Thursday, 29 May 2008
This week, a battalion of angry addicts brought London to a standstill. They snarled up the traffic, then marched on 10 Downing Street to demand their fix at prices they can afford. Across the world, in countries as different as the US and Iran, fellow junkies are rising up in rage. Their addiction is to a gloopy black drug called petrol – and we are all about to go cold turkey.
In the past seven years, the price of oil has soared from $30 (£15) a barrel to $140. By the end of next year it could be at $200. No matter how much we plead or howl at our governments, it will never go back: the final act of the Age of Oil has begun.
The era that is ending began at 10.30am on 10 January 1901, on a high hill called Spindletop in south-eastern Texas. A pair of pioneer brothers managed to drill down into the biggest oilfield ever found. Until then, the dribbles of oil that had been discovered were used only for kerosene lamps – but within a decade, this vast gushing supply was driving the entire global economy. It made the 20th century – its glories, and its gutters – possible. Humans were suddenly able to use in one frenetic burst an energy supply that had taken 150 million years to build up. A species that died before the age of 40 after a life of boring, back-breaking labour spurted forward so far and so fast that today billions live into their eighties after a life of leisure and plenty.
Oil now drives everything we do. It shuttles us across the globe, we fight wars for it, and we even eat it: to farm a single cow and deliver it to slaughter burns up six barrels of oil – enough to drive from New York to LA. That's why food becomes expensive when oil becomes expensive.
It is totally understandable that most of us want to live forever in that sweet niche in history when we had seemingly infinite reservoirs of oil, and no awareness that burning it would, in time, burn us too. But, alas, we need to wake up and smell the fumes. There are three reasons why the placebos demanded by the petrol protesters and the politicians cowering from them across the world – lower taxes! find more oil! dig! burn! – are a delusion.
Reality Check One: Petrol is finite. There is a limited amount of oil in the world, and we have already burned more than 900 billion barrels of it. There is a complex scientific debate about when we will reach the point of "peak oil", when we will have used up more than half of all the supplies on earth. Some geologists think this moment has already passed. Others – mostly oil industry flunkies – think we have as long as 30 years to go. But all agree the remaining oil is harder to reach, and much of it can never be accessed.
The facts are stark. All the biggest oilfields on earth were discovered before my parents were born. The discovery of new oilfields peaked in 1965, and has been falling ever since. The last year in which humans found more oil than we burned was the year I was born: 1979.
So we have a diminishing supply – at the very moment when billions more people want access to it. Car ownership in India has trebled in the past decade, and it will treble again by 2020. In China, three-quarters of urban Chinese say they plan to buy a car in the next five years. These factors mean we are unquestionably moving from having a world with growing pools of cheap oil to dwindling supplies of expensive oil.
Reality Check Two: Even if we had infinite supplies of free petrol, we couldn't afford to use it without dramatically destabilising the climate. To use just a few examples: Spain and Australia are currently suffering their worst droughts since records began, and several cities are on the brink of running out of drinking water. The oceans are rapidly turning more acidic, to levels scientists didn't expect to see until 2050. The Arctic is now almost free of sea ice in the summer.
This is all with just one degree of global warming. The world's climatologists agree that if we burn up most of the remaining dribbles of oil on earth, we could be on course for six degrees this century. The last time the world warmed so quickly was 251 million years ago – and 95 per cent of everything on earth died.
Reality Check Three: Our addiction to oil means we can never undermine the Islamic fundamentalists who want to kill us – and often actually help them.
Most of the world's remaining oil is in the Middle East. In order to access it, we have a twin-track policy. To start with, we support the most repressive dictatorship in the region – the torturing, sharia-law enforcing House of Saud – because they keep the supply running nicely. The Saudi state then uses the money we pay at the pump to fund a vast network of extreme madrasahs and mosques across the world – including within the US and Europe – preaching that democracy is "evil", women should be subordinated, Jews are "pigs and apes", and gays should be killed. We do not query this because, as the writer Thomas Friedman put it, "junkies don't tell the truth to their dealers".
Where we cannot find a friendly local tyrant, we invade the country in order to control the oil ourselves. Even John McCain admitted this month that Iraq was about oil, arguing that energy independence would "prevent us from having ever to send our young men and women into conflict again in the Middle East." (He later claimed with a red face he was talking exclusively about the first Iraq war.)
On their own, each of these inconvenient truths would be enough to require us to begin an urgent transition away from petrol. Together, they are unanswerable.
Of course it's tempting to draw the oily covers over our head and cry for tiny little steps like cutting a few pence off petrol taxes, or squeezing out a few more barrels as Gordon Brown begged yesterday. But these measures would be at best a local anaesthetic, putting off the moment when the rapid transition to a global economy run on carbon-free energy sources must start.
The longer we delay, the harder it will be. As Paul Roberts puts in his book The End of Oil: "The real question is not whether change is going to come, but whether the shift will be peaceful and orderly or chaotic and violent because we waited too long to begin planning for it."
Every penny now should be spent not on perpetuating petrol, but on developing and disseminating alternative fuels. The addiction that began a century ago on a hill in Texas is ending – and we have no choice but to check en masse into petro-rehab.