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A modern-day Noah warns that the end is nigh for oil

IT couldn’t have been easy for Noah. Going around telling everyone there’s going to be a catastrophic flood and they’d better start building boats straight away. Noah today would emerge from a short therapeutic intervention with a Prozac prescription and a care management plan.

Or think of Galileo if you want a more definite historical figure: "Say the world is round one more time and we’ll torture you to death, nice and slowly..."

You probably thought there wasn’t much call for prophets these days in the comfortable, civilised world. Not many voices left crying unheard in the wilderness. Well, I thought so too, until I went to a small public meeting last week and met Max Oakes.

Max, from Edinburgh, seems like an ordinary bloke. He’s an engineer in the gas industry, he was neatly dressed in an ironed shirt and trousers, gave a compelling talk with flip-charts, graphs and an overhead projector, then handed out lists for further reading and internet research.

There was no fanatical gleam in his eye, no catchphrases, no spin - but still, I left the meeting convinced that I’d met the modern-day equivalent of Noah and we’d better start listening to him.

You see, Max’s talk, with its carefully researched graphs and information, was about the end of oil. The last drop. The all-the-oil-wells-running-dry scenario and how this is much closer than any of us, including the people in charge, like to admit.

He wasn’t talking about no more SUVs on the school run, but painting a near future of no more petrol, jet fuel, fertiliser, tractor diesel, no more plastic, electronics, oil-fuelled electricity… well, let’s just say, no more modern life as we know it.

If you’re reading this and thinking "Nah, not in my lifetime" before turning to something much more pressing like, say, Sven’s choice of underpants… then consider some evidence.

It was front-page news on Wednesday that oil prices have risen to a 20-year high. According to the 2003 review from BP (that radical, left-wing, scaremongering organisation), at the present rate of consumption on current reserves there is just 40 years of oil left. But we know oil consumption is escalating and Shell recently scaled down its estimated reserves.

No major new oilfields were discovered last year, although the entire globe is being scoured.

A 500-mile gas supply pipe is going to be laid from Milford Haven in Wales to the centre of England to import frozen gas brought in on tankers because, by 2008, Britain will have to import half its gas.

It’s not hard to imagine the power struggles ahead for the last of the oil. The Middle East will be even more of a war zone, tankers will be hijacked at sea, supply lines cut… you can scare yourself silly on the websites or where there is talk of medieval anarchy with starving looters from the cities raiding potato fields and taking all the logs.

Max and the fledgling organisation Depletion Scotland are on a crusade to warn us now to prepare, to switch to low-energy lifestyles, line up alternative energy sources (even nuclear) and get ready. Experts at a recent Association for the Study of Peak Oil conference suggested quadrupling the price of oil to concentrate our minds.

While I was busy envisaging, with horror, standing behind a horse-drawn plough, defending my field from starving invaders with a stick, Max’s message was surprisingly upbeat: we’re a very wealthy nation, we can use the money we have now to prepare.

But, worryingly, Max has been to see his MP, Alistair Darling, he’s been to the DTI and various other bodies. He’s shown them his graphs and charts, made his reasoned arguments. And yet new airport extensions are announced, new motorways… economic growth is still seen as our unassailable right.

Like everyone else, I’m a fossil fuel junkie - I’ve just put washing in the drier because it’s raining, I’m planning a trip away by car this weekend, I’m currently in my office on the computer, with video and telly at the ready on a bracket above. When I open the fridge, I’ll take plastic-wrapped, imported food for granted, when I turn on the cooker or the heating, of course I expect gas.

It’s very hard to face up to Max’s warnings. No oil company wants to be the first to face stock market meltdown by announcing their production is in decline, no government wants to be voted out for such bad news. When patients are told they have a terminal illness, their first reaction is almost always denial.

Pass the information on, but keep the message positive, Max insisted. I have to admit, I’m finding that part a little tricky.

Editorial Notes: Well, it is a little misleading to talk about "the last drop" when of course that's not what ASPO nor Depletion Scotland are talking about exactly. It's a shame the author did not attempt to explain the peak concept, that rather than suddenly run out, we will more simply have less and less oil each year.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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