Life After Oil

With global oil demand outpacing reserves, now?s the time to find new ways to get around

| March/April 2001



Life After Oil
-Jeremiah Creedon

Bill Ford Has a Better Idea
-Martin Wright

The Rail Revival
-Jay Walljasper

Car-Sharing in Portland
-Steve Gutmann

Motorless in Montreal
-Nick Peck

Discuss Life After Oil in Café Utne. Click here: café

Long after the oil age has burned itself out, the future will assign a date to when the flame first wavered. It might have been 30 years ago when the world’s great energy consumer, the United States, started using more oil than it produced. Or it might be tomorrow, if we end up drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for what amounts to six months’ worth of fuel. In any case, the crucial point will not be when the end begins, but how long after that we’ll go on denying it. This lag will determine how well our country and the world move beyond the oil age; the longer we hesitate, the more brutal it will be.

We actually have a pretty good idea of when even car-loving Americans will have to face the truth. Certain energy experts have seen the moment coming for decades. They’re waiting for what a recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey calls the Big Rollover—the point when the world starts needing more oil than it supplies. These forecasts began with a guy named M. King Hubbert, a geophysicist who in 1956 correctly predicted the initial American rollover in 1970. In 1974 he estimated that the global peak would occur in 1995—not a bad guess. Current forecasts range from 2003 to 2020.

In other words, we won’t have to run completely out of oil to be rudely awakened. The panic starts once the world needs more oil than it gets. To understand why, you’ve got to fathom how totally addicted to oil we’ve become. We know that petroleum is drawn from deep wells and distilled into gasoline, jet fuel, and countless other products that form the lifeblood of industry and the adrenaline of military might. It’s less well known that the world’s food is now nourished by oil; petroleum and natural gas are crucial at every step of modern agriculture, from making fertilizer to shipping crops. The implications are grim. For millions, the difference between an energy famine and a biblical famine could well be academic.

With a global oil crisis looming like the Doomsday Rock, why do so few political leaders seem to care? As independent policy analyst David Fleming writes in the British magazine Prospect (Nov. 2000), many experts refuse to take the problem seriously because it 'falls outside the mind-set of market economics.' Thanks to the triumph of global capitalism, the free-market model now reigns almost everywhere. The trouble is, its principles 'tend to break down when applied to natural resources like oil.' The result is both potentially catastrophic and all too human. Our high priests—the market economists—are blind to a reality that in their cosmology cannot exist.

Fleming offers several ex-amples of this broken logic at work. Many cling to a belief that higher oil prices will spur more oil discoveries, but they ignore what earth scientists have been saying for years: There aren’t more big discoveries to make. Most of the oil reserves we tap today were actually identified by the mid-1960s. There’s a lot of oil left in the ground—perhaps more than half of the total recoverable supply. Fleming says that’s not the issue. The real concern is the point beyond which demand cannot be met. And with demand destined to grow by as much as 3 percent a year, the missing barrels will add up quickly. Once the pain becomes real, the Darwinian impulse kicks in and the orderly market gives way to chaos.

'The United States will fight hard and dirty,' Fleming warns, because we’ll have the money to feed our addiction. Other countries won’t. 'The United States will export oil scarcity to the rest of the world,' adds Fleming, and he’s blunt about what happens after that: 'There will be economic destabilization.'Some insist that industrial societies are growing less dependent on oil. Fleming says they’re kidding themselves. They’re talking about oil use as a percentage of total energy use, not the actual amount of oil burned. Measured by the barrel, we’re burning more and more. In Britain, for instance, transportation needs have doubled in volume since 1973 and still rely almost entirely on oil. Transportation is the weak link in any modern economy; choke off the oil and a country quickly seizes.

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