Caveat: In the memory of George Carlin, RIP, and conceived in his eternal spirit of exposing bullshit wherever he found any, and who, in 1999, commenting on the trend among white business men to smoke big fat cigars, opened with, “Haven’t we had enough of this cigar smoking shit in this country?” and closed with: “Sigmund Freud said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Oh, yeah? Well, sometimes it’s a big brown dick … with a fat arrogant white collar business criminal asshole sucking on the wet end of it.”
There are many problems, of the conceptual and political kind, with the explanations by the proponents of the idea that the current oil prices and the ongoing wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan are the direct results of having reached a peak in the worldwide oil production. In what follows, I will list five fundamental shortcomings of Peak Oil explanations.
1. Racist Thinking
Here is a challenge for all American environmentalists: Find any utterance made by any environmentalist in the U.S. that falls to the left of the following quote from an article by the certified right-winger, Charles Krauthammer: “Forbidding drilling [in the Arctic refuge] does not prevent despoliation. It merely exports it. The crude oil we’re not getting from the Arctic we import instead from places like the Niger Delta, where millions live and where the resulting pollution and oil spillages poison the lives of many of the world’s most abysmally poor” (emphasis added).
A very kind and well-informed person provided me an insight regarding the difference between the ‘profitability of extraction’ as opposed to the ‘required energy needed for extraction’. It was pointed out that profitability of oil extraction should not be the key consideration. Instead, the most important consideration should be how much energy is put into the extraction process v. the amount of usable energy dug up (in the form of oil). Fair and well. And I would add that the amount of energy input required to get the oil must also include the ‘cost’ of basic human life.
Myriad forms of socio-historically necessary labor-hours go into creating the material conditions in which to exploit the energy hidden in a natural resource (say, oil). If we only look at a tiny slice of this huge spectrum of energy-types spent over many decades and even entire centuries — i.e. if, out of a miles-long chain, we only look at a few chain-links pertaining to the drilling/extraction/distribution — then of course we end up with a limited understanding of the larger chain of events.
For example, consider how long (i.e., how many human labor hours) it takes to build a school. If it takes a crew of 100 people one year to finish this school, that’s 200,000 human hours (assuming work week is 40 hours, and work year 50 weeks). Now, consider how many different types of expertise go into building such a school. Now add to that the many millions of human hours spent on raising (feeding, housing, healthcare) and educating this 100-person crew.
Then, enlarge the picture: think building roads, bridges, factories, other needed buildings, stores, farms, sewage systems, houses, universities, hospitals, theaters, concert halls, sports facilities and stadiums. And then what about training and professionally nurturing the teachers, doctors and nurses, carpenters, plumbers, factory workers, shopkeepers, engineers, writers and journalists, trade unionists, film makers, painters, poets? How many billions and billions of human-hours does it take to build a city, a working government?
Now answer this: Do all the billions of hours of materialized human labor that have historically been destroyed by Westerners in the Middle East enter the equations telling us how many energy units are needed, under the current market conditions, to produce the equivalent of one BTU (British Thermal Unit) of energy?
The fact that mainstream publications screaming about peak oil (when talking about the ‘cost’ of oil) never take into account the obliterated billions of human labor-hours spent developing the societies in the Middle East is proof enough of the racist thinking common among the western powers and their media. [That some leftists get starry-eyed by the unscientific numbers presented by Peak Oilers says more about the sorry state of affairs in the so-called American Left, than it says about the persuasive powers of the 'explanations' presented.]
We can find it justifiable to exclude human lives and the ‘cost’ of their socio-historical accumulations, and instead concentrate only on technical side of capital’s operational costs exclusively connected to extraction/packaging/distribution, if and only if other peoples’ lives have no value.
When discussing human-created problems — particularly pertaining to exploiting natural resources through socially organized activities — any proposed ‘cost analysis’ that excludes historically accumulated human social labor is not an a scientific explanation. Further, such a perspective is racist since the only human life worth its consideration, implicit in its tenets, is the ethnocentric, western self.
Just the amount spent on the destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan is in the trillions of dollars. How many tens of trillions of dollars worth of human creation has this war actually destroyed? Do these destructions enter American environmentalists’ calculations?
2. Warning sign is all they are; panic is all they breed
In a global social system run by imperialistic capitalism, the key factor is profitability, and nothing else. For those who wish to maximize their profits, panic may be induced regarding the slower rates of discoveries of easy oil; not ‘peak’ oil.
