Climate Change, Peak Oil, and Globalisation - 3 Interlinked Problems

Date:

There are problems which are related but not very often discussed together. These are 1) climate change and pollution, 2) peak oil, and 3) globalisation - very large and complex problems which though not insurmountable require serious consideration.

 

What the author writes here is simplifying reality as the main purpose is to provoke thought in the reader and encourage further research.

 

 

1 - Climate Change and Pollution

 

Pollution and climate change are already causing many health and food insecurity problems in the world. Pollution and climate change are set to cause much larger problems in the near future, as was recently discussed at the annual UN climate summit COP23 (1)(2)(3)(4)(5).

 

During the summit 15,000 scientists signed a “Warning to Humanity” document, which insisted that

 

“To prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual.” (21)

 

2 - Peak Oil

 

Different sources suggest different times when when ‘Peak Oil’ will occur. Peak oil, as the name suggests, is the point at which the rate of oil extraction will be highest – at its peak – thereafter declining slowly until the oil eventually becomes too uneconomical too extract. By some predictions, global peak oil should have happened already. By others, global peak oil should arrive in the near future, or quite far in the future. There are different forecasts on how quickly transportation (private and industrial), industrial production, agriculture, and heating would widely unaffordable after ‘peak oil’ (21)(31). And there is substantial debate over whether ‘unconventional’ oil (e.g. shale oil, tar sands) can properly substitute for ‘conventional’ sources, i.e. whether ‘peak oil’ refers to the peak of all oil extracting or really means ‘peak conventional oil’.

 

To understand peak oil, let’s look at some real figures. The US and Europe are the largest oil consumers (6). US proven oil reserves are 48 billion (bln.) barrels and consumption is 7 bln. barrels a year, so without import reserves could last just under 7 years. European Union proven oil reserves are 5 bln. barrels (7) whereas consumption is 6.5 bln. barrels per year, so reserves couldn't last even one year (8). Other countries have much larger reserves and much less consumption, and export oil. Petrol and diesel is imported in EU and US, but how reliable can this import be considered to be? (9)(10)

 

Global yearly consumption is about 35 bln. barrels. Based on data from OPEC in 2017, global oil reserves are about 1500 bln. barrels and the highest proven oil reserves including non-conventional oil deposits are in Venezuela 24%, Saudi Arabia 21%, and about another 40% in other Middle Eastern countries. The techniques for estimating oil reserves, however, aren’t entirely accurate and many oil-producing nations do not reveal their reservoir engineering field data, instead providing unaudited claims for their oil reserves (11)(12). In Ireland there may be up to 10 bln. barrels under the sea, but presently Ireland is importing almost all oil consumed and almost no oil is produced (13)(40).

 

3 - Globalisation

 

Here the term ‘globalisation’ really refers to ‘capitalist globalisation’. As Noam Chomsky put it:

 

'Globalisation used neutrally just means ‘international integration’. Everybody is in favour of it. It’s been the core of left and working class movement since its origins … The term has been appropriated by a narrow sector of power and privilege to refer to their version of international integration, the investor rights version.’ (62)

 

The production and consumption cycle of each product has increasingly been spread around the world rather than happening locally. Large areas produce a highly specific range of goods for consumption elsewhere in the world . Because of this highly specific and interdependent system of production, it becomes increasingly difficult for an area, for example a nation, to switch to a largely independent, self-sustaining, local economy because industrial and agricultural production would need to be substantially re-organised for this to be possible.

 

There are 10 huge multinational companies which sell most food that can be bought in supermarkets and shops (14). Their production and distribution cycles are spread across many countries, generally starting in poorer, formerly colonised, countries where they often violate workers’ basic human rights, especially where workers can’t unionise, have few protections on their working conditions, and are paid very low wages (15)(16)(17). Large multinational companies control not only food but many sectors of the economy and rarely their production and distribution cycles are local. Often, for example, raw materials come from Africa (23), manufacturing and assembly is in south Asia (24), the final products are distributed in Europe and USA, and the financial transactions occur in some tax haven like the Cayman Islands (or Ireland!) (34).

 

In most cases, countries, rich and poor, import and export a very large volume of products, and produce a small range of different products. It would be a big change for any country to become even mostly self-sufficient, and it is debatable whether any country can become fully self-sufficient. Almost all countries are dependent on international trade of multinational companies (26)(27).

