Saturday 17 May 2008

Oil peaks and noses in troughs

Possibly as a result of the incredible inflation of oil prices, the concept of 'peak oil' is gaining recognition. Peak oil theory is based on the idea that oil production has reached its peak, and is now declining.

At one extreme, the oil and petroleum industries, and the capitalist system which is heavily dependent on oil, are in denial about peak oil. There are other factors which have led to the crazy rises in oil prices, notably the Iraq war and capitalist speculation in oil. But, even if oil production hasn't peaked yet, it is clear that - especially at its current rate of usage - the oil supply cannot last forever!

Meanwhile, some claim that peak oil will cause the end of life as we know it, leading to an end in all industrial production and to social upheaval, maybe even widespread war. (We are already seeing a war for oil in Iraq, and threats of similar oil wars in Iran and Syria). A few claim there is nothing we can do to halt the decline of society as we know it.

Yet there are several ways in which we can reduce the impact of peak oil. The most obvious is to reduce the use of private cars and transportation of goods, as I described in more detail in my earlier blog article, The road to Hell. Air travel is also very fuel hungry, and suggestions for its reduction were made in my Planes, planet and planning blog article.

For heating and electricity, we need to move towards renewable energy such as wind, wave and solar power. And to reduce our energy usage by more efficient heating, refridgeration, lighting and other equipment - for example, all TVs, videos, computers and similar electronic equipment should be designed to not need to be kept on standby. All buildings should be properly insulated to reduce the use of energy for heating. Much energy is especially wasted by businesses - shop lighting, notably neon signs, are often kept on even when the shops are closed. And lit-up advertising boards should be banned, as a needless waste of energy!

Oil does have other uses, such as plastic. There should be far more efforts made to recycle plastic, including the effective labelling of plastic types used in equipment so the plastic can be more easily recycled. Indeed, the recycling of all materials will help conserve energy, as less energy is used to recycle materials (over 90% less in the case of aluminium, for example) than to create materials from scratch. Even better, plastic or even glass bottles and other containers could be collected, cleaned and re-used. There are already efforts made to encourage recycling, such as supermarkets are now encouraging consumers to re-use carrier bags, but far more can be done, and needs to be done!

Another possibility is to look at ways in which plastics could be made from crops, in the same way that biofuels are. But biofuels etc should not be considered a substitute for using energy and resources more wisely. I have nothing in principle against biofuels (my own car is run on biodiesel), and - especially when made from recycled waste oil, eg from fish and chip shops - they can be part of the solution. But, unless our use of fuel for transport is significantly reduced, it would not be possible to grow enough crops to supply the needed amount of biofuels. Indeed, current attempts to substitute biofuels for oil without addressing the root cause of the problem (wasteful fuel consumption), are already aggravating rises in food prices - as mentioned in my Feeding us bull article. Said article also describes how we can reduce the need for oil-based fertilisers, by techniques such as crop rotation.

Whatever happens to the oil supply, we simply cannot keep using fossil fuels at the rate we are. Burning oil, gas or coal is also leading to global warming, which in turn leads to harmful climate change - from droughts and increased desertification, to violent weather and flooding. To prevent climate change destroying the planet, action is needed now!

All the measures I have described cannot be effectively delivered by capitalism. The sole aim of capitalist production is profit, and the required action to reduce energy use will hit profits. Over-production, which wastes precious resources (such as oil), is also built into the capitalist system. The only answer is to replace capitalism with a socialist system, where production is for human need not corporate greed.

So, peak oil or no peak oil, we are faced with the same stark choice - socialism or barbarism.

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