Oil may be achieving a new impact on daily news, people’s pocketbooks and world history — perhaps even the end of history and the world.
Cover stories in magazines this month include: “After Oil: Powering the Future” in National Geographic; “Crossroads for Planet Earth,” a special issue of Scientific American; and “The Beginning of the End of Oil?” in The New York Times Sunday Magazine.
The articles warn about dire consequences for humanity and life on earth if current energy policies are not changed in the immediate future.
Some people are paying far more dearly for oil than most of us are forced to pay at the gas pumps.
They are the soldiers wounded and killed every day fighting in Iraq in an increasingly irresponsible, and ultimately futile, effort to protect “our” supplies of oil in the Middle East.
Michael T. Klare, a sociologist and foreign affairs expert who teaches at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., warns that we must change our energy policies dramatically in his readable new book, “Blood and Oil.”
We, the taxpayers, are already footing the bills to maintain military bases across the globe. But politicians and the news media rarely mention those bills as hidden costs for oil.
Part of those costs come from propping up corrupt, often brutal, regimes in “oil-besotted potentates” in the Persian Gulf to Central Asian republics, from Russia to Angola, from Nigeria to Colombia.
“Ultimately, the cost of oil will be measured in blood,” Klare writes. And it could get worse as nations like China and India industrialize and demand more and more fuel.
“The American military is being used more and more for the protection of overseas oil fields and the supply routes that connect them to the United States and its allies,” Klare writes. “Slowly but surely, the U.S. military is being converted into a global oil-protection service.”
And it is becoming increasingly difficult, Klare argues, “to distinguish U.S. military operations designed to fight terrorism from those designed to protect energy assets.”
Our national addiction to oil and other fossil fuels, including coal, has grown since World War II. But our policies became disastrously worse after George W. Bush moved into the White House in 2001.
Disturbing statistics come from the administration’s own studies, such as the May 2001 report, National Energy Policy.
Between 2000 and 2020, domestic oil production will drop by 18 percent, from 8.5 million to 7.0 million barrels a day.
During those same years, U.S. oil consumption will grow by 31 percent, from 19.5 million to 25.5 million barrels a day.
Centcom Commander General Tommy Franks, now retired, testified in 2002 that 68 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves are in the Persian Gulf region and 43 percent of world petroleum exports pass through the Straits of Hormuz, between Iran and the United Arab Emirates.
Finite supplies of oil may be the biggest, but not the only, problem.
The Middle East lives in constant turmoil, exemplified by the Arab-Israeli conflict since the end of World War II, corrupt rulers in nations like Saudi Arabia and growing terrorist groups.
Many of those nations suffer burgeoning social and economic problems at home, Klare shows.
For example, Saudi Arabia’s population exploded from 3.2 million in 1950 to 21.7 million in 2002. It is projected to reach 40 million by 2025.
In 2002, 75 percent of all Saudis were younger than 30 and 50 percent were under 18. Such a high concentration of young people helped drop per capita income from $28,600 in 1981 to just $6,800 in 2001.
Is the price of oil — in economic, military, political and moral costs — really worth it?
Some Americans say yes. “This, indeed, is the essence of the Bush administration’s energy policy, which calls for maximizing our petroleum supply at any price,” Klare writes.
Other Americans, with different fundamental values, say no. Those values, including “the safety of our young men and women in uniform, take precedence over material advantage.... A strategy that relies on the use of military force to slake our thirst for cheap petroleum is a strategy we cannot afford.”
If we continue to depend on oil, Klare concludes, “all that is certain is that we will pay for it with an increasing sacrifice of blood.”
David Goodstein focuses on energy production more than foreign policy. In “Out of Gas,” he poses the dilemma facing the world.
“Obviously we have unintentionally created a trap for ourselves. We will, so to speak, run out of gas. There is no question about that. There’s only a finite amount left in the tank. When will it happen?”
Before the 1950s, oil geologists generally hooted down any suggestions that new oil discoveries could not go on forever, Goodstein writes.
In 1956, M. King Hubbert, a geophysicist for Shell Oil Co., predicted the rate at which oil was produced in the Lower 48 states would peak around 1970, then fall rapidly. He was right.
Today, geologists predict the world will reach Hubbert’s Peak for oil production in the next 10 years.
Hubbert’s followers believe the real crisis will come not when the last drop of oil is produced, but when that peak is reached and oil production starts to decline. The crisis will be huge when it comes, since there is an ever-increasing demand for oil every year.
Goodstein sees no clear solution to the impending crisis. But it must include a major combination of nuclear and solar power, with minimal contributions from hydropower and wind power.
Goodstein does not mince words. He predicts the world will soon face very difficult times.
But “we Americans are profligate users of energy,” while our leaders are “reluctant even to acknowledge that there’s a problem,” he writes.
Klare and Goodstein also mention increasing dangers from global warming, generated by burning fossil fuels.
This pending disaster is detailed in a third recently published book, “Boiling Point.”
“The climate crisis is far more than just an environmental issue. It is a civilizational issue,” author Ross Gelbspan writes.
We must cut our use of carbon-based fossil fuels by 70 percent in the near future to save the Earth. It has already begun falling apart, piece by piece.
Polar icecaps break up, mountaintop glaciers melt and our oceans get warmer and warmer.
“The solution to the climate crisis involves a high-stakes battle with big coal, big oil and the immense financial resources and political levers at their disposal,” Gelbspan warns.
Solutions must be drastic and they must come soon. It just might already be too late to save our Earth.
And oil, the driving force behind the coming disaster, will run out.
“It may not happen for 10, 15 or 20 years,” Klare writes. “But it will happen.”
Goodstein warns, “Civilization as we know it will come to an end sometime in this century unless we can find a way to live without fossil fuels.”
Most of us alive today will live to see the consequences. All of our young children will.