Australia: Peak Oil - A Perfect Storm
Apparently an imminent peak and subsequent terminal decline in oil production may lead to a global economic collapse with total war precluding any internationalist approach to either global warming, overpopulation, energy alternatives or maintaining even the semblance of democratic order resulting in a globalised capitalist totalitarian feudalism, historically gigantic population culls through war, famine and pestilence accompanied by accelerating biosphere destruction with the end result that within 100 years or so a Permian style planetary extinction event will wipe out 90% or more of all life on earth including us - unless we preempt nature through either adapting to the changes being forced on us or we commit the ultimate genocide and destroy ourselves in a nuclear apocalypse.
In the interest of public debate during this rather absurd and largely content free election campaign I would like to put forward a possible worst case prognosis for our nation's future:
Energy depletion leading to economic collapse and total war in the context of global warming means extinction.
The more we release the gaseous byproducts of our exponentially growing energy consumption into our world's atmosphere the more we brew perfect storms where the increased solar energy trapped by the Greenhouse effect leads to ever more energetic extremes. Where these chaotic extremes coincide and reinforce one another a perfect storm forms marshaling all the destructive forces available to nature. And by the way, the poles are melting along with huge expanses of what used to be permafrost at the same time as Australia's rainfall is rapidly declining. Perth in Western Australia has experienced a two thirds drop in its rainfall since the mid 70's and the decline has been accelerating since the late 90's. The good people of this city are now considered to be the early warning canary in the global warming coal mine as this climatic drought is spreading eastwards throughout the entire continent. According to Dr Tim Flannery their city may become a 'ghost metropolis' within the next 50 years as our dry sunburnt continent becomes even drier in climatic conditions 'not seen in 40 million years'.
Climatic change of course isn't merely an Australian problem, it's a human problem. Our post WW2 industrial globalisation has led to a massive restructuring in the way of life of a large section of the global population and an exponential growth in the total number of humans taking advantage of every resource this world has to offer. There are now over 6.4 billion of us, 4 people are born every second, 2 people die, the population as a whole is growing by 200 000 people every day, and that growth is exponentially increasing by 1.3% per year. Even though that rate is steadily declining from its peak of 2.2% in the 60's, by 2050 there will still be 9 billion of us and we will be amongst the oldest of them.
There are, however, growing scientific concerns that the available natural resources of this earth that supports today's massive global population may be reaching their natural limits, from food production to water supplies, and most especially the super abundance of cheap hydrocarbon energy that fuels our constant economic growth and globalisation as a whole. We are consuming the earth at an exponential rate and are the principal cause of deforestation, desertification, the collapse of fisheries, massive worldwide pollution and an increasing species extinction rate rivaling the late Cretaceous extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs. Australia, perhaps the most biologically diverse and ecologically fragile land mass on this earth, is at the forefront of this world wide problem with our modern industrialised land management practices destroying native species and habitats at a world record pace. We are the Thorpedoes of modernity and according to Flannery we are also "one of the most physically vulnerable people on the Earth", at the head of the pack leading humanity on towards a global warming catastrophe in the next 50 years and beyond. No doubt we will consume ourselves out of the problem, just as Perth will burn coal and gas to generate electricity for a proposed desalination plant in order to offset the growing water demands of its constantly growing population and the fall in water catchment runoff due to our industrial way of life and its global warming.
So at the moment we have exponentially growing overpopulation fueling accelerating biosphere destruction and global warming, and these seem to be an artefact of our growth based economic/political order founded on the constant growth in our consumption of energy with seemingly no end in sight to everyday business as usual even though that means a deferred death wish for today's children and their children. For those of you who agree that the human situation at the beginning of the 21st century is becoming seriously unsustainable you would perhaps also agree that we need to approach these problems rationally, guided by the science and cooperating at the international level to help developing nations implement sustainable economies while we radically reduce our own industrial greenhouse emissions and change our way of life at the federal, state and local community levels. The Kyoto protocol was a first attempt at such internationalism and Australia is once again one of the world leaders in its ongoing failure.
