“How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?
What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science- 1882
“My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies a plane. His son will ride a camel.”
– Anonymous Saudi Sheik – 1982
“Ghawar, Ghawar she gave and gave; They sucked her dry like mankind’s slave;
The Sheiks told us that big oil lie; And all those people had to die.”
– Lyrical History – 2082
I’ve watched in shock and awe in recent days, shaking my head and wringing my hands. Yet another unremarkable narrative of celebrity intrigue entered the echo chamber of the mainstream media system and its 24/7-positive-feedback-amplification-loop to emerge as biggest news event – no, the earth-shaking cultural event of the year. This time it is…Anna Nicole is dead!
Her mournful supplicants conduct vigils in her memory and quietly reflect upon her iconic life, wishing her soul Godspeed. Meanwhile, we are left to ponder the paternity of her unfortunate offspring and the symbolic meaning of her celebrity status for posterity. All the while we wait with bated breath as Wikipedia straightens out the facts of her untimely demise.
Hers was the quintessentially American tale of the technological metamorphosis of East Texas trailer trash into the bearer of the trophy titties for an oil tycoon. Her bare breasts in the pages of Playboy reaffirmed the greatness of our country! She pulled her self up by her bra-straps and made her way in the world. We imagine that the indelible image of her “candle in the wind” life will never be extinguished because she really lived the collective dream. Sometimes it’s funny how fake-life makes contact with real-life.
It was also announced recently, without the same media feeding frenzy, that another queen of mass-culture is dead too. Few of us even know her name. Rather than being the personification of the contemporary zeitgeist, she is one of the cornerstones of what Marx called global capitalism’s base. She was an integral part of the concrete material conditions that make our peculiar form of social organization possible. Her name is Ghawar, and she is the mother-of-all oil fields. She was once a veritable sea of light sweet crude 174 miles long and 12 miles wide, under the sands of the eastern province of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), and now she is dead.
Ghawar is by far the largest conventional oil field ever discovered. Since first tapped in 1948, Ghawar has produced some 60 billion barrels of oil and accounted for 60-65% of Saudi production from 1948-2005. While actual field by field production numbers remain a Saudi State secret, Ghawar is estimated to produce more than five million barrels per day or 6.5% of the planet’s daily production total of 84 million barrels.
Ghawar’s obituary has already been written, but the Saudis have thus far prevented the appropriate authorities from entering the house to inspect the body. We have only second hand reports of her demise. Of these accounts, the most notable is investment banker Matthew Simmons’ book Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy. Simmons assembles a picture of declining Saudi production from publicly available technical reports written by Saudi-Aramco’s own reservoir engineers in recent decades. His portrayal of the situation is dire indeed. He claims that “When Saudi Arabia peaks (enters the unavoidable state of permanent production decline) the world, categorically, has peaked.” It looks like the 2006 numbers confirm Simmons’ 2005 prophecy.
The writers at the Oil Drum, a data driven oil analysis website, after assessing the production data from several independent reporting agencies, claim that Saudi production is down a whopping 8% in 2006 from 2005 numbers. The decline would have been closer to 14% without the addition of the Haradh III mega-project. They assert that Saudi Arabia has now officially peaked and that the pace of production decline there is likely to accelerate. Remember, Ghawar accounts for 60% of Saudi production.
A correlate of this geologic prediction is their prediction of the seismic effect this news will have on KSA political life. This is not positive; think terrorist attacks, followed by beheadings, followed by rebellion, followed by more beheadings, followed by boots on the ground – American boots.
Ghawar has been on life support for some time. The wide-spread use of advanced extraction techniques like water-injection and horizontal-brush drilling are the hallmarks of field maturity and imminent production collapse. Brush drilling is to an oil reservoir what a straw is to the paper cup wrapped around a chocolate shake –it allows you to suck out every last bit of creamy goodness quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, Ghawar is not the only oil royal in critical condition.
The obituaries just keep rolling in. “Kuwaiti oil production from the world’s second-largest field (Burgan) is ‘exhausted’ and falling after almost six decades of pumping” according to the chairman of the Kuwaiti state oil company. The L.A. times tells us that “Production at Cantarell, the world’s second-largest oil complex, which provides about 60% of Mexico’s crude, averaged 1.78 million barrels a day in 2006. That’s a 13% drop from 2005.” The famous North Sea basin and it gigantic Forties Field, the oil find that made Britain a petroleum exporter for the past 20 years, is about to experience a precipitous production decline. Back in 2000 we learned that China’s only super-giant field, Da Qing was also at death’s door. These fields and others like them provided the mother’s milk, in the form of light sweet crude, which nourished the global capitalist system now enshrined and deified in American mass-culture.
In America we know all about big dreams and dead oil fields. Our East Texas field, discovered in the 1930’s, gave us the energy we needed to forge ourselves as a superpower in the cauldron of WWII and it paved the way for the elaboration of the post WWII American dream: a car, a job, and a house in the suburbs for our returning troops. This version of the dream supposed the fact that East Texas oil was cheaper than water to be a permanent condition. This dream died in 1971 when the contiguous lower 48 states peaked as an oil province.
In all honesty, these old oil fields don’t really die, they just fade away as their power to shape culture through increased production progressively, sometimes dramatically, diminishes. Interestingly enough, Anna Nicole Smith, a mere cultural artifact also destined to fade dramatically in a few more news cycles, was actually a person born Vickie Lynn Hogan in 1967 in Houston, Texas. This city is the heart and soul of America’s and the world’s fading oil industry. Before she was a celebrity queen she was a stripper and a waitress in a roughneck town who followed a dream.
When Anna Nicole’s beautiful breasts are lowered into the ground, the event will subconsciously affirm and immortalize America’s collective delusion; the belief that conspicuous consumption, in all its forms, can go on forever. While one queen of kitsch may have died, the dream of getting something for nothing, of recreational driving and super-sized eating, of perpetual entertainment, and of an idyllic future in the suburbs where one may realize the imperative of personal accumulation through gold-digging matrimony, will be renewed and confirmed. Those fake breasts nourish the fake dialectic which has colonized our collective consciousness. Our fraudulent, media-fueled, optimism will again, temporarily, pull the curtain over the reality behind the scenes and present us with a red, white and blue facade of tranquility.
Screaming “Ghawar is dead” and lighting a lantern in the daylight, confirms one ‘certifiable’ for most Americans. Peak oil is here now! Saying even this engenders looks of complete incomprehension among the masses! Peak oil means the death of the American dream embodied in those cold, dead, marvels of plasticity on Anna Nicole’s chest. Hell, it means the end of plastic surgery! It means the end of economic growth and everything that entails. Our collective fake-life can’t go on much longer after its real-life sources of nourishment dry up and become the ashes of history. It won’t be long now until we realize that our world has come unplugged from the ancient sunlight that provides its artificial neon glow.
Matthew S. Miller, Ph.D (MMiller33@ucok.edu) is a lecturer for the Department of Humanities and Philosophy at the University of Central Oklahoma.
© Copyright by Matthew S. Miller 2007