 

These very large multinational companies have in many cases a continuity with older imperialism in a less direct way and in states that are formally independent (25)(60).

With the further development of transportation technologies the economic volume of international trade has recently grown significantly, the annual global volume of imports and exports increased from $3 trillion in 1990 to $9 trillion in 2005 (28).

 

For example, Britain and Ireland import about 50% of food consumed (18)(19).

Recent statistics showed that only 2% of shoes bought in USA and 3% of other clothes were produced locally (20). Even if a product isn’t imported some part in its production and distribution cycle could be.

 

Large multinational companies also control the oil and energy market - one report stated that 70% of planet-wide carbon emissions since 1988 were attributable to merely 100 multinational corporations (29). This illustrates how the process of capitalist ‘globalisation’ has gone hand-in-hand with the deterioration of the Earth’s biosphere.

 

Here is an interesting example of just how complicated, energy intensive, and polluting, the production and distribution of a seemingly simple, everyday, food item is in the age of capitalist globalisation. The Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology recently examined the life cycle of a bottle of tomato ketchup. They found that tomatoes grown in Italy were sent to Sweden for processing before being poured into bottles imported from Britain made with ingredients sourced from Japan, Belgium, and the US. By the time the bottle traveled to a grocery store and finally to a kitchen table, the process had consumed 4,190 more units of energy than was contained in the ketchup. And it generated more than 5,000 pounds of CO2.

 

The Worldwatch Institute estimates that ‘dining globally’ can burn up to 17 times as much oil as ‘feasting locally’ (30). When producing a large number of products the unit cost is lower than producing a small amount (‘economies of scale’) so small local companies have a ‘competitive disadvantage’ under multinational corporations, which tend to monopolise the market in various ways. Indeed oligopoly is as familiar to us as Coke and Pepsi, but this is neither desirable nor all that is possible for humanity.

 

Large multinational corporations do not simply bring wealth, high quality products, or development, to the people of poor and rich countries. Rather, they bring a host of problems to societies. Their advantages come with a list of societal terms and conditions which overall disimprove the quality of life of residents both locally and globally. They should be replaced with means of production owned and run by workers and the people at large or at least, on a shorter time scale, cooperatives of workers and small companies that are inherently more sustainable forms of business. Currently farming and agriculture is where the co-operative business model is most widely utilised (co-operatives together have an estimated 32% of global market share). (32)

 

It would be best if each region produced necessities locally without depending on long distance import and fossil fuels and production was diversified enough to be able to manage different weather changes and emergencies. If this isn't profitable in the current market conditions then the state should be funding it as part of the climate change prevention and adaptation and national security.

 

Outcome of the Three Issues

 

Let us now consider climate change and pollution, peak oil, and globalisation, and how they relate to each other. It is hard to emphasise just how urgent it is that we make substantial social changes in order to avoid calamity due to climate change. At this stage, in 2018, we are more realistically presented with the task of damage limitation, rather than preventing human-caused climate change altogether. That boat has sailed, but there is no less reason to act decisively today, and we can still make a big impact which our future selves and future generations will thank us greatly for.

 

Further to that, as said in the introduction, the following is primarily for the purpose of stimulating thought and further research. It is not to stimulate panic. As said in a WSM article on peak oil:

 

‘Panics are not the atmosphere in which a libertarian society can easily be built. Rather panic and the fear of collapse of civilisation are precisely the requirements of dictatorship and fascism when it comes to forcing populations to accept that the boot on the neck is better than the alternatives.’ (61)

 

Breakdown of Global Production Chain Due to Oil Prices

 

As described in the preceding sections, the economy of each nation, and province, is very dependent on fossil fuels and international trade (which also deeply depends on fossil fuels) and in Europe and other places with no local oil reserves it is at least possible that quite quickly prices could spike leaving masses of people in a much worse condition.

 

Food would be one of the main problems. Climate change itself will cause very large problems in food production. Furthermore, because of the globalised nature of production, a major and rapid increase in oil price due to oil scarcity would mean major disruption in the provision of necessities to a very large number of people (33). In large areas agriculture would have to be started almost from scratch due to lack of machinery (37)(38), unless machinery could be fully electrified and supplied with non-fossil fuel sources of energy, such as wind and solar, which thankfully is looking quite likely. Industries would need to be re-organised if possible to provide necessities without the use of oil, using renewable energy and other material and chemical inputs, probably at high cost.