Australia under Howard has actively worked to undermine any long term international approach to the problem of biosphere destruction while Australia under Bush is following the US into a brave new world where all increasingly urgent environmental concerns are secondary to keeping our globalised growth economies growing. Without constant growth the global economy would collapse as it is fed by inflating debt bubbles that can only be serviced by the production of more wealth, primarily paper wealth. Australian total debt is now over one trillion dollars and growing, US total debt is 37 trillion dollars, our middle classes are being buried under heavy mortgage debts that finance consumer spending with a lot of consumers resorting to credit for their weekly purchases. The engine driving our globalised economy is a gigantic debt bubble. According to recent economic warnings any serious rise in interest rates could destabilise our economy, burst the housing bubble and lead to a recession the size of the one that occurred in WW2. Our current consumer economy is poised on the edge of a precipice and increasingly vulnerable to external threats to the status quo. It's not likely we will see heavy investment of our national wealth in changing our way of life any time soon unless something rather radical happens. There seems to be no current economic solution to the extinction threat of climate change other than to ignore it.
However, at the same time as global warming is starting to make an impact on that way of life there are growing concerns that the hydrocarbon energy reserves that have fueled the globalisation that leads to all these problems may also be reaching a limit in growth. Independent geological predictions of the imminent peak in global oil and gas production are for 2005-2008 with a terminal decline self-evident by 2010. More optimistic oil industry estimates put the peak at 2020, just 15 years from now. For a previous Indymedia discussion on this topic see Peak Oil is Here but in summary, the possible consequences of peak oil are gigantic and involve nothing less than a forced, massive, radical and sustained change in our way of life as we transition to alternative energy sources and the economic/political order they support. Our current oil fed, growth based, globalised industrial civilisation will not survive the transition, something new must take its place.
If peak oil occurs within the next 4 years we will see a series of recessions as oil prices fluctuate wildly and trend upwards. Any increase in oil prices flows through to all our economic activity resulting in stagflation where economic growth slows and inflation sets in. To control inflation as our dollar devalues the federal reserve can only lift interest rates that will put pressure on our middle class debt bubble resulting in further economic chaos and a possible global stock market and banking crash. Some time after 2010 a global great depression will set in as economies shrink along with the terminal decline in oil supply and the middle classes are bankrupted, welfare collapses, food, housing and commodity prices keep rising and long term unemployment becomes systemic and widespread.
This pressure is starting now with the beginnings of a rollover in demand and supply of oil. OPEC is apparently pumping at full capacity and world supply at around 82 million barrels a day is only just keeping up with growing demand as the Chinese and Indian economies are coming on line. Even without a global peak in oil production demand rollover will inevitably push the price of oil up. If this price rise fails to stimulate further oil discoveries, and new oil finds peaked in the 60's and have been falling ever since, then peak is inevitable as we draw down on our globe's finite oil reserves. US Vice President Dick Cheney recognised this coming crisis in 1999 as chairman of Halliburton. President Bush was warned about it during his 2000 election campaign. Industry experts in Australia and Britain have been testifying to parliamentary commissions on the problem since the late 90's. Our current leaders are fully aware of the situation and are going to extremes to prepare us for this energy transition.
Unfortunately for our economically and environmentally vulnerable nation this preparation does not generally involve any sort of public recognition of an emerging, historically unprecedented energy crisis nor any international agreement for cooperation on a more orderly global transition, if such is possible, to alternative and sustainable forms of energy. The Europeans, apart from Britain, seem to be further ahead in terms of their political response to energy and climate concerns. There is also generally a much more open public debate in the media, and the European Parliaments are entering that debate. Here in Australia we have one of the most heavily monopolised mass media industries in the entire OECD and peak oil is barely mentioned although the ABC and SBS are starting to respond to the message. While the federal parliamentary debate is almost entirely silent the Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson has acknowledged the problem in passing, the Greens have also made some comments and WA State Minister for Planning and Infrastructure Alanah MacTiernan fully recognises the emerging energy problem with the state government spending billions to address it. In hindsight, Western Australia has a 30 year head start on dealing with global warming and its associated problems, it is currently the most vulnerable community of the most vulnerable peoples on earth.
