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Libya’s unintended consequences may bring freedom for us all

February 26, 2011

Over the last decade, one of my consistently depressing themes is that no government will really do much about climate change because if they did what was required, we’d just boot them out at the next election – and they know that. I can’t blame politicians for wanting to hold on to their jobs. In that respect they are just like everyone else – why should they be different?

Actually, leadership does entail responsibilities that might answer that question to some extent, but the real concern is electoral support. On the matter of climate change (with peak oil riding point for the assault) it has seemed clear that current adult generations view these issues as too distant for much immediate concern, or action, to be invested. My take on this has been that only when the shit hits the fan will anything get done, and in all likelihood it will be far too little, far too late.

But if there’s one thing I must acknowledge, it is that the astonishing process we call civilisation is as surprising as it is unpredictable. Perhaps the well-informed Arabists foretold the uprisings in the Middle East, but I suspect that most of us were surprised, then cynical about the inevitable violent repression that would follow. Except that it didn’t, and the embers are being tended by avid keepers, ready to fan more dissent.

There seems to be a little confusion in the west about quite how we should react. On the one hand, nobody in their right mind is going to condemn the overthrow of the likes of Gadaffi or Mubarak, the end of dictatorial oppression and despotic regimes. Wise heads are equivocal, however – in the media and elsewhere, I suspect – because there are aspects of this revolution that reach far beyond the deserts of the ME. The rise of militant Islam on the back of such ingrained resentment is a problem we may have to face. More immediately, the concern is that certain after-shocks will affect the entire global economy, and those after-shocks will flow through oil.

I’ve read several predictions that the dissent will spread to Saudi Arabia, and if that becomes true, the resultant market reactions and the effects on energy costs will be impossible to guess, but inevitably disastrous. The impact of the Libyan uprising is already making waves in the ocean of commerce rather more than ripples in the pond of human rights, and another suspicion I have is that many people who were not all that worried about peak oil just woke up. It isn’t just that the oil is running out, but where it is. We created this problem by supporting tyrants and demagogues in order to further what we thought were our own interests. Now it appears the invoice for our manipulative colonial complacency has arrived, and the bill may be very steep indeed.

* * * * *

It seems rather perverse to view anarchy as a good thing, but there is another way of looking at the coming storm, and a reason to welcome the disruption it may cause elsewhere. Let’s go back to the issue of political impotence. Politics is like a mirror of the times, and right now the public are not sufficiently convinced of the dangers they face, in part because dates like 2050 or 2100 feature regularly in the discourse about climate change, and peak oil is often countered as a theat by claims of ever increasing ‘new’ reserves just sitting there, waiting for someone to dig up, suck out, crack open or blow apart. Since it is patently impossible to tell what’s going to happen next month – economy, jobs, sport, scandal, the odd war and the odd revolution or two – for the public, such distant concerns, generational concerns, are too vague and ephemeral to take seriously.

As we say down here in Devon, we’ll do that stuff dreckly (i.e. ‘directly’, which when translated really means ‘eventually’). And because climate change disasters and oil running out seem so distant, there is no support for long term plans and monies to be spent on them, not when we’re in the middle of draconian cuts to pretty much every part of the social fabric in order to make up the monumental shortfall our glorious global banking system brought to a wallet near you.

What will bring about a change in public – and therefore political – support for draconian changes in fuel usage, investment in renewables, reductions in fossil fuel use and conservation of energy? The changes no government yet dare implement? The answer is disaster, and while I regret the prognosis, I must point out that it is only because we are so complacent that we have to be jolted out of our disinterest by something bad.

As stupid as it seems, I think it is only when we are really suffering that we care to act, or support those who do. So I look to the ME, consider the impact of the Libyan on oil supplies, and make a simple extrapolation to include Bahrain, Iraq and Saudi Arabia in the mix. Over time, whatever happens in the ME will stabilise as new administrations turn their attention to economic matters and realise they have to start pumping again, exporting again. In the short term, however – and it is the short term so many of us seem to be obsessed with – in that short term, predictable future the effects of the dissent on energy supplies and pricing are anything but predictable. There could well be a timely example set, a foretaste of things to come, that will shock the entire world as we come to a sudden stop, the brakes jammed on by unseen hands waving an AK47 at the desert from atop a broken oil pipeline.

* * * * *

America is the real problem today, its intransigence over energy use (and therefore climate change) an affront, because the costs of their indulgence will be paid by us all, one way or another. I cannot think of any shock more apt, better suited to the American psyche, than for the price of petrol and Avgas to go through the roof. Only when the US transportation system is brought to a standstill by fuel prices does it seem that many Americans will realise how vulnerable they are, how dependent on so many people who hate them, and how their profligacy is their greatest liability. In Europe we are not doing so badly, our efforts are productive overall, but the UK is still mired in conflicting ambitions, trying to placate on the one hand, cut on the other. There’s a lack of conviction and quite a bit of serious policy conflict, where different initiatives seem to entirely undo one another.

