Demanding Cheaper Oil is Disastrous

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The Independent/UK

Demanding Cheaper Oil is Disastrous

The most popular cry in politics today is a pledge to deny reality and cut petrol prices. Give us our fix! Make it cheap! Make it now!

My name is Johann Hari, and I am an addict. If you restrict the supply of my drug, as has happened over the past month, I become panicky and angry. If you cut it off entirely, my life will fall apart. I want my fix, I want it cheap, and I want it now. My drug is called oil. I eat it: my food is driven to me. I wear it: my clothing is shipped and flown to me. I travel with it: on every bus, train and plane. But if I don't go to rehab soon, this addiction is going to ruin me. This is the inaugural meeting of Petroleum Anonymous. We're all going to need it now. There are four major symptoms to my addiction and yours, and in 2011 they are all getting worse.

Symptom one: unpredictable convulsions. There is a revolution happening all around the world's biggest oil-fields, and it is getting closer to the deepest pools every day. For 60 years our governments have armed, funded and fuelled tyrants in return for them pointing the petrol pump in our direction. Just as junkies will rob their mothers and mug their grannies, we have abandoned the most basic values of our societies in pursuit of cheap oil. Initially, this created the virus of jihadism. Now some of the local populations are finally rising up in a democratic spirit against their tyrants. They are being shot at by soldiers trained at Sandhurst and with weapons stamped Made in America.

Nobody knows where this revolution will stop, but today is a declared "day of rage" in Saudi Arabia. The angriest part of the population, the marginalised and abused Shia, happen to live on top of the biggest oil-fields on Earth, and can stare across a thin patch of water to see their fellow Shia rising up in Bahrain. Sixty per cent of the Saudi population is under the age of 25, yet they are governed by an 86-year-old and half-dead "King" who bans women from driving and has rape victims whipped. It seems unlikely they can be bribed, beaten and shot into submission forever.

Even a small and brief disruption in the oil supply can cause this symptom in us. Since 1973, there have been five oil price shocks – and every single one has been followed rapidly by a global recession. A Saudi uprising would be the biggest disruption yet, triggering $200-a-barrel oil and beyond. It would be like having the 1973 oil price shock just after the 1929 Great Crash – and change all our lives.

Symptom two: fever. In the century-long party since a pair of brothers first struck oil big-time in Texas, human beings have burned up 900 billion barrels of the black gloop. Each one of them has released gases into the atmosphere that have trapped more and more of the sun's heat here on Earth. The result is that, according to Nasa, 2010 was globally the hottest year ever recorded, tied with 2005. Don't be fooled by local snow: the last time it was this hot was three million years ago, when the sea level was 25 metres higher. Yes, we have a planetary fever. If we burn up all the oil that remains, we will push it way beyond current levels – or any ever seen by human beings.

Symptom three: hunger. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman says food is soaring in price across the world as a result of this man-made fever. Last year Russia's wheat crop dried out and burned down in wildfires nobody had ever seen before. It caused the global price of wheat to double, and President Dmitri Medvedev to renounce his global warming denialism.

Similarly strange things are happening across the world's most important agricultural areas. All this, in turn, helped cause the Arab revolutions. These crop failures rendered many of the Arab people unable to meet their food bills – and made them rise up in desperation.

Symptom four: denial. Petrol is finite. It takes millions of years to form under the ground: it can't be grown, or made in factories. We all know that, sooner or later, it is going to run out. But when? The last year in which humans found more oil than we burned was the year I was born: 1979. Since then, it's been a downward graph. But it may be plunging much faster than we think. The WikiLeaks cables revealed that the US suspects the Saudis have 40 per cent less oil than they claim, and that the country's supply could peak as soon as next year.

There is a shrinking pool of oil in the world – and more and more people chasing it. In China, three quarters of city-dwellers understandably say they plan to buy a car in the next five years. There is not enough for everyone.

We are going to have to make the transition to fuelling our societies by the mighty power of the sun, the wind and the waves sooner or later. The technology exists today. It can be done without us regressing to caves, or any of the other ludicrous myths pumped out by the oil lobby. George Monbiot's book Heat is a detailed roadmap of how to do it, step by step. Far from killing our economies, the work needed to build a new energy infrastructure would be a vast source of new jobs – at precisely the moment when we need a huge economic stimulus.

Every time the oil price spikes, our politicians mouth platitudes about the need to kick oil, but the change never comes. It's worth going back to the last serious proposal because it offers a tantalising "what if?".

On 18 April 1977, President Jimmy Carter delivered a televised address from the Oval Office. He said: "Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly." He said the West must wean itself off oil or "the alternative may be a national catastrophe... This difficult effort will be the moral equivalent of war – except that we will be uniting our efforts to build and not destroy."

What would the world be like today if Jimmy Carter had been listened to by the Western world, instead of being booted out of office as a "whiner"? With the US no longer backing Arab petro-tyrannies and occupying Arab territories, there would probably have been no 9/11. There would have been no Iraq war. There would have been no BP oil spill. We would not be facing an oil price shock today that could cripple our economies and leave us backing some of the worst dictators in the world.

The Copenhagen climate summit could well have established a path to dealing with global warming, rather than burying it. If we pursue Drilling As Usual, what unnecessary disasters will they curse us for 30 years from now?

Yet the most popular cry in politics today is a pledge to deny all this reality and cut petrol prices. Give us our fix! Make it cheap! Make it now! In truth we don't have a choice about whether we join Petroleum Anonymous. Our only choice is: do we do it today, or do we do it 20 or 30 years from now, on a much hotter planet, after squabbling and fighting and killing for the last pathetic dregs of petroleum.

Johann Hari

Johann Hari is a columnist for the London Independent. He has reported from Iraq, Israel/Palestine, the Congo, the Central African Republic, Venezuela, Peru and the US, and his journalism has appeared in publications all over the world. 

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