on earth and we have been sure to exploit it to its full potential, it is everywhere we turn, it is the energy rich product of our era, a million or so years of condensed solar energy captured in a black liquid that we have come to both cherish and abuse; it has given us the power to fly not just to New York, but to send craft out beyond the very solar system
George Orwell’s study of poverty in the north of England, The Road to Wigan Pier, was first published in 1937. He says within its pages, “Our civilisation –is founded on coal, more completely than one realises when one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make the machines, are all directly or indirectly dependant on coal.” Today Orwell would undoubtedly say the same thing about oil.
The peak oil problem is not small, the more you learn, the bigger it seems to get. Scientists tell us the maximum human population on earth before the major fossil fuel based economies developed was about two billion people. Now let’s not rush past the point here. What that means is that when we return to a world sans fossil fuels, we would seriously struggle to support much more than that two billion people on earth.
The main reason for this revolves around food; its production and distribution. Today, over six billion of us inhabit the earth. We are fed and watered only by the miracles of the oil economy. It’s not just the lorries that drive the food to the nearest Sainsbury’s or fly in the salad bags from Spain (I mean, wtf?), it’s the oil used in the pesticides (some pesticides alone are responsible for doubling food production), the various forms of plastics that form the packaging (most plastics are made from petrochemicals (crude oil and gas)), it’s the computers that deal with the administration, ordering systems and logistics (each PC is estimated to be take two barrels of oil to create (that’s over 300 litres) if you take into account design and manufacture), its the whole almighty package.
Oil is seeping through the veins of the monster that has overtaken our food chain, without it the global food network would collapse almost immediately (If you want to read more on the state of our food chain, try Not on the Label by Felicity Lawrence), yet without this system, many of us would go hungry. Those of us that live on a relatively oil free diet, that is to say on food that is primarily organic and local, may well be setting a good example, but there is simply not the arable land on earth for all six plus billion of us to live like this. Possibly not the best news you’ve had today, but this is how things get when you start to talk about peak oil.
I mentioned earlier that I would turn to the subject of alternatives; that is the optimist’s answer to overcoming the peak. The problem is that each alternative requires as much writing as is already here to even introduce the debate. I urge you therefore instead to do some follow up reading, and once again I point you to The Long Emergency, which excellently, logically and terrifyingly dismisses the oil alternatives. As a taster though : solar power panels require oil for production and operation, so too do wind turbines, bio-fuels on any large scale require pesticides (oil based you will recall) and anyone who’s watched a birdman contest will tell you that pedal powered flight is not the future of air travel.
During the opening plenary of the 2009 Climate Camp in Blackheath, part way through a speech, the speaker casually mentioned peak oil, and a female member of the audience immediately shouted out “bring it on” at the top of her voice. A small ripple of laughter went through the crowd; even in the company of environmental hardliners peak oil is a bit of an in-joke, something not everyone quite gets, or if they do, they don’t necessarily know how to react.
Those that laughed perhaps felt that peak oil is a devil’s blessing; the only way to stop a madness that has led humanity to its current state; on the verge of eliminating just about everything on the planet, and for little more than cheap yo-yo flights, all year round strawberries, and soulless orchards of inglorious technology. For the record, I laughed, I thought it was one of the darkest, most knowing jokes I’ve ever heard.
The reality of the post-oil nightmare is not today’s reality. Not yet. Today we have Sky HD and America’s Next Top Model to look forward to; things really aren’t so bad - forgiving the spiritual malaise that is. I once heard someone talk about mankind’s innate ability to deal with imminent threat; consider the mass movements and innovations of World War II, contrasted against our much less developed ability at dealing with long term, future threats. Muse this on an individual level too; if the doctor tells us we must exercise or die in two weeks, we hit the treadmill, if he says exercise now or die in ten years, the first thing we do is something else, like head to the pub.
The problems peak oil presents, like its sister climate change, are problems that gravitate towards the deeper problems of the human condition. It is important to remember how much we have grown and achieved, here in the so-called West we no longer enslave races or practice barbaric cruelty and torture (at least not officially), but it is equally vital to remember that we still have so much to learn as a species, about foresight, about compassion, about our place in the grand and secret scheming of the universe at large; ours is a small chip to play, and we would do well to remember it. These problems our not uniquely ours; all those great and seemingly unstoppable civilizations that stretch out behind us thought themselves indestructible too; they too only dealt with the immediate, while greater dangers gained weight beneath the threshold of the conscious. It is oft-said that a history ignored repeats itself twice; it seems unlikely that we will do anything to disprove that prophecy this time around. A new light is gathering, a new dawn for the dark days ahead, and the best we can do is to be ready for it.