Thursday, 17 July 2008

Peak Oil and 21st Century Capitalism

As part of the two week-long Keele summer school on environmental politics, Bülent Gökay spoke today on the relationship between capitalism and oil and what this means in the 21st century.

By the beginning of the 20th century it had become increasingly central as a strategic raw material. The British Empire was quick to cotton on to this and ensured it secured a colonial stranglehold over the Middle East after the first world war. As its power waned after WWII the United States displaced its ramshackle colonial ally as the self-appointed guardian of oil reserves in the "free" world. After the
OPEC-inspired oil crisis of the early and late 70s, which showed up the West's dependence and vulnerability, the USA's attitude to oil was formalised in the so-called Carter Doctrine. This policy orientation identified Middle Eastern oil reserves as its vital strategic interest. Any attempt by an outside force to seize control of these reserves would be construed as an attack on the USA itself.

US custodianship has for 30 years allowed a more or less uninterrupted flow of cheap oil to the West. It is the marrow of our technologies and lifestyles, and the fuel that sustains its war machines. To illustrate, 90% of global energy production is oil-based and 17% of the oil produced is used in food production. Contrary to Brown and Darling it is the rise in global oil prices that are driving inflation, not workers' paltry pay packets. And when we cross the threshold of peak oil, if we haven't already, this situation is unlikely to be reversed. In short peak oil - the point where oil extraction becomes more expensive because of reserve depletion and/or greater difficulties involved in exploitation - spells the end of cheap oil. At the same time this is situation is aggravated by the growing demands of China and India. In fact, so pronounced is the tendency that Bülent was willing to stick his neck out and predict a doubling in the price of a barrel of oil by this time next year.

Who is to blame for this situation? Commentators and politicians blame other politicians and greedy companies, but the simple fact is this is an outcome of the capitalist system. The world economy is growing faster now than even during the post-war boom and it is the emerging economies of China and India, and to a lesser extent Brazil and Russia who are driving it. Because of this there is a crisis of profitability threat in the West as the growth of the former group are eroding the positions enjoyed by the latter. Peak oil couldn't have come at a worse time from the standpoint of Western capital.

Can anything be done? Well there is no simple solution. Peak oil will not go away, it is a crisis that's here to stay. The obvious short-term measure would be sensible oil use allied to a culture of limited consumption and conservation. But what chance is there of this in a system premised on endless growth and an insatiable demand for more energy? The only positive solution would be a radical reorganisation of society but, Bülent noted, there is little sign of a movement in this direction.

In the questions he was asked about sustainable alternatives to oil. A 'green' capitalism is theoretically possible, but what are the chances of it happening in practice? Bülent was not optimistic. At present around one per cent of global energy is generated from these sources and there is no research/investment programmes that match up to the scale of the crisis, despite oil companies and governments being well aware of the situation. With regards to the promise of hydrogen power, despite some efforts being made in this direction it requires a good deal of long term investment which is unlikely in the context of neoliberal short-termism. At the moment, despite the crisis tendencies clustering around oil (and the dangers of climate change) it still suits capital to stick with it.

On the topic of climate change, he was asked why the environmental crisis has become widely known while peak oil is an issue debated by very small numbers of people. To answer this question, Bülent argued one has to turn to capitalist class relationships. While it is true climate change represents a set of environmental problems that are likely to cause immense suffering in the near future it doesn't necessarily put the system on trial in the same way peak oil does. Capitalism has tried to depoliticise the issue by turning it into a question of individual responsibility, and turning to the self-same market relationships liable for the mess in the first place for "solutions". There is no place here for government intervention beyond cheer leading initiatives of this sort and legally guaranteeing. But there are no market-based strategies for overcoming peak oil. Renewables require sustained long-term investment and planning. This is not beyond the ken of capitalist states but would involve a clean break with the neoliberal "common sense" of the ruling class.

In conclusion, the scarcity of oil is set to dominate 21st century capitalism. Global economic growth combined with Western stagnation, increased energy demand, a scramble for the remaining resources, a systemic blindness to everything beyond the short term and the effects of climate change is a very gloomy prognosis indeed. In the absence of a mass movement for a socialist alternative to capitalism, you're left wondering how bad things could get before the ruling class feel the necessity to act. I fear there will be a good deal of suffering before that point is reached.


Freek said...

Very clear and necessary perspective. Loved your article! Can I qoute a paragraph or two to repost it on my blog (

Phil BC said...

Provided you link back to me, no problem!

Dan said...

"90% of global energy production is oil-based". I'm not sure that's true. Do you mean "90% of transport energy is oil-based"? That sounds more like the figure which I remember hearing.