Author: Norman Pagett (The End of More)
But how can we define an oil age? It has been about 150 years since the first deep oilwells were sunk, and just over 200 years since the viable steam engine was developed. The two are linked, because the steam engine made deep drilling of oilwells possible and gave us access to a hundred million years worth of fossilized sunlight. Perhaps we have not strictly had an oil age, but rather the first and only age where we enjoy vast amounts of surplus energy that we have extracted from hydrocarbon fuels, of which oil is the most energy dense. It has brought us material wealth, and the means to indulge in wholesale killing of each other and all other species. It gave excesses of food and a population that consumed that food and grew to five or six times the sustainable level of the planet. In the timespan of human existence, the ascendance of modern industrialised man has been a short flash of light and heat that has briefly lifted us out of the mire of the middle ages, but at a considerable cost to the environment.
Our mistake has been to think of that elevation as both divine and permanent. That certainty of permanence explains the mad scramble to come up with ‘alternatives’ and ‘renewables’ in the last decade or two. Something to keep current politicians in office and the masses pacified. It is important that we accept the seductive indoctrination that prayers will be answered and technology will continue to deliver all that can be imagined. The majority have come to believe in the economics of cornucopianism, where wishing for something will make it happen, while ignoring the reality that everything we have is derived from finite hydrocarbon fuels. If we spend enough money, alternatives will always be found to sustain our lifestyle. They won’t of course, and the conflicts that have been fought over oil are proof that they won’t. The pivot of world oil economy is Saudi Arabia, (the concept of ‘Saudi America’ is too ludicrous for discussion here), but that fantasy land of sand dunes and tall towers is being encircled by fanatics who know that when the jugular of global oil is cut, the industrial complexity of the developed west will die.
When (not if) that happens, we might be lucky to hold onto an existence akin to that of the 14th century, which is what the religious zealots want to inflict on all of us. If we’re unlucky, then we must expect something that will be much darker and as yet inadmissible to modern minds that do not have the scope to deal with its implications. That infers an unpleasant imagery of pre-history that we prefer to ignore. Understandably, most think the same way; this is why we cling to the comforting promise of ‘infinite growth’. The alternative is just too awful. Instead we have been encouraged to believe that we can do without oil and not only still run around on wheels, but have a purpose for doing so. And by some means yet to be invented, keep our wings as well.
Our oil age will not end through lack of it, but by fighting over what’s left. So choose your luck‐factor and take that thought where you will, you are on your own with it. Many reasons are given for starting wars, but ultimately there is only one: the pursuit of (energy) resources. Human greed drove improvements in weaponry, and the means of destruction and acquisition became more deadly over thousands of years even though there was more than enough for everyone. The input of oil was the game changer of warfare; history over the last century has shown that conflict was not diminished, but amplified, by the prosperity and technology created by oil. Since the 1860s when black gold gushed from the earth, the economic and political thinking of the pre‐oil era was seamlessly grafted onto the industrial potential of the 19th century, thereby enabling Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Vanderbilt and many others to accumulate fabulous wealth. Their business acumen was undeniable, but none of it could have been brought into existence without energy-rich oil. The use of fossil fuels in our military machines industrialised our methods of killing while at the same time becoming synonymous with progress and commerce. War became a business, the purpose of which was the acquisition of more energy in the pursuit of profit. Battlefield deaths on an industrial scale were an unlisted debit on balance sheets.
WWI started with the muscle power of horses and ended with tanks, demonstrating the murderous scope of mechanized warfare. Recognizing the critical value of oil and its sources, leaders carved up the Middle East to ensure its supply. An exercise in map making in the 1920s by the English and French civil servants Sykes and Picot set the scene for carnage that has raged throughout the Middle East ever since. Arbitrary lines in the sand were drawn, artificial oil states in the Persian Gulf region were created without regard to tribal affiliations, and a quarrelsome orphan Israel was dumped into the lap of unwilling Bedouins. As the quantity of oil there became apparent, all the major nations were drawn into the race for it because those who controlled this key resource were certain to subjugate those who did not.
