Sunday, January 06, 2008

Do Away with the Rhetoric of "Peak Oil"

Leftists must do away with the rhetoric of "peak oil." The problem is not that fossil fuels can't be physically found, but the "peak oil" rhetoric suggests that it is, confusing people.

Instead, tell the truth.

The material problem is this: fossil fuel reserves that are being found today and will be found in the future are more expensive and more ecologically destructive to exploit than those found before.

One of the political problems is this: the state companies and countries in the South that have oil and gas don't have enough capital and technology (the problem for the popular classes); and the companies and countries in the North that have capital and technology don't have the right to many of the oil and gas reserves that they covet (the problem for the ruling classes).

Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov notes: "Ninety percent of the world's proven hydrocarbon reserves are under some form of state control. Such state control of energy resources is offset, however, by the concentration of cutting-edge technology in the hands of private transnational corporations" ("Containing Russia: Back to the Future?" MRZine, 21 July 2007). That is the central problem for the US-led multinational empire's energy policy, as well as its challengers, today. (See National Petroleum Council, Facing the Hard Truths about Energy: A Comprehensive View to 2030 of Global Oil and Natural Gas, 18 July 2007; and the papers presented at the Baker Institute Energy Form conference "The Changing Role of National Oil Companies in International Energy Markets," 1-2 and 12 March 2007.)

Another of the political problems is this: how can we "better negotiate the necessary trade-offs between economic development and social justice, between requirements of productivity or efficiency and environmental sustainability or quality life which is not entirely a matter of material progress or economic growth" as Randhir Singh puts it ("Future of Socialism," MRZine, 29 December 2007)? Leftists have yet to figure out this question of trade-offs.

Patrick Bond writes in "From False to Real Solutions for Climate Change" (MRZine, 6 January 2008):
In contrast to carbon trading, what is reverberating within grassroots, coalface, and fenceline struggles in many parts of the world is a very different strategy and demand by civil society activists: leave the oil in the soil, the resources in the ground.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I have mentioned this demand in many sites over the past two years, enthusiastically commenting on the moral, political, economic, and ecological merits of leaving the oil in the soil. Unfortunately, in addition to confessing profound humility about the excessive fossil fuel burned by airplanes which have taken me on this quest, I must report on the only site where the message dropped like a lead balloon: with dear comrades in petro-socialist Venezuela.
Well, stop development and cut consumption is seldom a popular demand beyond the interlocking directorate of environmental NGOs and intellectuals. Not in Venezuela. Not even in Cuba.


Patrick said...

Stop development? The problem, Yoshie, is that extraction of oil and many other nonrenewable resources doesn't lead to 'development' but the reverse. (I'll be happy to email a .pdf of my 2006 book *Looting Africa* where I make this case; just write to it's now not so controversial, with even the World Bank admitting net negative genuine savings in most resource-rich countries when resource depletion is factored in.) So it *does* make sense to seek opportunity for solidarity with activists who would leave the oil in the soil and the minerals in the ground, especially in the Third World, but also Canada, Australia and Norway, where these movements are growing too. Sometimes, like Ecuador, these comrades are actually winning hegemony for the slogan and politics behind it. Cheers, Patrick

Yoshie said...

It is said that "Oil exports have represented a greater share of gross domestic product (GDP) in Venezuela and Ecuador than in any other country in the region over the past 20 years, yet both economies have experienced lower-than-average economic growth and higher inflation" ("A Mixed Blessing: Oil and Latin American Economies," EconSouth, Fall 2002). Both nations must make efforts to diminish dependence on oil exports, not only for environmental but also for politico-economic reasons, but in the short term it's clear what has been and will be financing "socialism of the 21st century," especially in Venezuela, is oil.

What do Venezuelans, Ecuadorians, and others in similar circumstances want to do about this fact? Given the balance of political forces in the North, I doubt that the organized Left in the North (non-existent in the USA and very weak in the rest of the North) have what it takes to force the North to transfer money to the South to "leave the oil in the soil, the resources in the ground," and those Leftists who have recently come into power in the South have mainly done so by riding waves of resource populism.

Unknown said...

I'm no expert but I've been following the "peak oil" movement for some time now. I'm not quite sure I understand the point you are trying to make. The problem, in my opinion, is that the easy to find (light sweet crude) has been used up and what's remaining is the hard-to-get expensive-to-refine heavy sour crude. Also, there is a peak natural gas crisis on the horizon as well. I agree, the solution to the "peak oil, peak natural gas" rhetoric is to learn how to use less energy which means less consumption of goods and services. Time is running out and I have little faith in the free market capitalist economy to find a solution.

Yoshie said...

The term "peak oil" itself is wrong, as it implies that the problem is a matter of natural limits to oil extraction. No, that's not the problem.

The real problems, both on the supply and demand sides, are political.