Sat, Jun 12, 2004 - Page 9 News List

It's the bicycle-or bust

Oil is running out, but the West would rather go out with a bang and wage war than consider other energy sources

By George Monbiot  /  THE GUARDIAN , London


Some people have wacky ideas," the new Republican campaign ad alleges. "Like taxing gasoline more so people drive less. That's Senator John Kerry." Cut to a picture of men in suits riding bicycles.

Sadly, the accusation is false. Democratic presidential hopeful Kerry has been demanding that the price of oil be held down. He wants US President George W. Bush to release supplies from the strategic reserve and persuade Saudi Arabia to increase production. He has been warning the American people that if Bush doesn't act soon, he and Vice President Dick Cheney will have to share a car to work. Men riding bicycles and sharing cars? Is there no end to this madness?

Like the fuel protests that rose and receded in Britain last week, these exchanges are both moronic and entirely rational. The price of oil has been rising because demand for a finite resource is growing faster than supply. Holding the price down means that this resource will be depleted more quickly, with the result that the dreadful prospect of men sharing cars and riding bicycles comes ever closer. Perhaps the presidential candidates will start campaigning next against the passage of time.

But a high oil price means recession and unemployment, which in turn means political

failure for the man in charge. The attempt to blame the other man for finitude will be one of the defining themes of the politics of the next few decades.

This conflict was exemplified last month by the leader of the British fuel protests of 2000, Brynle Williams.

"I'm afraid to say I'm not very proud of what happened three years ago," he admitted in a

documentary broadcast on S4C on May 4. "We all want turbo-charged motors now ... but we must remember that it's some poor sod

at the other end of the world who ends up paying for it."

Five days later, on May 9, he told GMTV that he was ready to start protesting again. Self-awareness and self-interest don't seem to mix very well.

To understand what is going to happen, we must first grasp the core fact of existence. Life is a struggle against entropy. Entropy can be roughly defined as the

dispersal of energy. As soon as a system -- whether an organism or an economy -- runs out of energy, it starts to disintegrate. Its survival depends on seizing new sources of fuel.

Biological evolution is driven by the need to grab the energy for which other organisms are competing. One result is increasing complexity: a tree can take more energy from the sun than the mosses on the forest floor; a tuna can seek out its prey more actively than a jellyfish. But the cost of this complexity is an enhanced requirement for energy. The same goes for our economies.

They evolved in the presence of a source of energy that was both cheap to extract and cheap to use. There is, as yet, no substitute for

it. Everything else is either more expensive or harder to use. Without cheap oil the economy would

succumb to entropy.

But the age of cheap oil is over. If you doubt this, take a look at the BBC's online report yesterday of a conference run by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil. The reporter spoke to the chief economist of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol.

"In public, Mr Birol denied that supply would not be able to meet rising demand ... But after his speech he seemed to change his tune: `For the time being there is

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