Johann Hari: The world must end its addiction to oil

Posted by Kendall Harmon

This week, a battalion of angry addicts brought London to a standstill. They snarled up the traffic, then marched on 10 Downing Street to demand their fix at prices they can afford. Across the world, in countries as different as the US and Iran, fellow junkies are rising up in rage. Their addiction is to a gloopy black drug called petrol – and we are all about to go cold turkey.

In the past seven years, the price of oil has soared from $30 (£15) a barrel to $140. By the end of next year it could be at $200. No matter how much we plead or howl at our governments, it will never go back: the final act of the Age of Oil has begun.

The era that is ending began at 10.30am on 10 January 1901, on a high hill called Spindletop in south-eastern Texas. A pair of pioneer brothers managed to drill down into the biggest oilfield ever found. Until then, the dribbles of oil that had been discovered were used only for kerosene lamps – but within a decade, this vast gushing supply was driving the entire global economy. It made the 20th century – its glories, and its gutters – possible. Humans were suddenly able to use in one frenetic burst an energy supply that had taken 150 million years to build up. A species that died before the age of 40 after a life of boring, back-breaking labour spurted forward so far and so fast that today billions live into their eighties after a life of leisure and plenty.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchGlobalization* Economics, PoliticsEnergy, Natural Resources

Posted May 29, 2008 at 9:03 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. physician without health wrote:

This is a nice piece.  Thank you for sharing it.

May 29, 10:23 pm | [comment link]
2. AnglicanFirst wrote:

This fact was ‘brought home’ to us by OPEC in 1973.

Resolving our national energy problem has been an obvious strategic priority for 35 years.  However, our politicians, of both parties, have shown no concerted leadership in this area.  That is, the people whom we have elected to serve us in the legislative and executive branches of government have failed us.

So, in the end, our strategic energy problem has been caused by the failure of the electorate to vote for leaders who have a sense of our strategic priorities and the personal/political courage to take realistic and effective actions required to reduce/remove our energy vulnerability.

May 29, 10:55 pm | [comment link]
3. aldenjr wrote:

When was the last Secretary of Energy someone that knew anything about energy?

May 29, 11:04 pm | [comment link]
4. Sidney wrote:

It will all be settled by a huge world war where the winners will get the oil that’s left.

I wish there were a better future but human beings don’t have it in them.

May 29, 11:14 pm | [comment link]
5. whtheus wrote:

The one piece to all this hand-wringing about oil is why do we use it at all.  The answer is that oil, in all its derivitives, is the most efficient supplier of power, medicines, plastics, etc, known. It gives mankind mobility, a longer day, and improved general well-being.  Dare I mention little things like plastics, aspirin, telephones, TV, airplanes and all the other things we take for granted?  Without oil we would be consigned to the world of the 18th century or ealier.  A species with a life span of 40 years if it was lucky after a “life of backbreaking toil and labor.”  A species consigned to small villages where travel meant serious effort to make 40 miles a day.  The adventurers were the ones who had traveled more than 100 miles from their birthplace. We can yearn for a simpler life but only if we are willing to give up the conveniences that an oil based world economy gives us. 

Oil has its problems and dangers and we have learned to deal with them but until we are ready to deal with the next generation of energy sources involving nuclear and hydrogen energy we are consigning our children, grandchildren, indeed all future generations, to some form of pre-18th century existance. The point is that we can bitch about the evils of oil all we want but until we are ready to move on to something better we are stuck.  Wind and Solar are, at best, no more than 5% of the total energy we need to keep our world running and neither can function without the underlying technology of oil.

May 30, 2:33 am | [comment link]
6. rugbyplayingpriest wrote:

hmmm I sometimes wonder if another option already exists but it is not in the financial interests of the worlds most powerful people to divulge!

May 30, 5:06 am | [comment link]
7. Katherine wrote:

Fear not, ye prophets of doom!  American ingenuity is already at work:  Sapphire Energy turns algae into ‘green crude’ for fuel.

