THE OIL TRAP
Ernest Partridge, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers
January 19, 2004
An earlier version of this essay appeared in The
and subsequently in The Online Journal and The Smirking Chimp,
in August, 2002.
Nobody – not even George Bush and Dick Cheney – believes that the Earth
is producing more petroleum, at least not within an interval of time or at a
scale to be of any use to us or to our successors.
Everybody knows that sooner or later we will run out of oil, although only a
few even suspect how ominously soon this may be. And when it happens, the
consequences could be unimaginably catastrophic. It will be so if we do
nothing at all to forestall these consequences.
The Bush administration has chosen to do nothing at all. Instead, it has
chosen to increase oil consumption, thus hastening the day of reckoning.
The coming end of the petroleum age involves much more than the question of
whether or not we continue to drive SUVs. Petroleum is the source of
plastics, medicines, and other industrial and consumer products too numerous
to mention. But most significantly, petroleum is the foundation of
industrial agriculture. Thus the threatened depletion of this vital resource
entails nothing less than the issue of how we or our children and
grandchildren will eat – how we will survive.
Though few of us appreciate it, in a real sense all of us in the industrial
nations “eat petroleum.” Petroleum-based agriculture has reduced the
proportion of the US population engaged in agriculture from about half
nearly a century ago to less than two-percent today. In other words, the
average American farmer feeds fifty of his compatriots, in addition to still
many more abroad through our agricultural exports. He accomplishes this
through the gasoline that drives his tractors and combines, and the
petroleum based fertilizers and petroleum derived pesticides that he puts on
his fields. Accordingly, Michael Pollan, in his revealing “Power
Steer” (New York Times Magazine, March 31, 2002), estimates that a
corn-fed steer “consumes” 284 gallons of petroleum in its lifetime.
Petroleum also moves food from the fields and feed-lots to the cities and to
suburban homes occupying once-productive farm land. Thus Floridians feast on
salmon from Alaska, while Alaskans enjoy orange juice from Florida.
In short, our very existence depends upon what ecologist Kenneth Watt calls
“the fossil fuel subsidy” – the massive import of energy into
industrial agriculture from petroleum, natural gas and coal. In a speech at
the first Earth Day (1970), Watt warned that:
Between 1950 and  a final 11 million horses have
been taken out of American agriculture and replaced by tractors powered by
crude oil. Since it takes very roughly four times the acreage to
support one horse as a person, this means the we have been able to
add 44 million people to the American population [in those twenty
years] for that one cause alone, because of a fossil fuel subsidy...
Mankind is embarked on an absolutely immense gamble.
We are letting the population build up and up and up, by increasing
the carrying capacity of the Earth for people, using a crude-oil
energy subsidy, on the assumption that there's no inherent danger in
this because when the need arises we'll be able to get ultimate
sources of energy...
The world can probably support between one and four billion people at the
absolute outside without a fossil-fuel energy subsidy... By the time
we run out of this fossil fuel energy subsidy, there will be 10 to
20 billion people in the world...
And how soon will “the oil crunch” appear? Several
scientific sources indicate that it may happen during the current decade.
In 1956, geologist M. King Hubbert predicted that US oil production would
peak in the early 1970s and thereafter decline. His projection, which was
widely criticized at the time by both academics and industry, turned out to
be right on target, as US production declined after 1970. Now geologist
Kenneth Deffeyes (a former colleague of Hubbert), in his new book
Hubbert’s Peak (Princeton University, 2001), foresees a decline in world
oil production as early as 2004. Numerous analysts, publishing in such
prestigious peer-reviewed journals as Science, Nature and Scientific
American, concur, setting the peak at some time within this decade.
March/April, 2002, pp 33-4, see also
Peak and Hubbert Peak
of Oil Production).
Of course, the end of the petroleum age will not happen all at once. But as
production declines, prices will rise – particularly the prices of that
most oil-dependent and essential of commodities, food. Since virtually all
commodities use petroleum fuel to move from production to consumption, as
fuel prices rise, all commodity prices must also rise. And as the price of
food and other essential commodities rise, luxuries and dispensable goods
and services will drop out of the family budgets and the standard of living
will decline. Economic collapse will follow.
If oil production
falls precipitously and no alternative energy supply and infrastructure
is available to replace petroleum, widespread starvation is a likely
Strange to say, if there are to be any winners in the coming catastrophe, it
will be third-world subsistence farmers – Juan, or Nguyen, or Hamid –
who till the land that has been sustainably productive for generations,
through the “primitive” method of raising food through the toil of their
own labor and that of their draft animals.
