Picnic For The Planet 2005
Civilisations have come and gone over the millennia. Humans have grouped together to build cities, develop technology, specialise their labour, and create high culture. But all such civilisations have eventually expired: some because they overused their resources; some weakened by war; some we know not how.
Our civilisation is the first to be truly global. It is the first to reach out to other planets, and to develop technologies to manipulate nature at the sub-atomic and sub-genetic level. And it is the first to develop a level of personal comfort that creates the illusion and the expectation that, thanks to our civilisation and our technology, we can forever conquer cold, hunger, pain, illness and eventually death itself.
We have done this thanks to the use of one substance: oil.
Ours is the only civilisation ever to be based on oil and it is the only one there ever will be. Oil has enabled us to use unprecedented amounts of other natural resources, mining huge quantities of minerals, vacuuming the oceans of fish thousands of miles away, farming intensively till the soil is just stuff you add chemicals to in order to grow mass-production food, felling vast forests, and transporting all this stuff, and ourselves, around the planet.
I recently came across a true story that symbolises to me what this oil-based civilisation is about. Before Christmas, developers in Hong Kong were about to demolish seven, forty-storey apartment towers, containing two and a half thousand apartments with great views built for low-income folk. The redevelopment was intended to produce a smaller number of luxury apartments. This was the tallest and largest building ever planned for deliberate demolition, producing 200,000 tonnes of waste, to be dumped at public expense. The punch line is that these apartments were brand-new, fitted out, furnished, and just waiting for their first occupants. Amazingly, the story has a happy ending. I learned just last week that pressure from Green groups in Hong Kong has led to the demolition being called off.
This is a story for our time. It shows how modern economics and cheap oil encourage a massive waste of resources. It shows the extent to which the widening gap between rich and poor denies those on low incomes not just the things money can buy, but also the things it traditionally could not buy, like a view.
It is oil that has enabled the global population and the ecological footprint of our civilisation to grow so large that it threatens the physical limits of the planet itself: its soils, forests, and fish, its beautiful and unique living creatures, and the chemical and physical cycles on which our lives depend. It is oil, along with coal and gas, that has raised the carbon dioxide content of the whole planet’s atmosphere by more than a third since the start of the industrial revolution - a blink in time in the history of the planet. It is oil, and other fossil fuels, that is causing glaciers to melt worldwide; and that appears to be associated with a marked increase in freak climatic events such as storms and floods and heatwaves. It is oil and coal that risks raising the sea level into your seaside homes; allowing tropical pests and diseases like malaria into New Zealand; and extinguishing our threatened plants and animals because they have nowhere else to go.
It is oil that makes it seem normal for two ships to pass in the Tasman Sea, one carrying Griffin’s biscuits and Tip Top ice cream from New Zealand to Australia, the other carrying Arnott’s biscuits and Streets ice cream from Australia to New Zealand. And with a net effect of what, exactly?
Our oil consumption has been so extravagant that we have used up, in just one century, around half of what the planet has to offer. When that half-way point - known as “peak oil” - is reached, it becomes physically impossible to increase production no matter how hard you pump it.
When we reach that peak, demand will continue to rise, not just from Western societies that have used most of the oil so far, but also from countries, such as China and India, trying to catch up with our level of motorisation and industrialisation. There is no technology on the horizon that can replace our present consumption of oil, though there are many that can make a contribution. We cannot afford to turn to coal without causing run-away climate change. The only answer is to learn to use energy much more effectively.
The point at which demand outstrips the capacity of the wells to supply is the point at which oil prices rise inexorably and countries at the end of the supply line with little military power are likely to miss out. At first, it will cost you three dollars a litre instead of one to fill up your car. Later, there will be absolute shortages, no matter what you are prepared to pay. The cost of farming, fishing, manufacturing and international trade will skyrocket, and our international markets will no longer be able to afford our butter.
No-one can say for sure when this peak will be reached. The Government has picked 2037 as its best guess, based on what oil companies, the US Government and the International Energy Agency are saying. To be frank, this is day-dreaming. Discoveries of oil peaked in the 1960s. For many years, we have been burning four times as much as we have been finding. When you look beyond the oil companies to independent, experienced petroleum geologists, you find a consensus that we may well have less than ten years before we reach this terrible tipping point. The end of cheap oil is coming towards us with the force of a tsunami and New Zealand is not ready. Only the Greens are planning for how to cope.
If it is oil that has caused the growth of a consumer society that threatens the physical limits of the planet, it is peak oil that is causing an unprecedented attack on the human values that we have, until now, associated with civilisation. History tells us that when civilisations are threatened, empires get nasty. It should come as no surprise, then, that the United States - an empire dependent on oil - is doing everything in its power to secure the world’s fast dwindling oil reserves, even though that means trampling on the very freedoms it purports to uphold.
Peak oil is the reason for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Peak oil is the reason for the war on terrorism, designed to make us so afraid of being bombed by Islamic fundamentalists that we co-operate in the destruction of our own freedoms. And peak oil is the reason our government, in acquiescing to US fear-mongering over 9/11, has pursued legislation under which you may be imprisoned without charge or fair trial, you may have your assets seized without proof of guilt, and you may be denied information on what you are even accused of, and denied a passport in your own country.