Why Can’t We Get Off Oil?
Last Thursday, Roger Ingalls wrote a post about two ideas, one general and one specific. The specific idea was about using farm subsidies to develop “algaculture” in order to move us toward freedom from foreign oil. Good idea. But the general idea is much more important – that of changing and prioritizing how our government works (including things like agricultural subsidies) to adapt to an evolving set of realities.
As I was reading Roger’s post, I suddenly thought, “Why isn’t this already happening?” The answer is simple: Power.
It’s easy to see that money largely controls politics, but the situation runs deeper than that. Our politics are controlled by cemented-in power structures – not just any money, but the money and power that have been in the same, willing hands long enough to build structures of self-protection.
What this means is that our government is influenced most not by solid logic, but by entities protecting their own interests. This is the reason that big oil and big coal oppose solar and other renewable energy development with such fervor.
A long time ago, I promised Alon (the main author of this blog) that I would explain why oil companies are looking forward with copious amounts of drool to the day when oil is really scarce. Scarcity of a commodity which is “necessary” or at least very difficult to substitute for makes the price go up.
You might think that sure, the price goes up, but there’s less oil to sell, so it sort of evens out. But the oil companies know that, if alternatives aren’t developed, when oil gets scarce they will have the world by the you-know-whats. They will be able to spend much less on producing oil (and gasoline and everything else that comes from it) while charging absolutely incredible prices – prices that will support unimaginable profits.
People often point to the relative inefficiency of alternative energy sources at the present moment. Right now, much more energy is available from a dollar’s worth of fossil fuel than from any renewable source. This is because of the relative inefficiency of present technology in converting solar, or wind, etc. into usable electricity, in addition to the investment needed to make the conversion possible at all.
But it will be unbelievably expensive to build wind turbine towers, for example, when oil costs $500 per barrel. If we don’t do a lot of the “heavy lifting” now, while powering the development of alternatives and the experimentation that must precede it with “cheap” oil, we will soon be at the mercy (or lack thereof) of the oil companies.
So, is Roger right? I don’t know if even Roger knows just how right Roger is. Algaculture is by no means the complete solution to our energy problems, but what Roger has brought up here is the very future of civilization. Think I’m exaggerating? As of just about today, the world’s population is hitting 7 Billion people, over half of which live in urban settings (82% in the U.S.). Our food supply chains are usually located far from population centers and require huge amounts of energy for transport, not to mention many other aspects of production.
This means that the prices of foods will skyrocket, even while the real earnings of the middle (and lower) class fall. I’m not sure what that world will look like if this trend is realized, but you can bet it won’t be pretty.
It’s not just about the cool prospect of not bowing to Saudi Arabia anymore. No. It’s about the cool prospect that our kids might be able to eat in 50 years. Above all, we need to cut down our ridiculously wasteful energy usage, but we also need to make investments in the energy sources that will still be around when the oil gets scarce.
Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.