iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Johann Hari

Johann Hari

GET UPDATES FROM Johann Hari

When We Demand Cheap Gasoline, We Are Demanding Disaster

Posted: 03/10/11 09:20 PM ET

My name is Johann Hari, and I am an addict. If you restrict the supply of my drug -- as has happened over the past month -- I become panicky and angry. If you cut it off entirely, my life will fall apart. I want my fix, I want it cheap, and I want it now. My drug is called gasoline. I eat it: My food is driven to me. I wear it: My clothing is shipped and flown to me. I travel with it: on every bus, train and plane. But if I don't go to rehab soon, this addiction is going to ruin me. This is the inaugural meeting of Petroleum Anonymous. We're all going to need it now.

There are four major symptoms to my addiction and yours, and in 2011 they are all getting worse.

Symptom one: unpredictable convulsions. There is a revolution happening all around the world's biggest oilfields, and it is getting closer to the deepest pools every day. For 60 years our governments have armed, funded and fueled tyrants, in return for them pointing the petrol pump in our direction. Just as junkies will rob their mothers and mug their grannies, we have abandoned the most basic values of our societies in pursuit of cheap oil. Initially, this created the virus of jihadism. Now some of the local populations are finally rising up in a democratic spirit against their tyrants. They are being shot at by soldiers trained in Britain's leading military academy, Sandhurst, and with weapons stamped Made in America.

Nobody knows where this revolution will stop, but today is a declared "day of rage" in Saudi Arabia, which has the biggest remaining supplies of oil in the world. The angriest part of the population, the marginalized and abused Shia, happen to live on top of the biggest oilfields, and can stare across a thin patch of water to see their fellow Shia rising up in Bahrain. Sixty percent of the Saudi population is under the age of 25, yet they are governed by an 86-year-old and half-dead "King" who bans women from driving and has rape victims whipped. It seems unlikely they can be bribed, beaten and shot into submission forever.

Even a small and brief disruption in the oil supply can cause this symptom in us. Since 1973, there have been five oil price shocks -- and every single one has been followed rapidly by a global recession. A Saudi uprising would be the biggest disruption yet, triggering $200 a barrel oil and beyond. It would be like having the 1973 oil price shock just after the 1929 Great Crash -- and change all our lives.

Symptom two: fever. In the century-long party since a pair of brothers first struck oil big-time in Texas, human beings have burned up 900 billion barrels of the black gloop. Each one of them has released gases into the atmosphere that have trapped more and more of the Sun's heat here on earth. The result is that, according to NASA, 2011 was globally the hottest year ever recorded, tied with 2005. Don't be fooled by local snow. The last time it was this hot was three million years ago, when sea level was 25 meters higher. Yes, we have a planetary fever. If we burn up all the oil that remains, we will push it way beyond current levels - or any ever seen by human beings.

Symptom three: hunger. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman says food is soaring in price across the world as a result of this man-made fever. Last year Russia's wheat crop dried out and burned down in wildfires nobody had ever seen before. It caused the global price of wheat to double, and President Dmitry Medvedev to renounce his global warming denialism. Strange things are happening across the world's most important agricultural areas: Brazil is drying out, Australia had a drought and then a Biblical flood, and so on. While it's hard to attribute any individual event to warming, this pattern is precisely what the world's scientists predicted.

All this, in turn, helped cause the Arab revolutions. In the 1780s, there was a natural crop failure in Europe -- and the starving people had little choice but to rise up, in the French revolution. In a similar way, these crop failures today rendered many of the Arab people unable to meet their food bills -- and triggered their uprising. If we keep cooking the climate, there will be many more, with consequences we can't predict.

Symptom four: denial. Petrol is finite. It takes millions of years to form under the ground: It can't be grown, or made in factories. We all know that, sooner or later, it is going to run out. But when? The last year in which humans found more oil than we burned was the year I was born: 1979. Since then, it's been a downward graph. But it may be plunging much faster than we think. The WikiLeaks cables revealed that the U.S. suspects the Saudis have 40 percent less oil than they claim, and that the country's supply could peak as soon as next year. We already know that Russia, which currently produces as much as the Saudis, will run out by 2020, and Nigeria will run out five years later.

We have a shrinking pool of oil in the world -- and more and more people chasing it. In China, three-quarters of city-dwellers understandably say they plan to buy a car in the next five years. There is not enough for everyone.

We are going to have to kick this addiction sooner or later. We all know that. We are going to have to make the transition to fueling our societies by the mighty power of the sun, the wind and the waves. The technology exists today. It can be done without us regressing to caves, or any of the other ludicrous myths pumped out by the oil lobby. George Monbiot's book Heat is a detailed roadmap of how to do it, step-by-step. Far from killing our economies, the massive work needed to change energy sources would be a vast source of jobs -- at precisely the moment when we need a huge economic stimulus.

Every time the oil price spikes, our politicians mouth platitudes about the need to kick oil, but the change never comes. It's worth going back to the last serious proposal -- because it offers a tantalizing "what if." On April 18, 1977, President Jimmy Carter delivered a televised address from the Oval Office. He said:

Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly." He said the West must wean itself off oil or "the alternative may be a national catastrophe... This difficult effort will be the moral equivalent of war -- except that we will be uniting our efforts to build and not destroy.


What would the world be like today Jimmy Carter had been listened to by the Western world, instead of being demonized by Big Oil and booted out of office as a "whiner"? With the U.S. no longer backing Arab petro-tyrannies and occupying Arab territories, there would probably have been no 9/11. There would have been no Iraq War. There would have been no BP oil spill. We would not be facing an oil price shock today that could cripple our economies and leave backing some of the worst dictators in the world. The Copenhagen climate summit could well have established a path to dealing with global warming, rather than burying it. If we pursue Drilling As Usual, what unnecessary disasters will they curse us for 30 years from now?

Yet the most popular cry in politics today is a pledge to deny all this reality and cut petrol prices. Give us our fix! Make it cheap! Make it now! This isn't motivated by malice or stupidity: People have a lot to worry about, and lots of bills to pay. But it is shortsighted. When we demand our governments give us cheaper gas, we are -- usually unwittingly -- demanding they give more money and arms to some of the worst dictators in the world, invade more countries, create more hatred of us, and ramp up global warming. That is, ultimately, the only way it can be done.

We don't have a choice about whether we join Petroleum Anonymous. Our only choice is: Do we do it today, or do we do it 20 or 30 years from now, on a much hotter planet, after squabbling and fighting and killing for the last pathetic dregs of petroleum?

Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here or here. You can email him at j.hari [at] independent.co.uk

Johann Hari has a new podcast! You can subscribe via i-Tunes or click here.

 

Follow Johann Hari on Twitter: www.twitter.com/johannhari101