Peak Oil hysteria — and it is hysteria, since it comes with no realistically thought out solution plans — in this context, only feeds the ideological ruling paradigms, which translate the supposed shortages into a need for more severe wars of possession for natural resources. This is so, because in the metropolises of the world capitalist system, it is only the right wing that wields real power, and right wing solutions are the only ones with buyers. (Which incidentally is exactly why the Democrats must remain very right wing if they want to find any buyers for their ideas.)
In the context of the really existing capitalism, Peak Oilers are therefore basically a warning sign, which has been flashing on and off since the 1970s, and still decked in the same 70s accompaniments: intensification of the oppression of the Palestinian Arabs; high oil prices; high inflation; and a rising trend toward higher unemployment rates.
Peak Oil’s flashing sign is old, certain wires hanging loose disconnected, at times zapping itself; consequently, it needs artificially enhanced energy. The current war, like a lovely dose of Viagra, has given its arguments excessive blood and vigor. Just as heart-throbbing the effects are of the elixir of manhood, hold on to your hats boys and girls, for you’ll be hearing the siren songs to the tune of the equivalent of a 6-hour hard-on: very excited and energetic commentary-pronouncements running on feverishly for a long time, warning of how fucked up the situation’s gonna get, then, WAM, heart attack! On the background wall to the stage on which this stupidity performs, the sign flashing: Tank Half Empty! Tank Half Empty! (Brain Half Dead!)
Peak Oilers are very much like the local evening news: A house/office building/mountain burned down; shootings at a high school, in neighborhood X, mostly poor, police say the gunmen are still at large, motive unknown; 53 arrested after police broke up a high school brawl involving 300 students, reasons unclear; man/woman/child killed, police interviewed the neighbors, motive unknown; local convenience store held up, the cashier unharmed/was gunned down, police have no explanations.
Now, we know that even in the worst locations on earth (except war zones) those fires, shootings, school fights due to hanging nooses, teachers and priests having sex with students/believers, and all the millions of miles of footage on this or that celebrity seen locally (or anywhere) were obviously not the only things happening within the local universe in the 24-hour interval between last night and tonight. Some selection has clearly taken place, which is of course what ‘news’ organizations do to prepare their programs. This carefully produced selection, when repeated daily and over the decades, keeps the public on edge on two levels: envious of the rich and the famous and, more so and more importantly, scared and insecure about their own lives. And that, not information sharing, is the rhetorical agenda of ‘news organizations’: Danger creeps around every corner! Put your trust in the authorities! State violence is your only security!
Peak Oil serves exactly the same rhetorical purpose in a more nuanced way, with regard to the ‘energy crisis’: it keeps people revved up and on edge about the coming doom regarding oil and ‘our way of life’. And who to trust to solve the problem? Since Peak Oilers don’t say, the actually existing answer is provided happily by, who else, the western corporations, the global ‘free market’ and the first world governments.
3. Magical disappearance of American oil
Since this has been dealt with to some degree in a previous article, the actual estimates for how much oil (in different forms) is available in the U.S. are presented for the reader in two documents that were prepared for the U.S. Congress (see here, and here). These two documents make it clear that the U.S., including its outer continental shelf, contains, just in terms of crude oil, about 115 billion barrels of crude oil (not 21 billion, as is widely circulated in the mainstream media). Additionally, the U.S. also has a huge reserve of oil shale, from which at least tens of billions more barrels of oil can be had.
Further, as has been thoroughly explained by William Engdahl, 60% of the current price of oil is caused by the futures traders in this commodity, and has nothing to do with supply shortages. In fact, there is too much supply for the actually existing capacity of refineries to refine the available oil fast enough!
So, ‘shortages’ have nothing to do with the oil prices, and there is plenty of American oil still available for American users. So Peak Oilers must be experiencing a severe case of ‘Thou panicketh too much!’
4. Magical disappearance of American culpability
Since Peak Oilers work with capitalist vocabulary, their solutions will never have anything to do with a fundamental re-conceptualization of property rights, and no form of socialization of natural resources will enter their platforms.
Their remedies are limited to suggestions regarding consumption patterns purely. So, let us take them seriously, and consider the consequences of their recommendations for change of consumption patterns.
According to Wikipedia, “Energy demand is distributed amongst four broad sectors: transportation, residential, commercial, and industrial. The sector that generally sees the highest annual growth in petroleum demand is transportation, in the form of new demand for personal-use vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. [...] This sector also has the highest consumption rates, accounting for approximately 68.9% of the oil used in the United States in 2006.”
Let us now praise and appraise the big, blue and purple elephant sitting in front of the TVs of all Americans still in their homes: the North American urban planning.