 

In the worst case peak oil scenario, which isn’t necessarily likely, a generation grown in technological comfort could find itself quite quickly in a pre/post-industrial age without the knowledge or skills necessary to adapt or even any way to maintain a minimum quality of life.

 

What is more definite is the burden which climate change and pollution will bring, if not sharply mitigated against, such as extreme weather, acid rain, and air as carcinogenic as a pack of cigarettes. Indeed, the greatest and most predictable threat we face is in consuming current oil deposits and sending the Earth onto a path of runaway climate change. In that sense, climate change is the limiting factor. It would not be a victory or a relief to discover that we have more oil than previously thought.

 

Ireland's Food Production

 

Let us now consider production in Ireland. Ireland is a large food producer and exporter per capita, but that production is almost only meat and dairy, which are exported mainly to Britain and then mainland Europe and the rest of the world (35). Meanwhile about 50% of the food consumed in Ireland is imported (36).

 

If there was a failure in international commerce due to the oil price rising, there could be a large overproduction of meat in Ireland while pretty much all other products became scarce and very expensive. That is not counting all the inputs and machinery used in agricultural production which are imported and if missing could break the production cycle (41).

 

If oil became more scarce and expensive, production depending on oil – which is a lot (37)(38) – would become more expensive and so the price of the final product would become higher.

 

Climate Change and Food Production

 

Similarly, climate change could be seriously damaging to production. The increased tropical storms, droughts, flooding, loss in biodiversity, rising sea level, desertification, etc, threaten to destabilise our societies. More diversified production would be less vulnerable as different products can tolerate different weather ranges (42)(43)(46). For example in India, after independence crop diversification helped to markedly increase production and prevent food shortages (44). Monoculture and lack of genetic variation was one of the causes of the Great Hunger in Ireland in the 1840s (apart from complicated political reasons) (45).

 

Farmers in the Netherlands for the past few decades have begun to use quite advanced techniques in growing food in greenhouses (49). Their food production is diverse, and they became a large food exporter. It would be beneficial if Ireland could organise part of its agricultural production this way, allowing local produce to replace some of that which is imported (47).

 

It is important to note that even if CO2 emissions stopped dead today, human-caused climate change would take many years to slow down and stop. Possibly at this stage we can only do damage control. (48)

 

Capital and Class

 

As usual, the poor will be worst affected by the problems described above, particularly those in the global south. The irony being that the problems will have been mainly caused by those at the top, the richest capitalists, owners of large multinational companies, and obsequious politicians pursuing short-term electoral incentives, and that the relatively wealthy global north more broadly has prospered disproportionately at the global south’s ecological expense. (29)



However, nobody can ultimately escape the effects of climate change as rich or poor we all live on this planet. Even many capitalists could lose a large part of their profits if there was a sudden spike in oil prices or due to climate change related emergencies. So with a few exceptions, such as capitalists which would probably speculate on the high demand for oil and the consequent high prices, most capitalists will have to switch their industries to renewables and improve energy efficiency as soon as they can, if not for the humankind and other life on this planet, then just for the continuation of their profits. Some large companies already committed to switch to 100% renewable energy, which is positive regardless of their motivations. (50)

 

If there was a real democracy, a direct democracy where people collectively owned and operated a large part of the means of mass production, a solution would be much easier because the producers would be also owners and consumers. The economy could be much more easily focused on stable, reliable, and sustainable, high-quality production, re-organising all industries, beginning with necessities, to use renewable energy and otherwise ecologically viable methods, and to operate as locally as possible. International trade would be depended on pretty much only for raw materials which couldn’t be found locally.

 

But, of course, this is not the case. The current capitalist economy is focused on the profit of the few and everything comes second to that. In order to stand a fighting chance, people must join forces with one another, organise themselves effectively, and pull no punches in rectifying what is undoubtedly a global emergency. The petrochemical industry is very powerful, which, apart from political inertia, explains why there has been such a lengthy delay in switching to clean renewable energies and not only has there been a lack of awareness about climate change but disinformation has spread so widely.

