Out Damn Spot – Oil Prices that is!

 
by William Bowles • 23 May 2005
   
 

R Buckminster Fuller

ABUNDANCE ECONOMICS: Design Science’s more with less advantaging has proven the Malthus dictated scarcity ethic, which is the working assumption of the world’s major states, is fallacious. The scarcity ethic dictates that there is not enough of the World’s resources to go around; Design Science’s abundance ethic/economics frame of reference dictates that there is enough for everyone if we utilize the Earth’s resources comprehensively and anticipatorily.
R. Buckminster Fuller, ‘The World Design Science Decade’ (PDF 3.8mb)

Damn! I hit a sore spot with my last piece on ‘peak oil’ that unleashed a stream of invective from all manner of people that I feel compelled to address yet again. Now whether this was due to my inadequate presentation of my case apropos ‘peak oil’ or the refusal of certain people to face the facts, I don’t know. In all likelihood, it’s a combination of the two. Be that as it may, I will once more attempt to address what I view as the main objections to my trashing of the ‘peak oil’ hypothesis.

I was extremely lucky whilst at art school to have a lecturer, Keith Critchlow, who worked with Buckminster Fuller and who introduced me to the ideas of Fuller and who even got me involved in working on designing and building geodesic domes and other, even more daring design conceptions. And although I had problems with Fuller’s technocratic approach, he most definately convinced me that there is no problem that we, as a species, can’t overcome given that we collaborate on finding solutions, the operative word of course being collaborate.

So why has the ‘left’ (not to mention the Greens) embraced the ‘peak oil’ hypothesis so uncritically and, as one writer informed me, has sought such ‘strange bed fellows’ to use Lenin’s famous phrase, as an advisor to the major corporations who back Bush?

Partly, I think it’s because it’s an appealing hypothesis insofar as it appears to fit the insanity of capitalist over-production. Second, it also appears to fit the ‘oil wars’ hypothesis but as I have pointed out innumerable times before, imperialism has been going to war over oil resources for well over a century. Oil is after all, the lubricant of the capitalist economy; without a relatively cheap source of oil not merely for energy but pretty well everything else – from packaging to fertilisers – there can be no endless expansion of production, the raison d’etre of capitalism.

But oil is only part of the story. We have, ever since the technological revolution kicked off in the 18th century, been producing more and more of just about everything, with less and less. One need only compare the amounts of energy, materials and labour used to produce say a telephone one hundred years ago and what is needed today, to see that the vast increases in the efficiency of production should have resulted in enormous gains for all humanity.

We should all be relatively wealthy by comparison with all previous generations, but we ain’t, so where has all the surplus wealth extracted been disappearing to?

MORE WITH LESS: The comprehensive, anticipatory, design science capability to effect greater resource performance per each pound, kilowatt and man hour of invested resources. All World Game strategies deal with ways of doing more with less for the entire planet in such a manner as to effect the total success of total humanity in the quickest and most eternal way possible. The comprehensive, recirculation of all chemical constituents of resources involved results in a more with less resource utilization. For example, each time copper is scrapped, melted down, and re-cycled, it is re-employed at a higher rate of efficiency. The first copper telephone wires carried one message per wire, subsequent more with less improvements carried 2, then 4, 16, 250, then in the thousands, and now with the satellites, it’s gone wireless. From millions of tons of copper to next to no tons of copper. From visible to invisible.
(R. Buckminster Fuller’s ‘World Game’).

It should come as no surprise then, that the surplus has been appropriated by the capitalist classes of the developed economies who have grown wealthier and wealthier even as the bulk of the planet’s population have gotten poorer and poorer.

Those who disagree with me will no doubt argue that even if this is so, there is a finite amount of oil, so that sooner or later, the wells will run dry. The guru of the ‘peak oil’ hypothesis informs us that next year we hit the peak of the ‘Bell Curve’, that from that point on, production will get progressively lower, and that all the major sources of oil have been explored and exploited to their max. But even assuming that this is so, just as with the switch from wood to coal and from coal to oil, alternative sources of energy will be found, for example gas, solar, wind, tidal, hydro or whatever. And just as importantly, without a rational approach to the use of resources that benefit all of humanity, no amount of technological advance will solve the problems we confront as a species.

