Leaving the Stone Age
Plausibly Surreal – Scenarios and Anticipations
One of my favorite bright green clichés has to be: "The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones."
It's a reminder that efforts to replace non-renewable sources of energy with more sustainable technologies can be driven by innovation rather than desperation. But desperation is a powerful motivator; it's usually easier to sell policies with fear rather than hope, even if playing the fear card has nasty repercussions down the road. Desperation comes from a sense of vulnerability, not a recognition of undesirable results. And right now, the US is feeling particularly vulnerable when it comes to oil. The two most visible manifestations of the desperation agenda are the so-called "geo-greens" and the increasing visibility of the "peak oil" concept.
"Geo-greens" is Tom Friedman's term for those who advocate renewable energy technologies due to the security problems with oil. Such advocacy cuts across party lines; while geo-greens may disagree on the connection between oil consumption and climate disruption, they all agree that oil consumption hurts Western and American political interests. For the geo-greens, American petroleum use is inextricably linked to authoritarian regimes, supporters of terrorism, and the depredations of OPEC. The need to get away from that vulnerability is what drives geo-green organizations such as the Energy Future Coalition, which in early April sent a letter (PDF) to President Bush arguing for a national effort to develop and deploy alternative-fuel vehicles. The letter was signed by noted conservatives such as Robert McFarlane, C. Boyden Gray, Frank Gaffney and James Woolsey, along with moderate Democrats such as Gary Hart and John Podesta. Similar coalitions cutting across traditional ideological divides include the Apollo Alliance and the Set America Free coalition, which includes former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer and the NRDC' deputy director Deron Lovaas. In every case, while climate and the environment may be mentioned as an issue, the focus is clearly on the security implications of oil dependence.
Geo-greens are quite often strong advocates for nuclear power -- unsurprisingly, really -- and often have something of a reductionist, car-focused perspective, as if a switch to electric or hydrogen vehicles would, without any other system changes, be enough for them. Conservation, smart grids, broader energy efficiency and bigger behavioral changes do get the occasional nod, but are clearly secondary to closing the window of (oil) vulnerability. Still, traditional coffee-cup environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the NRDC are clearly willing to work with them, and the geo-greens' access to the reins of power should not be discounted.
The increasing visibility of "peak oil" also is driven by a sense of vulnerability. Rising oil prices -- bouncing around record highs now in absolute terms, albeit not yet in constant-dollar terms -- feeds the fear that supplies of oil are slowly drying up. That we will at some point reach the moment of peak oil production, with it being downhill from there, makes geophysical sense -- there's going to be an upper limit of how much stuff can be pumped, no matter the technical tricks used to eke out that last little bit. But experts disagree as to how close we really are to that point, and how unpleasant the results will be once we get there.
But a new variant of the peak oil meme is starting to pop up -- the "Non-Geological Peak" scenario. Geoff Styles articulates it thusly:
Based on the most recent estimates from the Oil and Gas Journal, OPEC holds roughly 70% of total world oil reserves of nearly 1.3 trillion barrels. These eleven countries have an average reserve life (R/P) of 81 years, compared with under 20 years for the non-OPEC producers. Non-OPEC production will peak before OPEC's [...] If OPEC continues to constrain production through a combination of internal under-investment and restrictions on the development of OPEC reserves by the international oil companies, then increases in OPEC production could easily be inadequate to offset declines in non-OPEC countries. Total global production would then reach a temporary peak and begin to decline. This peak would become permanent if OPEC were to delay its own development program long enough that the combination of project timelags and steepening non-OPEC decline rates made it impossible ever to catch up with falling non-OPEC production. Such a peak might occur a decade earlier than if access to reserves was determined by free-market economics, instead of OPEC politics.
This still has a geophysical element -- near-term peak production of the non-OPEC nations -- but the driver of the early onset of the peak oil crisis in this scenario is political. The situation that Styles describes (under-investment and restriction) is already happening; the scenario simply requires it to continue. The scramble to bring OPEC production back up wouldn't happen fast enough to counter the overall decline.
But there's an even darker version of this scenario: Petroleum Scorched Earth.
Gerald Posner's new book Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Saudi-US Connection claims that Saudi Arabia has rigged its oil fields with radioactive devices, set to blow if the nation was invaded or if the US and Europe did not respond quickly to a coup in progress.
According to the book, which will be released to the public on May 17, based on National Security Agency electronic intercepts, the Saudi Arabian government has in place a nationwide, self-destruction explosive system composed of conventional explosives and dirty bombs strategically placed at the Kingdom’s key oil ports, pipelines, pumping stations, storage tanks, offshore platforms, and backup facilities. If activated, the bombs would destroy the infrastructure of the world’s largest oil supplier, and leave the country a contaminated nuclear wasteland ensuring that the Kingdom’s oil would be unusable to anyone. The NSA file is dubbed internally Petro SE, for petroleum scorched earth.
According to the NSA intercepts, Petro SE was devised by the Saudis because of their overriding fear that if an internal revolt or external attack threatened the survival of the House of Saud, the U.S. and other Western powers might abandon them as the Shah of Iran was abandoned in 1979. Only by having in place a system that threatened to create crippling oil price increases, political instability and economic recessions did the royal family believe it could coerce Western military powers to keep them in power.
Is this true? Only the NSA and the Saudi leaders know for sure. It's certainly plausible. Moreover, regardless of its veracity the public discussion of it feeds this growing sense of desperation about oil. Not only are the Saudi princes making us dance with oil prices, the argument goes, they're actually threatening to destroy their oil infrastructure if we don't respond fast enough. The geo-greens must be jumping for joy over this story.
The question for bright greens, then, is how closely to embrace the geo-green movement. There are numerous aspects of the geo-green agenda, from nuclear power to "clean coal" to the downplaying of global warming, that run counter to the big-system, long-view, leapfrog perspective of bright green worldchangers. But it's hard to ignore the access that the geo-greens have to the levers of power, and it's arguable that the mainstreaming of the geo-green line makes the bright green philosophy appear less radical (just as the mainstreaming of religious conservatives in the US over the past two decades has introduced increasingly extreme aspects of the movement into broader political discourse). Working with the geo-greens runs the risk of having key goals compromised and discarded; working without the geo-greens runs the risks of marginalization.
It's time to leave the stone age. Will we do so because we fear what will happen if we don't? Or because we look forward to what will happen if we do?