Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Oil pique

So you're not impressed by the ancient Mayan prediction that the world as we know it will end in 2012? You don't give much credence to those astrological forecasts of a global meltdown beginning in 2009? Well, how about considering the implications of peak oil. The idea, which has become a hot topic recently, is quite simple. Industrial civilization runs on oil. There's only a limited amount of oil to be had. Fewer and fewer accessible oil reserves are being discovered. World production is hitting its all-time peak, and from here on it's all downhill. Couple that with skyrocketing demand, particularly from China, and the future looks grim. If you think present fuel prices are high, just wait a few years and you won't be able to believe how cheap it was back in 2005. This is party time; tomorrow comes the hangover. Not to mention the blackouts, rationing, famines, and wars: Mad Max minus the cars.

Technological optimists reject all this as just fashionable doom-and-gloom. Julian Simon, for example, maintained that the key resource is human ingenuity, and that's inexhaustible. We don't want coal or oil as such; we want the services they provide, and we can always find alternative ways of getting those services. But there are a couple of problems with the optimists' view. First, resources like breathable air and clean water have no substitutes. Second, even where substitutes for something like oil can be found, they may not be found and developed in time to avert major social disruption. A hydrogen-sustained economy sounds good, but hydrogen is not free for the taking. It needs to be produced, using lots of energy from other sources. A viable hydrogen economy, if a possibility, is still a long way off. Similarly, although Alberta has a vast amount of oil locked in its tar sands, getting it requires lots of energy, mainly from non-renewable natural gas, and the process is environmentally harmful.

James Howard Kunstler argues that we are headed for what he calls "the Long Emergency". Although his focus is the USA, the energy crisis will be worldwide. Kunstler predicts it will be "a tremendous trauma for the human race". In the US and other industrialized nations:
The circumstances of the Long Emergency will require us to downscale and re-scale virtually everything we do and how we do it, from the kind of communities we physically inhabit to the way we grow our food to the way we work and trade the products of our work. Our lives will become profoundly and intensely local. Daily life will be far less about mobility and much more about staying where you are. Anything organized on the large scale, whether it is government or a corporate business enterprise such as Wal-Mart, will wither as the cheap energy props that support bigness fall away. The turbulence of the Long Emergency will produce a lot of economic losers, and many of these will be members of an angry and aggrieved former middle class.
The struggle over the world's energy resources has already begun. The Middle East is the key geo-political arena here. The Gulf War and the Iraq War have not just been about getting the bad guys. (As someone asked, would the United States have invaded Iraq if that country's main export were broccoli?) But now US policy-makers are becoming aware of all that oil and gas in Canada. The push is on for "deep integration". If that doesn't work, well, those crafty Canucks have had nuclear power for decades, and who knows what weapons of mass destruction they may have hidden away in grain silos...

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