The issue is therefore, not about running out of oil anymore than it is about running out of any other raw material, but how it gets used and here we see the real issues emerge and why the leading capitalist economies refuse to address global warming and climate change, let alone the increasing immiseration of the majority of the world’s poor. Because in order to address these issues means getting rid of capitalism, period. Therefore, the ‘peak oil’ hypothesis does not address this fundamental issue, anymore than the vast increases in the efficiency of food production have addressed the issue of starvation.

The myth of over population
The ‘population explosion’ myth is closely associated with ‘peak oil’ because it stems from the same ideology. Indeed, the prime movers for population control in what was then called the Third World, was the Club of Rome, the World Bank and individuals such as Robert McNamara who is worth quoting once again

“…There are only two possible ways in which a world of 10 billion people can be averted. Either the current birth rates must come down more quickly. Or the current death rates must go up. “There is no other way. “There are, of course, many ways in which the death rates can go up. In a thermonuclear age, war can accomplish it very quickly and decisively. Famine and disease are nature’s ancient checks on population growth, and neither one has disappeared from the scene… “To put it simply: Excessive population growth is the greatest single obstacle to the economic and social advancement of most of the societies in the developing world.”
– Robert McNamara, Oct. 2, 1979

One person wrote me and told me that we have reached the limits of the planet’s ability to support so many people, citing the ‘per capita energy consumption’ idea. Nice phrase isn’t it, ‘per capita energy consumption’, it sounds so authoritative and ‘scientific’ that surely it must be true, after all scientists know what’s going on, don’t they?

Briefly, it means how much energy each of us consume as a ratio of consumption to population size. So more people, more energy consumption right? Yes but, some of us consume a lot more energy than others do. Americans consume something like 30 times as much energy per capita as Indians do (in fact, Greater Los Angeles uses as much electricity as all of India does). So assuming that India wants to match that level of consumption and critically, using the same wasteful capitalist production and its economy of obsolescence and endless production/consumption, then no doubt, there will be competition for oil to meet the demand. But this assumes firstly that such a scenario is ever possible and secondly, that by the time a billion or so Indians reach that level of consumption, they’ll be using oil to do it with. But above all, it raises my central point namely, that it’s capitalist production that is the source of such outrageous consumption not only of natural resources, but of people.

It also assumes that there are no alternatives to oil. And third, long before we chow all the sources of fossil fuels on the planet, unless we do something about greenhouse gases, we’ll all drown and/or overheat. So no doubt, the unrestrained use of fossil fuels is madness, but not because we’re ‘running out’ of the stuff but because of climate change and the fact that the West is waging war on the planet in order to control energy sources for wasteful capitalist economies as well as for the armies and weapons needed to maintain that control.

Critically, one has to ask the following question for all the ‘peak oil’ fundis to answer: What exactly, should the level of development for India or any other developing country be? How about somewhere near the level of development we in the West achieved let’s say fifty years ago? Better still, why not pick your own level eh? You, yes, you out there, you’re rich enough and comfortable to have the ‘luxury’ of making such a decision – for yourself that is – but not for anybody else!

Frankly, it’s bollocks, absolute, total bollocks to raise the issue of what level of development the Indians or, for that matter, any other developing country should achieve. It’s racist, elitist, arrogant, and none of our damn business!

The ‘per capita energy consumption’ argument is once again, being connected to ‘over-population’ and the inevitable ‘population control’, or to use the phrase such ideas used to go by, eugenics, that is state-sanctioned sterilisation of those deemed ‘unfit’. For there is no escaping the fact, that the idea of population control leads inevitably to state-sanctioned murder. If you want proof of this, look no further than how food has been used as a weapon to control ‘uppity’ developing countries.
One comment I got put it this way

“As far as overpopulation is concerned, it is a fact. What people in the past complaining about overpopulation missed was the energy subsidy which made that overpopulation possible. We are living on millions of years of concentrated sunlight. That cheap energy has made population overshoot possible and when fuel becomes really expensive, there will be hell to pay.”

