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Synthesis/Regeneration 37   (Spring 2005)

Oil Depletion, Greens, the Left (and the Left Behind)

by Patrick Eytchison

Oil Depletion, Greens, the Left (and the Left Behind) by Patrick Eytchison

The relatively rapid depletion of world oil reserves, and thus the energy base of global capitalism, will be recorded by future historians as the defining event of the present century; yet, on the whole, the “progressive” movement has to date managed to keep this fact out of its collective consciousness. This is unfortunate because peoples’ movements—on a historically significant scale—are formed only around such fundamental changes in the social forces of production

The modern progressive movement itself was formed around one social-historical event: the rise of industrialism and the conversion of rural labor into urban factory labor. However, this entire process was possible only through an underlying conversion in production, from biomass energy to fossil fuels.

This means that the form of the modern capitalist workforce, and that of modern progressivism, must be viewed historically as an aspect of the growth of fossil fuel production.

…modern progressivism must be viewed historically as an aspect of the growth of fossil fuel production.

Likewise, as fossil fuel production begins its inevitable decline, the nature of work, and of worker activism, will also inevitably undergo a fundamental change. Will the traditional left and the green movement recognize this and change with it, or will historical reality continue to be ignored by these groups, leading to their replacement by new and as yet not envisioned forms of social resistance?

The significance of oil

While oil is a commodity, it is, like grain in the feudal market, also more than a commodity. Oil is the material base of modern global production.

From the rise of the industrial factory system until World War I, capitalist production rested on an energy base of coal. During World War I, the greater mobility in battle made possible by oil initiated a rapid transition to petroleum as capitalism’s new energy force. After the war, the rise of the private automobile reinforced and expanded this transition. Between 1914 and 1930, world oil production increased from 400,000 barrels annually to 2 billion barrels, and to 27 billion by 2000.

Today, oil accounts for 40% of all world energy (coal for 24%; natural gas, 23%; hydro, 7%; nuclear, 7%; and renewable less than 1%). Oil, with natural gas, is vital to modern transportation, lubrication, power production, agriculture, fertilizers, chemical production, medicine, and plastics. Without petroleum the world’s economy would grind to a halt.

During the 200 years of the Industrial Age, world human population rose from less than 1 billion to 6.5 billion, primarily on the basis of cheap and abundant petroleum energy. Not only the world economy but human demographics is today dependent on the continued production of cheap petroleum.

Not only the world economy but human demographics is today dependent on the continued production of cheap petroleum.

But modern production levels of all fossil fuels are now entering a period of peak and decline.

Is peak oil real?

Because oil has always been considered a finite resource, there have been “depletion scares” in the past, but these have always been regional concerns. Today is the first time serious concern over a world peak in oil production has appeared, simply because for the first time the entire world has been geologically mapped for oil deposits. Most estimates are that the Earth originally contained around 1.8 trillion barrels of economically recoverable oil, and today about half of that has been consumed.

The United States, which in the 1920s produced two-thirds of the world’s oil, reached its production peak in 1971. Russia’s peak was in the 1980s. Alaska’s North Slope went past peak production in the late 1980s and today the North Sea oil fields have just gone past peak. The rate of annual new oil discoveries had already peaked by 1960 and the Caspian Sea basin was considered the world’s last hope for a major new oil find. However, Caspian hopes proved false as early as 1998. Today the only region with significant oil reserves not facing immediate production peak is the Persian Gulf, and these are all old fields showing signs of aging. Saudi Arabia, which holds the world’s largest oil reserves, has now begun massive nitrogen injections in its older fields to sustain production levels, as has Mexico. More and more, oil companies are being forced into expensive offshore and deep sea drilling, which means that more and more energy (oil) is going into the recovery of each barrel of oil.

In summary, world oil production is expected to peak at some point between now and 2020. After this, the rollover, energy will become increasingly scarce and increasingly expensive. The “world as we know it” will gradually cease to exist, and a whole new set of social-historical forces will come into play.

Won’t alternate energies save the day?

The short answer is “no.” The long answer, which is extremely technical in its details, is that oil was the nearest thing to “free energy” the human race ever found, and there is no real way to replace it.

…oil was the nearest thing to “free energy” the human race ever found, and there is no real way to replace it.

Energy must always be expended to collect energy. Energy Profit Ratio (EPR) indicates the relationship between energy expended and energy gained for any energy source. Oil’s EPR has historically been around 30 to 1, and in some oil fields as high as 100 to 1; basically all that was necessary was to dig a hole and let the energy gush up. This is almost like picking fruit off a tree.

No proposed alternate energy has anything like oil’s EPR. In terms of supporting a modern economy of the kind now enjoyed in the US, solutions such as solar panels, wind farms, hydrogen cells and biodiesel are laughable.

So what will happen?

Most likely, American capitalism will attempt to massively import liquefied natural gas, but world natural gas production itself is expected to peak shortly after oil. There will be attempts to revive nuclear power but the construction of nuclear plants depends on massive inputs of oil-derived energy. In the end, coal will be the only (capitalist) solution. At present use rates, there is enough coal in the world to last another 250 years. If coal is substituted for present oil and natural gas use, this figure is cut to 50 years, and if population increase is taken into account, then it’s cut to 25 years. Whatever happens, the sure thing is that except for a small group of powerful and wealthy people, the level of energy consumption (and thus standard of living) for the average American will drop drastically.

What can be done?

Realistically, the first step for Greens is to stop thinking about alternate energy solutions. At this point such plans are essentially reformist fantasies. New technologies will only become real as new social forms are created, which can hardly be predicted in advance. The first step for the left is to admit that energy is of fundamental social importance.

The second step is to tell the truth about oil depletion to average Americans—the people who will hurt, starve, die, or be reduced to peon-like labor in a new, low-energy world if they are not organized to defend their own class interests.

Finally, it will be of crucial importance to organize opposition to a coal economy.

The massive burning of coal, even for 25 years, may risk setting off feedback loops between atmosphere, earth and oceans which could heat the earth’s surface past the possibility for human survival.

Beyond this, speculation and social blueprints are pointless. Societies evolve in ways that cannot be predicted and movements build themselves as they face necessity

Patrick Eytchison lives in Eureka, CA. He is a retired social worker and is active in the Eureka Greens and the Greens/Green Party USA

[25 mar 05]

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