Country by country, oil extraction is peaking, leading to dry wells, sky bells, and land grabs. How much will the final barrel cost? Infinity dollars? The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World, the first book by Seattle-based journalist Paul Roberts, is a profound look at the science, politics, and personalities involved in one of Earth’s most cataclysmic issues. I based my smash hit, “Yesterday Is History” on the galley copy and spoke with Roberts on March 31, 2004.
MC Paul Barman: You wrote “The Federal Chain-Saw Massacre” about forestry, “The Sweet Hereafter” about sugar, and “Bad Sports” about SUVs. What do these topics have in common?
Paul Roberts: They’re all commodities produced en masse and distributed around the world. They’re all subject to high demand. They have been cheap in the past and they’re becoming more expensive. It’s no longer okay to just go cut a forest, because you’ll run into all sorts of obstacles. People will criticize you. You’ll run afoul of regulations. It’s the same thing with oil.
Oil is way more problematic in the sense that it’s not just environmentally difficult but there is also political considerations. Most oil is in unstable regions: Saudi Arabia, Russia, the Caspian, West Africa. All these places are politically prone to volatility. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for a country like Angola or Venezuela, or even Russia, to have a civil unrest that would, among other things, cut production. It would cut exports and that would leave countries like us, that depend on imports, in the lurch.
Lastly, we’ve got to ask, what are we doing to the climate? The way we burn fossil fuels is just not sustainable. Whether we’re talking about coal or oil or natural gas, we produce a lot of carbon, and I’m sure you know the suggested link between carbon dioxide and climate change.
The final endpoint is: oil is a finite substance.
MCPB: Why do you care to share the fact that things need to change?
PR: I wish I could say that I have been an impassioned advocate for humanity all my life. I care a great deal about my neighbors and I would like to see the human race continue. I find that I am deeply bothered by all kinds of injustice. I’m curious. I’m kind of the classic storyteller.
Doing a book, as opposed to a magazine article, you get to spend more time on a topic. You get a larger canvas, which means that you look at the whole pattern. You bring in all these different elements. You set them there till the big picture becomes in focus. You start to see these larger trends. And that’s when you really start going, “Wow, I’ve got to get this down, and I’ve got to share this with people.”
MCPB: Let’s assume, and correct me if you think this is an unlikely assumption, that we don’t address the problems you raise in your book for ten years. What is the situation?
PR: By then you’d see, if you hadn’t already, signs that “easy oil” (that I refer to in the book) was running out. We will be forced to search for oil in increasingly obscure locations that are environmentally sensitive or politically dangerous — things that make getting oil out more expensive. So the price of oil gets even higher than it is today.
You are going to see a lot more evidence that climate change is not just real, but really serious. We will know the extent of the increased melting of the ice caps. We’ll see how far disease is spreading. As tropical areas expand, as temperature rises, these diseases are going to spread. We’ll see heavy rains and the kind of things they predict will be catastrophic in the event of a warming climate. More floods, more hurricanes, and those kinds of things.
I don’t know that we’ll be invading more countries for oil, but I suspect that countries that have oil will struggle to maintain stability. We are going to see repeated cases of unrest, civil war, disruption in places like West Africa. Venezuela is going to remain unstable. Who knows what happens with Russia? It’s moving back toward an autocratic regime that doesn’t promote stability. People get angry and they tend to rise up.
Then you have Saudi Arabia, what happens there? That country is on the edge of collapse. It has this raging young population boom of young people who are poor. They already realize they’re not going to be as well-off as their parents. There’s just not enough jobs for them. They’re angry at the pro-Western tendencies they see in this oil elite. They are very susceptible to fundamentalism. The Islamic faith, like any other faith, has got some really powerful and important ideas in it and it can be misused as easily as Christianity or Judaism, or any other religion. It is particularly powerful among people who are poor and angry. It’s misusage has been terrible there. We’re going to see more of that without question.
If America continues to use more and more oil, and we have to rely on and lean on Middle Eastern countries, why would people who are already angry at the U.S. be any less angry?
MCPB: What do you think it would take for the American two-party system to be replaced?
PR: Something huge because I don’t think Americans want the two-party system replaced. I think they want it to work better. They want it to change fundamentally, but I don’t know that most Americans pay enough attention to politics to really know what they want.
There’s an American fundamentalism that’s rising up, a desire for a simple view of how the world works. The less and less educated we are, the less aware we are about energy or politics or foreign policy, the more we want this simple view. Us vs. them, black vs. white, the more that desire comes to mark the American character. The greater the desire for an easy-to-understand world — good guys and bad guys — then the harder it is for any sort of change to happen and the easier it is for politicians of all stripes to sell total garbage. To claim that if those darn Saudis just produced more oil, then we wouldn’t have these high oil prices, that’s five percent of the problem. The big problem is that we’re using too much oil. You don’t have to be a leftist to suggest that. It’s more like good business sense. No one is willing to commit themselves to a bright clean future that is free of oil until, a) they’re forced or, b) it’s clear that they can make money on it.
MCPB: You said things like, “This is the most serious crisis of the industrial age” and “The Depression is going to look like a birthday party if we don’t plan ahead.” So what can the individual do?
PR: People must begin to educate themselves. Push to understand what’s going on. Break through this energy fundamentalism that we have. I call it “energy prudery.” Say, “Where does my oil come from, how much do I use, and what are the impacts of using all that oil? How much electricity am I using? Where does it come from?” All over the country people think their electricity comes from hydropower. They have this nice image of a dam churning away in the Tennessee Valley or up in the Northwest. The fact is most people get their energy from where? Coal and nuclear.
People need to invest some time in understanding it. That doesn’t just mean buying my book, although that should be an important first step. People should get to the point where they hear statements on the newspaper, on the radio, and can go, “Okay, I buy that,” or, “I don’t buy that.” They can fit what they hear into a larger picture.
They should understand that gasoline prices going up in the summer and down in the winter, isn’t always going to be that way. They should understand why oil prices will be trending up. They should understand what the costs are of having this tight relationship with the Saudis and what it has allowed the Saudis and Americans to get away with.
If one of your friends showed up to your house and said, “I want to build this system globally that’s gonna run on oil. It’s gonna suck oil from all these unstable places and you’re gonna run your car on it. It’s the one fuel that you’ll need. The entire economy will depend on it, but at any minute it could collapse. By the way, gasoline is highly toxic, volatile, and flammable, so it could blow up at any minute. Let’s build the system.” You would slap him.
We have to look at it as if we just dropped in from another planet. People have to step back and go, “Whoa, it’s nuts,” at least once a month.
People have to start making decisions about what kind of car they’re going to buy. That’s the most important thing people can do. There are people who would never buy a big car. There are people who would always buy a big car and they’re lost. They’re not going to change their minds. They don’t believe there’s an energy problem. They don’t care anyway. But there are people on the fence. They say, “Well, I like the big car because it feels safer. I’ve got all these kids. I’m a little afraid, but worried about how much fuel it’s using.” Those people have to be talked to and do the thinking themselves. They’re the ones that can change. There’s a lot of potential there.