First, we are still living on sunlight and as long as there’s a nice, yellow sun in the sky, we shall continue to do so. The Earth is actually a net gainer of energy (or anti-entropic, as we’re in a ‘scientific’ frame of mind today), even if only about 2% of it is actually retained and used in photosynthesis (the rest is reflected back into space or not converted via photosynthesis into plants and animals, just converted directly into heat, but even here, it plays an important role in the various cycles including the weather, the nitrogen and carbon dioxide cycles and so on) and points to just how much of the stuff (energy that is) the sun pours out 24/7/365! Current estimates put it at ‘running out’ in about 4 billion years so we’re roughly halfway there, so are we at the top of the Sun’s ‘Bell Curve’ too?

Second, ‘overpopulation’ is not in any way connected to how much ‘concentrated’ sunlight there is. Indeed, I refuse to recognise that there is such an animal, I merely ask that those who tout the ‘carrying capacity’ stuff to give us a number that is not too much for the planet to ‘carry’? I will be told that there is only so much nitrogen available for plant production (fertilisers etc), which is true but, most plant production (grains etc) is used for raising beef, the most inefficient converter of sunlight into food that there is. So get rid of hamburgers, something that won’t happen unless we get rid of capitalism. Moreover, the switch from indigenous food production to beef for export is one of the major causes of poverty in the developing world, yet again pointing to the role of capitalist economics in distorting the entire relationship between production and consumption.

‘Carrying Capacity’
A writer informed me in response to my reply to his letter

You ask that I don't get “taken in” by “pseudo-scientific buzzwords”, yet I know for a fact that “carrying capacity” and “per capita energy consumption” are genuine technical terms used in many sciences, with definitions I can readily grasp and apply constructively to my mental models of reality.

To which I replied in part

Carrying capacity is a term taken from ecologists and doesn't apply to animals like us who can change their environment and who don't depend (directly at least) on a fine balance between different species for their survival. That's why I term it a buzzword, because for anyone not familar with its context, it sounds eminently reasonable.

With the vast majority of the planet’s population existing in subsistence, agrarian economies, human labour, lots of it, is the only way to extract sufficient food to survive. And whilst it’s true that a falling death-rate has led to an increase in populations in toto, by around 2070 (depending on whose figures you use), the birthrate will flatten as the ratio of women able to reproduce is outstripped by those who have passed that age. As long ago as the 1960s, statisticians with slide rules worked that one out, it ain’t rocket science but simple mathematics. What is currently happening in Europe and other developed economies namely, a population crash, will eventually happen all over the planet unless we maintain the birthrate.

Fact: Just to reproduce the existing population, two children per ‘family’ per generation need to be born.

‘Over-population’ (actually an increase) was not made possible by cheap energy but by a falling death-rate due to medical advances (something that is currently being reversed due in no small part to the West’s policy of ‘structural adjustment’). Fuel for the great mass of the planet’s population is still wood and animal doo-doo, so there is simply no connection between ‘over-population’ and ‘cheap’ energy. Cheap energy is a term that can only be used to describe the 10% or so of the planet’s population’s level of consumption.

In fact I don’t advocate ‘population control’ at all. After all, who is to do the controlling eh? Like they do in China for example, with state intervention, making it a crime to have more than one child? Population control is an outmoded and thoroughly scurrilous invention that goes back to the 18th century and is, without exception directed toward poor people. After all, the wealthy never, ever talk about their own population control, it’s always someone else’s birthrate that has to be controlled. (Ie, the ‘fecundity’ of masses etc. In other words, it’s always poor men wot can’t keep their dicks in their pants).

The size of one’s family is entirely a personal issue and is dependent on economic and educational circumstances such as access to birth control and personal preferences. The state can butt out! More generally, falling birthrates come about as a result of development – economic and social as the Japanese experience informs us for example.

I’ve also been tackled for taking on the eminence grise of the ‘peak oil’ hypothesis, CJ Campbell with comments like

“…[Y]ou pit Colin Campbell’s analysis (a geologist with extensive experience and little if any vested interest in the information he disseminates), against the USGS and IEA (public bodies with at least a vested interest in not being doom-sayers). And even these bodies predict peak oil within a generation or two. It’s only capitalist myopia that would see this as “not worth worrying about” – so I wonder what your issue is with Colin Campbell, who, as far as I know is pretty catholic in his oil depletion recommendations (no bashing of the developing world as far as I can see).”

