December 11, 2016

Can we cope with the growing oil shortage?

This is one of a series of six talks by Edward Goldsmith, broadcast on the World Business Report programme of the BBC World Service, 15-19 December 2003.

See Related Articles on the right for others in the series.


During much of the nearly 20 years I lived in rural Cornwall I had no car (though I cheated and took taxis). I had no central heating, no freezer, and I used a composting toilet. Now, I am afraid, I am once more a city slicker. However, it was an experiment in the right direction. The truth is we do not need oil the way we need water, but we are hooked on oil, and we must dehook ourselves – not just individual people, but corporations and the State itself.

The reason is clear. World oil production is likely to peak within the next ten years, if we are to believe Colin Campbell, of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and other reputable oil analysts. It is not that there is no oil left in the ground. Most geologists agree that there was once a little more than two trillion barrels of oil available and we have only used up some 900 billion barrels. The trouble is that it is the most readily accessible and hence the cheapest that we have used up, and most of what remains is either far away in Siberia, and thereby only available via long pipelines which are easily blown up, or else deep down under the ocean floor.

Significantly too, the rate of discovery of important new deposits has fallen dramatically. The much vaunted Caspian Sea oilfields were supposed to contain some 200 billion barrels, nearly as much as Saudi Arabia. But they are now said to contain no more than a tenth of that amount. Significantly, both Esso Mobil and British Petroleum are leaving the area.

In general, for every four barrels of oil we use today we are now finding just one. Clearly the only sensible response must be to reduce our oil dependency at all levels. However, we simply keep going along the same unsustainable path, in particular, everything is being done to accelerate still further the rate of economic development, and hence of oil dependency. China and India are doing so in a spectacular manner, and their oil consumption is said to be increasing by a massive 4 percent per annum. What is more, China will soon become the world’s biggest manufacturer of motor cars, causing oil dependency to escalate still further.

So long as we remain hooked on oil we will be living on a knife edge. Without it we cannot even feed ourselves. We have become hooked on imported foods, on energy-intensive tractors, artificial fertilizers, pesticides, food processing plants, supermarkets, and the battery of domestic appliances in our homes.

In such aberrant conditions, even a temporary oil shortage would cause havoc, and a permanent one could but cause malnutrition and even starvation. For this reason alone, not to phase out our dependency on oil is a crime – and this is so for a still more important reason: to phase it out is essential for combating climate change – in other words for keeping this planet habitable.

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