We can all do better. The principle issue remains the obvious one – sort this out and everything else falls into place: renewable energy. Non-polluting energy. Non-CO2 producing energy (or much less of the stuff). Many people have observed that the measures we need to take to mitigate the worst of climate change are the same measures we need to take to address peak oil. This is broadly true, and what we need most are ways to reduce our use and therefore dependency on oil. Up until now, perhaps nobody really thought that was an imminent problem. Now it has become one, and the twin results will both be reactions to the good: a sudden investment of interest, capital and resolve in finding new sources of energy and getting them build, and a reduction in CO2 as we all use much less oil, constrained not by sense but by cost. Maybe that’s the truth of consumerism – the only thing that really makes sense to the consumer is the price.

Yes, we will burn more coal, but we can’t react quickly enough to the crisis to burn that much more, and nobody’s going to be running their cars on coal. There will also be hardship, some of it deeply felt. I regret this terribly, but I also think it is a self-inflicted wound. Consumers can merrily bash their credit cards, swan around the malls and indulge themselves, but their lack of interest or involvement in society or democracy may be their undoing. In the west, we’ll moan a great deal, march with banners proclaiming our outrage, but we’ll manage because in relative terms we are very rich – ask any Somalian farmer. He’ll laugh, offer you his bowl of dust for your supper and wonder what all the fuss is about, because we have water coming out of a tap, for God’s sake! How rich must we be?

Change is coming. Unintended consequences may destroy the complacent view that we have time to sort all this out. A short sharp shock may be unpleasant, but nowhere near as bad as what we’re going to endure if business is conducted as usual. The uprisings in the ME may put paid to any notion that we can maintain growth, carry on regardless, and if that’s true, then the immediate pain will be worth bearing for the long term good. Not all of us will see it that way, but since our indifference is our undoing, the public will probably get what it deserves.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. mark houghton brown permalink
    February 26, 2011 10:18 am

    Spot on Graham; we actually need a nasty shock or two that cant be blamed on el nino or al qaeda to start embracing renewables with a lot more urgency and enthusiasm, to begin putting in place some serious public transport options, to make energy conservation and growing our own vegetables into mainstream concerns.
    The balancer i suppose, which you dont seem to address but is doubtless a subtext, is that the consumer society and even economic growth itself may no longer be sustainable. That implies changes in our value systems, better ways of measuring genuine progress, and fairer shares all round ; it also implies stronger government interventions, fewer personal freedoms, less everyday choices. Interesting times.

  2. February 26, 2011 7:20 pm

    Yes, I was about to make the same point as Mark, that renewables can’t be #1 priority, since renewables won’t let us continue the same energy glut that we’ve been pigging out on for the last few decades. First priority is a change of heart and mindset from consumer to citizen and from economic to ecological mindedness. Renewables flow from that – and as a fairly high priority, since they provide some relative local stability in the coming storm. Far better to get occasional local juice in the wires from a wind farm than rely on a coal plant with long (and so vulnerable) supply chains.

  3. February 26, 2011 7:21 pm

    Oh, but otherwise – great post and thanks!

  4. February 26, 2011 7:24 pm

    BTW, some things I’ve been reading recently have pointed out that oil is only one of the economic dynamics at work in relation to Libya/Egypt/elsewhere in the ME. The energy industry may be #1 in the global economy, but #2 comes arms, and the UK is #2 in the global arms trade (no prizes for guessing #1), including significant contracts with the very dictators who are using lethal force against their population.

  5. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 27, 2011 12:53 pm

    Byron (and Mark): Yes, I was about to make the same point as Mark, that renewables can’t be #1 priority, since renewables won’t let us continue the same energy glut that we’ve been pigging out on for the last few decades.

    I think there’s another way of looking at this, although I agree that energy demands are a symptom of the sickness, and providing more is like providing more morphine – doesn’t fix the problem but it’s quite a nice insulating buzz. My prognosis is pragmatic: nobody in their right mind is going to start promoting the kind of social change we are agreed must occur in the long run. Meanwhile, putting the effort into renewables is, in my view, the only way to temper the disruption, to ease the pain as it were. Gradually, I can only hope that societies all over the world come to some realistic understanding of what we can have, and what we can’t. If we do this quick enough, we may exercise some choice about what we keep and what we lose. If we wait, not only will our choices be circumscribed, but we’ll be making them in the dark.

  6. February 28, 2011 3:04 pm

    Fair enough.

    I agree that outside of cultural/moral/worldview/societal change, then getting renewables into action is the biggest and best infrastructural change presently achievable* and will have benefits for both mitigation and adaptation regarding both climate and peak oil.
    *Perhaps combined with new urbanism and retrofitting buildings for efficiency.

    I would only add (and it is superfluous for you, I know, but worth repeating) that the change of hearts we’re agreed is actually more important has to stay as a primary goal, even if it sounds like we’re out of our right minds sometimes (or rather, in order to show that we’re actually thinking broadly about this and don’t believe that a few renewables is going to save industrial civilisation, which does sound like someone is not in their right mind).

  7. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 28, 2011 7:05 pm

    Byron – it’s always worth repeating. Renewables are a means to an end – it is this end you are emphasising, the destination. It’s quite easy to forget quite where we’re going, all the while we worry about how many sandwiches we need for the journey 🙂

  8. March 2, 2011 7:40 pm

    Solar sandwiches, better than oily ones.

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