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The world stands today on the precipice of an unprecedented crisis. These are bold words, ones that have been uttered many times before by both apocalyptic prophets and secular observers of humanity’s trajectory. Such predictions have in the past always been proven wrong, certainly in substance if not in spirit. Why might things be different now? For a hint of the answer, consider the present convergence of the following global problems:
• Climate change;
• Deforestation and desertification;
• Depletion of ocean fish stocks;
• Depletion of soil fertility and fresh water;
• Extinctions and biodiversity loss;
• Social and economic instability;
And above all:
• Oil and natural gas depletion.
Modern industrial civilization is built on a foundation of cheap, abundant oil. It plays a role either directly or indirectly in everything we do. Used for everything from transportation (which consumes 70% of the oil) to fertilizers, plastics, paint, pharmaceuticals and artificial fibres, oil is the master resource of our civilization. Even those items that don’t require oil in their manufacture depend on it indirectly to feed, clothe, house and transport the people who make them. To do this the world consumes 84 million barrels of oil a day: five cubic kilometers of oil every year.
In 1956, a Shell Oil geologist named M. King Hubbert made the bold prediction that 14 years later, in 1970, American oil production would peak and start to decline, and that no amount of increased drilling would return it to the peak rate. Hubbert’s prediction came true right on schedule.
This pattern of production peak and decline has been repeated in countries all over the world. Production in an oil region starts slowly, ramps up rapidly as the largest deposits of oil are discovered and extracted first, then declines as they are drained and new, smaller deposits fail to make up the difference.
There is strong evidence that global oil production has already reached its peak. The world’s four largest oil fields are all in decline, as are three quarters of all oil producing countries. World production of crude oil has not increased for the past two years despite increased demand from China and India. If the historical patterns hold true we will see an outright decline in production start within the next five years, one that will never be reversed. This has enormous implications for our global economy and the civilization it supports.
Developing nations are especially vulnerable to even minor disruptions in their energy or food supplies (which depend heavily on oil). As oil becomes scarcer and more expensive, poor nations will be out-bid in the market by rich nations, with devastating effects on their quality of life. As has always been the case, the poor will suffer first and most.
The instinctive response to such predictions is that humans are clever and resourceful. Necessity is the mother of invention, and we will surely find substitutes for expensive oil. I am not so sure. The scale of this problem is enormous: we may need to replace the energy of an additional billion barrels of oil every year. Proposed substitutes such as ethanol, hydrogen, electricity from wind and solar, etc. do not appear to be up to the task. Substitutes that may be up to the task (electricity from coal and nuclear power) have their own risks in global warming and waste storage.
The most helpful approach to the problem is for us to change the way we live: how we define progress, success and happiness. We need to learn how to be happy while doing less and having fewer material possessions. We know from other cultures that this is possible. In our own, however, the value system of material growth is thoroughly embedded. If we are to survive as a civilization we must overcome our hunger to consume ever more of our planet’s resources.
The underlying problem is our culture of growth, dominance and dominion. If we are to weather the coming storm we need to develop a new way of looking at ourselves and our world: one that sees us in harmony and balance with the rest of nature; one that relinquishes our assumed position at the pinnacle of creation; one that recognizes our awesome responsibility to be true stewards of the Earth. Making this change will be a formidable task. It is one that humanity has an ineluctable responsibility to undertake.
March 1, 2007