What’s the real meaning of the Deepwater Horizon disaster? I keep returning to this topic because it reveals so much about the state of contemporary U.S. civilization (although, to echo Gandhi, U.S. civilization would be a nice thing). But I don’t feel that I’ve really gotten to the bottom of the issue.
I mean, why the hell was BP drilling a mile down in the Gulf of Mexico anyway? And why was the U.S. government permitting this?
The obvious context, one that never gets mentioned as far as I can tell in mainstream media coverage, is the increasing inaccessibility of oil. After all, these dubious drilling technologies would not be necessary if one just had to stick a pipe down into the soil of, say, Texas or California. No, most of the easily accessible oil is now controlled by national oil companies such as Saudi Aramco and Petróleos de Venezuela. Big private companies like BP, Shell, Exxon, and Chevron are now forced to search for oil in increasingly difficult and dangerous places. This is why the Deepwater Horizon tragedy happened.
And things are not going to get any better. In an article published last summer, with the ominous title “It’s Official – the Era of Cheap Oil is Over,” political scientist Michael T. Klare documented the latest report published by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (IEA), the International Energy Outlook (IEO). This report is the gold standard in terms of assessments of global energy supplies.
Guess what the 2009 IEO report predicted?: a sharp drop in projected future world oil output and a corresponding increase in reliance on so-called unconventional fuels – oil sands, shale oil, biofuels, and, you guessed it, ultra-deep soil.
The costs of exploiting such unconventional fuels are now clear to see in the oil shoals which are fouling more and more of the Gulf of Mexico. The gathering political firestorm is likely to make such operations increasingly difficult to carry out – at least one would hope so. But where are we going to get the energy we need for our increasingly power-hungry culture?
The answer would seem to be a swift, government-leveraged transition to renewable energy forms. Indeed, in previous pieces I’ve argued that this is precisely what the Gulf spill should help prompt, if anything positive can come out of such an environmental and economic catastrophe.
And yet it would be naive to assume that we can simply substitute wind, wave, and solar power for fossil fuels like coal and oil. Searching for a Miracle, a report published recently by the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization, argues that no combination of alternative energy systems can replace fossil fuels. If fossil fuels and high-quality uranium ores are depleting rapidly, and unconventional sources such as oil shale, tar sands, and biofuels suffer from low or negative net energy gain (meaning that we have to put more energy into extracting them than they produce at the end of the day), alternative energy sources are no panacea either. They do provide clean energy, but their supply is intermittent (the sun doesn’t always shine, after all, nor does the wind always blow), they are often located in remote places (how do we get power from the wind-swept Great Plains to cities on the two coasts in the U.S., for example?), and they simply don’t offer the scale necessary to run anything approaching 20th century industrial civilization.
So the inevitable upshot of this analysis is that business as usual is no longer possible. The mantra of growth which mainstream economists and politicians recite like zombies is totally untenable. We need to prepare societies for a dramatic shift in consumption patterns and lifestyle expectations. This could be a very positive transition given the level of alienation and exploitation (not to mention increasingly strident racism) that characterizes globalized neoliberal capitalism. But it could also provoke vertiginously increased forms of xenophobia, political backlash, and incipient fascism.
The sooner we begin preparing for this great transition, the more likely we are to weather it without political chaos setting in.