As a nation however we have gone in the entirely opposite direction. There is no chance the current federal government will support an international depletion protocol such as Upsalla, it refuses to even acknowledge a problem and has decided instead to embark on the antithesis of internationalism by participating in an illegal war of conquest in the Middle East. According to former Liberal Party president John Valder our current Prime Minister John Howard should be tried as a war criminal. Technically speaking the Iraq war does seem to be a supreme crime of aggression, the same crime that led to the executions of what was left of the Nazi hierarchy and to the founding of the UN charter. It's the supreme crime because it includes all other crimes committed by states that illegally invade sovereign nations including in the case of Iraq: The mass murder of over 10 000 innocents, violations of the Geneva conventions, the destruction of infrastructure like sewerage and electricity which leads to more civilian deaths, primarily children, and non-military detainees subjected to torture that has included the rape of children.
Australian troops have been largely kept out of the insurgency so far but are there in a support role. We are a leading member of the Coalition of the Willing, our SAS may even have preempted the Bush ultimatum and initiated the war. As a nation we are complicit in everything that has happened in Iraq from the moment the war started through to the Fallujah assault, the Abu Ghraib atrocities and the assault on the holy city of Najaf, in every death and torment suffered by Iraqi's under an illegal occupation. Legally speaking that is, at least potentially if it ever got a hearing under international law. But that's one of the main consequences of the conquest of Iraq, the US National Security Strategy or 'Bush Doctrine' has redefined international law by usurping it and the UN. We are already operating under nationalist law defined by the most powerful nation on earth where the notion of preemptive or rather 'preventive' war means that wars of conquest are now 'justified' by those with the power to do so. It's a new world order and a new definition of justice that is essentially the same as the order Hitler enforced on Poland leading to Britain's declaration of WW2.
The advocates of this neoconservative new world order are openly lobbying for a religious crusade or clash of civilisations in the Middle East. These totalitarian extremists at the highest levels of the Bush administration are highly educated, philosophically informed ideologues who see war as human nature, the US as a 'warrior society', and power as the highest value and truth. They are now openly advocating a war with Iran following the doctrine of 'creative destruction' which calls for a Middle East conflagration fed by a military draft and the total mobilisation of the US peoples in an open ended global total war on 'terror' that will not end in our lifetimes. The 911 attacks were apparently a marvelous opportunity, a 'new Pearl Harbor' predicted in advance, allowing for a new order with the Patriot Act setting up an extreme version of Nixon's police state and opening the door to a totalitarian takeover on the domestic front as well as the conquest of the Persian Gulf.
Their principal enemy seems to be China as it represents the greatest long term economic threat to US hegemony and they openly debate the problems of sustaining an Imperial US dominance of the world in both economic and military terms over the next 100 years. Central to that concern is securing the Middle Eastern oil fields before the coming energy crisis deflates the US dollar and their domestic economy collapses taking the global stock markets and banking with it. If you take the neocon extremists at their word the end game for the current US administration would more or less be the securing of the entire Persian Gulf oil supply through a bloody military occupation lasting decades. A wider energy war beyond the Middle East is most probably inevitable, it's just a matter of when. With peak oil imminent, demand rollover starting and the global economy on a knife edge there seems to be no hope whatsoever for an internationalist approach to either the pending collapse of our current civilisation or catastrophic global warming so long as Bush and his neoconservative extremists, and their coalition of willing quislings, remain in power.
