Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Case for Oil and Money

I had a very informative day the other day. Not in a life lessons kind of way, not really, but more in the way that happens when you watch two different documentaries about two different topics, and your mind starts making relationships between them.

The two documentaries in question were: 1) A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash, about the human civilisation's relationship to fossil fuels especially oil, a DVD loaned to my by a friend; and 2) Mind Over Money, a one hour documentary shown on the soon to be defunct TVNZ7 (only now at the end do I understand what this channel had to offer!) about one of the principles of economics, that people will react rationally.

On one level, both documentaries irritated me: the former because of the incessant and distracting soundtrack and the very sound-bite style of talking heads; the latter by its occasional gee-whiz kind of attitude. But, on many other levels, they really got me thinking about how much humankind has been influenced by both of these factors, and how hard it will be to change, no matter how much that might be necessary.

A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash
explored the past and the present of the need for oil - not the oil industry itself, which was perhaps both a blessing and a failure of the documentary. It stuck squarely to the supply and need for oil, and how the supply is running out while the need just keeps growing. I was surprised (perhaps showing my ignorance) by how the USA started off as a major supplier of oil (I suppose that is what the Beverley Hillbillies was all about), the Saudi Arabia of the time, and used that to grow their industry to such an extent that the local supplies were depleted and the need to secure off-shore supplies began. It was no surprise when the experts questioned cited oil as the main reason for intervention in the Gulf states (Lybia isn't a Gulf State, but it sure has heaps of oil, so were the documentary a little more recent, I am sure this would have been used as an example too), though I was a bit more skeptical about the claim that democracy is seen as a more secure political system under which to guarantee oil supply, when I would have thought a dictatorship far more malleable to foreign influence. It was also no surprise when the predicament the world now faces was explained: increasing demand for oil, especially in India and China; decreasing supplies of easy to find sources; the global economy built on the assumption of cheap oil and limitless supply; the lifestyle of the USA, predicated on the individual freedom granted by the products and services provided by oil, that is unsustainable in the face of the rest of the world, China and India in particular, racing to catch up; and the increasing militarism of oil, where the national interest of most Western nations is tied perhaps inextricably with the supply of oil, and so new ways of legitimising military intervention in sovereign nations ("for the sake of the human rights/democracy/stability of the region" etc) to ensure that supply is secured.

It's a pretty grim picture, but that picture was made grimmer by the Mind Over Money. Why? Well, this documentary pointed out that, given the choice between the quick and easy fix or the more sensible but longer term investment, individuals will go for quick and easy. Economic theory was apparently based on the fact people are inherently sensible, when in fact we all know we are all as mad an mongeese. Well, perhaps not that bad, but people do relish immediate gratification and are a bit selfish.

Hell, I know I am, but I do try and at least admit it to myself: for example, you might have noticed that I love to travel. Airline travel may be completely detrimental to the environment, but as much as I may appreciate the environment, there is no way I am giving up my flights abroad - and I don't tend to buy carbon credits as a way of off-setting that travel as, if I really cared that much about the environment, I reckon I just wouldn't travel at all. Long term, this is a terrible idea for a variety of reasons, and completely selfish on my part; short term, I love it and it is totally worth it.

And that underlying selfishness that, feeding back into A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash, really highlighted the problem we have when discussing the oil issue. A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash made a point of not really investigating the oil industry and what it is doing to combat either the growing oil shortage or the barriers to them getting access to oil. Chairpeople of the major companies, paid a pretty penny for their "Strategic Leadership" I am sure, were not questioned as to what their long term plans were or their corporate responsibilities were. The "green" BP advertisements from a while ago annoyed me more in the fact that the company was trying to portray itself as an environmental leader when, in fact, there is no evidence to show that it is trying to find an alternative to oil and, as shown in the Gulf of Mexico, when oil spills go wrong, there are massive consequences (as an aside: perhaps the spin doctors will see the depletion of oil reserves as a very positive thing for the environment, even as a the price of petrol sky rockets and civilisation as we know it ends).

As I previously mentioned, it's a very bleak picture painted by these documentaries, with A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash pointing out the predicament in which human civilisation finds itself and Mind Over Money pointing out how humanity is probably completely unable psychologically to take the steps necessary to stop the oil crisis from happening.

Verdict: Well, what I gleaned from seeing these two documentaries so close together is that civilisation as we know it is basically screwed. The fact one of the interviewees in A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash was filmed in front of his survivalist supply caches did a great job of emphasising his main message of doom. Hopefully the Chinese and Indians can get us out of this as, from the looks of it, the Western world has been grappling with this for decades and still does not have a clue. 2 hopes for the future out of 10.

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