The critical nature of oil made WWII inevitable. To sustain their empires, the Germans and Japanese slaughtered their way across Europe and Asia in a grab for resources, primarily oil. They promised infinite prosperity and their peoples cheered them on while deaths elsewhere were being counted in millions. With most of the world’s known oil supplies in the hands of his enemies, Adolf Hitler knew he had to have the oilfields of southern Russia and the Middle East to sustain his war machine. He failed, and his dream of a ‘Greater Germany’ collapsed not because of inferior soldiers but because there was insufficient energy input to sustain his plan for world domination. Hitler’s perception of infinite growth in his ‘thousand year Reich’ mirrors our present-day view of ‘permanent affluence’: vast quantities of oil had to be burned to sustain his fantasy. In our desperate scramble for ever-diminishing energy resources, we are in the same mad race to perpetuate the delusion of infinite economic growth. The oil pendulum has swung the other way with roughly 85% of world oil now outside the borders of the USA and Canada in countries not always of a friendly disposition. And just like the Fuhrer, political leaders of today are promising that which is beyond their means to provide. To mask this reality, they have invaded oil-producing nations in the name of ‘freedom’, claiming ‘victories’ which have left only wreckage and simmering animosity behind. So too did Hitler spread a similar line of propaganda that he was liberating other nations from the threat of communism. The second world war that left Europe and Japan flattened in 1945 might be seen as history, but it was just the first of many oil wars, and the politics of it were a side issue. WWII serves as a grim reminder of how violent and destructive humans can be in their ruthless pursuit of energy resources. Hitler’s own ‘oil age’ lasted just twelve years, and it set the pattern for the world oil age that is now in terminal decline.
Don’t be deceived by the democratic righteousness that defeated Hitler’s fascism. 150 years earlier the American empire was created with the same kind of energy grab. The European immigrant peoples who forced their way across America from the 1700s onwards needed resources on which to survive and to sustain the prosperity of an expanding nation just as the Germans and the Japanese did in 1940. The native inhabitants of the American continent were in the way of civilization and progress; their subjugation was a precursor to what happened later in Europe and Asia. Expansive prairies had to be cleared to convert the energy locked in grain and meat to feed the invaders and provide negotiable currency. This self-perpetuating process went into overdrive with the discovery of oil, and the ultimate conversion of that oil into more food resources and hardware added to the wealth of the growing nation. An expanding population needed employment, and the raw energy from oil, coal, and gas supplied it. America and the rest of the industrialised world had the means to build bigger, better, faster machines in endless succession, and created the most powerful country on earth. Everybody was going to be rich, forever. The universal law of consumption was relentless: more demanded more.
Meat and grain grew with relatively little human intervention, but other crops needed to be worked with human muscle. So the slave trade came into being. Slavery might be given many unpleasant names, but essentially it is the acquisition of one energy form to convert it into another for profit. Buy and feed the slave, use slave labour to do work, sell the product of that work. By the time the slave is worn out, several more will have been produced. This was simple economics by 18th century standards but the human consequences were again horrific, costing more millions of lives. It also brought on the American civil war where the slave‐muscled South was overwhelmed by the industrialised muscle that drove the armies of the North.
All the European empires forged out of so-called ‘empty lands’ across the world followed a similar pattern of resource acquisition and an absolute disregard for weaker peoples. It is an unpleasantness that we choose to ignore, but it confirms the killing force that drives us to acquire and convert energy to our own use. The seemingly limitless amount of oil and its energy density appeared to be the answer to all our labour problems. Oil became our ultimate slave. Or so we thought.
We now have maybe 20 years worth of usable oil left. There are certainly no more than 30, perhaps as little as 10. If one of the crazy sects running loose in the Middle East managed to get hold of a nuclear device, setting it off on the Gharwar oilfield of Saudi Arabia, it would be endgame overnight. That is perhaps too bleak a prospect, but we should not discount that notion entirely.
Before our oil to food arrangement, the planet supported something over one billion people. We now have over seven billion, and the mothers of the next two billion are alive now and approaching the age of reproduction. Preachers, scientists and politicians will not stop the basic human function of eating and procreation, so if unchecked nine billion people will be here by 2040/50, and set to go on rising after that. Every new arrival expects to be fed, watered, clothed and housed, but by no stretch of the imagination will the global food system be able to feed that number let alone sustain them with what would be expected by way of the most basic material comfort. No one dares to stand up and make the rather obvious point that we are not going to reach 9 billion. Something has to give, and that giving is going to be very unpleasant.
In the first decade of the 21st century, numerous wars have been fought over oil, and are being fought now. Wars are fought over resources because on nature’s terms, gentle contentedness is not a good strategy for survival; we are collectively powerless against genetic forces that dictate our lives no matter how much we protest otherwise. Downsized to whatever level, nature will ultimately force the choice of survival or death, and the outcome will be of no consequence other than to you and yours. To expect humankind to change within a single generation is stretching credibility beyond breaking point. Those who look forward to a life of bucolic bliss in a downsized oil‐less world might do well to think about that. Whether killing and butchering an animal to eat it, or invading another nation to secure oil supplies, we must appropriate energy sources to facilitate survival. You may think there’s a choice about doing that, but there isn’t, other than in the matter of scale. Whether paying a butcher to cut and wrap your steak, or paying soldiers to invade Iraq, securing sufficient energy to live is what we have to do to survive.
