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Towards Oil Independence

Posted by Natalie in Environment - 28 February 2011

Black is the new brown

Oil permeates every conceivable part of our lives. It has shaped our values, informed our decisions and improved our lifestyles beyond the point of no return. Even in the face of increasing destruction and the promise of ruin, the force of black gold has become too powerful and valuable to restrain.

Bruce Parry’s current BBC series is excellent for a number of reasons. The host’s natural, friendly character is so endearing, making it so easy for the people he meets to warm to him, and for us as viewers to do the same.  Arctic is inspirational and thought-provoking, but for all those adjectives there is only one that really articulates it for me: terrifying.

As an anthropologist and environmentalist, I am well  acquainted with the issues that Bruce explores. Nevertheless, I too am susceptible to that very human (and avian) of tendencies to bury one’s head in the sand. Seeing the industrial and indigenous encounters, witnessing the direct and brutal effect of the one upon the other is powerful, and the fact that this is prime-time family viewing is cause for both commendation and encouragement.

How heartbreaking, though, that the premise for the entire series is that the arctic is warming faster than anywhere else in the world (and that this is drastically changing the lives of its inhabitants). That fact is stated bluntly and without sensation at the introduction of each show and  it makes me despair.  Gone are the days of speculation, gone are those comforting adjectives of uncertainty, sprinkled lightly over our ears and eyes, allowing the ostrich in us to live on.

Climate change is no longer a potential threat to our near future, it is real and affecting us right now. I am not sure when that subtle but significant conversion happened, but it seems that all of a sudden when talking about it, the present tense is required. And the present is tense indeed: every decision I make is informed by its effect on the environment.  I haven’t flown for several years, and don’t intend to ever again. I don’t own a car or turn the heating on, but these well-meaning sacrifices are just the tip of the prematurely melting iceberg.

I am an addict. Those menial concessions are my methadone. My addiction is your addiction, and kicking the habit is the hardest thing we will ever do. Understanding that the ruthless actions of the oil companies are driven by us and the decisions we make requires quite a leap of the imagination. To comprehend the interconnectedness of our lifestyle with the degradation of the environment, its indigenous people and wildlife is to truly come to terms with our addiction to oil, and the first step to recovery. That’s why the Arctic series is important, because it helps us to do that in such a simple and human way.  But when you hear the phrase oil addiction, do you understand the depth of your dependency, and thus your responsibility? I’m not sure I do, which is why I am going to try and break it down. Call it therapy if you like.

So, without oil, we couldn’t drive cars. That’s fine I’ve got a bike. And the trains and buses could run on electricity fuelled by renewables. In fact we could still drive cars without oil, couldn’t we? They haven’t built a feasible solar-powered aircraft yet, but we have the basics in place, and it doesn’t seem too bad. What else?

An agricultural revolution that sees the end of intensive farming using oil-based fertilizer and pesticides. Not to mention that without oil most foods would never reach our shores, never mind our supermarket or our plate. And don’t forget meat – animals have to eat a lot of crops before they become fat and tasty enough to eat – approximately 7kg of fodder for 1kg of edible meat. Getting the shivers?

The laptop I’m currently using to write this is made of plastic, whose main constituent is (that’s right) oil. Clothes: synthetic fabric or intensively farmed cotton transported from south east Asia. Cold sweats?  At this stage I am struggling to comprehend a world without our drug of choice.

Food, housing, transport, clothing, cosmetics, furniture, machines, gadgets, drugs… you name it, oil is involved. Literally everything we do and need and want and own is because we have oil. Nauseous?

As the developing nations develop, the need for oil is ever increasing as standards of living improve and inhabitants start to demand the luxuries that make up our  own privileged, everyday lives.  And of course, it’s going to run out. Soon. It seems so painfully ironic that the receding arctic ice is now being exploited for its rich oil reserves, but the cold-turkey alternative seems far, far more painful.

Oil has allowed humanity to move forward at a pace previously unimagined.  The medical, scientific and technological advances since the beginning of the industrial revolution have been nothing short of miraculous. Oil-fuelled empowerment is incomparable to anything else in human history, helping us to feed the hungry and house the poor. We are, undoubtedly, improved – healthier, happier and more connected. The price for this advancement has been steep, so costly that we may yet pay the ultimate price.

With all that we have gained and all we stand to lose, perhaps (just perhaps) we can learn lessons before it is too late. Instead of carrying on blindly towards global societal collapse and environmental catastrophe (not necessarily in that order), we could use the technology and innovation that we already have to prepare for the inevitable, oil-free future.  Putting the brakes on a multi-billion dollar juggernaut is easier said than done; the economics of oil has meant that one of the things it has failed to provide us is wisdom, but faced with the alternative it seems unwise not to try.

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