 

How to Prepare and Prevent Disaster

 

As a global society, in order to prevent a rather catastrophic scenario we need to achieve three main objectives: make production more localised, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, and transition from oil to other sources of energy and material. Here are some more specific suggestions:

 

  1. Switching as quickly as possible to renewable energies, which are in many places today actually cheaper than fossil fuels on a large enough scale to produce substantial quantities of electricity (51)(52)(53). Hence, increasing research on cheap green renewable energy sources, and other possible energy sources like LENR(54) and energy storage methods such as large-scale batteries, CAES, and hydrogen (55) especially for the production and distribution of necessities (39).
  2. Switching to a much more local economy, at least for necessities. Diversifying local industrial and agricultural production - this will significantly reduce our carbon footprint and will be much safer if there's an emergency or a sudden crisis that is blocking international commerce, especially buying directly from the producer like a farmers market.
  3. Reducing our reliance on petrochemicals by developing a mature electric or hydrogen powered transport infrastructure, and other machinery such as agricultural machines (56).
  4. Plant agriculture can feed several times more people than animal agriculture while reducing the associated ecological footprint, as well as being healthier (57)(58)(67). Similarly organic agriculture has a much better ecological performance than conventional methods.
  5. Remote or local working where possible. Generally reducing reasons why people need to use a motorised vehicle, including facilitating bicycle usage. Ultimately requires re-structuring of cities, towns, and residency and infrastructure more broadly.
  6. World population doubled since 1960 (63), this growth can be slowed and eventually halted by giving people more reproductive rights, including birth control, education, and freedom. In societies with less sexism and more reproductive rights the population growth becomes lower or negative. (64)(65)(66)
  7. A direct democratic political system as well as democratically managed workplaces would allow for much greater control over issues of production and ecology and allow more substantial and rapid social changes.
  8. Retrofit accommodation and industry with good insulation and electrical (rather than fossil fuel) heating.

 

Progress is being made, but it is not sufficient. Partially this is due to a lack of public awareness of the issues, partially it is due to a political and economic system highly resistant to the necessary changes.

 

These issues are undoubtedly social in nature. The ‘power of one’ approach to ecology promoted by many states, where the individual is supposed to attempt to minimise their own ecological impact by micromanaging consumer choices, will never be enough. However, communal solutions cannot exist without individual action.

 

Thus, at the individual level, we should be prepared as much as possible to:

 

  1. Harvest water
  2. Grow food in our neighbourhoods and at our homes.
  3. Have solar panels and/or wind turbines for electricity.
  4. Have sustainable heating (59)
  5. Live a low-carbon lifestyle in case petrol/diesel becomes too expensive before being replaced by renewables - not just transportation but more sustainably produced commodities.
  6. Switch to a more plant-based diet.

 

Conclusion

 

There are many reasons to change to a sustainable economy as soon as possible. If saving the planet from climate change wasn't enough, it would improve energy and food security, as well as more efficiently use resources.

 

While it is not necessarily likely that global peak oil will mean catastrophe or major disruption, due to technological innovation and re-organisation in the meantime, humanity has set a clear course to ecological devastation due to climate change. Unless there is radical social change humans and other creatures on this planet will be forced to adapt to a very different climate and habitat. Many species have been unable adapt, and we have called this the Sixth Mass Extinction Event. There is no zero cost route here, and it is only logical that humans make serious material changes in the present rather than burying our heads in the sand.

 


 

References

Note: Some of the information sources below, of course, have completely different opinions from WSM and the author of this article, but they provide information related to parts of the article.

  1. http://m.wfp.org/climate-change/climate-impacts

  2. http://www.fao.org/climate-change/en/

  3. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/341/6145/508.full

  4. https://cop23.unfccc.int/news/climate-action-priority-for-food-security-and-zero-hunger

  5. https://health2016.globalchange.gov

  6. https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/en/corporate/excel/energy-economics/statistical-review-2017/bp-statistical-review-of-world-energy-2017-underpinning-data.xlsx

  7. http://www.indexmundi.com/g/g.aspx?c=ee&v=97

  8. http://www.indexmundi.com/energy/?region=eu&

  9. https://www.transportenvironment.org/sites/te/files/publications/2016_07_Briefing_Europe_increasingly_dependent_risky_oil_FINAL_0.pdf

