We are addicted to oil. Even George W. Bush has said it. It’s a punchy soundbite, but the truth is different and much deeper than this and points directly to the answers to the two questions posed.
Firstly, every lifeform is dependent on energy. Without energy nothing lives. Every lifeform tries to get as much ‘free’ or available energy as it can. In this we are quite typical – we are just doing what comes naturally, albeit with a host of unnatural tools, which have led to our extraordinary and possibly temporary success in the species sweepstake. What we have to face is that we have built a massive system which is 80 to 90 per cent dependent on several very dense and convenient forms of energy – oil, gas and coal – which are not renewable, have multiple highly unfortunate side-effects, including changing the very conditions that make large-scale life possible, and are patently starting to show early signs of running out with no easy, cheap or quick substitutes to hand.
Almost the whole technological living machine now depends on a very high flow of dense uninterrupted energy, which has symbiotically produced the political and cultural systems of industrialised nations. Thus we have a raging dynamic equilibrium (at times a disequilibrium) with a vast number of moving parts, both physical and metaphorical, many of which very cleverly compensate for each other, as long as the energy keeps flowing in fast enough.
The biggest obstacle to a low-carbon transition therefore is that no single policy change or business strategy can have much effect on its own, and that what we need are not just new policies and the building of a more efficient living system – hard enough in itself – but new kinds of coordination. We know this is true internationally and globally, and attempts are being made, however problematically, by the UN and EU, for instance, to create new coordination mechanisms. Yet in this realm, and in so many others, competition always tends to beat coordination, leading, amongst other things, to wars for oil and endless unstable economic cycles.
Competition and coordination can co-exist, and can be beneficial. However, we have produced a world of exaggerated and destructive competition, in which cultures which stress competition and aggression have done very well economically. Not surprisingly, most nations try to emulate the perceived way of success.
At national levels we should seek to discover how we can help decision-makers (in politics and business) make decisions in favour of a low-carbon transition knowing that they will not be putting their company or country at a competitive disadvantage. This will require global agreements of a kind that we know will be ferociously difficult to achieve.
Nations will need to look at the kind of culture they promote, at the way their systems emphasise or indeed require high levels of competition versus other systems which encourage cooperation. The twentieth century was quintessentially about competition, which even as it produced many wonders, also encouraged destruction, wastefulness and inefficiency. The twenty first century, which will begin to see resource constraints biting deep, will become one of much greater cooperation and strategic efficiency. If not, we now know that climate change and oil depletion will make life very tough for both industrialized and developing nations.
Julian Darley, Author of ‘High Noon for Natural Gas’ and founding president of Post Carbon InstituteXX