Interview with Lester Brown
The “Chernobyl” of the oil industry
Blog: "A few weeks ago, one of BP’s extraction platforms exploded and now oil is seeping out into the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, Countries all over Europe are busy failing. What on earth is happening to this world of ours?"
Lester Brown: "We don’t know what went wrong. What we do know, however, is that BP was drilling in an area where the water is more than a mile deep and the oil reserves are under another half mile of rock. Therefore, the oil in the reserve is under extreme pressure. This raises two questions. Did something simply go wrong, or was the pressure in this reserve simply too high for our current technology to control? If the latter is true, this raises a red flag with regard to deep-water offshore drilling operations, simply because we don’t know what conditions we will encounter. Perhaps, notwithstanding the fact that our deep-sea drilling technology has worked well in the past, it may be inadequate in terms of managing any new problems arising from extreme conditions. Someone has said this could very well be the oil industry’s equivalent of Chernobyl, at least as regards deep-sea drilling operations, because if this oil spillage were to continue for months, the environmental and financial damage that it would cause would be enormous. The interesting thing in terms of the national economy is that this event is going to push up the GDP of the Gulf of Mexico region because everyone is going to be so busy trying to sort out this problem. But then it will decrease once again, given that this latest event is bound to negatively affect the local economies, as well as the local beaches, marine fauna, fishing industry and local businesses.
We have probably reached the technological limits as regards being able to extract oil relatively easily from the remaining reserves. These oil spillages are busy changing public opinion. Given that we know that we will soon have to find some sort of alternative to crude oil, why are we taking such risks simply to extract what little crude oil still remains in the reserves? I think that this is going to change the way in which we see the future of crude oil and all the other fossil fuels.
It is interesting to note that the values that lead to our excessive utilisation of natural resources are the very same values that lead to our excessive utilisation of financial resources. That same kind of excessive utilisation that exceeds the capacity of our credit system. We have seen this in the United States, with the huge levels of debt of the American credit system. It has now gone down a bit, but Americans continue to be totally unconcerned about the future. This leads to economic problems and environmental problems, and the overlapping of the two sets of problems due to over-consumption of natural resources.
The biggest problem facing the world today is the economic growth of the past fifty years – it has virtually quadrupled – and the consequent increase in the consumption of natural resources, which has increased far beyond sustainable levels. Agriculture is decreasing, fish catches are crashing, underground water reserves are declining, land is being eroded and savannahs are turning to desert. We are slowly, perhaps not so slowly and surely destroying the natural support systems. No population can survive once their natural support systems have been destroyed.
I asked myself, how will this excessive consumption hurt us. My forecast is that it will translate into a food availability crisis, price increases and an increase in political instability, as well as an increasing number of Countries going bankrupt. The overall number of Countries that are in the process of failing – Countries whose Governments are unable to guarantee personal safety or security of food supplies – is busy increasing. This raises an awkward question: how many Countries have to fail before our entire civilisation as we know it fails? We don’t yet know the answer to that question. We have never before experienced anything like this.
The ignorance of the economists
The question is: what can we do about it and what is the price we will have to pay if we don’t?. Indeed, if we don’t do something about it then it’s all over! Our civilisation will not continue to survive if we carry on with “business as usual”. We have to make some major changes, like cutting CO2 emissions, stabilising population growth, eradicating poverty, which is closely linked to the stabilisation of demographic expansion, and re-establishing agriculture, fishing, water reserves, in other words, our natural support systems. The problem is that we’re dealing with a complex set of issues and government leaders are in many cases taking advice from the economists. There are many things that economists are particularly good at, but there are also a number of things that they don’t do very well at all. Economists don’t understand the concept of sustainable yield limits of natural systems. Economics simply cannot fathom this concept. There is nothing in economic theory that can explain why Canada’s cod-fishing industry collapsed, or why the glaciers of the high plateaus of Tibet and the Himalayas are busy melting. Economics cannot explain why the polar ice-cap is busy melting in Greenland and why sea levels are rising. The economists have somehow become detached from the real world. They are isolated from reality by a body of economic theory. They are trying to discover the best way of making minor adjustments in order to adapt the system to explain what is actually going on, however, economic theory fails in its attempt to explain the basic relationships that exist between the global economy and the natural support systems. I have realised that the economists that advise Obama, or for that matter the Secretary General of the UN, the World Bank or the President of the EU, have no idea whatsoever of what is happening to this world of ours and don’t understand the urgency of, for example, the need to restructure the world energy supply markets.
Economics is also unable to explain the phenomenon that we call climate change. For example, the melting of the ice cap in the far northern Atlantic could lead to flooding in the rice paddies located in the Asian river deltas, thereby drastically reducing the size of the rice harvest in those regions. Unless they study these phenomena, they won’t immediately realise that the melting of Greenland’s glaciers poses a very real threat to rice cultivation in Asia, which is where half of the world’s population lives. This is the kind of complexity that we have to be able to deal with. The economists simply don’t have the right tools to develop appropriate policies.
Half of the world’s population lives in Countries where the underground water levels are dropping. These include three of the world’s major grain producing Countries, namely China, India and the United States. But the same thing is also happening in a number of smaller Countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, Mexico and others. By pumping water out of the underground water reserves at a faster rate than nature is able to replenish these reserves, we are merely feeding a food-production bubble. In essence, we are artificially increasing food production at the expense of our water supply.
The water peak
Once we have exhausted our water supplies, we will be obliged to reduce our pumping rate to match the rate of natural replenishment. These are not merely theories or discussion topics. This is reality. We have created some huge food-production bubbles that will burst sooner or later and I don’t think that the world is ready for this. It seems to me that there are certain irrigation zones in the United States Areas where water utilisation peak has already been reached and water supplies are now busy dropping. The same must certainly also be true in India. The same could very well be true in China, although we cannot be sure of this, as well as in a number of other smaller Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Mexico. What this means, in essence, is that we have probably reached peak water extraction levels and peak oil extraction levels at the same time. Many people talk about the peak oil extraction level, but very few people ever mention the peak water extraction level. However, I think that we have reached that point right here and now and I believe that I have some very convincing arguments in this regard. Once we have truly reached peak water extraction levels, the world as we know it will be very different to the one that existed prior to reaching peak extraction levels. During the course of our lifetime, our use of water for irrigation purposes will undoubtedly decrease. We face living in a very different world, one that we could never even have imagined. The same is obviously true in the case of crude oil. During the course of our lifetime, crude-oil extract has continued to increase, but now it’s declining. It’s going to be a very different world indeed.
Posted by Beppe Grillo at 12:54 PM in Ecology
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