Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Honey, We Killed the Planet

by Nicholas von Hoffman

The Nation Online (August 30 2006)

God and/or the cosmos may be infinite, but nothing else is. Hence it is a lead-pipe certainty that human beings are going to run out of oil. The only question is when.

There is no agreement on this, but forty years from now is often cited as the moment when the world's pipelines will go gurgle, gurgle, glug and nothing will come out except a gasping sound. More likely, there will still be some oil around in 2046, but you and I will not be able to afford it.

As the end of oil approaches, the price of this commodity, which was once sold for ten cents a barrel, will approximate the current price of beluga caviar. Beluga, of course, comes from the roe of the sturgeon, a fish once abundant in the Caspian Sea. Thanks to the unbridled appetite of caviar lovers, and those who catch and sell it, the fish has all but disappeared. But even if its admirers had shown some self-restraint, it would not have mattered because the Caspian Sea itself is in the process of vanishing, thanks to all manner of environmental rape and pillaging.

It follows that long after the gas stations of America close down and the cars that once filled up at them have been converted to garden pergolas and jungle gyms for the wee ones, a few absurdly rich people will still have some oil or gasoline. It will have become so expensive by then that they will keep it in their wine cellars next to their bottles of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. Thus, in the strictest sense we will never, as simple-minded optimists insist, run out of oil.

And speaking of the simple-minded, millions of Americans may agree with our President when he discourses on the subject. Herewith, a recent presidential effusion on the topic:

"I've been talking about gas prices ever since they got high, starting with this - look, I understand gas prices are like a hidden tax. Not a hidden tax, it's a tax - it's taking money out of people's pockets. I know that. All the more reason for us to diversify away from crude oil. That's not going to happen overnight. We passed a law that encouraged consumption through different purchasing habits, like hybrid vehicles - you buy a hybrid, you get a tax credit. We've encouraged the spread of ethanol as an alternative to crude oil. We have asked for Congress to pass regulatory relief so we can build more refineries to increase the supply of gasoline, hopefully taking the pressure off of price. And so the strategy is to recognize that dependency upon crude oil is - in a global market affects us economically here at home, and therefore, we need to diversify away as quickly as possible."

Ignore the nonsense about the price of gas being a tax. A price is a price. The bumble-tongued man meant to say he passed a law discouraging, not encouraging, consumption. He didn't. Nobody did and nobody ever has. As for ethanol being a crude oil substitute, try heating your home with it. Try making the million and one materials and compounds made from an oil feedstock. There is no full substitute for oil on this planet, none that we know of anyhow, and we are running out of the stuff. If you are a Gloomy Gus, you believe the end of oil is practically tomorrow; if you are a Happy Harriet, you believe the day when the oil stops flowing is a couple of generations in the future. If you are a Republican, you believe there is one other thing in the universe besides the Creative Designer that is infinite.

Have it any way you want, we are roughly in the position we were in thirty years ago when scientists first started telling us that the carbon dioxide we are putting in the air would slowly cook us into extinction. They begged us to cut back on the use of oil, coal and natural gas.

Nothing was done. In government and big-business circles, which are more or less the same thing, the prevailing opinion was that the greenhouse hypothesis was just that, a hypothesis, something yet to be proven beyond any sensible argument to the contrary. The sensible and safe course of action would have been to start a major effort in cutting back on the use of oil, gas and coal, even without final proof if for no other reason than it would have made the air more breathable.

Such a program would have been a plus, regardless of whether or not the greenhouse hypothesis had been proven. Nothing was done, and to the bitter satisfaction of the scientists who warned us, the world's temperature is now going up faster than a sick baby's.

We are thirty or so years farther down the road and hotter, with a similar set of decisions to make about energy conservation. Maybe the end-of-oil hypothesis will prove false, maybe the technology genie will invent a nontoxic, cheap oil substitute, thus enabling every man, woman and adolescent in America to drive around in a Hummer. Even so, a major conservation effort is in order if only for ecological and environmental reasons.

That is not going to happen: The preponderance of political power is held by men and women over the age of forty, who will probably not live long enough to suffer the terrifying changes that will come to a country unprepared for the end of the Age of Carbon.

May the infinite God help Americans under the age of forty. As matters stand now they can look forward to a frightening future. It will be a future the older people did nothing to prepare them for or to prevent.

The young people must look to themselves to avoid what's coming to them. They don't have much time, and they don't have much training. They have been brought up on the slogans of "fun first" and "if you can't be anything else, be cool". At the rate they're going, they're not only going to be cool, they're going to be freezing.


Nicholas von Hoffman is the author of A Devil's Dictionary of Business, now in paperback (Nation Books, 2006). He is a Pulitzer Prize losing author of thirteen books, including Citizen Cohn (Doubleday, 1988), and a columnist for the New York Observer.

Bill Totten


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