Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Life in a Post-Carbon World

by Nicholas von Hoffman

The Nation Online (August 15 2006)

A few weeks ago the Right Honourable Edmund John Philip Browne, Baron Browne of Madingley, took part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the presidents of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Lord Browne is a president, also. His domain is BP Oil, a corporation of more economic importance than Azerbaijan or Georgia, postage-stamp countries in the Caucasus known, if known at all, as Joseph Stalin's native land.

The opening of a new pipeline to carry the crude of the Caspian Sea basin to the oil-worried Western world was the reason for these worthies gathering together. All four presidents have their problems, but only Browne's are worthy of global attention.

BP has been experiencing a series of mishaps to refineries, pumping platforms and, most recently, a small but significant leak of Alaska's Prudhoe Bay oilfield pipeline. There is also the American government's accusation that BP has been doing impermissible things to manipulate the price of propane gas to its advantage. But not to worry if you are a BP stockholder: Profits are up thirty percent over this time last year.

Whenever something happens to BP, good or bad, the world's oil markets react up or down - which might lead you to think that Baron Browne of Madingley controlled the fate of the world. He does not, although he is certainly in a position to cash in on it. There are facts at work that not even an oil baron can change.

The big fact is that the major oilfields around the globe are getting tired and are in decline. In due course, unless somebody finds a lot of undiscovered oil, Browne and his corporate confreres will have an ever-diminishing amount of oil to sell at an ever-increasing price. Additional assistance in driving up the price of oil may come from politicians in the United States and Great Britain and Israel. Since 9/11, prices at the pump have doubled. If these three countries go ahead with their hearts' desire, an attack on Iran, gasoline at $7 a gallon sounds about right.

Because more people (China and India) with more money want more of a lessening supply of oil, prices will go into zoom mode before long. But how long is before long? It could be three years, it could be ten or it could be fifteen years - or just when your grandchildren will be going to college or hitting the job market.

For all kinds of reasons, the age of cheap, plentiful oil is coming to a rapid close. And that is a greater, surer and more profound threat to Western civilization as we know it than Al Qaeda multiplied by a hundred. It is well to remember that all the Islamo - fastisto - terroristico - jihadi - fanaticos can only blow up a skyscraper full of people or crash a passenger airliner or incinerate 400 people on a subway train or even get lucky and take out a few more doing their Sunday shopping at the mall with a dirty bomb.

We can survive that. We can do better than survive that; we can probably prosper. Remember 9/11. Unless somebody you knew was in the building or your business was affected, that horrific event left little more than a blip on the economic radar screen.

Compare that as a threat to the day when oil flows become lethargic oil drips. Then the passenger airliners will be inoperative, the skyscrapers will be emptied for lack of power to run them and the malls will be deserted because there will be insufficient gasoline to get to them - and they will have little to sell.

Currently one of the big debates in the energy field is what will occur if and when all the oil is used up and we find ourselves in what is being called the "post-carbon age". That's a debate for geologists, economists and think tankeroos. But there is no debate over the steadily increasing price of oil, which is certain to double, triple, quadruple in years to come.

The economic and therefore the political consequences, even if we are somewhat prepared, will be shocking in ways only a few presently understand. Most of us have been nurtured to believe that after a few adjustments are made by way of "energy conservation" and the "miracle of technology", we shall be on our merry way as before. We buy it when George Bush remarks, almost absent-mindedly, that America is addicted to oil but that he and his allies have the biofuel methadone needed to kick the habit. Well, methadone doesn't work on heroin junkies, and it won't work on oil junkies either.

If we are to survive, much less prosper, in a time when oil will vie in price with Cristal, we must not only think outside the box; we must get rid of the box. We must do something Americans have never imagined: Give up on economic growth. We must abandon the long-held idea that we can grow our way out of every problem, that growth is the path to achieve every national goal.

In the post-carbon age, growth will be anathema. We can start with population. The United States is already the third most populous nation in the world behind India and China, both of which have long since understood that infinite population growth is the road to the poor house.

Three hundred million Americans, which is more or less our present size, are already using oil at a rate that cannot be sustained. The American Dream is a petroleum dream, a high-energy dream, an oil dream, a gas dream, an electric dream and, of course, a carbon dioxide nightmare.

It won't happen at all if we, as a people, continue to cling to the idea that the American way is simply more, fatter and bigger. The growth model of more jobs, higher production and "sky is the limit" profits is going to end, whether or not we plan for it.

We can begin to move from being the Can Do Society to the Make Do Society. It means, at the minimum, that our apples will no longer be grown in Chile and our underwear will no longer be manufactured in Indonesia. Beyond that it means that businesses that are dependent on the use of staggering amounts of energy, like Wal-Mart, will either have to redesign themselves or enter the history books.

It means that while America can still be the home of the free and the brave, the free and the brave are not going to be living a life of waste and excess. The old model is out of date. Either we start working on a new one right now or in too short a time the free and the brave will be fighting one another for a whiff of air-conditioning in the summer or a place by the fire on the cold nights to come.


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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