Every day now, my timeline is filled with howls of rage from both sides of the Atlantic about the high cost of gas/petrol. There are some local differences: US screams tend to be louder, reflecting their greater exposure to crude oil prices, and they tend to blame Obama for the global price rises, believing (incorrectly) that more drilling at home will fix the problem (search for the #DrillHereDrillNow Twitter hashtag to see some real-time stupidity). British morons are generally more aware of the global nature of oil pricing, so instead they turn their rage on government-imposed fuel duties. Both sides miss the key points: that rising global oil prices are outside the control of any individual or nation; that more US-based drilling will at best slow down the rise while wrecking the environment; that addiction to oil won’t be cured by further addiction; and that Europe has actually avoided the worst of oil addiction by imposing high fuel duty (although our price-per-gallon is much higher, our overall spend on fuel isn’t because we use less).
I used to love driving; I loved my car, and drove it as stupidly as a typical 19 year old wannabe racing driver could do. Then, I found a great job – the only downside being that I had a minimum 80 miles per day commute (much more if I had meetings outside the office). The cost wasn’t an issue for me; my employment package included a company car and fully-expensed fuel; but my minimum of 2.5 hours a day in the car soon started eating away at my enjoyment of driving. Despite the fact that most of my commute was on motorways with a speed limit of 70mph, my average speed was around 25mph, and lower if there had been a serious accident.
Day after day, I sat on the M25 (London’s massive ring road, often referred to as “The World’s Biggest Car Park” and subject of the Chris Rea song, Road To Hell), and pondered the wisdom of Britain’s long-term shift from rail to road. I was surrounded by thousands of other people, mostly sitting alone in their own metal boxes, all facing in the same direction, all burning fuel in their own personal engines, and moving very, very slowly.
It slowly became obvious to me that this wasn’t sustainable, either for me personally or for the country. However many lanes were added to the M25, the traffic never sped up significantly – more cars simply arrived to fill the new space. Car ownership and mileage were growing constantly. People were abandoning urban life for the suburban dream. It was clearly impossible to fit cars into a human-sized town or city; the space has to expand to cater for all the cars, whether moving or parked. Car addicts were being offered American-style shopping malls in the middle of nowhere, and town centres were beginning to wither and die as commercial places. And this was long before I first heard about Peak Oil – the (in hindsight) obvious idea that if we keep using more fuel, one day we won’t be able to get it out of the ground quickly enough to serve demand.
My long hours spent behind the wheel took their toll, and I developed back problems and asthma. I grew to hate the car, and became jealous of people who didn’t have to drive to work. Changing to a job where I had to buy my own car made the problem worse. Eventually I moved to a London-based job, sold my car, bought a new bicycle and moved home close to good public transport. On a conservative estimate, I saved £5,000 ($8,000 at today’s rate) a year, my weight fell, my health improved and so did my quality of life.
After 9/11, Osama bin Laden was very clear about his strategy to undermine American power in the Middle East: provoke US revenge attacks, create instability and drive oil prices up to $200 a barrel, thus destroying America’s oil-addicted economy. The 2000 Bush election win had been an effective coup for the oil industry; in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Bush and the neocons did what bin Laden had invited them to do, and the seeds were sown for a disastrous end-game of rising demand and unstable supply.
The oil industry is doing what it needs to do: convince us to keep using its product. It does so by lying about the risks of our continued addiction, by denying that peak oil is near, by overstating oil reserves, and by continually lobbying against any new energy source or form of transport that may threaten sales. In 2000, it even installed its own oil-friendly regime in the White House in order to preserve its revenues for another eight years. A Saudi oil minister, aware of the threat to his nation’s future if the world turned its back on oil, is quoted as saying: “The Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stone, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil.”
Smart individuals can act in their own interests – primarily by abandoning car-based, suburban living. We need to appreciate that destroying more nature for a little more oil won’t change anything; and Europeans should understand that high fuel duty is what has saved us from an even worse disaster to come as oil prices keep rising. We’re driving ourselves fast towards a cliff. We need to stop moaning and start steering.
Nationally and internationally, change is much harder to execute; America in particular is so far down the route of de-urbanisation that it would take decades of concerted leadership to move society back to a high-density, low-energy style of living. And while the oil industry retains its political power, and pumps its anti-peak-oil, anti-climate-change propaganda via outlets like Fox News, this can’t even begin to happen.
Those morons who continue to ignore the obvious deserve their looming fate: suburbia and exurbia will become the new ghettos and ghost towns as their oil-based lifelines to civilisation shrivel away. They can tweet their hatred of Obama forever, but it’s the oil industry, its conservative friends, and our blind acceptance of their lies, that got us to this point.