In the coming energy/wealth decline there will be increasing pressure to concentrate the remaining wealth in the industrial and military sectors that need it most, at the expense of everyone else and their democratic and human rights. The US already seems to be going this way as the presidency isolates itself even further from congressional oversight and Bush starts to rule by decree. At the same time there is a gigantic flight of US federal funds into the corporate and military sectors and an even larger tax break for the wealthy. Following a global economic collapse this plutocratic rule will probably turn into a free for all, the worst case scenario being a form of globalised capitalist totalitarian feudalism some time after 2010. With the rise of totalitarianism there follows the total mobilisation of a nation's human and material resources in a total war of annihilation against all competitors. That is the logic of modernity and its great power games, our historical precedent is the rise of Nazism and the slaughter of WW2. The coming world war, however, will be fought with tactical nuclear weapons against non-nuclear or weak nuclear opponents, and one might hope that this limited nuclear warfare would not trigger a much more dangerous nuclear showdown between any number of major nuclear powers. Once unleashed, nuclear escalation may take on a life of its own as that is the very nature of total war, its proponents are ultimately driven to take total chances resulting in either total success or annihilation.
Now while a decline in the consumption of oil will certainly help lessen the impact of global warming, the ongoing and future energy wars along with the collapse of our international institutions will do nothing to ameliorate the suffering of those of us exposed to the ravages of poverty, war, famine and pestilence now and in the decades ahead. Even worse, the intense short term competition for resources to feed any military and industrial war effort will most probably lead to the unrestrained use of coal for the generation of electricity and liquid fuels with no thought given to the long term consequences for climate change. Peak oil could quite possibly unleash a perfect economic and military storm leading to the extinction of the human species through either a nuclear apocalypse or runaway global warming. The latter possibility could result in a mass extinction event, within the next 100 years, as large as the late Permian extinction some 250 million years ago that wiped out 90-95% of all species on earth. How we respond to peak oil now may well decide the course of planetary evolution.
There is no political solution as such that can maintain our current growth based oil civilisation through the coming energy decline but politics will still play its part with federal, state and local reactions to that energy decline as it happens. The localisation of our food production, travel, work and manufacturing as vehicle use declines will also mean a localisation of our politics, and at its most fundamental level 'politics' means making peace with your immediate neighbours and joining together as a local community to share resources and skills in a barter economy. Its most basic unit is one's own extended family which is how pre-conquest Australian Aboriginal societies operated. We will need to relearn how to live with one another rather than have our political order instituted from above, and only a popular grass roots movement can change our nation's current suicidal course away from unilateral war towards international cooperation.
We need to stop our involvement in the oil war in Iraq and start publicly discussing some of the gigantic problems facing us starting with the imminent energy depletion, amidst global warming and a mass extinction, that is driving the lone US super power into blundering around like a dry drunk terrorizing Arabs. In the best of all possible worlds the US would turn towards true internationalism and lead the nations of the world by example in supporting a UN ban on all war and putting into action an agreement on an international depletion protocol integrated with a revised Kyoto protocol that addresses population growth. Unfortunately, as a plague species we are not in control of the biosphere, we are not in control of our technology, nor are we in control of our social and economic systems, our political processes, and we are most definitely not in control of our selves. Technological modernity is a historical juggernaut and our leaders are driving us all at full speed into the brick wall of energy depletion with their eyes wide open. Today, genocidal world war appears to be the dominant political solution being put forward by our leadership to address these myriad interrelated problems.
For those of you who plan to vote Liberal in the upcoming federal election I would hope you think twice before casting your lot with someone implicated in a supreme crime of aggression and the mass murder of thousands of innocents. For the others, if Labor wins all that will happen is that an alleged war criminal leaves office and his successor steps up ready to kiss the US President's ring or face his wrath. For those of you who choose not to vote you will effectively be voting for Howard the "arse licker", which is of course a perfectly reasonable use of your democratic right to not vote, and what real difference would it make anyway?
Whatever happens in the political realm, evolution is tenacious, life on this planet is incredibly adaptive and one of its most tenacious species is Homo sapiens. Never underestimate the capacity of the human animal to adapt to change and learn from its history, nor should we underestimate our capacity for stupidity and ignorance, the future is as always an open question.