No vested interest? Come now, his clients are the oil majors. He has for example refused to make public the scientific basis of his prognostications (unless you want to cough up $30,000 for the report) so one is placed in the unenviable position of not being able to test his hypothesis. Whether Campbell bashes or not the developing world is neither here nor there, it’s the use his predictions are put to and by whom, that’s important. And yes, the USGS is a conservative body and with good reason, they abide by quite strict rules concerning resource recovery, the operative word being recovery, hence they base their numbers not on any kind of total but on what’s economically – under the current circumstances – recoverable. Not surprisingly, the number fluctuates somewhat, reflecting the vagaries of the oil futures market. As to not being ‘doom-sayers’, I would venture to guess that the USGS is neither a doom-sayer nor an eternal optimist. For anyone interested, the USGS has quite strict rules governing how it ascertains the current level of ‘recoverable reserves’, that is, oil that can be actually got at and turned into useful products. See for example: energy.er.usgs.gov/products/papers/World_oil/AAPG/bulletin/intro.htm

Campbell has, in any case, continually put forward the date when ‘peak oil’ will be reached at least three times (his latest being next year). But more importantly, oil is by no means the only source of energy we have, supplies of gas outstrip oil by several orders or magnitude (see Odell’s ‘The Global Energy Market in the Long Term: The Continuing Dominance of Affordable Non-Renewable Resources’, a very conservative academic). So one has to ask the question why is ‘peak oil’ the only focus of concern?

Because ‘peak oil’ is an ideological/political construct.

I have also been accused by my critics of backing unrestrained economic expansion and the motor car. Well I thought that I made it quite plain that climate change/global warming is a real threat to the entire planet but I don’t see that as being presented by advocates of ‘peak oil’ as the real issue. Again, we come back to the nature of the capitalist system and its dependence on oil and the refusal by the major consumer on the planet, the US, of altering its ways.

Assuming that we do ‘run out of oil’ (not a practical reality, anymore than the switch from coal to oil was because we ran out of coal as any number of unemployed coal miners will tell you), but yes, assuming that we did ‘use up all the oil’, then technology would produce a solution, but that’s not the point. It seems that all the people who have criticised me, seem to think that I’m defending the wasteful use of oil, in spite of going to lengths to show (I hope) that’s not my point. And once more, population is not an issue (unless you’re an advocate of global extermination?). The people are here and we need to put in place policies that see to it that everyone is properly fed, housed, clothed and educated, period. Capitalism is clearly unable and unwilling to do this, so we need a change to a more just and equitable distribution of resources (which are not in short supply, merely not distributed fairly).

Related is yet another fallacious idea that the ‘pie is shrinking’ in size, hence the emergence of yet another fashionable phrase, ‘resource wars’? The West has been starting wars for over a century over oil, long before Campbell was a gleam in the eyes of his parents. The control of resources is not merely an economic necessity for capitalism but a military/political one in order to preserve the capitalist way of life and has absolutely nothing to do with how much of a particular resource there is but where it is and who controls/owns it. As some wag put it, if Iraq had been the world’s number one producer of broccoli, would Bush/Blair have invaded?

The pie grows, not shrinks, we have continually done more with less since the technological revolution started. It requires less labour, less energy, less in the way of resources to achieve the same result. What has changed has been the useless and wasteful squandering of resources, not to improve peoples’ standards of living around the world, but to increase the wealth of an infinitesimally small number of people.

But perhaps the most insidious aspect of the ‘peak oil’ hypothesis is an implicit but entirely unstated one, namely that, conveniently for us in the West that is, development has to stop here. So does this mean that the rest of the planet’s population are forever frozen in under-development? Well it would appear so wouldn’t it, after all, if the ‘peak oil’ hypothesis is correct, for the bulk of the planet’s population, there will be no development, as according to the doomsayers, there is simply not enough go around. The world will degenerate into increasingly vicious ‘resource’ wars with no hope for those unlucky enough to be born in the ‘wrong’ place at the ‘wrong’ time, an idea that I view as reactionary, defeatist and anti-human in all its aspects.

I await responses with baited breath.
    
 
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