Drill Baby Drill and Other Disasters

By Mark Mansperger

In the Gulf of Mexico, the amount of spilled oil and the ecological disaster it’s causing appears to be almost incomprehensible at this time. And in spite of vague and opportunistic criticism from the political right, there is little more the Federal Government can do than it has. It appears no company or governmental agency could quickly plug that hole or skim up all the gushing oil.

In a general sense, each and every one of us who utilizes oil products is to blame. However, if we want to identify a segment of our society most responsible, it would be the “drill baby drill” people, particularly those who also think governmental regulation is socialistic and actual enforcement is worse.

This disaster has been long in the making, and we’ve had plenty of opportunities to divert it. Nearly 40 years ago, it was obvious we would eventually face an energy day of reckoning. But in response to the oil shocks of the 1970s, we flooded our roads with SUVs, pickups, and minivans. As we were doing so, we increased our dependence on foreign oil from about 30% to 60%, and half the time we have to adapt until oil is depleted has been lost.

The last 200 years, from the Industrial Revolution to Hummers, have been made possible by an abundance of fertile soil, fresh water, and cheap fossil fuels. Oil is all-pervasive, but most predominantly it is used to power our vehicles, produce our products, and grow our food.

But according to most sources (Oil & Gas Journal, BP Statistical Review, World Oil), there are about 1.2 trillion ‘proven’ barrels of oil left in the entire world, which humanity is extracting at a rate of 27 billion barrels a year and rising (International Petroleum Monthly from the Energy Information Administration). In approximately 40 years, oil will be largely depleted. Skyrocketing costs and dire shortages will materialize much sooner than that.

When people do occasionally dare to think that oil could end, they sometimes are comforted by the assumption that a technological fix will save the day. Think again. Alternative sources of energy (e.g., solar) will not come close to meeting our current energy consumption. Natural gas is already beyond the half-way point. Coal is a major contributor to greenhouse gases and expensive to turn into gasoline. Burning through the second half of our remaining fossil fuels will be economically and ecologically very costly. New technologies, such as hydrogen, hold some promise, but they currently require more energy input (from fossil fuels) than their energy output. We are dependent upon oil; it will soon start to deplete; there are no obvious solutions on the horizon.

The oil crisis will be exacerbated by declines in other vital resources. We’re rapidly losing arable land, and water tables are dropping. Add in the damaging droughts and storms of global warming, along with continued population growth, and the confluence of these problems will likely be too much for the world system to bear.

In just 20 years, we will mostly likely be having serious problems. When one considers that 50% of the world’s people are already trying to survive on only $2 a day or less, humanity is already in desperate straights. Many nations will internally fail; others, as they have done in the past, will go to war over needed resources. Some of those nations will be armed with nuclear weapons.

We, and the rest of the world, urgently need to develop alternative fuel supplies and vastly improve the efficiency of nearly everything that consumes energy. Developing more nuclear energy will also help; at least we’ll be able to produce electricity.

One of the most important things for us to do, however, is to curtail growth. This sounds blasphemous, but population and industrial growth place ever greater demands on precious resources. In 20 years we will finally realize that unnecessarily allowing America’s population to expand by a hundred million resource-hungry citizens was insane. Growth is now our enemy, not our ally. “Drill baby drill” as Sarah Palin has advocated, is not the answer. We need to learn to develop our societies without growing.

Mark Mansperger is an assistant professor of anthropology and world civilizations at Washington State University Tri-Cities in Richland, Wash. Email mmansperger@tricity.wsu.edu.

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2010


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