If this isn’t the solution, the real one is sure to come soon.  Meanwhile, the higher prices are forcing conservation.

May 30, 7:10 am | [comment link]
8. William P. Sulik wrote:

aldenjr wrote:

When was the last Secretary of Energy someone that knew anything about energy?

Ummm, the current one?  Samuel W. Bodman has a B.S. in chemical engineering from Cornell University; a Sc.D. in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also was an Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT for 6 years.

Now, you may disagree with his policies or his effectiveness, but you can’t claim he doesn’t know anything about energy.

May 30, 8:24 am | [comment link]
9. David Fischler wrote:

In the past seven years, the price of oil has soared from $30 (£15) a barrel to $140. By the end of next year it could be at $200. No matter how much we plead or howl at our governments, it will never go back: the final act of the Age of Oil has begun.

I believe that similar notions were expressed in 1973 and 1979. When inflation is factored in, the price now while high, is not completely out of line. And with the price better reflecting current cost of production as well as demand, it can be expected that greater production will be on the way (if governments don’t stand in the doorway). There’s a lot of this kind of apocalyptic hysteria around today; Hari’s piece is only today’s version of it.

May 30, 11:00 am | [comment link]
10. Rodney Pumas wrote:

Wait a minute. “today billions live into their eighties after a life of leisure and plenty”??? That is patently false. There are not even one billion octogenarians in the entire world. If the author can’t get that common-sense fact correct, then why should we listen to him about the timetable for “peak oil”? There is a relatively simple solution to all this; to wit: safe clean nuclear power. Build enough pebble bed reactors and everybody could be driving electric cars. About all we’d need petroleum for would be jet fuel and (for a while) diesel trains and ships.

May 30, 11:01 am | [comment link]
11. Andrew717 wrote:

Reminds of a piece I read a couple years back, started out like the usual “Peak Oil” stuff.  But after a while it became apparent the subject was whale oil, and the problem of declining numbers of whales.  Into the breach stepped the cutting edge technology of kerosene.

There are many billions to be made by solving this problem, so I’m sure someone will.  There are a great many very interesting ideas being pursued, including bio-engineered bacteria which produce petroleum as a waste product.  An exciting time.

May 30, 11:46 am | [comment link]
12. libraryjim wrote:

whtheus is right.

It’s only an addiction where there is an alternative, and one can do without it.  Binging on chocolate or alcohol is an addiction.  Being hooked on drugs is an addiction.

Having to eat is not an addiction. 

Petrolium use is not an addiction, as there is NO viable alternative available at the present time.  For our society to function, we need oil and all its by-products.  This computer is manufactured using plastics from petrolium.  The ink in my pen is oil based.  The toner in my printer also.

May 30, 12:15 pm | [comment link]
13. Philip Snyder wrote:

We could go to nuclear fission for fuel - except the left/liberals don’t want nuclear power.
We could go to wind generation to suppliment the coal and oil fired generators - except liberal enviornmentalists don’t want the generators hurting the birds or spoiling the scenic views of the ocean.
We tried growing fuel and that just cause a food shortage.
Solar power is not quite there yet, but I’m sure that the environmentalists will find something wrong with the generation of solar power or with how the solar cells are manufactured.

What we need is an energy source that does nothing to the environment, is renewable and doesn’t spoil Ted Kennedy’s view at Cape Cod. 

Phil Snyder

May 30, 3:35 pm | [comment link]
14. tgs wrote:

Drill Here, Drill Now appeals to me much more than this radical environmental silliness.

May 30, 8:17 pm | [comment link]
15. aldenjr wrote:

#8 My apologies to Secretary Bodman.  Of course he knows energy.  It was a dumb thing to say, but was framed from my 15 years experience in Washington, DC when the previous three Energy Secretaries were politicians and not energy experts.  I do feel strongly that Presidents need to appoint serious energy people in order to be most informed about all the alternative ways we can develop energy resources.  The Energy Secretary is one of the more important cabinet positions.

May 30, 9:36 pm | [comment link]
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