For the moment, nature keeps us supplied with oil, and we’ve pulled off the neat trick of converting it directly into food. Not knowing when our oil is finished and our food supply will run out is the little teaser for the early 21st century. Right now, most people think that food comes from supermarket shelves and freezers, which is just as well. The food trucks moving around the country are basically mobile warehouses, delivering food just in time for it to be consumed. When the realization dawns that the food trucks have stopped, the food held in stock by retailers will be stripped bare in hours. The oil age for everyone will have come to an end.
But oil carries man’s destiny in far more subtle ways than food supplies. It holds nations together. The USA is a vast territory of disparate peoples and ideas, held together by a common bond of prosperity and a basic consensus that government and law generally works for the good of all. And the inhabitants of empires are always convinced that theirs is permanent and protected by gods. That definition would apply to many large nations to a greater or lesser degree. But the bonds that hold it together, godly or otherwise, are entirely subject to availability of affordable oil. Empires (and the USA is an empire) remain whole so long as the means exists to maintain them. Oil has become that means.
Without oil, the nation will begin its decline into disparate regions. Without interconnecting transport, the United States of America cannot remain united. The force necessary to prevent a breakup will not be there, so within a decade (probably far less) of oil supply failure, the USA will cease to exist. The cracks are already there along linguistic, economic, racial, political and geographic lines. Even now it would be possible to take a pretty good guess at where those regions will split off.
This will be denied and resisted of course, but armies and police forces have power only as long as their fuel lasts. They will be unable to prevent secession in whatever form it takes. It might just be that Washington will come to govern not much more than the original colonies. Given a suitably deranged political leader and prayers to the right god, fully armed groups are ready to believe that the ‘American Dream’ can be restored. Such demagoguery sets the stage for years of regional violence over the basics of life, particularly food and water. The horror of it will be justified by warped views of right and wrong, clinging to a denial mentality magnified beyond any imagining by the privation that an oil-less society will bring.
This scenario is not exclusive to the USA. The British Empire was built on coal. When the coal was gone the empire faded away. Then in the 80s and 90s the UK became awash with cheap oil from the North Sea, and everyone was reasonably prosperous, particularly Scotland. Now the oil surplus has gone, and the UK is in decline again as a net importer. The ‘oil prosperity’ is fading away. Scotland is losing its main source of income and wants to secede from the United Kingdom, convinced that independence will somehow restore their wealth. Things will get very unpleasant when they realize that an independent Scotland will eventually be reduced to the economic level of Greece. The link between oil and the ability to eat is clear. The UK has to import 40% of its food, and much of the rest depends on oil to produce it, which also has to be imported. It is the end of the UK’s oil age, but few admit to it being the end of a food age as well. The same problem is being revealed in the current fiasco of the European union, but a little more advanced than the USA and UK. Oil-fueled prosperity is falling dramatically in the poorer southern countries. Greece, Spain and Portugal and a swathe of smaller nations have to import all their oil which only worked when oil was cheap. Now it’s expensive, and they are facing bankruptcy. 50 years of ‘unity’ is dissolving like a mirage in the face of the difficulties that smaller states are suffering. Without cheap oil, their economies cannot function, and so are disintegrating. United Europe needs oil to stay united just as the USA does. Russia’s oil dependent economy is crumbling, and Putin is having to make threatening postures to divert attention from his problems. His oil age is ending in a different way and yet we cannot tell if his posturing is just that, but a shortage of resources in the past has invariably brought conflict.
Move to the Far East and the nations around the South China Sea are all threatening one another, again the focus of the argument being the oil and gas fields of the region. They all know that without oil they cannot survive, and are prepared to fight for every last drop of the stuff, no matter what the cost. As a measure of what the dispute is about, the volume of oil in question is 11 billion barrels. One billion barrels is less than a month of world consumption. They are preparing to fight over the last dregs in confirmation of man’s desperation over oil shortages. Eventually, this problem will hit every nation and individual on earth as our oil‐crutch is kicked away. And with the oil age fading into history for us all, there will be no shortage of violent resistance to this inconvenient truth.
Will technological innovation save us?…