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Pacific Ecologist

Pacific Ecologist 14 Winter 2007

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Bringing the global economy down to earth

PEaK OIL, GLoBAL WaRMiNG, PEAk OiL, GLoBal WARmiNG; POLLUTioN, DEplEtIoN, PoLLutiON, DEPleTion… The words clatter like wheels on the runaway express train of industrial consumer society, accelerating into a chaotic abyss of our own making. Peak oil, unlike global warming, is barely under discussion, let alone being addressed by governments or societies. Yet as Lester Brown says, it’s “one of the great fault-lines in the history of civilisation,” p.22. Lack of engagement by leaders on this key matter is bizarre, as the global economy’s free market and free trade societies, with their insistence on ever-growing economies, require increasing use of finite fossil fuels. But the clear fact is, the faster the consumer express goes, the faster finite energy resources firing the global economy are depleted.

A news release late June from the Worldwatch Institute highlights the unreality of the situation. Globally, car production grew by 4% last year, putting more cars on roads than ever before, a record 67 million vehicles in 2006. “The U.S. fleet is the heaviest in 3 decades, even as gas prices soar,” p.29. Currently, alternative technologies, another report states, supply about 1% of U.S. petroleum consumption, so an imminent oil peak and sharp decline could cause a worldwide recession. A Swedish scientist estimates peak oil could occur at worst next year, 2008, or at best in 2018. Another expert, Royal Dutch Shell chief executive, Jeroen van der Veer, estimates “easy” oil has already passed its peak, p.19.

An alternative method of fuel production, being heavily promoted in the U.S., the EU and Brazil as a solution to global warming, is biodiesel from grain crops. A result of the recent huge diversion of U.S. corn to produce fuel for cars instead of food for people, has been rising food prices in Mexico, China, India and the U.S., p.26. As Lester Brown notes: “The stage is now set for direct competition for grain between the 800 million people who own automobiles, and the world’s 2 billion poorest people.” Will people go hungry because crops are feeding cars instead of people?

Robert Hirsch, in a 2005 report for the U.S. Department of Energy, said peak oil is a problem like none other, p.18. “Prudent risk management demands urgent attention and early action.” But where are the plans globally or nationally among governments to meet this great challenge? Will peak oil catch all countries unaware? Cuba is one country which has already met its peak oil admirably, after the collapse of the Soviet bloc which previously provided it with cheap oil. It faced starvation in the early 1990s with a trade embargo lead by its foe, the U.S., but Cuba under Castro’s leadership moved quickly organising neighbourhoods around their communities, pp.53–58.

Modern industrial societies are now terrifyingly at risk with their huge dependence on fast-vanishing energy resources. Of great concern is the vulnerability of our agricultural-food systems, which have become increasingly dependent on fossil fuel resources, pp.4–28, with potential for causing mass starvation in many, if not all countries. It’s time to pull the emergency signal and stop the express train to destruction. Achieving food security in the peak oil era is an urgent political priority, as Caroline Lucas says, p.22. Trade and food policies must change to just, environmentally-sound food security projects for all nations, focussing on self-reliance and reduced energy use.

Another excellent strategy setting a sustainable path is provided by Ian T Dunlop, former senior international oil, gas and coal industry executive. Mr Dunlop’s integrated strategy for addressing peak oil and climate change in Australia can inspire all countries, pp.40–45. Employing three policies – the equity principles of contraction and convergence, setting up a system of Tradeable Energy Quotas and the Oil Depletion Protocol – this plan could reduce Australia’s emissions by 90% by 2050. Binding emission reduction targets and an oil descent budget will smooth the transition to sustainability as equitably as possible. “Short-term political or corporate expediency is no longer acceptable,” says Dunlop. Bipartisan cooperation is essential with action needed in the next 6–12 months. There’s no time to lose to learn to live sustainably with the biological realities of planet earth and to stop the consumer express crashing on the line to collapse. —KAY WEIR