  10. https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/topics/imports-and-secure-supplies

  11. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_reserves

  12. http://www.opec.org/opec_web/en/data_graphs/330.htm

  13. http://www.shelltosea.com/content/gas-oil-robbery

  14. https://www.oxfamamerica.org/explore/stories/these-10-companies-make-a-lot-of-the-food-we-buy-heres-how-we-made-them-better/

  15. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_labor_in_cocoa_production

  16. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/feb/20/trafficking-labour-corporations-compliance-human-rights

  17. https://www.dol.gov/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods/

  18. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jan/06/more-than-half-of-uks-food-sourced-from-abroad-study-finds

  19. https://www.independent.ie/life/food-drink/food-miles-all-you-need-to-know-26294300.html

  20. https://www.cnbc.com/2013/09/23/inside-made-in-the-usa-showcasing-skilled-garment-workers.html

  21. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_oil

  22. http://scientists.forestry.oregonstate.edu

  23. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_resources_of_Africa

  24. http://factsanddetails.com/asian/cat62/sub408/item2555.html

  25. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multinational_corporation#Multinational_corporation_and_colonialism

  26. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S221256711501374X/pdf?md5=c3b257f2b2795e2a3a0d16bfa28b9bab&pid=1-s2.0-S221256711501374X-main.pdf

  27. http://globalization.kof.ethz.ch

  28. http://www.logistickymonitor.sk/en/images/prispevky/kozlak-aleksandra.pdf

  29. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change

  30. http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/eij/article/globalizations_carbon_bootprint/

  31. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Predicting_the_timing_of_peak_oil

  32. http://www.healthy-holistic-living.com/food-supply-monopoly.html

  33. http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/articles/2011/01/the-peak-oil-catastrophe-in-waiting.html

  34. https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2017/10/24/which-u-s-companies-have-the-most-tax-havens-infographic/#2f6824d05706

  35. https://www.bordbia.ie/industry/buyers/industryinfo/agri/pages/default.aspx

  36. https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/half-of-nations-food-bill-goes-on-imported-goods-26871990.html

  37. http://www.gracelinks.org/118/energy-and-agriculture

  38. http://www.resilience.org/stories/2006-06-11/implications-fossil-fuel-dependence-food-system/

  39. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Making_Sweden_an_Oil-Free_Society

  40. https://www.seai.ie/resources/publications/Energy-Security-in-Ireland-2015.pdf

  41. http://www.fruitandnut.ie/visionsoffuturefood.html

  42. http://www.monitor.co.ug/OpEd/Commentary/Why-agricultural-diversification-vital-for-rural-transformation/689364-1690372-wopbytz/index.html

  43. http://www.climatetechwiki.org/content/crop-diversification-and-new-varieties

  44. http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/x6906e/x6906e06.htm

  45. https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/agriculture_02

  46. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crop_diversity

  47. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4863106/The-hi-tech-future-farming-Netherlands.html

  48. https://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-not-reversible-but-stoppable.html

  49. https://dutchgreenhouses.com/approach

  50. http://re100.org/companies

  51. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cost_of_electricity_by_source

  52. https://futurism.com/wind-energy-has-officially-become-cheaper-than-fossil-fuels/

  53. https://www.goodnet.org/articles/renewable-energy-now-cheaper-than-fossil-fuels

  54. http://e-catworld.com/what-is-lenr/

  55. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrogen_production

  56. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_vehicle#Electric_public_transit_efficiency

  57. http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/facts-on-animal-farming-and-the-environment/

  58. https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/health

  59. https://www.fix.com/blog/sustainable-winter-heating-options/

  60. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neocolonialism

  61. https://www.wsm.ie/c/politics-peak-oil-anarchism

  62. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RxHzQTHhKk

  63. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_growth

  64. http://grist.org/population/2011-10-03-womens-rights-are-key-to-slowing-population-growth/

  65. http://grist.org/article/2010-06-09-womens-rights-are-the-right-way-to-approach-the-population-issue/

  66. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_population_growth_rate

  67. https://eatingourfuture.wordpress.com/meat-dairy-diet-increases-climate-change-pollution-damage-to-our-environment/

     

  • Author: Pa

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