Industrial civilization will not go gentle into the dark night of decline
and collapse. It is one thing for the oligarchs to deprive the rest of us of
our fair share of the national product, to rob us of our pensions and our
Social Security, and to deprive the poor of their education and job
opportunities – all this can be layered over with spin and propaganda, as,
in fact, it is.. It is quite another matter for the masses to be deprived of
their food. They will not stand for that. The coming collapse of the
petroleum economy endangers us all – even the heads of the oligarchs are
on the block.
Apparently, the Bushistas fail to foresee the dangers to us all, not
excluding themselves. Not even “enlightened self-interest” can motivate
them to take appropriate action. Instead, sharing the ill-founded faith of
such cornucopian economists as Julian Simon, they presume that the
sacrosanct “free market” – i.e., human ingenuity combined with
economic incentives, totally “free” of government direction or
“interference” – will suffice to solve all problems, including this
ultimate “energy crisis.” (See my
Optimism,” ). Assuming, of course, that they think at
all about such things.
For George Bush, you see, is in effect “The Lobbyist in Chief,” not the
President of all the American People. His task is not to serve us, but to
serve those who by violating our right to vote and our Constitution, put him
into his office. Such individuals do not believe in community, or society,
or a “common good.” (“There is no such thing as ‘society,’” said
Margaret Thatcher). Moreover, the corporate vision is inherently myopic. Investors are only interested in next year’s returns on their investments,
and CEOs only in the remaining five years of their tenure, or at most the
fifteen years of their longevity post retirement. And always there is that
inevitable cop-out “we’ll think of something.” “Posterity? What has
posterity ever done for me?” Apres nous, le deluge! (See my
Search of Sustainable Values” ).
The future looks dismal – but it is not inevitably so. Unfortunately, almost nothing is being done by the Bush administration to
avoid this dreadful fate. Instead, Bush and his allies have successfully
defeated increased fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards and have cut funds for
research and development of alternative energy sources.
And it is through these alternative sources that we might escape the coming
The most promising sources of new energy are the sun, hydrogen, and biomass. Some thirty years ago, Barry Commoner calculated that an area less than the
size of Arizona could, through solar energy, produce more than the current
US energy needs. I once calculated that if I covered the roof of my southern
California home with solar cells, I could, with adequate storage facilities,
supply all my household electrical needs, with surplus watts to sell to the
power company. Solar panels produce electricity directly, and that
electricity can, in turn, produce hydrogen through electrolysis – a
process familiar to all high-school chemistry students.
Which brings us to hydrogen – the combustion product of which is water
(i.e., zero pollution, zero greenhouse effect). Hydrogen, however, like
electricity, is a “secondary” energy source – it takes energy to
produce the energy (usually from the inexhaustible source of water).
If the source of hydrogen is electrolysis, then the hydrogen is a tertiary
source, and the electricity the secondary source. And that electricity
can be supplied from
non-polluting, non-fossil fuel sources such as solar power and hydropower.
Finally, there is biomass, which, as it decomposes, produces such fuel
products as methane and methanol. Methane, which is released from farm
animals, swamps and garbage dumps, is a powerful greenhouse gas. Far better
that it be used as a fuel, the combustion products of which are water and
carbon dioxide. (This CO2, unlike that from fossil fuels, is a benign
greenhouse gas, since it is obtained from carbon presently cycling in the
ecosystem rather than from geologically sequestered deposits). Technology
over a century old, can, through “anaerobic digesters,” convert raw
sewage, animal wastes, and agricultural waste, into methane, methanol and
What is missing in all this is an infrastructure, which, in turn, can only
result from a full commitment to and investment in the transition to a
post-petroleum economy. Only when a hydrogen or fuel-cell car can count on a
network of refueling stations within driving range of each other, will the
public purchase post-petroleum cars. Only when farm machinery is fueled with
cheap and abundant non-fossil fuels (hydrogen, or methanol, etc.) and when
organic fertilizer is widely employed, will the coming famine be safely
To their credit, some major auto companies are engaged in significant
research into fuel-cell technology, as are such energy companies as British
Petroleum. (Keep that in mind, next time you fill up). But this is all too
little, and unless significantly augmented, will prove to be too late.
In short, we can avert the catastrophic consequences of the inevitable end
of the petroleum age through an international government sponsored “Apollo Project.” But this will require massive investments in
research and infrastructures. None of this is being done, or even
contemplated, by the “gas-house gang” that controls the White House and
The escape from catastrophe will require collective and
cooperative effort in behalf of the common good and the distant future –
and the very word “collective” raises, in the American mind, the spectre
of socialism or even communism. Such is the legacy of the successful attack
on “government” by Reagan and his successors. Thus have we been
effectively alienated from the potential source of our salvation.