03/23/2011 11:07 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In a Life Without Oil, What Hope Is There for North Africa and the Middle East?

People are waking up all over North Africa and the Middle East after years of repression. Suddenly, dramatically, from Morocco to Iran, people are saying "enough" and are rising up against their illegitimate leaders. Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt for more than three decades; Muammar Gadhafi has dominated Libya for more than four. It is heartening to see people rebel against their anachronistic monarchies and dictators. Change is coming to the region as people fight to replace despots with democracies they hope reflect their sovereign will.

There is great risk and immediate danger, especially in Libya. There are also many places -- Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Iran, to name a few -- where entrenched regimes desperately seek to extinguish any sparks of rebellion before they kindle into new hotspots. We do not yet know the extent of the political changes that these waves will bring, but they are sweeping, and they offer great hope to millions of people.

Before we get too dizzy over these events we must recognize that we are ignoring the elephant in the room, or rather, the herd of elephants stampeding this region. Few understand or acknowledge the deeper causes of the current political explosion, leaving us unable to address the structural changes that will be required when the storm of political upheaval subsides. What is the motive for this revolutionary wind blowing across North Africa and the Middle East?

The explanation seems obvious enough: people have had enough of their so-called leaders. This is undoubtedly true, but exposes only the first layer of problems. Beneath this immediate explanation lies a second layer: the people of North Africa and the Middle East are struggling. Their illegitimate leaders have been illegitimate for decades, but things are different now. People are finding it harder to survive amid soaring unemployment and food prices. Political repression might work when leaders can deliver a sufficiently stable and prosperous society, but the leaders in the region have simply failed to deliver. They are being booted out not just for their inhumanity, but also for their incompetence. The hope, then, is that more competent leaders, chosen by the people, can emerge from the rubble and bring prosperity along with democracy. Beyond this is a more profound, more intractable, third layer of deep-seated afflictions. Beneath the problems of food prices, unemployment and other economic woes lurk the elephants in the room: oil depletion, water shortages, failing agriculture, and soaring populations.

Many countries in the Middle East have built their entire existence around oil, so they are the most vulnerable to declines in oil. When production was rising, people could be satisfied by the distribution of smatterings of oil wealth to public services. But most nations have already passed their peak in oil output and are now seeing production flatten and fall. They will eventually realize how little of the oil has been invested in preparations for a post-oil future.

Oil production peaked in Libya, Kuwait, Iran and Iraq in the 1970s. Tunisia, a minor producer, hit its maximum in the 1980s. Egypt and Syria, both secondary producers, topped out in the 1990s. The past decade saw the ceiling for Oman and Yemen. Saudi Arabia -- oil central -- will pass its zenith this decade, as will Algeria. The only nations in the Middle East with growing yields are the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Middle Eastern governments are among the first dominoes to be toppled by diminishing oil production. As these dominoes continue to tumble, no country or region will be immune to the effects of falling oil production over the next few decades.

As the countries of North Africa and the Middle East eventually wake up to the realities of life without oil they will also have to face the terrifying lack of any fallback position. The region is already overpopulated, but it will seem grossly overpopulated soon. All countries of the region are suffering shortages of fresh water and many are facing severe scarcities -- and their agriculture is failing as a result. Sheikh Rashid Al Maktoum, emir of Dubai, described our fears perfectly when he said, "My grandfather rode a camel. I drive a Mercedes. My son flies a jet plane. His son will ride a camel."

The people of North Africa and the Middle East are finally rising to rid themselves of their hopeless and hapless leaders, and a new political dawn is breaking. It is wonderful to see. As dawn breaks, however, it will be greeted not by the dappled light of a beautiful new day but by the intensely harsh light of a blazing desert sun. The current political battles are just the beginning. Economic battles must also be waged, and soon. Greatest of all, however, are the environmental battles. The Middle East has too long propped itself up on the transient, easy wealth that bubbled up thick and fast -- and light and sweet -- from the ground. Those days are moving quickly toward the twilight. On what will these countries support themselves when the black gold can no longer be squeezed from the sand?

The new governments that we hope will emerge from the current turmoil must tackle enormous challenges through the remaining decades of the petroleum interval. It is hard to see how they can build sustainable, civil societies in the oil patch when the oil is gone. One thing is certain, though: if the water and food are also gone, the cradle of civilization will once again become its grave.

Steve Hallett and John Wright are the authors of Life without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future (March, Prometheus Books).