The Ethical and Moral Dimensions of Peak Oil
By Mark Safford, May 17, 2007
Introduction by Glen Hiemstra. Mark Safford is, among other things, a researcher and staff writer for Futurist.com. He spent years as a deep researcher on transportation policy. Recently he has become upset that some commentators, seeing the possible end of the cheap and easy energy ride, combined with faster global warming, conclude that huge changes are coming but without offering much in the way of solutions or pathways. This is Mark’s response. I think he may have more faith in a smooth transition than warranted, but as Mark says in conversation, we have a moral obligation to try.
For some time now there have been two major schools of thought on whether the world will be able to continue its current path of oil use, which in practice means continuing to consume about 83 million barrels of crude oil daily, or close to 30 billion barrels per year. One school of thought projects that we are reaching a “peakâ€ of total oil production that either has occurred as recently as last year or that will manifest itself at some point over the next twenty years or so.
According to this scenario, the most likely outcome of hitting the peak of global oil production will be a rapid and sustained decline in total global oil output after that point. Since there is no viable alternative to crude oil that can meet the world’s total energy demand to any meaningful extent, this will create a painful and extremely disrupting energy shortage. Oil supplies will be restricted and extremely costly — anywhere from $100 to $200 per barrel or possibly more – when and if there is any available on the open market. This situation will cause a near catastrophe among the 700 million or so of us that currently enjoy a ‘First World’ life style. Social chaos, breakdowns in government functioning and disruptions in global economic activity are all feasible consequences.
In reviewing the “peak oilâ€ literature currently on the Internet, there seem to be a disturbing number of commentators who seem to look forward to such a series of unfortunate events with relish and even – in a few cases – something approaching glee! Whoopee!! Those 700 million who currently enjoy the life styles of the industrial world – at the expense of the rest of the planet – will be forced to change their evil ways!!! No more big-box stores!! No more ugly and excruciatingly boring suburbs!! No more pollution-belching monster SUVs!! The world will be freed from these pestilences once and for all!!
Well, I have a few problems with these viewpoints. In fact, I have a lot of problems with them. Besides the fact that they are literally soaked in subjective “I-told-you-soâ€ value judgments about decisions that hundreds of millions of people have made about how they want to live their lives, they also – and this is even more disturbing to me — neglect to consider the unmitigated harm that will befall the other six billion people on the planet who currently do not enjoy the benefits of that affluent life style; and who never will be given the chance to do so should the future turn out to be the way the peak oil advocates describe it will be.
Simply calling the current First World life style ‘ugly’ and ‘disgusting’ is a purely subjective value judgment that is no more or less valid than the value judgments of those who choose to live that life style now. Who elected these critics to be the arbiters of human desires? Now it is, in fact, quite valid to criticize the current First World life style for being both selfish and wasteful of the earth’s resources. There is a serious equity issue involved when only about 10% to 15% of the world’s people can enjoy that life style at the moment. What about the other 85%? And there is an equally valid point in the contention that the Earth cannot sustain this life style given our current level of technology and resource use.
But there are really three separate but closely related questions entangled in this topic. The first question is: whether it is acceptable for people to enjoy a decent and affluent life style. The second question is: whether it is fair and equitable for only a minority of the world’s people to be able to enjoy this nice life style. The third question is: is such a nice life style acceptable if it can only be obtained by seriously harming the global ecosystem to the point where long-term survival of both our species and our environment is threatened.
Let’s look at these questions one at a time. First, is it acceptable for people to enjoy a decent and affluent life style. To me, the answer is obviously “Yesâ€. Now that answer would change if I were also to consider the conditions necessary to create this life style. But for now we are limiting ourselves to the basic question: is it all right for people to seek to be happy with their life styles? Only a Grinch or an extremely unhappy person would answer “Noâ€ to this question. I also seem to remember something from my Civics class about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happinessâ€ . . .
Now that we accept that a decent and affluent life style is an acceptable human condition, the next question is whether it is fair and equitable for only a minority of the world’s people to be able to enjoy such a life style. To me, the answer is a distinct “Noâ€. Historical circumstances may have led to the success of this life style in certain nations first; but there is no reason why its benefits should or must be limited only to those nations.
In fact, there are two powerful reasons why those who currently enjoy this life style will be unable to keep it to themselves. First, the continued existence of two distinctly different life style levels will propagate a growing resentment by the ‘have-nots’ against the ‘haves’, which in human history has inexorably lead to dissention, terrorism and conflict. As a venerable poet once mused “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.â€ And when it is 700 million who ‘got’ and six billion who ‘ain’t got’, and there are hundreds of millions of extremely destructive weapons of all sorts scattered across the planet, the odds are not good.
The second point is, given the increasing interconnectivity of the globe in so many ways – economics, politics, transportation, communications, trade, culture and so on – the affluent life style of 700 million is actually dependent on being able to obtain necessary elements of this life style from the other 6 billion – whether it be raw materials like oil and metals, or food, or inexpensive manufactured goods. Thus, the continual interchange among the global population is necessary to maintaining this desirable life style. In doing so, it will also act to spread it as more and more people are able to enjoy the same benefits as the 700 million currently do through exchanging the goods and services they have with each other.
So this brings us to the third question. Is it acceptable to perpetuate and expand this life style at the cost of destroying the planet. Well, I think the answer here is obviously “Noâ€. And this concern is, I believe, the fundamental basis for many of those who reject the First World life style and who would revel in its downfall. It is not comfort and affluence that they reject; it is the unacceptably high cost the entire planet must pay to provide a minority with this life style.
Now, what if we could discover a means to offer the life style of the 700 million to the rest of the world? And what if we could do so in a clean and sustainable manner that would neither poison the environment nor drain the world of its natural resources? I believe that the vast majority of people given this possibility would in fact embrace the idea with glee!! Thus, the problem is not the affluent life style per se; it is the combination of the damage done to the global environment by our current level of technology in providing this life style, and the small number of people who currently enjoy it.
Nearly two hundred years ago Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, both English political philosophers, developed the theory of “Utilitarianismâ€. At its most basic level, this philosophy holds that the basis for making decisions is to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. I still believe that this gives us a viable basis for making decisions about our planet. So, instead of sitting back judgmentally and railing against the current affluent life style of the 700 million, we should dedicate ourselves to working strenuously towards the goal of bringing a decent, affluent, clean and sustainable life style to as many people on the planet as we can, in a manner that will allow us to perpetuate this life style indefinitely. I firmly believe that if you were to ask any of the 6 billion for their choice, that they would choose this same path. I know that I do.