Apart from New York City, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Portland (OR) and Seattle and a few other metropolitan centers, which together comprise a small percentage of the land mass of the country, in all the rest of the U.S. you pretty much must have a car to get around; or else it takes you about three times as much (if at all) to do anything. A large percentage own two cars per family.
This is because of the city planning, which imposes such conditions that you cannot simply walk or take a bus to school, or to work, or to the grocery store; or walk to the drug store, the cobbler (seen any of those around lately?), or to buy a newspaper, a pack of cigarettes, a loaf of bread, some eggs, some cookies. No. You must drive! You must start up an internal combustion engine, and burn up thousands upon thousands of additional calorie-equivalents of energy unnecessarily spent for doing tasks that can be done far more efficiently, in the same amount of time; like they’re done in about all the other countries in the world.
So, what do Peak Oilers suggest we do about this very fundamental, and very large, part of the American demand side of the ‘oil crisis’? Nothing short of a social revolution can solve this specifically American problem. Are the Peak Oilers advocating a new American revolution and preparing for it? That would be the politico-logical thing to do.
5. The real cause of the U.S. direct military attacks
Peak Oil explanations, having done their job of delivering baseless warnings, stop way short of seeing the historical evidence in any meaningful manner. For example, they either do not want to account for since they just cannot, or see no significance in the fact that ever since the beginning of the last century, Middle Eastern societies have been under attack because of their large quantities of oil. This oil had been secured and readily available at handsome profits to western corporations and their governments without any need for direct military interventions, until 1990-91. The Peak Oilers do not draw any conclusions from this fact. Because they have not seen militaries moved into an area, they assume that no attacks had been launched. But, they must understand and draw some political conclusions from the fact that Middle Easterners have for a century been under western attack for their resources.
Only recently, did direct military interventions in our region become necessary for the U.S. Other kinds of attacks have been launched numerous times and periodically. The amount of remaining/existing oil has made no difference in the strategic designs of the western imperialists when it has come to securing their ‘interests’ in our region.
So, it is clear to most people in the Middle East that the supposed peak in the ‘Peak Oil’ has nothing to do with the current U.S. military invasion of the greater Middle East. The invasion has had something tangentially to do with oil per se, as this commodity has for a century had something to do with how westerners have approached us.
The real reason Saddam Hussein had to go has far more to do with the fact that he stopped being a stooge and was acting too independently, and challenging the set-up favored by the U.S. and Israel. The real political-economic causes in this case were more political than purely economic.
Unlike the German and Japanese imperialists, whose post-World War II interventions into Third World countries have been through economic levers, the U.S. is a world imperialist power that historically has as often projected power through ‘civil’ means (corporations and financial institutions) as through state violence (coups, bilateral security agreements previously, and now open military interventions). For this type of imperialism, local or regional powers willing to and capable of acting independently and wielding power are not desirable, unless (as with Israel) such a local power is in a fundamental fashion (existentially?) dependent on Washington’s patronage.
Once Saddam Hussein practiced his right (common among thieves) to claim a larger take, the U.S. had to step in, to teach the uppity Ay-rab (and others by extension) a lesson. A tiny little, ‘backwards’, third world nation that people educated in the U.S. cannot even spot on a map, not only gives the finger to Uncle Sam but slaps him in the face, too! Uncle Sam did not have a choice; but in that very act of showing that Uncle Sam did not have a choice, he also proved his relative (and fast increasing) impotence in the new ‘world order’.
The military invasions of the greater Middle East have everything to do with a quick-you-missed-it’s-dead hegemonic structure that was set up after World War II. In that structure, the U.S. could simply tug at some economic strings here and there, call in an ambassador or minister or two, pull off some custom made precision covert actions, and the local regimes would either dance accordingly or change (their behavior, or physically) as desired. The fact that the U.S. now has to intervene militarily is proof that the old system has vanished, and the U.S. is in a scramble to make something, strategically, out of the chaos of its own making. But, in this scramble, there are far more unknowns than there are known factors! Which is why people in the Middle East can and will defeat the aggressors.
The Arabs, I believe, will free themselves of imperialism in the long run; as will everybody else. The Middle Eastern cultures run thousands of years deep. Nothing can destroy this. I have no doubt that the Americans too, just like the Persians, the Romans, the Mongols, and the Turks, will eventually have to creep back to where they came from, and in their case to face their true selves: neurosis-filled, self-indulged. And maybe, just maybe, when they do face themselves as societies, they can figure out a thing or two about how to enhance the human species not corrupt and destroy it. The only problem is that until then, there will be lots of nastiness going around since the American imperialists, like the Mongols, just can’t create anything other than total destruction.