Rubber is Critical, and Vulnerable
World oil production is running flat out, leaving very little room for any errors. If a disruption were to occur a shortage would very likely follow. Probability theory states that the longer we go without a problem, the more likely it becomes. When a shortage does occur conservation measures will be needed.
The single largest consumer of conventional oil in the 30 rich nations of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) is the transportation sector. In 1973, this sector accounted for 42% of oil consumed, growing to a whopping 58% of consumption by 2004. Any attempts to conserve oil in a supply crisis will need to target this sector first. Historical records back up this point, as seen by the rationing measures taken during both World Wars and the 1970s energy crisis.
There are other types of supply disruptions that would have the same effect. One that is rarely mentioned is what would happen if there were to be a disruption in rubber supplies. Not only does rubber give vehicles their tires, it is also a key component in all essential vehicle systems. Rubber is used in the hoses, engine mounts, bushings and gaskets. While it is encouraging to note that rubber is one of the only materials used throughout the automotive industry that can be supplied from a renewable resource, it turns out there are some very significant problems to notice here.
The world's rubber needs are met through both natural and synthetic sources, each supplying nearly equal amounts. Synthetic rubber requires petrochemicals as a feedstock for its manufacture, using roughly 3.5 times more oil than what is required for a rubber tree plantation. This dependence on oil has led to a dramatic price increase in synthetic rubber over the last few years. Not surprisingly, this has fuelled an increased demand for natural rubber.
Nearly 90% of the world’s natural rubber is supplied by plantations in South East Asia. The millions of rubber trees there are all clones coming from only a handful of seeds originating from the Amazon, and descendents are taken as cuttings from these trees. A huge population of species supporting an extremely small genetic base causes any weaknesses to be greatly amplified. These trees are all known to be very susceptible to the fungal disease known as leaf blight. If one were to become infected, the risk of it spreading is very high.
South America's rubber trees have encountered numerous problems with leaf blight during the history of the industry there. On the other hand, South East Asia has only encountered a few cases, all from different, less damaging, varieties of leaf blight. To date, no epidemics of the South American version have occurred in South East Asia. However, there is speculation that this could happen at any time and cause a major disruption in the world rubber supply.
From the book 'One River' author Wade Davis states "To this day a single act of biological terrorism, the systematic introduction of fungal spores so small as to be readily concealed in a shoe, could wipe out the plantations, shutting down production of natural rubber for at least a decade. It is difficult to think of any other raw material that is as vital and vulnerable."
More recently, the 2000 report from the International Rubber Research and Development Board in reference to the Leaf Blight made the following comment "This pathogen could eliminate the entire natural rubber industry if accidentally introduced into Africa or Asia there is clearly a need for pathologists to be keenly alert to its symptoms."
Considering the forecasted problems stemming from the finite supply of oil, the outlook for synthetic rubber does not look well. Also, in many cases, synthetics do not have the strength required. The fuel-efficient radial tire requires a significant amount of natural rubber for added strength. Industrial and military tires are made from nearly 100% natural rubber for this very same reason.
The current problem facing every government in the world is how to deal with their energy demands given the current supply limits and the future outlook. We can be sure that the obvious is apparent to them all - conservation is the only way to reduce consumption of oil.
Introducing conservation policies is very difficult for governments to do because of the negative impacts on economic growth. This is exasperated by the fact that the policies would have to be adopted on a global scale simultaneously. This is also the catch-22 of conservation, if only a few countries conserve the remaining countries could take advantage of the new found excesses for their own gain.
To voluntarily introduce world wide energy conservation, without causing alarm over the remaining energy supplies is not considered a realistic possibility. Especially, if it is to implemented (read mandated) within a very short immediate time frame.
A more realistic approach would be for a disruption in world rubber supply to occur. This could force a quick, dramatic reduction in oil consumption globally. Another consideration is if the world's two largest oil consumers, US and China, were to collide over securing energy supplies. China could then try to control rubber supplies in South East Asia to cause shortages in North America, inducing oil conservation by the worlds number one oil consumer.
This is by no means an in-depth look at the connections between rubber and oil. There are many other considerations to make for a complete analysis. Regardless, the underlying fact remains, vehicles account for the largest consumption of oil, vehicles need rubber to work.
It would be very fitting for the world's first wide-spread conservation efforts to be forced upon us by the tire. Effectively, bringing societies wheels of motion to a halt. Maybe then we would take notice at how fragile our way of life has become and abruptly change directions.