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Thursday, March 9, 2006 08:00 am

The end is near

Calamity beckons — unless we begin weaning ourselves off oil

Denial and willful ignorance are two of the most salient features of contemporary American society. Our political and business leaders have a financial interest in encouraging short-term thinking, selfishness, and war. As a result, topics covered in depth by foreign media are taboo for America. Some of the issues we refuse to address have the potential to destroy our society if we don’t act. The end of the Age of Oil is one of the questions that belong in this category. Oil is a form of inherited capital given to us by nature, a one-time gift that will never be replaced. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution there were roughly 2 trillion barrels of oil in the ground. About half of that wealth has now been consumed; what remains is that which is either hardest to retrieve or is in the form of tar or shale oil. Oil use has soared since World War II because of a growing world economy and explosive population growth. The world now consumes 27 billion barrels of oil annually, and if all the remaining oil could be economically exploited at current rates, all the oil would effectively be gone in about 40 years. Other factors indicate that the road ahead could get rocky rather soon. About 60 percent of the remaining oil reserves are in the Middle East, which promises to be a violent place for years to come. The world’s two biggest nations, China and India, are consuming more and more oil. Meanwhile, discovery of significant new oilfields is becoming a rare event. In 2000, there were 13 discoveries of fields with 500 million or more barrels; in 2001, there were six; in 2002, only two were found; and, in 2003, there were none. Pessimists expect serious oil shortages in the next 10 to 20 years, optimists add a few decades, but very few doubt that the conventional oil economy will end within a human lifetime. Every possible solution to this conundrum is problematic. Ethanol, tar-oil, coal, nuclear, and hydrogen energy all have lobbies, but all are either unrealistic or dangerous. Ethanol is not a serious solution because to grow the corn to make ethanol we need enormous amounts of oil to make pesticides, fertilizers, and run farm machinery. Our industrial agriculture system requires 16 calories of “input” to produce 1 calorie of grain and 70 calories to produce 1 calorie of meat. This input, of course, is oil. American industrial agriculture is essentially a system of converting oil into grain and meat. Our eating habits could change markedly when oil is gone. If coal is the future, our future is bleak indeed. Coal-burning plants are the leading source of mercury pollution, the effects of which we are only beginning to appreciate. Coal burning is also a major cause of asthma, acid rain, and greenhouse emissions. It is possible to reduce pollution from coal-burning plants, but this greatly increases the cost of electricity. Nuclear power has the potential to destroy the planet. Nuclear plants make great targets for terrorists, and radioactive waste remains deadly for hundreds of thousands of years. Hydrogen and tar oil are similar in that it takes as much or more energy (usually in the form of natural gas, which is being depleted at rates similar to that seen with liquid oil) to produce them as can be gained from them. Hydrogen is difficult to transport and highly flammable. The extraction of tar oil causes severe environmental damage and consumes huge amounts of water. It doesn’t appear likely that either will realistically replace liquid oil. All this leads us to wind and solar energy, which are inexhaustible, clean, and safe. We certainly should be doing everything we can to develop renewable energy, but we need to be clear that a society powered by wind and solar energy will be very different from and materially poorer than the one we have now. If mankind is to have a future on this planet, it will almost certainly be a more modest one, at least for those of us in the First World. There is a question mark ahead of us. At precisely the moment we most need talented leadership, we are stuck with George W. Bush, the least intelligent and most corrupt president in the history of the United States. Bush is the predictable result of a society that is consuming itself. While Japan was developing hybrid cars, American capitalism gave us Hummers and Navigators. As Germans construct state-of-the-art windmills and cover their roofs with solar panels, we Americans are building 3,000-square-foot McMansions. Instead of doing the hard work of restructuring our living patterns and preparing for what comes next, America’s plan is to engage in an endless series of wars over a resource which is soon to run out. This is known as the “last man standing” approach. If we can just defeat the rest of the world we will be able to enjoy oil for a decade or two longer than everybody else. It’s a plan for which we will pay dearly.
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