Oil shortages 'will cause global chaos'
By Melanie Gosling
Cape Town: The rapid decline of global oil supplies will see the United States headed for an economic crash like that of the 1930s. And the collapse of the dollar will affect every nation on earth.
This is the chilling warning from author and academic Richard Heinberg, from the New College of California, who is in Cape Town this week to share his views on what governments and society need to do to mitigate the imminent global crisis after world oil production peaks.
"It's too late to maintain a 'business as usual' attitude. What is required is to manage the change that peak oil will bring, in a way which causes the fewest casualties. This must be done at an economic level and geopolitical level, to fend off resource wars. The US invasion of Iraq is clearly a resource war," Heinberg said yesterday.
Global oil discovery peaked in the 1960s and oil production is likely to peak as soon as 2007.
Heinberg, who was brought to South Africa by the SA New Economics Network and the local branch of the Cambridge Business and Industry Programme, describes in his most recent book Power Down: options and actions for a post-carbon world the options available to the global community to avoid catastrophe.
Heinberg said world governments, including the US, were aware of the pending crisis. The US department of energy had commissioned a report on the probable impacts of "peak oil" - the point at which global oil production will no longer meet demand - which was released in February this year.
"The report was compiled mainly by ex-CIA people. The CIA has always kept a close watch on resources. They found that peak oil would provide the US and the world with an 'unprecedented risk and management problem'.
"They say that if they had 10 years to prepare, then the economic and social chaos could be minimised. But if it is less than that, the US will face a very serious problem and the government will have to manage it without public input. For that read 'martial law'."
The US response is not to cut oil consumption by making major lifestyle changes, and to scale back on economic activity, but to use the military to maintain control over oil in the Middle East.
This was formalised as far back as 1979 by former US president Jimmy Carter, in what became known as the Carter Doctrine, which stated that America would use the military to maintain access to the oil reserves in the Middle East.
"Our real problem is that we are trapped in a perpetual growth machine. As long as societies need economic growth to stave off collapse (clearly the case today, given debt-and-interest-based national currencies) we will continue to require ever more resources yearly. But the Earth has limited resources."
He sketches four main options available in response:
# Following the US leadership of competing for remaining resources through wars;
# Denial or wishful thinking that the market or science will come to the rescue;
# Assuming that we are already in the early stages of disintegration, devoting our energies to preserving the most worthwhile cultural achievements of the past few centuries;
# Reducing energy resource use drastically through economic sacrifice, reducing the population size and developing alternative energy sources.
"The sooner we chose wisely, the better off we and our descendants will be," Heinberg said.