Monday, March 10, 2008

The Price of Oil.

Oil has now hit $106 a barrel, and I think that is the trend we can expect from now on. There is an article in the Guardian newspaper by Derek Brower which criticised Jeremy Leggett for saying that the underlying reason for rising fuel prices is that oil is about to peak, and implied that rather it is all a simple matter of economics - that rising prices will force more of the resource onto the markets, as economists often maintain. However, since Leggett is a trained geologist I think he knows what he's talking about. The cost and production of oil is a geological problem and there is no sense in comparing the current situation with e.g. the oil-crises in the 1970's which were a political matter, and did not reflect oil recovery per se; now it does. Since we will need all the energy we can get, I find no objection to promoting solar, as Leggett does in his role as CEO of the company SolarCentury, or indeed any other kind of sustainable energy, albeit that I think we may have left it rather too late, and it will take decades to install solar-power on any comparable scale to the amount of electricity the world gets through presently.

If peak oil were a mere figment of anyone's imagination - and that of pretty sensible people, including geologists and other scientists, and even some economists - I doubt we would be reading headlines such as "Climate change may spark conflict with Russia, EU told". The latter is in effect a warning that Russia and the European nations may come into conflict over recovering the oil and other mineral resources that are believed to lie under the Arctic, noting the synonym that "climate change" = "CO2 emissions" = "global warming", which is actually quite an assumption. If the recovery of oil could be enhanced merely according to its price, we wouldn't be looking for it in such inhospitable places as the Arctic in the first place. A report illustrates the bone of contention that it is the wealthy, northern nations that cause global warming (i.e. produce most of the CO2 that humans emit into the atmosphere) while its impact, e.g. flooding, will be most devastating in the poor, southern countries. A real north-south divide.

Looking at this country, i.e. the United Kingdom, I do wonder how the oil-dearth era will all pan-out. I note another disturbing headline, "Teachers are surrogate parents now". This is in reference to the breakdown of the nuclear family. I remember meeting a girl on a train a couple of years back, who had just graduated in sociology but was training as a social worker. Her reason for doing this was job-security, as she put it: "With the divorce rate the way it is, there'll never be any shortage of fucked-up kids." Sad but probably true. However, one consequence of peak oil, if we get through it all intact, will most likely be a relocalisation of society, a return to village-life if you will and a need for people to stick together.

Thus the family and indeed the community will become important once more. They always were important, it's just that in the "me, me, me" post-early 1980's era, this seems to have been forgotten. When I was at school thirty odd years ago there was just one child there from a broken home, now this circumstance is commonplace, and for all our freedoms, to abandon families and drink and borrow ourselves stupid, my impression is that we are not happier than we ever were. Even when I went to university in the late 1970's, there was a girl who was talked about that she "came from a broken home"; it was still sufficiently unusual to be worthy of mention, at least by kids from the home counties. Another result of family-breakdown is a welfare bill which has soared since then, and in all probability the government will be unable to pay it as global trade is hammered by rising transportation costs and indeed actual fuel shortages. Including pensions, 49% of the British population now receives "benefits" of some kind, which surely is not sustainable, certainly not if the national economy finds itself in lean times.

True, when I was a kid nobody had much money, but we didn't starve either. I doubt all families were "The Waltons" exactly but there was a sense of belonging, continuity and purpose in life.
With freedom comes responsibility, and when the former is taken to and beyond the limits of good sense, the latter becomes inescapable. While I don't relish the undoubtedly difficult scenario facing us as a human society during the next decades, we may ultimately be better off; but only if we can hold together and act in a sense of community. We will not be able to survive alone.

Related Reading.
[1] "Teachers are surrogate parents now." By Graeme Paton and James Kirkup.
[2] "Climate change may spark conflict with Russia, EU told." By Ian Traynor.
[3] "Scraping the Barrel". By Derek Brower


Anonymous said...

Abandoned Mines = Geothermal Heat (5 min.Video)

Abandoned Mines Provide Geothermal Heat
March 10, 2008 (Runs 4:57)
Innovator Ralph Ross, of Springhill, Nova Scotia has been working in geothermal energy since the 80's and is finally seeing his idea take off.

(How many mineshafts world wide could be recycled this way?

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi george.

It's always hotter down a mine and so in principle I guess thousands of mines could be used in this way. The only problem is the huge amount of engineering that would be necessary to exploit them.

As with all these schemes, if we are to use them we need to get going fast while there is still plenty of conventional energy (especially fuel to run vehicles etc.) to do so!

I wonder what proportion of our energy could be provided from used mine workings though, but I think we will need all the energy we can get.


Dr. V. Narayana said...

Just a word on the business ethics of "innovator" Ralph Ross of Springhill Nova Scotia...(people are quick to glorify him as some kind of environmental titan). I, on the other hand, can testify that his professional ethics are nothing to write home about. There is nothing worse than a pseudo-environmentalist who preys on public good will to fill his pockets!
Valerie Narayana, New Brunswick